If waiting for a delayed flight at the airport can be enjoyable, it happened last night in Tulsa. The kids’ flight from Moscow went through Chicago; their legendary winter weather had threatened early in the day to cancel the connecting flight. With many people praying, by mid-afternoon the weather had cleared sufficiently for us gather at Tulsa International Friday night. Weather delayed the flight enough, though, that we waited an additional hour for the group. The patience and flexibility shown by the throng of 90 or so blessed this harried coordinator, and demonstrated requisite traits for any family planning an international adoption. While host families usually make airport welcome signs, it’s a treat to see the creative messages (not that I can read them) and the different takes on what a Russian welcome sign should look like. One young family with infant twins, present just to support the kids and the project, braved the wait with goodie bags for each young traveler, and another distributed Tulsa t-shirts. With the large crowd, balloons, flags, foreign-language signs, and excited din, our festive gathering drew curious questions from passersby and a coveted opportunity to tell more people about the kids, their visit, and the mission Lighthouse families share this week.
The Lighthouse kids are usually the last off the plane, but not this time. A security guard tells our oversized group to make a path for other passengers to get through, creating a gauntlet of signs and hosts straining to catch a first glimpse of their child for the week. We clap when our faith turns to sight, and kids and families are efficiently matched by names on signs. After the lengthy anticipation, the poignant awkwardness of the meeting surprises anew. It’s understandable: two days of travel by plane, train, and automobile; a nine-hour time zone change; the late hour; an alien language; the hoopla our friendly welcome has fostered; all combine to overwhelm these parentless children who must travel around the world to change that reality. I hardly worry, knowing the difference a day will make.
After two months of studying kids’ photos, it amazes me how difficult some are to recognize. Their slouching hats, misfitted clothes, and typically downcast eyes provide an identification challenge the first night, even when I feel I have known them for months already. The hosts practice the Russian they know, realize they’ve forgotten a lot of it, give a reassuring squeeze to their child, and ask the translator to give an explanation of this or that plan. Alexei, one of the children who seems not to be shy, is intrigued by the three red helium balloons his host has brought him. He pulls them down repeatedly and seems delighted each time they rise again. He doesn’t stop smiling once he sees how predictable it is. Next to him Ekaterina, the girl with cerebral palsy, has red eyes. Though she’s been to the United States before, the late-night meeting has overwhelmed her in her tiredness. I was drawn to her on my July 2008 trip, so I move toward her; answering questions as I go slows me down, but she sees me, recognizes me, and beams. I use my paltry Russian to greet her and find out how she’s been. I give her a hug and she hugs back. It’s clear we both think it’s nice to be remembered. After the translator’s individual introductions, families with Russians in tow trickle out of the airport. I’ll see most of them again Saturday at a basketball game we’re attending. Scared faces will be replaced by the smiles I know I’ll see tomorrow as the kids and families warm up to each other. It always works that way.
It’s as sure as Alexei’s balloons rising.