Before You Conceive
When you tell friends you’re thinking of adopting an older child, some call you crazy and one, who never liked your husband, (simply because he’s a lawyer and she’s an artist), begins to see him in a whole different light. People think you are the engine behind this adoption but you’re not. You’re too busy mourning the recent death of your mother and dealing with the stress of having two sons, one with autism, the other, dyslexia. When things are particularly overwhelming, Husband says, “Do you even want this adoption?” You roll your eyes, hands on hips, and impersonate a sane person. “Of course!” And you do. You’re just tired – and afraid. Autism and Dyslexia have not been easy.
The first time you see a photo of your daughter is like a lot of firsts in life: surprisingly uneventful. Maybe you’ve watched too many movies, but you expect that photo to speak to you and shout, “Here I am! Your daughter!” All you get is a girl with a red bow bigger than her entire head, small Slavic features, and blue eyes staring vacantly back at you. “She looks like a porcelain doll,” everyone remarks. “She’s got that obligatory orphan sadness in her eyes,” your adopted friend says. Dozens of little fears prickle throughout your stomach and in your throat. How do people survive bad parents, you wonder. You consider everyone you’ve ever known who was adopted. Find nothing conclusive. Husband acts likes she is already yours. Builds her a room. The color pink makes its first appearance in your house. You miss your mother.
Nine Months and Counting
Suddenly, you’re in Siberia – which sounds much easier than it is. It takes twenty-five hours to get there from Santa Monica. That’s one thirteen-hour plane trip to Moscow, one seven-hour plane trip to Khabarovsk, a main city in Siberia, two two-hour trips in a propeller plane to Okhotsk, near the Black Sea, and one hour-plus dark and bumpy ride across a frozen river in a Scooby Doo-like van with bizarre black cats and fringe upholstery. You try in vain to calm a distressed Autism by shouting, “We’re on the Raiders of the Lost Ark ride at Disneyland!”
The orphanage is a welcome change from the frozen river ride. It’s bright, warm and still. The players: a glamorous, smiling, fur-clad social worker named Eugenia and Dr. Long-Russian-Name, who specializes in adoptions. Dr. Long-Russian-Name and Husband have been corresponding for several months.
“I knew I liked you,” Husband says when Dr. Long-Russian-Name drinks bad wine with you.
Autism can’t pronounce Long-Russian-Name and calls him “Dr. Peacock,” which sticks. Dr. Peacock talks about the few times he’s been in America like it’s Disneyland. He serves as your translator and introduces Vera, the head of the orphanage. Other than “Da” and “Nyet,” you know no Russian. You’re ushered upstairs, past a large room with children seated at a low table.
“I saw her!” Husband cries. Literally.
Without further ado, Vera brings Orphan in. She’s wearing a red jumper with a yellow shirt underneath, socks to her knocked knees, and brown shoes. She’s very chatty, and, for a moment, you relax, (though you’re still waiting for that “I’m your daughter!” moment). You ride the cadences of her language, (Ka-de-la? Ha-ra-sho), which seem to have as many ups and downs as the frozen river. You ask what she’s saying. She’s making up a little story, Dr. Peacock answers. Then, out of nowhere, she gives you all the finger and laughs. Whatever you expected, it wasn’t this. You didn’t even know giving the finger was universal! Briefly, you wonder if it might mean something else in this culture. After Vera admonishes Orphan, you know it doesn’t.
Now, you have a very vivid emotion swelling in the pit of your stomach: sheer terror. You can’t take this on. You just can’t. You have Autism and Dyslexia – not to mention Grief. You wanted a daughter to balance the testosterone scales in your household. More yin to the yang. A girl who gives the finger to strangers will not like the quiet, cultural things you like. She will not help you around the house, read books, or comb your hair for an hour at a time. Despair creeps in.
Your only comfort in that moment, surprisingly, is the orphanage itself. The women that run the place have kind eyes that beam out from leathery, weathered faces. They’re wearing thick sweaters, wool skirts that fall mid-calf, and they hospitably serve you the same enormous feast of herring, lunchmeats, pickled carrots, and hard candy at both 7. that night and 9 the next morning. Babooshkas is what they are. All they’re missing is a headscarf. Downstairs, the walls are lined with children’s art. There’s a piano in the main room where Orphan shoos Dyslexia away, so she can have the piano to herself. The highlight of the orphanage is a shallow pool where “the children swim every Monday and Wednesday,” Vera tells you on a Thursday. You frown. Your boys love to swim. You even brought their bathing suits to Siberia. Vera announces that the children will swim today. Hooray! As you watch your children laughing and swimming with Russian children in a Siberian orphanage pool, anything seems possible. You smile at Orphan, and she sticks her tongue out. You do it back, and she cackles.
After swimming, you go back upstairs where there is a main playroom with bigger toys, an infant/toddler room with cribs and stuffed animals, and Orphan’s room: a playroom/eating area with an adjacent bedroom and nine cot-sized beds in neat rows of three. Madeline books spring to mind. The walls are painted with the sweetest pastel murals, but all you can do is stare at the orphans. You spot their fetal alcohol syndrome features and try not to gawk at the Mongolian children who, remarkably, can see out of the thinnest slit of an eye. There is one shy-looking girl who reminds you of you when you were little. You keep turning back to her. Is that, “I’m your daughter!” you’re hearing?
“What is that girl’s name,” you ask, nonchalantly.
“Anna comes with two sisters,” you’re told.
At lunch, you pick at stale bread and processed cheese as you learn about Orphan’s history: how she was in the hospital when she was three months old for head trauma and taken away from her abusive, young parents when she was nearly three years old. Orphan wears none of her ghastly past, you think. All of the Russian women are interested in you – not Husband. They stare at you closely, than whisper amongst themselves. They want to know everything about you. Normally, you’d be intimidated by all this attention but these women aren’t threatening in the least. You tell them you write, and they want to read your book. Never mind that your book has never made it past the screen of your MacBook. They insist on reading it. You imagine the babooshkas’ reaction to the story of the dental hygienist’s best friend’s boyfriend climaxing as she cleans his teeth. Meanwhile, Orphan is content nestling in your lap, drawing stick figures with, thankfully, smiling faces.
Dr. Peacock signs off on Orphan. “She’s strong and very, very smart,” he says, allaying your fears. You like smart.
“We want her,” Husband tells the Russians.
“We’re worried about Autism,” they tell you. “Safety concern for Orphan.”
“Autism?” Husband shouts. “Autism can’t hop on one foot! What possible threat is he?”
“The careless kind,” they respond. Still, when you leave Russia, the adoption is moving forward. You let yourself feel hopeful.
“Russia Threatens to Stop Adoptions after Mother Sends Back Boy,” reads the New York Times headline, one month after you returned from Siberia. “How can one incident have that impact?” you say to Husband. You find out that there have been nineteen deaths of Russian children in the U.S. since the early nineties. Every day, the news gets more hopeless. Even Mother Nature seems to be conspiring against you when a volcano eruption in Iceland puts a halt to the U.S. State Department journeying to Russia to reconcile the situation. In spite of the uncertainty – or maybe because of it – you’re required to send more money to Russia, which only makes you feel more robbed of what is rightfully yours.
“If not Orphan, what?” you ask Husband.
That’s when you both go back to the Foster-to-Adopt classes you dropped because of the annoying Christian influence. But after one daylong seminar when you learn you will have to bring the child for visits with their birth parents to wherever they are – trailer parks, prisons are not uncommon – it’s you who starts praying. For Orphan.
After waiting three agonizingly long months, your number is called.
“Your job is to handle Autism,” Husband tells you. “We can’t have him ruin this.”
You arrive in Siberia, by way of Seoul this time. Again, you journey to Okhotsk, only this time Orphan is in a hospital in the main town so you don’t have to trek across the river, even if it is no longer frozen. This trip, you’re expected to journey beyond “Da” and “Nyet.”
Okhotsk is a good one hundred years behind America. Many of the streets aren’t paved, and the air stinks of some unidentifiable chemical. Luckily, Chernobyl is across the continent. There are no hotels, so you have to stay in an apartment, which makes a Motel 6 look like the Four Seasons hotel. There’s carpet in the kitchen, water only after 6 a.m. and not on weekends, and a ubiquitous landlady who appears to be going through your things every time you step out to the shops. “They put my expensive blanket on the floor,” she gripes to Sasha, your lawyer, translator, council, and housemate for this visit.
You’re an anomaly for the people here. On a trip to a school playground, Russian children swarm around you all like you’re from outer space. More like back from the future, you think.
There’s something that appeals to you about roughing it, taking Autism and Dyslexia out of the technology trenches. And though they count the days, hours, minutes you’ll be leaving, they do fine. You do the same thing every day because there’s nothing else to do. Get Orphan. Play. Go to shops. Eat lunch together. Wash up. Go to playground. Play at house. Take Orphan home. Go to The Wave, the one restaurant in town. (God, do you look forward to that.) Bed. Repeat. Surprisingly, your vegetarian diet has survived the time lapse. (You brought almond butter!) At The Wave, the gold-toothed owner serves you the same dinner every night: vegetables and steamed buckwheat. This is the longest Autism has gone without French fries, Dyslexia without dinosaur chicken nuggets.
Orphan is a lot of fun, and Autism, Dyslexia, and Husband are already attached to her. You are too, though you’re focused on Autism, tending to his anxieties. And you’re stuck in your I-can’t-attach-because-I-want-to-be-prepared-for-the-worst space.
Finally, Saturday arrives, the fifth and final day. It’s pouring rain outside, but inside, there isn’t a drop of water to be had. Nothing’s easy, from hygiene to hot tea. Noon takes forever. Finally, Eugenia arrives in the kitty cat van. You watch the city of Okhotsk fly by out the window. It looks a lot better at a fast clip.
“I know one thing for certain,” Husband says. “I will never come back here again.”
“I’ll bring her,” you say, letting yourself imagine the best for a change.
At the airport, you learn Orphan’s entire history: how she lived for a week on the street before she was taken away from her parents, how her mother sleeps around and her father is in jail for attempted murder, how no one came forward to claim her when the adoption was announced in the paper. It’s no accident that you are learning this now from the social worker, Eugenia, who, no doubt has known this since your first trip to Russia — before her wardrobe devolved from a floor-length fur coat to the thin rain jacket she’s sporting now. Are Russians innately deceptive, you wonder?
In Khabarovsk, you go to court. The judge – a woman – asks Husband all of the questions. (Had it been a male judge, Sasha tells us, it would have been you who were asked the questions.) Sasha is wearing a skintight, low-cut dress and studded sandals with five-inch heels. It’s the typical Russian woman attire: all vamp, zero class, even for work. (Rebellion to their babooshka elders?)
When the judge asks Husband what his first thought was when he met Orphan, he says, “I cried.”
The judge rolls her eyes. Dramatically. You get only one question. “Why did you want to adopt?” she asks.
You look her squarely in the eyes. “Because I had a great mother.”
She nods her head. It takes less than five minutes for her to grant you custody of Orphan, who is now officially Adopted. That night, you all celebrate at an Italian restaurant with Dr. Peacock. As you laugh and toast, you can’t help but wonder what Adopted’s parents are doing right now. This moment. Do they think of her at all? To you, they’re like characters in a book. Dostoyevsky villains. You think this might be good that you see them that way. You’ve already started protecting her.
Most families stay in Russia for the paperwork to process. But most families aren’t adopting from somewhere as remote as Okhotsk. Your paperwork is held up for at least three weeks. You can’t hang around Khabarovsk with Autism and Dyslexia, so you arrange for Adopted to stay with Olga, our translator. It is excruciatingly hard for you to leave Adopted. You hate leaving her for a few weeks and, again, can’t help thinking about Adopted’s parents who have left her for a lifetime.
Back in Santa Monica, Olga sends reports about how difficult – but fun! – Adopted is. You’re relieved somehow. You’d been afraid that she might be bonding with Olga and wouldn’t want to come to America, even though Olga has told her she’s going to move to Los Angeles and become a movie star.
It’s a month to the day when the paperwork is completed and Husband gets to go and pick Adopted up. Husband says she never even looked back when she left Olga.
Adopted arrives in America on July 28, 2010, two days before her sixth birthday.
The first night she’s in America, Adopted tries to go home with the Russian friends you invited over for her to feel at home. You tell yourself this is normal. She feels more comfortable with them because she can say what she wants. Who wouldn’t? Still, you feel sad. You’d thought that you’d been communicating well all this time with your rudimentary Russian and her rudimentary English. Well, anyway, they brought her a bejeweled Barbie in a sky blue evening gown. That could be part of the draw.
Everyone you know comes bearing gifts, like fifty wise men instead of just three. Soon, she says, “Wants present,” when people arrive. You start hiding them from her, only briefly considering the many thank you notes that you are not writing.
Adopted doesn’t listen to instruction, which, of course is understandable given the language barrier. School is similarly challenging. You’re going to school with her to bond, so you see all this firsthand. She lies on the ground when the other children sit up and listen. When it feels like Adopted has no interest in her classmates, you stop going to school with her. Nothing changes. In a way, she doesn’t seem to need people. But that’s not right because, in another way, she’s completely needy, constantly demanding that you look at something from the rice on her fork, to a lampshade. “Look at that, look at that,” she says more than anything else. And looking just once and nodding does not seem to fulfill her need.
One of the things she shows you is her “thing-of-the-day.” Every day it’s something, from an ATM withdrawal receipt to a shirt label with a funny design. “It’s mines,” she repeats over and over. She brings her thing to school and sleeps with it at night, then shows it to you in the morning. She hangs on to her thing until she replaces it with the next thing.
And even though you have all these little worries bubbling inside you, you feel oddly content having Adopted living under the same roof as you. It’s not a big or constant sensation, but it’s there, and it cancels out some of your concern.
The social worker, Wendy, contacts you. “Look, Russia had some concerns about you. They thought you might be too involved with Autism to mother Adopted.”
If it wasn’t so insulting, you might have thought it was funny. But all you feel is bad. Bad, bad, bad. You were given a job to handle Autism in Russia, make him look “normal,” and it appears you did your job too well. Instead of thinking you’d be a good mother to Adopted because you’re a good mother to Autism, they’ve twisted things around.
Wendy is still talking. “Normally, I don’t visit the first month, but I’m going to have to. We have plenty of resources. Support groups. We can help you, if necessary.”
You set aside your sulking and say, “Of course. Come visit. Whatever will be helpful for Adopted.”
Wendy’s visit a week later turns out to be a lot of stress over nothing. “She looks so much like you all,” she says. “I think she won the lottery.”
What You Might be Wondering
Other than everyone saying how much she looks just like your family, the thing you hear the most often is, “How do you communicate with her?” Least of our worries, you answer. Where once she only wanted to speak Russian, now she refuses to speak it at all. Her sentences are an adorable combination of 40% English, 30% sound effects, and 30% intense gesturing. You suppose she gets frustrated, always pointing to things. And she does stamp her feet at times when she can’t find a word, but Adopted is very good at making sure her needs are met. Sometimes, she says, “I want…” and looks around, deciding what. “I want…” has become her default, which, of course you will need to deprogram.
The kids’ dynamic is this: Autism adores Adopted, but Adopted has zero interest in him because she’s all about playing. Plus, he is weak, and she is not interested in weak. She loves Dyslexia, who tells her what to do. “Eastern cultures are not compassionate toward disabled persons,” you’re told. In spite of all of these little kinks, you know that she has been the best thing to happen to Autism and Dyslexia. For Autism, who retreats from the world on his computer, she has been like a dog times five. He loves to touch her, pets her even, and hates when she is not around. For Dyslexia, who has never gotten what he needs from Autism, she is like a dog times ten. They play catch and chase and roll around on the rug together.
What You Might Be Feeling
“It’s not you like it ____________,” Adopted often says.
Translation? “I don’t like ____________.”
Sometimes it’s a food; other times it’s a person, like Husband, you, Autism, Dyslexia, or a boy in her class. She knows how much it hurts, which is precisely why she says it. Dyslexia can’t tolerate it when Adopted is cruel, and he shoves her.
“She will not learn from aggression,” you tell him. “She had too much of that in her past.”
So, Dyslexia takes her thing-of-the-day – a much more effective punishment. He takes her “mines.” Adopted screams, which makes Autism throw aside his computer and come running – two things he rarely does. Then he laughs, inappropriately. You look at your three children and see Cruelty, Brutality, and, well, Autism. You take everyone’s shortcomings personally. Deep breaths, you coach yourself. Autism and Dyslexia are in puberty. And you’re peri-menopausal. No wonder things feel out of control. You stare at yourself in the mirror and see your mother staring back – the one place you don’t want to see her. You feel sad that Adopted didn’t know you when you were a little more attractive. It’s a by-product of the mother-daughter relationship. Every daughter measures her mother against others, in age, beauty, and style. A silly thought, you know, but at least it distracted you from your incessant worrying.
When things are working, you delight in this chance to parent a young child again. Change all the things you did wrong the first time around. When things are not working, you worry about what Adopted will be like when she hits puberty. She is not an easy child, which translates into what when puberty hits? What’s manageable now could be disastrous later. “Of course, she’s like that,” friends say. “Survival.” But you wonder. She spent more than half of her life in a darling orphanage sleeping in her Madeline bed, swimming in a shallow pool on Mondays and Wednesdays and being tended to by babooshkas.
SeaWorld. Camping. Halloween. Ferris wheels. Hot tubs and quesadillas. Everything is new to her. The list is endless. Bizarrely, there’s a distinct lack of wonderment to all these new things. “She must think she’s dreaming,” people say. But it’s not at all true. If anything, there is a sense of entitlement to Adopted. You can’t imagine where she got it. Orphanage hierarchy? Innately privileged?
The only time she appears grateful is when presented with a toy or sweets. Then, her face brightens, and she says, “It’s mines?” When you say yes, she says, “Thank-a you,” without a single prompt. “Adopted likes chocolate,” she grins, always referring to herself in the third person.
“I like chocolate,” you correct her, knowing pronouns are the last frontier. Besides, it’s charming the way she uses pronouns when referring to things. A plate and a broom are she’s; a car and a television are he’s. “He’s not working,” she shouts at the staticky television screen.
What You May Be Wondering
“How long has she been here?” Everyone asks. “She seems so well-adjusted.”
“Shockingly well-adjusted,” you say but shake your head, wondering whether this is a good thing. She throws herself into whatever activity she’s presented with, from ice skating to trimming the Christmas tree. Such certainty seems abnormal, indicative of her lack of attachment. Sure enough, as time goes on, her pattern is to want to leave with visitors who dote on her. The highest bidder wins. Time, time, time, you think.
What Lies Ahead
New Year’s Eve, 2010. You’re at a friend’s house. Autism has been hidden in a back room on Google Earth all night. Dyslexia is upset because his former best friend is ignoring him. You gulp down another glass of red wine and look around for Adopted. You find her in the living room trying out all the New Year’s toys – kazoos and blowouts. It’s now 8:58 p.m., and everyone is gathering around the flat screen TV to ring in the East Coast New Year, a.k.a. the West Coast New Year for those with young children. You spot Adopted. She’s wearing a blue parka, purple tights, and boots with little jewels on them. On her head sits a lion hat with knitted gold braids hanging down both sides of her face. Her blonde hair is jutting out in a few places, and her cheeks are flushed from playing outside. Her lips – which you and Husband have agreed are her best feature – are red and so perfect, they look like they were painted on.
At precisely 9 p.m. everyone is yelling “Happy New Year!”
Adopted turns to the crowd and yells, “Happy New You!”
Everyone laughs and cheers. “Yes, Happy New You,” and then they all repeat it. “Happy New You!” “That’s right!” “Perfect!”
How fitting!” a stranger next to you says.
“She’s adorable!” says another.
“Who is she?” asks a third.
You turn towards them and smile. “She’s mines,” you say faintly and then a little louder, “She’s my Daughter.”