Russian orphans look out an orphanage window at a departing adoptive family.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Mission: Never Accomplished
Yakov, a shriveled goatherd wrapped in an ancient camouflage coat, tended his meager flock along the road to our first orphanage, and seemed more surprised than flattered at our stop. Our driver, having given too little thought to risking our lives behind the wheel, was sufficiently obliging for several photo stops; besides the goats, we posed with the sign at the outskirts of town, and shot the hamlet church and its ten napiform domes. Thousands of miles from home, but within minutes of our target, I was stalling with the dread of a mourner en route to a funeral visitation, pregnant with purpose, but reluctant to consummate. Conversation sputtered minutes from the orphanage, in a dichotomous aura of anticipation and foreboding. While I’d been to an orphanage before, it was to pick up my own kids, not to see the need.
Outside the institution, gas pipes a foot in diameter skimmed the ground, then rose up, forming an unsightly bridge over the dirt road just beyond. Sheep freely wandered as geese rested warily in the street beside their pond, framed at its far end by a motley village. The orphanage, white and red brick, was the most auspicious building in sight, seducing me with sufficient curb appeal to briefly sweat the ethics of past depictions of orphanages as bastions of hopelessness.
Faith sprinted in, with a swelling group of kids shadowing her, and I had to hustle to avoid being lost in labyrinthine stairwells and halls. Young and old welcomed us unprompted with formal hellos as they saw us. Several paired children, each lugging a handled cardboard box holding a meat carcass, greeted us with a pleasant self-confidence that said they had no inkling how squeamish their burdens made us. I wondered if this friendliness was standard for all visitors, or if it was reserved for those from America, who might get them out.
We’d come to see Alexandra, a retiring thirteen, who’d earlier said she wanted a mom and dad from the Lighthouse Project. I’d seen the results of a hundred orphanage interviews before, but mystique surrounded their creation. Since interviews are the deciding factor in a family’s child selection prior to a trip, I always imagined discussions of why we were here, what things we would ask, and what answers would be advantageous, before we rolled.
We invaded Alexandra’s room, a spartan space she shared with one mentally impaired girl, at naptime. Underdressed in pajamas, she self-consciously tugged at them in a futile attempt to cover her knees. Faith greeted her, wordlessly turned on her camera, and started questioning. This minute action evoked a barrage of dissonant emotions: relief at the uncoached purity of the interview mingled with horror at the lack of preparation in her appeal for a life, letdown at the loss of the interview’s mystery alongside hope in sharing nascent steps toward a future, empathy for her losing battle for modesty but delight at her desire, and prayer for her success with a yearn to flee because of her discomfort. Oddly, the interview dredged up a strong and haunting reminder of the first euthanasia I witnessed as a student, prior to being numbed as a veterinarian. I’d anticipated these seemingly disparate events with dread and awe, but found them disturbingly similar, each process lacking the drama to portend the weight of the result.
The interview lobbed a few softballs as I willed Alexandra to excel. We gleaned that she likes red, roses on bushes, cats and dogs, and pictures of foxes. She does not study English, since her school has no teacher. And that was all: these few, unpretentious words encapsulated a petition I worried couldn’t be enough to induce a family to take her. Faith earned a smile when she gave Alexandra a purse, then I awkwardly offered a handful of gum and a hug. Leaving, we popped in to see a boy awaiting his Wisconsin family.
Our whirlwind visit left Elaine and me plenty to ponder on the road to our next stop. In an orphanage with one hundred children, we’d entered two rooms, each housing two children, but focused all effort on one resident. How could the others know that we also cared about them, but that their circumstances would not permit adoption? Did they wonder what heroics garnered Alexandra and the Wisconsin boy American attention? Did Faith’s childish shadows pray she might notice them, and lament our determination to visit just two rooms, with hardly a glance their direction? Did Alexandra puzzle why strangers would bounce in, ask a few questions, and go?
How deflating to realize the humble chance we’d given Alexandra was the only glimmer of hope we’d left at her orphanage. Other souls, equally needy and with futures as bleak, were relegated to barely supporting role status, remembered only for the atmosphere of generalized desperation they helped create. In one stop, one orphanage, ten minutes at most, my optimism abandoned me. Our mission would never be fully accomplished.