Today was a long day of driving far out into the rural Mokhotlong mountains, hours away from TTL, to visit with some old friends.
Namely, Seithati, Ntseliseng and Karabo -- three former residents of the TTL safe-home and three of the babies who I have become closest with in my time here.
When we got to the Linakaneng Clinic, Matello, our outreach coordinator, and I headed inside.
The first face I saw was Karabo's, who just left TTL about a week ago.
She recognized me at once and smiled big, sticking her arms out. I said hello to her mother, who I know well, and picked Karabo up. She laughed and gave me a "high five." The other women in the clinic laughed themselves and talked quickly to each other in amused tones, and I could tell they were amazed by the clear relationship between Karabo and me. I just smiled, and handed Karabo back to her mother as Matello and I began talking with the clinic nurses about a variety of issues -- among them a shortage of Kaletra, an ARV medication for HIV that one of our clients at the clinic is on and needs more of soon.
After a few minutes I walked outside, and standing there by the door was Seithati -- my all-time favorite TTL baby. I'd been there when we'd found her almost 8 months ago, and had seen her go from a shy malnourished child to an out-going, brilliant, healthy, rambunctious toddler at TTL.
Now, I recognized her at once, said her full name out loud in surprise and laughed, and she smiled up at me sheepishly.
"Ay, Ntate," she said.
I could tell she recognized me, but she was back to her old shy self, despite still looking relatively healthy.
"Come here," I said in Sesotho after kneeling down, and she walked over to me. I picked her up, and she wrapped her small fingers around one of my own, just as she always used to do. It sounds sappy, but my heart melted.
"Ho jwang?" I asked her. "How is it?"
"Ho sharp," she said. "It's good."
I laughed and put her down. She looked up at me with curious eyes.
She continued to take everything in as Matello and I weighed and measured all of our baby clients, some of whom I didn't know, and gave out some food provisions.
Seeing Seithati again was a great experience, despite our finding out that she has a cough that has been lingering for a while. I hope as the weather continues to improve, she'll get over it.
After the clinic, Matello and I headed off again, further out along the ever-deteriorating road, until we reached a designated meeting spot with another client.
There was Ntseliseng, being carried up the hill by her aunt, who had claimed Ntseliseng at TTL while I was in the U.S. at the beginning of September.
I jumped out of the car and said, "Hey uena, Ntseliseng!" -- "Hey you, Ntseliseng!"
Always the expressive one, though she still doesn't talk, Ntseliseng raised her eyebrows and smiled wide, showing her surprise at seeing me. Her face was as animated and telling as an adult's, and it got a big laugh out of me. She laughed too.
I was happy she remembered me, and went over to her. Her aunt untied the blanket that was holding Ntseliseng on her back, and I scooped my old buddy into my arms. She smiled.
We went into a nearby home -- the owner of which had pleasant experiences with TTL in the past -- and weighed and measured Ntseliseng. She was so scared of the process she peed on the scale, which I ignored as I scooped her back up before taking the scale outside to dry off. She had the signs of a rash -- which thankfully had already started clearing up -- but overall she looked good.
After saying our goodbyes, Matello and I took the long road home.
As I drove, I marveled at the strength of my feelings for the three little girls. They may soon forget me, I know, but I won't forget them.