Sunday morning we visit a church I attended twice during my own adoption journey in 2006; back then, they met in an old theater school. Members said the church had changed locations seven times in the previous two years; thus, I was surprised during our November trip to find that, over three years later, the church was still meeting in the same place. Alas, the morning our group attended, an announcement was made the congregation was moving come the new year. This January morning, we take the trolleybus to the new building, staging a photo shoot much of the way. Later, the best pictures I took all trip are evidence that the grime-laden windows filter the morning light exquisitely, turning our trolleybus into a dream photo studio.
This church facility is more comfortable than the old. Picture windows on the side grant a remarkable, if sinfully distracting, view of the Kremlin bell tower and St. Basil’s Cathedral in the distance. Asked to introduce ourselves when the service begins, I look at Faith, who points back to me. With her extroversion, I consider her more qualified, but when Elaine needles me, too, I give my name, say I’m from Grand Rapids, and add that our group is sightseeing with Russian orphans this weekend.
The building houses a café, thankfully closed, since we’ve promised the kids McDonald’s. Faith holds McDonald’s in low esteem, even more so in Russia, because it’s unhealthy and so safely American. Promising the kids was probably sufficient, but the café’s closure cements our case. On our walk out, Angelina runs with Jamie, grinning, in the first unbridled emotion I see from her. Needing a good photo for her next trip, I have them reenact the run twice, though it only works once before she discerns my treachery.
At McDonald’s, I order for the unhosted kids, while the families order for the others. In one of the most flagrant injustices of the trip, the hosted kids get large fries, fancy sandwiches, and ice cream, while the hostless eat cheeseburgers and small fries. They’re polite if they notice, and while I ache to rectify the inequity, the lines are interminable, and the kids depart soon for their orphanages. Each child adores McDonald’s, and leaves skipping.
Back at the hotel, Faith assigns her charges an essay on their time in Moscow. When all are done, we gather in the common room, where Faith reads us the offerings. Alexander does best, conscientiously detailing each day’s activities. All the essays before his were given by their authors to their new families; after Faith reads Alexander’s, she realizes he has no one. She asks him who should have it, then suggests me. “Be-cky,” he whispers compliantly, as my heart breaks. By now, the kids must know I work for the trip, and am not a family seeking a child. Evgeniy, a good student with a better attitude, surprises me with his lackluster effort, eliminating an ending where others profess appreciation and love of their host families. Sensing he’s still alone, he protects himself to avoid embarrassment. Knowing the work he usually does, and would like to do here, my heart breaks anew (I LOVE This Kid, 12/8/09).
On the return from McDonald’s, sixteen-year-old Maxim accompanies Faith. Many orphans his age already smoke and drink, he says. He asks them why, since they’ll only repeat the mistakes of their parents, which sentenced their children to orphanage existence originally. They’re foolish, he opines. As Faith recounts this exchange to the group, she beams in support of his choices and maturity.
After the essays, families ask kids about orphanage life, school, and who helps with homework. I ask if classmates tease them about being orphans; all say yes, save Nadia, whose demure self-assurance garners friends who affirm her. When the kids ply us with questions, they center on whether or not we like them and want to see them again. Faith suggests we hug every child; we’re not done before the kids with families are crying, which most adults mirror. At these goodbyes, I feel guilty standing dry-eyed. The end of a Lighthouse trip ends a gargantuan workload, and I waver between an unseemly relief and empathy for parents and children who must part. Making my hugging rounds, I spot Faith sobbing in the doorway. Having never seen her cry, it shakes me. I overhear her telling a family how moved she is that Maxim, Daria, and Elizavetta, the forgotten, but hopeful, sibling group, have a family after nine years, and how after all this time in that environment, Maxim seems unaffected by the negative influences surrounding him. This emotion, from one who has witnessed everything, touches me more deeply than anything else this trip, and ends my deliberation on whether or not to cry (Forgotten, But Hopeful, 11/24/09).
When Dima arrives in his minivan to take Faith, the kids, and their chaperone to the train station, fourteen people, most with puffy faces and traveling heavier than when they arrived, cram in. It takes some jockeying, but eventually everything fits and the van creeps away. Families braving the 4° F temperature blow kisses and wave until the vehicle rounds the corner, leaving sight. Walking back into the hotel, I rejoice knowing that the next time seven, or eight, of these children see families from our little band, they’ll be going home, forever.
But Angelina, Evgeniy, and Alexander are incomplete without parents to love and guide them. They need more work, and another chance, which with hopeful heart and the Lord’s help, I’ll give them. Somewhere, families unknowingly await these three. How anxious I am to finish this work.
Nikolai meets his new parents Saturday morning. Jim and Denise, of Iowa, have gone to heroics to get here for this trip. Monday night, they were on vacation when I called and told them they should come this weekend; less than six days later, they’re rubbing their exhausted eyes as I greet them. I never before had any family go through as much as they did to make this work, so I am even more delighted than usual to meet a new family. Just days ago, Nikolai was asking our Russian coordinator Love why he couldn’t go on the Moscow trip, and why no one wanted to meet him. Jim and Denise already think of Nikolai as their son, and the joyous smile on his face when he realizes someone is there for him is priceless.
Angelina is painfully shy, but plays a mean game of Blokus when goaded to participate. She has no host, despite a write-up about her that I thought was good (Scared, 12/21/09). Young girls are the most sought after on our trips, so it should have been easy, but as soon as I note her bashfulness, no one asks even to see her photo. Hope lets her travel anyway, thinking she might meet a family here, or I might find some winsome way to promote her later. She just had a birthday, so we celebrate with cake, candles, streamers, and presents. Another child and a host mom have birthdays soon, so we include them in the festivities, which include singing “Happy Birthday” thrice in Russian and English. My son, from Russia, had festive paper plates given to him by my mother-in-law. While I packed, he gave them to me saying, “Here, Mommy. You can use these plates. I want the Russian kids to have them.” Serving the cake on them, I appreciate them more than the kids do, knowing the love they represent. Angelina’s gifts are a Russian Bible story coloring book and a stuffed dog purse. She lacks practice; it takes an eternity for her to unwrap them.
Mike and Amy, from Oregon, also signed on at the last minute. Now, they are entirely smitten with Maxim, 16, Daria, 14, and Liza, 12, a patient sibling group awaiting their turn at a family over nine years (Forgotten, Yet Hopeful, 11/24/09). They’re naturals together, and Mike and Amy are aquiver with anticipation to tell them so. Given their ages and the need for the kids to agree to the adoption, Faith and I let them discuss the subject with the children, usually a Lighthouse taboo. Pulling them aside privately, Mike and Amy tell the siblings they want them to join the family. The three agree quickly; too quickly, Mike thinks. He urges them to mull it over. Faith, translating, gives a lengthy lecture on the magnitude of the decision, calling it more serious than marriage. When she’s done, Liza pipes, “I’m done. I’ve already made my decision. Yes.” The other kids agree, too, and with Mike and Amy’s motivation, they’ll soon be a forever family.
We visit the cosmonaut museum, and eat at the café there, on the way to the circus. Faith orders several pizzas, and while they’re marginally passable, they’re anemic, skimpy, and very expensive. I leave dissatisfied, thinking if this were my first pizza, I would not clamor for round two.
I had not planned to include the circus on our itinerary this time, but Faith arrived in Russia early and thoughtfully bought the tickets. After the last circus, I am chagrined to be bringing our Lighthouse demographic there, but I go without a gigantic stink to be agreeable (It's a Circus, 11/10/09). Before the show, the kids have their pictures taken with two rabbits, a Siberian fox, and a Capuchin monkey. As six kids sit on the bench, the handler puts the monkey on Evgeniy’s lap. He stiffens, hiding his hands behind his back, when the handler directs him to keep away from the monkey’s mouth, since he bites off fingers. The circus seems slightly less risqué than last time, if only because we’re in nosebleed seats with nowhere closer to the ring to move, and the show is an hour shorter; nonetheless, I decide that circus attendance is better left to the discretion of individual families upon return to Russia to finish their adoptions.
After the circus we’re famished. Faith injured her knee badly before the trip, but has been gamely showing us Moscow; tonight, though, she asks to leave us at the metro station to walk to the hotel without her. I tell her it’s fine, and we’re going to McDonald’s. Faith protests that there’s Russian food at the hotel, but we know what she references: white hotdogs, linked together at each end, sheathed in clear, colorless plastic that has to be peeled off. The sight of them dangling, one from another, turns the stomach, and engenders no American confidence in any cook who would serve them. An uprising against Russian hotdogs is in the offing, and the group insists they want McDonald’s. Now. Faith, sensing the tide, is forced to agree we don’t have to eat hotdogs at the hotel, and she hobbles away, wondering at our fussiness. Once the kids have eaten at the hotel and are safely in bed, several of us steal away to McDonald’s, which never seems this delicious at home.
Today, Alexander seeks his fortunes elsewhere; someone warned him I was not adoptive mom material. Too quiet to be obnoxious, he moves in pinball fashion, from family to family, with body language that pleads to be noticed. It pains me to see my favorite child on the trip, the one who seems the most genuine, without a host twice, passed over for a family again. I’ll give him another chance, and hope he’s willing to risk a third heartbreak.
There’s a gem here. How I wish someone would see it.
I arrive in Moscow an hour late, worrying Dima, our driver. At the hotel the families and kids already sleep, exhausted from their respective journeys. Elaine and Faith calm my neuroses, telling me how well things have gone. After Faith leaves for her flat, Elaine and I talk late into the night.
I match host family faces to telephone voices the next morning. Faith reads to the kids from a book about Russia’s history. With the kids occupied, the families prepare the gifts they brought. After Faith’s history lesson, clothes, toys, school supplies, and treats are handed out one giddy child at a time. Several spirit their treasures away to the dorm room; when I check on them later, a proud show-and-tell is unfolding. Diminutive Anastasia, at five the youngest child on the trip, receives her gifts last. A suitcase overflows for her, and when she sees it, she bursts into overwhelmed tears. We try again, with just one tiny item. She cries more, pushing it away. Time alone with the chaperone helps her handle the emotions that accompany receipt of such a stash, and the next time I see her, she is wearing new clothes. Alexander and Yulya agreeably take a rain check, since luggage holding their gifts was lost in transit.
Setting out, we meet a camera crew conducting “man on the street” interviews at a government building. Predictably, they interview Faith, who has honed her skills in flamboyance, quick wit, and spontaneity to an art. At the metro, she cajoles a stone-faced turnstile attendant to let three of our kids through without paying, as she doesn‘t have enough rides on her ticket. “Little, little!” she insists, gesturing toward the children, some of whom are noticeably big. For once, Faith is told no, and she trudges off to buy more tickets.
I spent much of the last trip worrying a child would be lost in the metro amongst stampeding Muscovites. This trip, I make cards with contact information, and hang them from a length of yarn. As Faith instructs the kids to wear the cards as necklaces, I am shocked even the older ones do so without argument. Each adult is given a metro map with instructions in case separated from the group, and assigned a child “metro buddy” who is to be their sole responsibility while in the subterranean system. “If your metro buddy is lost, make sure you are lost, too,” I chide.
Emerging from the metro’s bowels outside Red Square, our exuberant Nikolai, (Ray of Light, 12/16/09) lectures us on the history of the area, giving us a verbosely enthusiastic interpretation of the lesson he’d had earlier in the day. I wish his host family was here to witness this, but they’re still in New York right now.
Guidebooks concur the Resurrection Gate is the most majestic entrance to Red Square, and grants the most glorious initial glimpse of St. Basil's Cathedral. The gate itself is spectacular, though not original; it was rebuilt in 1995 after its 1930s demolition by a Stalin bent on easing access to the area with Soviet tanks and armies on Communist holidays. Today, our sightlines are obstructed by a makeshift outdoor skating rink, and for once we should have entered elsewhere. Just St. Basil's domes are visible, though I derive a modicum of comfort as gasps ascend even from this truncated view.
More kids alternate explaining the square’s history. Faith translates a story a child relates about Ivan the Terrible, the ruler who commissioned Russia‘s most iconic church. Toward the end of his life, a paranoid Ivan famously murdered his only son, so consequently had “no hair,” she solemnly tells us. I strain to be polite, but turn away when my smirk morphs into laughter. Faith learned English as an adult when she moved to America, and I respect the hard work that allowed her to master our oft-tricky language, even as I chuckle at her unintentional humor.
With our feet and noses numb, we invade GUM Mall, adjacent to St. Basil’s, to thaw and window shop. The mall is still dressed in holiday finery; Russians celebrate Orthodox Christmas January 7. The kids crave borscht, so we eat at a third-floor cafe. Russia isn’t known for efficiency, and our appearance in the restaurant exacerbates this. We are twenty-one in number, and most adults are unfamiliar with the language, food, culture, and money. Faith flits about from the head of the line assisting payers, and the tail of the line assisting in ordering. By the time we’re finished, a lengthy queue stands in our wake. Inconveniences are intrinsic to Russian existence, and those behind us seem to take the delay we’ve caused in stride. We dine under streamers made from the flags of the nations, though we never spot Russia’s white, blue, and red.
We are attending a performance of the Russian fairy tale Czarina Frog at the Natalya Sats Musical Theater, birthplace of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf. We arrive to the welcome of costumed characters on balconies at the entrance just as the show is about to begin. With 200 audience members, our $5 tickets could never pay for the live orchestra, elaborate set and costumes, and cavernous castle-themed building; the government and private donors subsidize the theater. Russians love the arts, and cultivate this appreciation even in childhood. Entering the theater hall, it is plain our children are underdressed. The children with parents wear dresses or fancy outfits; our orphans in their mismatched, oversized get-ups stand out. One man, well-dressed tot in tow, sees our children and wrinkles his nose. Throughout the dazzling performance, I fight the need for rest heroically. At the end, Faith and the kids congregate in the foyer, dancing around the Christmas tree, in Russian tradition. Later, Faith finds a piano and leads the children in renditions of several folk songs. When the Lighthouse Project visits the United States, the children sing for the public in an evening program; I cherish this moment tonight, and see in it our own, private program.
Leaving this morning, I clipped my German clothespin on my bag, thinking I'd make its appearance at various Moscow sites a blog theme. The idea, charged with promise, fizzles when the flower drops off the clothespin at the first metro stop and the clothespin falls off the bag somewhere between another metro stop and the theater. After the musical, I offer a prize to the child who finds the clothespin. Alexander, hostless, walks ahead, determined to find the pin, but we don’t retrace many steps before Faith leads us in another direction, foiling any hopes of a reunion and reward.
One of my favorite memories last trip was the trolleybus breaking down on the way home from the circus. We switched buses, leading to laughter, merriment, and singing in the back of the replacement trolley. As we charge aboard tonight, I hope this one will break down, too. My wish sees no fulfillment, though when Faith tries to pay, the driver says the ticket machine is out of order, so we all ride free. Several stoic babushkas ride along, emotionless as the kids sing with Faith.
Needing food, we cause a sensation at Yolky Polky, a Russian buffet. The host asks for a headcount; when Faith says “twenty-one,” he walks down the line disbelieving, but verifying the number, assembles the requisite tables. I disdain American buffets as quantity over quality, but experience epiphany when I find Russian buffets feature neither. As our group fills their plates, servers inefficiently refill the pans with small bits of food. The fried, chopped fish patties and white hotdogs ensure that, even at $12 a head, I don’t want my money’s worth. Evgeniy sits at the end of the table and devours seven hotdogs as part of the largest meal he’s ever consumed. No one spends any time with him, and he won’t stand out if he doesn’t get a chance to talk.
All day, the hosted kids hang from their families. Alexander doesn’t have a host, though I don’t think he knows yet. He sticks with me, and holds my hand much of the way; I wish he’d circulate through the group and let others see what a fantastic kid he is, my favorite in both November and now. He can’t know there is no way I can adopt him, so he puts his eggs in the wrong basket, snapping my photo, hunting my clothespin, holding my hand, and beaming at me when I look down at him. He tells me things, kindly, in simple Russian, and I understand a little. I rue his inopportune choice of me, but I don’t push him away toward more auspicious folks, since I fear hurting his feelings, and worry about orchestrating too much of what happens. Ultimately, people need to adopt the right child for their family, even if it leaves some of our orphans out in the Russian cold.
Last trip to Russia, I fell into bed at 3:00 a.m. the morning of my departure. I vow to do better this time, and technically do when I collapse at 2:45 a.m. Hope tried, unsuccessfully, to extract a promise of sleep every night in Russia by midnight. It's hopeless since Elaine will be there, and I've not seen her since she left Russia in October, though we've talked almost daily. Since our meeting last January, she has sprinted to top minute-user status on her cell phone plan. I tell her the timing is mere coincidence, but she is dubious. She won't be racking up minutes for a few days, though, since we're sharing a room in the hotel. While I expect a festive time together, I can't write until she falls asleep mid-conversation, rendering a midnight bedtime wishful.
Elaine will host fourteen-year-old Nadia, whom we stumbled across in an orphanage visit last October. A demurely smiling wallflower wearing a wooden icthus pendant around her neck, the girl was not on our list of children to visit. Eyeing the necklace on the wistful girl, Elaine asked repeatedly, with a mounting urgency, to meet her. Finally pulling her aside, Faith learned that one day earlier, Nadia had penned a plea to her biological mother, a prisoner,entreating her for a release permitting adoption so she could "have a life." A hardworking student, Nadia harbored aspirations of becoming a veterinarian. My degree in that field took six years to earn, so I wielded a grim certainty she would not achieve this goal without a supportive family. Talking several minutes, her thoughtful musings, gentle smile, and passionate ache for a chance left me über-impressed, and I gratefully conceded Elaine was right to insist. Back in the States, Hope told me obtaining such a release from the biological mother would be a longshot, but after several weeks a persuasive orphanage worker wrested the signed document from her, allowing Nadia to travel with us in January.
Morning comes. Randy mercilessly drags me from bed shortly after I lay down. Grousing about mornings and the frigid tile floor, I rise and ready. We stop at the library en route for two Russian travel books I've borrowed enough to deshelve as I whisk by. I depart Detroit, not Grand Rapids, so the ride affords me cramming time on the Pimsleur Russian CDs Hope lent me. My travel books claim Russians will be delighted by attempts at their language; at the end of the three-hour drive, I am prepared to order two beers and decline an unwanted date from a very persistent suitor. As a happily-married teetotaler, I question their utility, but should I need them, my Russian listeners will swoon.
My flight is practically empty, and I silently rejoice when the cabin door is secured and the seat next to me is still vacant. While I avoid unwanted conversation, the extra space and quiet garners me no slumber on the intercontinental flight. My sleepless night belies my exhaustion, and I half-heartedly fret I'll let Hope down. Faith told her I fell asleep at the circus during the tigers' act last trip, and during the midnight bedtime speech, I hear Hope wants me awake this go-round.
I have a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt, where I find piles of snow. I shiver, seeing a harbinger of weather to come in Moscow. I have resisted bringing a heavier coat for this short trip, opting to be cold rather than bulky, but I can't shake the nagging sense I will pay for my vanity. Silence is golden, especially for this writer, but awaiting my flight, I blog amidst conversation that doesn't distract, as I understand almost no German. A balding man approaches my table and wordlessly lays down a clothespin decorated with a plastic flower and ladybug. An accompanying card says he's deaf, and will accept any donation for the trinket. He repeats the procedure at each table, and when he returns, I can't say nein, knowing everyone else will. Cursing the exchange rate, I hand him a two-Euro piece, the only respectable coin in my pocket. As an outspoken proponent of light travel, claiming success only if everything packed gets used at least once, using the kitschy clothespin will challenge my creativity.
When I arrive in Moscow this evening, all but one of my host families will be in the hostel already. It's a bit of a letdown to miss seeing them meet the kids I hope they will love. I solace myself a little, knowing Elaine was there yesterday. I plan to debrief her tonight as I wait for her to fall asleep, mid-conversation.
An orphan, Vera doesn’t have much save her brother, seven-year-old Alexander. Years ago, their father died; subsequently, their mother’s rights to them were terminated. The Lighthouse Project had once been on her docket, before her babushka promised to care for them, squashing their chance at an adoptive family. Vera wistfully noted Babushka didn’t take them, and never visits. Hardly placeable any longer, it’s a small consolation she’s finally available for adoption, at age fifteen.
Vera’s confident, well-spoken maturity at once inspired and deflated, as she insisted she still wanted to live in America with a family, but realized her “time is ticking.” Observing the orphanage is not a proper place for Alexander to live, Vera would be happy for him if he found a family, even alone, and would let him go by himself, if necessary, to give him a chance. Living in a family would “be best for him,” she added.
Vera wants badly to stay with her brother, but not at the expense of him losing a family. The Russian government generally prohibits international citizens from splitting up siblings; when it happens, older sisters and brothers, whether of majority age or not, must consent. While this is an occasional occurence when an older sibling declines to be adopted, Vera still calls having a family her dream. She recognizes, though, that her presence in the equation hurts Alexander’s chances; young, sweet, and smart, finding his family would be a cinch, were he alone.
Excelling in ninth grade, Vera enjoys history, has many friends, and is known as a good cook. An aspiring poet, she last wrote about love; words come automatically, she says, an ability I envy more than understand. When she sets goals for herself, she expects to achieve them through work and motivation. Queried on her knowledge of English, Vera proffered an eclectic list: “Duck, my brother, my sister, do you like, library, I love you.” Her name, translated, is “Faith”; fittingly, Vera believes in God and attends church, typical for kids at her orphanage. She calls herself a good sister, a mother really, to Alexander, protecting and helping him when he finds trouble. But for all her friends, she laments there is no one in her life, outside a cousin, to protect her in the way she protects Alexander; no one mothers her.
In ten minutes, Vera managed to burden me with the most gnawing desire I’d ever felt to find a child a family. Her can-do attitude, so laudable, can’t help her keep her brother. The girl who has lost almost everyone, and will selflessly sacrifice the last love she treasures, for his good, needs a family with Solomon's wisdom to adopt them both.