September 3, 2007. Today is Labor Day and my nephew Jay’s birthday. He left for Georgetown last week, a college freshman. Thoughts of Jay (who only yesterday was “Jay-Jay”) make me mindful of how swiftly childhood passes, and that Peter is being robbed of the childhood he deserves. His flaws are not our fault, but they aren’t his either. As the family readies for a Labor Day pool party, complete with games, activities, clowns and swimming, I fret over how well Peter will tolerate the excitement. We are in a difficult place with him right now and it’s important that I reflect on how much we’ve achieved, Peter included. Toward this aim, I have constructed an incomplete list of challenges that our incomplete but courageous son has conquered in the last year: makes eye contact; sits criss-cross; walks up stairs with alternating feet; uses pronouns; brushes his teeth; heel walks (instead of toe walking); refrains from feces smearing, urine spraying, biting, opening car doors (while the car is moving), and tearing wallpaper; draws simple faces; hugs without hurting the person being hugged; allows himself to be hugged; tolerates hair brushing; hoards less; plays imaginatively; has started to play with other children; swims; plays soccer like a champ (never mind he consistently takes the ball away from his own teammates); stays dry during the day again; recites the alphabet; counts to 30; consistently recognizes the sight words “I”, “A”, and “look”; knows most shapes and colors; tolerates a haircut, and to some extent, fingernail and toenail clipping; makes his bed; and, best of all, says “I love you”. The list is larger still, but this is enough to buoy my spirits. We are getting there. Congratulations, my precious boy, I am proud of you.
Chapter 11: Goodbye Ben
Pat and I flew back to Moscow on Domodedovo Airlines and then flew to St. Petersburg the next day. My seat on the flight to Moscow was a middle seat next to a very old, round woman with long gray hair who wore at least 3 layers of clothing, despite the summer weather, and carried a cane. Gauging from the smell, none of her garments had been washed for at least a year. Because the cozy proximity was making me queasy (I was a mere day away from exhibiting overt symptoms of Giardia), I got up to use the restroom and get some air while the plane was still boarding. As soon as I walked down the aisle, Pat switched seats with me and refused to move when I came back. I had no choice but to climb over both of them to the window seat as I gratefully chided his stubbornness. Once I was settled, the old woman draped her coat across Pat’s lap, spread her hips well into his seat, dropped her cane between his legs and then promptly closed her eyes. Pat looked at me, we tried not to laugh, and then he removed the cane, using only his thumb and middle finger as he leaned it gingerly against her. After that he shook and slid the coat off his lap and scooted it toward her with his foot. Ever ready with hand sanitizer, I discreetly slipped the small bottle into Pat’s palm and kissed his newly disinfected hand as he passed it back. The exchange caused the woman to stir and say something incomprehensible in Pat’s direction. When he didn’t answer she hoisted up her skirts, shoving them expertly between sturdy legs covered in knee-hi stockings, and scowled like a bulldog. She must have been senile or drunk because she kept speaking to Pat in Russian throughout the long, uncomfortable flight, becoming increasingly agitated when he wouldn’t answer.
After this treacherous trip, where the rest of the passengers drank and smoked while Pat endured the demented Babushka, we spent a sleepless night in Moscow. Despite our shell-shock, we were happily relieved when, after a short, uneventful flight, we arrived at our hotel in St. Petersburg, which was on a picturesque little canal. After resting a while in a fabulously large bed, we felt semi-human again. We were able to get online in Moscow before leaving and had scheduled a phone call with Dr. Aronson. I don’t recall whether we had to stay up late or awake early to make the call the next day, and it hardly matters. Pat and I slept very little during this entire leg of our trip. We were too fraught with worry over the baby and riddled with anxiety over what Dr. Aronson would say. I had emailed her the pictures of Ben a few days earlier and despite the resignation I’d felt in Birobidzhan, I inexplicably interpreted the fact that she wanted to discuss her impressions on the phone, rather than by email, as a hopeful sign.
The travel agency we used to book our trip to Birobidzhan arranged for a driver and interpreter for us in St. Petersburg. Unlike Sergei in Moscow, this man was petulant, disdainful of Americans, and utterly bored with our presence. But he did take us to the sights, including the fantastic State Hermitage Museum, where we easily could have spent the entire next three days, despite the coat incidents haunting me.
I carried with me a short olive green trench coat and it seems wherever I went, starting with the Hermitage, a security guard would pull me out of the entrance line. I use the term “line” loosely as what really happens at Russian venues is that people elbow and push their way toward an entrance or ticket gate, tossing the young, infirm and elderly aside to gain a better position with the affable casualness of Roman Gladiators. Once out of the line, the coat enforcer, whether an old lady in a chair or a young man with a crisp security uniform, invariably would order me to remove my unassuming frock and either carry or check it. That four people next to me wore coats or baggy pants with mounds of pockets that easily could have concealed any number of contraband items was of no matter. It was either something about me or something particular about my raincoat. Whatever the reason, Pat and I would have several other opportunities to test our hypothesis regarding the visceral disdain my olive green trench coat evoked among Russian venue attendants: at the tourist trap ballet (the dancers were so old they stood and explained what they would be doing had they the energy to actually dance); at Peterhof, the summer palace and gardens of Peter the Great; and at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where many famous Russian musicians are buried, including Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glinka. I continued wearing my coat not out of sheer stubbornness but rather because the wind, as early as mid-August, was impatiently blowing autumn toward our way. And for this, I was stopped at every turn.
After our day at the Hermitage, Pat and I roamed the streets of St. Petersburg looking for a restaurant. The city is beautiful, and very European compared to other parts of Russia, but peeling paint is everywhere, alongside cracked sidewalks and crumbling brick facades. Our interpreter confirmed what we already knew: that St. Petersburg has suffered in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Whether related to the coat, or perhaps just the fact that we were Americans, the establishments we tried, one after the other, told us they were out of everything on the menu except caviar and Vodka. Pat could have survived on this fare, but since I don’t like either, we continued looking until we came upon a Pizza Hut, where we ordered a large pepperoni pizza. Although my New York husband normally abhors national chain pizza, and despite the fact that the Russian Pizza Hut is a very poor relative of the American Pizza Hut, we joyfully devoured the entire pie on top of our hotel bed, washing it down with a couple of Cokes. We always try to eat local cuisine whenever we travel, but since the citizens of St. Petersburg wouldn’t even let us eat, we didn’t feel too bad about holding up the culinary white flag and settling for pizza.
Pat and I spent the remainder of the evening writing down a list of questions and concerns about Ben in preparation for our middle of the night phone call to Dr. Aronson. As it turns out, we needn’t have bothered. The “real” medical records, along with the pictures and measurements we provided, were all she needed to tell us that we needed to move on. “You can heal his body,” she implored, cupping her hand over the phone as she called to one of her boys to brush his teeth. “Sorry about that. I gotta get my kids to bed. Mary, it’s his brain that can’t be fixed. The damage is done. That’s the thing. He’s got the head circumference of a two month old. He’s 12 months.”
I wanted to know if he had FAS, and so I dumbly asked. “Looks that way,” she said. “He does. Yeah, he definitely does. All the signs are there.” Well aware of Pat’s history with his own two sons, the adamancy in Dr. Aronson’s voice softened somewhat as she continued. “You guys said you didn’t want this. You didn’t want to take on FAS. This isn’t the baby for you. I’m sorry. You shouldn’t do it.”
She wouldn’t budge from her position no matter how we tried to sway her otherwise. When push came to shove, she shoved, and I’m grateful for it. She must have known Pat and I needed strong handling, the telephone equivalent of a slap across the face. I believed Dr. Aronson when she told us during the adoption classes that her role is to provide information to prospective parents without making decisions for them. Thank God, in this instance, she had the humanity and decency to break her own rule.
With heart and mind aligned, Dr. Aronson attempted to knock some sense into two bewildered and grief-stricken people, who at the moment weren’t particularly interested in hearing medical prognostications. She appreciated the devastating fact that we had been sent halfway across the world on false information and in futile search of a baby whose very existence was a cruel fabrication. But she also knew the Ben we loved was a fiction and that the real Ben, the baby we finally located in the hospital, was beyond the realm of our emotional and physical capacities.
I remember very little of our trip after calling Dr. Aronson, except that we held each other and made love that night, with the kind of passion that blossoms perennially from the love and intimacy that grows deeper with each shared experience, even the difficult ones. The only other thing I recall vividly is stepping onto the Delta airplane, which for me symbolized the comparative rationality of the U.S. I was so overcome with relief that I had to restrain myself from grabbing the face of the hapless flight attendant and kissing her square on the lips. Pat and I envisioned collapsing on the airplane and sleeping the entire flight home, and we quickly settled into our first-class frequent flyer purchased seats. But this turned out to be a naïve fantasy. The plane was filled with new adoptive families, the youngest members of which were intent on screaming and complaining the entire way.
One young couple, probably in their mid-twenties, sat across from us with a baby boy about eight months old. His face was covered in angry red blotches and pinched in obvious discomfort. They thought he was allergic to the formula they brought and didn’t know what to do. No one had told them to feed the baby the same diet (watered down yogurt) he was fed in the orphanage until they were safely home and within shouting distance of their pediatrician. I watched as they struggled to make the baby comfortable and listened to the escalating panic in their voices when nothing they tried worked. They seemed so young to me, probably because most people we encountered during the course of our adoption journey were older, at least in their thirties. At twenty-five, I never would have had the gumption, organizational skills, or driving desire necessary to endure the arduous, seemingly endless, high stakes game of international adoption.
At least our new friends Jackie and Sam, who we had met at the start of our trip in Moscow and who occupied the same approximate age bracket as Pat and me, were on our flight with their new five-month old daughter. We earlier had swapped stories like irreverent, seasoned war veterans (ours of course trumped) in an effort to widdle away the hours in the airport, Jackie bouncing a chubby, chortling Natalie on her knee the entire time. She was exhausted but happy and I envied the completion so evident in her face. After a while we left the baby in the nervous, wide-eyed care of Sam and Pat so that we could walk through the Duty Free Shop. Staring longingly at the delicate porcelain figures behind locked glass, we eventually convinced each other into buying keepsake Lladros, a baby girl for her, and despite the armor of resignation I thought I’d acquired regarding Ben, a toddling boy for me.
The figurine was bubble wrapped and carefully stuffed beneath the seat in front of me, as there was no room overhead. I feigned interest in looking at it to avoid the imploring stares of the new mother from across the aisle. She and her husband were getting nowhere with their baby, who was miserable and becoming increasingly distressed. Four hours into the flight, the woman had resigned herself to a regimen of neurotic hair twirling that eventually evolved into hair chewing and rhythmic rocking. The man cradled and shushed the baby against his chest, doing his best to comfort both the child and his quickly deteriorating wife from the cramped confines of his window seat.
At some point I dug into my satchel and pulled out the file on medical issues I had compiled for our trip. Somewhere, I knew, was a chart from Dr. Aronson explaining how to dose Benadryl, in case of allergic reaction, according to the baby’s weight, or if unknown, age in months. I offered the chart to the woman, who stared at the paper wild-eyed and without comprehension. After explaining that we came prepared with all kinds of instructions and medical supplies from a renowned adoption pediatrician, she hoisted the baby from her husband’s arms and lifted him across the aisle into my lap. “Give him the Benadryl, please. Whatever you think’ll work. Do it. Now. Will you?” And so I did. The baby slept for two hours straight and then awoke with a reinvigorated interest in screaming. The woman begged me to dose him again but I politely refused. Pat and I put on earphones, ate the chocolate ice cream sundaes offered us by the flight attendant I almost kissed, and held hands as we pretended to sleep for the rest of the flight.
We came home to a hot, empty house. The dog was in the kennel, her bowls upside down on the counter next to the sink, right where we had left them. Sophie’s room was still pristinely poised for occupation and I smiled with the thought of the mayhem this catalogue-perfect space would see once we brought her home. The closed door to the nursery, small and cozy and doused with hope for Ben, echoed with the sound of whooshing air as I peaked my head inside. In fading light I stared numbly at the red baseball cap rug on the floor, the letter B adorning the lid, and the wooden BEN letters that had been meticulously painted on the kitchen island and nailed to the wall over the crib. Taking them down was not an option that night, and neither was closing the door.
We would not call Adopt Through Us until late the next day. While Pat unpacked and listened to phone messages, I took a bath and then crawled greedily into bed, waiting for the window units to cool the steamy upstairs of our old stone house. Unable to sleep but too tired to function, I watched a Seinfeld marathon for three straight hours. Glad to be home and drained from our experience, Pat and I eventually fell asleep in each other’s arms, pillows dampening against our heads from the quiet tears that flowed for the boy who nearly became our son.