When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

January 30, 2010

September 5, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 12


First Day at the new school (Sept. 2007)

First day at the new school (Sept. 2007)

September 5, 2007.  Peter and Sophie start school today in Red Hook, across the river from where we now live.  The 1733 Dutch Colonial stone house Pat and I fell in love with before the adoptions, the house we promised the kids was their “forever home”, is now for sale. We’re entering the last stages of building a new house, complete with geothermal heating and cooling and solar panels.  We want to plunge ahead with a clear carbon conscience.  The decision to move, however, was driven not by ecological consideration but rather by Peter’s educational and therapeutic needs.  We fought his school last year to the point of emotional and financial folly; we should have taken our lawyer’s advice and moved thousands of dollars earlier.  On the way to school, Sophie tells me she’s a little nervous, which is understandable for a child about to start Kindergarten.  Peter claps like a toddler and tells me that bunnies are on the road, which they aren’t.  He must be nervous too.   Today he starts the PEACCE program, an acronym for the unwieldy title: Providing an Education for Autistic and Communication Impaired Children Effectively.   There are five other boys in Peter’s class, one Special Educator and two teaching assistants.   Through repetition and data collection, the program promises his brain will learn.  To complement academics, social skills are taught and practiced to the point of habituation.  He’ll also receive individual and group speech and language therapy, counseling, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.  I’m optimistic but at the same time quietly braced for battle.  Peter’s issues are permanent; brain damage cannot be undone.  At least two of the boys in his class appear lower functioning than he, but they may have more recovery potential.  FAS is a stealthy, cunning disability, capable of fooling even the best trained.  Our son presents far better than he functions and his former school was all too willing to make snap judgments based on very little other than appearance when it came to Peter’s educational needs.  We’re hoping for a more thoughtful, reasoned approach with the new school.  But the foremost goal of the PEACCE program is integration, as mandated by state education law.  Peter no doubt will thrive in his new environment, which is quiet, predictable, and highly structured.  I kiss him goodbye and he waves me away.  Because we need this program to work, so that our son’s mind and body can begin to integrate more meaningfully, I feel my nerves gathering hold.  As I watch him walk toward the PEACCE classroom, hand in hand with his new teacher, I pray he doesn’t thrive so much they decide to set him free.

Chapter 12:  Hello Peter

We were home two weeks when Peter’s referral information arrived.  In many ways I feel our son was destined for us and we for him; as though the path leading toward him, a path riddled and fraught with hazard, detour, and impasse, was laid eons ago and in deliberate preparation for the odyssey that lay ahead.

In the intervening days after we returned from Russia, Pat and I slowly acclimated to the reality that Ben was gone.  I also had surgery to remove some of the screws and the titanium plate in my lower leg and ankle.  The surgery was scheduled for two days after our return but had to be postponed a week because I became so ill with Giardia that I spent several hours in the emergency room hooked up to an IV.  While recuperating from the double whammy of surgery and Russian-acquired gastrointestinal insult, I continued to speak with Dr. Aronson about Ben.  With her urging, Pat and I also consulted another renowned physician in the field, Dana Johnson, who runs an international adoption clinic at the University of Minnesota.

“Mouse Manor”, c. 1733

I’ll always remember the great compassion Dr. Johnson showed Pat and me, two complete strangers.  How he dropped his busy schedule to review the information we faxed on Ben, calling back to give his opinion, free of charge, within an hour of being contacted.  His conclusions, which mirrored Dr. Aronson’s, extinguished once and for all the sputtering flame to which we stubbornly clung.  His remarks, predictable as they were unwelcome, brought necessary closure to our futile, melancholy attempts to keep hope for Ben alight in the waning embers of our hearts.

My conversations with Joan Slipp, the Executive Director of Adopt Through Us, were less appreciated.  I endured listening to an endless barrage of excuses and false explanations that spanned the days before my surgery and continued well into the recuperative period.  They tried to call us in Russia but Galina never gave us the messages.  Our cell phone number had been misplaced.  Russian orphanages are often called “hospitals”.   Penny, our caseworker, was inexperienced.  Lots of babies can’t hold down food (my personal favorite).  Even with the generous help of pain medication, complements of my orthopedic surgeon, I was nearing the end of my tolerance.  Thankfully, Joan Slipp cracked before I resorted to violence, admitting with trembling voice that Adopt Through Us had made layer upon layer of what she apologetically claimed were unprecedented mistakes.

The Birobidzhan orphanage staff and adoption handlers had asked us to meet and consider three other boys before we left Russia.  They knew the situation with Ben was disastrous and that we were unlikely to adopt him.  They also knew we had been willing to adopt two children at once.  We might still be willing to relieve the state of an additional mouth to feed, they may have wagered, if even a marginally acceptable replacement could be produced.  Although Pat and I had no interest in shopping for a replacement child, the staff refused to take no for an answer.  Instead, they cheerfully stewarded us through the orphanage halls to meet and observe three boys whom I prayed were oblivious to the stakes at hand.

The first boy we met, Andrei, was three years old and completely nonverbal.  The second, Viktor, had a grossly misshapen head and unfocused eyes.  The doctors tried persuading us that this poor child was keenly intelligent, despite his appearance and constant grunting, and that the shape of his head would normalize in time.  The third boy, who was also three and reminded me of Christopher Robin, was tall, fair, and whisper quiet.  Despite his shyness, he was verbal and able to assemble simple puzzles.  Of the three, he was by far the healthiest.

At the end of the day, we told Joan Slipp that we weren’t interested in another toddler and that we needed her to locate another male infant, preferably from Birobidzhan, that we could meet and adopt on our second trip to finalize Sophie’s adoption.  We had zero intention of taking a third trip.  Despite the irregularity of our demand, we knew this was accomplishable because Pat and I had been encouraged to consider adopting one of the three boys shown us by the Russian staff in Biro.

I was nearly manic about this pursuit.  Pat was in a downward spiral of grief and despair that I had never seen before.  We dated for many years before marrying because of his real ambivalence and fear over having children again, something I knew I wanted and wasn’t sure I could give up.  Having lost two sons, along with the collateral damage of a failed marriage and a surviving daughter left fragile from the experience, it was an enormous leap of faith and love for him to find the courage necessary to give fatherhood and marriage a second chance.

But then the floor fell out from beneath him in Russia.  “I’m no good for boys,” I’d hear him confess to one of his friends on the phone.  “First Vincent, then Joey, now Ben.”   Terrified of what I saw in Pat’s eyes, and what the hollow sound of his voice confirmed, I felt compelled to mollify the horrible injustice of what was happening to us.  Deep down, I felt his stability, and possibly our marriage, depended on it.

Pat (Blowing Rock, NC, Fall 2003)

So I pushed.  Several days later Joan Slipp called to say there wasn’t a single healthy male infant eligible for adoption in the entire country.  We could wait a while longer, she explained, as long as we understood that there was a process we needed to adhere to and that too much delay might jeopardize the ability to finalize Sophie’s adoption.  It was an entirely false, maliciously calculated, threat that Adopt Through Us would repeat more than once over the course of the next two months.

And it had its intended effect, which is difficult for me to reconcile.  I’ve spent a good deal of time chastising myself for allowing these kinds of bullying tactics to succeed against us.  After all, I’m a lawyer who’s trained and presumably inoculated against such transparent strategies.  But there was so much at stake and so much had happened to shake the foundation of my more rational faculties.  We had already lost one child and after three days spent with Sophie, we were hopelessly in love with her.  I had greedily indulged in the silky feel of her baby soft skin, inhaled the lush scent of her downy blonde hair, and had committed to memory the whorls of the cowlick that complicate the crown of her too sparse hairline.  Pat and I had heard plenty of horror stories of Russian judges refusing to finalize adoptions and of multiple agencies referring the same child to more than one couple.  Whether true or complete fabrications, the very thought of her adoption being put in jeopardy sent chills down my spine.  Joan Slipp was hitting below the belt when she brought Sophie into the discourse.

When I later asked about the boy we thought looked like Christopher Robin, she said we didn’t want him, and wouldn’t say more.  At the time, her silent adamancy conjured up visions of medical or social conditions too horrible to discuss but in hindsight, I doubt there was anything wrong with that child.  What Joan Slipp was doing was laying the foundation for Peter, clearing all obstacles, whether newborn or preschool age, that could potentially block the way.

“But we do have a child in mind,” she said.  “He’s three but cute as a button.  He only just came available.  And he’s from Biro.”

In spite of our reluctance to consider older children, Pat and I agreed to look at the photos and medical report.  Although we had been down this road so many times that elation no longer seemed possible, the pictures arrived and I smiled despite myself as I looked upon those happy, cinnamon eyes.

Another referral photo of Peter (presumably taken in May 2004)

Quickly grabbing a blank growth chart from the top of the stack of materials I had printed from the Internet, I plotted his measurements.  His head circumference was reassuring, especially for an orphanage child, and his weight was at least on the chart, somewhere around the 7th percentile.   His height measurement couldn’t be plotted because it didn’t make the chart, or for that matter, the graph paper.

But those eyes, the way they managed to sparkle even through the grainy blur of the low-resolution photographs.  Peter’s eyes are what captivated me, kept me searching and eventually longing for more positive answers that would give us the strength once more to pry open the chambers of our hearts.  They were brighter than circumstances should have allowed and I felt them draw me, nearly without volition, toward a sense of hope renewed.

The video of Peter came the next day and we watched it in the sunroom, the soft light of late morning casting shadows across the screen and Peter’s face.  The film was taken in May, three months earlier.  We knew this because a Happy Memorial Day banner was plastered in enormous block letters across the screen, obscuring much of the video, including the close-up footage of Peter’s face.  To this day I can’t figure out why anyone would think this was a good thing to do, but there it was.  Peter looked great, as Dr. Aronson would later confirm, but there were certain crucial things we couldn’t discern, in part because of the Memorial Day banner and also because Peter was so happy and animated in all the photos and the video.

For instance, we couldn’t tell what, if anything, he was actually saying on the tape.  Adopt Through Us claimed it had no one to translate Russian videos and at the time, we had no access to native Russian speakers.  Joan Slipp admonished that obtaining a translation was an unnecessary waste of valuable time, especially since he was obviously “talking” in the video, which she took as a very positive sign.  And though delightful to see, especially given the grim orphanage environment we’d just experienced, the fact that Peter smiled so broadly in the photos and giggled throughout the video made it impossible for Dr. Aronson to tell whether he had a philtrum.

“Ask for another set of photos,” she told us.  “No smiling, no facial expression.  I need a calm, relaxed face.  Front view and two-thirds profile.”

Although Adopt Through Us honored this request, the second set of photos were also insufficient to allow Dr. Aronson to run the computer program that helps identify children who may have been alcohol-exposed based on dysmorphic features and growth parameters.  We also weren’t sure at the time, and are even more skeptical now, whether the boy in the second set of photos was even Peter.

Is this Peter? (2nd photo sent by orphanage per our request)

Our request for a third set of photos, with detailed specifications, was denied.  For the second time in days, Adopt Through Us reminded us not to push the envelope.  If we aggravated the Russian authorities too much, Joan Slipp warned, they might deny us permission to adopt Sophie.

The unfortunate truth is that threats work when people are vulnerable because they have something valuable to lose, in our case Sophie.  So we dropped it.  We thought he looked pretty good based on the video, and so did Dr. Aronson.  His healthy head circumference, though not determinative, suggested against FAS and there was nothing dull or particularly alarming in the video about his behavior, appearance, or movements.  He didn’t appear developmentally like other three-year olds we knew but we also didn’t know any children who had spent the vast majority of their day tied to a crib or sitting in a playpen, without toys and without anyone with whom to play or talk.  For this reason, Dr. Aronson warns prospective parents that an orphanage child loses at least a month of development for every three months of institutionalization.  Peter had been in the baby home since he was five months old, which meant at the time of the video he was developmentally more like a two-year old, and maybe even younger.

“Take pictures once you’re there and email them to me,” Dr. Aronson suggested.  “Meet him and get your daughter.”  And that’s what we did.

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4 Comments »

  1. Mary,
    I’ve been reading your blog in snatches off and on all day. Like you, I am a recovering attorney, and like you, I am an adoptive parent of a child with “special” needs (daughter from Kazakhstan), although she is neurotypical. I am so impressed with your courage, grace, and the beauty of your story. I look forward to reading the rest as it develops.

    Comment by Soper — January 30, 2010 @ 7:22 pm | Reply

  2. This is the chapter where we first get to meet Peter.

    I do feel – heaps – for Andrei, Viktor and the Christopher Robin-looking guy. Like Ben, I’m like, What happened to these people?.

    In the Is this Peter? photo he doesn’t look like he had a philtrum.

    Sometimes with the months being lost, and the child being very very young, you would have a number which comes to “the child wasn’t even CONCEIVED yet”!

    That’s why it’s important to emphasise that trauma isn’t ‘suspended animation’, as Teri Doolittle did and does.

    Comment by Adelaide Dupont — January 30, 2010 @ 9:25 pm | Reply

  3. Oh!

    And before I forget!

    Is PEACCE a local version of TEACCH (the famous North Carolina programme which was run by Schopler and Mesibov?). TEACCH is very well known and loved in Europe, too, specifically France.

    Comment by Adelaide Dupont — January 30, 2010 @ 10:03 pm | Reply

  4. Mary,

    I’ve really enjoyed reading the blog. I look forward to reading more. I like the journal entries before the chapters.

    Wishing you all the best.

    Comment by Janet Torrey — February 1, 2010 @ 9:02 am | Reply


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