When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

February 20, 2010

September 19, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 17


Sophie and Peter (Summer 2005)

September 19, 2007.  Peter and Sophie went to the dentist today.  They both have hypoplastic teeth, Peter’s two permanent teeth are coming in paper thin and nearly devoid of enamel, and Sophie is congenitally missing two permanent teeth on the bottom.  Dental problems are common with Russian adoptees, resulting from some combination of poor nutrition and rickets, overexposure to antibiotics, and inutero alcohol and/or drug exposure.  So this is really no surprise though it’s not welcome news.  Some form of dental insurance will need to be part of our future.  Having someone poke around the inside of his mouth with sharp instruments and whirring contraptions is not Peter’s idea of a fun way to spend the morning.  And so I braced today for the worst.  But it didn’t happen.  He was as cool as a cucumber and instead, Sophie proved the crankpot.  There’s a lesson in this for Pat and me.  Sometimes we’re so on edge about what may happen in a given circumstance that we forget to give Peter the benefit of the doubt and more importantly, the gift of our confidence.  He frequently surprises us with his abilities and tolerances but it’s the catastrophes that lurk in our memories and too often drive our expectations.  To reward Peter’s even keel, and perhaps to help me remember to be more optimistic next time, I take the kids for ice cream on the way home.  Probably not what I should be doing for two kids with lousy dental reports, but what the heck.  Sophie’s face and shirt, covered in dripping chocolate mess, juxtaposed against Peter’s meticulously clean face (he carefully eats his strawberry ice cream in a way that ensures minimal food to skin contact), makes me smile.  Eating ice cream in the middle of a late summer day, when one rightly should be in school, is an equal opportunity pleasure.

Chapter 17:  The Parade Marches By

Pat and I decided not to tell Patty or Mark about that first bed-soiling incident.  We were horrified of course, and worried that something was terribly wrong, but we were also confused.  I wanted Patty’s take on Peter’s behaviors, but this discovery was in a different category altogether.  My siblings knew even less than we did about the complicated psycho-social issues involved in international adoption, and we were cognizant of not wanting to set off alarm bells that could not be later unrung.  But why would a child do that?  What did it signify?  What was Peter trying to tell us?  None of it made sense.  If he needed to relieve himself, why didn’t he just go in the Pullup he wore for safe measure, or better yet, use the toilet?  There was not a speck of mess on either his pajamas or Pullup.  Whatever the reason, one thing was clear: his actions were deliberate.

After Pat and I cleaned what we could and stripped the bed, we tried talking to him, which was an exercise in futility, of course.  Peter didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Russian.  But we did know a few key words: nyet (no), da (yes), peesit (pee) and kakut (poop), which enabled us to say something along the lines of  “nyet peesit, nyet kakut, nyet in bed (and then we pointed to the bed).  Peter just stared at us blankly, picked up a familiar book, and walked out, repeating “nyet, nyet” as he began clomping down the stairs.  I walked him back up and into the bathroom, where I pointed at the toilet and implored, “da peesit, da kakut.”  He nodded.  Da da.

Mark left that afternoon and Patty flew back to Atlanta two days later.  Although I can’t imagine asking any of my siblings to keep their distance, I know now it was a mistake to have visitors, especially as many as we welcomed, those first weeks and months home.  Having Patty and Mark with us those first days was a tremendous comfort, especially for me, but it wasn’t best for Sophie and Peter.  They needed time to adjust to their new environment – language, diet, smells, routines, clothes, weather, a home; they also needed time to become accustomed to us, their new caregivers.  They’d been taught in the orphanage to call us Mama and Papa, but they had no reference from which to attach meaning to those words.   They were coveted titles we would have to earn.

Over the next two months we ran a bed and breakfast for an impressive number of family and friends.  After my sister left, my brother’s wife Paula arrived to take over the helm.  She wasn’t working at the time and was able to stay 5 or 6 days.  Her presence was incredibly welcomed and helpful.  She taught me about cutting grapes in half, as well as how to introduce new foods, clip wiggly toe and fingernails, buy shoes for toddler feet, cut juice with water, and even assemble an outside Little Tikes jungle gym.

Little Tikes Assembly Success (Nov. 2004)

And like Patty and Mark, she has an amazing sense of humor, an ability to bring levity and laughter into the mix of genuine challenge.

Aunt Paula (Nov. 2004)

In fact, she’s the one who devised the unit system, to which we all still fondly refer.  Somewhere around 10 days into the adoptions, Pat and I began looking terribly ragged, primarily because we were losing the battle for control of the premises.  The children’s needs and activity levels were eons beyond what we anticipated; not only were we struggling to keep pace, we were losing ground.  It’s not that we didn’t count on their being busy, we knew they were toddlers, we just failed to estimate the extent of their frenzy.  Russian orphanages may be called Baby Homes, but they don’t look like homes, and they aren’t run like homes.  Consequently, Sophie and Peter arrived with no understanding of what family meant and with no experience to help them safely navigate either the hidden or avert dangers present in all homes.  For instance, neither of them knew that stoves are hot, couches are for sitting, electrical outlets are dangerous, fireplaces aren’t for hiding, refrigerators are cold, washing machines make noise but aren’t dangerous, bookshelves aren’t ladders, toilets aren’t just for flushing, drawers pop out when tugged, and most knobs and dials turn something on.

They were blank slates on greased-up wheels.  Thank goodness Paula suggested the unit system to help us through the day.  One thing we were successful in doing right off the bat was establishing a wake/sleep schedule.  I’m not sure how we did this, but I do know our will to succeed was fueled by some brand of instinctual desperation.  We were exhausted and would not survive without rest.  So the children went to bed at 7 p.m. and woke, most mornings, by 7 a.m.  That meant there were twelve waking “Rooskie” hours per day, and Paula suggested we divide the time into half hour units, which equates to 24 units a day.  One unit taken up with breakfast, one with lunch, three to four with nap, 1 with bath time, and so on.  Not only was this incremental approach great fun, “One more unit to go,” or “Hey, if you keep the kids up late, you’re gonna owe me a unit tomorrow,” it also helped preserve our tenuous sanity.

Buoyed from the help of my siblings and sister-in-law, and armed with the unit system to fool us into thinking what we’d done to our lives was survivable, Pat and I began to fall into some semblance of a schedule.  Except that is, until our next round of visitors arrived, with presents, cakes, hugs, kisses and loads of heartfelt enthusiasm, and we’d have to start from scratch again.  My other brother Lee, friends from Atlanta, Pat’s daughter Jenny and her husband, Patty again with her teenager children, Mark again with the rest of his family, my grown nephew and his wife, and then in masse, the rest of Pat’s family.  It was wonderful, exciting, and comforting for Pat and I to be showered with so much love and support, and yet this extended period of celebration really did nothing more than prolong what was already a difficult adjustment period for Sophie and Peter.

Sophie with her cousin Haley (Dec. 2004)

I remember when Pat’s clan came to visit, in masse.  At least I had the presence of mind to know that eight or so strangers showing up at the house would overwhelm the kids, but there was nothing I could do.  They were excited to meet Sophie and Peter, and we were anxious for the visit to go well, to prove that our decision to adopt was correct, that our decision to start what for Pat was a second family was not destined for failure, heartache or division.  His family is fiercely protective of him and they’d always been reticent about our plans to start a family.  After countless years of being lost in his own grief over the death of his two sons and the failure of his marriage, and almost paralyzed with fear over how those events would shape his surviving daughter, he had emerged into life again.  He and I were so happy when we first met and throughout our first childless years of marriage.  I understand now that his family was worried, if not terrified, that we had gone too far, had moved too fast, and mostly, had taken on more, in terms of the children, than he ever should have been made to handle.   Just as Pat was getting his footing back, we decided to bring home two busy and demanding toddlers capable of shaking the earth off its very axis.

But I believed in Pat, and still do, with the bold confidence of the newcomer who, unlike the people standing in our doorway, never had to shoulder the burden of walking beside him through those dark, lonely years.  I believed him when he said he wanted to give fatherhood another try and I clung to this belief in the days and weeks after we first brought the children home.  I especially clung to this construct as I welcomed Pat’s family into our home on that late autumn afternoon.  I remember thinking the first snow was near because I could feel the heavy air as it swirled around our property, plucking without apology the last few remaining leaves from their branches.

They were all smiles and hugs as Peter jumped into arms and laps as casually as though he had spent every day of his life with my husband’s family.  It was a worrisome pattern Pat and I had begun to recognize but rarely voice beyond the privacy of our bedroom, and one that we still combat today.  Peter displays indiscriminate friendliness, meaning he’ll seek affection, when he needs it, with expert adroitness.  The boy who screamed if I tried holding him more than a minute, who’d tilt his head away from my body as though we were opposing magnets, nonetheless knew how to charm and win the affection of Pat’s family, and all the other visitors who revolved through our door those first two months home.  Even then, I remember thinking his over-friendliness toward people he barely knew really was like that of an addict willing to trade actual happiness for momentary, fleeting euphoria.  To this day, Peter favors the quick fix of a stranger’s praise or affection over lasting intimacy and closeness.

Pat and I barely understood what we were witnessing during this critical time period, but we knew there was something wrong.  In my mind, the visit by Pat’s family cemented my concern.  Sophie was so overwhelmed by the number of good-intentioned family members fawning over her that she retreated to the bathroom and refused to come out.  She didn’t speak the language, people she didn’t know were asking for hugs and kisses, and she became overwhelmed.  In fact, she would not come out of the bathroom until everyone left, two hours later.  Although I was disappointed that Pat’s family would have to meet the “real Sophie” another time, her behavior was understandable, and developmentally normal.  But Peter was holding court, and not in a happy, healthy way, either.  He bounced from lap to lap, briefly hugging and squeezing necks and repeating paduski as he worked his way around the room like a spinning top.

But with the exception of the bed-soiling incident, which unfortunately evolved into a chronic problem, and the dichotomy of Peter’s over-affection toward visitors but under-responsiveness with us, our initial transition was easy.  Sophie delighted in every way and with every move, her spunk, cognitive prowess, and resiliency evident to all who met her.  And Peter was compliant.  Other than the bizarre behavior regarding his bed soiling, he was incredibly easy.  Though we didn’t understand it, Pat and I weren’t even sure the bed soiling was deliberate conduct.  This was partly because Peter never did anything else wrong.  He was a picky eater and aloof, he repeated the few words he knew, whether in Russian or English, with annoying consistency, and he was still stiff and robotic in his manner and physical gait, but he also was completely obedient.  He never tested a single boundary we established and would become visibly upset whenever Sophie did, which was often.

Pat and Peter (Nov. 2004)

Pat and Peter (Nov. 2004)

But it was also like he was a ghost, or maybe an empty shell.  One night when the units were up and we lay exhausted in bed, Pat and I confessed that neither of us had any idea who Peter was.  He was our son, he was living in our house, we were meeting his needs, but he either lacked or would not reveal any of the personal traits, habits, or preferences that distinguish a person, even a 3-year old person, as an individual.  It was an uneasy, hollow feeling we shared, and we talked at great length as to the reasons we felt that way.  Were we doing something wrong?  Letting Sophie steal too much of the show?  Our questions were as endless as they were unanswerable.  We only knew we had no inkling into the heart or soul of the little boy we named Peter, a child who needed and deserved parents, and to whom we had committed to love and nurture the rest of our lives.

Other than the hundreds of mistakes we made during those first weeks home, and the uneasy feelings we’d begun to accumulate about Peter’s odd behavior and almost surreal submission, the visit into the city to see Dr. Aronson also remains prominent in my memory.  We had taken the children to our local pediatrician, Roger Green, in the first days we were home so that he could make sure we weren’t overlooking any urgent problems.  Knowing we planned to have the children fully evaluated by Dr. Aronson, he graciously agreed to wait for her workups and reports and then implement any care or interventions she recommended.

Although Dr. Green, who also is an adoptive parent, withheld his initial impressions at the time, he later shared that when he first met the children, his immediate reaction was that Sophie was in dire shape.  Grossly underweight, nearly bald and the size of a 10 month old, he thought her more physically frail and medically fragile than Peter, who despite his short stature, had a certain robust quality.

Sophie watching TV (Dec. 2004)

We would eventually exchange knowing smiles over the irony of those first impressions as Sophie grew stronger and livelier with every passing month while Peter’s clinical and psycho-social presentation grew more troubling and perplexing.  I couldn’t help but recall, and in many ways recoil over, what Dr. Aronson said to Pat and me during the days we agonized over the baby Ben: you can heal the body, but the brain’s a whole different ballgame.

In fact, when we brought the children to see Dr. Aronson, she repeated this mantra, but in the context of reassurance.  Sophie would heal.  We would make her well and strong with the basic ingredients of parenting: food, love, nurture, and attention.  Her head circumference was good and she showed no signs of alcohol exposure, either physical signs or cognitive patterns.  Peter did have telltale signs of FAS, as her personal inspection revealed, but as she wrote in his report, “only time will tell.”  His weight was good and so was his head circumference.  He was incredibly short, a finding she labeled  “psycho-social drawfism,” but she felt this would resolve in time, and it did.  Blood work revealed they both suffered from rickets, which is caused by a lack of vitamin D (which is found in both milk and sunlight), they were both infected with giardia, and they both tested positive for TB.

Dec. 2004

We weren’t exactly happy with the news, but we weren’t shocked either.  Lots of orphanage kids have these diagnoses, and as for the TB, a lung x-ray would hopefully reveal they had been exposed but not actively infected.  I filed the possible FAS news news away in the same part of my brain as I had filed the apprehensions I’d felt upon first meeting Peter in Russia.  We were moving forward, he was ours, and there was no going back.  I spent the rest of our time in Dr. Aronson’s office relishing in the excitement of being new parents, of having taken this journey with her for nearly a year, and the triumph and excitement of having her meet our children face to face, in flesh and blood. She had helped us weather many storms during our tumultuous passage toward parenthood, and she would continue to guide us in the years to come. “They’re here,” I felt like saying.  “They’re real and they’re ours!”

Even though I knew she met parents with their newly adopted children on a frequent if not daily basis, she shared our joy and excitement genuinely, with open heart and reverent respect for the incredible milestone our visit represented.  As we left her office, with Sophie and Peter irritable and still howling over having been probed and stuck with needles, she yelled to us over the din, her wild gray hair flying as she sped to catch us.  “Don’t forget their vaccination schedules!”

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5 Comments »

  1. We’ve been reading so much about IA and attachment, etc, and this topic of low stimulation for the first months keeps coming up, child-proofing, not having people come to the house, not having too many toys and “stuff” around, and not going out anywhere overwhelming (even to the market). Thanks for reinforcing the importance of this.

    Comment by Bethany — February 21, 2010 @ 10:46 am | Reply

  2. Great job on this book! Keep writing!

    Comment by Michaela Stephens — February 23, 2010 @ 8:52 pm | Reply

  3. This is quite a story, Mary. And as for taking this on (even for all the obvious rewards along the way) I have to hand it to you. So what are you going to do next? Is this the basis for an actual book or are you only interested in publishing via blog? Glad you found our Linkedin Women’s Memoirs site, and I hope you drop by http://womensmemoirs.com

    Kendra

    Comment by Kendra Bonnett — February 24, 2010 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

  4. Have you thought of working with the material from http://www.thepointinstitute.co, you may find it helpful.
    I can’t believe how little preparation adopters have for entering this situation.I do hope for the sake of future children this will be addressed in future.
    Hope you all receive the help and support you need.

    Comment by eagoodlife — February 27, 2010 @ 2:41 am | Reply

  5. You are awesome. I am riveted by your stamina and faith and imagination.
    Claire:)

    Comment by claire purkis — March 4, 2010 @ 4:41 pm | Reply


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