I waved back, felt a shot of emotion and tried to smother the grimace I felt rising to the surface of my face.
Retsepile lay in the hospital bed with a nasogastric tube going through his nose into his stomach, his hands wrapped up completely in bandages and tape to prevent him from pulling the tube out. His face looked gaunt, so much so that he resembled a skeleton more than a little boy of 18 months. His body, under his clothing, appeared almost as nothing, a long, thin stretch of bones and skin.
The small wave of his bandaged, club-like arm was the most movement I’d ever seen from him. During the preceding days in the safe-home, he lay motionless and silent – staring back at me wide-eyed, but showing no specific acknowledgement. Until the wave, I’d been unsure of how much he was taking in.
Now, in another environment, surrounded by other women and children and hospital staff, he had recognized me, and used the little strength he had to show it by waving.
Utterly emaciated. Shockingly alive in a way I would have thought impossible, even in a world of impossibilities. Retsepile began having serious diarrhea that very morning. Already in horrible condition, ‘Me Mamosa took him to the hospital at the first sign of further deterioration. After placing the nasogastric tube through his nose, the doctor at the hospital said Retsepile “probably won’t make it,” a phrase that made Nthabeleng angry and saddened me.
That was Friday. On Saturday morning, one of our outreach workers and I drove the two-and-a-half hours to Retsepile’s remote village in the St. Martin area of Mokhotlong district, to find Retsepile’s mother and bring her back to the hospital to be with her son. In the rolling hills of the village, windswept and with a beauty unmatched in many parts of the district, we parked near the St. Martin clinic, where dozens and dozens of villagers had gathered for a game of net ball – which is basically basketball with no dribbling, played on a stretch of dirt and with a hoop that had no backboard. After absorbing the stares of the crowd, who all must have wondered what I was doing there, I set off with Nthabeleng, our outreach worker. We hiked uphill for about 10 minutes – the sun and the wind and the willows and the narrow dirt paths up the steep slopes making everything seem dreamlike – into Retsepile’s village, where we found his mother at home in her rondaval.
Today, Monday, she is at the hospital with Retsepile, who is still fighting against the predictions of the doctor. His diarrhea has slowed, and I’m starting to gain hope again for him. He is a fighter, and if he continues on it will be an amazing victory of will.
Aside from Retsepile heading to the hospital, here at the safe-home, our group continues to change.
As I mentioned before, Ntseliseng left while I was away. She and I had gotten close. The fact that she walked out of the safe-home on her own is absolutely remarkable. A young aunt came forward to be her care-giver – a wonderful thing after Ntseliseng’s mother died so tragically just before she came to us.
Today, Karabo went home.
Karabo came here not for her own illness but because of the illness of her mother. Still, she has grown and thrived here at TTL, and looks fatter still than when I left the country at the beginning of the month.
She is happy, smiles and knows me well, laughing and playing with me even while the other babies here, all of whom are still getting used to me, look on warily. I will miss Karabo’s chuckle. I will miss having a play buddy in the safe-home, although I am confident that I will win the others over soon. Boraki is starting to smile at me more, though he is still nervous.
It is a happy thing that Karabo is going home. All throughout her stay here, her mother has come to visit routinely. Watching her interact with Karabo, I know she is a caring woman with a gentle touch, a warm smile and a genuine love for her daughter. Now that she is healthy again, Karabo will be in good hands.
In anticipation of her departure, I spent the morning playing with Karabo, her sweet giggles vibrating against my chest as she dug her forehead into my neck. I threw her in the air and she squealed. I helped her pick the toy she would take along with her. When the time came, I carried her out and put her in the car seat, talking to her in happy tones to make the moment less scary.
She laughed with me until it was time for the car to leave. Then she looked nervous as I kissed her cheek, said good-bye and closed the door.
Another tough good-bye, but another victory for TTL.
Let’s hope Retsepile will pull through, and be one of those victories as well.
The TTLF Fellow is a representative of the North American organisation Touching Tiny Lives Foundation. Based for one year in Mokhotlong, Lesotho, the TTLF Fellow serves in an administrative support capacity for the Basotho charity Touching Tiny Lives (TTL).