Adopting Internationally: Russia
A father reflects on the journey as he brings his new son home.
This world is a little short on miracles. That's one reason we at Parents are such passionate supporters of adoptive parents and adopted kids. We think adoption is a pretty miraculous process--adults and children come together, and through the power of love, create families. As an adoptive mom, I've witnessed this miracle firsthand. So I hope you enjoy this story. And please use the online resources to find out more. At Parents, we'd like to see more families brought together, and more miracles all around.Sincerely,Sally Lee, Parents Editor-in-Chief
Richard Higgins Reports
I am writing this on the overnight train to Moscow from Kursk, an old rural capital in the southern Russian heartland. I am bringing home Nick, the precious baby boy who has just become my son.
We are in a sleeper car--and one of us is making good use of it. On the tiny bunk opposite me, my 1-year-old child is protected by pillows. His blond hair is streaked with green from the plant extract that was applied to his chicken-pox lesions, but he is still too adorable for words. I will not sleep. I am as happily wired as I was in the days after our daughters were born, 10 and 8 years ago. Though I'm not a novice dad, I still have that giddy what-do-I-do feeling of a first-time parent.
We have just left the state-run Kursk Regional Home for Infants, where I visited Nick every day for two weeks. My wife, Jenny, was with me for the first half of that time; then she returned home to be with our girls. Now I am taking Nick to Moscow for a medical exam and to get his papers stamped by U.S. and Russian officials. In three days, we will fly home.
Earlier tonight, I took physical custody of Nick at last, after a surreal stretch of visiting him on someone else's turf. I arrived late in the evening to pick him up; I wanted to leave him in his familiar environment until just before the train left. It was dark when I arrived, so this was one of the few times I didn't have to steel myself when I saw the place where Nick had been living. The orphanage is a gray cinder-block structure; the prison-like exterior would make an old battleship look cozy. But the caregivers are kind and competent; and Nick, despite some small delays, seems well both physically and spiritually.
To my surprise, I find myself profoundly affected by Nick's departure from here--from the orphanage, from Russia. Perhaps I am feeling for Nick a dramatic moment he will not remember. Perhaps I am feeling the weight, the awesome responsibility, of taking a human being out of everything he has known, everything that has held and preserved him--however imperfectly--to this point.
Nick came into our lives last December, after ten months of paperwork and preparation. He made his debut in a videotape mailed to our home in Concord, Massachusetts. When we played it, we knew the stork had arrived.
We had to wait ten more weeks before we could meet our baby. We didn't know then that he was recovering from chicken pox in the orphanage infirmary, that he'd had pneumonia, or that just days before we arrived in Kursk, he had been whisked to a Russian Orthodox church to be sprinkled with holy water. These, we learned, are not the biggest or worst surprises that adoptive American parents can face. In fact, we were lucky.
I look at Nick lying on his back in the bunk, his arms and legs stretched out as if he were tanning on a beach, and I am grateful. He is a buoyant boy, a towhead blond with dark-brown eyes who is prone to smile. From the moment we first arrived, he seemed interested in the world and in these strangers--Jenny and me--whom the caregivers at the orphanage were calling Mama and Papa. Indeed, my main reaction to Nick has been that he seems surprisingly open for a boy who was given up by his parents at birth and never visited by a relative during his first year of life.
Before we left the orphanage tonight, I handed my translator a camera and asked her to document our exit. I also asked the caregivers for an article of Nick's clothing as a way for him to remember the place someday. After some confusion, they finally gave me the small yellow tunic that he had worn when he was baptized. Beyond that, I didn't have much time for reflection or symbolic acts. I had to dress my son quickly because a driver was waiting to bring us to the train station.
When we started to go, a doctor and two caregivers reached out to hold Nick one last time. As each said good-bye and wished him good luck in Russian, I found myself unable to hold back tears. These were the people who did the best they could to care for him during the first year of his life, and now they were handing him off, letting me take it from there.
When we got to the door, I turned around to say thank you and good-bye. But my gratitude--and in a sense, my debt to them--was so enormous that my voice cracked I knew I could not get the words out without sobbing, so I just bowed and smiled with my watery eyes and left.
A Worthwhile Wait
I feel a sense of motion now--and not just from the melodic clickety-clack of the train as it rolls through the night. We are moving forward, heading home after this odd phase of my being a parent-in-waiting: waiting for the court date in Kursk and then ten more days for the judge's decision to take effect. It never made sense to me, all this waiting. I found it frustrating. Now I see a purpose in the slow unfolding of an adoption. It is a sort of heat shield--like the kind on a space capsule--to protect me and my adopted child from burning up as each of us enters a new atmosphere, a new world.
As I glance over at Nick, who is still sleeping in the bunk, I find it hard to believe that we have just met, like parties to an arranged wedding. When I first saw him, I'd been guarded--prepared for grimaces or tantrums or indifference, not knowing what to expect. Instead he was calm and inquisitive. He seemed to just absorb my wife's and my presence, responding to our cues, our interest, our attention to him. We hit it off over Cheerios, peekaboo, silly faces, and sounds. It was slow, the connection between us, but it took root and grew. When he laughed or smiled at me those first days, I just felt naturally happy. Tonight, I feel I am the recipient of an immense and indescribable gift.
I think back to an adoption conference that Jenny and I went to a year ago. A speaker said, "You don't just adopt a child--you adopt a story." I wrote it down because it seemed like such a beautiful thought. But at the time, I wasn't sure that I really knew what she meant. Now I understand the sentiment from my head to the soles of my feet.
After we got Nick's initial medical report, which was included in the file that came with the videotape, I asked the orphanage director for more information about Nick's birth mother. Her reply, translated into broken English, came via e-mail: "His mother refused from him. This is all the information we have."
At the court hearing in Kursk, the director repeated that his mother had "refused" him--a more active term than "surrendered" or "given up," which imply emotional involvement. It's probably just a translation issue and not an indication of the mother's mental state, but the word stuck with me.
Nick is a refusnik, I decided as I got to know him better over the past two weeks. I call him that because he refuses to be refused. When he climbed over me, laughing as I tickled him, I imagined that Nick was doing what humans instinctively do: choosing life, going for the daylight. To have even a small role in this drama is profoundly satisfying.
A Gift, Not a Risk
Now, as the train rocks me and Nick across the cold, snowy landscape to our destination, I remember something else: my initial reluctance to adopt at all. I was afraid of the risk and felt comfortable with my family as it was. But I realized adoption was something Jenny had her heart set on, and I wanted to give it a real try.
We met with adoption workers and other couples, and I gradually eased into the idea. At first, adoption was--for me--a question of having faith and going forward despite the unknowns, despite the risks. It was all a part of what I secretly saw as my bravery.
Now it doesn't seem to take faith or bravery at all. Now what I am feeling, above all, is gratitude for what has been given to me.
Sometimes it's difficult for me to express gratitude. I worry about saying the right thing or making the right comment to show that I appreciate a gift or a kind gesture. But doing so shifts the focus from the gift to me and my response to the gift. My son lies across the cabin from me, breathing quietly, arms outstretched, open, accepting, and I believe that even in his sleep, this child is teaching me something. Sometimes it is good to receive--simply receive.
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Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2002 issue of Parents magazine.