This one girl had the bone structure of a fashion model. She was wearing American clothes, all mismatched, and a “Boss” knit cap over her head. The “Boss” cap gave us a chuckle—ghetto-glamour was just so out of place here. “Here” was the Municipal Clinic Hospital in Constanta, Romania. “Here” was the floor devoted to the care of orphans with HIV and AIDS.
In truth, Lilica was Boss of no one, not even in control of one detail of her frail and quickly expiring little life.
Romania had the highest incidence of pediatric HIV in Europe. And the curious ask, “Why?”
It all started with the reign of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu during the 1970s. As his politics and policies left more and more Romanian families without a means to feed themselves, children were abandoned to government-run orphanages.
Ceausescu arranged for these kids to receive blood transfusions from adults, as he believed the adult blood would nourish them. Thus, a vast number of children who had already been starved, abandoned, and starved some more, were then infused with a final fatal blow of HIV-infected blood.
Lilica sat grinning and fidgeting on the bench in front of a mint-green wall with crackling paint. She approached me, asking, “Bon-bon?” and motioned to her lips with her thumb and forefinger together, as if eating a truffle. “Yes!” I said and sat on the bench so I could forage through my backpack. Her face lit up and she squirmed with anticipation. It was then that I noticed the inside of her mouth, from the inner edge of the lips inward, was covered with a bumpy white layer. It’s called thrush, an opportunistic yeast infection that, for these kids, signaled full-blown AIDS.
She took the chocolate and closed her eyes as she put it in her mouth. I was unprepared for what I saw next — a tear streaming down her cheek. She gripped the edge of the bench and looked up at me as she swallowed, a gulp, really, like it hurt. Again, “Bon-bon?” she asked. I gave her a handful and watched as she unwrapped and placed one after the other on her tongue, letting it melt, tears falling, smiling with gratitude, and gulping.
It took my breath away. Joy and pain, all at once. Rarely have I seen them so very close together that they co-exist in the same moment, in the same person.
The doctor said Lilica had difficulty eating anything because the thrush had developed into a secondary bacterial infection. The chocolate was excruciatingly painful to her.
A few months after I returned to the US, I asked about Lilica.
I learned she became the Boss, after all, of her self. She had run away from the hospital, choosing not to die there with the others. Escaping to the unknown, she probably spent her last days in the streets of the city, rummaging for food and dreaming of feeling well enough to play. Perhaps she dreamt of a family that she was part of long ago in a life very different than the one she ended with.
I picture her body in a corner of an alley, curled up next to one of the many stray dogs that roam the streets. She would do that—find comfort and companionship where it was offered. Accept joy when it’s given, even when it hurts. Lilica has been one of my very best teachers.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.