Her name was Bernice, but no one knew her real name. She had been renamed Bernice by the orphanage workers the day before I met her, the day of her arrival at the orphanage. That was the first day of her new life. I met Bernice on the second day of her new life. I met her after my second year of law school.
I had enrolled in law school because a close friend of mine, a corporate lawyer in Chicago, had suggested it was the best route to take to get to where I wanted to go, helping children internationally. But in law school I often felt out of place. Going to law school, working towards a better world for children made sense to me. The only hiccup being… I hate conflict and law school is the playground of conflict.
As a result, by my second year of law school I needed a break. I felt overwhelmed and burnt out, and longed for confirmation of basic goodness in others (and myself). I needed to get out of the daily debates and readings focusing on where life goes wrong. I needed to find spaces of kindness, spaces where I felt good and where I could see others practicing goodness.
I had grown up surrounded by exchange students and refugees, and so I saw the world and its struggles through their eyes. If someone needed a home, my parents provided ours. When a family of seven fled Vietnam, our family of five grew by seven; when a Soweto-born girl from South Africa needed a home, a new school, and a break from apartheid, I had a new sister; and even before I was born, my eldest brother, half African-American and half North Korean, was permanently and officially a member of our family even before I had a place at the table.
So I dropped out of school. Well, not exactly. I took a year off from law school, reducing my course load to a few credits and I hit the road. My focus in law school was international human rights for children and I could justify my international adventures by saying I needed the time to see the living conditions of children overseas firsthand. Books weren’t going to teach me about the true conditions of children in the world. I had to see them in person and feel their joys and sorrows.
That’s how I met Bernice. The first leg of my year away was spent in Africa. I lived in Nairobi, Kenya working with street children and periodically went to a local orphanage to volunteer.
Bernice was the smallest human being I had ever held. I had held babies before and normally felt comfortable doing so, but she was different. Bernice had been found two days before, abandoned in one of the poorest slums in the world. She had been wrapped in newspaper, left on a dirt road in a gutter where garbage was discarded. No metaphors here, this child was literally thrown away as trash.
If you have ever seen a premature baby hooked up to monitors and wires in a neonatal intensive care unit, that was Bernice. Except she was entirely on her own. The orphanage staff estimated she was at least six months old because of how well she tracked her external environment, but she was the size of a newborn baby. She weighed about eight pounds and her body was emaciated skin and bones. She looked like a fragile, awkward little bird.
Until I saw her eyes. Then I knew she was a force, so uncompromisingly strong and determined, it was like nothing I had every seen. Her eyes, lifted slightly out of her sunken face, were enormous, exposed spheres that reflected her every emotion. Never before or since have I seen such a ferocity to live, an internal drive to survive in spite of the worst odds imaginable. This child was on fire. Her eyes locked with mine and she dared me to look away. I couldn’t.
With one hand she held the formula bottle with me, with the other she gripped my shirt. Her priorities were clear, she was simultaneously feeding her body and her soul. The formula was her lifeline that she held steadily. It was the stare, though, that was the greater of the nourishing forces. For her and for me. We were held together, she in her powerful single-mindedness to live another day and I steadfastly wanting her to see that the world could be a kinder place in which she could live. I wanted her to believe that what she was living for was worth it, that love would carry her through life even in her pain.
Ultimately, she finally fell asleep in my arms. She let go of the bottle, but never let go of my shirt until a staff member carried her away to her crib in another room. I never saw her again, but she has been one of the most important teachers in my life.
There was a simplicity in this profound exchange, a basic human connection that surpassed culture, language, class or any other category we often invoke to either include or exclude others. It was what I had sought when leaving law school- basic human goodness. It was rooted in trust and compassion for both of us.
Often we lack these kind spaces in our lives, either because we cannot find them in our communities or because we have forgotten how to create them. Yet our bodies, minds, relationships and communities are stronger when these kind spaces exist. Life is more fulfilling when we engage with one another compassionately and with greater vulnerability.