Saturday, February 26, 2011


With my alarm clock across the room, Friday morning I wake punctually. I’m venturing to the train station again, this time for Melinda, who’s returning from our region having met Evgenia, four. Barrie thoughtfully accompanies me. Eliminating both the tardy departure and the storm breeds a more relaxed jaunt than yesterday’s.

Evgenia, now five, and able to travel with us
When the train lumbers in, several familiar faces alight with Melinda, including six children whose families have finished court. Arriving in Moscow, they’re in the homestretch of their adoptions. Nadia, 15, greets me with an embrace and an English “Thank you!” worth the world to me. Her new brother Nikolai, 11, shadows her. Melinda’s visit was to his orphanage, and she tells me he was so excited to be going home that he donned his coat two hours before leaving for the station. Daria, 15, is joined by her two siblings. Before they boarded this train, 30 kids and teachers from their orphanage, all crying, came to the station to wish them farewell. I hate mornings, but seeing these erstwhile orphans, now sons and daughters, and knowing I had a hand in it, is a shot in the arm even at this hour.

Barrie, Melinda, and I leave the station alone. I am itching to hear about Evgenia, who due to her young age was not allowed to travel with us. Evgenia’s a big girl, Melinda says, ready to learn and affectionate. Adding she had a rough start in life, Melinda found she does not speak. The orphanage provides speech therapy, but can afford only 30 minutes weekly, which they worry is insufficient. I wonder if any family will take a risk with her.

Peter, a very pensive little boy
Back at the hotel, I find little Peter playing on the floor without his slippers. The soles of both his socks sport the hand-sewn characters A3-7. It’s a pragmatic solution for the laundress who mates hundreds of socks in an institution, but the markings distress me anyhow. A mom could match them, but no one at the orphanage can pair Peter’s without the aid of a monogram.

Later in the morning, we talk with the kids. Blonde sprite Maria, six, oozes confidence. Asked to describe herself in one word, she chooses “beautiful” and “smart.” The kids reveal what kind of animal each would most like to be; Artem chimes, “An angel!” It’s entirely apt, from this cherubic lad who remains one of my three favorite Lighthouse Project kids. When the meeting adjourns, the kids tear into their gifts. Maria gets new jeans, which she is soon modeling with evident pride. She fancies the tag, refusing its removal. It’s so comical I grab my camera. She eagerly poses, after turning the tag to reveal its more flattering side.

After the gifts, I repair to my room, only to be interrupted by a frantic knock. I open to Amy, waiting with Sheri grasping Igor’s outstretched hand. “Igor has a staple in his finger,” Amy gushes, “and when I saw it, I said, ‘Becky! Becky’s a veterinarian!’” Theatrical Igor, who even moans with flair, bites his lip hard at the staple buried in the flesh of his thumb, deep enough to pucker the skin. I’ve never treated a human because of my profession, but in Moscow, though woefully underequipped, I smear hydrocortisone over the wound, pinch the finger, and jockey a tweezers under the staple’s bar. As a tear glides down Igor’s cheek, Amy launches insistently into song, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” My patient joins her, in English, and dares a little laugh at the ridiculousness of it. Sheri and I start, too, and by “P,” I’ve steeled myself sufficiently to yank out the offending fastener. I trade the staple for a thank you, and seal the deal with a Band-Aid. Hours after, I ask him how he feels. With assurances he’s well, I divulge I’m a veterinarian. He thinks it hilarious to have been saved by a dog doctor.

Crowds in the Moscow metro
At the train this morning, our Russian adoption coordinator Love gave me small flags as gifts for the hosts. Our group numbers 25, making metro travel harrowing at rush hour. I’m forever counting, though I never get that high before the train roars away. Once, early this trip, we disembark so slowly that we cause the separation of a mother and her young daughter. As the door slams shut, stranding the girl, the mother frantically motions the child to get off at the next stop. While I am relieved it isn’t one of our kids, as a mother I feel a vicarious frenzy, mingled with shame, since our disorganization birthed this trouble. Here I vow to co-opt one of Love’s flags myself, and to hold it aloft in the metro as I lead.

Smiling, before strangers started staring
I always seek to blend in, and heretofore enjoyed a measure of anonymity in Moscow in my black coat, even without the dyed hair or spike-heeled boots Muscovite women favor. Now, hoisting the red and gold standard, I explode from my camouflage. Descending the steep escalators into the metro, the wind tunnel effect whips the flag violently. I feign self-possession, but the flapping draws scads of eyes traveling on the ascending escalator. “People are staring at you, Becky!” someone laughs, in case I haven’t noticed. In their heavy Russian coats, I can’t imagine anyone is naked, so I solace myself knowing they have no idea where the flag is from. Amidst the monochromatic masses swarming the subway, the flag does make shepherding the group simpler. After several hosts hail the flag as a lifesaver, I grimly realize it has a future every trip.

Friday, entering Red Square by Resurrection Gate, SpongeBob, a diapered monkey, and a Stalin lookalike loiter. A Lenin impersonator stands with them, leaning on the pole of an old USSR flag. When he spots me, he raises his flag, waving with gusto, and blows a few kisses. I don’t relish the attention, but answer his volley anyway with a half-hearted wave and one kiss blown back. Numerous wedding parties stroll through the square, after the brides have laid red carnations at the nearby Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Katya, our translator, is getting married next weekend, though she won’t be home until Monday. We’re astonished she’s traveled with us, so close to the nuptials, but she shrugs it off, saying she’s ready except for choosing the traditional white fox cape winter brides wear with their dresses.

Barrie and Alexandra say goodbye
Barrie’s wife Joyce can’t join us this trip, though she traveled in both June and August. Barrie wants more time with Alexandra, 14, and is missing his 40th anniversary for it, with Joyce’s blessing. She’s sent me an anniversary card, with which Alexandra surprises him on the appointed day. Someone gives her a confetti popper, and she releases it to augment the celebration. Barrie is giddy at the prospect of Alexandra joining his family, and shares his anticipation with everyone. While he never shopped much for their other children, Joyce tells me he is driving the expeditions now. When she laughed once he should have been half this excited years ago when she was pregnant, he retorted, “I was half as excited!”

The kids’ last day, Igor wants to sing for us. Valiantly trying to assemble the entire group in the common area for his performance, he counts repeatedly, never reaching 25 as kids keep coming and going. Finally he gives up and settles for having all the adults. He chooses the Russian National Anthem, and with a powerful voice, occasionally cracking, regales us with a passionate rendition. It’s clear he loves singing, and his country.

After the kids are safely returned to the train, headed to their orphanages, the hosts and I share a Moscow farewell dinner in the basement of a new MuMu. We want to enjoy ourselves, but the kids’ departure is too raw. On the way back, we stop at Eliseevsky’s, my all-time favorite store, for chocolate mousse, my all-time favorite food; I unwind with this reward at the end of every trip. It’s nearing midnight when we get to the hotel, but we’re aching for the kids, so David debuts a 2400-photo slideshow he’s compiled of our time together. My host families, friends with whom I’ve shared deep camaraderie these past few days, gather in my room to watch. Only a few photos in, we’re laughing, crying, and reliving our week. It’s so good, and so cathartic to end this way, I almost forget my mousse. As the last photo fades, all concur this was the perfect finale for our time together. I am energized, and yearn to watch it again, now.

Good Lord willing, I’ll be back. There will be new families, winsome kids, more mousse, and my red and gold flag flapping in the metro breeze.

I can’t wait.

Our November kids