When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 29, 2010

September 2, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 10

May 2007

September 2, 2007.  Peter is screaming in the other room because Pat is giving him a hold.  The house is alive with the eerie sound of grunts mingling with periodic screeches.  He sits with Peter between his legs, big arms wrapped around little ones so that he can’t hurt himself or Pat.  He can spit but he won’t find purchase.  They are like two bent spoons, this grown man and child, stuck together without dignity in search of household harmony.  We were taught this technique over a year ago and use it only when necessary.  In order to be freed, Peter must sit quietly and without resistance for three minutes.  The first time I used a hold on my son I felt like I was breaking a wild animal.  Yesterday he scratched the leather seat of our favorite rocking chair with his fingernails.  Peter uses this chair the way a cat uses a scratching post, doing it whenever he has a chance, which isn’t often.  Except in his bedroom, Peter is never alone.  He suppresses the impulse to scratch until our backs are turned and Sophie is out of sight.  Once discovered, and despite obvious evidence, he lies proficiently about his role in the vandalism.  Last night I asked if he’s ever been able to stop himself once he feels like scratching the chair.  “No,” he said, “never.”

The rocking chair . . .

This morning I find dirty diapers, bloody tissues and old sandwich parts in his bedroom, stuffed into the bottom of the basket he uses to store artwork.  The mystery of the room’s odor is solved.  The reason for the hold is that Peter could not stop the tantrum that erupted when he was asked to draw a picture showing how he feels about his recent offenses.  He gets to work afterwards, with prompting, and presents a drawing that illustrates perfectly the disordered nature of his mind: he draws a picture of himself, the rocking chair, a rocket, the swimming pool, the hammock, two windows and a calendar.

Chapter 10:  Russia, Part I (Something’s Wrong)

The hospital where Ben was kept looked like all the other buildings in Birobidzhan except it was more dilapidated.  We walked up two flights of steep stairs, careful to avoid the crumbling holes and badly splintered handrail, and came upon a very old woman sitting in a chair.  Her job was to block the door to the pediatric and obstetrics ward.  Still in a walking boot and badly swollen from traveling, my ankle screamed displeasure with every step.  We had been in Russia for four days and had failed to encounter a single elevator.

Tamara caught her breath at the top of the stairs and said something to the seated woman that made her scowl.  She scowled even more as she stood arthritically and dragged her chair aside.  We passed through double doors, one of which was locked, and nearly ran into a teenage girl holding her rounded belly with pained concentration.  Eyes bulging and bent at the waist, she was definitely in labor.  We would see her leave two hours later, hair mussed and wearing the same clothes, now bloodied.  There was no baby in her arms and I watched hypnotized as she gingerly lowered her exhausted body down the stairs.  She was the first but would not be the only person we saw covered in blood or dirty bandages during our three horrifying days with Ben.

Tamara took us to a waiting room so filthy I was afraid to breathe.  A broken couch that smelled like mold and was littered with round, suspicious stains stood against a windowless wall.  The rug next to it was thread bare, its last strands of fringe knotted with hairballs and globs of matted dust.  There was a sink in another corner with rusted fixtures and green baked-on guck covering the drain and metal pedestal.  I looked at Pat and instinctively reached for the security of the hand sanitizer inside my purse as I waited for someone to bring us Ben.

When I saw him my heart ached.  He was dressed in one of the many pairs of footy pajamas we had brought with us from home.  Someone must have sent them over in an effort to ameliorate the bungled events earlier in the day.  Even though they were size 6-9 months, and Ben was 12 months old, the pajamas hung loosely off his skeletal frame, like a tent flapping in the wind.  Gaunt and nearly translucent, his delicate blue veins wound visibly beneath the surface of his skin.  But for his eyes, which glistened with the same gentle kindness that stole our hearts in the video, I wouldn’t have recognized him.  The nurse brought the baby to Pat, carefully setting him in his arms, and smiled kindly at the two of us.  Then she handed me a diaper, said something to Tamara, and walked away.

He was so fragile we found ourselves whispering in his presence.  Except for the eyes, this was not the cuddly baby we’d come to know and love in our dreams, the Ben in the referral photos generously displayed throughout our home.  Something clearly had gone awry in the months since the referral.  One of the first things I noticed was the way his hands shook when he tried to lift his wobbly arms.  Unlike Sophie, he was hungry for touch and showed no hint of distrust.  When it was my turn to hold him, he weakly but without hesitation reached for my face, outlining my nose, eyes and lips with long, slender fingers.  Despite his physical condition, he was tender, gentle, and peaceful, just as we remembered him.  He was also seriously ill.

When I look back at this moment, I can’t help but compare Ben to Peter.  Ben’s issues were substantial, as we were about to learn, and we would be subsequently advised not to take them on.  But then two months after Ben, the same set of experts told us Peter was in relatively good shape and so I forced myself to resist and ignore powerful instincts telling me otherwise.  Ben is destined to have unfortunate, unfair, and enduring problems, just like Peter.  Of this there is no doubt.  But strong intuition tells me that he’s free of the psychic wounds that ravage Peter’s soul and mind, the demons that without apology try their best to scratch and gnaw at the very fabric of our family.

After giving us ten minutes to just quietly hold and look at Ben, Tamara dangled the diaper in the air and asked whether one of us wanted to change him.  I laid a receiving blanket I had brought in my bag to cover the filthy floor and Pat put the baby gently on his back.  We pulled off his pajama bottoms, surprised he wore nothing else except a diaper.  The hospital must not have embraced the orphanage’s practice of multi-layer dressing.  His knees were so knobby and his legs so thin they looked like Tinker Toy sticks attached at the middle with tennis balls.  In fact, the sight of his legs alarmed us so much we asked whether we could remove his top and look over the rest of his body.

I don’t know whether the hospital would have allowed this, the nurses and doctors wouldn’t even let us see where he slept, but Tamara is a truly kind soul who wants the best for both child and prospective family.  “Just do it,” she said.  “But quickly.”  And so we did.  We found that he had an equally thin torso and a significantly sunken chest.  As my mind began to scan the dozens of articles I’d nearly memorized about international adoption medicine, my sense of worry escalated.  A “conclave” chest is a prominent feature of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  At that point I had no choice but to assume a more investigative role, and so with apology in my heart I poured over his downy body, inch by careful inch, for worrisome signs, taking photos to send Dr. Aronson.  I noticed features of his face that weren’t obvious from the video or referral photo and noted them in a little notebook.  His chin, for instance, looked underdeveloped, at least to my untrained eye, but he did have a philtrum.

Dr. Aronson sent a sheet of square stickers with instructions to place them in the center of Sophie and Ben’s forehead and take photos from the front and side, with face and lips relaxed (not smiling).  She would use these photos in conjunction with a computer program that evaluates facial features against norms for purposes of FAS identification.  The sticker on the forehead provides a scale from which to calibrate the measurements.  The program allows the physician to more objectively evaluate the philtrum, the upper lip, the length of the eye openings, the position of the ears on the head, the shape of the ear folds, and a few other anatomical anomalies suggestive of alcohol exposure.

After spending half an hour with Ben I knew we needed to get the photos to Dr. Aronson immediately.  Tamara already told us the post office in Biro had fee-based public Internet access.  I would spend much of the evening downloading the pictures and composing an email to Dr. Aronson that could then be sent from the post office in the morning.  Although Pat was concerned too, his alarm bells weren’t sounding as loudly as mine and for his sake, I struggled to keep my anxiety in check.  I wanted Ben as much as Pat but I was terrified of his physical condition.  He was sick, certainly, and we needed information on his medical condition, but there were other worrisome signs unrelated to illness.  I took the pictures of Ben as Pat looked worriedly on, trying to distract him so that we could capture the baby’s face and profile at the appropriate angles.

Although we would later take the sticker pictures of Sophie, neither one of us felt the need to put her through the strange ritual that first day.  With proper food, medical care and love, she would be just fine, more than fine, in fact.

Sophie “reading in big boots at Galina’s (Aug. 2004)

Despite having been introduced for the first time only hours earlier, I could appreciate that Sophie’s mind is her most exquisite, intriguing feature.  I also was comforted to know, as I had learned in our adoption class, that the kind of cerebral prowess with which our daughter is possessed is incompatible with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Unfortunately, Ben was a different matter.

I finished my un-motherly probe as quickly as possible and then Pat and I fumbled to change and dress him.  We played for a few minutes more, all the while trying to assess where he was in terms of developmental milestones.  At twelve months Ben could stand and take a few shaky steps holding onto our fingers or the edge of the tattered couch.  We took this as a good sign.  But when we pulled out a new toy from my bag, a hard plastic figure that came apart in three places, he made no move to pick it up.  When we held it to his face he would look at it, and when we put it in his hand he would hold it, but he wouldn’t pick it up or manipulate the doll in any way on his own.  I knew this wasn’t good.  But then he also was intently interested in Pat and me.  He made eye contact, he smiled, he explored our faces and outlined the curve of our fingers, and he reached out to us an hour later when the nurse took him away.  This part seemed wonderful, so wonderful in fact that the entire episode left us weepy, happy, scared, and hopelessly confused.

That night I wept quietly while Pat slept.  We played Crazy Eights and Spades for an hour, watched an episode of the Family Guy on our laptop, split an Ambien tablet and finally turned out the lights.  My racing thoughts, however, were no match for the mild sleep-aid our doctor encouraged us to bring on the trip.  Although I had written the email to Dr. Aronson and attached the photos, I was frustrated that I had to wait until morning to send it.  I might have been less troubled that night had we been able to talk to the doctor before we left the hospital but a cursory search by Ben’s nurse failed to locate her.  We had endured a ten-hour flight, a three hour drive on a partially paved road, had been dumped on the steps of the Baby Home by a disgruntled teenager, told there was no baby at the orphanage fitting Ben’s description, screamed and panicked until he was located, driven back to the orphanage to meet Sophie, later taken to a nightmarish hospital to find Ben, and been confronted with a baby who had deteriorated significantly since May and whom I now understood was afflicted with FAS.  In short, it had been a very difficult day (or two).

The rest of our time in Biro was spent getting to know Sophie and trying to unravel the mysterious circumstances of Ben’s health, including why his present condition contradicted all the information in the medical report Adopt Through Us had sent us.  Later the second day, Dr. Aronson emailed back and said it was imperative that we measure his head circumference and get a current, accurate weight.  She didn’t want to say too much more until she had these additional facts before her.

The doctor at the hospital was neither kind nor helpful.  She told us Ben had a digestive problem that prevented him from eating and that we should take him to a specialist in the States when we got back.  She explained that he had to drink formula in very small quantities several times a day because he couldn’t hold down much food at one time.  I later asked to feed him and was brought a bottle with an ounce or two of watered-down formula and a nipple with a hole so large I could have popped a blueberry through it.  He didn’t want the bottle when I offered it to him but later, when he finally took a few slurps from the giant nipple, the contents came immediately back up.

After that, Pat and I asked to see his medical records but the doctor refused.  We measured his head circumference ourselves and wrote down the results for a later email to Dr. Aronson.  Current weight was given in kilograms and when I pulled a conversion sheet from my bag, I was devastated to realize that Ben weighed slightly less than 12 pounds at 12 months of age.

Having an emotionally charged argument is especially interesting when the parties arguing need a translator to convey what they’re screaming about.  The doctor refused to show us the medical records, Adopt Through Us was incommunicado, and no one else could tell us what was wrong with Ben.  I was near the end of my rope but having to pause every few words so that Tamara could translate made it difficult to sustain my target level of outrage.  When I threatened to find the mayor of the town and told the doctor she was breaking all kinds of international laws by withholding disclosable adoption information, she finally yielded.  I’m not aware of any actual laws that were broken, but I was improvising and on a roll.  Pat later told people that he was thinking of finding a priest to perform an exorcism on me.  I was mad, really mad.

After conveying my thoughts, concerns, threats, and intentions in very clear and specific terms, the doctor said the records did exist but they were archived and would take some time to locate.  Pat and I said we could wait.  This infuriated her even more.  Eventually she left and came back twenty minutes later with a fat file that she handed us, knowing full well we didn’t speak Russian.  When we asked Tamara to translate the reports, the doctor stopped her, saying she had no right to review the records because she wasn’t a prospective parent.  At that point Pat lost it.  He turned red as his facial muscles tensed and his hands opened and closed reflexively in preparation for a possible rumble.

We eventually won this inane fight and Tamara read us the records while I jotted down notes.  The medical report forwarded to us from Adopt Through Us, it seemed, belonged to a baby other than Ben.  I had the report with me and none of the measurements or birth information matched his real records and the disparities were not in Ben’s favor.  The real medical records showed his weight and head circumference measurements had been dismally (and consistently) deficient since birth and that he’d been given a very low Apgar score.  There were also copious notes about his inability to feed and tendency to vomit.

When confronted with the evidence, the doctor refused to offer any explanation or assume any responsibility for the hospital having sent the wrong baby’s records.  Perhaps she knew all along and this was a common scam to lure people into traveling, figuring once they were in Russia and spent time holding a baby, they would come back for the second trip and finalize the adoption no matter what the child’s condition.  Maybe she was doing it for the baby.  Certainly possible.  One aspect of this part of our journey, however, will forever leave me scratching my head.  How was sweet, gentle Ben able to appear so lively in the referral photo given the compromised state of his health?  Maybe the nurses tucked a few extra layers of clothes under his outer layers to make him look more robust.  Unlike other videos, the woman with Ben did not undress him but rather spent a lot of time tickling him, which in hindsight may have been a deliberate move to disguise troubling signs.  Whatever the case, the reality is that the video even fooled Dr. Aronson, which I imagine is a very difficult thing to do.

The other reality is that Pat and I were alone in Birobidzhan, thrilled with Sophie but heartsick over Ben.  There was a horrible decision looming over our heads and we spent our last two nights in Biro taking walks and talking late into the night in the quiet of our hostess Galina’s bedroom.  We had emailed Dr. Aronson the measurements and other information and had no choice but to wait and keep calm until she replied.  There was nothing else to do as Birobidzhan has no real restaurants or other venues to distract us.

Galina proved a lovely hostess, and though she spoke little English, she knew something was terribly wrong.  She did her best to comfort and ease our strain, cooking three meals a day and washing and ironing our clothes.  She even ironed and starched Pat’s boxer shorts, something he never hopes to experience again.  She had a 7-year old grandson, Bogdan, living with her on a fold-up cot in the corner of a room.

Bogdan enjoying his Spiderman Legos (Biro, Aug. 2004)

We knew in advance of our trip that our hostess had a child, so we brought a Spiderman Lego set for him.  I enjoyed watching Bogdan play with the Lego’s before dinner and marveled at the extent of his appreciation and enjoyment of such a modest gift.  A couple of nights Pat and I even watched Russian soap operas with Galina after dinner.

But leaving proved difficult, very difficult.  The day before, a little boy came up to me while I was playing with Sophie and held out a picture of a man and woman.  Tamara said he wanted me to know that he was being adopted and that the people adopting him were also adopting his infant brother.  He kept asking Tamara to make sure I knew his brother was going with him.  He also said he was Sophie’s best friend, that he loved her, and that she was his “sister”.  I was so struck by this precocious child’s ability to understand the concept of family, and his ability to bond with Sophie despite the stark environs of the orphanage, that I asked Tamara whether she knew how to get in touch with his new parents.  I had taken some pictures of the boy holding the photo of the couple and I wanted to email them.

Michael waiting to be adopted (Biro, Aug. 2004)

Reunited: Kevin, Peter, Michael and Sophie (Summer 2007)

Pat and I have since become very close to this couple and their two boys, and even though they live in Colorado, we see them at least once a year.  But that day the encounter with Sophie’s best orphanage friend had a profoundly unsettling effect on me.  We were about to say goodbye to Ben and I knew intrinsically that we wouldn’t be seeing him again.  I was hoping for a miracle, of course, but my instincts told me that Dr. Aronson’s report would be grim.  We had left for Russia with Ben’s nursery completely finished and waiting for him.  We had lived for months as though he was already part of our family.  With naïve hope and optimism, friends and family had given us baby gifts, some even monogrammed with the initials BGL, for Benjamin Greene LoBrutto, a name chosen to honor a favorite relative who died in his late 40s from lung cancer.  But there I was, resigned to walk away forever.  I knew I was about to trim the corners of what family meant to me in a way Sophie’s little friend in the Baby Home steadfastly refused to do.

My parents (early 1980s)

Saying goodbye to Sophie, knowing we were leaving her in that desolate place for an indefinite period of time, was incredibly difficult.  Casting Ben from the place he held in my heart left me feeling even emptier than I felt on the days, seven years separated, that my mother and father died.  The fact that Pat hadn’t yet allowed himself to confront this reality made grappling with my feelings even more difficult, and precarious.  He still was consumed with worry over what we would need to do to make Ben well, what specialists we would need to consult, and whether we could get him help in Russia during the month or two before we came back.  We were scheduled to spend a few days in St. Petersburg as a side-trip on our way back to the U.S. and Pat wanted to get on the phone and track down medical help as soon as we arrived.

I kissed Ben goodbye and choked back the tears.  If I didn’t stay strong I would crumble, maybe even disintegrate right there on the filthy floor of the hospital’s pediatric and obstetrics ward.  I needed to focus on Sophie and my husband.  Pat’s state of mind worried me terribly because he was still clinging to the idea of impossible hope, even redemption, when it came to Ben.  I knew he was going to crash, that the facts would soon prevail over wishful desire, but I didn’t know when.  All I could hope was that I’d be there to catch him when he fell.


1 Comment »

  1. You description of the hospital and the staff and the physical condition of Ben sounds so similar to the experience we had with our first referral in-country (we traveled blind). The big difference is that we were able to take a physician with us that was looking out for our best interests. She was very adamant that if we adopted this child we would be adopting a baby that would never love us. I think she was just as shocked by the conditions and his appearance as we were. We were lead to believe that he would be moved to an orphanage with better conditions, but would be removed from the list of children available to be adopted. I still think of him and wonder if he is still alive.

    Comment by Kristine — March 3, 2010 @ 11:43 am | Reply

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