September 10, 2007. I lay awake wondering how long we’ll be able to keep Peter safely home with us. My thoughts race in the quiet hours before dawn, when worries and fears amplify beyond ordinary bounds. Our son lies and steals and sometimes destroys with an appetite that belies his tender age. The latest is that after ten days he finally confessed to throwing Sophie’s prized birthday presents in the trash. I bought replacements to surprise her but Peter wound up the more surprised. Looking like he’d seen a ghost, and making what lawyers call a statement against interest, he stared at the toys and shouted, “But they gone away in the garbage!” Sophie is too often the object of Peter’s resentments, and though I’m glad he was caught in this particular deceit, I worry that nothing will change. He seems organically incapable of learning from his mistakes. I’m mindful of the time he hurled a fist-sized stone at close range, striking her on the temple with deliberate aim. He was restive and angry the remainder of that day, blaming Sophie, incredibly, for the injury he caused as he watched me ice the swelling knot on her head. He has a fantastical ability, when ensnared, to recast himself as the victim, the misunderstood innocent who should never bear blame. I’m tired of the lecturing, the picture drawing, the social stories, the role-playing, the disciplining, the resort to yelling and the cycle that begins anew when none of the latter works. To a large extent, Peter is right. He is a victim. How can he be held accountable if his brain won’t allow him to learn from his mistakes? Who did this to him? Was his biological mother a teenage binge drinker or had she graduated to a more steady intoxication? What other wrongs has Peter suffered, wrongs so horrible that his psyche is imbedded, indelibly, with feelings of mistrust, contempt, and at times, unchecked rage? Alcohol exposure alone can’t account for all that’s skewed inside his brain. My damaged child holds me hostage, just as Russia itself holds him in the iron-fisted, immutable bonds of alcohol damage and institutional neglect. Escape isn’t possible. I belong to Peter and he to me. And so I continue to love him, knowing full well that love alone may not be enough. For my daughter’s sake, I must remember that Peter acts on uncensored impulses, some of which can be meant to harm. Lest I forget, Sophie gives me her unicorn to sleep with tonight, assuring me as we kiss sweet dreams that its magic horn will keep me safe.
Chapter 14: Adoption Day
My parents were married on October 25, 1948, in St. Petersburg, Florida. They remained for the most part happy and in love for the next 46 years. On October 25, 1994, the first time my mother spent her anniversary as a widow, my niece Haley was born. A day destined to aggravate an open, grieving wound transformed into a celebration of family and possibility restored. The fact this squawking baby resembled my mother and would later become the apple of her eye was another blessing that with time would joyfully reveal itself. On October 25, 2004, three and a half years after my mother’s death, Pat and I began our family in a colorless courtroom in Birobidzhan, Russia. For my family, this date has always resonated with hope, celebration and new beginnings. I never doubted it would be different for Pat and me, and so despite our being halfway around the world, I awoke that morning feeling the enveloping presence of family, their warmth, comfort and companionship a welcoming contrast to the bleakness of our surroundings.
My greatest hope, both then and now, was that we could in turn bestow this gift, this sense of belonging and place in line, to Peter and Sophie. So as I dressed that morning, rehearsing answers in my mind to questions about my suitability or desire to parent, a sense of calm emerged. I realized that Peter and Sophie were already a part of our family and just waiting to go home. They felt as much a part of me as the memories of my brother singing White Wedding at our reception, or the churning sensation of riding in the backward-facing seat of my mother’s station wagon, even the autumn afternoon in Tallahassee that I learned my father had terminal lung cancer. These children were already woven into the fabric of who I was, and who I might one day become.
I clung to this realization like a rudder to help steady me through the next several hours. At the appointed time, Tamara arrived and drove us a mile or two down the main road to the courthouse, which was distinguishable from any other building in Birobidzhan only in that it enjoyed a more official-looking façade and a clearly marked entryway. As with other buildings we encountered, whether official or otherwise, the concrete on the stairs was disintegrating and the handrails offered a minefield of splinters just waiting for purchase. Inside, a number of blown-out light bulbs created a dappled glow to the otherwise décor-less halls. Tamara led us around two or three corners and then asked us to take a seat on a bench next to the courtroom door. She was clearly not worried about the impending hear. Despite what I had read and watched about the topsy-turvy nature of Russian adoption proceedings, how judge’s can and do make unexpected, even arbitrary and devastating decisions, the vibe that day was matter-of-fact and therefore strangely reassuring. We eventually were invited in and took our seats on either side of Tamara in the front of the courtroom. Two female doctors wearing white coats and one other orphanage staff member sat directly behind us. A stenographer was present too. We recognized the one doctor because she was the woman who had taken us around to meet the three boys at the end of our first trip. Through the whole torturous process, she had treated us with kindness and compassion. It felt good to have her there.
Unlike the rest of the building, the courtroom was sparkling clean and brightly lit. Except for the peculiar jail cell that was located to the left of the judge’s bench, I found it completely ordinary. Tamara explained that defendants must sit in locked cages during their trials. In Russia, it seems the presumption of guilt is a difficult hurdle to overcome. The lawyer in me was still contemplating the obvious differences in our legal systems when the bailiff walked in and directed us in Russian to stand for the judge as she walked in and took her seat behind the bench. She was a plain and sturdily built woman in her fifties, and it was clear she orchestrate these proceedings in her sleep. An unceremonious rap of her gavel and the hearing was underway.
The orphanage representative read into the record the case histories of first Sophie and then Peter: their birth histories, social circumstances and the reasons they became wards of the state and were unsuitable for domestic adoption. Even though I knew this was part of the Russian adoption proceedings, the whispered translation of these dire reports, the extent of poverty and deprivation that our children had endured, the defects of mind or body officially alleged, was difficult to endure. This was true even though I knew the sole reason the speaker was making the case, that Peter and Sophie were of no value to the Russian people, was so they might lead the kinds of lives she dared not wish even for her own children.
The judge then asked Pat to stand and approach the bench. Pat answered soberly in response to a number of questions and then I stood and repeated the process. How could we give two needy children the individual attention they each required? What was the state of our finances, our views on education? Did we have proper support to help us through what would undoubtedly be a difficult transition?
After that, the judge asked me to describe Sophie in my own words. Amazing, inquisitive, beautiful, mischievous, headstrong, smart, funny and enthralling. I said all these things and more. “And Peter?” she asked. I held my breath for a moment and stared at my shoes. The moment of truth had arrived. I didn’t know whether the judge was aware of the circumstances that brought us to Peter or was on board with the relaxation of procedures that was clearly occurring on our behalf, but I didn’t want to lie. I didn’t want the start of our family to begin with fabrication and deceit.
“I don’t know him too well, yet,” I said. “We came to Russia the first time to meet Sophie and another baby who turned out to be very ill. We had to say no to him and after we got home, our agency told us about Peter. I hope you already know this.” My heart thumped inside my chest and I couldn’t bear to meet Pat’s gaze. I could see the judge rifling through paperwork and I was afraid to keep on speaking. After a torturous minute, the judge looked up, nodded gravely, and waved at me to continue. “He won’t come near me unless I’m feeding him. He seems to like my husband. I think he’s afraid, which I understand. He’ll come around. He’s beautiful and we want him. I want him.”
And then she asked me to sit down. I was shaky but holding my own until I felt Pat’s physical presence, and then the tears began. He has this profoundly kind way of absorbing my pain, taking it wordlessly as his own, without fanfare or complaint, so that my burden is lessened. To this day I honestly don’t know whether those tears came from the enormity of the moment or the awareness of how precious my life with Pat is.
Tears of worry and relief soon turned into tears of genuine laughter when the three orphanage women stood up at the judge’s request and began describing Sophie’s personality. “There is no one else like her,” Tamara translated. “She is naughty, very naughty,” one of them said. “The mama and papa must not be afraid to discipline her!”
And with that suppressed waves of giggles spilled forth from all three women, their hands reflexively and in unison rising to cover their mouths. “We are sorry,” they sputtered in tandem. “There is something special about this child. She’s a good girl. A very good girl.”
The hearing part of the proceedings ended on that note and the judge excused herself for deliberations. The mood in the courtroom remained light. I was curious about why the judge hadn’t asked the orphanage staff about Peter, but having already said more than what was probably prudent, I decided to keep my mouth shut. Tamara kept us occupied during the ten minute or so wait by discussing our afternoon plans with the children and how we intended to celebrate. Because Sophie and Peter were too young to participate in the adoption decision, they had stayed behind at the orphanage. She knew we would be anxious to see them.
The three of us spoke in hushed tones, Pat and I instinctively assuming the quiet cadence of Tamara’s manner. She reassured me that my honesty about Peter had not been a mistake and that all was well. I took comfort in her words despite the fact that the emotion in her eyes betrayed her soothing tone. Early during our first visit Pat and I had guessed there was a deep and penetrating sorrow inside Tamara that her eyes could never quite conceal and that had nothing to do with us. Though I barely understood it, I came to recognize this melancholic trait in the faces and expressions of many Russians, Peter included.
Before long the bailiff reappeared and we were anxiously on our feet again, watching the judge as she briskly walked, head bowed, toward her place behind the bench. The stenographer shuffled some papers and then gave a slight nod toward the judge, which must have been her cue to proceed.
“Mary Evelyn Greene and Patrick John LoBrutto,” she said, in halting but clear English. “The married couple residing in Kingston, New York, and who are citizens of the United States of America? You are now the legal parents and guardians of the minors known as . . .”
And with that, the judge stood up, walked around the bench and over to where we were standing, and gave me what may be the most hearty, memorable, and unanticipated hug of my life.
Pat’s and my quest to adopt two orphaned children was finally over, but my journey toward becoming a mother had only just begun.