Twenty-four hours in St. Petersburg is not nearly long enough. The city, built to be "the Vienna of the north" is lovely, and a welcome relief from Moscow. The purpose of my visit was to meet a couple who have recently moved into their appartment close to a park which is a monument to the hundreds of thousands who died in the siege of the city in WW2.
After several years of working through short term trips to improve conditions in orphanges in St. Petersburg, and impact cultural attitudes and policies concerning these children, they have determined to move here in order to invest more.
I guess there is no clearer mandate than the one to visit widows and orphans "in their distress". Through the years I have visited a few. But while his child took a nap, Charlie showed me a couple videos. The second one was an Oscar nominated documentary about homeless children in Moscow. There are about 4 million homeless children in Russia. Many are there because they don't want to go to an orphanage or to be returned to the homes from which they fled. My heart was breaking.
Which brings me to the first video, which was one that this couple shot in an orphanage for handicapped children. The images provoked emotions in me that are difficult to express.
As the father of a child whose handicaps are more severe than many of the children in the video, the shear number of children was still overwhelming. I know some of what it takes to bathe, feed, communicate with and help a child develop. There were about 100 children on that ward, one of four in the orphanage.
At times the pressure to be a good father is intensified by the special needs of that weakest member of my family. Sometimes I nearly buckle under the weight. But what do we do when things are multiplied? I could barely watch the screen.
Bed after bed crowded into one large room, children everywhere. Rocking, waving in the air, laying quietly alone. The camera paused on the lovely face of a Downs girl, her nose all red, eyes closed, wrapped tightly in her bed. Standing behind me, Charlie whispered: "She didn't make it".
I have seen the power of one life touching another. When things are multiplied, our efforts must also increase. And if it is only by grace that one man can help lift his son towards a life of dignity, it is clear that much grace is required to stretch far enough to impact the lives of children who are so far away.
We get tired too quickly, overwhelmed by the enormous need. I will never forget those videos. I hold one child in my arms. Who will hold the others?
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.
from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)