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  • Never in all my life has linoleum held such a profound fascination for me as it did the first time I volunteered at the Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital in Cape Town.

    This was a bad idea, a voice in my head announced. I can't stand that particular voice in my head. She is a smug know-it-all who sounds like the narrator of Desperate Housewives and is only ever present when things are going badly.

    She was right though. I am not a people person, I hate hospitals, am repulsed at the thought of germs and sick people and I am scared of real life children, particularly babies. I had no business being at a children's hospital and thinking I could be put to any kind of use. As one by one the other volunteers around me were assigned to various duty stations, some to sort through donations, others to play with sick children I became increasingly aware of the rapid and powerful thudding of my heart against my rib cage. I swear that traitor was trying to escape.

    The nurse handing out the assignments was nothing short of a force of nature. The magnitude of this woman was both terrifying and awe-inspiring like a raging weather phenomenon or an impossible geographical feature. She was massive and when her no-nonsense eyes locked with mine it became clear that I was doomed.

    "You. You're coming with me."

    Oh heck no, I thought and slid behind a girl in front of me. There were only two of us left.

    I realized she still had me on lock. Curse you skinny, short girl!

    "Tarryn, they are waiting for you in the garden. "Wena," pointing at me, "let's go!"

    As we walked through the corridors, me with my feet of lead and Sister Hurricane with the power of a gale force wind I began to nurture hope that perhaps I would be relegated to a windowless room at the back of the hospital somewhere and made to sort through old patients' records or some such innocuous activity. Anything but human contact would have been great.

    We stopped walking. I looked up from the linoleum. A baby in a crib, barely audibly whimpering in a sea of soft fluffy bright yellow bedding. When I saw a pair of tiny feet clad in peppermint green woolen booties poking through the bedding I knew that I was done for.

    The Hurricane handed me a feeding bottle.

    "The thing is, I- I -I don't really know how..."

    "It's fine he knows what to do. I'll check on you later."

    I gingerly offered the bottle to the baby.

    "Don't be silly. Pick him up and sit in that chair!"

    "Oh. Er. Yes. Of course. That's what I was about to..."

    "Tsk!" She was already gone as I lifted the soft mass of peppermint wrapped preciousness and then proceeded to freeze in mid air.

    Do not screw this up. Do not drop the infant. What are you doing? Do not grip him so tightly, you'll smother him! Calm down. That's better. Everything is fine. Everyone is okay.

    Little wrinkly hands reached up to my chin while hungry eyes drank in my apprehensive face and examined me closely. It felt like a moment between Gertie and E.T. I was definitely the E.T. Steadily the contents of the bottle were gulped down and as I looked into the eyes of this helpless human being who had trusted me, a total stranger, to provide him sustenance, I was humbled. I suddenly felt connected to the pulse of life and I was simply grateful to be a part of it. I marveled at him: such a beautiful, warm and peaceful baby...What could have brought him here and why was he alone?

    "Will my baby make it?" said a frail, shaky voice breaking into my thoughts. She was tiny, drowning in what appeared to be hospital robes and she looked like a rag doll as she struggled to move her wheelchair closer to us. Her eyes were bulging giving her a look of bewilderment and her skin was covered in lesions while her hands shook uncontrollably. I immediately recognized the signs.

    "Is he all right?" She whispered the words in Xhosa through her bright pink quivering lips. It wouldn't be long for her...

    I looked down at him. His skin was the colour of savannah grasslands at sunrise in the dry season and as he stared up at me, oblivious to his impending orphan-hood he flashed a toothless grin that pushed hard against chubby, dimpled cheeks tinged with pink. Oh dear. It was my treacherous heart again, swelling against my rib cage and exploding with a feeling I cannot articulate...

    I heard her lungs wheezing beside me. Argh! Why? Why was she asking me anyway? I wasn't a doctor; I was just a kid for goodness sake!

    "Yes," I mumbled.

    You could at least have the decency to look at her... said the narrator of Desperate Housewives.

    I turned and fixed my eyes somewhere in the middle of her forehead.

    "Yes, he will make it," I said hoping to God this wouldn't turn out to be a lie.

    She sighed, "Enkosi." I looked away.

    Thank you? Why on Earth was she thanking me?

    "He likes you. Do you come here often?" Her wheezing was escalating.

    "Y-yes." A lie.

    "Will you come back tomorrow?"

    "Yes." Another lie.

    "Enkosi. 'Nkos' ibusise." (Thank you. God bless.)

    Nothing wounds me as much as the gratitude of the poor and helpless. It pierces straight through my spleen and leaves my soul hemorrhaging guilt and a deep sense of failure and inadequacy. Because let's be honest. Can we ever do enough? Do we ever really extend ourselves as much as we could? I know I don't. I could definitely do more.

    I do not remember what his name was. I don't even know exactly what he was sick with. If he did make it as I told his mother he would, he is ten years old this year. I imagine he can do fractions and decimals and loves playing soccer with his friends. I imagine he gets three solid meals a day and is happy and well adjusted. I force myself to imagine this because the chances are as one of over 2 million children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, the alternative reality is far too dark and depressing for me to live with and actually be able to sleep at night.
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