When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 27, 2010

August 18, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 5


Summer 2007

August 18, 2007.  Peter and I are going into the city today, just the two of us.  We’re taking the train into Manhattan and then spending the afternoon at the American Museum of Natural History.  Afterwards, we’ll spend the night at a hotel.  Pat and Sophie are headed to the Crayola Factory for an adventure of their own.  Peter requested a trip alone with me a while back and I’ve been eager to oblige.  I hear him wake early but he doesn’t come into our room, which I know from past experience means he took off his pull-up and peed on the bed.  Sure enough, I smell urine as I turn the corner.  What I don’t anticipate is the blood.  I find him shaking like a leaf, naked from the waist down, holding his soiled pajama bottoms and pull-up.  Blood is smeared on his face and hands and all over his bed and walls.  He has gouged his right nostril to make himself bleed, a shocking new trick he’s been perfecting over the last several months.  Did he do it because he purposely wet the bed and was nervous I’d cancel the trip? Or did he wet and gouge just so I would cancel the trip? As crazy as it sounds, maybe he is happy about the trip and this was his way of showing enthusiasm.  Or more likely still, maybe the trip represents a chance for real intimacy, one on one, and this is more than his damaged soul can handle.  One thing is certain, though: Peter is a skilled saboteur.  I go about the business of cleaning up what looks like a crime scene and struggle not to look thrown.  Our realtor is hosting an Open House tomorrow while we’re away and a generous amount of blood mingled with the smell of stale urine is bound to affect the ambiance.  Peter and I need this time together, and we need it to go well.  This is what I tell myself to stay calm.  I leave the house ninety minutes later, yelling over my shoulder for Pat to make sure his cell phone is charged and turned on at all times.  I kiss Sophie goodbye and wish I was taking her and leaving Peter with Pat.  Maybe Peter knows this.  Maybe my imperfect, frail love for him is the real reason he gouges his nose.

Chapter 5:  Ben

We felt fully indoctrinated into the business of adoption by the time the third referral arrived.  We had grown comfortable discussing peculiar Russian medical terms such as perinatal encephalopathy, spastic tetraparesis, pyramidal insufficiency, and dyskenesia. These and others are conditions, or more accurately, predictions, commonly noted on Russian orphanage medical reports that have no counterpart in Western medicine.  Mostly they denote the poor circumstances of the birth mother, her lack of prenatal care, history of illness or even the fact she gave birth at home.  These labels are meant to signal the child was born from persons of unfortunate position; they are in many ways a judgment, a system of branding the unwanted.

Russian medicine enjoys a long history of assigning disease to otherwise healthy individuals.  Combine this predilection with the vast number of children available for adoption and it’s no wonder the official position of the Russian government, and the doctors it employs, is that these children are defective.  To admit otherwise is to acknowledge a national crisis of family, opportunity, poverty, and hope.  This is why Russian orphans by definition are presumed to have defects, and why the compulsion of orphanage doctors to find pathology where none exists seems itself so blatantly pathological.

As perplexing as it is infuriating, the Russian system of assigning dubious medical diagnoses to orphaned infants nonetheless fails to identify the numerous bona fide issues circling ominously overhead.  These real issues, like habitual alcohol consumption during pregnancy, are overlooked and unacknowledged, yet they are the true harbingers that alter the destinies of these children.  Already having made two informed but difficult choices rejecting orphaned babies in need, Pat and I understood these truths.  We were seasoned veterans of the game, appropriately cynical and suspicious by the time the third email arrived.  We were no longer capable of being surprised or cajoled.

But there he was, Baby Number Three.  Our hearts tugged toward him the moment we opened the picture and saw his tiny, nearly translucent, nine-month old face.  He was our Ben.  To this day, I can recall his delicate features as vividly as I’m able to remember the contours of my mother’s hands, or the joy shining through my sister’s exhausted, bloodshot eyes both times she gave birth.   He had ruby red lips, cobalt blue eyes that did little to hide a certain vulnerable quality, and a budding musician’s graceful fingers.  Like a newly hatched chick, his head was covered with downy, yellow fuzz.  His name was Aleksandr, a common name among Russian orphans, but he was known as “Sasha”.  The other bits of information, growth measurements and gestational length, were all promising.  Other than the expected notation regarding perinatal encephalopathy, there were no red flags.  The Russians were making sure we knew our Ben was born of suboptimal circumstances, but we already knew that.  Not too many patrician children found their way into Russian institutions for orphans.

Penny was called for the third time, and the video, which she assured had been carefully screened by her and others at Adopt Through Us, was sent via overnight delivery.  The tape was beautiful to watch.  He was a wonderful baby, tender and loving.  He laughed and cooed and gently reached for his caregiver’s fingers to grasp.  His clothes were not taken off, which would have afforded Dr. Aronson an opportunity to examine his extremities, muscle tone and nutritional status, but there were plenty of other encouraging signs.  Pulled to a standing position by the caregiver, for instance, he was able to hold himself up using the crib rail for support.  Not bad for a ten-month old baby presumed to be neglected and nutritionally compromised.  He also had wonderful eye contact and readily responded to his name being called.

We waited until we heard back from Dr. Aronson to let our families know, which was difficult because we felt so certain this child was Ben.  I can’t remember exactly what we did to fill the time, but I do remember how I felt.  Edgy.  Queasy.  Helpless.  Angry.  I was becoming increasingly resentful of the fact that my destiny was tangled up with medical reports and video reviews and all the other clinical aspects of adoption, not to mention the intrusive, antiseptic year of fertility treatment that preceded it.  We had already turned down two babies.  The thought that a third child could follow suit and elude us was difficult to stomach.   Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, insisting instead to anyone who cared to listen that my life was rich and complete without children, my need to mother was as basic as my need to laugh or feel the warming sun on my face, as elemental and unwavering as my love for Pat.

The business of acquiring children to love through adoption, however, was beginning to damage my soul in a way previously unconsidered.  None of us are in control of our own destinies, not really.  The trick is in maintaining the charade, but for me the illusion was starting to fray at the seams.  I needed good news.  I needed this baby to be ours.

My heart thumped wildly when word finally came, eyes scanning the few lines dashed out in Dr. Aronson’s late night email, lines that would change our lives forever.   The baby was fine.  All signs were positive, not a single finding worthy of concern.  We didn’t cry, maybe we were still too stunned, but we were overjoyed.  Pat celebrated in his usual quiet way, the death of his sons having taught him long ago that good can turn bad all too quickly.  The pictures in our bedroom remind me daily of his deeply private loss.  First Vincent, whose infantile features blur over time with imperfect memory and then Joey, the goofy, big-hearted prankster whose light shined so bright but much too briefly.  It’s a bitter lesson incapable of being unlearned.  I had never been directly touched, however, by such unspeakable tragedy, and so despite my respect for Pat’s reticence, I felt like shouting our news from the highest rooftop.  I was ready and eager to plunge head first into motherhood, completely confident in the adoption process that already had culled without mercy two helpless, deserving children.  Though arduous, the process had worked.  Ben was born!  I wanted the world to know.

The first thing I did was stand in front of the TV in our bedroom and record clips of the videotape with my digital camera, producing a fuzzy but animated vision of Ben that I emailed to my family and closest friends.   Then I began my lists.  What we would need to furnish the nursery, what Ben would need in the way of clothes, shoes, blankets, toys, books, bottles, sippy cups, and diapers.   He would also need a car seat, high chair, stroller, port-a-crib, and play gym.  Then there was the list of what he didn’t really need but I wanted him to have:  University of Florida football outfits, Dr. Seuss plates and cups, personalized towels with embroidered dinosaurs, silly hats, stuffed dogs, horses and monkeys, a puppy snuggle suit, Raffi CDs, organic baby food, and a genuine wooden toboggan.

My Little Gator Fans (Fall 2007)

These were the things that would mark him as mine, brand him as my own in a way that genetics, in this instance, could not.  I’m certain Pat had his own list.  Ben would first learn to love the things we loved, the favorites on our lists serving as loving placeholders until he was old enough to choose his own prized possessions.

An impressive pile of “to do” lists began overtaking our rumpled bed when the phone started ringing.  We took turns listening as the high-pitched squeals of congratulation poured in, one call following another for hours on end, our eyes finally wet with tears that no amount of dabbing could stop.  Our child was real.  He was in the world, in a city called Birobidzhan, a place in the far east of Russia that takes effort to locate on a map, waiting for a ride home.  With the click of a button, we could see his beautiful face and slender long limbs, hear his infectious laugh, and best of all, dream of the day when the three of us were together.  As soon as the calls slowed, I abandoned my lists in favor of printing and framing his referral photos, carefully displaying them around the house so Pat and I could see our baby’s face from any vantage.  I fell asleep that night staring at his little face, feeling content and relaxed for the first time in months.  I was becoming a mother.  I could finally feel it.  The most difficult part of the journey was over.  All that was left was to bring him home.

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