Thursday, March 22, 2012

Russian Orphanage Life: Scene Two

Two of the kids in the orphanage hallway;
the boy put on one of the orphanage's suits,
 hoping to impress us.
I didn’t curse the potholes as we bounced south over pock-marked roads nearing our most far-flung orphanage, since they forced our driver Sergei to stop recklessly passing other traffic. Three death-defying hours after leaving the regional capital, we were in Peter’s city, a town still the region’s fourth largest despite 40 years of declining population.  Founded in 1552, it borrows its name from Russian folklore, after a magic stone with healing properties, though today there is little to suggest healing anywhere.  The road leading to the orphanage was flanked by small frame dwellings; weathered stick fences guarded tiny vegetable gardens. On the road’s shoulder a hunched babushka led a dairy cow on a leash.  Sergei was still irate at my leaping unannounced from his Volga sedan at a stop sign for a photo hours ago, so I bit my tongue as I fingered my camera and looked wistfully out our rear window as the cow and her mistress grew smaller.

There is little to commend Peter's hometown
When we arrived at the orphanage, several kids bolted out the doors to welcome us.  One was Peter, a cheery, animated lad I knew from his recent Lighthouse Project trip to the U.S.  Inside, several others lined the halls to see us.  Nowhere else did kids show such interest, or desperation.  Their rampant desire notwithstanding, I knew there would be precious little hope we could impart here.  But while this orphanage is one of the most deprived we work with, and several adoptees have characterized it as preferable to life on the streets only because three daily meals were served, Peter, now 12, remembers life there in fonder terms. 
He arrived on a bus at about age five from the detsky sod, or baby house orphanage.  Several other orphans were with him, having graduated the sheltered environment of the baby house.  As the newcomers disembarked the bus, older orphans heading to lunch encircled them, gawking at the smallness of the detsky sod kids.  Peter was frightened, but soon found his caretakers kind, unless he disobeyed.

Peter's orphanage
Peter’s new institution was gargantuan, with enough kids to warrant separating them into rooms both by gender and grade. A caretaker awoke each group between 7 and 8 a.m.  Before she was done, Peter’s roommates were already pillow fighting or playing with toys.  The caretaker would remind them to make their beds and brush their teeth; most orphans brush after rising, not eating, and have mouths full of cavities to show for it.   Once everyone was ready, they left for a breakfast of porridge, served inside a neighboring building.  Kids washed their hands before eating, and sat at assigned places where their food awaited them.  When they finished, bigger kids descended on the tables to eat the leftovers. 

Soviet-era safety posters welcome visitors in
the entrance to Peter's orphanage.
After breakfast, the kids queued up for school outside a third building on the orphanage grounds.  As an all-orphan school, the kids were largely spared the condescension of “home kids,” their term for children with families.  Peter spent fourth grade, his final year at the orphanage, studying reading, writing, math, and painting; science and social studies were omitted from the curriculum, leaving kids ignorant of the larger world outside the orphanage.  While some students fussed during class, Peter rued the time wasted as the teacher struggled to calm them.  As part of their lessons, kids sang once per week.  Gym class was Peter’s favorite; depending on the season, they might play soccer, ski, run, or bicycle. School was in session Monday through Friday, not Saturday as many Russian schools were.  When I asked if they wore uniforms, Peter told me they wore their own clothes, proudly adding he had “more than one outfit” to choose from.
The orphanage dining hall

Mid-morning, the kids enjoyed polnik, a snack time of tea and cookies served in the dining hall.  Unlike kids from a nearby orphanage we work with, Peter had a break from school for a soup lunch; he regarded days when borscht was served among his happiest there (Russian Orphanage Life, 1/28/12).  For dinner, bread and an evil-looking white sausage called sausiskii were on the menu. Only adults ever helped with meals.

On Sundays, Peter’s group cleaned their room, a task he considered the bane of orphanage existence.  He had a shelf for his clothes, though older kids sometimes stole from him the things they coveted.  His bed was “good and comfy”; at nighttime, the boys in his room feigned sleep until their caretakers left for the evening, then pillow fights broke out.  One caretaker remained at the orphanage overnight in case of emergency.  Kids caught misbehaving were banished to a dark basement and left to stand there for an hour; Peter learned obedience after a few trips.  Some kids would fight, but Peter avoided it, since he was too little to win. 

A bedroom in Peter's orphanage
There was a place in the capital reserved for kids Peter said could not hold their tempers.  Every three months, doctors visited the orphanage, taking an entire day to examine the children and to critique their scholastic progress. About twenty orphans were sent there for three month-stints based on the doctors’ recommendations.  Returning kids brought reports of being locked up, sometimes even tied up for severe infractions, which made every doctor’s review feel harrowing.  Kids sent away there four times stayed permanently, and forfeited any possibility of adoption.

Cigarette smoke clouded the orphanage bathrooms; Peter attributed his frequent illness to the omnipresent fumes. By 6th or 7th grade most orphans smoked, a vice he found "gross.”  Though he had no idea where the money originated, the staff gave kids 50 rubles per month (about $1.70) as allowance, enough to keep the older kids puffing and the restrooms stinking.

Sometimes the environment around the orphanage terrified Peter. Once, at age seven as he walked alone outside, a drunk staggered up and tried to take him home. Finally the drunk’s lady friend intervened and forced him to let Peter go.
The orphans freshened up occasionally in the banya, a Russian sauna with birch twigs and leaves bundled together and hung above a steam source; unlike the bathrooms, the smell was pleasant.  Steam and the resultant perspiration helped loosen the dirt from their bodies; afterward, they took a bath.

Most of the time Peter enjoyed orphanage life, though room cleaning times and mad teachers equaled bad days.  Peter’s happiest memories were of his borscht, and of a caretaker taking him to the store to spend his allowance on candy.  

During the summer, orphans left to live with foster families.  Two boys in the first family Peter stayed with were cruel; in his second foster home, Peter remained with Tota Luda and her husband three months, pulling weeds in a garden overgrown with tomatoes.  He disdained that work, but liked life outside the orphanage, once attending a wedding with Tota Luda.   
Kids at the orphanage
Orphanage kids longed for families, though with no social studies classes and no knowledge of the United States, they had no aspirations of adoption by Americans.  But as he saw others leave, Peter thought them lucky, and wished them happiness.  After his trip to America with the Lighthouse Project, he realized a family wanted him; thus, he began to implore his orphanage director daily, “Director, are they here yet?”   While she reassured him, obstacles which delayed his parents’ coming rendered him disappointed and with dwindling confidence as the wait dragged on.  After all his questions, when his turn to go finally came, Peter thought he noticed the director “was a little glad that I left!” 
In court for his adoption, the judge’s serious appearance when she entered the courtroom intimidated Peter.  He agreed with a simple “Da” when she asked if he wanted to be adopted, then let his nerves silence him further.  He’d made the right decision, he told me, reckoning he was the fifth child from his institution to find a forever family; nonetheless, it was a hard day when his new parents took him back to the orphanage to bid everyone farewell.  As teachers cried, it pained him to leave his friends with nothing but bubblegum for their futures.

Peter's arrival at the airport in the United States overwhelmed him.  But his new cousin waved a sign of welcome, quickly teaching him to high five and give knuckles, and to his profound relief, he found America wasn’t scary for long.  As other kids from his orphanage followed him into local families, Peter relished the chance to reconnect with them.
Kids outside to see us off

I asked Peter what he would tell his friends left behind. “If you want parents from America, that’s a really good choice.  But it is going to be hard to learn the language.  That was the hard part when I came here.”  To help him, his parents worked on his English on the summer afternoons following his homecoming.  Even Uno games provided opportunities for lessons, he noted with a hint of disgust.  But he was delighted when I praised his English. “Thank you!” he gushed.  I had to [learn] because I didn’t have no one to speak to me in Russian!”

Kids waving goodbye at the orphanage
Peter wondered what my plans were for his interview.  I promised I’d post it on our website, to share with others about Russian orphanages and the kids who wait in them.  He brightened when I hoped his story might help some of his old friends.  “Oh, that’s nice! I hope they get adopted.  If you do get adopted, I am really happy for you guys!”

So Peter’s orphanage days are a memory, but my mind’s eye vividly sees him there, the brain-jarring day we left him.  He and his friends spilled out the orphanage doors behind us, aching to seize every moment with us; some of those dear ones, like Vasily, still wait just to be chosen (Solid Gold, 12/1/09). After we’d hugged our goodbyes and collapsed into the Volga, most of the kids filtered back to the orphanage.  But not Peter.  As we drove away, I glanced out the rear window again. He was waving to me.  Smiling and waving.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Someone Else's Kid

Our first Sunday together
Shielding my eyes in horror whenever Caroline Ingalls labored to give birth on Little House on the Prairie, I would beg my mom to mute the sound; I owe my desire to adopt to her refusal.   Good reasons to build families through adoption abound, but for me, it all began with Ma. 
 
Randy was washing clothes in our dormitory laundry room when we met my freshman year at Michigan State. Solicitous, polite, and a patient listener, he was almost perfect.  His only flaw was a doozy, though: he did not share my desire to adopt.  I badgered him mercilessly, but no matter how often we discussed it, he was adamant he couldn’t love “someone else’s kid.”  I took a risk and married him anyway. After graduation, we began talking more seriously about children, but Randy remained mired in his opposition to adopting; he was sure he could only love his “own” offspring.

One Sunday in late 1996, a family from our church arrived carrying their new three-year-old daughter from India.  At her baptism a few weeks later, our minister preached about adoption, which I’d never considered a religious subject.  But as he weaved into his homily plenteous Biblical examples of God’s compassion for orphans, he opined that since all Christians were themselves adopted by God, more should thank Him by adopting.  Inspired, I ignored the impulse to plant my elbow in Randy’s ribs.

Shortly thereafter, I taped a Turning Point special on Romanian adoption.  The next day, I entreated Randy to watch it with me, and not to refuse the request I’d make afterward until he’d prayed for at least one week.  While he viewed the episode with seeming indifference, he kept his vow of silence when I asked again about adopting.  Six days passed; then January 23, 1997, he confessed he’d been considering adoption since the sermon, and had already realized it was in our future a week before Turning Point.
Nicole's referral photo
I danced from the mailbox to my house a few days later when documents from the local adoption agency arrived.  After extensive discussion, we choose Guatemala as our country.   Our families were thrilled, though my mother-in-law could not understand our decision.  “Can’t you have your own kids?” she prodded, as if no one would adopt if they didn’t have to.  I rejoiced at Randy’s complete conversion when he pretended not to understand the question.  As she elaborated, he corrected her that the child would be our own.
Guatemala’s maƱana culture consigned us to a nearly two-year wait for a referral.  In October 1998, our social worker phoned me at work to announce a baby girl, Nicole, had been chosen for us.  Randy left work immediately for the photos, but promised not to look until I got home.  When they heard the news, my parents rushed over to see their first grandchild, then treated us to a celebratory dinner; my mom kissed Nicole’s photo before leaving that night.  Randy’s parents lived in Iowa, and drove to see the pictures a few days later.
Randy playing with Nicole
the day we met her in Guatemala

We flew to Guatemala City to meet our daughter and her foster family 27 months after deciding to adopt.  After glasses of lemonade, which we guzzled before the ice could melt, the foster mother presented Nicole to us.  Sleeping when she was placed in my arms, she opened huge eyes, shook her head, blinked, and looked into my face, as if yearning to learn who her mama would be.  She was adorable in her yellow dress, with dark eyes and curly, doll-like hair.  Randy was smitten, overcome to see a real child gazing at him, and craving his love and attention.  “She’s ours,” he told me.
Nicole the day we arrived home with her
Guatemala required two trips, and we tormented our agency with calls as we awaited permission for our second visit.   A day before Nicole’s first birthday, she was in our arms forever.  Arriving home, a festive throng assembled on our lawn to greet us. As we turned down our street, my uncle, a Grand Rapids policeman, veered out in front of us to escort us with flashing lights and screeching siren.  After we showed the baby her new room, my mom spread a picnic feast outside.  My mother-in-law carried Nicole everywhere; when the time came for her return to Iowa, she sent my father-in-law home alone, and told him to come back in a week.
Emily's referral photo

Two years later, it was Randy’s idea to look to China for a child. When our agency warned us of an impending holdup due to bird flu, Randy and I left on vacation.  Checking in for our flight in Detroit, the clerk told us to call home.  Nicole, 4, answered, “Hi, Mama!  Adoption’s ready!”  I phoned the agency, and they read little Jin Su Li’s documents to me.  They’d e-mailed her photo, but in the era predating ubiquitous WiFi, we had to fly to Philadelphia before we could access the Internet.  In our giddiness, $7 for five minutes online seemed a bargain when we saw our precious daughter in her padded suit, with an incongruous poolside backdrop. We signed acceptance documents in the airport, and US Airways staff faxed them to the agency for us.
 
A cultural tour in Nanchang, China;
This man has a mallard duck, two
pigeons, and four turtles, among
other unusual items in his baskets.
Traveling with a group of families getting daughters from the same province, we arrived in Beijing two months later.  In a stifling room, as children were presented alphabetically by adoptive family surname, we rejoiced at being D’s.  Soon, the room resounded with crying: the babies, disconsolate at their abductions by strange-looking people, and the parents at receiving such wondrous gifts. Our daughter, now named Emily, weighed 12 pounds at 11 months, and was starved for love. As we cradled her, she arched backward at the waist, desperate to move as far from us as possible.  She didn’t smile once, and sobbed almost the entire trip. Randy cuddled her constantly; my nerves could scarcely suffer the incessant wailing. Even new parents in our group started offering suggestions which, as an experienced mom, galled me immensely.  At night, Randy paced the hallway with her, showing her things from our high rise hotel overlooking the Gan River.  Whispering gently, holding her close, he trusted the crying would cease; he reassured me that once she figured out we weren’t leaving, she would love us back. 
Emily's very first smile for us
As our week in China progressed, Emily hardly warmed up, though her active rebuff of us subsided.  Borrowing a stroller from our hotel, we wandered the streets on excursions we dubbed “cultural tours.” She stopped crying during the tours, so we went out daily.  On those riveting walks, we witnessed the most fascinating sights we’d ever seen.  The day before our departure home, Randy clapped as Emily rolled over, garnering a half-hearted clap-clap in imitation.  It was her first interaction with us, and a most glorious memory.  After our trip, our family welcomed us with signs, balloons, and cake at the airport. When we strapped Emily into her car seat for the ride home, Nicole bounced in beside her.  “It’s very fun to have a sister,” she chirped, as Emily's first smile crossed her face.

Our referral photo of Julia and Michael;
We knew they were ours by the time the photo
had opened to the level of the black line.
Only a few weeks home from China, we had no business attending an adoption fair, but I went anyway and met a coordinator for the Lighthouse Project.  She detailed their efforts with older child adoption, my lifelong passion.  While the resultant path was circuitous, I coordinated my first Lighthouse Project hosting trip out of that serendipitous meeting, ultimately deciding to adopt a sibling group. Despite expeditious work on the adoption, obstacles repeatedly arose; eventually, Lighthouse Project director Hope asked us to consider switching regions. Though we refused, after an unusually despondent message from me Hope e-mailed a photo of another sibling group.  I was initially annoyed, but downloaded the photo. With dial-up Internet, it opened just a few lines at a time, but by the time the freckles on the little girl’s cheeks appeared, I was captivated.  Randy concurred. 
Michael and Julia on the couch,
the first time we saw them
Five weeks later, we were in Russia. When we entered our hotel’s lobby, Julia, 8, and Michael, 6, were on a couch before us. Randy especially was appalled that such little ones had no parents caring for them, and wondered what could possibly have been more important to them than the two.  No one introduced us, so we sat down next to them, then scooped them into our laps. They warmed to us immediately, easily accepting the toys and candy we offered.  We hadn’t even left the couch when we knew they were ours.   They soaked up all the love and attention we could lavish, then did whatever necessary to earn more.  Our time with Julia and Michael was unspeakably rewarding, because they were old enough to want us. 
Julia crying at her desk in the orphanage school when
we left her. She is trying to smile here for my photo.
When it was time to return the kids to their orphanage, leaving them behind was gut wrenching. We were still outside the building when Julia started sobbing; seeing this, a caretaker scolded her as we walked in the door.  Our visit did not increase our desire to leave the kids there. The building housed Julia’s school, and she sat at her desk for a teary-eyed photo.  Witnessing this, Randy implored me to "pull out all the stops" to get the kids home quickly.
Back at the hotel before leaving on the train for Moscow, it was distressingly quiet in the cafe where we had shared all our meals. Reminiscing about the blessed commotion the last time we ate here, I broke down, then Randy followed.  We’d blown through all the napkins on the table, and were puffy-eyed, red-faced messes when our server arrived.  Though he’d seen us with the kids several times, he was perplexed about why we were so distraught.

Julia and Michael come to us.
We rushed to finish our process, returning to Russia in early 2006.  Back at the orphanage, we waited in the director’s office for the kids.  Growing impatient at the protracted delay, we opened the office door to look into the hallway; right then, Michael was striding down the hall.  Seeing us, he exploded into a run, leaping joyously into Randy’s arms.  That memory burns in our hearts, bringing a smile to both of us whenever we recall it.  Julia lagged behind, torn over leaving the teacher she lived with.
During the next weeks in Moscow, we anxiously anticipated gathering our entire brood under one roof at last.  After 25 days in Russia, a crowd cheered our final arrival home. Three countries and four children later, we were a family, in every sense of the word.
Now six years have come and gone, yet after all of our adoptions, one thing hasn’t changed: Randy still can’t love someone else’s kid.
He’s far too busy loving his own.

*****
At least 90% of our first-time callers are women.  A common lament among them are husbands who are not fully on board with adoption. If you're a man and would like to speak with an adoptive dad, we have several who are willing to share their experiences. Please call me at (616) 245-3216, and I will put you in touch with one of them.  It might be one of the best calls you ever make!