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A Second Chance
How do you tell someone whom you love unconditionally that you can’t possibly take care of them? That’s the thing: I couldn’t. At only a few hours of age, my son Anthony would not be able to understand that his only chance of survival rested with the orphanage. Placing him into the arms of the nun was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I knew that if I brought him home he would only suffer the same beatings I received night after night. He would be dead before the morning. I returned home, telling my husband (who was already four inches deep into his bottle of whiskey) that our child was stillborn.
I shivered as the thoughts of that night grazed my mind. I was safe now. We were safe. My husband was safely tucked beneath a six-foot blanket of soil, and I was acquitted by self-defence. From across the street, still straddling my motorcycle, I scanned the field of children playing soccer, searching for a hint at who my son could be. I thought it would be easy, identifying my own child, but as my eyes glanced from head to head I didn’t feel a thing. Perhaps I assumed that there would be some type of bond that kept us connected all of these years. I gave up after a few minutes, finally heading towards the doors. After a loud knock, the door creaked open, revealing a short nun with a cane.
“How can I help ye, ma’am?” she asked, eyeing my leather attire with suspicion.
“I er—I’d like to help out. You know, volunteer.” I knew I couldn’t waltz in here and demand they give me my child. I had to prove myself first. In addition to that, I wanted to get to know my son and gain his trust before subjecting him to a whole new life.
“Help out?” her gaze once again ran over my leather jacket and tight pants. “What’d ye have in mind?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. “Surely you could use an extra set of hands?”
She paused a moment, and for the third time she scanned me head to toe.
“What’s yer name?” she asked.
“Andrea,” I replied, “I’m a nurse. A damn--er, darn good one.”
“What makes ye want to help, out of the blue?”
I thought about this for a moment, trying to think of a suitable lie. Turns out I didn’t need one.
“It’s about time I atone for my sins.”
She rubbed her chin for a moment. Deciding that I posed no threat, she beckoned me in. Her cane didn’t seem to help her walk much, for she still limped noticeably. The corridor was poorly lit; it smelt of must and the dingy green wallpaper was peeling. Muffled footsteps could be heard from the upper floor, almost drowned out by the sound of creaking floorboards beneath my feet.
“Sister Adelaide passed away two weeks ago,” the nun began, not stopping our progress down the hall, “There’s only three o’ us left, and we’ve had some trouble keeping up. Forty-seven children, we got. Forty-seven children to dress and forty-seven mouths to feed. There’s laundry to be done in the basement—I assume you know how to do laundry?”
I nodded, and headed down the indicated flight of stairs. The basement was quite large and empty, save for a washing machine and dryer, a pile of dirty underwear, and a stack of cardboard boxes in the corner. I cringed and began to question my decision. It would have been so much easier to walk in, snatch my child, and be gone, if only I knew who he was. The water in the washing machine began to run, and I tossed in the first load of underwear. I took a seat on the dryer as I waited for the wash to finish. A quick movement coming from the boxes made me jump.
“Who’s there?” My voice could hardly be heard over the washing machine. Once again, a box moved. I walked slowly towards the boxes, attempting to get a look at what made the noise. I saw a flash of skin. It was a small boy, curled up in a ball and rocking back and forth.
“Are you okay?” I asked reaching out with my hand. He shrunk away from my touch. I tried again, putting my hand on his shoulder, and I was met by a forceful scream. Backing away quickly, I tripped and landed in the pile of underwear. The nun from before came hobbling down the stairs; her footsteps were uneven and her cane thudded loudly against the wood.
“Oh! Quiet child. Be quiet, now. It’s alright. Come, come, up you go,” she took his arm and began leading him upstairs. Turning to me, she said, “Don’t worry about Anthony; he has a few... social problems.”
I stared at them as they climbed back up the stairs. The boy had thick brown hair, not unlike mine... and those eyes. I had seen them so many times before, but these ones were not full of drunken rage. They seemed empty. Could this really be my child? The sound of the washing machine brought me back to the task at hand. I continued sorting through the underwear, the face of the boy still heavy on my mind.
Three hours later, and the underwear was nicely folded and stacked. I came back up the stairs to find the building reasonably quiet. From somewhere in the back, I could hear some faint chatter. I followed it to a large room with tables. The children sat on the benches munching hamburgers. I scanned the room, looking for the thick head of hair I had seen before. There he was, sitting in the corner in his own little desk, detached from everyone else. I spotted the limping woman.
“Sister,” I said, walking over to her, “who is that young boy in the corner?” I already knew the answer, but I had to make sure. There was a chance that I was mistaken, and that this little boy was not the one I had left here four years ago.
“His name is Anthony. Four years ago he was placed into the arms of Sister Adelaide in the middle of the night. I hope his mother is burning in the depths of hell. She deserves it after placing such a burden on us.”
“Burden?” I asked. Besides a bit touchy, he didn’t seem too bad…
“He’s autistic,” she replied.
Pain struck me in the chest. I watched the child in the corner; he stared at his hamburger, not moving. I’d imagined my child as perfectly functional. A little emotionally damaged could be understood, but I never thought of this as a possibility. Did I really think I could pick up where I had left him and live a normal life?
“Would it… would it be alright if I talked to him?” I asked, trying to keep my voice as still as possible.
“You could try… I wouldn’t expect much.”
I walked over to him, mesmerized. The resemblance between him and my husband was uncanny. Fear gripped my heart as I approached him.
“Hello,” I said, crouching down beside him, “My name’s Andrea, what’s yours?”
Instead of replying, he began to pick the sesame seeds off of his bun. I waited, hoping that maybe he would speak. Still, nothing.
“Anthony?” I tried again.
“Bye,” he said.
“Bye?” I questioned. I wanted to touch him, make sure he was real. This could still all be a dream. Perhaps I would awaken and find myself with a black eye next to my husband. I reached out and touched the back of his hand.
“Bye!” he screamed, looking at his hand with horror. I felt a cane tap me on the knee.
“It’s about time ye go,” said the nun, pointing towards the door.
A lump formed in my throat. I had to breathe slowly to stop myself from crying. I had now had no husband, and I would never be able to return with my son. Walking out into the evening air, I climbed onto my motorcycle and drove home.
Upon arriving home, I was greeted by an avalanche of kisses from my hound dog, Blazer. After giving up my son, I picked him up from the shelter in an attempt to fill the void. It hadn’t worked. The dog only reminded me of an incredible loss, although I did love him. Stripping out of my jacket and pants, I fell onto the couch in my panties and attempted to sleep. I hadn’t been able to sleep in my own bed since that night four months ago when my husband’s life ended in it.
Morning came around, and still I had not slept. The image of the brown head of hair and the empty eyes would not leave my mind. I got up, dressing in something a little more modest, and returned to the orphanage, and was met by the same, limping nun.
“Again? What d’ye want?”
“That boy, Anthony. I… I would like to spend more time with him. I want to help him.”
“That child is beyond help,” she growled, obviously remembering his outbursts from yesterday.
“Please,” I begged, “Give me one more chance.”
I could sense her hesitation, but she let me in anyway. She took me down the hall, and we turned down the third door on the right into a dark bedroom. Anthony sat at a table, colouring.
“Anthony, ye have a visitor,” said the nun.
Anthony didn’t look up, but continued to move his hand in even strokes across the paper, the Burnt Sienna clutched in his hand. I walked up and observed what he was drawing. It was a motorcycle, adeptly drawn for a four-year-old. I had an idea.
“Would you like to see a real-life motorcycle?”
Finally, he looked up. I was shocked by how emotionless his expression was. He stood up and followed me out of the room. I wanted to take his hand, but by now I knew better. The nun looked on in astonishment as the usually unresponsive child walked with me towards the door. He descended the front steps slowly, almost clumsily.
“He’s never willingly gone outside,” whispered the nun, still watching the boy. I realized that likely the last time he was in this same spot was when I dropped him off all those years ago. My motorcycle was parked right in front of the steps. He circled it curiously, running his hands along the back wheel and the chrome tailpipe.
“Would you like to sit on it?” I asked. For the first time, I saw life in his eyes. He nodded, and my heart melted. My son was finally acknowledging my existence. I picked him up with care, as if he was a delicate piece of china. For minutes he just sat there, looking at everything. A bell sounded from inside the house.
“It’s lunchtime,” said the nun quietly, “he’s going to want to go in.”
Anthony reached out towards me, and I picked him up. I didn’t want to let go. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I held him in my arms for a moment, and right when I was about to put him down, he kissed me on the cheek. The tears began again, but not entirely because of joy, and not entirely because of sorrow. Joy because my son was less distant, and sorrow because that was all. I hadn’t felt this bittersweet feeling since the night he was born.
I put him down and he climbed the stairs dog-like and passed the nun who stood in the doorway. Her mouth hung open a bit, and she continued to look from me to the bike. She turned, took two limping steps, turned back, and said “Will ye be back tomorrow?”
With those words, she stomped out my remaining sorrow. There was still hope. Perhaps I would be able to take my son home someday. I nodded and climbed onto my motorcycle. As I pulled down the street, I swore to myself that I would make the most of this second chance.