When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 26, 2010

August 14, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 4


Upon Arrival, OuterBanks, NC

August 14, 2007.  Peter has a summer school show tomorrow that I’m missing because I have a phone interview.  I resigned my job as an environmental law professor at Bard College eight days ago; without warning, the dean asked me and others on the faculty to take a 25% pay cut even though last year I was the highest rated professor in the program.  He threatened to cancel my insurance benefits if I didn’t sign the appointment letter, which is illegal.  I didn’t sign and our benefits are still in place, for a few more weeks.  Bard has always been uncomfortable with lawyers and other professional types mixing with the ultra liberal cadre of artists and bohemians.  I suppose the disdain finally caught up with me.  Today’s low point, however, is losing my temper at bath time.  It’s so hard to tell what Peter can’t versus won’t do.  Tonight, for instance, he’s having trouble locating his hair for washing.  We have been working on this skill for two years.  No matter how I coach him, he can’t do it.  After I finally finish the job myself, visibly frustrated, he snickers.  At times, Peter enjoys making Pat and me angry.  Maybe it’s merely a way for him to vent his own frustration, but the snickering is difficult to take all the same.   The boy in the tub tonight can be hard to like and filled with disdain.   Moments like this are tough for people outside the four corners of our family to understand.   They are dark, lonely moments filled with doubt and self-condemnation.  I’m so thankful Pat understands when I tell him what happened.  He is my anchor at times like these, and our resolve to confront our obstacles together, with love forged from friendship and shared experience, is a precious lifeline, an immeasurable gift.   I don’t know what I’d do without his knowing touch and understanding eyes, the crooked smile that gives me hope and consolation.

Bath time, one week home (Nov. 2004)

Chapter 4:  The Referral

The first referral Adopt Through Us sent was for a 10-month old boy whose name I no longer remember.  The hoops people have to jump through just to be eligible to receive a referral are enough to overwhelm all but the most committed.  Although we motored through the process with adrenalin-laced speed and an undeniable measure of excitement, precious months had passed and we were antsy.  We happily had been fingerprinted, photographed, background checked, psychologically analyzed, medically probed, vaccinated against exotic disease, subjected to oversight in our home, and made to swear on the collective writings of humanity that we would be superlative parents.  Even our cranky old dog had been scrutinized, and she failed to exhibit the good humor that we ascribed to ourselves during this time period.  We were past ready when the email with the baby’s basic information and a one page medical report finally came.  The report said he was born five weeks premature but that he had made significant progress and was a “good boy”, a nebulous phrase popular among Russian orphanages.

We had filled out countless forms, meant to provide the agency with a complete profile of our preferences, wishes and fears, and on one of them we checked the box indicating we only wanted referrals of full term babies.  But there he was, his picture brought to us in full color through the miracle of digital photography.  Adopt Through Us undoubtedly understood the power of the picture, maybe even betting that our desperate desire to have a baby would overwhelm the more sensible side of us that had checked the “no premature babies” box.  And if they were playing the odds, they gambled correctly.  Lying on our bellies with the laptop on the bed, propped on elbows and ankles intertwined, we opened the attachment and held our breath.  Like us, the baby was on his belly, smiling ruefully as he struggled to hold up his head.  He looked more like five months than ten.  I remember he had straggly wisps of brown hair and a tiny hooked nose.  Best of all, he had a philtrum.  He wasn’t cute by Gerber standards but we were ready to fall in love.

We immediately forwarded the email to Jane Aronson, with copies going to my brothers and sister.  The youngest of five, my siblings and I have always been close.  In the years following my parents’ deaths, I find myself relying on them more and more and I was anxious to share our long awaited news.  Pat, on the other hand, was more subdued.  The concept of international adoption was foreign, even scary, to his Sicilian family.  This genetically ingrained mistrust of the unfamiliar coupled with my husband’s history with his own two boys rendered the LoBrutto clan lukewarm, at best, on the subject.  In ways clever and common, and all ways in between, his mother, brother, and daughter made it clear they had no intention of championing the cause.  They would come around, full circle, in fact, but not for a while.

The video arrived on our doorstep the following morning, overnight mail.  Dr. Aronson would receive her duplicate copy a few hours later.  We must have watched the videotape thirty-five times.  The tiny person we saw in the photo came alive before us, head bobbing for the camera atop a wrinkly, chicken-thin neck.  We watched as the Russian attendant undressed the baby, a strange but undoubtedly necessary part of the presentation.  He was barrel-chested and skinny, not a single roll of baby fat to pinch.  But we weren’t concerned; a calorie-rich and balanced diet would produce a pinchable roll within a few months.  We were transfixed.

The female attendant next propped him up to show our future baby could sit, which in his case was more like a slump.  Then she pulled him up on his legs and bounced him up and down so many times that the sight of his head jostling over and over left me wishing there was some sort of international child protective squad that could be summoned to his rescue.  His legs buckled quickly under the G-force of the bounce and finally he was allowed to sag back into an exhausted yet more sustainable position.   And then it was over.  Not a single sound was heard in the entire two-minute videotape.  We stared at each other for a moment, both reaching to hit the rewind button at the same time.  We watched, stared, talked, rewound the tape and then watched again, with breaks here and there for meals and other distractions, until we received Dr. Aronson’s email at 2:30 in the morning.

The baby was a risk, she wrote.  His measurements, if accurate, were encouraging in terms of catch-up growth, but there were other concerns.  His fists were clenched and one of his legs buckled when he was pulled to a stand.  Palms should be open at ten months and weight should be borne evenly by the legs.  Also, the wobbly head was a problem, as was the lack of vocalizations.  These and other signs indicated neurological compromise, a central nervous system out of sync, perhaps irreparably.  So, Dr. Aronson concluded, even though the baby had a philtrum, the concerns noted upon review of the videotape suggested a moderate degree of risk.

The decision was in our hands.  The next day we called Adopt Through Us and told Penny, our caseworker, that we were turning the baby down due to Dr. Aronson’s feedback.  We reminded her that we had asked not to be considered for premature babies and to please keep this in mind next time.  We hung up and then hurried to rid our home and hearts of the evidence.  The emails were erased and the videotape was put in the trash bin.  Relatives and close friends were called and asked to do the same.

We were disappointed and sad but we also had resolve.  We didn’t cause the baby’s problems and nothing in our karmas said we were required to fix them.

But then, I barely slept that night.  The rational confidence I summoned during the day gave way to a night dominated by a restless insomniac’s study in self-doubt and second-guessing.  I had wakeful dreams about the clothes I would pick out for him, what the nursery would look like and what color his hair would come in once his health was restored.  We had decided to name our baby Benjamin, a name we both liked and one that held special significance for me because it was the name of a favorite relative who died when I was in law school.  I grieved that night over the realization that this child would not be our Ben.  I laid awake, questioning the correctness, the prudence, and the coldness of our decision.  Was I perfect at ten months?  Was Pat?  Would we have passed Dr. Aronson’s scrutiny?  Maybe the reason his hands were clenched was because his belly hurt that day and maybe all that brutish bouncing wore him out to the point that he needed to favor one leg.  I lean to one side when I’m tired and I don’t have any obvious neurological defect.  Did I exhibit any of these signs as a baby?  It’s impossible to know since both my parents have died and can’t be asked.  Maybe, I told myself, we were wrong.

Daylight brought relief from this self-torture and Pat and I thankfully managed to resume our normal lives for the intervening weeks before the next email arrived.  I had broken my ankle in several places while skiing a few months earlier.  Although an impressive assortment of titanium hardware was needed to coax the pieces of bone into knitting, the coaxing worked.  I had graduated by May to walking on a lunar-style boot without crutches, giving me hope that I would be mobile by the time we went to Russia.  We knew that couples just like us, scattered mostly around the United States and Canada, were waiting for their first, second or even third referral, and it was useful to keep this fact in mind.  There is nothing unusual, in the unusual game of international adoption, about turning down referred children for any number of reasons.  I knew our disappointment was not unique but it did feel uncommon enough to allow the “why me?” mentality to permeate my thoughts.   The fact that I was hobbling around on a bum leg didn’t help.

But as usual, Pat stepped in, with his tender-hearted ability to intercede when he feels me slipping.  Sometimes we talk about it, sometimes we don’t.  But always he jokes and cajoles and gently steers me toward a more hopeful vision.  I remember him taking me on lots of car rides during the time my ankle was healing.  Pat and I both love to survey the scenery in our beautiful Hudson Valley – the farms, the red barns, the rolling hills, the Catskills on the horizon, the occasional covered bridge.  The noiseless beauty, the horses’ manes rustling with the breeze in the pastures, the copper tones of late afternoon: it’s easy to get lost in the natural splendor and forget what in the long run, are minor disappointments.  Even with the kids, we still manage the occasional scenic drive, with Pat “getting lost” on purpose.  They invariably fall asleep from sheer boredom and for 20 minutes or so, we glide around and about the endless country roads, feeling snug and content, quiet and peaceful in our solidarity.

We didn’t put too many miles on the odometer in the days following that first referral however, because we received our next email shortly afterwards.  We were back on the road to parenthood.  The boy was full-term and weighed nearly 10 pounds at birth.  He had an astonishingly healthy head circumference, enjoyed the height of a giant, and was eight months old.  The photo showed he had a full head of dark hair, lush lips, and plump cheeks.  His name was Igor.  He stared back at us from the computer screen with intense, lively eyes.  Igor was Gerber cute.  Without hesitation, we called Adopt Through Us and asked Penny to send the videotape to Dr. Aronson and us.  She confessed she’d been so eager to rectify the last referral that she sent us Igor’s medical report and photo before she had even received, or reviewed, the video.  Copies would be sent, Penny promised, as soon as the tape reached her office.

The news went over the hi-speed wires of our family network with usual lightning speed.  Jokes flew across computers about how Igor (our Ben) would tower over Pat and me by the time he was seven.  We would need to buy an extra refrigerator to store his preschool snacks.  Did we know a place where we could order custom-made baby clothes?  Unlike the first baby, Igor looked so healthy and his measurements were so enormous that only the most pessimistic could find cause for worry.

But two days passed, then three, and still not a single word.  By day four we were annoyed, though still too naïve to be concerned.  I called Adopt Through Us and was told Penny would need to call us back.  Several hours later she did, and the news was not good.  The video arrived, but the agency would not be sending it.  Half of Igor’s face was frozen.  Paralyzed.  For medical reasons that have long escaped me, the defect wasn’t noticeable in the photo.  Penny, of course, was sorry.  So very sorry.

After a few moments of mumbled, stunned condolences, Pat and I took to our separate corners to cope.  He disappeared into the consoling, silent world of his work.  I watched as he plunked heavily down the stairs, head hanging in disbelief.  I have always envied this ability of his, the ability to lose himself in books, to let the world drop away in favor of the stories he helps shape, the fictional lives and invented happenings of the written word.

What I needed was to slip into the tub and cry.  More nights than not I allow myself the indulgence of an evening bath.  Most often I read while I soak, novels mostly, but some nights I close my eyes, dim the lights and try to will my mind and body into letting go of tension and useless worry.  Enveloped in my private sanctuary, I should have shed healing tears for the babies I saw in my dreams but would never hold, for the littlest hearts, including Igor’s, that my love would never touch.

But I didn’t take that bath.  I was incapable of letting Igor and his 10 pounds of hope slip from our fingers without a fight and so instead I spent an hour or two researching possible benign causes of facial paralysis.  Eventually I landed on an appealing explanation.  Delivery by forceps, I read, can temporarily damage facial nerves and cause reversible palsy.  Eureka!  I emailed Dr. Aronson immediately.  I barely heard the swoosh of the message being sent when her reply came back.  Without being able to physically examine the baby, she explained, and without access to proper testing, there was no way to eliminate the more sinister (and likely) causes of the paralysis.  Her message was sympathetic but firm: the facial palsy put him in the highest risk category.  There was no need for her to see the video.  Like the baby preceding him, this boy would not be our Ben.

Igor probably will spend the rest of his childhood in an institution, and depending on intellectual functioning, perhaps his adulthood too.  The Russian orphanage, our agency later explained, should never have referred him in the first place.  His condition rendered him “unadoptable”.  The best thing to do, we were counseled, was to cast him from our minds and move forward.  Good advice, but as I learned in law school, you can’t unring a bell.  Igor was in the world; there was no denying this fact.  Pat told me recently that he rarely thinks about him; I wish the same were true for me.  On occasion I still am struck by the unwelcome vision of his frozen face.  In the nanosecond it takes for my brain to shake free of the offending, ghostly image, I wonder whether Igor’s palsy has resolved.  I wonder whether the orphanage has been able to provide his basic needs.  But mostly I wonder whether he has anyone to love him, that beautiful baby boy who looked so perfect on picture day.

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1 Comment »

  1. Thank you so much for giving me the honor of reading this remarkable story. What can I say after experiencing this? It is, at once, both heart-breaking and full of enormous courage. I hope this is to be published.
    Thank you and bless you,

    Neal

    Comment by NEAL BARRETT, JR. — February 1, 2010 @ 4:27 pm | Reply


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