In June 2005, I was unemployed due to yet another bank merger and spent a week visiting friends at the beach. Not a bad gig if you can get it. At least a hundred times during my mini-vacation, I answered the tiresome question, “When are you going to get your baby?” It wasn’t as bad as the infertility question because I KNEW in this case that there would be a baby. But I still didn’t know when.
The previous year, we had decided to adopt from Russia because we were disgruntled with stories about U.S. adoptions and because we (wrongly) thought it would be easier. I’m told that politics play a large role in international adoption with the system being “shut down” at any given time for no apparent reason. The “shut downs” conveniently occured just prior to big U.S./Russian summit meetings. During our year (so far) wait, it had already happened twice, AND rules were arbitrarily changed requiring a new form here and there.
When? Only God knew when, and He wasn’t telling me.
On my way home from the beach, only 4 miles from my home, I received “the call.” My caseworker told me that they had a “referral” for us. My hands shook so badly I almost couldn’t drive home. I told the caseworker I would call her back in five minutes. I was home in four. She told me she had emailed me photos and a medical history, and that we would need to decide by the following morning so we could make travel arrangements for the following week. She explained that “Baby Julia” had a birth defect, but that it was quite mild. We were prepared for this as it is common, nay usual, for Russian infants who are available for adoption to have “birth defects.” Our research showed that Russian doctors often diagnosed infants as being blind because they could not visually follow an object or as having cerebal palsy because they could not stand at birth (like they’re giraffes or something?!).
Once I got John on the phone, I opened the email. “How odd,” I remember thinking. The referral info was for “Baby Alena.” Call waiting beeped in and the caseworker apologized that she had emailed me someone else’s baby. Holy cow. Moments later, I open a new email and find a lovely baby girl. Medical history is almost non-existent. The birth defect looks real and serious. What now?
I print everything out and make an emergency consultation (previously arranged, of course, because I’ve had 13 MONTHS of waiting) with a local pediatrician AKA my new best friend. He reads. He looks at pictures. He hands me the papers and says, “I can’t help you. There’s nothing here. This is nothing short of a leap of faith.” He makes photocopies of some information on Julia’s teratoma and on fetal alcohol syndrome. The kind doctor suggests that if we go to Russia these are things we should look for. I return home none the wiser than when I left.
I come home to my workbook for our neighborhood summer Bible study, my first real Bible study EVER. We are studying Beth Moore’s Believing God. The gist of the study is that, as Christians, we know we believe IN God, but do we really BELIEVE God and His promises for us? I do the day’s lesson, but don’t feel happiness, peace, or even ease about the decision we have to make. Somehow, I don’t grasp that it is NOT my decision, but His will. I try to pray, but if God is talking, I’m not hearing.
I am so torn and so desperate. The caseworker says that if we do not accept this referral, it will be months before another comes. You see, in Russia, the whole freakin’ country goes on holiday in the summer. And, well, it’s summer. John and I agree we will go and love this baby. I mean, nobody actually falls instantly in love with a photograph, right? We email pics to friends and family. I print them and show them to everyone I meet.
Visas are FedExed. Plane tickets are purchased. Hotel rooms are reserved. I make a trip to the bank for cash…lots of it…in new, uncreased, unmarked 100 dollar bills. The money demands make me wonder if I am laundering money for a Colombian cartel or adopting a child, but I digress.
We will be traveling as a group of five families all from the same agency going to the same region (regions are like our U.S. states) of Russia. We get in touch with one another and trade stories and advice. Alison lives in Charlotte and shares my background in banking. I really like her. She’s calm and self assured whereas I often feel like a chicken with my head cut off. I sound like a sixth grader when we talk: “What are you going to pack? What are you wearing on the plane?”
We arrive in Moscow and it’s warm. Wha?? Russia is supposed to be cold! It’s like going to the beach and finding snow rather than sun. John and I are too anxious for our usual wandering sightseeing though we do manage to eat dinner and fall into bed. The next morning, we all meet in the lobby and are shuttled to a local airport from where we will be flying to Rostov (about 3 plane hours south). Upon our arrival in Rostov, we are greeted by our “coordinators,” Alla and Larissa. They will provide chauffers for us, help with paperwork, and interpret at the orphanages. As John and I introduce ourselves, Alla asks if we have brought a pediatrician with us to evaluate “Baby Julia.” We have not, but Alla is quick to talk to another couple who did schedule such an evaluation and asks if we can split the costs with them in order to have Julia seen by a professional. My anxiety medicine is failing me. Why did she ask us and not the others? What is wrong with this baby? In one way, I am scared. In another, I am feeling my red-headed temper rising. Have I been duped??
We check in the Intourist Hotel and immediately leave to visit the babies. Several are at the same orphanage so they will carpool. We sit outside their orphanage because we must wait for the shared services of the pediatrician. We are parked in what is called the courtyard. It is, in fact, a tiny asphalt lot between two brick, graffiti covered buildings where the children are housed. There is a large green, smelly dumpster. There is one big oak tree in a fenced “play area” which consists of a bench and a broken seesaw. There is baby laundry hanging from a clothesline extending out of one the upstairs windows. And there, against the door, is the broom. I am heartbroken by this stupid broom. I think of all the stinking brooms that I’ve tossed in the trash because they were too old or too soft or too stiff. Here propped in the corner of this place for raising children is a handmade broom. Handmade as in Little House on the Prairie. I tell John that when we get home, we must go to Home Depot, buy all their brooms, and ship them here.
At last we are on our way, pediatrician in tow, to meet our baby. After nearly an hour of driving, we arrive at the orphanage. We park and walk through knee high grass in what is supposed to be a playground. The foyer is neat and has new hardwood floors. I smell the antiseptic odor of red Lysol cleaner. We enter the adminstrator’s office and John and I are seated on a sofa near the window. A worker goes to bring Julia to us while the pediatrician and Larissa talk to the adminstrator.
When I first lay eyes on her, I’m struck by the dress she is wearing. It is covered in stiff white lace. I had forgotten my lesson in Russian adoption where the child who is meeting her potential family wears beautiful clean clothes. With older girls, it is how they know “TODAY is MY day” because of the ridiculously huge bows placed in their hair. I’m touched by how incredibly uncomfortable that must be on her beautiful, soft baby skin. My mind races as I hold her for the first time. Her history said that she is nine months old, sits alone and responds to her name. I talk to her. She does not meet my eyes. I prop her on the sofa between me and John, and she topples over like a stuffed animal. I hold her in the air and coo. She does not smile. She does not laugh. She does not chew on her hand. She does not respond to me at all. Nor, I’m sad to say, I to her. I am so sad that I have begged and pleaded with God to puhleeese give me a baby to love, and here is a baby in my arms and I feel nothing. I hand the baby to John. He plays with her and she responds some to him. Honestly, I don’t remember. I grab the camera and take a few pictures of John holding her all while I am struggling to listen and understand what the doctors are saying.
After a few minutes, we are included in their conversation. We finally see photos of the fatty tumor which was removed at birth. It was as big as she was. We learn a little of her known medical history, and it’s not good. Exposure to Hepatitis B, drugs and alcohol in the womb. The huge tumor which may cause bowel issues down the road. A wandering eye which will need corrective surgery. The doctor examines her, then we hold her a little more and leave. During the ride back, the doctor tells us to think long and hard about this child. She believes that Julia probably has FAS (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome) which may have resulted in serious brain damage. The doctor says there is no way to know for sure for several years. Larissa tells us to discuss it. She will pick us up at 9 a.m. tomorrow to sign our intent papers and take us back for another visit.
When we return to the hotel, John and I talk. And talk. And talk. We brave a Russian hibachi (yes, really) restaurant down the road. We eat something, but I can’t remember what it was. We have some wine. And we talk. Over dinner, through tears, we agree that we will be this child’s parents. She needs us. We will bring her to Greer and give her the best medical treatment we can. We will love her and take her to see Santa. We will hug her and send her to Christian schools. She will be our family, and we will be hers. We return to our hotel by midnight and fall asleep instantly from physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual exhaustion.
At 5 a.m., I am jarred awake. This is not my baby. I wipe my face as I’ve been crying even in my sleep. This is not my baby. I turn on the light. I tell John that we have to talk. I’m so sorry that it’s five in the morning, but we have to talk now. He is already awake. He has been for hours. I tell him that this is not my baby. We talk. And talk. Is this fear of raising a child with unknown disabilities or is this God’s will? Had we said yes to each other last night out of our own desperation or were we following where God was leading us? We prayed. We cried. We made our decision and rested a bit.
The breakfast buffet opened at 7 a.m. We went early and met two of the other families already there. We had puffy eyes and weary souls. As we opened up our troubles to them, we learned that they, too, had declined referrals in the past for similar reasons. Both of the women assured me that when she held her child the previous day, she KNEW instantly that this was the child for her. John and I returned to our room for more crying and a little rest.
At 9 a.m., we met Larissa in the hotel lobby. We told her we had decided to decline this referral. She seemed mad. She got up and brought Alla to our table. They told us that they would “be with us” shortly, but first they were going to get the other families’ papers done so they could go early to spend the day with their children. So we sat. I remember staring at the ceiling the whole time. My sweet husband who knows me sooo well, shook his head no at our friends who wanted to come by our table to give us support. I used to be one of those non-crying people who when I broke, I actually crumbled. Show me a little love while I’m down and out, and I will need to be medicated to stop the tears. Finally, Alla and Larissa sat down with us to talk. I told them about our decision last night and about waking up knowing that I was making a mistake. I told them of talking and crying and praying. It was, in every sense, devastating. As we were signing the last of the papers, Alla told us that due to vacations we would not be able to get another child until after September or so. She said that the adoption database had been depleted as all agencies got their maximum referrals in before summer. She would contact the central agency in Washington D.C., but because they were 8 hours behind us, it would be tonight before anything could be done. And we were scheduled to leave tomorrow. Alla promised to call a “friend” who might be “able to help,” then ended our conversation by telling us to pray because really SHE couldn’t do anything, but HE could. She would meet us back in the hotel lobby at 6 p.m. to advise.
We returned to our room for yet another crying jag and shower before sucking it up and doing a little sightseeing. We had a car and a driver, Serge, who spoke fair English and a day to kill. He had been briefed as to our situation, and showed incredible compassion. He had a stop to make (delivering milk to another orphanage) before he showed us around town. Once settled in the car for our little excursion, he looked at us in the rearview mirror and said, “You get another baby. Healthy one this time. Come. We go to church.” He took us to a beautiful Eastern Orthodox church. The outside is whitewashed with big turrets on the roof. Inside, there are incredibly detailed icons, statues, and murals. Serge tells us he will light a candle for us, and he goes near one of the statues of saints to pray. I’m deeply touched.
We met Alla in the lobby at 6 o’clock. She has talked to D.C. to determine if their is another referral anywhere in Russia. There is not. She has been in touch with her friend at the Ministry of Education (like U.S. social services) who is on vacation. Her friend has agreed to go to her office first thing in the morning to recheck the adoption database. Alla says she will call us as soon as she hears from her friend, but no later than 9 a.m. If we don’t hear from her by nine, we are to be packed, checked out, and waiting in the lobby for transport to the airport and our return home. She is not hopeful, but reminds us to “pray.”
So we do.