Sunday, September 26, 2010


Mid-March, toward the end of recruiting, four unusually young children were added to my end-of-month Moscow trip. One of them, five-year-old Artem, came without details beyond his orphanage director’s glowing verbal report. With his age, sandy curls, and personality, his only salvation from Russian foster care was his HIV-positive status. His biological mother shared her disease, not her life, with him, and lost custody through her neglect of his medical needs.

I promoted Artem, but insufficient time, scanty information, and his diagnosis conspired against him. When I left for Russia, he was destined to travel without a host family; still, his presence provided me the opportunity to formulate an impression of him.

When the kids arrived, his small stature surprised me, though Russian orphans are generally small for their age. Artem was delightful, a standout in attitude, intelligence, attentiveness, cooperation, kindness, and industry. Cuddly too, he loved sitting on the lap of a lady who had taken a shine to him, but when it was another child’s turn, he would work diligently at different activities. Young enough to seem genuine, I never sensed his exemplary behavior was a show for the benefit of potential adoptive parents.

One day, as we presented the kids their gifts, cherubic Artem beamed, thanking me unprompted with a joy-filled, “Spaciba!” His stoop from the weight of the bagged treasures on his shoulder demanded a photo; instead, when I asked him, the little tyke with great effort straightened tall for me. Photo formalities over, he dragged his bag behind him to his room for safekeeping.

He personified persistence; on our long walks, he marched along, never complaining. With the common room a frenzy of activity, Artem worked solo on a puzzle, rotating the pieces to attempt all possibilities. Occasionally other kids flitted by to help, but never stayed. Artem showed no resentment at their late coming, or early going. Even when a girl capriciously destroyed the nearly-completed puzzle, Artem neither groused nor retaliated. He just started over.

During my days with him, I thought repeatedly that, were I to design the perfect child, Artem would result.  Yet he remained a little boy, on the lookout for puddles and whispering in ears when he had something to say.  One lady decided to pursue his adoption, though circumstances months later precluded her from proceeding, an outcome over which she shed countless tears. 

Much later, I viewed Artem’s orphanage interview. Unlike most interviewees his age, he was talkative, responding readily to questions. Asked his name, he offered his nickname, Toma. Noting he was anxious to begin school, he counted several numbers between one and ten and identified the colors of his sweater’s stripes. Queried about his hopes, he wanted a mama, a papa, and several different toy vehicles, in that order. Naming his hometown, he added he’d waited for his mother at the orphanage there and she “never, ever” came for him.

So Artem, an angel in orphan’s clothes, awaits someone else to come for him, someone whose education about his condition trumps unfounded fear and prejudice (Positive, 3/18/10). His HIV status made him an orphan.

May it not leave him one.


For more information on adopting HIV-positive children, please visit Project Hopeful.  Adoptive families of HIV-positive children are willing to speak to others about their experience with the condition; names and numbers will be provided.   The prognosis is much more favorable, and treatment much less involved, than most people believe.  Families interested in Artem may meet him on our November 9-15 trip to Moscow.  If you're interested in travelling with us, please call Becky at (616) 245-3216 or e-mail

Yuliana, Artem, and Yana

Friday, September 24, 2010

Going With Them

Day three of the kids’ visit, my little band lacks the ambition of the first day and the urgency of the last. While I am gung-ho to show them more of the city, yesterday was a gumption-robbing scorcher, and today is a carbon copy. The families opt to stay in climate-controlled comfort with the kids, but after our late laugh last night, we Americans arrive at the kids’ flat almost an hour later than planned.

We’re throwing a party, and since it’s no one’s birthday, we pretend it’s everyone’s. In a departure-eve tradition at my house, my Russian son measures out streamers twice the length of our playroom and rolls them up as I finalize my packing. He enjoys surprising me with the color, and it lets him do something to help “the Russian kids,” as he calls them. Russian ceilings tower, and hanging my son’s streamers high enough always proves challenging. The festivity gauge rises sharply when I give the kids balloons; soon some joust with inflatable swords, some decorate the flat, and others fashion gaudy headwear for the partygoers.

Svetlana, the chaperone, is polite, but not exactly jovial. She’s claimed several times this week the kids aren’t interested in things they’re yanking my arms for, ensured the television drones endlessly, and made clear that on this, her inaugural visit to Moscow, the only thing she cares if she sees is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. When she accepts and dons a hat designed by one of our budding haberdashers, I extend shocked and silent kudos, as it would hurt my heart to see an orphan’s generosity rebuffed.

As the festive melee unfolds, I pour over two bird’s milk cakes. I expect to write “Happy Birthday” and the kids’ names in Cyrillic, but the tubes of frosting I’ve brought are almost pathologically uncooperative. Before I get to the end of “Happy Birthday,” I’m lamenting the beautiful vision in my mind is destined to remain only that, until Zulya comes to look, hugs me, and proclaims it beautiful. I recognize her word in Russian, and the delivery is so genuine I can tell she means it. I think it strange that her single word agitates a flurry of emotions within me. I cherish her encouragement, but find it sad commentary that my eyesore of a cake is lovely to her. It highlights why we have a party when it’s no one’s birthday, and even why we run these trips: the kids have been denied most things we assume are birthrights of childhood.

I plant Hanukkah candles on the cake. They were on clearance, and I can’t resist a bargain. As a bonus, they’re more substantive than ordinary birthday candles. We always sing “Happy Birthday” several times for our videos, and shoot enough photos to shame paparazzi; ordinary candles cannot withstand such delay. As the candles burn brightly through all the pictures and songs, no one suspects that they’re not officially birthday candles.

During my first Russian party, I learned to set aside one cake for the kids to blow on and eat, reserving another cake for those favoring dessert unsullied by spittle. After English and marginal Russian renditions of the birthday song, the candles are extinguished by eight kids blowing in near-unison, and the cake is cut. Each child’s piece sports a candle, which we relight to their jubilation. As some kids eat around the flame with shaky hands, and others wield theirs, I wonder what we’d be charged for burning down the flat.

After cake, it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey time. The kids haven’t played it before, though you’d never know by the skill with which they cheat: only two don’t grope the wall before committing their tails. Even the translator and chaperone feel around. For a low-stakes party game without a prize, the depth of my indignation surprises me. At the end, having no photo, I pick Alexandra, a non-cheater, to reenact the game. She now pats the wall, too, having modified her strategy while watching the others. We Americans play afterward, demonstrating how it’s done. None of us cheat, and the kids laugh like we’re the greenhorns.

A boulevard outside the flat offers a tree-lined walk down the center, with a playground near one end. After the party and lunch, we lug a watermelon and freezer pops to the playground, availing ourselves of a thousand photo ops the kids create. Oleg bats as Jeff pitches him a baseball, Alexandra sits on a slide with Barrie and Joyce, Sergei and Andrei look at pictures, and Zulya and Lora throw a Frisbee. A man and his tiny daughter walk by. The little one is fascinated by the Frisbee, so Zulya squats down, shows her the disc, tries to help her throw it, and speaks gently to her. For a child on the receiving end of so little nurture in her life, it is heartwarming to see how naturally Zulya doles it out.

At the park, translator Irina summons Alexandra; Barrie and Joyce want to talk with her. As she sits beside them on a bench, they tell her she’s beautiful, they love her, and they want her to be their daughter. They flip together through an album with pictures of their family, home, and their son Trevor with a boy he’s adopting from our March trip. Presenting her a necklace with a cross pendant, Joyce shows Alexandra a similar necklace she received from her mom. Alexandra says she likes Barrie and Joyce, but isn’t sure about adoption. That’s okay, they counsel. They want her to consider it, to be sure.

As the rest of the kids play on, oblivious to the momentous discussion near them, I slice the watermelon with a knife I thought twice about carrying down the street. Russians are proud of the watermelons they call “ar-BOOSE.” Since this is my first summer trip, it’s my first taste. Their pride is justifiable, and the watermelon is a most apt treat on this sweltering, but gloriously smoke-free, afternoon.

At night, when I’m unwinding back in my room, Barrie and Joyce knock on my bag door, wanting to talk. They have been trip stalwarts, unfailingly upbeat whether or not circumstances warrant. Having them along has been unmitigated pleasure. They touch me by opening with effusive thanks, then one-up themselves with the tale of their conversation with Alexandra at the park. Later at the flat, Irina tells Joyce Alexandra wants to join their family, but is too shy to tell them. Weeping, Joyce invites Barrie to meet his new daughter. It’s impossible to contain his emotion as he promises Alexandra his lifelong love and protection. He adds, just to me, that he was warned adoption was pricey.  He understands, but invoking the "you can't take it with you" expression, counters that they can take their kids with them someday.

So in a humble room, behind a makeshift trash bag door, I learn the joyous tidings that Alexandra, the first orphan I ever interviewed, has a family, and one I esteem (Mission: Never Accomplished, 2/10/10). As Barrie and Joyce thank me again for helping them find their daughter, it’s worth a hug and a tear. Or two.

Alexandra is going with them.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Looking Up

Without air conditioning, our windows are constantly open. We wake to smoke less punishing, thanks to an overnight shower and the prayers of many back home. We walk to the kids’ flat; several run to let us in when we buzz the bell outside their building. Having sacrificed the air conditioned accommodations for them, it is mildly annoying to find the unit turned off as we enter.

After breakfast, a game helps us get to know each other better. When a yellow beach ball is caught, the recipient shares a fact about himself, then tosses the ball to someone of opposite nationality. Through the passing of the ball, we learn Egor is the best reader in his class, Alexandra dances, and Oleg likes English. We’re in a circle, and Angelina’s the only one sitting. Once, I throw her the ball as encouragement that we want to know her, too. She pushes it away, looks down, and won’t say anything, even with Svetlana’s cajoling. It’s slightly awkward, and while I wonder if we should try harder to coax her participation, I acquiesce to her choice.

Angelina travelled unhosted in January (Scared, 12/21/09). The last day of the trip, we interviewed the kids; toward the end, she had yet to speak. Faith gently probed about what she’d most enjoyed, and got three or four words in response before a very charming boy started laughing, interjecting a snide comment. Angelina clammed up, not willing to finish her thought. It vexed me that the charmer, family safely in pocket, heartlessly mocked the shy girl. As Angelina refuses participation, I feel sure she remembers the January experience, and I must work to suppress resentment toward the boy whose long-past thoughtlessness denies her a chance to shine now.

Gifts are distributed next, to the glee of all. Few here have received many before, unless they’ve traveled with us previously. Lora is an astute trader, making several beneficial swaps before a few of the hosts intervene. When our group sets out for the day, the boys pose by a red Ferrari parked in the courtyard outside their flat. As its owner has carefully tucked it in a corner by an adjacent building, I doubt he would approve of several children leaning against it for photos.

At the metro, my magnetic ticket allows us sixty rides, the least expensive option for short-term visitors. Before we’re in the door, the kids clamor to scan the strip on the card reader. It’s already hard to remember who has had a turn, and who hasn’t. As I watch a child scan the card, I worry it won’t read between entrants, and that the gate will slam closed on the unwitting second to pass, assuring its victim multiple bruises. The metro resounds with a loud, singsongy tune whenever able-bodied cheaters jump the gate. Cheerless women wearing sour, no-nonsense expressions man booths nearby, blowing police whistles as they menacingly, but impotently, jab the air at the freeloaders.

We emerge from underground by the Kremlin, stopping at a bronze plaque embedded in the stone outside the Resurrection Gate, my favorite entrance to Red Square. Popular culture considers this spot the center of Russia, though geographically that title belongs almost 3000 miles east. With their backs to Red Square, people stand on the plaque, tossing coins over their right shoulders for luck. The coins are generally kopeks, tiny denominations valued in hundredths of a cent, but a few tattered elderly ladies hover nearby, collecting the coins with frail fingers as they bounce off the stones.

Right before departure, I’d seen several horrifying photos of Red Square shrouded in smoke, just the outline of St. Basil’s visible. Today, though, with much of the smoke dissipating, I’m absent my mask, no longer fighting carbon monoxide reputed to have been as high as seven times the safe upper limit earlier in our jaunt. For my friends’ sakes, I am relieved that their first view of Moscow’s most iconic site is fairly clear. After the requisite photos with St. Basil’s as backdrop, we grab lunch at my favorite GUM Mall eatery, dining amidst a smorgasbord of color. Every time I visit GUM, there is a new, and unfailingly classy, display of decorations or artifacts; today Audis from the 1930s to the present form a car snake through the mall’s corridors. A man sits in one, and lets the kids join him. He demonstrates the GPS, a gadget the kids find irresistible. The man is so accommodating that I assume he is either not Russian, or not working for the vehicle’s owner. I keep waiting for the ubiquitous mall security officers to descend on us, rebuking and shooing us away, but they never materialize.

After GUM, we cruise the Moscow River. It’s sweltering out, though a breeze on the river provides a modicum of relief. I spring for ice cream, and most kids thank me without prompting, though I remind a few. It’s refreshing how many of the kids, orphans, remember this pleasantry, even in English. I wile away much of the ride chatting on the phone with my friend Valerie, our adoption coordinator. She calls me with encouragement daily here; I love her, and almost forget my troubles as she commiserates with me.

Cruise over, we return to the kids’ flat to prepare dinner. As we assemble the components, Lora proudly contributes the four leftover McDonald’s cheeseburgers she’d collected yesterday and stored in her bag overnight. She is appalled when I throw them away, telling her we can’t use them, since meat needs to be refrigerated. Krista brought macaroni and cheese from home, and I have pelmini, Russian ravioli served with sour cream. Kids commonly name macaroni as their favorite food, but it is eaten sans sauce here. When Krista mentions American kids love macaroni and cheese, the Russians eat it with extra gusto. Cucumber slices and plums languished earlier, but fashioned into a smiley face on a plate, they’re promptly devoured. After the meal, we’re tired. I feel guilty leaving, but the heat has sapped our strength.

Traipsing back to our own flat, someone remembers we need toilet paper. At a store open day and night, shopping reminds me of a book I read about marketing; in a phenomenon they called “the butt brush effect,” the authors claimed customers would stop browsing in an area the third time they were bumped from behind. Here, in aisles wide enough for only one person, I’m thinking the butt brush threshold would have to be higher. The inventory consists of expensive blue paper, or abrasive brown Soviet-holdout paper, sold singly for about twelve cents per roll. Back at the flat, exhaustion lowers inhibitions as we envision how we would advertise the rough paper, were we the ad agency charged with such an unenviable assignment. We settle on, “Your butt might feel it, but your wallet won’t!” and laugh uproariously until I feel lightheaded.

My room is really an office next to the kitchen, and it lacks a door. The location teems with distractions, and renders blogging impossible. While I’m on the phone, Jeff cobbles together nine wimpy trash bags into a makeshift door. Before I hang up, the thin blue plastic offers some semblance of privacy. Krista decorates it with my name, but I can’t decide if I should be honored or offended by the crown she draws atop the “B.”

By the time my lights go out, a fifteen-minute rainstorm has begun and ended. A stiff breeze is blowing through, and I reach for the duvet. With a cleansing rain, the welcome chill, my bag door, the hearty laughing session, and the prayers of those who love me at home, things are looking up.

I'm going to make it.