Wednesday, February 24, 2010

No Chance at a Chance

Bouncing along the back roads of Russia, swerving at the penultimate nanosecond to pass cars we’re tailgating, I’m grateful for the plentiful potholes and our Volga’s poor shocks, as our driver must temper his speed somewhat in heed of them. The day before I’d left home, I’d acquiesced to Hope’s advice to buy insurance for the trip. In the back seat, watching wide-eyed as we surge past a motorized contraption defying categorization, I comfort myself with a promise from the insurance brochure that, should this jaunt end in my demise, repatriation of remains is a covered benefit. Immediately after one of our risky passes, an ambulance flies by. The way we’re driving, I worry we’ll see it again.

We’re ambitious today, visiting four orphanages, the furthest a death-defying three hours south of our home base. So many of our orphans hail from this backwoods institution, I’m anxious to see it. While no orphanage replicates a family, there is a quality continuum, and this one is at the bottom. The orphanage is in a sizable town also housing a large prison; some kids here are orphaned by a parent’s incarceration. Tiny wood dwellings trimmed in blue line the road; at one, an elderly babushka restrains a leashed cow in her postage stamp yard outside the orphanage grounds.

The Volga halts outside the orphanage. Grubby children spill out heavy doors to greet us, and shadow us in. A row of posters bearing Soviet-era safety admonitions hangs just inside, on walls thick with paint. Soiled linoleum, ’70s-style, covers creaky floors; workers in blue house dress uniforms and caps pretend to sweep but eye us warily, without welcome. After several kids’ adoptions, they worry our success will close the orphanage, at the cost of their jobs. Faith navigates the orphanages effortlessly, and we hurry to keep pace with her. I can’t get over how purposefully we race into each, meet the kids on our list, and run out. Here, children form a gauntlet along a corridor, watching us rush by. Many older boys in ill-fitting, shiny suits appear and vie for our attention as we head for the office. A teacher tells us she’s been waiting for us six hours on her day off. It’s a friendly rebuke, and she proudly breaks out an album of her daughter’s weekend wedding. In several photos, the bride is flanked by adoring parents, one of whom will introduce us to kids without any, once we’ve seen her own child. The normalcy of this Russian bride’s life, contrasted with the lives of these orphans, who know no normal, smacks me hard with its inequity.

Several kids from Elaine’s trip, and a few from mine, enter. Egor, nine, clutches a gift from his anxious family, but doesn’t open it until Faith urges him. He beams at the photo of himself and the family, taken in Missouri. Faith tells him they’re excited and coming soon. “They will be my family forever?” he chirps, incredulous. “Forever,” Faith assures, adding that another boy in the orphanage, Sergei, will be his brother ("He Just Won Our Hearts", 7/17/09).

Vasily, ten, is mistakenly summoned with three boys awaiting families. I’d loved him in Missouri, but no one chose him to be a son. When the three with families receive gifts, Vasily alone stands empty-handed, trying heroically to smile, as if it doesn’t matter. Faith produces a trinket, but it’s a sorry substitute for a care package from waiting parents (Solid Gold, 12/1/09).

We begin meeting prospective kids for future trips. The amount of need distresses, but that I’ll have a substantive say in who travels and has a chance at a future, and who stays behind and ends up dying on the streets, is beyond agonizing. Vanya, age unknown, stands in a group outside the door. “Please show us,” he entreats the teacher guarding the entry. He wants to be a welder, and aspires to visit America. He calls Denis, newly in the States, his best friend ("Tell her you want a family, too!", 2/18/10). Andrei, thirteen, is next. He likes to read, but not too much, he says, ironically hastening to add his favorite poet is Pushkin. He dreams of travel. Sergei, ten, likes to read, especially the aptly-titled Reading. Asked if he cooks, we’re told he makes soup from a powder. Andrei, nine, claims he knows English, and scrawls a “w” on paper as proof. He doesn’t yet have a dream. Dima, 15, has wiled away eight years of his childhood in the orphanage, and no longer remembers his parents’ faces. He yearns to ask them why they hid away so long and never visited him. He graduated his class with honor last year, but turning sixteen in less than six months, will graduate from the orphanage without a family. He dreams of seeing his best friend Sergei again. Now in America from one of my trips, and home less than a year at the time of this visit, Sergei is the first child adopted from this orphanage (It's a Boy!, 12/8/08).

Our last subject is Slava. Faith’s first question is his age. “Sixteen,” he says, as my heart sinks. “There’s nothing we can do,” Faith moans, but asks a few more questions, out of courtesy. His dream is to visit home to see what happened to his family. I wonder if he notices how much shorter his interview is than all the others, or if he  realizes donning the suit was in vain. As Faith dismisses him, she tells the doorkeeper sixteen-year-olds cannot enter America on an orphan’s immigrant visa. “I know,” the teacher explains, “but when he begged me, ‘Please show me to them!’ I couldn’t tell him no.” It’s enough to rend the chilliest heart.

We’re still in demand, but hours away from our hotel, with two orphanages yet to visit. As we scurry out, kids trail, requesting pictures with us outside. Faith opens the trunk and they circle, curious what treasures it hides. While Elaine and I wait in the Volga, kids knock on our windows and wave. When Faith climbs in and we drive out, a few kids chase us. I can’t tell if they’re playing, desperate, or both.

Speeding toward our next stop, I am deeply disturbed. The orphanage’s condition is abysmal, but the urgency the children show transcends mere lack of comfort. They’re hopeless, and know it better than the orphans we’ve seen until now. Adoption is a new phenomenon here, and already the kids are clawing to see us, putting on their best clothes, queuing, pleading if they have to, for their chance at a chance.

Most gut-wrenching is Slava, whose unhappy fate Faith described with truth cruel in its brevity: “There’s nothing we can do.” Kids age out of orphanages daily, and it bothers me. A lot. But a desperate face now exemplifies this factoid, a face I’ve just seen for the first time, when it’s already too late even to try. There is no help for Slava, or Dima either. I’m heartsick, and expect Slava to haunt any sleep I eke out in upcoming days.