When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

May 1, 2012

May 1, 2012

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Shaker Village, Hancock, MA, April 28, 2012

May 1, 2012.  I struggle to keep my voice calm and cheerful as I listen to Peter on the phone, which has become our lifeline to each other as surely as it was when Pat and I dated long-distance, NYC to Atlanta, 15 years earlier.  Dropping him off at Green Chimneys last night, we shared the now familiar ache derived from having a 10-year old child separated, more days than not, from the rest of his family.  “When I’m discharged, Mom,” he asks plaintively, “can I join the Boy Scouts?”  It’s an unexpected question, Peter never having expressed any interest in Boy Scouts in the past.  “I don’t want to be bored when I go home,” he explains.  “I know I gotta stay busy.”  On occasion we carpool with another Red Hook family whose teenage daughter also attends Green Chimneys.  When we arrived back at school Sunday night, the teenager announced that she was being discharged in August and will be attending a different but less restrictive special needs all-girls boarding school next fall.  Peter didn’t catch the part about her going to another “sleep away” school, only that she was being discharged from Green Chimneys, and I didn’t have the heart to correct his thinking.  I know Sunday’s conversation is what sparked his sudden interest in discharge, which is of course the ultimate goal of all Green Chimney residential students.  Despite knowing that this has stirred up his homesickness, I’m nonetheless struck by the fact that he has developed enough self-awareness to know that he needs constant structure, that free time is one of his mind’s worst enemies.  When I speak to him on the phone, listening to his doleful voice, I long to tell him that soon he’ll be back with us on a permanent basis, that “sleep away” school one day will be a thing of the past, but I reply more carefully.  The truth is I don’t know when Peter will be coming home, he’s making great progress in so many areas – like social skills, continence, speech/language, and daily living, but at the same time he’s demonstrating little if any gains in terms of his constant, chronic need for supervision and redirection.  It’s only been 10 months but the reality is that he may always need the 24/7 external brain that Green Chimneys provides.  I fully appreciate that his improved emotional and psychiatric stability might quickly deteriorate were he back home where the level of constant intervention that Green Chimneys supplies simply cannot be replicated on a continuous basis.  It’s a harsh reality and one that I push from my mind with some frequency.  I miss Peter terribly but console myself by recognizing that I might never have felt this way, that we never might have been capable of this closeness, had I not fought for and won his love and trust.  When he’s home now, whether for just a weekend or a longer break, I have learned to relax in his presence and enjoy our relationship without the constant burden of having to teach, re-teach, redirect, or provide consequences.  For the most part, I no longer have to teeter along the precipice of enjoying my role as mother and protector while constantly aware that disaster and chaos could plunge all of us into darkness at any moment.  But Peter doesn’t understand this, he couldn’t possibly, and frankly, I hope he never does.  I don’t want our son ever to think that he’s a burden, that the effort needed to care for and protect him is more than we are equipped to handle.  And so as I speak to him on the phone, I distract him by reviewing when he’ll be home next and what our plans are for the upcoming weeks.  I acknowledge that he misses home and that I miss him too, but I do my best not to let his wistful voice tear at the fabric of the faith I have in our decision to enroll him at Green Chimneys.  In so many ways, the school is an oasis, both for students and parents.  I have to remember that it’s a place of growth, acceptance, and healing and that its existence is an extremely positive presence in our lives.  But here’s the thing: I also can’t forget that positive change, at least in our case, is not without toll.  As we say goodnight, I propose that we meet on the moon in our dreams, a game Peter and I always have played and one that makes him truly smile.  I tell him to look for a polka-dotted spaceship and he tells me that his will be blue with a big yellow star on the tip.  We agree that I’ll bring snacks and he’ll bring a soccer ball.  I tell him I love him and kiss the phone, knowing that in our dreams, we are always together.

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April 12, 2011

April 11, 2011

Aunt Pattys Birthday Visit (March 2011)

April 11, 2011.  Peter is in a psychiatric hospital for the second time in eight weeks.  It’s taken me this long to put these words to paper because the concept both terrifies and repels me.  In many ways I’ve become numb of late, shut down and unfeeling, or maybe just braced against the inevitable difficulties and choices that await.  Our family’s future remains uncertain.  Pat and Sophie and I are left to huddle, hunkered down in the protective shell of our suddenly peaceful home, hoping for a resolution – or maybe even a breakthrough, that will return our almond-eye son to the bosom of our family.   Pat was out of town on business when I drove Peter the 80 miles to the hospital last Friday.  When he returned, he sat with Sophie in her room, listening as she babbled nervously about the events of the past few days.  When they were finished talking, she offered, almost as an afterthought, “I feel happy Peter’s gone.  Is that bad, Dad?”  Always bold in her convictions, Sophie’s only stating what Pat and I have been afraid to admit.  It does feel better with Peter away, there’s no denying the reality of this fact.  Pat’s anger, my desolation, Sophie’s anxiety, they’ve been doused and rendered inert, like pollen after a warm Spring rain.  But there’s also an emptiness that comes with this peculiar brand of respite.  Sophie wanders the house, looking for things to do.  No matter how strained and contentious the relationship, she misses her brother and playmate.  Another time she wanders over to the neighbor’s house, fishing for fun and a little distraction, but soon returns, disappointed.  They can’t or don’t want to play with her.   Normal kid stuff, but the sting is greater, it seems, due to the present circumstances.  Suddenly she’s an only child with no point of reference.  It’s only temporary, of course, but the gulf caused by Peter’s absence, the price we pay for a brief period of “normalcy” is high.  Our son is not well, that much is apparent.  His psychiatric issues are becoming more pronounced as he grows and we are becoming less able to corral his errant thinking and irrational – even destructive and dangerous, behaviors.  The first time we left him at the hospital I sobbed uncontrollably, grief and relief washing over me in equal measure.  But this time my eyes were dry.  I knew he needed to go and there was no place for doubt in my heart.  I knew I didn’t have the tools to handle the sudden escalation of symptoms; plus, our daughter wasn’t safe.  That same night I took Sophie to the movies.  She quickly spotted some girlfriends, leaving me to sit in solitude with my thoughts.  I sat wishing, praying, even demanding that our son recover, that he improve so that he might one day live a life connected to others through love and friendship rather than the stale, predictable, one-way connections premised on need and intervention.  I want more for him.  I can’t help it.  I’ve given up the hopes and dreams, the highest of my aspirations.  And that’s okay.  They were always about me, not him, anyway.  I have to walk along his path, wherever that takes us, and promise always to steady and fortify him along the way.  It’s all I can do and so it has to be enough.  I know that I can’t heal Peter; I can’t undo the damage in his brain or erase his genetic and institutional history.  But I can continue to work toward, and look forward to, a brighter future for our son.  Part of that is admitting that I have to let go a little, that I have to let others into the sanctuary of our lives so that Peter receives the system of supports he needs in order to keep moving forward.  And right now, he needs more than Pat and I can give.  For right now, at least, the three of us need to settle on a new equilibrium, all the while hoping and praying that the therapists and doctors at the hospital are helping Peter find his own.

January 23, 2011

January 23, 2011

Poet's Walk (January 22, 2011)

September 23, 2011.  My second interview with the nonprofit went well enough, at least I think, but I won’t learn the outcome for another few days.  In the meantime, I have my niece Erin’s visit to look forward to, and distract me.  A junior at Boston College, she’s been my “little cabbage” from the day she was born.  In a few more weeks, she heads to Australia for a semester abroad.  A somewhat timid little girl, she now possesses the quiet self-confidence and adventurous spirit to venture halfway around the world without knowing a single soul.  We pick her up from the train station later this afternoon, a fact that has Peter spiraling toward self-destruction.  Anticipation is one of the hardest emotions with which he copes, largely, I think, due to his inability to place himself or events in time.  To Peter, a relatively casual thing like a cousin’s visit must feel how I might feel if someone told me I was going to the moon, without benefit of training or advance notice, sometime within the next one hundred and eighty days.  In other words, he’s completely freaked.  “Coming Erin today?” he asks.  I’m so glad I’m finally able to tell him, yes, today is the day.  When they were younger, Pat and I kept exciting news from both kids until the last possible moment but we can’t do that anymore, not with Sophie’s sophisticated eight-year-old eyes and ears keeping watch for things good and bad at all times.  But even though we can attribute Peter’s recent burst of unmanageability to his cousin’s visit, the sad truth is that he seems less, not more, able to cope as he gets older, stronger, and bigger.  His tantrums and outbursts are happening more frequently, and even more alarming, they’re being triggered by events so small they almost never can be anticipated.  For instance, Peter spent twenty minutes or so building a Lego racecar in the playroom late yesterday afternoon.  We’d spent a few glorious hours snow shoeing with our puppy and everyone was tired but happy.  Peter normally can’t follow the directions or sustain his attention long enough to put together something like a Lego car, but yesterday he did, and he was mighty proud.  So were the rest of us.  It’s the first time he’s accomplished something so intricate on his own.  “I wasn’t good for doing this before, Mom,” he beamed, “but now I’m ready!”  We urged him to put it on the mantel or some other safe place, to treat it like a decoration, so it wouldn’t fall apart.  But he couldn’t resist the temptation.  A few minutes later, around dinnertime, Sophie came up from the playroom shaking her head, a mixture of frustration and pity flooding her face.  “It fell apart,” she said, biting her lower lip, “and he’s not in good shape.”  Within seconds we heard him stomping up the stairs, then the door to the basement swung open and I watched, helpless, as he burst into tears and undecipherable raging that deteriorated into his throwing his dirty diaper around and Pat having to put him in his room.  By the time he was in control enough to come down for dinner, we learned that only a single piece of the car fell off and all he would have had to do was snap it back into place.  But the disappointment, the frustration, the flood of emotions he experiences over the most trivial problem, were more than he could handle.  And because this is happening more and more frequently, often several times a day, his issues once again are holding us hostage.  In fact, after significant nudging from our family therapist, we’ve allowed a crisis team into our home, to help us sort out what can be changed and what can’t, and to help us plan for our family’s future, its safety and well-being.  The first night the two crisis intervention women came to our home, I found myself bragging somewhat about how much progress we’d made with our son, at least in terms of attachment, trust, and bonding.  But then Peter being Peter, he did the unexpected when one of the women asked him a series of questions, 95% of which he wasn’t processing.  But when she pared her words down, and asked a single pertinent question, he had his answer ready.  “If you could have one wish,” she asked, “what would it be?”  Without pause, and certainly without apology, he looked Pat and I squarely in the eyes and said “to not have a mom and dad.”

January 13, 2011

January 13, 2011

Lulu LoBrutto, 5 months (January 2011)

January 13, 2011.  Next week I go for a second interview regarding a position I nearly covet with an environmental advocacy group.  It’s a chance of a lifetime, a chance to jump back into a meaningful career, to contribute, and to turn some much needed attention to myself, to my own goals and aspirations, my own sense of accomplishment and purpose.  When I look back over our time as a family, I realize I’ve been happiest, and most sane, when I was immersed in work, teaching at Bard.  My life is still incredibly busy, but my days are filled disproportionately with managing my son’s physical and mental health, his education, and working, always working, to help him integrate more successfully into daily family life.  And it’s wearing me down.  I know I’m giving him my best, at least on most days, but I’m also getting to the point where I’m not sure sacrificing every ounce of every fiber of my being for miniscule progress is prudent, or even very beneficial.  I may have already brought him as far as he can go in terms of attachment and orientation to his world.  It’s very possible that he’s the best that he can be and the time has come to loosen the reigns and somehow expand his circle of caregivers.  When he became our son, Peter trusted no one, he was lost inside his own disordered mind, and was more alone in the world, literally and figuratively, than any child on the planet deserves to be.  Pat and I have changed those facts, substantially, and I’m proud to acknowledge that our son is now a child who knows how to give and receive love, who knows what it feels like to trust and who shows compassion toward others on a daily basis.  There are times he looks at me, shy at first, and then his eyes light up, all at once, as they meet mine.  My heart soars in these moments to heights I never dreamed possible.  They are transcendent in their beauty, and in many ways, nothing short of miraculous.  I realize that.  But I also realize that despite these achievements, Peter forever will require 24/7 care, there’s no doubt about it.  He can’t regulate his own behavior for even a nanosecond and will always need someone to model and talk him through appropriate choices and more generally, help him navigate the everyday terrain of his life.  The professionals in our lives are telling us that Peter needs an entire system of care beyond what we can provide as parents and that its time to start turning over the reigns, at least in some respects.  But even though I accept the truth in these words, I realize that I’m still thinking and behaving as though his condition can be substantially rehabilitated, that I can will our son toward a more meaningful, more complete future.  Maybe I’m not ready to let go of that dream, maybe certain dreams do help us sustain rather than delude.  Or maybe holding onto the hope that Peter will emerge higher functioning than seems practicable is the only rational course of action – after all, to admit otherwise is to give up, and I can’t and won’t do that.  So where does that leave me?  If I’m fortunate enough to be offered this position, can I in good conscience take this full-time job or will I be turning my back on our needy children, on the 24/7 demands of raising Peter, not to mention the less urgent but just as important responsibility of helping Sophie blossom and overcome her challenges?  I think the answer lies in believing in myself, and in realizing that its okay to have my own life, my own aspirations, and that career, family, children (even special needs children) don’t necessarily have to be either/or propositions.  So many women grapple with this balance, there’s nothing new here, but somehow the stakes seem higher because our children are former Russian orphans, and because Peter has overwhelming needs.  Egocentrism at it’s best perhaps.  But one thing I do know: I’m hopeful about this opportunity.  If I’m able to persuade the folks that need persuading that I can contribute substantially to their cause, then I want to find a way to make this work.  I want a chance to rediscover myself in a manner that expands my identity as Peter and Sophie’s mother to include career and colleagues.  I want to think that diving back into my professional field, coupled with my new teaching responsibilities at Marist College, may even make me a better parent.  I’m too consumed right now with the problems, the heartache, and the never-ending, drive-you-nuts redundancy of life with a brain-injured child to have any sense of perspective, or balance.  Plus, the issue of income and benefits can’t be ignored.  Peter’s problems have caused an enormous financial strain, one that Pat bears 100% right now.  The fact that he’s significantly older than I and under tremendous pressure doesn’t escape me, ever.  Our financial safety net has been chewed clear through by private therapists, evaluations, specialists, equipment, medication, relocation, and countless – sometimes foolishly desperate, interventions.  If Pat were to get sick or injured or worse, well, I’m not quite sure what I’d do to keep our family afloat.  Our lives are insecure in so many regards, a hard pill to swallow for a person who craves security and stability.  The bottom line is that I’m very excited about this opportunity and look forward to learning more about the organization and the people who work there.  At my initial interview, I noticed a dog bowl and a large bone in the building.  I wonder – if I’m fortunate enough to be offered the position, whether I’ll be able to bring our dogs (okay, maybe just one) to work!

 

January 7, 2011

January 7, 2011

An artist's eye (Dec. 2010)

January 7, 2011.  The snow outside the kitchen window falls like sprinkled baby powder, the whispery flakes fine and silent as they drift, almost apologetically, toward the ground.  Sophie and Peter are outside playing, even though it’s eight thirty in the morning, because both schools cancelled in anticipation of a storm that appears to have lost purchase.  I have so much to do today, including finishing up my syllabus for my Environmental Law class, but I hope to carve out a few hours for the children.  It’s not been a barrel of fun around here lately, and I’d like to make some progress toward turning the situation around.  The holidays have always been rough on Peter, for the usual reasons of lack of routine and schedule, but there’s something else going on too, though I can’t quite name it.  It may have to do with his medication, or maybe it’s just the fact that he’s growing and his episodes and distorted thinking are increasing right along with his physical measurements.  Regardless, it seems like every little change or provocation sets him off at a level higher, and with more frequency, than we’ve previously experienced.  Plus, the issue of his increased urine output, coupled with his occasional inclination to weaponize his pee, has me ready to scream “surrender!”.  Diaper, rubber pants, maximum doses of DDAVP, and no liquids after 6 pm have done little to curb the problem.  Though the DDAVP gave me a few weeks reprieve from washing his sheets every day, the drug no longer seems to be working.  What appears imminent, and his psychiatrist is speaking with a nephrologist today, is that we’re going to have to take him off the Lithium, which is messing with his thyroid and kidneys.  After two years on the “miracle drug” that cleared and soothed his tortured mind, Peter’s body has begun screaming in revolt.  The very thought of doing this terrifies me.  He’s not even doing well right now and I shiver to think what will happen when and if we remove the most powerful weapon in his pharmaceutical arsenal.  It’s times like this that take me to the brink of my strength, my reserves, and whatever sense of hope to which I still stubbornly cling.  Peter’s favorite phrases right now are “I won’t do it” and “You are a damn pipsqueak.”  The latter would be funny except for the venom spitting from his mouth.  And while we’re on it, Sophie’s been less than charming too.  Last night Pat took over the nighttime routine because he knew I hit my limit.  Most days I can handle Peter, but when Sophie starts spiraling at the same time, when her attachment issues flair and her anxiety symptoms skyrocket, I have a hard time coping.  This isn’t fair to her, of course.  She shouldn’t have to time her setbacks so they occur opposite of Peter’s.  But she’s been lying like a seasoned veteran, over things large and small, bringing home one poor grade after the other because she doesn’t feel anyone should tell her what to do (as in take a test), and she’s even begun abusing our animals again.  How do I put out Peter’s fires all day long when Sophie is running behind, resetting them?  It’s too much sometimes, it really is.  Sophie is the child we believed was all right, the one we thought we could truly heal; a little girl whose crooked smile and mischievous eyes hold so much light and promise.  But she is scarred too, maybe not physically, like Peter, but psychologically and emotionally.  They are both unhappy children right now, I know that, and Pat and I are unhappy parents.  But when I try to change the tone or steer us back in masse toward a more positive approach, one or both of them seem to purposely ambush the effort.  I either catch one of them at something – like Peter taking apart the electrical outlets the other day, or they fall apart and start beating on each other the second I turn my back.  It’s such a peaceful day outside, the light, steady snow blanketing the house and yard like a favorite worn quilt, and it saddens me to think that my parenting journey, the choices I’ve made and the paths I’ve taken, have lead to such a tumultuous, and at times hostile, environment inside the four corners of our home.  I love my children, both of them, for vastly different reasons and in countless different ways.  But they’re also robbing me of the best years of my life.  It’s so hard, sometimes, to see beyond the blizzard of problems, doctors’ appointments, teacher conferences, placement battles, or therapists, and think back to why and how we wound up here in the first place.  All I wanted was a family, a chance to mother children who desperately needed mothering.  It seemed a simple concept, but it’s not.  I can’t imagine anything else occurring in my lifetime that will offer a greater personal challenge than raising our two children, one impossibly damaged in utero by alcohol and the other wounded, maybe permanently, by the rigors of life itself.  What’s clear is that I’m not meeting that challenge right now, and am therefore failing our kids.  I have to get myself back on track, to a mindset where their problems and behaviors don’t feel like a personal affront, where I can make hot cocoa for Peter and Sophie and play board games and try to maneuver my feelings and thinking so that they align more naturally with the soundless beauty and tranquility that our snow day has so selflessly offered.

December 3, 2010

December 3, 2010

Peter and his cousin Ethan, 4 (Blowing Rock, NC, Thanksgiving 2010)

December 3, 2010.  I’ve chosen not to write lately because I don’t know how or whether to put into words the events of the last few weeks.  The good news is that our lives are back to normal again, at least relatively.  The bad news is that Pat and I, and perhaps even the kids, glimpsed a reality regarding Peter’s future that we had never allowed ourselves to consider before.  To put it bluntly, Peter fell off the sanity wagon for a few days, without warning, precursor, or any other obvious explanation.  It was the scariest experience of my life, and it’s left me a little shell-shocked.  I don’t want to rehash the details, the particulars of those few days that are now branded into the consciousness of our lives, and so I won’t.  But I will describe some of how the incident has left me feeling.  Suffice it to say there was a break, a sudden, catapulting crack in the fragile chemical balance that is our son’s brain, his personality, his heart, his very identity.  Fortunately, it lasted only a few days because with the help of some pharmaceutical intervention, bam!  He was back.  A little dazed, a little more confused, but he was with us.  All of this happened the week before Thanksgiving, a time when I’m usually preparing for our annual 12-hour road trip to Blowing Rock, NC, where my family gathers for the holiday.  We weren’t sure we’d be able to go, because stabilizing Peter, and keeping him stable, was our main priority, but his recovery was faster than his descent, which is remarkable.  We aren’t quite clear about what happened – and we’re still waiting on some test results, but his psychiatrist thinks he experienced a manic episode.  I know my siblings were worried about our coming for Thanksgiving, for Peter, and for themselves.  The news that his psychiatrist cleared him for the trip – she actually thought it would be restorative for us to proceed as originally planned, was received ambivalently.  It seems that no one, not even my family, wants to insert his or herself into the maelstrom of a mental health crisis.  “What if something happens?  We want to see you, you know that, but are you sure he’s okay now?”  I deflected these and other concerns, raised over the telephone lines, with as much grace and confidence as I could manage, all the while holding my breath when it was my turn to listen so that my agitation, the hurt and growing sadness, would remain concealed.  How lonely I felt in those awkward moments as I clung to the promise and hope of family reunion while all the while defusing the doubt, maybe even dread, I was hearing on the other line.  Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m in a rowboat, drifting steadily toward the open ocean, without benefit of rudder or oar, helpless to do anything but watch the throngs of happy, oblivious beachgoers as they inevitably fade from view.  I used to be one of those carefree beachgoers, with nothing more to tow, on any given day, than the normal dose of angst and anxiety, but now I have to wrestle my way toward every lighthearted moment and orchestrate, even carefully construct, our family’s every move.  Peter’s problems, and Sophie’s too, have a way of pulling Pat and me, slowly but surely, ever further from the comfort and easy companionship of friends and family.  Our daily lives, aside from attempting to stay solvent, are filled with doctor’s appointments, therapists, psychologists, special education, strict routine, and therapeutic parenting.  While in North Carolina, I caught up on all the comings and goings of my many nieces and nephews, all of whom I cherish.  One is heading to Australia for a college semester abroad, another just got her driver’s license, and a third grew a foot since I saw him last March.  Their lives, as well as all the others, are proceeding more or less according to plan, and with great expectations for their very bright futures.  My children’s lives are proceeding too, with accomplishments that dwarf by comparison even their most accomplished cousins, but their achievements aren’t as obvious, and Pat and I have had to move mountains, always, to further even the smallest progression.  And its taken a toll, a fact never so obvious as when I’m with my siblings, who are immersed in the important and blissfully ordinary business of making sure their kids get into a good college, have nice friends, are well-traveled, and learn to navigate different kinds of social and professional circles.  Theirs is the world in which I grew up, but it’s not the world our children will occupy, nor is it a life to which I’ll ever return, and therein lies the rub.  I don’t know what our children’s futures hold – I don’t allow myself to envision an outcome beyond self-sufficiency, intact self-esteem, and the capacity to give and accept love.  Sophie is an amazing child whose talents could take her to heights she’s not yet imagined but whose skeletons may rattle her confidence and cloud her way.  Peter has a beautiful heart but a damaged brain, and he’s more vulnerable, I realize, than I ever allowed myself to believe.  I hope and pray he never loses his capacity for love; beyond that, his future is too uncertain to speculate.  Maybe the uncertainty is what drives my present melancholy, that and the growing feeling of loneliness that continues to gnaw at me.  I miss my family so much, especially my parents, now long dead, and yet I worry that there may be more than just geographical distance coming between my siblings and me.  Our lives have become so different that I wonder whether we are losing the glue that is our commonality.  Pat knows I’m struggling with this, the unacknowledged gulf that’s growing like a patient tumor due to our difficult circumstances and the isolation which it breeds, and night after night he holds me tight to let me know that he’s there, and that he always will be.  He is single-handedly nurturing my sanity these days and I cherish him for it.  He appreciates as well as I that my siblings can no more understand, for instance, the extent of the trauma we’ve endured with the school district, or why we lack the money to pay our income taxes, than I can presently fathom the freedom that their lifestyles afford.  Despite the fact that my siblings (and a few of their spouses) are high-income lawyers, no one has ever truly offered to help – monetarily or otherwise, with any of our various legal battles, crises, or just the every day challenges of raising two special needs children.  The entire week we were in North Carolina, no one even offered to watch Sophie and Peter one night so Pat and I might take two hours to ourselves and see a movie, something they know we very rarely get to do.  It’s not a message they mean to send, I’m sure of that, but nonetheless, it seems obvious that we’re alone on this journey, the four of us, and absent a catastrophic event, they won’t be assuming a more proactive role.  On the heels of Peter’s’ breakdown, I craved more than ever the companionship of my siblings.  I guess I thought they might hold me, help us plot a roadmap, or ask what they could do to help.  Something, anything, to alleviate the fear and desperation that has taken root inside me.  I was homesick in a way I haven’t felt in years.  But in North Carolina this past week, in the summer home of my childhood, where I always felt safe and supported, I was genuinely lonely.  It’s not their fault, they’ve done nothing wrong.  In truth, and maybe in part because I’m the youngest, I worship, adore, and admire each of them more than they will ever fully appreciate.   I’m just seeing reality a little more clearly these days.  As we prepared to head back home, I had the strange sensation of looking into the window of normal life, my siblings’ lives, and catching only a flickering glimpse of memories formed long ago, back when I naively believed a true heart and sound mind were the only ingredients necessary for building a fulfilling life. Though the camaraderie of shared experiences and common interests – as well as the comfort it offers, permeated the air around me, what I so yearned to grab hold of this Thanksgiving seemed impossibly past my reach, and eons beyond my current circumstances.  Our son’s challenges are not only a cross I have to bear, they’re fixtures in my life with which I clearly still need to come to terms.  I’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s more to go.  My post-Peter life will never again resemble my former life, but its rich in love and purpose all the same.  I have to remember that, and work on new ways of embracing what we have rather than dwell on what we’ve lost, or what will never be.

November 3, 2010

November 3, 2010

Halloween 2010

November 3, 2010.  The other night we spoke about the mid-term elections over dinner and Peter asked whether I voted for Daddy.  Rather than embark on yet another Who’s on First dialogue, Pat instead asked, “Peter, why do grownups vote in elections?” “To vote,” he replied.  At age 9, our son still has little understanding of the world beyond himself, despite his exposure to media, family discussions, and school lessons.  Given how “normally” he presents, it’s an increasingly worrisome reality.  The other day he asked if the Civil War was at our house, casually commenting that our yard was peaceful and he liked it that way.  When asked, he couldn’t recall where he had heard about the Civil War, all he could say was, “it’s real Mom, the mens are fighting.”  I tried to explain that it took place 150 years ago, that I had relatives who fought for the South and that the war almost destroyed our fledgling country.  He then asked if my father, who died in 1994, was still fighting, and was that why he doesn’t visit often.  No matter what I said, he couldn’t grasp the idea of a distant past, not even slightly.  There are times when he can envision a future – he’ll make comments about buying his own iPod or car when he grows up, but he has no real inkling that life occurred before the scope of his own memory.  This restricted style of thinking is one of the countless reasons I agonize over Peter’s ability, one day, to navigate independently his environment: to recognize the difference between friend and predator, to make the correct snap judgment in a dangerous situation, or even to remember to eat dinner if there is no one present to model the task.  At our first CSE meeting with the new school the other day, his teacher astutely commented that Peter has difficulty orienting himself in time, which by his age, in particular, can be a major source of confusion and frustration.  She said addressing this difficulty should be a top priority.  Pat and I agreed, of course.  How refreshing that this new teacher is concerned with the same things that worry us.  She realizes that Peter needs to master the fundamentals, like where he is in time, both in the larger context and in terms of daily living, before he’s exposed, uselessly, to grade level lessons such as the scientific principles of electricity, a unit he was made to endure for weeks on end last year.  Maybe, just maybe, we’re now on the path toward real improvement, cooperation, and better spirit.  I do hope so.  Last month Peter announced he wasn’t going Trick or Treating this year.  The decorations that adorned the village neighborhoods scared him, as did many of the costumes.  I suggested he pick out a costume anyway, which he did, just in case he changed his mind, which he also did.  And I’m so glad.  We met up with friends and had a wonderful time, Peter included.  I think the kids enjoyed jumping in the countless mounds of raked leaves best of all, especially Sophie, who made a terrific mummy.  I only hope the villagers forgive the mischief as they inevitably embark on raking their yards all over again.  Dare I say it?  Things are starting almost to feel normal.  Not normal “normal”, but more relaxed, more supportive, less combative and definitely more hopeful.  I ran into a friend the other day – she later emailed to say how wonderful she thought I looked, which I found funny because I was wearing sweats and a t-shirt and I’m fairly sure I had pieces of mulch stuck in my hair.  But what she meant was the stress – she said for the first time in months, stress no longer seemed to be my most prominent feature.  What a nice compliment, and reminder, of what matters, what I must strive for, and what I must never forget to gauge.  The difficulties of raising two children with complex, often misunderstood needs are plenty, but at the same time, the daily joys, the occasional soaring triumphs, the quiet moments – these are the things worth carrying.

October 28, 2010

October 28, 2010

Scout, Peter and Sophie (Spring 2005)

October 28, 2010.  Tomorrow we’re putting our nearly 16-year-old Jack Russell Terrier to sleep, at 11:00 am to be precise.  We’ve already changed our minds numerous times and even cancelled one scheduled appointment.  But we can’t put it off any longer, there’s no denying what has to be done and I need to believe that this will be in fact the last act of love we’ll ever give her.  I remember picking Scout out of a litter of 9 as vividly as if it was yesterday.  The man selling the pups sized me up in about 30 seconds and warned that Jack Russells don’t make good lap dogs.  I smiled politely, thanked him for the information, and went about deciding on the puppy I intended to name Scout, the one with the diamond marking on her forehead.  Having buried my father only three weeks earlier, Scout has been a tremendous comfort and loyal companion from the start, and this despite all her typical Jack Russell characteristics.  Although weighing only 13 ounces, she nonetheless had the gumption, at just 8 weeks of age, to growl at me the first time I took her food away.  Even so, only a few days of convincing were needed to transform her into a snuggly, if tenacious, lap dog.  The first time Pat flew from NYC to visit me in Atlanta, when we were just beginning to see each other, he walked in my home, immediately reaching to pick up Scout before I had a chance to warn him that she can be nippy with strangers.  I had visions of his hands being sewn up in the Emergency Room and our fledgling relationship ending before it really ever began.  But she surprised me.  Or maybe it was Pat who did the surprising.  At any rate, they became fast and furious friends, meaning tomorrow’s appointment will be as hard on him as it will be for me.  She’s been every bit his dog too for the last dozen years.  As for the children, we’ve decided to lie, and I hope it’s the right decision.  Sophie especially was traumatized after being graphically exposed to the process of euthanasia by watching Marley and Me, a PG-rated movie whose advertising as a “family holiday” film still infuriates me.  Neither of us feels she’s of the mindset to handle being told we put Scout to sleep.  When they get home from school tomorrow, Sophie and Peter will be told she died at home, peacefully.  We began preparing them weeks ago for the inevitable and I hope they handle the news.  Of course, having Lulu, our new puppy, will help.  As I sit here contemplating the most difficult task of dog ownership, I can’t help reflect on how effortless my relationships with animals, especially dogs, always has been.  I seem to earn their trust and affection almost instantly, a feat I’ve not quite achieved with our two Russian-born children.  I know they aren’t comparable, children and dogs, but still, this journey with our kids has shaken the belief I had, and relied upon, regarding my ability to reach and keep the hearts of those I love.  I’ve earned Peter’s love and trust, something for which I’m immensely grateful, but it took five years and enough sweat and tears to fill a lake.  Only recently have Pat and I realized we’ve been fooling ourselves regarding both the solidity and nature of Sophie’s attachment to us.  This child I love more deeply than I imagined possible, it turns out, has very complex and troubled feelings toward us and the very concept of family, what it means, and requires, to be part of a family.  In the midst of Peter’s endless tornado, I allowed myself the fiction of believing that Sophie was secure, that she was ours and we were hers, in the most usual and heavenly ways.  But it wasn’t entirely true.  She was playing a part, acting a role, and now that Peter has emerged substantially from the storm of his early trauma, she’s adrift and unmoored, unsure of her place in the family and rejecting the fundamental tenet that parents’ love for their children is not an either/or proposition.  She’s angry, seething, boiling mad.  I have to find a way to reach her, show her that I love her as completely as I always have even though in her eyes, I now love Peter in the same “outward” way.  Despite our efforts to talk these issues through, she is young, and emotionally much younger than her age, and to her, our tough love approach with Peter seemed, I think, like the absence of love.  Also, for years, Peter wouldn’t allow us to hug, kiss, or snuggle him.  But now that we no longer feel like sandpaper against his skin, I take full advantage whenever the opportunities arise to make up for all the intimacy he missed, and of course, deserved.  But Sophie doesn’t see it this way.  To her it’s a threat, that much is clear.  What’s not clear is how we address it, how we help her heal wounds that have been festering, it turns out, like a bubbling low grade infection the entire time Peter’s more urgent injuries were being triaged.  But we must, and we will.  In many ways it’s going to be harder than what we went through with Peter.  As Pat sagely pointed out, Peter’s thought processes are simple, his trauma finding purchase in the way his brain and body reacted to demands and stimuli.  We had to break these patterns, to be gruff about it, much the same way one goes about breaking a horse.  But Sophie’s mind is complex, terribly complex.  Her injuries are emotional and psychological and because in large part we missed them, or more aptly, were unwilling to see them, they’ve been brewing and multiplying for years within the interior of a very capable, clever brain.  There’s no doubt Sophie is the Jack Russell of our family, or as Pat likes to say, the Jack Velociraptor.  As I prepare to say goodbye to my oldest and best canine friend, I hope and pray I have the strength to convince my daughter of the completeness and unassailability of my love for and devotion to her.  To be honest, not many people love Scout.  She’s bitchy and ornery and generally ill-tempered.  But I love her and so does Pat.  I hope tomorrow that our old girl senses we’re there to help her and that she accepts our love this one last time.  It’s all I want for our daughter, too.  That she be able, in the privacy of her own thoughts, to acknowledge that we love her, no matter what, for who she is and who she’s not, for what she’s done or might never do, because we are her parents and we love her, forever, without condition, judgment, or pretense.

April 8, 2010

September 29, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 20

Gill's Farm Stand (Hurley, NY, September 2007)September 29, 2007.  Sophie, Pat and I are at the pumpkin patch, tripping over pumpkins littered across a wide field and chasing each other through the deep orange obstacle course.  Sophie picks little pumpkins for Grandma, Lindy, and herself and one big one to carve a few days before Halloween.  Pat and I choose a large, skinny one for Peter, who is home in his room, with Lindy keeping watch.  We made an emergency call an hour earlier and luckily she was able to come over and bring relief.  I had to leave, get away from Peter for a while, but I had no desire to leave Pat and Sophie behind.  In a sickening moment of deja vu, I discovered Peter threw away my new eyeglasses, my engagement ring, my favorite watch, an engraved bracelet Pat gave me as an anniversary present, and a bracelet given to me by my sister.  Like Sophie’s birthday presents, we had come to the conclusion there was no other conclusion that didn’t involve Peter, but we searched and searched for the missing jewelry nonetheless.  Peter participated in the hunt.  An opportunity arose to question him about it and he finally confessed.  He admitted taking my jewelry, which was on top of the vanity, and placing it at the bottom of the wicker trashcan in our bedroom.  My most cherished possessions went out with Monday’s garbage.  The day until then had been going so well.  The kids had a soccer game in the morning, we went by the new house to check on progress, had leftover Chinese for lunch, made silly, homemade Halloween decorations, and were planning an outing to the pumpkin patch later in the afternoon.  One of the happiest days I thought we’d had in a while.  But now I’m numb and dazed, doing my best to feign fun for Sophie’s sake.  She’s nervous but thrilled to have us alone.  I stare at the endless vista of pumpkins and wonder whether Peter will be with us for this annual outing next year.   I should be crying, I feel like crying, but the tears don’t come.  Instead, I chase Sophie and let her chase me.  I take pictures of Pat and Sophie as they zig and zag through the corn maze and scramble into the hay tunnel.  Despite the sorrow burrowing inside, I’m having fun.  As a family of three we’re happy.  As a family of four we sometimes aren’t.  Surely that should be enough to make me cry.

Chapter 20:  Widening our Circle

One sunny morning in May, my sister walked in to find the kids and I playing on the floor.  All three of us looked up when the door opened but only my face registered shock and surprise.  As much as I love the idea of Patty being able to drop in whenever she liked, it’s an impossible wish because she lives in Atlanta.  But there she was, broadly smiling in her quiet way, bracing for the noise and ruckus that her arrival was about to cause.  Surprise!

She had come for my 40th birthday, which was only two days away.  Pat’s mother was turning 80 and with my encouragement, he and his brother had flown to West Palm Beach the night before to surprise her.  I knew I wouldn’t feel alone on my birthday because I had Sophie and Peter.  Despite growing concern for our son, I still reveled daily in the bounty of our good fortunes and felt content and fulfilled with our children by my side.  But it seems Pat and Patty had conspired to make sure the kids and I had company for the weekend.  I couldn’t have been more thrilled.

My sister Patty, a/k/a "Queenie" (Blowing Rock, July 2005)

“What should we do?” Patty asked, once the hoopla settled.  “I mean, after we go to Albany . . .”  So Pat had told her.  Thank goodness.  Within the hour I needed to be in the car, heading to Albany for our appointment with a pediatric infectious disease specialist named Dr. Martha Lepow.  Peter’s pediatrician had called three days ago to inform us that an x-ray taken of his chest showed a lesion on his lung, an indication of active tuberculosis that could not be ignored.  His preschool was not thrilled though the director took the news fairly well.  Although we agreed Peter should stay home, she would wait until she heard from us to inform the other parents.  We had called Dr. Aronson about the x-ray findings and she urged us to stay calm and wait for the specialist’s opinion.  “In all my years of practice,” she said, “I’ve never seen an active case of TB in any of my kids.”

When Dr. Lepow walked in the examining room, a short, commanding woman with a gray pixie and tortoise-rimmed glasses, she took one look at Peter and proclaimed that he didn’t have TB.  “So you’ve looked at the x-ray?” I asked.  “No, not yet,” she admitted.  “I can tell just by looking at him.  He’s got other problems – we’ll talk about those, but let’s get this TB thing over with.”

Sure enough, she examined the films and confirmed that Peter didn’t have active TB.  The “lesion” on the x-ray was his arm.  I was so relieved I couldn’t even get angry with the idiot radiologist who read the x-ray locally.  But even I could pick out the outline of the tiny elbow once Dr. Lepow showed my sister and me the film.  Clearly he had moved during the procedure.  I’m sure Peter wasn’t the first 3-year old to squirm during an x-ray either.  Still, he was okay, and that’s what mattered.  There would be no mass hysteria at the preschool and we wouldn’t have to embark on some awful, long ordeal that may or may not have restored his health.

It’s amazing how much a word like tuberculosis can hang over your head, clouding your thoughts and feeding your very worst fears.  Our perplexing son was physically healthy, at least relatively, and I felt free to enjoy Patty’s company and my impending 40th birthday with an unburdened mind.  Like other doctors who had met our son, Dr. Lepow was worried about what she saw, and perhaps more to the point, what she didn’t see, but I naively downplayed her observations.  After all, he didn’t have TB, and wasn’t that the take home message?

But she did point out a few things that I dutifully committed to memory.  His range of motion was abnormal, for instance, there were prominent and dark circles under his eyes, and despite his being much sturdier than Sophie, Dr. Lepow said he needed to gain weight.  She suggested we supplement his diet with Pediasure and keep a close eye on his growth.  If his height didn’t make the chart in three months, she suggested we take him to a pediatric endocrinologist.

“He’s not catching up like you’d expect,” she said.  “It doesn’t mean he won’t, he may just need a jumpstart.  His gait’s off too – this little fellow’s got low muscle tone.”

Peter (April 2005)

Patty and I discussed the doctor’s concerns on the way home and by the time we’d driven the 60 miles back to Marbletown we agreed that Peter’s odd behaviors were of greater concern than his unimpressive growth rate.  My sister hadn’t seen Peter since January and she felt his strange affect and behaviors were every bit as peculiar as they’d been last winter and maybe even more pronounced.  She also gently pointed out that Sophie, who was a year younger, was speaking much better than Peter.  I assured her that I’d speak with Pat when he returned from Florida about getting some assessments done.

Thanks to the eradication of the TB scare, the rest of the weekend was remarkable in that it was unremarkable.  That is, until Sunday rolled around, which was my birthday.  I don’t remember what we did that morning but when we came back home after lunch, Patty insisted we go shopping even though her plane was leaving later that afternoon.  She said she wanted to see the new outdoor adventure store at the mall, which I did think was an unusual request (my sister’s not really a mall person), but I was happy to oblige.  I was just glad she was there.  So we left again and walked around the big retail space, complete with camping equipment, kayaks, fishing poles and hunting gear.  Stuffed bear, deer and bobcat heads hung from the walls, and we quickly made for the exit sign once Peter noticed the taxidermy displays and began screaming inconsolably.   On the way home we stopped for milkshakes at Stewarts and laughed at the sight of Peter and Sophie trying in vain to suck the thick contents through their flimsy straws and into their mouths.

By the time we got home the kids’ clothes were covered in milkshake and the four of us were hot and sticky and smelled like melted ice cream.  When I walked in the door I was instantly bombarded with SURPRISE and the sight of Pat’s smiling face.  He and my sister had fooled me, and fooled me well.  Our living room was stuffed with family and friends, many of whom had driven from the city to celebrate.  I had no idea how Pat arranged to come back from Florida early or how he managed to throw the party together in the short time we’d been away from the house that day.  But somehow he managed it and so I kissed him, my face turning flush as the guests cheered.

It would have been a great party, too.  As it turned out though, I never even got the chance to say hello to anyone.  In fact, I was still standing in the doorway when Sophie came barreling around the kitchen island, tripped over a bar stool and suddenly became airborne.  I saw the coming catastrophe clearly in the split second it took before she landed face first onto the corner of the island and then bounced toward the floor where Scout, our child-loathing dog, stood waiting.  I lunged to catch her but it was too late.  Sophie landed on top of Scout and the only thing I remember after that was a horrible yelping, screaming noise.  I pulled Sophie one-armed from the snarling mayhem and held her to my chest as I quickly dashed around the corner into the mudroom, which was unoccupied.  I held her tightly for a moment and then gently lifted her quivering chin to assess the damage.  I could hear Pat gasp “Oh my God!” behind me.  Sophie’s face and my shirt were covered in blood.  “Get a towel,” I yelled.  My voice shook with fear and my body began trembling.  “I’ll be in the car.”

Pat drove like Robin Williams on speed to the hospital while I sat in the back seat and cradled Sophie, whose screams by then had dwindled to the occasional muffled sob.  By the time we got to the Emergency Room, she’d stopped crying altogether.  The gash responsible for the copious outpouring of blood was less than a half-inch long and ran perpendicular to the ride side of her upper lip.  We tried to keep her still in the waiting room but it was nearly impossible.  Holding the towel to her face, she played peek-a-boo with a young man who was also waiting to be seen.  “Koo-Koo,” she smiled, wincing in pain.

A Truce, Of Sorts (Poet's Walk, Red Hook, Spring 2006)

A Truce, Of Sorts (Poet's Walk, Red Hook, NY, Spring 2006)

The only blessing that came out of the whole ordeal was that the emergency room doctors adamantly confirmed that Sophie’s injury was not a result of a dog bite.  Scout caught her lip with her toenail, which is not good, but the news was a relief because it meant we didn’t have to consider finding another home for our beloved old dog.  If she didn’t bite Sophie in that kind of situation we felt confident she never would.  There was no plastic surgeon available but after waiting over two hours, an ENT finally showed up to stitch the wound.  The ER doctors felt an ENT was the next best thing to a plastic surgeon because they do so much facial work.  Because of Sophie’s age, they had to sedate her, which was no fun, but I was allowed to hold her the entire time, even while the surgeon sewed her bruised and broken lip.

As we were leaving the ER, a nurse approached us with a wonderful ink drawing the young man in the waiting room drew for Sophie.  He too was obviously struck by our daughter’s amazing resiliency and charisma.  By the time we got home the party was over.  Pat’s cousins, who stayed to watch Peter, were cleaning up.

Sophie's ER Souvenir (May 15, 2005)

My sister’s plane had left two hours earlier.  The cake was eaten, the food and drinks were decimated, and the couch was littered with unopened presents and cards.  Pat had periodically called home to check on Peter and our guests, so everyone knew that despite the horrific amount of blood, Sophie’s injuries were minor.  It seems our guests were so relieved that Sophie was not seriously hurt that they decided to celebrate in earnest.  We later heard that Pat threw the best party he never attended.

Because Sophie still clung to many of her orphanage ways, she insisted on wobbling up the stairs from the garage into the house on her own drunken volition.  Her lip was twice the size of Tammy Faye Baker’s and the right side of her face and eye, where she bounced off the corner of the kitchen island, was grotesquely swollen and purple.  “Where the peoples?” she asked, in the most pitifully small voice.  “I want cake.”

We quickly explained that cake would have to wait and shuffled her upstairs, where I took off her blood-soaked clothes and changed her into pajamas.  She was asleep midway through the process and I fought back tears as I tucked her in and lightly kissed what I prayed was only her temporarily misshapen face.  After changing my own clothes and throwing the entire bloody pile in the garbage, I sat on the floor next to Sophie’s bed and watched her sleep.  The rhythmic sound of her breathing beckoned me toward a calmer mindset and after a while, I too relaxed.

While Sophie healed over the course of the next week, I forgot all about the Big 4-Oh.  After all, any trauma I might have been willing to entertain regarding my 40th birthday had been snuffed out instantly in the wake of our daughter’s accident.  However, once it became clear that Sophie would not be permanently disfigured, and that we wouldn’t even need a plastic surgeon to improve the scar, our worries slowly migrated back to our son and his unshakeable troubling traits.

As we grew to understand Sophie’s moods, including some new twists because she was cranky and sore in a way we hadn’t yet experienced, the continuing sense of not knowing our son was horribly disturbing and more than just a little eerie.  Pat and I could ramble on about Sophie, her likes and dislikes, her funny and perplexing habits – as amiably and confidently as any other set of parents.  But Peter was an enigma, and as his behaviors began escalating, he seemed more like an explosive device waiting for the last tick-tock before detonation than a cuddly toddler.

Blowing Rock, NC (July 2005)

The floodgates opened just as we began taking some proactive steps, making appointments for various evaluations despite our pediatrician urging us to wait.  Peter began rubbing feces on himself and his belongs again, peeing everywhere and on everything, ripping wallpaper, raging, hurting Sophie, biting, spitting, refusing to eat, vomiting at the table, bolting from us in crowded places, and destroying his toys.  It was as though he had been in a trance and all of a sudden he went into some frenzied overdrive.  Looking back, it seems one minute we had an oddly robotic child who was nonetheless generally compliant and then we blinked and found ourselves staring at a feral child who could neither be consoled nor contained.

As we waited for the appointment dates to arrive, and the written reports of the evaluations that followed, Pat and I did our best to support each other.  Leaving the kids with a babysitter simply was not an option.  How do we explain to a teenage girl or grandmotherly woman about Peter’s behaviors?  That she needs to wrap duct tape snugly around our son’s diaper at bedtime so that he doesn’t pull it off and cover himself and his bedroom with unspeakable mess?  Or to not pay any attention if he vomits his meal at the dinner table – just clean it up and offer him another plate of food! I just could never play out these conversations in my mind.  So we stayed home, always.

But at least we had our evenings, thanks to our rigidly imposed 7:00 pm bedtime for all those under the age of 30, and on weekends we’d take the kids hiking, do our best to wear them out, and then take a long, leisurely drive afterward.  On the days when all went according to plan, the kids would nod off from exhaustion and boredom and Pat and I would escape into our own private revelry as we cruised the back roads in search of a yet-undiscovered treasure.  Every once in a while we’d come upon a fantastic barn or homemade road sign – even an interestingly posed cow, and I’d swat at Pat’s arm to pull over so I could take a picture.

Also, our virtually symbiotic ability to read each other’s signals, to jump to the rescue with a silly joke or a supportive squeeze or maybe even something as small as knowing smile, is what keeps us afloat, as parents, partners and individuals.  I suppose we’ve always had this kind of relationship, we certainly had our share of hardship as a couple before adopting the kids, but combating and coping with Peter’s problems made us consciously aware of it.  I’m not sure I possess the strength or resolve to parent our son without Pat by my side, I shudder to think what’d it be like, and so I pray each night that our health remains intact for at least a year or two beyond Peter’s undoubtedly prolonged adolescence.  We are one of the few couples I know where adversities, sometimes the size of land mines, have failed to corrode the seams of our marriage.  I truly look forward to that time when Pat and I can go out to dinner again, maybe even catch a late night movie, or take an exotic trip.  So what if he’s 81 and I’m 64?

Happily Abroad, Pre-Adoptions! (Avebury, England, Sept. 2001)

I was engaged in just this sort of day-dream, renting a house for a year in Ireland, to be exact, when Pat walked in with the mail, which turned out to contain the key to unlocking Peter’s access to special education and preschool intervention services.  Peter’s speech and language evaluation indicated significant delays in both receptive and expressive language skills, as well as profound difficulty processing auditory information.  In light of his normal hearing test, these results more than supported the need for preschool-based speech/language intervention.  The occupational therapy evaluation was no different.  Peter was significantly delayed in both gross and fine motor skills and demonstrated great difficulty with motor planning and oral manipulation.

Within a few weeks the county had arranged for therapists to work with Peter twice a week at home.  Having professionals in our living room, their bags of therapy toys in tow, felt wonderfully productive.  Peter’s new therapists were confident and knowledgeable about child development and their respective disciplines.  Within no time, they had him blowing bubbles, crawling through nylon tunnels, stringing beads, working on single step directions, pronouncing the letters of the alphabet and matching pictures to their corresponding words.  We were assigned a case manager who’s job was to oversee Peter’s therapies, assess his overall improvement, and make any changes or recommendations to services based upon observed progress or newly identified need.

Overall, we couldn’t have been more pleased.  After months of waiting and hoping for Peter to turn the corner, it felt good to be taking action.  In my heart I’d always known something was askew with Peter and the escalating turmoil our family endured over the last several weeks solidified my resolve to seek help.  When I confessed to our new case manager, a can-do woman with curly red hair who was also an adoptive mother, that I thought we were struggling with attachment issues, she immediately wrote down the name and number of Sue D’Aversa.  “Contact her,” she said.  “You won’t be disappointed.  People up there,” she laughed warmly, “they call her the Adoption Whisperer.”

“Up there” turned out to be Albany, which is the Capitol of New York and over 60 miles from our home, but I didn’t care.  After what seemed like months of Pat dragging his feet when it came to facing Peter’s problems, it was a relief to hear him agree so readily to yet another intervention.  Although I’ve since lost a good deal of my naivete, there was a time when I greeted each newly identified specialist, therapist or intervention with great anticipation, as if wellbeing and normalcy for our son was only a single appointment, drive, or office door away.

So on that cool, sunny morning in June when Pat and I discussed making the appointment as we pushed the kids on the swings of their newly installed jungle gym, I felt hopeful.  Sophie was thriving, growing stronger, wittier and sharper every day, Peter finally was getting help, and I was certain the social worker named Sue was about to throw Pat and me a priceless lifeline.

By the time our appointment rolled around, the children looked healthier than we ever imagined possible.  They no longer had translucent-colored complexions, their skin now radiated health thanks to nutritious food and plenty of warm sunshine.  Their hair had thickened up and grown shiny too, though Sophie still didn’t have enough for pigtails and had to settle instead for a Pebbles bow on the top of her head.  Although Peter’s growth would not skyrocket for a few more months, Sophie was growing by leaps and bounds.  By that summer she was still tiny for her age but had outgrown four sizes of clothes and just as many if not more shoe sizes.

We went together as a family the first time we drove to Albany to meet Sue, who apparently had a true gift for healing adopted children.  She shared office space with other counselors on the floor and there was a large cabinet in the waiting room that Sophie soon discovered was filled with books, toys and puzzles.  For whatever reason I felt the need to dress the children as though they were attending some sort of socialite tea party, and I felt a little self-conscious about this as they plunged into the heap of grubby toys in their brand new, overly dressy outfits.

Within a few minutes Sue opened her door and beckoned us inside.  She introduced herself and I liked her immediately.  It was clear she was a no-thrills, middle-aged woman with an open face and an interesting, hopefully insightful, perspective.  I would also soon learn that she possesses a great sense of humor and loves to laugh as much as I do.  Her office was arranged like a comfortable living room, with a sofa on one side and two chairs with a table on the other.  Multiple toy boxes were placed against the walls and Kleenex boxes were conveniently available on every table.  Either someone had bad allergies or there were a lot of tears shed in that room.  Still conflicted and confused about my feelings for Peter, I hoped and prayed she had an unusually allergic clientele.

As soon as we sat down and she spent a few minutes talking to the kids, she asked us the inevitable question.  “So, tell me why you’re here?”  Pat and I just stared at each other, dumbfounded.  We were at a loss when it came to discussing our feelings toward our son.  We could barely express our complicated feelings to one another much less to a stranger we’d met only five minutes earlier.  When it became clear we needed to be walked through this initial process, she instead suggested we tell her about our adoption story, how Sophie and Peter came into our lives, and what our initial impressions were of each.  That we could handle, barely.

We gulped, almost in unison, as we wordlessly determined who would speak first.  Our year of intensive attachment therapy had begun.

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March 13, 2010

September 23, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 19

In Pursuit of Minnows (Late Summer 2007)

September 23, 2007.  Peter wet himself for the third day in a row.  Yesterday, while catching minnows at a nearby creek, he peed his pants while boring his gaze into Pat’s mother and us.  It seems whenever we let negative behaviors like wetting pass without consequence, Peter interprets our inaction as weakness to be exploited.  For the last two mornings we ignored the wetting on the advice of our new Red Hook pediatrician.  She is a sensible, well-meaning woman, but like most doctors we encounter, lacks experience with post-institutionalized children.  She can’t imagine Peter pees with purpose and so she offers a plausible explanation.  “Maybe his sleep pattern has changed.  It happens at this age,” she tells us.  “He may be overtired and not listening to his signals.”  We’re so desperate to believe one of Peter’s problems is “typical” that we take her advice and try ignoring the problem.  I recall this conversation vividly as I confront Peter about his renewed interest in extramural peeing.  I tell him I’m aware he’s wetting because he went without consequence the last two days.  The kind doctor no doubt would reproach me for saying so, but I know my child.  He scoffs and hides his face so I can’t see him relish in the moment, his smirk re-enforcing the terrible truth Pat and I have known for some time:  we often are at war with our son.  The Normal Frontal Lobes (us) versus The Flying Neurons (him).  When pushed to speak about the reason he’s begun wetting again, he looks up and says, “I like to upset you.”  “Does it ever upset you?” I ask.  “No, I like it.”  He walks off without looking back and crouches behind the kitchen island.  I soon hear him crying.  I peek over and find him sobbing with great shuttering waves of shame, knees drawn up to his chin as he rocks, repeating to himself how sorry he is, that he’ll try harder.  I start crying too.  “Come here,” I say, picking him up.  I expect limp, dead weight but he wraps his arms tightly around me, squeezing my neck for dear life.  I think he understands, for the moment, that he’s his own worst enemy.  Peter can be the boy who wants carte blanche to disrupt our family at every turn as well as the boy who desperately needs and craves love.  There is an epic, primal war waging inside him.  The stakes are so high it dwarfs the battle he’s waging against us.  If I think too much about which boy will prevail, which of our Peters will emerge to face us as his body and mind edge toward manhood, I’ll lose what’s left of my mind.  And so I squeeze him back and surrender my fear in favor of this rare, connected moment.

Chapter 19:  Something’s Not Right

Somewhere around the six-month mark, Pat and I realized denial was no longer a rational pursuit.  By this time Peter was attending preschool three mornings a week and I was grateful for the break.  It gave me the opportunity to focus on Sophie without the distraction of Peter’s increasingly more difficult presence.  During this time we still clung unsteadily to the “give it time” theory, continuing to hope that Peter’s odd behaviors would eventually resolve.  Clinging to this possibility made about as much sense as running a marathon with one shoe but we weren’t yet ready to face reality.  It didn’t help that everyone we turned to, doctors, preschool teachers, family, and friends, urged us to practice patience.  He needed time to heal, acquire language, and discover a sense of self.

Another reason we didn’t move sooner was that although his puzzling behaviors and social interactions were worrisome, they didn’t scream out for attention.  The bed soiling hadn’t stopped but it hadn’t escalated either.  He was acquiring language, but at a slower rate than Sophie, who was chattering happily and nonstop.  Peter still only had a few dozen words but more importantly, he had a habit of stringing them together in a way that didn’t quite seem right.  For instance, he called the bathtub “bath tonight” and referred to the sink as a “drink of water.”  It was easy though to dismiss these language mistakes, especially since he was still transitioning from Russian to English.

His preschool teachers were happy to have him even though when pressed, they confessed that he kept to himself and wouldn’t join in with the other children.  He also didn’t follow directions, even simple ones.  I remember these kind-hearted women almost whispering these confessions, as though it were impolite to discuss a recently adopted child’s lack of progress.  “But he’s no problem,” they’d say, grabbing my hand warmly.  “And he’s cute as a button . . . those eyes!”

Tiny and Wearing Madras (Peter's spring preschool recital, May 2005)

Then there was the sitting down behavior, a precursor to the tantrums and rages that still pepper our daily lives.  Whenever Peter was upset, because he didn’t want to do something that was asked of him, like stop a preferred activity, or leave before he was ready, he’d drop to the floor.  It was the strangest thing.  He’d sit with his legs straight out and his hands resting rigidly in his lap, silent as the night and staring blankly ahead.  And he wouldn’t budge.  One of us would have to hoist him, one-armed, and carry him like an unwieldy mannequin.

These were warning signs, certainly, but except for the bed soiling, they felt manageable.  Peter was a little boy who was obviously having trouble adjusting and who was withdrawn and reliant on maladaptive behaviors to express his needs and frustrations.  We accepted this and tried our best to embrace the adage that patience and love were the greatest of all healers.

But then the other shoe fell off.  About six months after the adoptions, Peter abruptly abandoned his passive approach to living in our house.  Almost as though an alarm bell sounded inside the deepest recesses of his brain, our son awoke to the sounds of his own primal screams.  His demons became loosed and consequently, our family’s course, laid from hopes, dreams, and a pinch of folly, took a turn toward a future we never expected or imagined.

One early Sunday morning when the bulbs had bloomed but the grass was still brown, Peter ran into our room and uncharacteristically jumped in bed.  Despite the darkness that still blanketed the day, the house was awake from the rumbling of a springtime storm.  Sophie had already beaten him to the punch and was lodged deep under the covers, hiding from both the thunder and the high-pitched howl of the wind whistling through the newly leaved trees.  Peter wiggled his way between us in search of a spot where he too could disappear.  Despite the children’s fear, I was grateful for the banging storm, for the intimate opportunity it offered.

Because it was still mostly dark, I didn’t notice anything unusual when Peter stretched his arm out from under the quilt.  But I quickly smelled the odor.  “What the . . .,” I gasped while Pat fumbled for the lamp switch.  To our horror, the light revealed what we already suspected.  Poop, coming from Peter.  And it wasn’t a simple accident.  He was covered in feces.  He had taken his own waste and smeared it all over his body and pajamas and into his hair.  He was completely covered in poop.

Sophie started crying as soon as she realized what happened and this caused Peter to run screaming from the room.  The place on the bed where he lay was fouled and so were Sophie and I.  Because Pat was unaffected, he sprung into action while I remained stunned and on the verge of getting sick.  “Get him,” I groaned as I fought back the urge to vomit.  Lifting Sophie gingerly from the bed, as if she were injured, I carried her into the bathroom.  Stripping her pajamas in the tub, I scrubbed her delicate skin under water as hot as she could stand until the germs fell off and her sobs subsided.  After wrapping her in a towel, I handed her over to Pat as he long-armed Peter toward me.

Early Spring 2007

It was a morning I’ll never forget.  By early afternoon the house was sanitized, as were the human occupants.  I remember sitting at the breakfast bar, sipping strong coffee while I stared numbly at the rivulets forming and reforming on the windowpanes.  I couldn’t manage much more.  Peter was busy rifling through our junk mail, stacking the flyers and advertisements into a big messy pile, and Sophie was engrossed with her Little People farm.  Every once in a while the blare of Cock-a-Doodle-Doo would rouse me from my thoughts and I’d turn and smile toward our daughter.  Surfing the Internet from his perch on the coach, Pat too would look up and smile briefly.  We had so much to talk about and were biding time until we had some privacy.

Before we put Peter down for his nap, we explained very simply that he would be spanked if he ever did that again.  Unsure whether he knew the English word, we gently but firmly demonstrated the spanking process.  “Peter know,” he nodded solemnly.  “Peter know.”  I don’t know whether he knew or not but two days later he delivered an encore performance.  Enough was enough.  We’d been tolerating the “poop on one end and pee on the other” bed routine for six months.  Every possible solution we tried to stop the behavior, including putting a potty in his room, either backfired or didn’t help.  Not charts, not rewards, not consequences.  And he had upped the ante substantially.

So as promised, the second time around we spanked him.  It felt like a defeat, certainly.  During all the years I dreamed of becoming a mother, my imagination never took me to a place where I resorted to spanking a toddler I’d brought home from Russia only six months earlier.  But I also never dreamed of parenting a child who willingly covered himself in feces.  I was at a loss, and so was Pat.

It’s not that I think children should never be spanked or that any parent who chooses to spank is a borderline abuser.  But spanking our kids?  That was different.  Sophie and Peter had been neglected and half-starved and who’s to say they hadn’t been physically or even sexually abused?  We just didn’t know.  But we also felt like we had no other choice.   Perhaps the worst part of all is that the spanking worked.  He never did it again.  As we would soon discover, Peter experiences some kind of psychic release when he’s thoroughly punished, whether spanked or disciplined in some other way, which by far is the more usual scenario.  It’s almost as though he’s hit rock bottom but doesn’t realize it until a strong punishment intercedes to alert him.  Only then can he pull himself together and resurface.

Looking back on this phase of our lives, I now understand that Peter wasn’t able to hold himself together, that the strain of keeping his behavior and impulses in check was too great for him to bear any longer.  The honeymoon was over.  Maybe by that point he felt secure enough in our home to shed the perfect robot routine.  Conversely, maybe the sudden change in course signaled his inability to cope with the demands and nuances of family life.  To this day I’m unsure which is the more probable explanation or whether there’s even a third or fourth consideration that would shed light on the shift that occurred.

 

March 2005

Unfortunately, the feces smearing incidents, though perhaps the pinnacle acts of his rapid descent, weren’t the only issues with which we found ourselves faced.  During this period he also became destructive, ripping wallpaper from the walls in the middle of the night and pulling toys apart piece by piece.  “Truck broke,” he’d complain, showing me the various pieces he plucked apart.  “Garbage time.”  Whenever Pat or I tried making him acknowledge his role, so that he understood his actions caused the toy to break rather than random fate, he would scream red-faced, “Peter no break.  Truck broke!”

 

It was in this manner that I gradually came to understand that Peter had trouble making logical connections.  For a long time I thought he was just being stubborn, that like most young children he didn’t want to admit his mistakes or his role in a particular misdeed.  But over a period of time I realized that Peter constantly overlooked, even angrily denied, the most obvious cause and effect relationships.  Twisting the arms of sunglasses will cause them to break.  Ripping the wallpaper will bring about a consequence.  There’s no dessert when dinner is left uneaten.  The doorbell always signals a visitor at the front door (as opposed to another door).  Dishes will break when dropped.  Peter simply didn’t register these kinds of unshakeable facts.

Not only was his inability to make logical connections a serious source of concern, it made disciplining difficult because Peter doesn’t learn from his mistakes.  More likely than not, he’s destined to repeat tomorrow and the next day the mistake he made today.  Maybe on some level he understood this, or at least sensed on a basic level that he lacked the tools to navigate the complex world of family and expectations.  Maybe that’s why he opted to take no risks or make even the simplest of choices during those first months home.

May 2007

In the orphanage there were no choices.  Peter was never left alone or unattended, not even at night.  Fifteen other children slept with him and a caregiver stood watch, or at least remained minimally conscious, throughout the night.  Meals were eaten in groups with caregivers combing the aisles to help or maintain order.  Toys were kept high on shelves and to the extent they were brought down, they weren’t scattered across the floor so children could pick and choose.  Children were given one toy at a time.  Use it or lose it.  In the orphanage Peter was told when to potty, when to play, when to go outside, when to eat, when to shower, when to sleep, when to be quiet and when it was okay to make noise.  It’s the kind of system where independent thought is not encouraged and certainly not required, and where a lack of independence or self-regulation might actually make yielding to the rules easier.

But in a home, he was free, at least relatively.  Free to explore his environment, free to make certain choices, such as what he wanted for snack, and free to express his thoughts.  The same held true for Sophie but the difference was that where Sophie learned from her environment and adapted, Peter became more bewildered and frightened.  He didn’t have the tools.

Once he began showing his frustration, whether by smearing feces, ripping wallpaper or launching rocks at Sophie’s head, other telltale signs emerged.  For instance, once he realized there was plenty to eat, always, and that he would never go hungry, he began using food as a weapon.  He often refused to eat dinner.  Keeping a single piece of food in his mouth, whether a pea or a bite of chicken, he would chew and chew but never swallow.  Over time, his refusal of food evolved into a more active assault where he made himself throw up at the table, especially in restaurants.  Logical consequences had zero effect.  He either never made the connection or he didn’t care.  Sometimes Pat and I still catch ourselves uselessly debating which is the more prevalent of Peter’s states of mind, can’t or won’t.  It’s impossible to say because the two are inextricably intertwined.

The behavioral regression we began witnessing during this time was further complicated by what seemed like developmental backtracking.  His rate of language acquisition reached a sort of plateau and he began exhibiting unusual physical movements.  He repeated himself constantly, particularly his name, and always in a loud, monotone voice.  Busily engaged in the “crashing, screaming, falling game,” he might for example, hear someone ask for the time.  Without awareness he’d parrot the question, “Is it 6 yet?”  He also could spin on the middle of the living room rug for thirty minutes straight, oblivious to any action around him.  He regularly walked on his toes and flapped his hands.  Sometimes he rolled his head so violently he looked like a ragdoll drunk on a rollercoaster.

By May, we knew something was seriously wrong.  Despite varied opinions and our own desire to wish them away, Peter’s behaviors could no longer be ignored or casually explained.  Instead of lying awake wondering who Peter was and how spooky it felt to live with a child we barely knew, our sleep soon became interrupted by an entirely new brand of torment.  Namely, whether our son was missing a few key ingredients, components essential for normal childhood development.  Afraid to waste any more time, I made appointments at Vassar Brothers Hospital to have his hearing and speech evaluated and at our local hospital to have him seen by occupational and physical therapists.

The wait and see game was officially over.  Peter had let us know, loud and clear, that time would not heal his wounds.  Frightened as we were, at least we didn’t miss this last desperate scream for help.


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March 2, 2010

September 20, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 18

Late Summer (2007)

September 20, 2007.  Peter raided our bathroom in the middle of the night.  Pat found loose pills and open bottles.  Somehow he figured a way to bypass our safety precautions.  In the past, his midnight adventures revolved around smearing the walls with lotion or shampoo and pouring Pat’s aftershave down the drain.  This morning he tearfully admits the mischief, which I take as a good sign because like most kids his age, his strong inclination is to lie.  He is still upset when I pick him up from school.  His sister is also having a hard day though I nearly miss learning why.  Sophie wanted to share the adoption book we made last summer with her class but felt too shy when the time came.  I try listening to her on the drive home but get distracted when Peter throws a soccer ball into the front seat.  It grazes my head before bouncing to the floor.  I pull over immediately to address the behavior and start to reprimand Sophie for interrupting.  Then I realize what she’s saying.  She’s trying to tell me she didn’t show the book because she was afraid the other kids would tease her for being adopted.  I’m so angry with Peter that I nearly miss the confused, timid tone in her voice.  My daughter, who until now has soared through her short life with us with enviable confidence, is becoming aware of differences.  We have always celebrated the difference in how our family was formed but at five, Sophie for the first time is venturing beyond the protective confines of home, where other perspectives abound, and where differences aren’t always celebrated.  I spend so much time searching for a solution or even a temporary salve that might soothe Peter’s tortured soul that I’m failing to focus sufficiently on my other child’s entirely rational fears and needs.  Sophie can be helped, really helped, and yet concern for Peter, a concern bordering at times on terror, preempts all else.  This has to change.  Although it would be wrong to give up on Peter, the real crime would be surrendering Sophie’s chance at emotional wellness in furtherance of his.  As part of this family she’ll always be more than just a bystander when it comes to Peter’s troubles, but I have to minimize the collateral damage.  I must learn to listen to Sophie even with soccer balls whirling overhead.

Chapter 18:  Is That You, Santa Claus?

I never think back to our first six months home without feeling flooded by memories of ambivalence, confusion, joy, and relief, a mixed bag of feelings that don’t typically complement each other.  On the one hand, the children were home, they were ours, and we were a family whose members were learning to adjust to the cadences and demands of one another.  I was quickly becoming a competent parent and Pat was re-discovering some tricks of the fatherhood trade he had shelved more than a decade earlier.  We were on the path toward becoming a whole, healthy family and should have been content and satiated with the bounty of our blessings.

Our Adoption Announcement & Christmas Card (2004)

And there were blessings.  When Sophie first got home her legs were so spindly and weak she couldn’t climb the stairs or pull herself onto the couch.  If she tried walking without assistance on a path with even a slight slope, she’d wobble and fall, exhibiting what Dr. Aronson called “poor motor planning.”  Pat and I called it “poor bruise prevention,” often joking that Sophie’s skin tone, especially during those first months home, was a mottled black and blue.  All elbows and knees, our precious bundle of occupational hazard doled out as many bruises as she suffered.

Dr. Aronson strongly encouraged us to have her evaluated through our county’s Early Intervention program, reminding us that institutionalized children lose one month of development for every three months they spend in an orphanage.  Sophie’s motor skills were so delayed, and her rickets so severe, that she didn’t think we should risk waiting.  However, in the three weeks it took to arrange for the Early Intervention therapists to come to our home, her health and ambulation improved tenfold.  In fact, she’d caught up.  She didn’t qualify for occupational or physical therapy services, and astonishingly, her English language skills, both in terms of what she was able to speak and understand, were age appropriate.

At the time, Dr. Aronson suggested we have Peter evaluated too, but because his motor skills were more developed than Sophie’s, she thought giving him time to adjust was the greater priority.  She felt the bed soiling incidents likely were attributable to stress, including stress that was possibly derived from fear over leaving his room to use the bathroom.  She suggested we put a potty near his bed and let the issue resolve on its own, without giving the unwanted behavior negative attention.  This was important, she advised, because orphanage children, even those as young as Peter, quickly learn that certain unacceptable behaviors will cause even the most immune and indifferent caregiver to perk up and pay attention.  In adoption speak, these are called maladaptive behaviors, maladaptive because they may help a child survive in an institutional environment, but they interfere with bonding and general integration into normal family life.

Her line of reasoning made sense to us, and it helped assuage our worries over what we considered disturbing behavior.  Plus, as pleased as we were with Sophie’s progress, we were also encouraged by the positive changes in Peter.  To begin, he grew so quickly I had to replace clothes and shoes every month.  By the end of our first year home, he had grown ten inches and gained twelve pounds.  During a checkup, I remember the nurse apologizing for the “mistake” in his chart when she wrote his new measurements down.  After listening to me explain that he really had grown that much, that it was “catch-up growth” and not an error in transcription, she just stared at me, mouth agape.

During this time he learned how to pedal his tricycle like a champ, discovered the simplistic beauty of Thomas the Tank Engine, experienced the joy of sledding, and poured with devotion through endless picture books.  He used the potty (peesit!) regularly and never had any accidents, although we still struggled with the bed soiling trick.  The bald patches and wispy hair began to thicken and grow with regular haircuts and plenty of healthy food.   Physically, he was thriving.

Peter playing the "Crashing, Screaming, Falling Game" (Dec. 2004)

But in other ways, he wasn’t.  Week after endless week Pat and I waited for Peter’s personality to emerge, for the memory of the adoption trauma to subside enough so he could show us who he was.  That’s what we thought, and what we told ourselves for a very long time: that he was traumatized, shell-shocked, but with enough patience, love, and understanding, he would learn to trust and become less guarded, less inhibited.

As weeks turned into months though, our largely unspoken fears failed to subside while the nervous glances Pat and I exchanged over breakfast began to increase.  We could never quite put our finger on it, but there’s no doubt we felt the oddity, the inherent lack of synchronicity, settling like fog over our new young son.  We kept waiting for the boy hidden inside the boy to emerge, but he hadn’t, at least not yet.  There was a distant, detached, almost hollow quality about his demeanor, as though the boy we saw, the one we called Peter, was shielding someone else entirely; a child who was darker, more complicated, and definitely hurt.

And there were more than just the uneasy, hard to define feelings.  His overt behaviors were odd too.  For example, he wouldn’t look us directly in the eye, though he happily smiled for the camera.  Whenever he sat, he kept his legs straight out in front, just as he had in Russia, and he had this way of stomping his way across the floor, knees locked.  He was as rigid and inflexible as the action figures we encouraged him to play with – he only seemed to bend in a few key places.  He also wasn’t speaking much, though this was lower on our list of concerns because I’d read online that international adoptees must first lose their native language before their brain can acclimatize to learning a new language.

Play was another area of concern.  Peter could occupy himself for hours with a solitary car or wooden block.  At first this seemed like a good thing because I could get all kinds of chores done around the house, but it wasn’t.  He wasn’t exploring his environment, the way Sophie was, or interacting with his toys in any purposeful way.  Early on, Pat dubbed the phrase “the crashing, screaming, falling” game to describe Peter’s favorite activity, then and now.  No matter what’s at hand, whether car, penny or cereal bowl, he’ll lift it over his head, look at the object with growing trepidation, then lower it quickly in a simulated crash, all the while screaming “awwwwwgh.”  Although there’s nothing unusual about a boy amusing himself this way, Peter will do it all day long until someone interrupts the ritual and makes him stop.  That’s the unusual part.

We understand that now but at the time we gave this strange fixation, along with all the other odd behaviors, the benefit of the doubt.  Peter didn’t know how to play, he was living in the shadow of Sophie’s big personality, he was a naturally wistful child, or maybe he was reacting negatively to the potent mix of medications he took on a daily basis.  Both Sophie and Peter had to take Isoniazid (INH) for nine months to kill their latent TB infections as well as multiple rounds of medication to eradicate giardia from their intestinal tracts.  Perhaps, we told ourselves, the combination of these powerful drugs was causing side effects that impacted his behavior and mood.

When we began confessing some of our concerns to Peter’s pediatrician, at least the more objective ones, he suggested we enroll him in preschool.  “He needs socialization,” he told us.  “He doesn’t know how to interact in a normal environment – he’s going to have to be taught.”   So that’s what we did.  After a week or two spent researching our options, we enrolled him in a wonderful little nursery school whose teachers and administrators were thrilled to have him.  Peter wasn’t their first internationally adopted preschooler, but he was their “freshest” in the sense that he hadn’t been home very long.  He would start in January, right after the holidays.  As for Sophie, I enrolled us in a Mommy and Me class that met at the same school every Tuesday morning.  She would get to meet and socialize with other two-year-olds and I would get to know their moms.

What's that big thing in the sky? (Nov. 2004)

Having made that decision, Pat and I did our best to shelve our worries and resume the business of becoming a family as well as adjusting to our new relationship as married parents.  Pat had an easier time with this than I because my list of worries rose as high as a mountain where his resembled more of a hill.  But I tried, and in large part, I succeeded.  Bringing home two toddlers at once from an orphanage in Russia is a formidable undertaking, one we clearly hadn’t appreciated sufficiently at the time but that was becoming abundantly clear with each new day.  Pat and I were exhausted.  As in dead tired, asleep on our feet, is today Tuesday or could it be Friday, and how many years before they leave for college tired.

But when the units were nearly up, the children bathed and cozy in their fleece pajamas and perched on our bed watching Corduroy or listening to Goodnight Moon, I allowed my thoughts to drift toward Pat.  Childless for many years, we had long ago discovered a beautiful rhythm to our relationship that could be sustained indefinitely with love, attention, humor, and respect.  Although becoming parents to Sophie and Peter hasn’t challenged the depth of our commitment, it has altered the composition somewhat.  For instance, patience, a quality rarely called upon before the kids, has become a key player in our successful alliance, as has perseverance and humility.

Once we recovered from the first exhausting month or two, when we’d fall into bed, flat on our backs and still fully clothed, approximately three minutes after we kissed the children goodnight, Pat and I in earnest began reclaiming ourselves and our marriage, at least somewhat.  By three months into the adoptions, we were capable of staying awake long enough, at least on most nights, to watch a movie or participate in a conversation lasting more than five minutes.  Little by little we became less like deer in the headlight and more like the human beings we once resembled.

Although our waistlines suffered, our grammar deteriorated, our love life cooled, my cooking abilities declined, and we both sloughed a good ten points off our IQs, we were adjusting.  Our first Thanksgiving came and went without much fanfare because we opted not to travel to the mountain house in North Carolina, where my siblings meet for the holiday.  We had a quiet dinner at home, just the four of us, but with all the usual trimmings.  Afterwards we watched the geese practice their landings on the fallow cornfield across the road.  Sophie and Peter had no real sense of the holiday, but like every other day, they absorbed the experience eagerly, each in their own way.  Sophie made a place for her Cabbage Patch doll at the table, carefully removing a booster seat in the kitchen to help prop her up while Peter greedily inhaled the luxurious smells of Thanksgiving dinner, making sure to stay nearby so as not to miss out.

Sophie strapping in her doll for dinner (Dec. 2004)

Our first Christmas was memorable for all the reasons first Christmases are always memorable.  Sophie and Peter whizzed through the holidays with wide-eyed stares and disbelief, their innocent joy and unaffected sense of wonderment spreading like a contagion to anyone lucky enough to have mingled with them.  Everything they saw, everything they touched, heard or tasted was so new and captivating that they became wholly mesmerized: Christmas lights, the tree, jolly music, sparkly decorations, scores of sugary treats.  Nothing was too small or insignificant to explore and appreciate.  A bowl of candy canes at the Dry Cleaner’s produced the same level of enchanted euphoria as the grand spectacle of Santa and his Elves at the mall.  We made batch after messy batch of holiday cookies with overnight guests while dancing in a floury, sprinkle-strewn mess to Chipmunk Christmas music.

Between gifts and books we bought ourselves, we must have acquired 90% of the children’s holiday books ever written, from Corduroy’s Christmas and Madeleine’s Christmas to Father Frost and Twas the Night Before Christmas.  We read them religiously every night even though we knew the children couldn’t decipher most of what they were hearing.  But as Christmas drew near, Sophie could sing a good many of the words to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and was able to ask Santa, when the opportunity arose, for a brand new kukla (doll).

The mystery of the dancing Santa

Peter participated actively in most of the festivities and I smiled with relief to see his normally doleful eyes sparkle in a way I hadn’t imagined possible.  Pat, who was always willing to yield to the deceiving caress of Peter’s apparent wellness, was more convinced than ever that time and love would heal.  Christmas came and went that year without snow on the ground.  Pat gave me a Lladro figure of a little girl to match the figurine of the boy I’d bought in Moscow on the way home from our first trip.  He catches me by surprise sometimes, that husband of mine, and that Christmas morning I found myself crying, tears of joy and blessing mixed with fading melancholy for Ben, the baby I had begun allowing myself to forget.  But it was okay, and surely Pat knew that.  The Lladro figurine wasn’t Ben, it was Peter, and after I opened my present and felt the cool delicate porcelain against my skin, Pat lifted it gently and placed it next to the other on our shelf.  Our family was complete.

I look back on the thousands of photos I took of Sophie and Peter over the course of our first holiday season and wonder where that bright-eyed boy is now.  Peter was at his best then, as though he’d been granted a temporary reprieve from the demons and disasters that play havoc with his mind.  He loved the presents, adored the attention, and had his hand in a plate of cookies every time I turned around.   As Pat and I watched our sleepy children play in front of the crackling fire toward sundown, I began to trust, really trust, that Peter would emerge from whatever protective cloak he had constructed, and that one day soon, he would be okay.

Peter's 1st Christmas (Dec. 2004)

Slumped with Sophie against the nylon wall of their new play tent, talking on a toy phone, his new cowboy hat perched cockeyed over one brow, Peter seemed a beautifully typical 3-year-old boy.  As usual, Sophie controlled the scene, barking weary instructions to her new brother with what had become their secret, indecipherable language, some sort of scaled down Russian with a sprinkling of mispronounced English words.  Not only was he listening, he was interacting, and playing.  Not with Sophie’s characteristic display of complex thought and imagination, but he was holding his own.

Pat and I fell asleep that night watching an old Judy Garland Christmas Special aired on PBS.  Her voice gravelly and strained from years of alcohol abuse, we watched as she floated around her living room with Mel Torme and her three children singing carols and reminiscing in black and white about Christmases past.  As nutty as it seems, I found myself searching our television screen for glimpses of her children’s philtrums, including Liza Minelli’s.  Did she drink while she was pregnant?  Could her children be alcohol exposed?  I don’t know.  I never caught a good glimpse because the film was grainy and I was too tired to keep pursuing such a pointless line of thought.  But what I did notice was Judy Garland’s eyes, the ever searching, soulful way they could seduce you into believing even the gayest Christmas carol was meant to induce melancholy.

She had Peter’s eyes, our new son who was asleep down the hall and who had been momentarily distracted by the gaiety of Christmas.  I saw that instantly.  But unlike Judy Garland, whose life can be dissected and studied on the Internet, I knew nothing of Peter’s past, the little boy whose dark, plaintive stare can convey a life’s worth of sadness, hurt, and disappointment.


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January 25, 2010

Introductory Note

Baby Home, Birobidzhan, Russia (Oct. 2004)

When Rain Hurts is the story of how our Russian adopted son Peter came into our lives, the series of events that led us there, and my successful journey toward loving him, while accepting and adjusting to the fact that I will never completely heal him. Peter suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Mild Autism, Seizures, BiPolar Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attachment Disorder and suspected Mitochondrial Disease. He is also, on most days, our beautiful and loving boy.

Through journal entries, I attempt to demonstrate how love can flourish in the most hostile environments, if nourished with compassion, humor and humility.  These journal entries, and the narrative that accompanies them, aren’t a memoir so much as an exploration of the transcendence toward peace that one can experience in life-altering situations once hope is chosen above despair, and acceptance over resignation.  This project is about the growth that occurs through the examination of grief, the adjustment of dreams, and the acknowledgement of one’s own capacity.

I hope this blog has interest and relevance to readers who have adopted or are considering adoption, as well as those who have suffered loss through illness, trauma, death or disappointment.

I begin by posting journal entries starting in the summer of 2007, when our son was turning 6.  Each journal entry is followed by a chapter, which tells the narrative story of our adoption journey.  I am also including more recent journal entries, which can be found under “pages”, on the right-hand column of this blog.  I haven’t yet determined how they’ll fit into the overall book concept; they may end up replacing the earlier entries. I hope to be finished with the entire manuscript, which is 3/4s complete, by well, who knows?  Sooner rather than later, I hope.

I undertook this project because I felt demoralized after reading the plethora of adoption- and autism-related books on the market. Most if not all portray a family who struggles with their child’s difficulty at first, but who ultimately learns to embrace the problem and become enriched because of it.  Reading these accounts made me feel inadequate, as a mother and as a human being.  I love my child, fiercely in fact, but hate the disabilities that plague his future and pepper our daily lives with genuine chaos.  I want my child to be whole but I will love him every day of my life no matter how damaged or battered he remains or becomes.  This project seeks to explore these feelings. Adoption isn’t always easy and adopting an alcohol exposed child carries with it inherent booby traps that simply cannot be overcome by love, faith, medication or any other kind of intervention.  I know because I’ve tried.  What works is blood, sweat, and tears, a healthy dose of humor, a barrel full of patience, and the wisdom to know when the zenith’s been reached; when its time to let go and let be.

Thank you in advance for taking this journey with my family and me.  I came to this occupation  of “part-time writer” out of what I felt was necessity.  By training and passion, I’m also an attorney who has spent 13 years with the USEPA enforcing environmental laws that help ensure clean water, air, and land, and more recently, I’ve begun teaching environmental law and policy at the undergraduate, graduate, and law school levels.  I’m 40-something, married to the most wonderful man on the planet, have more pets than I care to divulge, and together we do our best to raise our two children, whom we love and adore but who definitely give us a run for our money.

Mary Greene

Mills Mansion, Staatsburg, NY (Jan 2010)

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