When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 28, 2010

August 24, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 7


Peter with his friend (Summer 2007)

August 24, 2007.  The kids and I are at the local pool and I’m sitting on a lounge chair next to my friend Wendi, who has two young boys.   Though Peter has always made her six-year old uncomfortable, something is changing, perhaps a turning point in Peter’s development.  Gone, at least for now, is his standard approach to socializing: run up to a child’s face and blabber something incomprehensible or scream outright.  This beautifully complete boy is playing happily with Peter.  I watch them dodge imaginary volcanoes through wet grass and realize my son is acting like a normal child.  He is not off by himself, repeating the few same sequence of events – like crash the truck in the sandbox – with agonizing banality.  Though I can’t be certain, I think he has made a friend.  Yesterday the developmental pediatrician asked about friends and he failed to name this boy with whom he now has been playing for weeks.  He has shown interest in other children before, only to forget about them once he hasn’t seen them for four or five days.  But I tell myself that Peter won’t forget this kind-hearted boy he has known for two years but with whom he is only now growing comfortable.  Last night at the county fair he kissed his friend, much to the boy’s surprise, on the back of the head while riding the helicopters.  I quietly suggested afterward that he limit kissing to family members.  Peter doesn’t understand social nuance and was only trying to show affection.  I want him to know the beauty of human connectedness so badly and I pledge to help him cultivate this surprising sprout of friendship.  A life without friends is hard to imagine and until recently, it was hard to imagine the crowded spaces in Peter’s mind ever clearing enough to contain friends.  Smiling, I turn to face my friend Wendi, who is also watching the boys, and I know she understands.

Chapter 7:  Sophie

Life has an odd way of instructing sometimes and the take away lesson from the failed domestic adoption was unexpected and as it turns out, a blessing in disguise.  I was talking to my girlfriend Suzanne in Atlanta one afternoon, catching her up on the status of our still unscheduled Russian trip and the surreal experience with the Tampa baby.  She and I worked together as enforcement attorneys at the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta for eight years before I moved to Manhattan and married Pat.   I smile fondly whenever I think of Suzanne’s sassy voice and those impossibly tight curls that assume the same position no matter how her haircuts change.  She is one of those wonderful New Yorkers living happily in the Deep South with the same brilliant pizzazz and gumption I once saw her display as she wrangled to snag the last pair of size 7 boots at a Macy’s shoe sale.  She has an uncanny ability to make lemonade out of lemons and I rely on her greatly, despite geographical distance, when I need a lift.

On this particular day, and in typical Suzanne style, she let me ramble just long enough to feel better and then posed a question.  Now that we had accepted the idea of adopting two children at once, and even figured out a way logistically to manage the insanity of the Tampa circumstances, why not ask Adopt Through Us whether we could bring another baby home with Ben?

A puckish question, to be sure, and one that made me smile.  Uncharacteristically, I kept this idea to myself for a number of days.  I tend to share almost all my thoughts and ideas with Pat, in stream of consciousness style, because he’s usually a sympathetic but logical sounding board.  But I was having a hard time gauging the possible range of his response and he does have his limits.  For instance, I don’t have a horse, more than one dog, a duck or any chickens.  Was there no one to stop me, I might have acquired many more animals than we currently own over the course of the last several years.  Our very old house sits on eight acres and is plenty large enough for the furry friends of my dreams.  But Pat unequivocally has drawn the line at one dog, two cats, one rabbit, four frogs and a small school of fish (the children caught the aquatic members of the family in a nearby stream using Dixie cups).  I can’t much blame him.  He’s the one who lets the dog out in the middle of the night, throws blankets over the bunny hutch in subzero temperatures, disposes of the dead creatures the cats catch and rescues the occasional minnow found flopping on the floor whenever there’s a botched water changing episode.

Adopting another child isn’t the same as acquiring a zoo, but for Pat, the words zoo and life were more synonymous to him than most would consider healthy.  The past year of our life together, on the best of days, conjured up images of riotous chimps and squawking birds, causing Pat to duck for cover at nearly every turn.  Between fertility treatments, the ski accident, the decision to adopt, the rejected Russian referrals, and the Tampa fiasco, we both felt like we’d been plopped, unceremoniously, into a pressure cooker, and left to boil.  Just when we thought the worst was behind us, Pat’s 80-year-old mother fell and broke her shoulder while visiting from Florida.  Scared and hurt, there was no way she could fly home and fend for herself.  Although I was still in the walking boot, weeks away from being able to drive again, I found myself conscripted into caring for my mother-in-law 24/7, a woman I barely knew at the time.  She since has moved to New York to live near us and has become truly one of the great blessings in my life.  I miss my own mother with waves of intensity impossible to bear at times and yet this spunky little Sicilian woman, unexpectedly, has become mother, friend and confidante.  I value her opinion and insight, admire her sage sense of humor and love her deeply.  She has indeed become a mother to me, in the best possible sense of the word.  But at the time, and in all honesty, the situation overwhelmed me.

Night after night, when Pat and I lay in bed, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Thankfully, most often, we laugh when given the option, dissecting the absurdities of the day with what I’ve come to believe is restorative deprecation.  In other words, we make fun of ourselves.  Often and without mercy.  But still, there was a lot on our plates, and I didn’t know whether in good conscience I should raise the issue of adopting another child just then.  We were dodging catastrophes faster than the ladybugs on the windows could reproduce, and no matter how comic the events of our lives might play out in a Steve Carell movie, I knew better than to assume that Pat’s highly evolved sense of humor and gentle disposition was limitless.

So, before I made any decisions that would involve Pat, I called Penny at Adopt Through Us to see whether a second child was even possible.  The short answer was “yes, of course!”  The less clear, sticky part had to do with fees and expenses and whether a second referral would substantially postpone or even jeopardize our trip to meet Ben.  Penny promised to call back as soon as she had more information.  Before we hung up, she asked whether we preferred a girl or boy.  “A girl,” I blurted.  As long as gender selection was an accepted (and expected) part of the Russian adoption equation, there was no doubt in my mind.  I wanted a snuggle bunny with which to cuddle and play dolls with on rainy Saturday mornings, a daughter to whom I could one day share the secrets of the water balloon babies.

I remember distinctly the moment when the subject could no longer be withheld from Pat.  Penny had called back with the answers to all my questions and asked in return that we make a decision by the next day.  Only that morning, according to Penny, the agency had received a referral of a two-year old girl living in the same orphanage as Ben.   The referral was ours to take but we needed to move quickly.  Other prospective parents were waiting in the wings for just such an opportunity.  The message was clear:  talk to Pat.

I found him in the kitchen making lunch out of hot sauce, goat cheese and Italian bread.  With the help of Vicodin, his mother was sleeping fitfully in the nearby sunroom, propped up with a dozen pillows so that she could watch the swarm of ladybugs that had been crawling up and down the windows for days.  Busying myself with emptying the dishwater, I quietly explained Suzanne’s idea, my phone calls to Adopt Through Us, and the news of the referral waiting to be delivered to our doorstep.

Pat didn’t say a word, though he continued to shake neon green hot sauce out of the narrow bottle with more energy than the task required.  Although he didn’t look angry, he wasn’t exactly combing the drawers for celebratory cigars.  Instead, he walked out of the room, still wordless, went into the bathroom and came back.  “I’ll think about it,” he said.  I didn’t have the gumption to tell him he’d have to think quickly.  My decision had already been made, as the thudding in my heart reminded me.  This mattered, more than I realized maybe, and the clock was ticking.  The possibility of completing our family in one fell swoop very much appealed to me.

In fact, the possibility of the second referral quelled the nagging ache that surfaced whenever I thought about whether, realistically, we would find the time, energy, and money to go back to Russia to adopt another child.   Hard as it is for me to accept some days, Pat was in his fifties and I was nearing forty (in my heart of hearts I’m only 25 and Pat is 28).  Without the driving, raw desire to have a child propelling us through the adoption process, I wasn’t sure we’d be able to rekindle the desire, and energy, to do it again.  We naturally would become contented with Ben, overjoyed and satiated by his presence in our lives.  I knew it would be all too easy to convince ourselves that he was enough, that he didn’t need a sibling with which to share his childhood or lean on in the years of life that would stretch beyond our own.

The storm that had been threatening all day finally unleashed and jolted us both from our revelries.  A bolt of lightning stirred Pat’s mother and I heard her moan weakly from the other room though she didn’t awaken fully.  I imagined the ladybugs losing their grips on the window screens as staccato sheets of rain hit the house, one slanted burst after another.  Pat put his sandwich down and looked at me.

“You really want this, don’t you?” he asked.  His eyes were soft but full of worry.

“I don’t want Ben to be alone.”

“A girl?”  He knew the answer but wanted to hear it anyway.

I shook my head yes.

“A girl would be nice.”

The conversation ended without another word and life resumed its hectic pace.  The storm awoke Pat’s mother for good and she needed help changing positions.  Pat may have needed the sizzling comfort of hot sauce to become sufficiently steeled for the conversation, but in the end, he never even flinched.  I would have been happy to adopt two boys when the chance arose and I managed to walk stoically away when that chance blew up in our faces.  Pat understood, more than anyone, the extent of my efforts to achieve motherhood and build a family.  He also knew the Tampa debacle had been my one and only opportunity to experience a baby from birth.  To this day I’m not sure whether he wanted to adopt a second child at the same time as Ben or whether his goal was simply to make me happy.

Every day Pat gives me the extraordinary gift of knowing I’m completely loved.  He nourishes my soul in a way that’s more valuable and enduring than any possible combination of possessions.  I’m very lucky in this regard, and I know it.  That day he chose to illustrate this poignant fact by agreeing to adopt a second child.  The reason I don’t brood over whether Pat’s decision was coerced is because it turned out to be the best decision we ever made, a wondrous gift to us both.  Sophie makes us laugh on days when only tears come naturally and reminds us why we began this journey in the first place.  She is perfect in a delightfully imperfect way and has brought immeasurable joy to our lives.  She doesn’t, though, go in much for dolls.  On rainy days we snuggle and play, but we’re more likely to play a zany version of zoo with her mounds of stuffed animals, dressed in the clothes she stripped from her flung-aside dolls.

The correctness of our decision however, was not so apparent at first.  In fact, when Adopt Through Us sent Sophie’s picture and medical report, we were a little taken aback.  She looked more like a ten-month old baby than an almost two-year-old child and she was stuck in the bed of a plastic truck, making the poor baby look like a thanksgiving bird.  She was not pretty in the classical sense and she looked bloated and distressed.  These are not kind thoughts to have about an orphaned child in need of a family, but they were our initial impressions.  Luckily Pat and I are not such horrible people that we ever allowed a child’s physical appearance to impact any of our adoption decisions.  If she was healthy, we wanted her.

Sophie’s referral photo (Birobidzhan, Russia, June 2004)

But there were aspects of the photograph that also contradicted the medical report.  For instance, despite her robust appearance in the photo, the medical report stated her birth weight was low and her current weight barely reached the third percentile.  Later we found out that the orphanage made a practice of extreme layering, meaning she wore panties, an undershirt, a pair of long underwear followed by wool tights, thick socks over the tights, and then a pair of long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and a wool sweater.  Knowing this explains her balloon-like appearance and the distressed expression on her face but we weren’t aware of this practice at the time.

Instead, we just thought she had a very large, puffy head.  Though we joked about it, we never gave it serious consideration.  My older sister and brothers still claim I was born with a rectangular-shaped head and they gleefully produce photos in an effort to substantiate these ugly allegations.  They do this to tease me, of course, but what if they were right and I had been orphaned and put up for adoption in Russia?  Would I have been rejected by middle-class Americans because of the shoe box shape of my head?  Maybe these imaginary parents would have thought I had perinatal encephalopathy or some other alarming medical condition.  As long as Dr. Aronson gave her a positive review, we would say yes.  She would be beautiful in our eyes, if not to the world at large, and that was enough.

The video arrived a day or two later.  Her physical appearance had changed in the intervening months.  The film was recorded in summer and she had been liberated from the suffocating layers of clothes.  Also, her hair had lightened from dark brown to golden blond and her face looked slimmer and much more lively.  The video camera showed her tottering around the edge of a play hut, holding onto the rim for support.  Her eyes were closed the entire time, about three and a half minutes.  We could hear a caregiver in the background urging her to do something, presumably open her eyes, and we held our breath as we watched our future daughter pause to consider the request.  When the revelry broke, she smiled slightly, chortled quietly, and continued on with her business, eyes closed.

We shared this video, as we had all the others, with friends and family.  While waiting to hear back from Dr. Aronson, we were anxious to know what people thought of her unusual behavior.  Most scratched their heads and offered various theories regarding why a toddler in a Russian orphanage might act this way.  Some were simply stumped and offered no opinion at all.  But one person whom I won’t name suggested that Sophie had serious brain damage and another chimed in that we would be making the biggest mistake of our lives if we went through with her adoption.

One of the problems with planning a family through adoption is that it transforms what should be a closed-door experience between two loving people into business conducted in a public forum, complete with fans and hecklers.  But in this instance, the anger and resentment I felt toward the nay-sayers in the stands was of my own making.  We had asked for these opinions and I unfairly had expected those within our inner circle to have the good graces to keep their mouths shut in the absence of having something instructive to say.

Luckily, Dr. Aronson was not worried and we were overjoyed with the news when her email finally arrived, as usual, in the middle of the night.  She was amused by Sophie’s decision to navigate the taping session blind.

Sophie continuing to play without benefit of her eyes (Dec. 2004)

What Dr. Aronson saw in her behavior were streaks of independence, a sense of humor, a keen (and brain-preserving) ability to make her static environment interesting, and an overlaying stubborn disregard for authority.  In short, Sophie intrigued her.  “This one is smart,” she wrote.  “She’s very determined.”

As usual, Dr. Aronson was right.  Now that we know Sophie, there is no doubt she was controlling the situation, striving to unnerve her caregivers and make her dull world more interesting.  Strangers routinely stop us on the street, in restaurants, and at playgrounds, mesmerized that someone so young has such presence, acumen, confidence, and beauty.  Yes, the homely orphan in the referral photo turned out to be a breathtaking beauty.  Icing on an already prize-winning cake.  Despite having walked out of the same violent storm that pelted our son’s brain with horrifying debris and relentless purpose, Sophie emerged from the baby home in Birobidzhan with abrasions, certainly, but no deep gashes.  This is the real miracle imbedded in our daughter’s remarkable, palpable spirit.

Our beautiful Sophie (June 2007)

In the end, the decision to adopt Sophie has too many layers of significance, even salvation, to express adequately in words.  If Pat and I ache over the enormity of Peter’s problems, if we stare at the ceiling at night because the responsibility of caring for a child like Peter robs us of sleep, then Sophie is our sweet elixir.  She likes to say “Mommy, I love you so much my heart grows big.”  I feel the same way.  She is joy and cause for celebration, her impish face a constant reminder that there is good in the world and room for applause in my heart.

At the time, we thought Sophie would make the perfect companion for Ben, who was thirteen months her junior.  Little did we know how our ordinary dreams were about to spiral exponentially beyond our imaginings.

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