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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Older Child Adoption in Russia: The First Meeting

A blind date, an arranged marriage, liken it to what you will, but when you travel to meet your older child-to-be in Russia, believe me, you will have equal parts excitement and sheer terror. It is exhilarating and humbling, adrenaline-inducing and exhaustion- resulting.

All I knew was that I was going to meet two girls, sisters, and their ages. So how would I start the conversation after traveling halfway around the world, sitting in several airports to transfer flights, being diverted to a different city and spending the night there, and then driving another three hours through a blinding mountain snowstorm to pop up on their orphanage’s doorstep? Over and over in my head, I tried out different opening phrases.

“Hello, I’m your mama.  I heard about you and decided to come and visit.  Do you want to be part of my family?”  “Hey, let’s sit and chat.  I’m your personal Prize Patrol–look at all of the goodies I have for you!”  “My name is Alexandra, I’m pleased to meet you.”

All of it sounded slightly off–either too familiar for children decades removed from me, or too formal for girls who will one day, no doubt, be assumed to be the offspring of my womb. As fate would have it, the girls were busy when we got there around 1:30 pm, said the staff, and we sat, fidgeting, for at least twenty minutes or so. Turns out that all of the kids were bathing, which in orphanage lingo generally means a sponge bath with a wet towel, along with a washing of the hair. More time to ratchet up my raw nerves.

Our facilitator discussed the approach with the local social worker who would be monitoring the meeting. The two of them concurred that the Russian social worker would handle the introductions, and make the bridge with the example of peers who had already been adopted. What if I threw up, or had some other totally inappropriate and involuntary reaction to the stress? The girls’ lives were about to take the biggest turn ever, and all I could think of was whether or not they would like me. Was that my eye starting to twitch uncontrollably? Maybe they would think I was winking at them.

At last, in the girls came, happy, fresh, wet hair under ski caps. The older one recently had her hair cut and colored, and did not want to take off her hat since it might have messed up the hair. How we would sit and visit for hours with a fuzzy pom-pom ski cap obscuring my view? An office worker put her arm around the girl and led her into another room, asking for “minootichkoo”, offering to comb her hair into place better. The younger girl tossed off her outerwear and plunked down beside me, swinging her legs and grinning broadly. We then raved over the older one’s hair as she entered.

So far, so good. The social worker explained to them a few basics and then I told them that I had brought photo albums for them to see more of our lifestyle and family. They oohed and ahhed over each picture, still somewhat distracted by the enormity of such an event. I was unsure how much they really understood, but they seemed happy to receive gifts, and talk, and interact with me.

By the next day, the little girl asked if I would be coming back the third day.

“Yes,” I replied.

“And after that?”

“Well, then I go home, but after a couple of months, maybe you can come home with us and be part of our family,”  I tested the waters.

“For a visit?” she asked.

“No, to stay forever,” I smiled.

“Forever? Davai! Let’s go!” she glanced for approval to the other adults in the room, as if we should all just get going, already.

I read to the girls in Russian, we threaded bead necklaces, they recited poetry. The girls led me down the hall to the communal sinks to get a drink for my sore throat, using the honored tea cup reserved for guests. We talked about clothes and cooking, school and sports.

By the third day, we had gotten to know each other somewhat. I was more than a stranger, less than an alien. Better to be daughter of ET, than Son of Sam. It was natural to hug and I could see the girls sizing me up as potential motherhood material. But the older sister had a concern and she at last pulled me aside, taking me by the hand to the other side of the large reception hall, padding across the faded Oriental rug.

“Maybe you are interested in adopting an additional girl?” she whispered.

I could see where this was leading, having already been in this movie with our first two sons. She had a friend, and wanted her to come, too. I had to let her down gently.

“The problem is, we have been approved only for you two sisters. We can’t take as many children as we want.”

She then started to weep, lips beginning to quiver, big tears rolling down her cheeks. Orphanage life was the only decent life she had known, her only real “family” for the past 1-1/2 years. How could I expect her to leave it all behind at the drop of a hat? She would eventually be leaving with us as her new parents, two adults, and adults had never proven themselves to be very trustworthy. She knew nothing of the future, but everything of the here and now. In the orphanage, she and her sister at least had a roof over their heads, three small meals a day, schooling, and a friend or two. And here I would be ripping her away from her comfortable environs, taking her practically against her will, to start a brand new life elsewhere.

I tried to reassure her, while she let the social worker know that she did not want to be adopted. For me, this was a definite dealbreaker, a trainwreck I had just stumbled into.

“Let’s go,” I tell the facilitator under my breath.  “I’m not doing this.”

“What? What?”  he tries to reason with me. “She’s a young girl, she doesn’t know what she wants.”

I realize that she has no normal life experience and has no way to compare and contrast her future options. However, I am not going to place myself in this type of adversarial role.  I know of parents who get to Moscow and have to sleep in front of the hotel room door because their child tries to run away, back to the orphanage.  They can be so confused.  I glance at her as she cries, my heart breaking.

And with that, I promptly burst into tears. I turn my back quickly so that no one can see, and dig in my purse for a tissue. But the silent sobs will not subside. They well up again and again, like deep waves crashing on the shore, geysers springing from my eyes. Maybe it’s jetlag, or the fact that the thumping disco outside my budget hotel room has not allowed me to sleep for the past two nights. In four days’ time, I’ve probably logged eight total hours of shut-eye. I feel this girl’s pain and cannot inflict any more upon her. I’m embarrassed because I’m not normally an emotional person, nevertheless, I cannot stop this crying coming from the depths of my own being. Everything had been going so well.

“Listen,” my facilitator counsels, “the social worker will be talking with her regularly between now and court, preparing her, letting her know how her life will improve and how not being adopted is not in her best interests.”

The social worker is speaking with her, encouraging her, trying to make her understand that she should not throw away the opportunity of a lifetime, without saying it in so many words. After fifteen minutes, the social worker urges her to come to me, which she does.

The two of us stand there, crying and hugging on the threadbare and expansive carpet, sheltered from a chilly and foggy day outside by frosted glass windows. I wish we could sit on this carpet and be carried home right now, fairy-tale style. The two of us are bound by similar sensibilities, and exhausting emotions. We come from worlds apart, literally and philosophically, yet a clear connection is being forged. It is our first pitiful, yet poignant mother-daughter moment.

“I would never ask something of you that would not be good for you,”  I stroke her hair and look into her eyes, puffy and red, trying to trust. I look the same. We are a mirror image.

“Well, if she’s not going with you, I still am!” the younger sister interjects from the sidelines, full of enthusiasm and ready to please. It’s just the humor we needed, while she’s absolutely serious.

After two days of great meetings together, this our third day of visitation is marred by dark clouds of distress. And now I must leave. The girls have to go back to their afternoon classes. I am conflicted, and crushed, and don’t know what to think. We’re ending on a down note. Outside, the girls walk to another building, while I thank the social worker on the steps.

“Spaseebah, balshayah spaseebah,”  I touch her arm, as she pats mine.

Then she points in the distance. “Pasmatreetyeh!” she urges me to look.

There, standing on the threshhold of a distant white building, two sisters hold hands and energetically wave goodbye. Across the distance, I feel their love reaching out, and wave back. In the van, the tears keep flowing intermittently as we wind our way over the mountains, but now they are tears of joy. I have found my daughters, and they have found me.


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