When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

February 1, 2010

September 7, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 13


Grrr . . . (Summer 2007)

September 7, 2007.  The kids and I are in the diner in Red Hook, having lunch together as a special treat because school dismissed early, at 11:45.  Peter is doing well in his new PEACCE class but the effort required to maintain control, to cope with the new routines and expectations, leaves him few reserves by the time he gets home.  There is nothing unusual about this; parents of autistic and other developmentally disabled children often report this phenomenon.  But I need to readjust.  I’d forgotten just how difficult this period of transition could be.  He’s rolling his neck at the table like a drunken bobble-head, making sure I notice as he feigns oblivion.  When I ignore him, he switches to a refrain of “eggs are like eggs are like eggs are like eggs are like BIG eggs” until the sheer monotony of his echolalia overtakes me and he succeeds in breaking my measured silence.  “STOP NOW!” I demand, teeth clenched.  Peter laughs.  He’s in the mood to celebrate my crumbling composure, a fact that both demoralizes and infuriates me on days like these.  I already warned him twice I would squeeze his ear, a handy, covert correction I save for public places, if the nonsense didn’t stop.  But he beats me to it.  “I squeeze my own ear, Mommy!”  And he does.  He gleefully squeezes so hard he screams.  The pain surprises him.  Sophie shrieks, “I didn’t expect that!”  I’m astonished too.  I have a child who happily will hurt himself to get a rise out of me and anyone else who happens to be watching.  I want to be positive, I really do, for Sophie and Pat, and especially for Peter, but some days it’s hard.  Some days I don’t know how long, or for how many years, I can keep this up.

Chapter 13:  Russia, Part II

We flew Aeroflot to Russia for the second time on October 22, 2004, which turned out to be more comfortable and every bit as hospitable as Delta Airlines.  We also changed hotels, opting this time to stay at the President Hotel in Moscow rather than the Renaissance.  We had heard from several couples that the rooms at the President were larger, more comfortable and more accommodating of adoption families.  Slowly but surely we were learning that American wasn’t always preferable, at least when it came to traveling in Russia.

The little boy who so loyally thrust the picture of his future parents into my face at the orphanage was staying in Moscow, at the President Hotel, with his baby brother and new parents, Cheryl and Peter Barnes.  The formal adoption proceedings behind them, the Barnes still had several hoops to jump through before gaining the right to leave Russia and return to their Colorado home.  But the nail biting stage was past.   With any luck, we would be jumping through the exact same hoops a week or two later, with our own two children in tow.

That night we had dinner with the Barneses, now a family of four, in the hotel lounge.  We would breakfast with them the next morning before catching our flight to Khavarosk.  Cheryl and I had become friends over the telephone and via email and it was gratifying to finally meet her in person, halfway around the world.  The boys, now and forever known as Michael and Kevin, were tired and pale, the stress and upheaval of the process evident in their bewildered, red-rimmed eyes.  But not even exhaustion could prevent the celebratory mood that prevailed that night, among both adults and children.  We ate soup and sausage and watched the boys devour oatmeal, which the kitchen was happy to prepare.  Michael kept asking his new father, who spoke some Russian, when Sophie was being adopted and whether they would see each other again.  I felt as astonished and honored to witness this young boy’s profoundly developed sense of loyalty and family as I felt the first time he approached me with the photos of his parents in Birobidzhan, three months earlier.

I would see pictures of Michael and Kevin a few months later and hardly recognize the undernourished, sickly boys I shared meals with in Russia, so complete was their physical transformation.  People say the same, of course, about our children, whose appearance and health began improving even while we were still in Russia.  But the healing power of love and good nutrition has limits.  As we would soon learn, the mind is a more slippery creature than the rest of the body and can be capable of eluding even the most clever means of intervention.  Cheryl and I speak frequently, often about this subject, and our families see each other when schedules and budgets allow.  Her oldest son, a boy whose heart forever will be branded onto mine, has more emotional scars and difficulties from his first 3 ½ years with his birth family than from the neglect and deprivation experienced in the orphanage after he was removed and made a ward of the state.  Like us, though for different reasons, the Barnes have their hands full.

And though Cheryl and Peter knew bits and pieces of the boys’ horror-filled past, concern for the future, for the health and peace of the family, was far from their minds that night.  They were basking in the glow of their instant plurality, reveling in the fruition of a double adoption journey more arduous than any “How To” book would ever dare describe.  And it was infectious.  Bearing witness to the birth of the Barnes family, I borrowed them as a kind of template for my own imagination, roughing out a vague map to mark the contours and terrain of the new family Pat and I were about to create.  Though my map was still fuzzy, I felt ready.  Through the labor that love imbues, I would succeed at motherhood, restoring Sophie to physical health and nurturing the spirit that even the bleakest of surroundings had failed to subdue.  As for Peter?  Having already seen the sparkling dance in his eyes, I felt certain I would surrender my heart completely, acknowledging with forgiveness the grief preceding him as necessary initiation into the rite of a mother-son union forged with intention from boundless love and gritty determination.

When we arrived 40 hours later in Birobidzhan, after a tearful and joyous farewell with the Barneses in Moscow, we trudged up the three flights of stairs to Galina’s apartment, with four times the amount of luggage we carried on our previous trip and significantly more confidence and resolve.  We were there to get our children.   I packed everything they could possible need and then some.  The local pediatrician we would use once our kids were home, also an adoptive father, had emptied out his entire storage closet and filled two duffle bags with sample antibiotics, vitamins, creams, and Tylenol, supplies we promised to deliver to the orphanage.

We spent a few minutes unpacking and smiling at Galina, nodding our head in appreciation while we inanely repeated spasiba, which means thank you.  She had procured a new bed since our last trip and was excited for us to see it.  Summer had given way to late fall, leaving Birobidzhan even more forlorn than I remembered.  Galina’s apartment was quiet now that Bogdan was in school.  The world outside was more hushed too, the trees having dropped their leaves in silent surrender to the coming elements weeks earlier.   Later, when Pat and I walked the apartment grounds, I would listen to the crunching noise of ice splinter the brittle blades of stale grass beneath our feet.  We’d leave a trail of ice shards splayed across the frozen earth like broken glass, marking our path as we marked time.

The next day Pat and I were brought to the big sunny room in the orphanage to meet Peter.  Once again I was struck by the unnatural quiet of the place.  Hundreds of young children lived in this building yet it was as silent as a cemetery buried in snow.  Despite evidence of children, such as second sets of low handrails and filthy strips of rags hanging knee-length from a string for communal nose wiping, we heard no laughing, no babbling, not even the occasional cry or whine.  We stood in muffled silence, waiting, until finally the doors flanking each side of the room opened as if on cue.  Peter raced through one side as Sophie was lead by the hand through the other.  In her free hand she clutched the little pink pillow with our picture in the sleeve.   What joy!

Peter wearing my sunglasses (Oct. 2004)

Wearing a red shorts outfit over red tights and a pair of plastic red fisherman sandals, Peter ran straight to Pat, leaping with short, stocky legs into open arms.  Our translator Tamara looked at me and we both smiled.  I walked over to look at him more closely but then moved quickly back because he screamed.  The astonishing sound pierced the eerie quiet of the building like the public wail of an emergency siren.  Sophie was busy with a few new toys we’d spread across the carpet but when Peter screamed she looked up, cocking her head in consideration of the affront, but then quickly resumed her noiseless play.  She had changed surprisingly little in the eight weeks since we’d seen her last.  Not knowing what to make of Peter’s reaction, I inched my way over toward Sophie and sat down a few feet away.  Fascinated by the pretend food and shopping basket Pat and I had purchased earlier that morning at the local market, she smiled coyly and handed me a purple plastic eggplant on a plate.  I thanked her, spasiba, and made gobbling noises as I pretended to eat, the whole time watching Peter and Pat from the corner of my eye.

Sophie being held by a caregiver (Oct. 2004)

In some ways the lines were drawn the instant Peter loosed his deafening scream.  To a certain extent, Pat and I still work to overcome the unexpected allegiances that established themselves that day.  Peter, for any number of possible reasons, was drawn to Pat to the point of obsession and Sophie, though interested in “Papa”, was always more curious about me.  Pat has always said that more than anything in the world, Sophie wanted a mother.  And though I wish for Pat’s sake that I could say the same about Peter’s desire for a father, that Pat fulfills a primal need for our Russian son, I can’t.  Peter loves Pat, and when it surfaces, his brooding anger is less focused and intense with him than it is toward Sophie or me.  But our son’s dreams and wishes, the desires that dwell in the center of his heart, are often unknowable.   Even in emotional moments of breakthrough, Peter’s deepest desires prove too fleeting to catch and are nearly always too tangled to translate into words of healthy expression.  But what is true and knowable is that Pat has forged his own lasting and meaningful relationship with Sophie while I continue to make inroads, slow and steady, toward the closely guarded chalice of Peter’s hobbled heart.

In the intervening years since we first met, I’ve begun cultivating a quiet acceptance about Peter, as well as a growing sense of peace regarding the efforts I’ve shown him, that I didn’t possess back then.  In fact, when we first met his reaction was so far a field from what I expected, and I was at such as loss as to how to respond, that I began a harmful, self-deprecating inquiry into my ability to mother that I still struggle daily to combat.  As is the case with animals of all varieties, I’ve always been drawn to children and them to me.  Even mean, unsociable dogs wind up licking the back of my hand and letting me scratch their ears.  Until Peter taught me the danger of misplaced confidence, and the virtue of unwavering perseverance that I strive toward now instead, my “natural” gift with children was a trait about which I took pride and upon which I readily, even casually relied.

Sophie and me (Biro, Aug. 2004

Unlike the easy bond that developed between Sophie and me, my relationship with Peter formed slowly and with deliberation.  I worked for each half smile or stiff embrace my son begrudgingly offered and the next morning we would start again from scratch, without benefit of the memory of the previous day’s progress.  That first day I earned nothing.  Instead, I listened to the sound of his raspy, monotone voice and watched as he rambled around the room like a wooden soldier with sadly painted eyes, methodically gathering all the new toys and books and heaping them in a pile.  Peter made a cross face at Sophie whenever she approached the growing mound but otherwise ignored her.  His sole interest lay in what we had brought.  He would carry with him as many as he could hold, his knuckles white from the ferocity of his tiny grip, and occasionally extend them to Pat, whom he already called Papa.

Neither the rhythm of Peter’s voice nor his body language was normal, but at the time I was more rattled by his reactions, which were robotic, repetitive and at times, obsessive.  For instance, whenever Sophie interfered with his arrangement of toys, which she did and still does without compunction, he’d angrily rearrange them exactly as they’d been before the intrusion, while uttering something to himself that sounded like “paduski”, which we later learned means “pillow”.   When he wasn’t guarding his new possessions, he would pick up a toy or book, approach Pat walking backwards, and then plop into his lap, legs splayed awkwardly in front of him like fallen tree trunks.  I thought it a strange approach but now I understand that Peter was trying to make physical contact without having to make face-to-face contact.

Taking the bait: Peter with my keys (Biro, Aug. 2004)

Our translator Tamara tried assuring us throughout the rest of our visit that afternoon that Peter’s reactions were not uncommon and under the circumstances, even expected.  Sophie was an unusual child she told us, gifted and wise despite her orphaned status, and we were cautioned against comparing Peter’s more typical orphanage behavior to her more advanced capabilities.  “He’ll come around.  The boys always take longer,” she said.  “They especially like the men.  Men fascinate them.

Oct. 2004

The women, not so much.”  After a dinner of borscht and a potato dish similar to hash browns, Pat and I talked about Peter late into the starless night, about his beautiful face and worrisome demeanor, and about the quality and shape of his mostly absent philtrum and thin upper lip.

For hours we talked about Tamara’s advice, going back and forth like competitors volleying on a tennis court regarding whether Peter’s behavior and physical appearance were cause for serious concern.   We never fought but we also never agreed.  As Pat would later confide, he was determined to bring Peter home, no matter what, once we had made the decision to travel back to Russia to meet him.   Though worried beyond distraction that Adopt Through Us refused to obtain the additional photos that Dr. Aronson requested, Pat could not entertain the notion of leaving another son behind.  It was that simple.  He had buried two boys in the span of a decade and walked away from Ben only weeks before.  He would not turn his back on Peter.

Unable to properly appreciate the cemented nature of Pat’s resolve, his unwillingness to acknowledge my concerns frustrated me and this in turn lead me to second-guess my intuition and judgment.  Maybe I was reacting the way I was because Peter had rejected me so blatantly in favor of Pat.  Or maybe my concerns were exaggerated because they stemmed from emotional exhaustion and the inevitable let down that occurs when expectations are beyond proportion to what circumstances should reasonably allow.  As I lay awake listening to the Russian night once Pat finally slept, I thought about Tamara’s words.  “He’ll come around.”  It was a phrase I repeated again and again in my head as I watched the mysteriously peaceful rise and fall of Pat’s chest beside me.   Eventually, the delicate hope resounding in our translator’s voice filtered through the firestorm of panic and doubt clouding the vestibule of my thoughts, and I slept alongside my husband.

I began my quest to reach Peter first thing the next morning.  I planned to win his attention and trust with food.  We went to the local market and bought juice, whole milk, yogurt, fruit and cheese. While shopping with the help of our translator for the few items on the list, Pat combed the sparse shelves for sunflowers seeds with the fervor of a squirrel on the eve of winter’s first snow.  He never found his seeds but he did emerge triumphantly with a can of mixed nuts to quell his munchies.

Shopping in a semi-rural Russian grocery store is an experience not easily forgotten.  For starters, there were two humorless security guards – one at the entrance and one patrolling the store – for a space much smaller than the average 7-11.  I was glad I’d left my green trench coat at home this time.  My puffy down parka didn’t seem to attract the same level of scrutiny.  Also, the market was stocked much like a 7-11, minus the Slurpee machine.  This kind of scarcity is acceptable in a convenience store but not for a place upon which people depend to feed their families.  At checkout, customers must buy the plastic bags to carry their groceries away, which is a fabulous eco-friendly idea, even if it wasn’t instituted as part of a Russian green initiative.

Pat and I didn’t understand that we were supposed to buy the bags, however, and Tamara had already gone back to the car.  An argument almost ensued but then the security guard took the slightest step forward and we abandoned our protest, deciding instead to resume acting like the model adoptive parents we were trying to be.  We presented our rubles with open hands, let the clerk take what she would, and scurried from the market giggling like teenagers about the odd seriousness of the Russian workforce.

After shopping, we picked the children up and brought them back to Galina’s apartment.  I planned to feed Peter with a spoon, as though he were an infant.  I would do the same for Sophie, though she was mostly along for the ride.  The adoption hearing was scheduled for the next morning and there was no time to lose.  We already had been informed there was no time to take pictures of Peter, email them to Dr. Aronson and wait for her reply.  I either had to get on board with everyone else, including my husband, or stop the train that was chugging full throttle toward the station.  I felt blackmailed, hoodwinked and cornered.  It wasn’t just Peter on that train.  Sophie was on it too.  I either consented to adopt Peter, without further inquiry or opportunity to explore my concerns, or risk jeopardizing Sophie’s adoption and the emotional stability of my husband.  Visions resurfaced of “back-up” couples hiding in the wings, waiting to snatch Sophie from our arms like a coveted prize the moment we showed the slightest chink in the armor of our commitment to complete the double adoptions.

Having the fate of your family, the child you have met and held, whose room you have decorated and whose face you have memorized, in the hands of disgruntled bureaucrats only just emerging from the collective mindset of communism, feeds anxiety the way greasy food feeds intestinal upset.  I was not thinking rationally when it came to finalizing Sophie’s adoption.  Every insinuated threat, and every furtive glance exchanged between our handlers and the orphanage workers, sent me into a paranoid tailspin over the prospect of losing our daughter.  We had rejected Ben, pushed Adopt Through Us to find us another boy, and right or wrong, had agreed to travel and meet Peter even though we were unable to obtain the additional information that Dr. Aronson requested.  The rules were being bent to accommodate the misfortune with the baby and all involved were nervous and on edge.  The message was clear.  Russia is not America and when things go wrong, there is little if any recourse.

Sophie outside the orphanage (Biro, Aug. 2004)

That’s why I didn’t put on the brakes and insist that we slow down, collect more information, and even postpone the adoption hearing, if necessary.  Would the Russian officials really have revoked our opportunity to adopt Sophie if we continued to voice concern over Peter?  Probably not.  But I wasn’t so confident at the time.  Pat already had made his decision and was turning an impassive ear against my growing and mostly unsubstantiated neuroses about the undernourished but twinkly-eyed toddler we were scheduled to adopt the following day.

And what if I was wrong?  How could we return to New York without Peter?  We already had turned down Ben after coming home from Russia two months earlier.  What would I have said to family and friends, the hairdresser and mail carrier, the second time around?  That I had a bad feeling, that something about him seemed kooky and peculiar?  I could have been wrong and I desperately wanted to be wrong, for myself and everyone else, and for Peter most of all.  I wanted two children, and I wanted Pat to have a son.  I wanted Sophie to have a sibling, a brother who shared her heritage and early circumstances if not her genetic material.  And I wanted Peter to be okay.  I wanted to want him.  In the end, the uncooberated alarm bells sounding in my head were no match for the double whammy of burning desire and nagging self-doubt.

My growing resolve to propel myself forward, to embrace Peter and make myself see what Pat saw, a precious child in need of parents, took hold as I slept.  Ben was no longer a part of our family vision and I could not allow that experience to cloud my impressions of Peter with shades of doubt that were incapable of being properly examined.  And this, I told myself, is exactly what I had been doing.

So as the morning grew brighter, and the frost that spread like spiders across the windows began to melt, I allowed hope to enter my heart and mind and find purchase.  Springing from bed determined to put my food plan into action, I showered, drank two cups of instant coffee, and smiled with the relief that complete surrender offers.

The orphanage officials allowed us to take the children back to Galina’s apartment for a few hours that morning.  As soon as we walked in the door, I unloaded our stash of food and got to work.  Peter took the bait immediately and Pat and I laughed out loud as we watched two hungry toddlers gobble up every morsel offered.

Food! (Galina’s apartment, Oct. 2004)

They loved having someone feed them and opened their mouths like newly hatched chicks.  Peter’s eyes stretched so widely I thought he was in shock from the novel abundance of the experience.  After ample servings of fruit and yogurt that would later cause minor intestinal distress to their underdeveloped digestive tracts, Pat and I introduced the kids to sippy cups.

Neither of them had any sucking instinct left as they had been drinking from cups since babyhood.  Although drinking from a regular cup works the muscles in the mouth needed for proper language development, using them as toddlers can be a messy endeavor, especially while traveling.  Pat and I were aware of how thirsty the children were and we wanted them to have unlimited access to water and milk, whether in the car, at the orphanage, or on the airplane.  We demonstrated the use of the sippy cups and watched as they struggled to get the contents into their mouths.  When they gave up on water and milk, we tried white grape juice.  The sugary flavor did the trick, enticing them both to keep working the cups until they figured out how to use them.

I would continue the strategy of building trust and intimacy through the medium of food for several weeks.  Though Peter would quickly learn to use food, particularly the refusal of meals, as an expression of defiance, frustration and sensory overload, his basic fear of not having enough to eat was a powerful motivator in the first few months he was with us.  During the rest of our stay in Birobidzhan, Pat and I fell into a mini-routine of playing with the kids in Galina’s cramped apartment, taking a break for our feeding/bonding session, and then venturing out in the cold to take walks or kick a ball around the deserted grounds.  Pat mostly played with Peter and I mostly played with Sophie.  The few people we passed on our walks seemed dumb-founded by the image of the strange Americans strolling the grounds with two Russian toddlers in near freezing temperatures.  Most Russians we encountered believed that babies and young children should not be subjected to the cold but if absolutely necessary, at least should be bundled to the point that no skin is exposed.  After the second or third cockeyed glance or indecipherable insult, we’d give up and take the children back inside.

The books fascinated Peter while Sophie focused on scribbling with the studied intensity of someone writing a dissertation.

Sophie (Oct. 2004)

Later we tried on their new clothes and let the kids wear them around the apartment until it was time to go back to the orphanage for their whopping 3-hour naps.  We were told not to send them back with anything we intended to keep because an orphanage is a communal place that lacks the luxury of individual ownership.  Although Peter continued to scowl and sometimes scream whenever I tried to play or read with him, he happily let me dress him in new clothes and shoes.  Like his insatiable craving for food, the instant rush associated with the act of acquisition, in this case clothing, overrode his fear-based impulses.  A faint warning bell bleeped inside my head as I noticed the possible connection but I quickly dismissed it.  I was done looking for signs of trouble, at least for the time being.


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2 Comments »

  1. Clear back in 1998, I read an article which said the mother had her Romanian-adopted child into holding therapy (that is what it was called at the time) because “his emotions seemed untoward and peculiar”.

    Great to read about the Bordaches, Galina and Bogdan.

    And just how basic is the fear of having not enough to eat! And the thrill of acquisition!

    Comment by Adelaide Dupont — February 1, 2010 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

  2. AMAZING STUFF MARY…TRUE EYE OPENER FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO KNOW THE IN’S AND OUT’S

    Comment by KAREN JERRO — February 3, 2010 @ 1:10 am | Reply


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