Sunday, February 12, 2012

Going To Be Extraordinary

Tim dislikes his wheelchair and seldom uses it, so it’s an ironic first impression I have of the 12-year-old being wheeled onto the YMCA stage to present a monologue he wrote himself. My friend Hope, director of the Lighthouse Project, ages ago lost track of exactly how many adoptions she’s done, though she pins the number at over 1,000. And after devoting her entire adult life to the work, this boy, a triple congenital amputee, has stolen her heart more than any other child she’s helped. 

She’d mentioned Tim before, only a snippet here or there, so it was a surprise a few days ago when she entreated me to attend a play of his in Chicago.  It’s an inconvenient 200 miles southwest on a weekend that already has me traveling north to a four-hour board meeting Saturday morning, then to a Sunday morning church adoption fair.  But before I could wield this iron-clad excuse, she reminded me that Tim was her most special adoption, ever. Hope always gives, and I’d yearned to reciprocate, but never had an inkling how.  So to honor her commitment to the orphans of Russia, not least of whom were my own two kids, I acquiesced and agreed to go with my family.
On the day of the play, I rush home from a most wearisome meeting. My husband and kids are waiting at the door, and they leap into the van without my ever shutting it off.  If we aren’t ensnarled in traffic, we should make the play, Relentless Is My Middle Name, with a half hour wiggle room. I don’t fritter away a second of the journey, finishing a photo sheet of kids seeking their families on our next Lighthouse Project trip, and speaking with several hosts and Hope, who’s worried we’ll be late.
Traffic parts like the Red Sea though, and we arrive even before the doors open.  Tim begins his production draped in black cloth, which is theatrically removed.  Lifted onto a podium, he recounts the story of his birth in Ukraine, adoption at age three from Russia, and life with his family as one of eleven children. His poise, humor, and transparency are mesmerizing, and make seeing him as a completely normal boy, just with one arm, effortless.

His biological mother was exposed to radiation near Chernobyl, he tells us. Though many children from the area suffer anomalies, she was young, and unprepared to parent him. Somehow, Tim left Ukraine and ended up in a baby house north of Moscow. Besides life, her only gift to him before relinquishing him to the orphanage was his name, meaning iron.
While his orphanage was filled with kids with special needs, there was nothing else unusual about the institution where Hope first met Tim in 1999.  Drawn to his intelligent eyes, she recalls him as a sensitive boy. Deeply moved by his sadness, and at his crying when she took pictures and video, she used extra care to make them perfect. Afterward, she found excuses to visit him during frequent trips to deliver candy and humanitarian aid. Wanting him to feel loved, she would hold him and feed him cookies. 

Our translator Faith, with Tim at home
The orphanage director was a lady who genuinely cared; Hope judged her one of the best she ever encountered in visits to hundreds of orphanages. Other kids there had been adopted previously, but the director believed such a happy outcome impossible for Tim. Hope, undeterred, wrote his profile, and forwarded the photos and video to the American agency employing her. A social worker posted the information on the International Child Amputee Network, an Internet support group for families of young amputees. In August 1999 a friend sent Virginia Monroe, an Illinois mom, Tim’s picture from the website. Virginia connected with the little boy instantaneously, and she made a decision, legendary within her family, to adopt him as quickly as possible. The agency sent Virginia the video Hope had filmed, but noting Tim’s lack of expression, cautioned her against adopting him. A social worker dissented. “He’ll be fine,” she soothed, as Virginia made plans to visit.  Hope was thrilled.

At nearly three years of age, Tim had never spoken. Only three weeks after viewing his photo, Virginia met him in the baby house, where he was clutching a piece of bread. He refused eye contact, so she sang, made fish faces, and carried him all day. At a meeting that afternoon, the director wailed dramatically, “What will become of him? He’ll never have a normal life. It’s such a tragedy!”
“Who are you talking about?” Virginia demanded, as Tim laughed. Her family would welcome him, just as soon as they could complete the paperwork. While the Monroes focused on the adoption from home, Virginia sent Hope’s friend to feed Tim fruit every week, as supplement to his typical oatmeal and water diet at the orphanage, and to practice different skills with him.

When Virginia and her husband returned in February 2000, Tim again resisted eye contact. But so completely did they trust their social worker’s judgment that they never feared adopting. The workers cried tears of joy for Tim as he left; when he was put into the car, his eyes began sparkling, he patted Mr. Monroe’s back, and he was born a new boy. In just the few days before his homecoming, he learned 300 words of English, and started chattering incessantly. Within a few months, he was a blur of motion.  Nearly ten years later, the talking and activity have yet to subside; his sister claims anyone who talks as much as he does must have a purpose.

In Relentless, Tim notes children with challenges like his were once consigned to circus freak shows. Lamenting that people now turn away from those with disabilities, he welcomes questions from those he meets, hoping they’ll become more comfortable around kids with special needs. He references other amputees, and their contributions to society. “With a little creativity, we can manage anything!” he bubbles. 

After his performance, I interview Tim at a reception. His maturity, insight, and personality are captivating. As the most quotable tween I’ve ever met, I tell him he’s articulate. “Thank you,” he beams, “but I feel like a normal kid!” At school, he is treated like everyone else, which he appreciates. Without a hint of malice, he calls his teachers “tough old broads” who don’t feel sorry for him or let him charm them. I chuckle; it’s a mature sentiment, but he’s naïve if he thinks no one is charmed.
He finds friends quickly; with his personality and the bevy of kids mobbing him, I have little reason to doubt. He likes acting, hanging out, using the computer, and playing games. His best friend has muscular dystrophy, but Tim says he’s friends with anyone who is willing. Having had plenteous opportunities to interact with disabled kids, he’s found that they want normal lives and don’t want to be considered freaks. “That gets my heart,” he adds soulfully. He doesn’t see himself as truly different, despite common questions from other kids about where his arm and legs are.

His mom supports him as he becomes who he’s meant to be. She encouraged him to act, and he confides he wouldn’t have done it without her. She doesn’t want him letting people wait on him; sometimes, when she asks his help in getting things, he laughingly scolds, “Mom, I can’t reach.”
“Oh, yeah,” she’ll remember.

Of his siblings, eight were adopted from various countries. There’s also Akiki, an Abyssinian he calls “a magnificent cat. All of our family have something wrong,” he says, explaining even the cat was abandoned in an apartment without food or water when they rescued him. “I look out for my family, and I love them a lot,” he adds with a smile.
Tim wants to visit Russia, though he has no desire to stay there. He isn’t angry with his birth mother, accepting she was scared when she first saw him.  But he would not live with her, even if she offered, since “I am just so happy with my family. It’s a joy!”

I asked if he ever wished for legs and another arm. “I never wished that,” he says philosophically. “I would not be who I am with legs. I like to be me. It turns out you don’t need legs to survive. I don’t regret being born without legs.”
Tim's hero Nick Vujicic
Tim has role models, guys whose differences in limb are less notable than the differences they make in life. “I want to be like Nick Vujicic, who carries a message.  My heroes are Nick Vujicic and Kyle Maynard… I would like to tell them how much I admire people who do what they do and don’t give up. If I met them, which I probably will, words will just be flowing out of my mouth!”
Virginia tells me later she’s never seen Tim depressed about his disabilities. As matriarch of a large and diverse family, she doesn’t pay any attention to people’s stares. “You have to get comfortable with being conspicuous. Confront your self-consciousness and walk through it. You have to develop a sense of humor,” she says. For families new to the journey, she counsels being natural.  Tim calls it being “oblivious,” which he says proudly, like it’s a compliment.

It never occurred to Virginia to say no to Tim’s adoption. “When God gives an assignment, when you’re called to do something, you have to do it. You’re not in charge of the outcome. Amazing things happen all the time.” We end up talking so long that the janitor asks us to shut off the lights at the Y when we leave. I have never met such a family before, and I can’t help but adore them for their faith, humor, and honesty. Meeting them was such a worthwhile reward for our four-hour drive here, and the four-hour return trip ahead. It’s a cinch to see why Hope reveres this as a “very, very special adoption.”
Tim aspires to a career in theater, to have a wife and kids, and of going to Russia, and all over the world, to help adopted kids. I ask what he would do for them. “I want them to have food, clothes, and things that belong to them. A family. That’s what I’d like to give them. Some kids are going to be extraordinary when they come and get families!”

This very extraordinary kid, Tim “Relentless” Monroe, is proof positive of that.