When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 28, 2010

August 25, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 8

American Museum of Natural History (August 2007)

August 25, 2007.  I wonder whether Peter feels our topsy-turvy weather on a cellular level; his demeanor can fluctuate as wildly as the untamed rhythms of late August in the Hudson Valley.  Some trees are beginning to turn already yet the thermometer reads 95 degrees.  Peter complains on the way to the pool that I forgot to take him to the dinosaur movie.  He is referring to “Dinosaurs Alive!” which we watched last weekend at the museum.  He mimicked the movie for two days straight but now can’t remember seeing it.  I can tell by the confused resignation in his eyes that he’s not making this up.  I try without success to jog his memory.  The good news is that on occasion he now trusts enough to confide in me what he appreciates, on some level, is a devastating impairment; the bad news, of course, is that he will always live with this devastating, unjust impairment.  Peter’s bad brain days usually equate to bad behavior days.  Today is no exception.  Lost in the chaos of a tantrum, he swings at me and misses.  He then turns his fist on himself, spit flying as he alternates between pounding his leg and punching his stomach.  The guttural sounds are difficult to endure, the stares of friends and acquaintances don’t help.  We need to leave.  On the drive home I wonder whether (and for how long) my son would remember me if I vanished from his life for any significant period of time.  The thought of falling into the abyss of Peter’s forgotten experiences makes me shudder.  I punch the knob on the radio and try in earnest to forget.

Chapter 8:  Russia, Part I (Where’s Ben?)

On August 8, 2004, Pat and I stepped off the ten hour Delta flight from New York to Moscow, hand in hand, and walked into the airport.  The day we would meet our children was 36 hours away and my knees wobbled in anticipation.  Ben and Sophie.  Although Peter wasn’t then part of our adoption story, all paths were leading inexorably toward him, like snowmelt trickling through the forest to a mountain lake below, waiting quietly for the rebirth of spring.  Peter would be reborn to us soon, but not yet.  First we would meet his adopted sister and Ben, the boy whose cruel misfortune would become Peter’s salvation.  Russian Roulette, orphanage-style.

The airport in Moscow makes JFK look like an exemplary model of civil planning.  We began realizing this as soon as we tried passing through the double doors of the gate.  Most double doors in large public places are designed to promote orderly egress and ingress.  This is not the case in Russia.  One of two doors is locked at all times, forcing stony-faced people to ram their way through the narrow single opening, saran-wrapped luggage in tow, while others are doing the same from the opposite direction.  Though Russians are a very warm and genuine people in the intimacy and comfort of their homes, their public demeanor is the reverse.  This gruff predisposition coupled with the constant frustration of having to navigate buildings, roads, airports, sidewalks and hospitals in a constant state of disrepair lends an angry pulse to the communal rhythm of the masses.

Pat and I struggled to elbow and shove our way through what resembled a glass-walled cattle shoot, furtively searching the crowd for our Russian guide as we followed the herd into baggage claim.  We found him before too long, thanks to the handwritten cardboard sign that read LIBUTTI and the I LOVE USA baseball cap perched atop his balding head.  The spelling of Pat’s last name, LoBrutto, wasn’t that close a match but it was encouraging enough to make us lunge toward him with relief, grinning like the dumb, bewildered Americans we were.  His name was Sergei and he was one of the true jewels of our trips.  Three years later, we’re still in email contact.

Our overnight stay at the Renaissance Moscow was brief but memorable.  Shortly after we checked into our room we met two other couples traveling from Florida, also Adopt Through Us clients.  Both had completed the first required trip, which Pat and I were just beginning.  The purpose of this trip is to meet the child, spend time together and officially decide whether the adoption should be finalized.  Many people scoff at this requirement, asserting that the Russians are capitalizing on the adoption trade, eagerly collecting the additional fees, charges, gifts and donations that two separate trips can provide.  The fact that American adoption agencies counsel their clients to bring duffle bags stuffed with “gifts” – perfumes, handkerchiefs, wallets, small electronics, and “clean” cash (meaning no marks, tears or folds on the bills) – heightens this suspicion of impropriety.

So many aspects of this journey bothered or at times even offended me but not these particular requirements.  Adopting a child is very serious business and prospective parents should be made to jump through as many hoops and over as many hurdles as necessary to demonstrate sufficiently their stamina and commitment. Though tempting, it’s a mistake to attribute the incredibly complex set of social and economic factors that lead to abject neglect and deprivation, such as that seen in Russian orphanages, to mere apathy and greed.  Americans and Canadians and the occasional Europeans are taking away Russia’s unwanted children by the planefuls.  People like Pat and I have been invited to help relieve this national burden, one child at a time, because Russia can’t care for its own.  Not an easy thing to admit for a former Super Power and not an easy obligation to assume for people with ordinary means, talents and coping skills, pursuing the very ordinary and natural dream of becoming parents.  Because of what happened with Ben, our agency worked out an arrangement with the local Russian government to allow us to meet and adopt Peter on our second trip, within 24 hours of meeting him.  There was no time allotted so that the idea of Peter could blend with the reality of the boy we met, to reconcile the twinkle-eyed smile in the pictures with the stiff, robotic child we found ourselves facing in the orphanage.  Two trips are good.  Had the process worked according to design, had we met Peter and had the time to digest and consider what we observed before a final decision was made, the dynamic of our family might now be vastly different.

As for the gifts, the idea didn’t bother me so much after meeting the recipients, mostly kind people who lacked the money to buy vegetables or even replace a pair of thready, over-darned socks.  The abject poverty was humbling to experience.  But that night in Moscow, the gifts, the multiple trips, and a myriad of other complaints were hashed and rehashed with the two couples we’d just met over a four-hour dinner.  The six of us sat around a table eating grizzly cheeseburgers and drinking beer and soda.  Pat and I were thrilled to find ourselves in the company of other American adoption couples.  Listening eagerly as they shared stories of their first trips to Tumen, an oil-rich region that is prosperous compared to Birobidzhan, we later peppered them with questions about what we could expect.   One couple, Jackie and Sam O’Shea have become lasting, long-distance friends.  They have a knack for injecting levity in situations where most would resort to tears or violence, and luckily for us, the O’Shea’s were with us on our return flight to New York, along with their newly adopted daughter, Natalie.  Their humor and unabashed joy for their 5 month old baby brought welcomed reprieve from our worries on more than one occasion.

The other couple we met that night was as memorable and Jackie and Sam, but for vastly different reasons.  Epitomizing all that is out of proportion with American society, they talked about buying babies, showing cash, making the deal, and “getting a kid”.  They expressed anger over the fact they were adopting a boy even though they had requested a girl.  The baby, as it turns out, had been quiet and withdrawn during their first trip.  “He was floppy,” the woman said, shrugging her salon-tanned shoulders.  “Like a rag doll,” the husband added.  “The kid wouldn’t do anything.”  They admitted with blasé that they had consulted no one regarding the child’s medical records, photographs or video and rolled their eyes when Jackie meekly asked whether they were concerned.  Had Jackie and Sam’s impressions been different, or had the photograph of that baby’s hollow eyes not been stamped into my memory, I might have thought I dreamed them up.  They were that crass, that  naïve and that cartoonish.  Unfortunately for the child, they were also very real.

The other interesting aspect of our one night stay in Moscow had to do with Pat’s crowned tooth, which came out in more than one jagged hunk during dinner with the beauty and the beast couples.  Pat has an early history of poor attention to dental health and is paying the price now, in locations grand and modest, across the globe.  Sergei was scheduled to pick us up at 11:30 the next morning for our eight-hour flight to Khavarosk, the nearest airport to Birobidzhan.  Pat would have precious little time to find a dentist in Moscow who could repair his broken crown.  Exhausted and suffering a toothache that was only partially quelled by a handful of Motrin and two bottles of Chinese beer, he tossed and turned throughout the night, grumbling in his sleep about the injustice of dental problems with the verve of a television evangelist.  The next morning the concierge in halting English gave him directions to the American Clinic.  I kissed Pat gingerly on his swollen cheek and wished him well as I watched him trudge toward the inner belly of the city.

Having nothing else to do, I waited in the lobby for Sergei.  The couples from the night before had already checked out and I was too nervous and exhausted to read or make meaningful use of the time.  But I did have the energy to people watch, which was both fascinating and stimulating.  The hotel catered to an odd mix of business people, tourists, and families in various stages of adoption, and none of these factions seemed comfortable with the presence of the other.  The crisp click-click of high heels and pointy men’s dress shoes were juxtaposed against the nervous, squeaky shuffle of the sneaker-clad adoption couples.  The imposing, austere countenance of the predominantly Russian staff sharply contrasted the soft humming drawl and comfortable clothes of a group of elderly tourists from South Carolina.  I found the whole scene a wonderful study in juxtaposition.

I became so engrossed in my observations that Sergei had to come and tap me on the shoulder.  He whisked us in a panic to the American Clinic as soon as he heard his latest charge had ventured out on his own.  At the time he didn’t appreciate Pat’s confidence in this foreign city or know that he had grown up on the tough streets of Brooklyn and spent the majority of his life happily combing every odd corner of New York City.  Except for the excruciating pain part, my husband was thrilled to be given two hours alone to explore Moscow.

Pat and Sergei (Moscow, Aug. 2004)

While we waited for Pat to emerge, well past the 11:30 scheduled departure time for the airport, Sergei and I became acquainted.  He asked what we did for a living and literally jumped off his chair when he learned Pat was a fiction editor.  It was a remarkably demonstrative move for a Russian out in public.  But Sergei, as it turns out, is a voracious reader of American fiction, particularly science fiction and thrillers, two of Pat’s main genres.  I also learned this unassuming, soft-spoken man who drives adoption couples around Moscow, orchestrating the endless appointments and appearances required to complete the process, held a Ph.D. in Cryogenic Engineering.  But working as an engineer, Sergei couldn’t afford internet access or pay for his 9 year-old son to attend a week-long science camp.  As an adoption coordinator paid with American dollars, he lives a respectable middle class life in Moscow.  He has a flat in one of the newer hi-rises and is proud the building has two working elevators.

When I asked why he can’t work as an engineer, Sergei paused to consider how to explain the former Soviet Union’s philosophy regarding the education of its citizens.   He told me that the Russian government, for instance, chose him and 30,000 other youngsters to enter university to study Cryogenic Engineering at no expense.  His “selection” derived from his secondary school grades and achievement scores.  Once his and the others’ education was complete, the government chose the 5 or 6 most accomplished among them for state-sponsored projects.  The rest of the newly minted Cryogenic Engineers were left to fend for themselves, feverishly competing for the handful of remaining jobs in an incredibly specialized field.  Sergei, though not one of the wunderkind, was lucky and talented enough to land one of those coveted, remaining positions.  But his salary was so low he couldn’t afford to stay in his occupation and give his son the better life he envisioned for him.

We would encounter this phenomenon of over-education throughout both trips.  Nearly every Russian we met as part of the adoption process was a doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer but none was working in the field in which he or she had been educated.  In this respect, Sergei and those like him aren’t much different from the hordes of discarded children warehoused across the landscape in decaying orphanages.  Their hopes, talents, and potential contributions have been pulverized and forgotten under the impossible weight of a crumbling, dysfunctional system that notoriously assigned little value to the dignity and worth of individuals.

Pat and I were confronted with the harsh reality of this lesson when we arrived in Birobidzhan the next day, exhausted, excited and with his temporary crown intact.  An indifferent, gum-chewing young woman and her driver met us at the airport in Khavarosk and loaded our luggage into a clunky Zil.  I was desperate to go to the bathroom but the facilities in the airport consisted of a series of holes in the ground with foot imprints on either side to guide your stance.  I couldn’t figure out how to manage the situation and was terrified I would slip and slide into layers of filth impossible to describe.  So I decided to wait.  As it turns out, I would wait, with legs tightly crossed, for nearly half a day.  There are no rest stops on the poorly maintained road from Khavarosk to Birobidzhan.

The young woman and driver ignored us completely for the next three hours, talking loudly to themselves in Russian, pausing only to put their seatbelts on at police checkpoints and then unbuckling them as soon as we pulled away.  I don’t recall either of them saying more than a handful of words to us the entire time.  Pat and I whispered conspiratorially to each other at first, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of our situation, but then we fell quiet and let our eyes and thoughts roam.  The landscape was desolate and overgrown, the road littered with potholes in the part that was paved and throwing up dirt and dust where there was none.  Old women and young Asian men walked along vast stretches of road where there was no place to go or turn off for miles on end.  There were groups of scruffy men sitting atop 40-year old trucks filled with watermelons, waving toothless grins as we passed.  I also caught my first glimpse of the dachas, the little wood huts passed from generation to generation that Russian city dwellers escape to in summer.  Despite cheery curtains and a few ragged flowerpots, for the most part these were grim, one-room structures without running water or electricity.  There were few signs of life as we passed.  I saw only one woman pumping water into a bucket by hand and another smoothing the hair sticking out of her kerchief as she emerged from what must have been an outhouse.

Although to an outside eye the dachas look like shanties slated for demolition, these rural huts are coveted.  People in Russia, especially in the larger towns and cities, live where they are told.  Only recently has the concept of property ownership come into existence and for most, it’s a dream far beyond their reach.  But the dachas belong to them by birthright and can’t be taken away.  And so with dedicated attention they continue to patch the leaky roofs and tack sheets of metal or plastic tarps over rotting exterior walls, keeping the elements and rodents at bay.  Sergei told me that he went to the dacha belonging to his wife’s family on the weekends, about an hour’s drive outside Moscow.  He hated going there, telling me he found it depressing and claustrophobic, but I had the strong impression that his was a minority view.  The air is free from industrial fumes and the land, a swatch of dirt no bigger than the average American driveway, belongs to the Russian family and not the government.  For that alone, I can appreciate their value.

After hours of monotonous, bumpy driving, we knew we had arrived in the birthplace of our children when we passed its only noteworthy landmark, a behemoth sign written in rusting Yiddish letters.

Birobidzhan, former Jewish Autonomous Region (Aug. 2004)

Birobidzhan is also known as the Jewish Autonomous Region, created by Stalin mainly to re-colonize Jews in Crimea, Belarus and Ukraine in the early 1930s.  Five thousand miles from Moscow and approximately twice the size of New Jersey, it was envisioned as a Zionistic alternative to Palestine.  Like so things Russian, the experiment failed miserably.

A few minutes past the sign we pulled into a housing complex and the aloof young woman turned around and announced our arrival at the apartment where we’d be staying.  She pointed to the fourth floor of one of the buildings, handed us a key, and said someone would take us to the orphanage the next day.  Pat and I had been extremely patient during this leg of our unsociable journey, but we balked at this news.  Our agency unequivocally told us that we would meet the children that afternoon.  We only had three and a half days in Birobidzhan and refused to surrender a single precious hour of time reserved for meeting and bonding with Ben and Sophie.

Our host Galina’s housing complex (Biro, Aug. 2004)

The woman seemed surprised that we weren’t willing to accept this news and said she’d come inside the apartment with us to make a phone call.  She had someplace else to be, she explained, impatiently twirling the frosted blonde tips of her dark hair, and she wasn’t the person who was supposed to be dealing with us anyway.  The actual guide and interpreter was sick.  After much back and forth, the woman said she would drop us off at the orphanage and the driver would pick us up an hour and a half later.  Hands on hips like the petulant adolescent she was, she said this was the best she could offer.

Galina, the woman whose apartment we were staying in was at work and there was no one else we could consult.  We had rented an international cell phone that was guaranteed to work in Birobidzhan so we dug through our luggage, pulled out the leather case with the phone and instructions, and tried calling Adopt Through Us.  Although we’d later be able to make a few calls, the reception was hit or miss.  At the moment there was no connection.

Pat outside Galina’s door (Biro, Aug. 2004)

As promised, they dropped us off at the door of the orphanage, which was about a mile down the road from the apartment, and drove away.  Pat and I stared nervously at the structure before us and paused to consider our next move.  Like every other building in Birobidzhan, the orphanage was a four or five story complex, built during the Soviet era in the late 1940s or early ‘50s.  When people ask him to describe the condition and architecture of the buildings, Pat has devised a standard response.  “Imagine this,” he says.  “They were built in a month without plans or inspections then abandoned for ten years, at which point the Algerians came and bombed them; they were then abandoned for another ten years, at which point the Russian government, without repair or upgrade, brought in the people to work and live.”

The complex was surrounded by overgrown vegetation and the “playground” consisted of brightly painted truck tires cemented into the ground and the rusting metal frame of what had been a swing set. The grass was thigh high and the weeds grew unchecked, choking out the few neglected ornamental bushes that some hopeful person planted years earlier.  There was no sign on the building or other indication of the entrance, so Pat and I approached what we thought was the main door and walked inside.  A light-haired man about my age approached us and politely asked in halted English whether he could help.  We told him we were there to meet our children, and we gave him Ben and Sophie’s Russian birth names.  He was confused and didn’t understand why our translator wasn’t with us, and all we could do was shrug and agree that the situation was not what we had expected.

The orphanage yard (Biro, Aug. 2004)

The next thing he said sent my heart racing and the contents of my undigested airplane lunch gurgling toward my throat.  “The girl is here,” he said.  “But it’s nap time. You’ll have to come back later.  We don’t wake the children up.”  And then without a pause, the bombshell dropped. “There is no boy here by that name.”

Pat and I stared at each other, dumbfounded and incapable of responding.

Where was Ben?


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