Friday, September 25, 2009

Orphan Trains

Lack of host families cut six kids from the October-November Moscow Lighthouse Project trip last week. The brutally painful deliberation caused equivocation much of the day, but in the end, Alena, Andrei, siblings Vitaly and Alexandra, Dmitry K., and Dmitry V. will travel in January to Moscow, or the US if the swine flu travel moratorium ends soon enough. The kids will wait longer, and if all goes well, avoid foster care until their turn at Lighthouse finally comes.

Recognizing we have no viable option other than to wave the white flag crushes me, especially with Alena, as I liked her so much. Under different circumstances, she might already be my daughter; we would do famously together, since we share a love of laughter, and both our hopes spring eternal. Unlikely as I now am to be her mom, I still yearned to see her and find her the lady who would.

Nine kids still scheduled to travel hail from a region twelve hours from Moscow by train. I’ve taken the train there twice for our own adoption; for a spoiled American, the trip is a grand adventure. Traveling overnight in a private compartment with two beds, the clackety-clack of the wheels and the rocking of the car induce sleep once you’re sufficiently tired to suppress your adrenalin. A doily substitutes as a tablecloth at the compartment’s table in miniature, where you take tea and meals. Warmth is guaranteed, summer or winter. Smoking is neither disallowed nor frowned upon.

As the Russian countryside whizzes by, your window frames a living museum into your child’s “normal.” Adoptive parents of older kids have missed so much of their son or daughter’s life. We naturally feel shortchanged fretting we have missed every first: steps, words, a lost tooth, a school day. While it’s tempting to pretend our children had no existence before us, it’s disingenuous and counterproductive. Seeing the country that molded them and made them the person we love is an antidote to our mental dishonesty, and a treasure to seize with abandon. Russia has rather blatant problems, but a country that allows its greatest asset, its children, to leave for the chance of better life elsewhere is most surely doing something right.

Train stations in Russia’s larger cities have huge platforms where trains queue. Disenfranchised orphans live under these platforms, kids who have either aged out of orphanages or run away from institutions or abusive families, trying to make their own way in squalid orphan “cities” beneath the feet of those who travel between the regions. Russian social workers claim large metropolises like Moscow and St. Petersburg have at least as many orphans on the street as in the orphanages, and train stations are the end of the line for many. Traveling here, an overactive imagination is not required to wonder how many kids eye you, kids for whom help arrived too late, if at all. Life in the train city is hellish, as kids spend their days stealing, strung out from sniffing glue, or trying to eke out a meager existence in any way imaginable.

I intend to go to my kids’ region this fall and visit a few of the orphanages where we routinely work. I’ll pass through the Moscow train station, the orphans there little knowing my journey purposes to keep others from joining them. Traversing my kids’ region, I’ll wonder which ramshackle house was theirs before we adopted them; wonder which places I see, they’ve seen. In adoption, questions always outnumber answers. But knowing the joy my kids have brought, and seeing what might have been for them and what already is for others, both questions and answers are rendered superfluous by the quest for families for the kids for whom our October trip comes a little too soon.