When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 25, 2010

August 8, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 2

Jersey Shore (May 2007)

August 8, 2007.  Peter wet his pants this morning and has a cold.  He has learned to be snuggly when he doesn’t feel good.  His cold will be mine in a few days but the intimacy is worth it.  He keeps saying his new friend from summer school is coming over even though no plans have been made.  The phone rings and he says it’s her.  He calls her Maggie but I later learn her name is Maria.  Peter only has had one play date initiated by another child, a boy with issues of his own.  He stole the child’s coat from school the next day and the day after that he gave him a trinket stolen from the teacher’s desk by way of apology.  Twice today I went into the bathroom, which left him unsupervised for thirty seconds, and he got into trouble both times.  He kept calling Sophie “stupid” in his repetitive, echolalic manner, and later he went and took out toys that long ago had been confiscated as soon as the bathroom door closed.  He knows what the rules are but can’t self-enforce.  Though he has severe memory deficits, he can recall without fail where Pat stashed the forbidden toys.  Before dinner, Peter tells me he knows how to spell.  He says, “flower starts with L.”  In a way he’s close and so I praise him for the effort and gently correct the mistake.

Chapter 2:  What a Missing Philtrum Looks Like

Peter came to us in the form of three grainy digital photos emailed from our adoption agency, which in turn received them via email from the orphanage in Russia.  Seeing the initial photos of your future child are the adoptive mother’s equivalent of looking at a sonogram for the first time.  In those blurry images, with heart pumping faster than a pubescent salsa drummer, I saw an Olympic gymnast, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, a Poet Laureate, or even the next Baryshnikov.  I saw my son.

Those were my giddy dreams, certainly.  The kind of dreams that make your heart flutter with excitement and provide the adrenalin necessary to keep you painting the nursery (or in our case, bedroom) even though you’re so tired your arms wobble like spaghetti noodles.  My real dreams for Peter, however, were what nourished hope and provided the sustenance necessary to survive the adoption waiting game.  I wanted him to be happy, healthy, secure in our family, and grounded and well practiced in the values that would prepare him for adult responsibilities and a fulfilling life.  He would be our Peter the Great, not because of his remarkable, public accomplishments, but because he would overcome his difficult beginnings and grow up happy and well-adjusted through the boundless love, patience, and example provided by us, his parents.

Referral photo from orphanage (Sept. 2004)

When I look back at those photos, it’s easy to remember why I first fell in love with the idea of Peter, and why I’ve worked so hard to fall and stay in love with the reality of him, our troubled little boy who came wrapped in a package so fuzzy and devoid of information we were able, and eager, to see perfection.  What was clear was that Pat and I thought the boy in those photos was one of the most beautiful children we’d ever seen.  And in fact, he is an astonishingly handsome child, with twinkling eyes and an infectious, impish grin.  He’s blessed with big, almond-shaped brown eyes and eyelashes long enough to harvest and sell in designer salons.  At the time I reveled in the perfect chubbiness of his cheeks, rosy and red the way nature intended.  Peter smiled so happily in the pictures that I never gave the shape or quality of his philtrum (which his infectious smile camouflaged) much thought.  In fact, his face didn’t resemble any of the faces of the countless alcohol-affected children I had seen on websites or in books.

Although Peter would turn out to have certain classic features of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, like an indistinct, flat philtrum and thin upper lip, he lacks the small eyes, funny ears or dull expression that are equally as characteristic of the prototypical FAS face.  At the time I didn’t realize there was little correlation between facial features and the severity of damage caused by prenatal alcohol consumption.  Depending on what stage of pregnancy a birth mother ingests alcohol, her child may be severely impacted but show few if any dysmorphic features or growth deficiencies.

At the time the most important thing I saw in Peter’s face was a potential son for us and an older brother for our soon to be adopted daughter, Sophie.  I saw in Peter the little boy we would soon be cheering as he turned the corner on third base or kicked his first soccer goal.  I saw a budding artist whose drawings would be proudly displayed throughout our home.  And most of all, I saw in his beautiful face, which was framed in sparse, lusterless hair, a three-year old child who needed and deserved to be showered with every ounce of maternal love I’d been accumulating for this long-awaited, precious moment.

So what does a child without a philtrum look like?  He looks like Peter.  A boy so seemingly divine he made my heart flutter and my imagination take flight.  The story of our family necessarily includes an examination of the difficult reasons and way in which Peter eventually came to us.  How on the heels of a truly remarkable failure of the international adoption system, and the profound grief and disappointment we endured because of it, Pat and I were given this moment of perfect possibility.  Our journey toward parenthood, and Peter, was fraught with many twists and turns, highs and lows, and numerous surprises.  In order to understand the final composition of our family, and the full circle of hope diminished, restored, and then redefined that Peter’s adoption represents, I first need to tell the story of the series of babies that slipped through our hands and hearts before him.  Especially Ben, who for Pat and me has become a sort of ghost child.

There’s no doubt our experience with the baby we called Ben influenced our decision to adopt our son as well as the eclectic range of emotions I harbored when we first met him.  My journey with Peter will never be summed up in a Hallmark Card; in fact, he and I have had very few greeting card moments.  I have scratched, snarled and clawed my way toward loving my son and for this reason, our beautiful moments together feel nearly transcendent.  Someday I may be able to receive a hug from Peter without remembering how far we’ve come, but for now I remember.  For now, an easy, casual hug still feels like a remarkable achievement compared to the complex and immutable emotions Peter demonstrated in the orphanage and during our first eighteen months home.  The child we were about to adopt ran to Pat and jumped in his arms, but he screamed with sickening alarm if I took even a single step toward him.  He covered his ears and yelped angrily when I tried speaking, even in soft, hushed tones.  I had no choice but to back away and watch like a polite outsider as he circled around my husband, movements stiff and robotic, rhythmically repeating his name as he marched to the inconsonant rhythm in his head.

I was worried when I first met Peter, certainly, but I didn’t panic, not right away.  He was interested in toys and Pat and he liked looking at the books we brought.  After a few minutes, he worked up the nerve to come close enough to grab the keys and sunglasses that I dangled in front of him at arm’s length.  He was also beautiful, just as he was in the photos, though much smaller than we expected.  As I watched from a safe distance, I tried to remember that this was scarier for him than it was for us.  Who knows what the caregivers had told him, what he thought adoption meant, or more to the point, where the dark corners of a deprived three-year old’s imagination were taking him.  He’d been in the orphanage since he was five months old, had never left the premises, taken a ride in a car, been rocked to sleep, or even seen many strangers.  Two adults googling over him, speaking too loudly and in an incomprehensible tongue, naturally might overwhelm his fragile nervous system.

Peter surely didn’t know what a mother was then but he understood enough, or perhaps had endured enough, to know he didn’t want another female caretaker.  We were told at the orphanage that these children, especially the boys, are interested in strange men and disdainful and distrustful of unfamiliar women.  I don’t know whether this is because the women caregivers in their lives are unkind or act inappropriately or more likely, whether the children simply don’t get enough attention and nurturing and blame the gender with which they’re most familiar.  At the time I was willing to chalk up Peter’s obsessive interest in Pat and his active disinterest in me as common, even expected, orphanage behavior.  It would be months and months before I realized my child’s feelings toward women were complex enough to worry whether they may have had more sinister roots.

For more than two years, I would strive with varying levels of commitment and energy, and often without evidence of progress, to overcome the prejudice my son had against me, to teach him to relax in my arms, and to trust that a mother’s touch is meant to soothe and not harm.  The effort has been successful.  Three years after his adoption, Peter is sitting cozily next to me on the couch, his arm hooked into mine.  He’s watching Winnie the Pooh as I write these very words.  In the last year and a half, Peter and I have achieved intimate milestones I never dreamed possible based on our first hours, days, weeks, and years together.  The two of us are living proof that love can blossom in the hostile, foreign terrain of a grossly undernourished, permanently damaged, and even genetically compromised brain.  I’ve gone from being the person in the world my son most feared and distrusted to being the person he loves and needs above all else.  I’ve fought hard for the privilege, but without hesitation I now can say that I am Peter’s mother.


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