When Rain Hurts by Mary Evelyn Greene

September 27, 2013

Please review book on Amazon

Dear Readers: As you know, my book, When Rain Hurts, has just been released. It would be very helpful – and appreciated, if you could leave a review on Amazon if you’re so inclined (and buy the book and read it if you haven’t already!!!). My hope (and Peter’s hope) is that this book will bring much needed attention to the travesty of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, as well as the damage that institutions such as Russian orphanages exacts on the heart, body, and mind of vulnerable infants. I need your help to spread the word – and leaving a review on Amazon would be a great start.

I can’t thank you enough for the support and encouragement you have given me – both regarding this blog and the larger book project.

Mary

PS: Here is the link: http://www.amazon.com/When-Rain-Hurts-Adoptive-Syndrome/dp/1597092622/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1380283581&sr=8-1&keywords=when+rain+hurts

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September 18, 2013

The book is out!!

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November 7, 2012

November 7, 2012

New Jersey (October 2012)

New Jersey (October 2012)

November 7, 2012. As temperatures fall in the mid-Hudson Valley, as late autumn breezes cajole the last stubborn leaf from its perch, I have much upon which to reflect. Superstorm Sandy somehow missed us, the conspiring, unrelenting forces of wind, rain, colliding weather fronts, and warming oceans bypassing our town with an unexpected wink of the eye. I’ve never understood why some are spared while others suffer, God’s role, if any, in the drama of our lives remaining impossibly muddled, at least to me. Another Nor’easter is on its way, though this one is predicted to bring snow, not rain, and I pray it spares the northeast from further devastation. My friend in hospice lost her battle to cancer last week, her last days racked with pain that even the strongest opiates failed to quell. I felt relief when I heard the news because no good ever comes from that brand of agony. This woman led a just and purposeful life, yet there was nothing fair about the way she suffered. Peter, whose capacity for compassion seems almost divinely instilled, also has been barraged with an unfair, overwhelming array of assaults that rob him daily of both faculty and opportunity. These kinds of juxtapositions are impossible to align yet we’re tasked with making sense of them throughout the entirety of our lives. The weekend before last, Peter’s impulses, which can be dangerous at times, prevailed over his increasing ability to control them. Though it’s tempting to blame what became a disastrous weekend on the storm barreling toward our region – along with the preceding uncertainty, stress, and change in routine, it wouldn’t be true. Peter was completely unaware of the storm until Sunday night and even then showed little appreciation for the danger it presented. But both mornings he woke up sullen and grumpy, a fail-safe forecast of how the rest of the day will unfold. On days like these he drags his feet, hunches his shoulders, whines when he walks, and pulls at his hair and glasses in response to even the most mundane request, such as to get dressed or use the toilet. The simple truth is that he labors more heavily on some days than others. The Saturday before last, I hears the unmistakable howl of an injured child and I ran outside to find Sophie trembling, her face pale as she clutched her wrist. She could barely speak but the horror in her eyes let me know that whatever happened was Peter’s doing. He threw a heavy, rock-hard plastic ball at her, with as much force as he could, from very close range. At first I was afraid her wrist was broken but after a half hour of ice and a dose of Motrin, she quieted down. Our neighbor, who is a nurse, stopped by and felt that it was a deep bruise, not a fracture. It turns out she was correct. Peter could not explain his behavior other than to say she had been bothering him. The next day, he continued his out-of-character actions by laughing hysterically while he kicked a boy who had fallen on the ground. By all accounts, this attack, which took place during his best friend’s birthday party, was unprovoked. It turns out that Peter didn’t even know this child. It’s a good thing the father was nearby because the boy he went after was twice his size and apparently ready to beat the crap out of him. And honestly, who could blame him? The father called us, thankfully, and asked that we pick Peter up immediately. I don’t know what triggered these episodes. On the way home from the party, Peter began hitting himself and pulling his hair. He screamed that he wanted to kill himself. He was embarrassed, ashamed, frustrated and perhaps most of all, confused. I’ve learned a trick or two over the course of the last eight years and was able to get him calmed down before he did any further damage to himself or anyone else. By the next day he was more or less back to normal, the incidents forgotten. He went back to school Tuesday night after the storm had moved out and we brought him home again last Friday. The next day, Peter and I were sharing a few quiet moments in our bedroom before Pat and I needed to leave for my friend’s funeral. As he watched me put on my jewelry and comb my hair, Peter told me that he was sad I had lost my friend. I assured him that I was too; but I also tried explaining that it needed to happen. She was not going to get any better and she was in pain. I told him that I was relieved that her suffering was over and that she was now with God. Almost instantly, his eyes filled and he began to sob. My son, the boy who attacked his sister and a stranger only days before, without explanation, was overcome with grief and sympathy. “I didn’t know she was in pain,” he cried. My beautiful, beautiful boy. Until then it hadn’t occurred to him that dying could be painful and that my friend may have suffered. I don’t spend much time anymore imagining what Peter would be like had he been conceived and born under different circumstances – I realized some time ago that it’s the wrong question to frame, but I couldn’t help it just then. Why this child, with astonishing ability to empathize and an emotional intelligence that is blooming with increasing depth and richness, has to endure these deficits, deficits that could have, should have been prevented, is impossible to understand. As I prepared to honor my friend’s memory that afternoon, I made a little extra room in my heart and mourned for Peter’s loss as well. For his damaged brain, for his neurological outbursts that cause him to act in ways that he can’t explain and for which he’s ashamed, and most of all, for appreciating that he now and forever understands that even the last moments of our lives can be – and often are, filled with struggle and pain.

October 25, 2012

October 25, 2012

Fall 2005

October 25, 2012.  Yesterday a friend and I drove into the city to visit another friend who is dying of cancer.  Two months ago this woman was attending the county fair, sick but committed to embracing life and envisioning health restored.  But now she’s in a hospital for the terminally ill, where countless strangers – caring, compassionate people, work to manage her pain, both physical and otherwise.  She is quickly wilting, slipping away.  It’s plain to see that death is near.  As if he’s withering too, her husband no longer seems the robust physical presence that he was only a few months earlier.  She’s on an inevitable slide, but it’s a path from which he’ll soon be made to veer.  His wife is preparing for death, which means he and their grown children, despite unshakable solidarity, are destined to re-enter the world of the living.  It’s a devastating time.  But still, as my friend and I approached her room yesterday, with a mix of fear and determination, we came upon a slew of people who had come, like us, to remind this widely adored woman that she is cherished.  Like most who visit the dying, we both offered and sought reassurance.  We had to wait our turn, though, and despite the circumstances, the thought made me smile.  Even with death looming, the way this brave woman continues to live her life draws people to her like a magnet.  I can’t imagine a more life-affirming gift – the ability to give and receive, with great appreciation, the love that resides in us all.  Reflecting last night upon our visit, a visit from which I left clearly shaken – I bumped into a pole in the parking lot and then drove 20 miles in the wrong direction, I recalled something my friend once told me.  “Imagine a more hopeful outcome,” she said, eyes bright but fierce with conviction.  “Imagine what Peter can be, not what he can’t.”  Maybe she knew it, maybe she didn’t, but in those simple words, words spoken without malice or judgment, she offered me a map toward the future, a way to envision tomorrow without the incredible fear that so often – especially in those days, held me hostage.  Eight years ago, Sophie, Peter, Pat, and I became a family.  Today is our Happy Adoption Day, and we are heading, the four of us, toward an undeniably more hopeful future.  My friend helped teach me that life is about moving forward, about seeing possibilities, dismantling roadblocks, and about looking for joy.  As her journey comes to a close – and as my family’s journey in many ways has been reborn, I thank her for the lesson.  I thank her for believing in us when I had lost faith in myself.  And mostly, I thank her for the gift of her friendship, a friendship that in many ways, and for many reasons, was still in the process of blooming.  Were she able, she might pat me on the back with her can-do attitude and in honor of today’s anniversary simply say, “well done”.   She’s not in a position to do that now, but I can return the accolade.  If anyone deserves a “well done”, it’s she. 

October 18, 2012

October 18, 2012

Fall 2005

October 18, 2012.  Peter sprained his ankle 10 days ago.  Green Chimneys has him running cross country, which is amazing – and a little unexpected, and he slipped on a rock.  He’s been inconsolable ever since.  When he was home last weekend, there was no obvious swelling or bruising, I honestly couldn’t tell there’d been any injury at all.  But Peter’s sensory system is way off.  Even the slightest assault sometimes causes exaggerated response, while at other times, serious assaults, like wasp stings, completely go unnoticed.  I have no doubt he twisted it, but I also have no doubt its something most kids would shake off.  Because its been bothering him, he wears a brace during the day and he’s not supposed to run or play sports for another week and a half.  It’s impossible to say whether these restrictions are necessary – he mostly only limps when someone reminds him of the injury, but I agree with Green Chimneys’ decision to err on the side of precaution.  Over the weekend, we took the kids to family day at the Haunted Horseman, a very popular Halloween attraction.  One Saturday each October, they transform the park from 10 to 3, making it appropriate, and enticing, for children.  There are games, face painting, pony rides, a bounce house, cotton candy, a “haunted” hayride and corn maze, and more.  The first time we brought the kids, they were 3 and 4 and my sister Patty was in town.  At the time, Peter seemed to love it.  The story of Ichabod Crane is acted out on the hayride and then the riders are dropped off at the corn maze, where they’re left to weave their way through only slightly ghoulish frights and sights.  We still joke about Sophie being afraid, when she was 3, of the person dressed as a cartoonish, kid-friendly version of Frankenstein.  When I tried explaining that there was a perfectly nice man hidden underneath, maybe even someone’s papa, she without hesitation exclaimed, “I don’t like the big papa!”  It’s been a favorite family memory ever since.  Although we couldn’t find the “Big Papa” this year, we did confront, over and over again, Peter’s ever-ballooning fears.  Amid toddlers darting around with balloons tied to their wrists, our 11-year old son had to be coaxed into participating.  He has this way of physically disappearing into himself when he’s scared or over-stimulated, which I’ve dubbed “turtling”.  He curls his back inward, dips his neck toward his chest, and strains his shoulders toward the middle.  Almost immediately upon walking through the entrance, his limp returned and he began turtling.  The costumed man greeting us – standing on stilts and brightly dressed as a pumpkin-headed scarecrow, sent him reeling.  I had no idea Peter would react so negatively to such a generally benign environment.  But we couldn’t just leave – Sophie had been looking forward to this for months and it’s only held one day during the year.  So instead, we played games like skeleton basketball and toilet paper toss, bought the kids cupcakes, and held Peter’s hand while we walked around.  After a while, he relaxed a little and I was able to talk about the need to take control of his fears and fight against letting inhospitable thoughts take over and hold him hostage.  He’s now able to listen to these discussions and tries very hard to implement any suggestions.  In the end, he made it through and I think he even had a good time.  Pat and I were proud of the effort and made sure he knew it.  We have to keep encouraging these treks into less predictable, more challenging environments, because now that he’s home every weekend, we can’t continue to keep him bubbled inside our home, which is what we were doing.  It’s not fair to Sophie and it’s not fair to us.  We don’t have and can’t afford babysitters at every turn.  Having him home every weekend is a step toward having him with us again fulltime, a kind of high-stakes litmus test for the future.  We always will need to be attuned to Peter’s needs, what he can and can’t handle, but at the same time, we can’t become slaves to them.  The challenge is finding the balance between Peter needing to live in our world and our needing to accommodate his.  Last night when I called the dorm, the young woman who answered the phone told me that he’d been crying and angry ever since school let out, and without apparent reason.  She thought maybe he was out of sorts because his ankle has sidelined him.  I didn’t want to argue with her – after all, she might be right, but Pat and I also know that our son’s moods can swing like a pendulum on a rollercoaster.  It’s one of his many challenges.  When he finally picked up the phone, I could hear him crying.  He tells me that he’s too tired to talk and is angry that I called.  This is not like our son – he depends on our nightly calls, and so its clear that he’s in a bad place.  There’s no talking to him when he’s like this, time is the only cure, and so I tell him not to worry, that I love him, and that I bet he’ll wake up in the morning feeling more like himself.  “Thank you, Mommy,” he says, and hangs up.  I’m a little surprised by the gruffness, but at the same time, I just have to smile.  Although I hate that he’s feeling so unsteady, I’m becoming increasingly confident that he’ll find his way back.  In this case, it seems that sprained ankles, lack of physical outlets, and scarecrows on stilts are just too much for one week.

June 10, 2012

June 9, 2012

Assateague Island, MD (Memorial Day Wknd 2012)

June 9, 2012.  Peter’s home this weekend and something curious has begun.  It’s happened a few times in the past month or two but it’s taken me a while to assimilate this new chapter in our relationship.  A few weeks ago at dinner he reminisced, with more than a dollop of good humor, how he used to be such a bad eater – and misbehave so terribly at the table, that we sometimes resorted to having him eat separately in the dining room.  “But then I just dropped it all on the floor for the dogs!” he laughed.  “There was really nothing you could do.”  His grammar, word choice, and articulation are still works in progress, but this is essentially what transpired.  And then a few days ago, along the same line, he comments, “Can you believe I used to stuff the toilets till they spilled everywhere?  And then make my nose bleed all over me?”  Yes, I can believe it.  I survived those phases and to date, all the others.  The part I can’t believe is that he remembers these destructive patterns and now can laugh about them.  I had no idea he possessed that kind of self-awareness, either then or now.  On days like this I can imagine our son when he’s 22 or maybe 25, a young man with a strong, chiseled body, darkly tanned in the summer, and a mischievous smile that draws women like flies to sugar.  He is handsome, yes, but he is also kind.  He’ll struggle with memory, processing, money management, and, perhaps most worrisome, the ability to distinguish between those who wish him well and those with more predatory intentions.  But I imagine him standing on his own.  He’ll have a job – hopefully in an area that interests him, like video games or landscaping, and with any luck, he’ll be proud of his accomplishments.  I hope he’ll continue to look back on his journey with the same brand of humor he’s demonstrating now, the good-natured ability to acknowledge his past in order to help propel him toward his future.   Miraculously, he regularly proclaims that he intends always to live with his mom, or at least next door, a fact that both astonishes and comforts.  Opening my heart to this child was an intense struggle, the boy who hurt himself as much as – or even more, than he hurt me, but now the door to my affections is swung wide open, and the view grows more spectacular.  As long as I have a home, so do both our children.  The four of us spend the day together lazily, with me doing my best to pry Peter and Sophie away from their cavernous playroom toward the beautiful day outside.  When I finally succeed, I wonder whether my prediction that Peter might like landscaping is too ambitious.  He loves to help outside in the fall and early spring, but I realize now that summer is a different matter.  The insects make him swat and spin and growl with consternation.  He jumps on the trampoline and squeals, his body suddenly arched and rigid, whenever a gnat or fly swirls past.  “I want to go inside!” he howls.  And so I concede.  The presence of insects remains a major sensory problem and creates in him marked over-reactions.  Maybe the bugs – or more like the absence of bugs, are the reason I spend so much effort getting myself and the children to water during the summer, either the town pool, our favorite lake, Mudge Pond, or the ocean. Water is a weapon against the creepy crawlies, at least the kind that dominate the skies.  Plus, the kids and I are as drawn to water as beetles are to my rosebushes.  Pat would rather spend the summer hiking in the mountains, but he’s forever the good sport.  Between Peter’s bug issues, my mangled ankle, and Sophie’s inevitable cries of boredom and exhaustion (that ensue after 10 minutes on the trail), the opportunities are few and far between.  Like all parents, the two of us occasionally wonder when we’ll get to resume, on our own or as a couple, some of the activities we enjoyed pre- children.  Given the dynamics of our family, and our alarmingly increasing ages, it seems possible that “our” time might never come, but that’s okay.  We’re growing, we’re stronger, and we’re seeing progress where before we saw only disaster and hopelessness.  The kind of mountain climbing we do these days is virtual, but there’s no doubt we’ve scaled countless peaks to reach and help Peter, and there’s bound to be more ahead.  We try and will continue to do the same for Sophie, though her needs are subtler and in many ways more tricky to traverse.  But for now, with the bugs filling the airways and the sunny day to lure us along, I think I’ll pack the beach bag, load up the kids, and head to the lake.

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.

December 22, 2011

When Rain Hurts – Publication Date Sept. 2013 (Red Hen Press, LA)

November 2011 (Red Hook High football field)

Red Hen Press, a nonprofit literary press in California, is publishing When Rain Hurts, which will be released in trade paperback on September 15, 2013.

In the published book, a narrative chapter will be preceded by a journal entry and photograph.  I have many, many more journal entries than chapters so I’ve picked the ones that I think offer the most complete story.

The personal stories, support, information, and compassion you’ve shown as I struggle to become a better parent and more effective voice for FASD never ceases to amaze or humble.

If you’re new to the blog – welcome.  To read the book’s beginning chapters, please scroll to the bottom of this screen, hit “next page” on the lower left corner, and then scroll again to your screen’s bottom. That’s where you’ll find a brief Introduction & Prologue, then Chapter 1, etc.  Read “up” for each subsequent chapter.   They’re a little like diamonds in the rough – they’ve been edited and polished significantly since posting, but you’ll get the gist.  Older 2010 journal entries are filed under “Pages” on the right hand column.

Thanks – Mary

February 24, 2011

February 24, 2011

Peter and Pat (Birobidzhan, Russia, Oct. 2004)


February 24, 2011.  I haven’t written in a while, though I’ve started and stopped several times.  Peter’s not well right now, he’s disconnected and confused, and very, very vulnerable.  He’s getting the help he needs, and for that Pat and I are grateful.  He’s not in physical danger and his spirits, all things considered, are good.  It’s a terribly difficult time for us, and though I may one day choose to write about the intense panoply of emotions I’m experiencing, right now I need to honor my son’s dignity, bolster his courage, and attend to the needs of my husband and daughter.

For the present, and after discussions with my agent, I think I’ll return to the task of finishing the remaining book chapters.  Our current circumstances more than ever convince me of the need to get this book finished, to get this book distributed, and to hopefully allow people a window into the lives intimately and forever affected by prenatal alcohol abuse.  The older Peter gets, the more evident it becomes that his obstacles cannot be blamed predominantly on the neglect and possible abuse experienced in his Russian orphanage.  Our son’s brain has forever been altered by the devastating presence of alcohol coursing through his birth mother’s bloodstream throughout the gestational period.  And though she may have inalterably limited his cognitive, emotional and self-regulatory capacities, her reckless behavior did nothing to muffle the gentle beauty of his heart, or the genuine kindness of his soul. He is a beautiful but damaged boy who suffers the double whammy of permanent brain damage and significant early trauma.  I hope this project, if it does nothing more, raises awareness of one of the most devastating yet preventable birth defects:  Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (also called FAS).

A few weeks ago Sophie, our third grader, related a story she heard in school, about a child whose older brother is in jail because he drove drunk, caused an accident, and killed his best friend in the process.  A horrible tragedy for both families, I wondered what Sophie was thinking.  I was about to ask when she beat me to the punch.  “Mom,” she paused.  “Why isn’t Peter’s mom in jail?”  I looked at her calmly, and asked her to explain her thoughts.  “Well, she ruined Peter’s brain by drinking alcohol when she was pregnant.  I thought people who hurt other people when they are drunk have to go to jail.”

December 22, 2010

December 22, 2010

Waiting to See Santa (Macy's, NYC, Dec. 2010)

December 22, 2010.   The other night, while listening to the cold, slanting rain pelt against our house, I realized something extraordinary.  Sophie is beginning to keep us honest, and maybe even more noteworthy, participate in her brother’s care.  Peter was having yet another one of his becoming-too-frequent screaming fits – this time over having not earned enough points on his chart to play video games, so I looked at him, not so calmly, and suggested that he scream louder, which he did.  His face crimson and his mouth stretched wide, he let fly a primal howl loud enough to be heard from the moon.  And then he did it again and then again.  When the fit finally abated, and he went upstairs to change into his pajamas, Sophie turned to me, hands on hips, her face a little flushed, and asked, “Why’d you do that, Mom?”  Hesitating, I finally stuttered, “Sometimes its good to get the anger out.  I was trying to help.”  One look at my savvy daughter told me she wasn’t buying it.  “Well,” she huffed, “will you please not do that again?”  Accepting my reprimand with as much grace and aplomb as I could muster, which wasn’t much, I hastily agreed.  Pat’s tiny grin did not go unnoticed.  He knew as well as Sophie that I was wrong to have done that, and perhaps even more wrong to try to cover my tracks in front of our precocious daughter.  One thing I love about Pat, and I hope he’d say the same for me, is that he tries hard not to over condemn my slip-ups when it comes to coping with and teaching our children.   We often talk about each other’s mistakes later, usually while we’re watching TV at night, but we’ve taken a solemn vow of solidarity when it comes to our respective parenting slips.  I think it comes from a place of deep respect and love, and the knowledge that our relationship and commitment to each other is more important than anything else we’re doing, including raising our kids.  I’m not sure we’d have been able to stand the pressure cooker that our lives have become otherwise.  Case in point: our recent day trip into the city to see the Nutcracker.  We arrived early enough to see Santa at Macy’s beforehand and devour too much pastrami at Carnegie Deli.  Despite his recent volatility, Peter handled the day’s excitement pretty well, at least until the ballet.  Unfortunately, he felt the need to spray the walls of the Lincoln Center’s Men’s Room with urine and then offer an encore performance during intermission right in front of his seat.  A twice unlucky porter spread cat litter on the floor to sop up the mess, which I must say was embarrassing, and poor Pat had to get Peter cleaned up, for the second time in an hour.  At 9 ½, he’s really too old to take into the Ladies Room.  I thought Pat’s aorta would burst, he was that mad.  His body shaking with frustration, I watched nervously as he hauled our soaked son into the restroom.  As for me, I was more embarrassed than angry, and so I dug through our backpack in search of the “You have just experienced a child with autism . . .” cards that Lindy gave me for just such an emergency.  I swear I could feel the humiliating stares and angry eyes all around me but as it turns out, it was just my own paranoia at play.  The people around us were incredibly tolerant and understanding, as were the porter and ushers.  I don’t know whether Pat is hiding pints of whiskey in his trousers these days (I certainly wouldn’t blame him), but he emerged from the Men’s Room in relatively good shape, his anger dissipated and his temper in check.  Our eyes met briefly as we negotiated stepping over the piles of cat litter, and that’s all that was necessary to communicate that we were both okay, that this particular disaster was survivable.  Despite Peter’s behavior, born I suppose from over-stimulation and fatigue, we were able to rally as a family and enjoy the rest of the performance.  Amazing.  We’ve actually gotten to the point where our son can paint one of the most magnificent performance venues in the world with urine and still proceed with our plans.  Now all I have to decide is whether this fact represents personal triumph over extreme adversity or the inevitable decline of our already dwindling rationalities!  When the ballet ended, Sophie exclaimed that the worst thing in the world was that now she would have to wait 365 days to see it again.  She is a lesson in resiliency, our daughter, and my eyes filled with tears to watch the awe and joy in hers.  A few years ago, an episode like this would have ruined the day, but we’re learning, Pat and I, from each other and increasingly, from Sophie.  We are so careful with each other, not always 100% successfully, but we try.  Knowing that we have each other’s back, as well as appreciating that we’re the sacred guardian of each other’s heart, keeps us moving forward as individuals, as a couple, and ultimately as a family.  At 62, my husband finds himself in the middle of a situation from which most men would run, and yet he doesn’t.  He allows me to talk him down from the ledge when he’s at his breaking point and somehow, always, he comforts me when I’m at mine.  Sophie suffers from tremendous anxiety and control issues but at her core, she’s a consummate survivor.  I have to believe that the very qualities that allowed her to endure, and sometimes even thrive, in the orphanage, the ones that too often cause her trouble in school and at home, can and will be massaged toward more healthful pursuits.  Just like she reminds me when I allow Peter to influence my behavior, I need to gently help her learn to control her impulses, her survival drive, so that these traits don’t wind up controlling her.  I think we’ll get there, I really do.  It takes real pluckiness to be able to lift your legs up so a porter can spread cat litter beneath your seat while pouring through the Playbill, completely unphased, in anticipation of Act II.  Anyone who can survive what Sophie survived, and who endures what she must endure on a daily basis, will find her way in the world.  After all, she’s already taught us a trick or two.


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 26, 2010

October 25, 2010

Pumpkin Picking (October 17, 2010)

October 25, 2010.  Happy Adoption Day to us!  Six years ago today, we vowed in a Russian court of law to love and cherish two orphans now and forever known as Sophia Katherine and Peter Thomas.  I think we’ve done a pretty good job honoring that pledge, if I do say so myself.  I’ve read so much about adopted kids’ struggles with identity, grief, and loss, how they so often wind up thinking they weren’t wanted by their birth parents and were merely a consolation prize, of sorts, for their adoptive parents, couples who, like us, may have dealt with infertility.  How my heart aches for these children, and how I hope ours are able to work through those doubts and realize just how much they are prized.  Sophie and Peter are my heart and soul, the reason I fight battles with impassioned zeal, when necessary, and celebrate our triumphs, big and small, with fervent enthusiasm.  They are why I constantly practice becoming the mother and role model they so fervently deserve, and why I crash, sometimes hard, from the exhaustion the effort so often produces.  But despite the hardships that litter the course, theirs are the only faces I see whenever in a quiet moment I escape into the private recesses of my own thoughts and envision a more traditional means of forming a family.  If they had been ours from conception, I like to believe life would be easier for them, and also for Pat and me, but then maybe that’s nothing more than lousy fiction and fanciful thinking.  Our children are who they are because of the myriad influences in their lives, both pre- and postnatal.  Their pasts are as fixed and unalterable as the color of their eyes and yet still we fight to help them shed the heavy cloak of their early experiences.  And that’s okay, I suppose, and certainly our obligation.  But today we celebrate not who our children were but who they are and might become, who we are together as a family, and how fortunate we are that technology, an increasingly global community, and timeless desire have brought the four of us together in a chaotically wonderful union that sustains itself through hope, determination, humor, and humility.  No one is perfect in our family, least of all me, but we are improving, individually and as a unit.  One of the great gifts that the kids – especially Peter, have given Pat and me is the desire to stretch the limits of our patience, to deepen our capacity for kindness, and to strengthen our collective will to succeed, allowing us to overcome obstacles that once seemed too formidable realistically to even broach.  Six years ago, Peter constantly screamed at me, whenever I came near or even risked establishing eye contact; otherwise, he preoccupied himself with repeating the same bit of jibberish over and over, like a scratched vinyl record.  This time four years ago, Peter was spitting on me, stealing my most cherished possessions, vomiting purposely at the dinner table, injuring himself and Sophie, sometimes without any provocation, and had no inkling how to approach or interact with other children.  Two years ago, he still didn’t trust us, his speech was nearly indecipherable, his muscles ached so badly there were days he couldn’t walk, and he was kicked out of Irish step dance, karate, tennis, and swim lessons due to behavioral concerns.  Now, at age 9, Peter is a polite and mostly happy child, he looks to us, especially me, for support and guidance, he’s healthy as a horse, finally in an appropriate school setting, has an amazing best friend, and plays soccer and participates on the swim team.  On our Adoption Day six years ago in Birobidzhan, I dreamed so many dreams for Peter, but then subsequently, as reality set in over the weeks and months that followed, I watched these dreams for my son fade into the obscure darkness of terrifying diagnoses and my own wild imagination.  How remarkable, then, to see them resurrected, not perfectly envisioned the way only dreams can be, but played out on the real stage of our lives, accomplishments fought for and won, affections systematically sought and acquired, skills always, always, a work in progress but now with a predictable, reassuring, forward momentum.  Don’t get me wrong.  There’s nothing perfect about our household, not even close.  Even Our Happy Adoption Days are difficult, especially for Sophie, a fact I used to allow myself to discount as mere coincidence.  Thanks again to Dr. Federici, I now more clearly understand that she struggles deeply with profound issues of preverbal trauma and that she misbehaves, actually sabotages this particular family celebration, not so much out of spite or ugliness, but out of fear, confusion and insecurity.  Today’s intended celebration is no exception, but given how far we’ve come with Peter, I know we can help her too.  In fact, Peter intervened directly today to protect against my growing melancholy over Sophie’s reaction to the marking of this milestone.  As she was fussing over this and that and everything in between, Peter took the time to write me a note.  It read as follows:  “Sary mommy I hope y fele beter”.  And then he drew a heart with a smiley face below the writing.  He may not know it, but my precious little boy gave me the best Happy Adoption Day gift I could ever hope to receive.

October 15, 2010

October 15, 2010

Pat (Fall 2009)

October 15, 2010.   It’s only mid-October but we’ve already experienced two Nor’easters.  The torrential, prolonged downpours are terrific for the water table but toxic to the autumnal leaves for which our Hudson Valley is so famous.  Still, the scenery is beautiful, the temperature drops further each night, and pumpkins dot the lawns and doorsteps of Red Hook in exponentially increasing numbers.  My husband wishes fall would last as long as summer or winter, but not me.  In my view, the hues of autumn, the reds, oranges, and burnt yellows, are treasured exactly because of their brevity on the palate of our landscape.  Peter’s school driver drops him off this afternoon and though elderly, asks with an almost boyish quality whether we plan to enjoy the outdoors and spectacular views this weekend.  Indeed we do.  This week has been tough for Peter, he likes his new school, I think, but everything has changed, and he’s had to say goodbye to old friends and familiar faces.  After swim practice tonight, we’re picking up his best buddy and taking the kids to their favorite restaurant for dinner.  As much as I want to keep this friendship going, I worry whether Peter can handle the excitement right now.  The idea of taking a friend to dinner wouldn’t overwhelm most 9-year-olds, but to Peter, its like winning a trip to the moon.  The instant I told him, his adrenalin shot up, his body began gyrating, and all kinds of nonsense spewed from his mouth as though a wire had been tripped inside his tangled brain.  Lindy is doing her best to organize his body and mind so that he can attend to the rest of his day, but we’re well aware that he’s experiencing a significant transition, and that to a large extent, its an adjustment we may just have to ride out.  The good news, at least for Pat, is that he won’t be present for tonight’s adventures.  He’s in New Jersey visiting his daughter and granddaughter, a beautiful duo the children and I rarely get a chance to see.  Pat’s daughter struggles with this chapter of her father’s life, which means she struggles with Sophie and Peter and me and all that goes with us.  I do understand, I can only imagine the complex set of emotions I’d feel if my father had embarked on another try at parenthood, but still, I wish things were different.  I wish compartmentalization were not necessary for such a kind, generous, and loving man as Pat.  I wish his daughter could understand that Pat has love enough for all of us, and appreciate, just a little, how difficult, and tragic, his primary shot at fatherhood became.  Our life is so much more complicated because of where we live – financially, educationally, in terms of career, and support, and the sole reason we live here is because of Pat’s unwillingness to be too far from his adult daughter.  He’s already said goodbye to his two sons from his first marriage and he can’t bear even the thought of serious geographical separation from his last surviving biological child.  What I don’t get is why she doesn’t see it, why she doesn’t feel, sense, and breath the unassailable love and affection Pat has for her, and now for his toddling granddaughter.  It’s beautiful really, and something that should give rise to joy and celebration rather than constant work and struggle.  But he’s doing it, he’s putting forth the effort with patience and kindness, and I’m proud of him.  Truly, he’s a beautiful man and one that deserves at least some modicum of peace in his life.  By the time he gets home tonight, I hope to have the kids tuckered out and in bed and little Lulu, our newest addition, installed in her cozy box that fits under my bedside table.  No rest for the weary on our home front either, I’m afraid, but I do look forward to Pat’s return.  Family is a more complicated word today than when I was young and undoubtedly requires significantly more creativity, purpose, and determination than perhaps it once required.  I am 45 years old, my husband is 62, we have two adopted children who were born in Russia and he has two long deceased sons, a married daughter, and an almost 2-year-old granddaughter.  How’s that for complicated?  A born and bred New Yorker, he loves opera, books, theater and museums, and though I share all those passions except opera, I’m a southern girl who loves my Gator football games and the kind of barbeque you simply can’t get your hands on anywhere north of southern Virginia.  We work, Pat and I, because of and despite our differences and similarities, and for that I pledge always to be grateful.  This weekend we’ll lug our two rambunctious, hyper children to various venues designed to enjoy the great outdoors, taking photos of the leaves, and occasionally each other, as we scatter among them.  If fall is a brilliant snapshot, then life is a flowing river of endless rolling film.  I hope and pray the documentary of our lives is happy, or at least filled with happy moments, and that when the time comes, and I look back at the thousands of snapshots I’ve taken, the various shades of progress, compromise, resolve, love, and determination, for each other and our children, will shine as brilliantly as tomorrow’s glittering leaves, when the rain clears and the sun rises high above the trees.

 

October 6, 2010

October 6, 2010

Scout Swimming Next to our Canoe (Summer 2003)

October 6, 2010.  Two days ago I received an email from the school district’s attorney, with a copy of the Hearing Officer’s decision attached.  We won.  Across the board, on all counts, and on all points.  Even though we shouldn’t need the outside verification, its rather satisfying to read, all the same, that we aren’t nuts, or crazed parents, or unrealistically looking to our public school to provide Peter with a designer, top-of-the-line, private school caliber program.  We were looking for the district to adhere to the requirements of state and federal law, and to respect our rights under the same, as parents.  I can’t say the last three years of sparring with the school have been worth it, the manufactured abuse charges, the lies and cover-ups, the damage to our son’s fragile mind and bewildered heart, as well as the substantial collateral damage to our daughter, which we’re only now beginning fully to realize, but winning certainly helps.  Regardless of whether the school district appeals, for us, its over.  The day after tomorrow, Peter will start his new school, a program that will provide him one on one learning and life skills training within an intensive, neurocognitive rehabilitative framework.  It’s a day that’s long overdue, but hopefully not too late.  Lindy asked him yesterday whether he was excited about starting the new school. “I don’t want to go,” he replied.  The next part is what made me heart skip and my eyes well.  When she asks why not, his response was simple and matter-of-fact.  “Cuz I want to stay home with Mommy.”  Wow!  How very far we’ve come, the two of us.  Last night I looked back through my journal and reread some of the entries I wrote just a little over two years ago.  Though I haven’t forgotten the all-encompassing sense of hopelessness, rage, and absolute chaos that daily life with Peter entailed, those worries no longer hold me captive.  Never could I have imagined then that our son could ever feel, much less absorb, the love for him that I’ve fought so hard to first find and then instill.  My words feel awkward today, I know, but I think its because my heart’s so full.  Peter’s courage, his vivacity and plucky determination, have touched so many lives, and of course, transformed my own. Yesterday I received a call from a woman who lives about an hour south of us.  She raises golden retrievers, has an autistic child, and has been following our story.  Her dogs, which sell for about $1200, are bred specifically with mellow temperament and family companionship in mind.  This complete stranger, out of the goodness of her heart, wants to give Peter one of her female pups.  To top it off, the call came on the same day that I spoke to our vet about whether the time has come to say goodbye to our crotchety but cherished Jack Russell Terrier, Scout.  At 15 ½, she’s deaf, incontinent, uncomfortable, and very disoriented.  Her quality of life is diminishing quickly and I worry that we may be keeping her alive for selfish reasons.  I don’t know when we’re going to bring her in – though it’ll likely be soon, and its something Pat and I are dreading.  I also don’t know whether we’ll be able to bring the new pup into our home, despite how eerily fated, and connected, this chain of events feels.  For me, the love and companionship that our pets provide outweighs, several times over, the undeniable labor involved.  I’m a true animal lover, and though it may sound silly, or perhaps even juvenile, the very presence of our pets shores me up, helps me feel less homesick when those moments come, less alone, more needed, and yes, more unconditionally loved.  But I don’t think Pat feels the same, and I can’t much fault him.  We have so much on our plates, and for him a puppy means work (which it is), added stress, and everything else that goes with the territory.  But still, even if we end up declining this incredibly generous, almost fortuitous offer, I’m grateful beyond description.  The fact that Peter, and his story, have touched so many lives gives me hope, real hope, that we’ll be able to heal the hurt that’s been hidden so deep inside Sophie, a hurt that’s only now beginning to surface, and one we only barely understand.  Our cherished little girl has the tenacity, stubbornness, and the agile mind of a Jack Russell Terrier.  In fact, Pat and I often joke that she and Scout must be biologically related.  She has all the right stuff, and so I have to believe in my heart that she can overcome these troubles.  As I quietly relish our victory over the school, all the while preparing for Scout’s farewell, Peter’s new school experience, and Sophie’s worrisome struggles, I reflect on how far we’ve come, as individuals and as a family.  I hope love continues to blossom in our home, despite setbacks and emerging issues, or the inevitable loss, now and then, of one of our much-loved furry friends.

 

September 13, 2010

September 13, 2010

Poet's Walk (September 2010)

September 13, 2010.  These last few nights have been wide-open window nights, a sure sign that autumn lurks around the corner.  I lay awake, unable to sleep, my thoughts racing in seeming synchronicity to the breeze that tickles my hair as it gently spirals through the room from the window over our bed, an uninvited but welcome companion.  Rest eludes me, this time, because the head of special education is saber rattling, and in a not so subtle way.  Because we don’t expect a ruling on our due process hearing before September 30, our son’s psychiatrist, who is well known and respected in the community, wrote a letter to the district requesting homebound services until the hearing process was resolved.  She agreed to this course of action, in part, based upon Dr. Federici’s recommendation.  Under New York education law, the district is required to provide such services upon written request of a child’s physician.  But the head of special education is balking, trying to scare us with poorly disguised threats and vague, sinister language that conjures up images of truant officers and Child Protection Services.  He’s gone so far as to say that the fact that we are in the D.C. area today and tomorrow does not constitute “legal excuse for [our] children’s absence”.  The fact that he’s targeted both kids with this pronouncement, and not just Peter, isn’t lost upon us.  Even our son’s hospital stay, scheduled for next week, remains legally unexcused, whatever that means, in the official eyes of the school district.  Peter’s recovered substantially from the disaster of last year, physically, emotionally and psychologically, and we have no intention of compromising his health and welfare by putting him in harm’s way again.   The double whammy of psychological abuse delivered at the hands of “educators” intent on turning him against us, coupled with the emotional damage and physical stress of having to sit through day after day of a curriculum that for Peter might as well have been delivered in Swahili, caused his brain literally to deteriorate.  Now that we know what really occurred last year, its no wonder he came home raging every day and began suffering from visual and auditory hallucination.  Peter’s mind is fragile yet as these past few months have proven, its also incredibly resilient.  Our son is healing, he’s coming back to us, and until this sordid affair is settled, home is not only where the heart is, its where safety resides as well.  So if the school thinks a nasty-gram or two can scare us into submission, they’re sorely mistaken.  Our child’s life is at stake.  Safeguarding who Peter’s able to become – his soul, his happiness, his very potential, is our sacred obligation.  It’s an obligation from which we’ll not run and for which intimidation tactics are destined to fail.  I take a phone call during a break today from a new friend who lives in Minnesota.  She too is an adoptive mother of Russian born children and knows a thing or two about loss, love and primal struggle.  We have so much in common, it seems, but mostly we share an eerily similar tale of family dynamics.  We’re able to speak for 20 minutes about a number of issues and the very sound of her voice releases some of the festering tension within me.  We talk about how the Peter’s of the world, and their parents, have no organized voice, certainly no lobby power, and therefore little means to convince the decision-makers in their children’s lives – be they social workers, educators, physicians, mental health providers or clergy, of the extent of impairment.  Because there are no established or widely accepted treatment protocols for post-institutionalized, alcohol-exposed children, those in a position to render decisions affecting our children’s future tend to take one of three courses.  They treat our kids like throwaways, the most catastrophic approach, they apply a one-size-fits-all mentality, which is dangerously simplistic, or they borrow from other models like those developed for autism.  Using autism protocols to treat our kids, however, especially those with normal or above-average IQs, makes about as much sense as forcing a husky-sized child into slim-fitting jeans.  Such a decision only makes sense in the absence of other options.  As my friend and I hastily say our goodbyes, I hang the phone up thinking about this predicament, how our lack of voice as a community, and our society’s lukewarm interest in our children’s welfare, is largely responsible for the grief and trouble our families have endured.  I want to break this cycle of tragedy, suspicion and misunderstanding, both in ways large and small.  I want to help find a way to form a voice, a united voice, that advocates not only for our children but for parents scattered across the country, well-meaning people who either suffer in silence or bear the unmistakable brand of righteous battles fought and lost.  There’s something terribly wrong when its not safe for a 9 year old boy to attend school, when lines in the sand are drawn not only from ignorance and indifference but because there’s no clear solution – no path toward recovery, that ordinary, every day people can follow.   I know a little about how those “refrigerator mothers” of the 50s and 60s must have felt as they tried to raise their autistic children in the midst of constant misunderstanding, accusation and lack of science.  Fifty years later I’m still outraged on their behalf.  They were unwilling pioneers (and victims) in a field not yet born.  I wonder if 50 years from now the plight of mothers raising post-institutionalized, alcohol-exposed children will have gone through a similar renaissance.  Better yet, maybe us modern “refrigerator parents” can band together with courage and unity of purpose to eradicate the problem, along with the accompanying stigma, once and for all in our lifetimes.  Now wouldn’t that be something?

September 6, 2010

September 6, 2010

Long Island Sound (Guilford, CT, Sept. 2, 2010)

September 6, 2010.  I haven’t been completely honest with myself, writing recently about all the beautiful moments with Peter.  The truth, the whole truth, is that there have been a number of alarming incidents sprinkled among our more encouraging moments, moments I cling to as evidence that there’s real hope for Peter’s future.  I suppose I’m both reluctant and afraid to consider how these disturbances lessen the benefit of the positive experiences to which I so greedily cling.  Peter is complicated, his moods and reactions sometimes vacillating on the turn of a dime.   On the way to the Jersey Shore, for instance, he lay down on the seat and began kicking the rear window with all his considerable, adrenalin-laced might.  The reason?  Sophie wouldn’t share one of her DS games.  I had to pull the car over on the middle of the interstate to wrestle him back to stability.  We all could have been killed.  With little room and a steep drop on the shoulder, even a slight sideswipe would have sent us tumbling down the ravine.  But I had no choice.  Peter had turned violent and could have punched out the window, opened the car door, or even worse, turned his temporary but psychotic attention to Sophie.  There have been at least three other incidents more or less like this in the last few weeks.  They are part and parcel of what living with and loving Peter entails on a daily basis.  There are times when our son is his own worst enemy and requires someone else, usually me, to pull him from his dangerously disorganized cogitations.  What this holds for his future, I don’t know.  His tendency to disassociate, to so easily break with reality and escape into what can only be described as psychotic thought, scares the hell out of me.  When these episodes are through, and thanks to lithium they’re much shorter in duration than they used to be, he’s always remorseful, sometimes even reflective.  But the remorse doesn’t translate, at least not yet, into ability to prevent or abort the next episode, and that’s the real tragedy.  Peter doesn’t, and possibly may never, learn from his mistakes, a crucial, fundamental ability the rest of us take for granted but one that is always, it seems, just beyond his reach.  Saturday we went to Mudge Pond, one of our favorite watering holes, to fish, picnic, swim and enjoy the day.  Autumn arrives early in this part of the country, often in spits and spurts, and so even though the temperature was in the 90s most of last week, yesterday the high struggled to reach 70.  Considerable wind and low clouds rolling across the horizon further conspired to strip us of one of our official last days of summer, but we didn’t mind.  With fresh prosciutto and rolls packed for picnicking, and the kids busy with catching minnows and frogs, we had the park mostly to ourselves, relishing the brief snatches of sunshine as they appeared.  Two parallel floating docks jut into the lake and form the sides of the designated swimming area.  For a while, I teetered on one of them, intent on catching a fish for the kids despite not knowing what I was doing and feeling like the wind was about to launch me into the choppy water.  At one point, a youngish man in khakis and a blue shirt walked out on the dock directly across from me and made a call from his cell phone.  I didn’t think much of it but as we packed up to leave, Pat’s mother pointed to a pile of clothes on a bench.  Earlier, she had watched the man in khakis strip to his bathing suit and dive into the lake.  Apparently, he hadn’t come back, and by then we were the only people foolhardy enough not to leave because of what had become questionable weather.  His clothes neatly draped across the bench, we puzzled over what to do, searching the expanse of empty lake for signs of human activity.  Pat tromped to the parking lot and reported that one other car besides ours was still there, with a rear-facing car seat in the back.  I checked the clothes at one point for a wallet, I’m not sure why, but there was nothing but a few dollars and his cellphone, which we dared not use.  Eventually another woman in Levi’s appeared next to me as I continued to scan the lake and companionably asked whether there were many swimmers today.  “Not many,” I replied.  “But there’s still one out there.”  After telling what we knew, she explained that she often swims across the lake and back, and that it can take half an hour in good weather and considerably longer under rough conditions.  “I wouldn’t chance it today, though,” she added, concern rising in her voice.  “I’m going to run home and get my kayak and look for him.  Give me 15 minutes.”  Her presence and knowledge both relieved and worried us.  It was possible our mystery man could still be exercising but here was an experienced lake swimmer telling us she wouldn’t risk it in that kind of weather.  Was he merely taking a foolish chance or had he drowned?  We didn’t know.  With Grandma wrapped in a few beach towels for warmth, we huddled near the picnic tables waiting for the woman with the kayak to return.  She was gone longer than 15 minutes, which turned out to be a blessing.  “I see him!” Pat shouted excitedly.  “He’s coming in.”  And sure enough, he was.  I could just make out his bobbing form a hundred yards or so from the shoreline.  I’m not sure why, but I met him on the dock with his towel like a scolding mother, and told him in a cheerful voice that he had given the LoBrutto family and another woman in Levi’s a real scare!  Luckily, he was a jovial guy and we all had a good laugh about the experience, though the woman with the kayak was not pleased when she eventually returned.  “I guess I shouldn’t have done that,” he said, an impish smile crossing his face as he toweled off in the quickly chilling air.  “Well, at least it’ll make a funny story to tell your wife,” I offered.  “I, uhm, think maybe I better keep this one to myself,” he replied.  “She might not think it’s so funny!”  We all said our goodbyes and he volunteered that he would never again take off, alone, across a lake in bad weather.  It was an afternoon destined to become part of our family’s lore, especially because there was such a benign resolution.  Driving home that evening, my thoughts, as usual, drifted back toward Peter.  Our mysteriously missing swimmer, a young father with a cell phone and a few dollars in his pockets, did something a little foolish and caused a few well-meaning strangers, us, a bit of anxiety in the process.  My bet is that he, whom Pat and I have dubbed “the almost dead guy”, won’t do it again.  He’s learned from the experience and will adjust his future decision-making accordingly.  What grips me with sudden, unyielding anxiety, whether in bed, driving the car, or working in the garden, is the realization that the wiring in our brains that allows us to make such adjustments, to learn from our mistakes, is either missing or irreparably damaged in Peter.  Our son’s brain lacks the protective checks and balances so necessary to survival.  He’s destined to live, thanks to his birth mother, in a permanent state of intoxication.  If compelled to do so, by desire, impulse or stubborn drive, he would swim across that lake and back, no matter what the danger, again and again, until one day he finally vanished, for good.

August 31, 2010

August 31, 2010

Pure Joy (Long Beach Island, NJ, Aug. 25, 2010)

August 31, 2010.  Peter keeps asking about school supplies and I keep telling him that I don’t know what he needs yet, a half-truth or white lie, depending on viewpoint.  Today he’s going to a water park with the son of one of my close friends, a slight, quiet boy with a sharp mind and sensitive soul.  Sophie and I are spending a girls-only day with the boy’s sister.  We have a few errands to run, but we’re also planning lunch and an outing to the movies.  The forecast high is a blistering 94 degrees, a temperature I abhor unless I’m in close proximity to a cool and inviting body of water.  Sophie’s a little tired of the town pool, however, and since her friend is nursing a sore knee, we decide to plan the day around indoor activities.  As we execute the kid switcheroo this morning, reminding my friend as we say goodbye to take Peter for frequent bathroom breaks, I’m struck with the dichotomy that at times exists within our son.  At the county fair on Friday night, we ran into a boy whom Peter played with during recess in his summer school program.  This child is 11, and as his dad later shared with us, he’s mildly retarded.  When the boys’ eyes met, they ran into each other’s arms with beautiful surrender, as well as a complete lack of social awareness.  Although Peter is higher-functioning than his new friend, he shows no awareness of the boy’s disabilities.  “He’s my best friend, Mom!” Peter proclaims, jumping up and down in time to his buddy’s constant, agitated motion.  The father looks relieved to have someone with whom to tag along.  There’s a great sadness about this man, I sense it immediately, and Pat and I fall into easy conversation with him as we scurry to keep pace with the children.  He’s eager to tell his story, the story of his son, a phenomenon I’ve encountered frequently on both sides of the special needs aisle.  On the few occasions where I’ve had the opportunity to meet other parents in even remotely similar situations, I sing like a canary.  Parenting a special needs child, regardless of the type of disability, is an undeniably lonely, isolating experience.  When there’s a chance to make a connection, when there’s an opportunity to relate, to understand and be understood, we grab it.  And so I listen, intently, and without interjecting too much of our own story, in order to give this heart-broken man a chance to be heard.  He doesn’t mince words or sugar coat the obvious as he knows instinctively that he can speak frankly with us.  Pat and I, just like he and his wife, are lifetime members of a club for which we never sought membership.  His son is delightful in that overgrown puppy way, a fact I can appreciate and enjoy completely only because I don’t have the responsibility for his future.  We exchange contact information when we leave and promise to stay in touch.  Peter and his friend hug goodbye and the father tells us as we’re leaving, with a hint of incredulity, that his son has never had a play date, much less a friend, before.  I email the father photos of the boys the next day and by the following morning the phone rings.  Because Peter’s new friend can’t stop talking about him, his mother calls the next day and asks whether they can stop over.  I’m thrilled, of course, that the boys have another chance to play over the weekend and when its time to say goodbye, Peter waves frenetically, a grin as wide as I’ve ever seen, as his friend and mother drive away.  I sling my arm across his shoulder to let him know I’m proud of the way he behaved.  Perhaps, rather than a dichotomy, Peter’s more like a bridge between two worlds – one typical and the other not.  There are strong arguments against assigning him to either environment, especially when it means to the exclusion of the other.  He’s comfortable and happy around children like his mildly retarded friend, its where he fits in and feels both calm and competent, but at the same time, he needs the social and physical challenge that more typical kids offer.  But regardless of the challenge, Peter’s learning to teeter between two worlds with grace and ever-increasing aplomb; he’s compassionate and sensitive with his less functional peers and when ridiculed or left behind by the regular set, he’s cultivating a sense of stoicism and self-acceptance that at times belies his age and disabilities.  As I finish up tonight, I gaze happily at our son, who’s sprawled across the sofa watching Scooby Doo with Sophie, exhausted but content after a very hot day at the water park.  Sometimes I’m so preoccupied by what Peter needs to learn, understand, and appreciate that I overlook the valuable lessons that his example often offers.  Our son, at times, is a veritable ambassador of good-will and acceptance.  Wholly nonjudgmental about the various gifts people have, or sometimes lack, he instead finds value, at least some value, in all those whose paths intersect his own.  Thank you, Peter, for showing me the remarkable, and beautiful, benefit of your philosophy.

August 30, 2010

August 28, 2010

Long Beach Island, NJ (Aug. 26, 2010)

August 28, 2010.  Last week the kids and I, and Lindy, drove to the Jersey shore for a few hastily arranged days of fun and sun at the beach.  We stayed in a cruddy hotel with a wonderfully open-hearted receptionist who made the entire experience tolerable.  Despite some uncooperative weather, the four of us had a great time.  I only wish Pat had come along.  The days consumed by our Due Process Hearing, however, have robbed him of time for even a brief summer break. It seems the two of us are destined forever to waltz in orbit around the demands of raising our developmentally disabled, emotionally scarred son.  Sophie carries her own baggage, at times a heavy, trouble load with which we’re desperate to help her lighten.  Like gravity’s effect upon the moon, our children’s pasts continue to dictate the future course of our lives, to the point where it sometimes seem we have no ability to choose our own path or change course.  Missed summer vacations pale in comparison to the situation hanging over our heads regarding Peter’s impending school placement.  With only 9 more days to go, we still have no decision regarding where our son will be permitted to attend school.  I used our 60 hours at the shore to wash away the insult caused by having to endure, day in and day out, school district “professionals” perjuring themselves in an effort to best the LoBruttos, and of course in the process, poor Peter.  Luckily, it worked.  Unsuccessful but comic attempts at fishing, along with boogie boarding, shell seeking, over-priced carnival rides, and mediocre seafood, all conspired to strip me of my worries.  Our only full day at the beach was cloudy, but it didn’t matter.  Sophie regaled us with her crab-walking antics across the sand as Peter dug endless holes with a well-used yellow shovel.  The next day was beautiful, the waves particularly impressive due to the front that had passed.  We allowed ourselves, with varying degrees, to be bounced and tossed in the surf.  Lindy holding tight to Sophie and me to Peter, we’d stick it out until our laughter became choked with seawater, then we’d scramble to the beach, covered in bits of sand and shell, to catch our breath and rest.  “I’m not going in there again,” Sophie would pant.  But within a minute we’d hear, “Come on guys, let’s do it again!”  We left happy and tired and arrived home, 3 hours later, to Pat’s smiling face and the beautifully affirming knowledge that we were missed.  I don’t know why Peter and Sophie were given to us, I’m not prepared to say it was God’s will, or even destiny, but the challenge, and the privilege, is ours.  Even a few days away had me missing my husband and partner more than perhaps he knows.  I can think of at least a dozen or more people whose temperaments are better suited for daily life with our rambunctious duo, but I know in my heart and mind that the two of us have given ourselves entirely to improving their fates.  As we close in on six years as a family, I sometimes worry that we’re still reaching for that elusive equilibrium, that place where hard work, dedication, and old-fashioned courage keep a family united, turning to each other for both contentment and companionship.  But we’re getting close.  It’s time I let my guard down in this respect.  Our progress as a family, and as individuals, is real and measurable.  I sensed it the minute we walked in the door and Sophie launched into a blow-by-blow description, for Daddy’s benefit, of our adventures.  I also sensed it looking around the kitchen and living room, which were neat as a pin, a welcome home present from Pat.  But mostly I sensed it in my heart, where I felt full with the knowledge that the four of us are bound together not just by the decisions of our pasts but by the hopes and prospects of our futures.  Our children’s needs may indeed dictate the general direction of our family’s future, as is the case in all families, but they need not demand the course.  Our job, as parents and partners, is to appreciate and embrace the difference.

August 17, 2010

August 17, 2010

Sesame Place, PA (Aug. 2006)

August 17, 2010.  Today is Peter’s second day of art camp at a wonderful space housed in an old chocolate factory called Imagination Station.  Yesterday he was very excited, though nervous, to begin this new adventure but he became verbally assaultive as soon as Sophie and I walked in the room to pick him up.  “The juice is rotten!” he hisses.  “I had nothing to drink at snack.”  I know what he’s talking about because we’ve gone through this before.  The design of his favorite juice box changed a few months back and its new persona is something with which he just can’t cope.   Really, I understand.  Peter struggles through so many changes – they’re all so difficult for him and yet some are so miniscule they’re nearly invisible to the rest of us.  If he has to put his foot down about a manufacturer’s audacity to change its packaging without first consulting him, if that’s where he decides to draw the line, then I want to be sympathetic.  But at the same time, I don’t want his obstinacy, his perseverative tendencies, to overtake all reason.  In truth, I also don’t want to throw away a perfectly good case of his favorite juice – a flavor Sophie won’t even touch – because he’s dug his heels in over something nonsensical.  “Let’s read the expiration date together,” I begin, pointing to the stamped “use by” date that clearly says May 2011.  “No, it’s rotten – you want to poison me, you bad mother person!”  I desperately want to avoid a meltdown in this sanctuary dedicated to creative exploration, so I steer him out and mumble something over my shoulder to the woman who runs the program.  Once outside, away from the other children, he regains some semblance of composure and we head toward home.  Over lunch the underlying cause for the assault reveals itself: Peter had first day jitters and it seems some of the “older kids” (all of whom are younger than he) were staring and making fun, among other things, of the way he speaks.  Teasing is a cruel reality when it comes to a child like Peter, and constant vigilance is required to combat it.  “I cried in my head, Mom, but not on my face.”  He can be so brave, our young son.  He wanted to cry – he felt like crying, but he held it in.  How many times has this happened without our knowledge?  Of the handful of episodes about which I know, there are bound to be dozens more, little acts of unkindness, left unacknowledged and unrevealed, in the clandestine recesses of Peter’s fragile psyche.  After lunch I speak with the art instructor, who listens carefully and promises to help ensure tomorrow’s a better Peter day.  Sleep doesn’t lessen his anxiety, however.  He spends breakfast laughing uncontrollably, without provocation, partially chewed biscuit crumbling from his mouth as Pat struggles to corral him.  “You can’t go to art camp if you keep this up,” I interject.  “I don’t want to go,” he laughs back.  A staccato half-squeal, half-moan accompanies every physical movement.  And this is where I trip up: I shouldn’t have brought up the possibility of not going unless I was ready to not send him.  I need the break, I really do – its only three hours, and Peter needs the opportunity to work on his social skills, hopefully learning a little something about art in the process.  Never mind the fact that we’ve already paid in full.  Plus, I have work to do regarding our endless Due Process Hearing, and no matter what I start Peter doing – whether its riding his bike, playing with Legos, or practicing his soccer, the independent activity lasts no more than three minutes, then he’s back to circling me like a lost but plucky pup.  “Peter,” I try reasoning.  “You can do this.  You love art.  You just have to calm yourself down.  Everybody gets nervous when they start something new.”  But he keeps insisting that the other kids stare at him and make faces.  He doesn’t know why, he says, but he insists they don’t like him.  “Did you stare at anyone yesterday?” I ask.  “No way, Mom.  I didn’t.  I swear!”  And that’s when I know I’ve hooked him, the faintest hint of a smile betraying his plaintive voice.  Peter and I spend countless hours working on his at times obsessive habit of staring at people – he can bore a hole right through a person’s skull, and so I know he’s just made a little joke on himself.  “Okay, Mom,” he says, smiling shyly.  “I’ll try.”  When we arrive at camp, I walk him inside where the instructor asks Peter where he prefers to sit for table work.  He chooses to sit with the younger group, some of whom are just four, and I nod my head in agreement.  He’s more comfortable with this age child, and that’s okay.  Yesterday he told me he preferred to sit with the younger kids, and together we agreed he’d make a wonderful “helper”.  I linger near the exit for a moment, sensing his insecurity, but the instructor clearly wants me to leave, her body language signaling that its okay, that she’s in tune to the situation.  I’m becoming more adept at recognizing early on whether a new adult in Peter’s life will help or hinder.  This kind woman exudes helpfulness, and so without further hesitation, I say a quick goodbye and walk away.  My hope is that when I pick Peter up three hours from now, he’ll be full of chatter about paper mache and drawing, and will have forgotten yesterday’s difficulties . . . maybe even to the point of forgiving the crime of changing the juice box design!

August 14, 2010

August 14, 2010

August 14, 2010

August 14, 2010.  Peter’s difficult week continues.  His entire person begins to undulate, vibrate, and gyrate, sometimes simultaneously, at the slightest correction or request.  When he’s like this, his body language resembles more of a personality-disordered belly dancer high on crack than a 9-year old boy.  Our hearing recessed earlier than expected yesterday, allowing me to pick up the kids from my friend’s house in time for Lindy and Peter to have their regularly scheduled session.  That’s the good part.  Routine is key to keeping our son in his happy zone.  The bad news is that we now have one more day of hearing scheduled for next Thursday.  When Lindy came up from the basement at the end of the day, she was shaking her head and laughing to herself.  “He just can’t keep it together right now, Mar,” she says.  “Whew!  He’s feeling it, let me tell you.”  What she means is he’s feeling the stress.  The stress of the hearing, the unspoken worry that hangs over our summer like an angry storm, his recent birthday and upcoming party, and the transition with which he must cope now that summer school ended yesterday.  A few seconds later he leaps up the stairs and catapults himself onto the couch, nearly knocking over a lamp, a low-pitched moan accompanying his every move.  Lindy had plans to eat out with us – we were supposed to be celebrating the end of the hearing, so she reminds him that the two of them could stay home while Sophie, Pat and I go to the restaurant if he can’t pull himself together.  Luckily, he recovers.  Once he was calm enough, I pull him aside and ask him to think about why he’s had such a difficult week.  This is something on which we’ve been working  – his ability to recognize, at least to some extent, what triggers his behavioral breakdowns.  He’s made incredible progress in this area, which makes me very pleased.  “It’s my birthday coming up and school got over,” he offers meekly.  I watch as his left leg wags to some interior rhythm.  Though I’ve corrected the mistake a thousand times, he keeps calling his birthday party, which is tomorrow, his birthday.  Peter knows he doesn’t enjoy a loud affair with lots of kids, so he decided to invite three friends for cake, a movie and then the local arcade.  A boys afternoon out.  But the anticipation is more than he can manage.  “You’re upset that summer school’s over?” I ask.  His lip trembles as he nods his head.  “I miss Miss Katy forever.”  And then a single tear hurdles down his face.  He made a real connection with one of the teaching assistant’s in his summer TEACCH program (which is called PEACCE where we live).  This is not a minor thing.  Peter struggles with and resists intimate feelings just as vigorously as he avoids touch and noise.  Strong emotions overload the unbalanced and carefully guarded way in which he allows the world to interact with him.  The fact that someone he’s known for 6 short weeks has been able to wiggle her way into his heart is amazing and cause for celebration.  So we talk a few minutes about why its okay to feel sad about leaving someone you care about but that because of their friendship, memories of him will always stay with Miss Katy and he will always have his memories of her.  Maybe a little too conceptual for Peter, but he hangs on every word nonetheless.  I can tell, though, that he’s still gearing up, I’m getting better and better at reading his signs, and so I wait for him to continue. “Okay Mom,” he says.  “But I don’t want four grade!  I want summer school.  I get smart there,” he proclaims as tears begin flowing in earnest.  “And I’m dry,” he whispers.  Only my anger, and my deep commitment to not reveal it, at least openly, to our children, keeps my own eyes dry.  Our son is smart enough to know that he’s found a place where he fits in, where he can learn at his own rate and experience the joy and satisfaction of completing his work himself, but its not within our control to send him there.  “Everything is quiet, Mom, and the teachers don’t let me be wild.  My body feels good.  I’m good here!” he cries.  And then I ask, “which school do you think is better for you to be at all the time, the summer school or your regular school?”  His unequivocal answer is summer school, a program modeled after the TEACCH methodology that’s run by a public corporation formed by New York State to assist local school districts.  Much of our town has puzzled over why the school won’t send Peter there year-round.  I always assumed it was a budgeting issue but after yesterday, after hearing it from the horse’s mouth, I now know otherwise.   Now I know the cost of sending Peter to this program year round is equivalent to the cost of maintaining him in an inclusion classroom.  So what in the begonias is going on here?  Are school districts now allowed to mete out revenge against parents that challenge their collective wisdom by withholding appropriate, cost-effective options to their disabled children?  All I can say at this juncture is that I hope the injustice and heartache we’ve suffered, that the harm our child’s endured, is an aberration and not an epidemic.  I can feel myself revving up.  Although I’ve done a lousy job of protecting my family against this particular cancer, I’m fairly skilled at safeguarding the rights of others.  Bullies should not be tolerated, whether encountered in childhood, family, career, or government.  Peter’s going to a birthday party today for a boy whose looks he can’t recall, though he’s known him since first grade, because they haven’t seen each other since June.  Pat and I use the rare opportunity of Peter’s all-day absence to spend some special one-to-one time with Sophie.  We take her fishing at a nearby lake, where she gets the chance to try out her new pole, a birthday gift from my sister Patty.  Unfortunately, because Pat and I have no idea what we’re doing, the equipment remains unchristened.  We have a great time anyway, watching Sophie wrestle mammoth frogs on the shore as Pat and I continue in vain to snag something, no matter how miniscule, on the line.  Later we stop by a favorite creek and let Sophie catch minnows with her net.  We share little private jokes as Pat skips rocks and I take photos.  Sophie keeps interrupting to ask what we’re laughing about and we playfully shush her away.  The subtlest hints of fall are present, a slightly different quality in the air, a dusty darkness to the leaves, the way the water sits low and lazy, and we’re happy together, in nature and with each other.  Those who wish our family ill, who try to test our commitment to our children, even our marriage, ultimately will fail.  I believe this today.  I’m reading a book right now entitled the Boy from Baby House 10.  It’s about a disabled Russian orphan, Vanya, who now lives with his adoptive mother in Pennsylvania and will soon be heading to college.  The Russian system of government, with their still Soviet-era concept of family and obligation, almost rubbed this boy off the planet by assigning him, at age 6, to permanent bed rest (i.e., cage) at an adult insane asylum.  The orphanage and health authorities did this even though he had a lively mind and a reputation for charming anyone honest enough to notice with his wit, compassion, and intelligence.  Decisions regarding this child’s life, the book reveals, often hinged on personal, even petty, alliances and hostilities.  I can’t help but think of our situation as I finish this book, which is both horrifying and uplifting.  We liberated Peter from Russia, where surely he’d have met a similar fate, only to have the fragile egos and trivial grudges of American public school officials dictate to our family whether and when he will be blessed with an opportunity to thrive.  It took an army of people from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, and who were strangers to each other, to save the life of that disabled but vibrant youngster from Baby House 10.  We thought the saving part of Peter’s odyssey ended on October 25, 2004, the day our children’s adoptions became final.  But apparently, our son’s in need of an encore rescue.  Who, in the end, will serve his cause?  Who will be part of Peter’s army?

August 11, 2010

August 11, 2010

DUSO Championships (Rhinebeck, NY, Aug. 7, 2010)

August 11, 2010.  There are only twenty-seven more days to go until the new school year begins and we have no idea where or even if our son will be attending.  I’d like to say I’m the kind of person that can let the suspense fall off my shoulders, but our predicament is wearing me down as surely and inevitably as a rising sea erodes its shore.  And like the sandy dunes, surrendering themselves in miniscule amounts over continuously vast expanses of time, I feel the pressure of our circumstances slowly, even sneakily, gnawing at the contours of my morality, my belief in the fundamental principles of right and wrong.  Our last hearing date is this Friday, August 13.  Peter was scheduled to spend up to five nights in the pediatric video EEG ward, starting yesterday, to reassess the status of his seizure disorder.  Although the school dismisses our neuropsychologist’s latest concerns and report, Peter’s neurologist takes them quite seriously.  To ensure his seizure medication isn’t masking a change in seizure pattern or brain function, his doctor intends to take him off his seizure medication and observe him for several days while he’s hooked up to the video EEG equipment.  I admire Peter’s neurologist tremendously and trust him implicitly.  He’s been with us every step of the way, repeatedly exhibiting an interest in Peter’s entire presentation and well-being, a rare quality, in my experience, among specialists.  If he says Peter needs this again (he endured this process in the summer of 2006), then we’ll do it, despite the discomfort, expense, and inconvenience.  A potential side benefit of the upcoming hospitalization is the possibility that the testing will indicate that Peter has outgrown his seizure disorder, allowing us to discontinue his powerful anti-convulsant drugs.  But whichever turns out to be the case, we need to do this.  Having said that, Pat and I decided to postpone the hospital stay late last week.  The first reason is that I’m so depleted that I literally might have become postal if I had to face being trapped in a hospital room with an uncomfortable, bored child for up to 6 days right on the heels of the horrendous weeks of preparation, testimony, and acrimony that constitutes the LoBrutto family’s Due Process experience.  The second is that none of the other hearing participants were willing to rearrange their schedules to accommodate an alternative date.  Pat’s mother is having an out-patient procedure in Poughkeepsie that day, a procedure she already rescheduled once because of our hearing schedule.  He cannot be in two places at once and there’s no way I’m leaving Peter alone all day in a hospital 45-minutes from home.  It’s impossible to predict whether he’d have been discharged by the 13th.  We just couldn’t take the chance.  It was clear that I was obligated to be present for Friday’s hearing date whether Peter was discharged or not and though we tried, Pat and I could find no one able to spend the day with Peter in the hospital should the need arise.  We’ve already relied on the kindness and compassion of friends one time too many to watch our children throughout the duration of this process.  Once again I struggle to comprehend why the needs of our son always seem to take a back seat to the agendas of the local paid professionals, whether actual or aspirational.  But in this instance, the predicament is my fault.  I should not have agreed to make the date work.  The decision was left up to me and I should have said no, I should have said we needed to find another date.  But here’s the thing: as I try with all my energy to shield our kids from the seriousness of what’s taking place this summer, to hide my anxieties and give them the rich summer experiences they deserve (sans the actual summer vacation), I’m nearly paralyzed with fear over the coming decision.  We have no options left.  Every single private school within an hour’s drive of our home has turned Peter down.  Catholic, Montessori, Christian, Waldorf, and Prep.  No, no, and no.  Private special education schools require our home district’s blessing, in the terms of a referral, before they’re even permitted by charter to contemplate our son’s suitability and acceptance.  I cling to the possibility that justice prevails, for the sake of our son and future of our family, and that it prevails sooner than later.  No decision can occur until the process is completed and the countdown to school, the place that is chipping away at our son’s IQ and functional skills with unforgiving determination, has begun.  Peter’s not yet recovered from the sensory trauma of Sophie’s championship swim meet on Saturday.  His recent behavior has thrown both Pat and I for a loop because he’s been so happy, calm, and connected recently that we’ve let our guard down.  In fact, he’s been so stable all summer, thanks to the palliative effects of the PEACCE program, that I find myself daydreaming over the possibility that we might one day say goodbye, forever, to handling Peter like a crisis management team.  Unrealistic, I know, but the point is that when his sensory and regulatory needs are being properly addressed in school, like they have been this summer, he’s able to manage his time at home much more capably, and amiably.  There will always be swim meets and family parties and other events to throw Peter off-track.  I understand that.  What I desperately long for is a flip-flopping of the ratio, an opportunity to experience more happy days with our son, and as a family, than days spent cleaning up the mess the school generates inside our son’s brain as thoughtlessly as a serial litterbug.  When this process exhausts itself, I hope with all my heart that the experience results in the reaffirmation of my beliefs in both the fundamental goodness of people and the opportunity for logic, reason and fairness to rise above institutional prerogative.  What I guess I really need, to counter all the corrosiveness, is a beach restoration project for the soul.

August 9, 2010

August 9, 2010

Peter is 9! (Aug. 4, 2010)

August 9, 2010.  Peter’s birthday began as usual, and as predicted, without the difficulties experienced in previous years.  Sophie bounced into our room at 6:15 on the dot, rousing us into instant wakefulness despite having crawled into bed only a few hours earlier.  Pat and I had brought the cake, candles, lighter, hat, glasses and candles upstairs when we dragged ourselves, exhausted, away from the kitchen table where the Due Process Hearing materials were piled in mounds of semi-organized chaos.  For this forethought, I was extremely grateful.  The “shushes” and “you’re being too louds” eventually woke Peter, who tip-toed down the hall to catch a peek.  We immediately shooed him away and back into his bedroom.  At approximately 6:18, the five of us (I’m including our dogs Pippin and Scout) entered Peter’s room to the tune of Happy Birthday to You.  Our son’s new chapter as a 9-year old boy began with him sitting straight up in bed, clapping his hands with excitement, smiling ear to ear, and surrounded by the people (and some of the pets) who love him most.  By 7:06 he was waving goodbye as he marched up the stairs of his school bus, cupcakes in tow and his backpack stuffed with new presents.  We don’t normally allow Peter to bring toys or personal belongings to school because they don’t make it home, but we made a birthday exception for two reasons.  First, he is in a small, highly structured program this summer for autistic children.  Based on the TEACCH methodology, the system allows his brain to work more optimally, which means his thoughts are clearer and he has greater capacity for self-regulation.  Because he’s thinking more clearly, he can handle more responsibility.  Why our school district will send him to this specialized program in the summer and not year round is literally beyond my comprehension.  The second reason we let him bring some presents to school that day had its genesis in guilt.  Peter usually plays hooky on his birthday and we spend the day together as a family.  But that wasn’t possible this year due to three straight days of hearing last week, the first of which commenced on his birthday.  He spent his entire day at school and then afterwards, at my neighbor’s, who I’m sure gave him plenty of love and attention and general birthday cheer.  The boy the school claims is afraid of his family wanted nothing more than to be together that night for dinner.  He didn’t want to go out, not even for ice cream.  All he wanted was a pancake dinner (Pat’s specialty) and time to play with and explore his birthday presents with Mom and Dad.  How far we’ve come, in myriad ways large and small.  Despite the victorious birthday, however, the hearing itself continues along its restive pace, blanketing our summer, our family’s very future, with a sense of foreboding that’s difficult to shake.  Emotions at the hearing are running so high.  It’s honestly hard for me to comprehend because Pat and I, and Peter and Sophie, are the only four people on the planet that have to live, for the rest of our lives, with the benefit or consequences of the outcome.  By late Friday afternoon I was so spent and emotionally drained that I could barely operate the car to drive home.  Though Saturday brought little relief in terms of physical recuperation, the day proved joyous and uplifting, a gift from the god of resilience.  Rising before 6 am, we were on the road within a half hour for a marathon of a swim meet in Rhinebeck.  Eight teams from the surrounding region, consisting of kids ranging in ages from 6 to 18, participated in this annual championship event involving a parade, costumes, body painting, raffles, and of course, lots of swimming.  The day was uncharacteristically pleasant for August and spirits ran high.  The little girls, including Sophie, whittled away the long periods of waiting by drawing on each other from head to toe with washable markers.  At some point I joined in, drawing colorful mosaic designs on their backs as they threw their heads back in laughter whenever I hit a ticklish spot.  Sophie swam her heart out, as did all the other kids, and when the Red Hook Sea Raiders were the declared champions 13 hours later, I cheered wildly alongside the other parents, Pat jabbing me playfully in the side the instant my jubilee turned a little weepy.  As for Peter, he spent most of the day playing with the brother of one of Sophie’s teammates.  These two boys have developed a friendship forged from the common boredom of having nothing to do while their sisters swam and I couldn’t be more delighted.  With frequent checks, Peter made it through the day playing on the adjacent playground and basketball court.  Although he didn’t manage to stay dry, he did manage the day, more or less, and for that I’m grateful and proud.  It was a long, loud and rowdy event, not the usual type of venue to which we’d subject our sensitive son.  However, as is typically the case, the four of us paid the price the next day.  For some reason, Peter more often than not is able to hold himself together during an over-stimulating experience but then falls apart, often miserably, when the fanfare dies down.  Yesterday was no exception.  He tantrumed over using the bathroom, brushing his teeth, the way the couch felt and the sound our injured Jack Russell made as she wobbled pitifully about with her lampshade dragging across the wood floors.  Pat and I tried are best to stay calm, and we did, but we also know from our many years of parenting our son that the behavior cannot be indulged.  For this reason, I’m now trying to cultivate an air of firm compassion.  Yesterday I wanted him to know I understood how difficult the swim meet was for him, just as I want him to learn to make the connection himself, but he also needs to clearly realize that his responses are not acceptable.  When I kissed him goodnight, his demons finally satiated, he handed me a note that read, “Sory Momy.  I love you.”  Just like on Saturday when the championship team was announced, the tears of love, pride, and happiness flowed again, but this time, Pat wasn’t there to jab me.  Though if he had been, I’m pretty sure he would have been crying too.  Happy Birthday, beautiful boy.

Sophie & her 8 and under teammates (Aug. 7, 2010 - Go Sea Raiders!!)

August 1, 2010

August 1, 2010

Home from the Vet (Scout, July 31, 2010)

August 1, 2010.  Friday began a blizzard of excitement, danger and exhaustion that continues to whirl around our lives for the third straight day.  I testified at our Due Process Hearing from 10 to 4 on Friday, doing my best to convey as honestly but pointedly as possible the school district’s unacceptable conduct over the past 3 years and the ensuing, and tragic, impact its had on our son.  Sophie’s theater debut was also Friday night, the culmination of a month-long camp.  A friend picked her up because our hearing wasn’t over in time to get her to the theater by the appointed hour.  When I called to wish her luck, she informed me that I didn’t need to tell her to “break a leg” because she had been stung in the underarm by a wasp an hour earlier and was therefore already injured.  Poor baby!  Pat and I raced home from the hearing to pick up Grandma, Peter, and Lindy.  We grabbed a quick bite and then drove the 7 miles to Rhinebeck a good 90 minutes before show time because we had to wade our way through the mob of paparazzi and gawkers trying to catch a glimpse of the famous.  Yes, it’s true.  Our little neck of the woods has been taken over by the likes of Oprah, Ted Danson, Madeleine Albright and the former first family.  Chelsea Clinton married yesterday, and many of the guests, including dignataries, are staying in what’s touted as the oldest inn in America, which happens to be directly across the street from the theater where Sophie made her grand debut!  During the lunch break on Friday, our hearing officer drove to Rhinebeck to drink in the scene and returned with a photo of Bill Clinton on his cellphone.  Apparently the former President exited his motorcade directly in front of him.  What a crazy day.  Streets were closed, parking was a challenge, vendors were selling t-shirts that said “The Wedding” (no kidding), and police officers congregated at every possible turn.  Nonetheless, the show managed to open without a hitch, more or less.  I was so nervous for Sophie, who had lots of little parts, ranging from a thief, a dressmaker, a bird, to a sack of straw, that my heart caught in my throat every time she walked onstage.  But the show was wonderful in the way that any production involving 22 kids and a gifted director-teacher is bound to be: colorful, exciting, hilarious, creative, and inspired.  Sophie jumped into my arms with exuberance afterwards and melted all the difficulties of the day away.  Peter behaved beautifully the entire time, which was icing on an already scrumptious cake.  Despite her exhaustion, Sophie insisted on getting up bright and early for her swim meet yesterday morning, which Pat and I had been on the fence about because the second performance was last night and the final matinee is this afternoon.  But the day was one of those gloriously rare mid-summer gifts where the humidity disappears, the temperature drops, and the sky is a brilliant blue, without a hint of the heat-induced haze that so often shrouds the horizon, and so I didn’t protest too much.  Fighting through her fatigue and still-sore underarm, Sophie managed to win two of her four heats, which is always exciting because she gets an on-the-spot ribbon.  The day took a stormy turn however when Pat called shortly after her second race.  He and Peter had left early so that he might steal a few hours work before commencement of Round 2 of The Clinton Wedding v. The Cocoon Theater’s Grimm Tales.  A few minutes later my cell phone blared, the panicked expletives flying across the wireless network the second I said hello.  When he was calm enough to speak, my heart sank as I realized Pat was telling me that he ran over our cranky but beloved Scout, a 15-year old Jack Russell Terrier, in the driveway.  Peter had told him that Scout was behind the car and out of danger but she wasn’t.  “The sound, the shrieking cry, I knew right away what I’d done!”  Pat was already on the way to our vet when he called and didn’t know how badly she was hurt.  All he knew was that her back left leg was bleeding and she was conscious.  I didn’t want to tell Sophie during the meet, especially since I assumed we’d be putting her down.  Scout’s been ill with a kind of doggie encephalitis for years and though she keeps springing back, bout after bout and to our vet’s amazement, I doubted she had the strength to survive this latest catastrophe.  But Sophie overheard me on the phone when Pat called back to tell me the vet was examining her.  She burst into tears with the news, which of course triggered the waterworks in me too.  “What can I do, Mommy?” she pleaded.  I suggested we offer a little prayer.  It’s all I could think to say.  And then my little girl did something that took my breath away.  Right there on the deck of the pool, with frenzied activity all around us, she solemnly clasped her hands together, put them to her lips and nose, and closing her eyes, bowed her head in silent prayer.  For that moment, the world around us disappeared, and I watched in awe as Sophie, still wearing her swim cap and goggles, quietly begged for Scout’s life.  I hugged her so tightly when she was through that her wet form left an almost exact imprint on my clothes.  When the phone rang again, Sophie’s tears began anew but this time the news was good: Scout would be okay.  Nothing was broken, no ligaments torn, but she did have a significant gash on her paw that required 12 stitches.  Our vet was amazed, especially given her age and precarious health.  She would need anesthesia to be sewn up, and she was in significant pain – the lacerations went all the way to the bone, but with antibiotics and pain medication, she should heal.  When I told Sophie the great news, she asked to speak to Daddy so she could hear the prognosis herself.  Relieved but still unsettled, she kissed me goodbye when it was time for her next race.  Yelling over her shoulder, grim-faced and determined, she announced “this one’s for Scoutie.”  She won her heat by half a pool length, matter-of-factly delivering her ribbon to me for safe-keeping as she wrapped herself in a towel.  By mid-afternoon Pat was home with a doped-up Scout, affording Sophie a few hours of vigil before it was time yet again to leave for the play.  Pat, who is still a mess over the accident, stayed home to nurse the dog, and I took Peter with me to the performance.  The stress of the day showed however, because Sophie started barking orders onstage, under her breath but clearly audible, whenever one of the other children missed a cue or line.  It was funny, I laughed along with everyone else, but I knew the antics were born from the day’s traumatizing events.  As soon as the show was over, Sophie ran out to ask how Scout was doing.  She also told us that the director had the kids walking outside before the performance and the spectacle, 22 ducklings in a row, caught the attention of one of the newscasters hoping to catch a glimpse of the Clinton elite.  “We’re going to be on TV, Mom!”  Whew, what a day!  Sophie was dead asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow but Pat and I had a restless night because Scout was feeling lousy and couldn’t stop whimpering.  One more performance to go this afternoon and then we’re through.  Until Wednesday, that is, when Peter turns nine and the Due Process Hearing resumes for three more days.

July 29, 2010

July 27, 2010

Sophie's 8th Birthday (July 22, 2010)

July 27, 2010.  Seven is no longer a number that holds purchase in our home.  Sophie turned eight last Thursday and celebrated over the weekend with four girls at her very first slumber party.  Lindy invited Peter to spend the night, enabling him to escape the mayhem and Sophie to enjoy her party sans her meddlesome brother.  Miraculously, the girls were asleep before midnight and remained so until 7:30 the next morning.  Sophie’s face still beams with the memories and Pat and I were thrilled to witness her exuberance.  For 17 blissful hours, normalcy prevailed in our household, affording our daughter the rare opportunity to form childhood memories unmarred by Peter’s disabilities and the family upheaval they so often trigger.  But I missed him.  I truly did.  And it’s not just because I’ve grown accustomed to the madness, though that’s certainly the case.  I resent outright that it’s easier to navigate our lives without him because I don’t want to be without him.  We adopted two children because we wanted to share our lives with them and theirs with us, because we wanted them to have each other, to know the intimacy of family life and experience a world suddenly within their reach.  But the truth is, it’s not just easier for us to exclude Peter, its sometimes easier for Peter too.  He would not have been able to handle Sophie’s party, the gifts, the attention, the noise, and the utter disregard for routine.  He would have wound up in his room, raging, utterly unhappy and embarrassed by his lack of self-control.  Sophie would have been nervous and on edge, waiting anxiously for Peter to fall apart or otherwise sabotage her celebration, a reality which the three of us each have experienced one time or another.  By having Peter sleep at Lindy’s, we avoided the predicted catastrophe and at the same time afforded Sophie some much-needed freedom.  So why, then, don’t I feel like the experience was a complete win-win?  I suppose it’s because on some level we were admitting defeat.  On some level, Pat and I were acknowledging that it wasn’t just that Peter might not handle a situation well, we know definitively that he doesn’t have the tools necessary to handle what for most is an ordinary childhood right of passage.  Lots of brothers don’t want to be around for their sisters’ slumber parties, but Peter absolutely must abstain, for everyone’s sake.   I grieve over the classic boyhood that Peter will never know, and for the manhood he should by right possess but will never fully inhabit.  His birthmother and birthplace have conspired to strip him of these God-given opportunities.  It’s my job to rebuild him, slowly but surely, in accordance with his own strengths and interests and without undue emphasis on my ideal of what he could, and should, have been.  Peter was happy at Lindy’s, and I need to be grateful for that.  At least I’m learning.  I’m shedding, also slowly but surely, my own preconceptions about what I want for our son.  His childhood may not resemble Pat’s or mine, or even Sophie’s, but he’s finding his way nonetheless.  Every day I witness Peter coming more and more into himself, his smile less guarded, his stride more confident, his heart well-tended and beloved.  Though my mind reflects back to the feral 3-year old boy standing in our bedroom doorway, covered in feces, I can barely invoke the image anymore.  We have come so far, the four of us.  Who cares if we sometimes must be apart to stay united?  What matters is that we are united, that the feral boy whose piercing eyes haunted my dreams and consumed my thoughts is an ever-fading memory.  Sophie is eight and on August 4th, Peter turns nine.  Just as Sophie did last week, he’ll awake to birthday cake, lit candles, our silly birthday hat and song.  Only a few years ago, he crouched like a frightened animal in the corner of his room when we attempted this early morning birthday ritual.  But not this year.  Peter’s ready.  I know because he told me so.

July 17, 2010

July 17, 2010

Underwater Pete (July 2010)

July 17, 2010.  My head spins with the sickening realization that I’m a fool, an incredibly naïve fool.  By requesting Peter’s educational records, I learn yesterday that I’ve been the target of criticism, suspicion, malice, and entrapment since Peter began first grade in our picturesque, adopted town of Red Hook, New York.  It’s not just been the school psychologist who has maligned my character, questioned my motives, and actively sought to turn our confused, insecurely attached son against me.  While I was striving for an open, honest relationship with Peter’s educational team, voicing frustrations, concerns, and victories as they arose, many in this group of teachers, aides, and other service providers were interviewing Peter and cataloguing my every word and action.  Instead of working on the goals in Peter’s IEP (individual education plan), his “team”, with the school psychologist leading the way, spent a good part of the last three years peppering Peter for information about what goes on in our home.  How we discipline him, whether he wants to go home (yes, his teacher asked him this in May), and whether he’s afraid of us (me).  Where do these intrusive questions fit within the state mandated curriculum? I’ve been trying for the last three years to explain and educate Peter’s team about the complexity of his disabilities, particularly the double whammy of FAS and the effects of institutionalization, but I now realize my message, at times my grief and pain, was not received with compassion.  And shame on me for thinking that it would be.  Shame on me for thinking these people, with a few exceptions, would want to understand the difficulty and complexity of our journey, that they had the capacity for critical thinking and the good will to reach across the aisle and lend a helping hand.  We have fought tooth and nail to win Peter’s trust and affection, what’s known in adoption circles as a healthy attachment, and the school psychologist and others have been actively sabotaging our efforts every step of the way.  Had they the intellect or curiosity to read anything about attachment disorder or FAS, they would know that poorly attached children almost always target the mother; moreover, that these kids are adept at triangulating, lying, and manipulating their way toward temporary favor.  Peter loves me, I know he does, but he would sell my soul in a second if he thought it would please any grown-up to whom he was speaking.  Even Peter’s medical issues, which at times terrify us, have been the source of gossip, mistrust and circumvention.  This past year, the school nurse, in cahoots with the school psychologist and Peter’s teacher, asked to see copies of his EEGs, test results from his urologist, and sought to gain direct access to his cardiologist.  She even discussed at least one plot with the principal, informing him of her plan to tell me that she was not a cardiology nurse and therefore needed permission to speak to the doctor to better understand Peter’s needs.  In the email to the principal, she states “it would be interesting to see if she [meaning me, Mom] balks at this request.”   Are we neglecting Peter medically?  Are we over-attentive?  What exactly is the concern?  I’m becoming nauseated as I write.  There clearly was never any possibility that Peter would receive an appropriate education in this school.  I’ve been banging my head for years against a steel wall forged from malice and distrust.  As Pat and I spend sleepless nights worrying over Peter’s cognitive regression and ever-spiraling confusion, the people legally charged with his educational care for 6 hours a day are preoccupied with catching me in the act of a fictionalized misdeed.  Dr. Federici and Dr. Aronson warned us long ago that the present situation in which we find ourselves is a dangerously risky scenario experienced by scores of adoptive parents of children like Peter.  Certain schools, like Red Hook, seem to possess the audacity as well as the arrogance to act as judge, jury, and unfortunately for Peter and his precarious brain, executioner.  We just didn’t think it’d happen to us, or more accurately, I didn’t think so.  I’m the one that opened my heart, my feelings, my fears, and my hopes to virtual strangers with the idea they would one day become partners, allies, maybe even friends.  Our family can’t weather my making these same mistakes again.  I have to get smarter, stronger, and a whole lot wiser.  We may have adopted Red Hook as our hometown, but its school, the fulcrum of this family-centered community, has not adopted us.

July 14, 2010

July 14, 2010

Shaker Village (Hancock, MA, July 2010)

July 14, 2010.  Sophie and I walk outside to leave for Peter’s swim lesson yesterday and find him standing on the lawn, catatonic.  “What’s wrong, Peter?” Sophie asks, and then repeats the question, her voice crescendoing toward hysteria as the seconds proceed.  Peter is standing in his Crocs and bathing suit, leaning slightly from the waist, his arms outstretched like a Marionette as drool spills from his mouth.  His beautiful brown eyes are expressionless.  “Peter!” I command as I quietly approach.  I too am beginning to feel panicked.  Has he had a stroke?  A seizure?  What’s going on?  He won’t answer either of us, and Sophie’s on the verge of tears.  “Peter!” I repeat.  I’m about to have her run and get the telephone so I can call 911 when I see a single tear slip over the lid of one eye.  I’m standing immediately in front of him and I reach to pat his cheek.  “No don’t,” he manages.  The tears are flowing freely now and despite the situation, my panic begins to subside.  He is neurologically functioning.  Otherwise he would not have responded to my attempt to touch him.  “What’s wrong?” I say, taking a step back so that he knows I respect his need to work through this.  Five minutes later he is composed and rational enough for me to piece together what happened, which is this: he was swinging and some sort of stinging bug flew into his mouth and bit him on the inside of his lip.  Although he sounds and looks like his mouth is paralyzed, or perhaps full of Novacaine, I know that his quirky sensory system is completely overloaded by what would be a traumatic experience for anybody, and which is proving a surreally terrifying one for Peter.  Each spring we have to coax him outside because he has an overwhelming fear of bugs.  He can’t stand the sight, sound, or the feel of them crawling on his skin.  The very thought of one stinging him sends him racing for the nearest door so quickly that the trailing sounds of his screams outlives his actual presence.  So what happened on the swing is about the most awful thing his little mind could ever imagine, and he spiraled into a full-blown shut down.  Although he won’t let me assess the damage, I know he’s okay once he begins drying his eyes and making other purposeful movements.  My instinct is to load him in the car and take him to swimming; otherwise, I fear he’d fixate on the trauma and the rest of the day would be lost for all of us.  Luckily, I’m correct.  The cold water and the distraction of his lesson allow his sensory system to “forget” about the assault, at least for 30 minutes.  I watch as he happily shows off his skills to “Coach” and then climbs out of the water with an easy smile when he’s finished.  A round of ice pops for the ride home seals the deal.  Or at least so I think.  As soon as he finishes his treat, he again begins speaking like someone afflicted with facial paralysis.  His lip had been a little fat but the temporary swelling is gone.  The problem is that without anything else to occupy his focus, every fiber of his being is hyper-alerted to the injury, which at this point is all but imperceivable.  By the time we pull in the garage, however, he can barely navigate his way out of the car.  I have to keep calling his name and spurting out directions.  “Now open the door.”  Then, “Peter, get off the seat.  Now climb out.  Close the door.”  And then finally, after what seems an eternity, “Good boy!”  A few years ago I would have been annoyed by such a show of helplessness but now I understand its not a ruse.  He’s not putting on a show to gain sympathy, treats or favor.  A bee or wasp sting in the mouth to a boy like Peter is akin to being shot with a bow and arrow in a vital organ.  It is shocking, painful, and most of all, a memory that is difficult to set aside.  At least, that is, until tomorrow, when Peter’s world will be fresh and new, like it is everyday, unburdened by the lessons of the past, but equally crippled by the lost opportunity for wisdom they impart.

July 12, 2010

July 12, 2010

Hancock Shaker Village (Hancock, MA, July 11, 2010)

July 12, 2010.  Yesterday Pat and I took the kids to Hancock, Massachusetts to visit a Shaker Village that once bustled to the peaceful, insulated rhythms of more than 300 souls.  As we strolled the grounds, stopping to explore buildings or speak with the costumed gardeners, woodworkers, and other caretakers, I couldn’t help but think of Peter.  I could almost see him there, transported to the early 19th Century, an young adult working in the fields, wearing rolled up sleeves and a straw hat, his sinewy muscles rippling under deeply tanned forearms.  Peter seemed at home there, darting quietly between the slats of the magnificent circular barn, and walking between the apple trees, their fruit plentiful tart with greenness.  Somehow his strange body language became exaggerated in this place, almost as though the environment didn’t require any accommodation.  It was as though he sensed this, and gave himself permission to be free.  His head leaning forward, almost lunging, I watched as he skipped irregularly along the planked walkways, his form shimmering in the heat like a lonely mirage as the distance between us increased.  Happy in the private sanctuary of his revelry, a chaotic storyline I try so hard to penetrate, much less understand, I knew he felt peace in this place, a religious compound that closed its doors a half century ago.  Although his brain often fails to make the connections that most of us take for granted, he understood implicitly the harmony that still permeates this village.  Dr. Federici, when we saw him last month, told us that he knows of several couples who have “given” their troubled FAS adolescents to the Mennonites over the years.  Funny how strange but absolutely logical that sounds.  Peter would no doubt flourish in such a protected, insulated, simple environment, where members are expected to contribute to the extent of their abilities, no more or no less.  Choices are greatly limited but so are temptations; an ideal template for those living with the crippling consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure.  Not only could a youth like Peter be safe and remain safe, he could be productive and experience genuine fulfillment.  The very notion would be entirely intoxicating except for one serious, sobering drawback: the parents must agree forever to relinquish custody, guardianship, and any future relationship with their child.  Although I can envision Peter living contentedly among the Mennonites, I glimpsed as much in a hazy dream during our visit to the Shaker Village yesterday, I cannot envision living without Peter.  In the last declining decades of the Shakers, most of the men had left the movement, leaving the remaining women no choice but to hire male laborers to work and live among them.  If only Peter could reach across the time-space continuum, he might find refuge there in the fast approaching decade of his own adolescence.  Pat and I might find peace too, peace in knowing that we found a place where our Russian son could live safely, in pursuit of a purposeful existence, and where simplicity is a gift, not a hindrance.

July 2, 2010

July 2, 2010

Painting in the Sun (June 2010)

July 2, 2010.  So much for spending lazy summer mornings in our pajamas.  The LoBruttos are rising an hour earlier than the regular school year schedule because Sophie’s on the summer swim team.  We are at the town pool, which is unheated, by 7:15 am, five mornings a week.  The lows for the last several mornings hovered in the low 50s.  Brrr!  More than once Sophie has emerged with blue lips and fingertips.  By today she may be frozen solid.  Peter starts summer school next week, a program initially denied to him by the school under the theory that he is doing so well he doesn’t need it.  Luckily our filing for hearing prevents them from implementing such an ill-conceived directive.  His 6-week program begins Tuesday.  This week has been difficult for him, as it has been for me.  Sophie is busy with her activities and friends and Peter has little to do, despite my trying to put him on some sort of recognizable, organizing schedule.  Right now he’s downstairs working with Lindy, who will try her best to undo the cumulative damage of several days with no routine.  He’s filling his Pullups with so much urine that last night the crotch of his diaper protruded down one leg of his shorts, causing him to walk like an old man with an acute prostate problem.  And still he looked me in the eye, insisting he was dry.  I’m sending him to use the bathroom approximately every 20-30 minutes, which is no picnic for either of us, but still the problem persists.  “I don’t pee in there, Mom,” he announces gaily.  “Sometimes, but mostly I play.”  The very idea of trying to toilet train an almost 9-year old while preparing madly for our endless Due Process Hearing, instigated because the school has lost its collective mind and continues to adhere stubbornly to the fiction that Peter is educable in a large classroom setting, offers many layers of irony.  But its 4th of July weekend and I don’t want to go there.  Not right now, anyway.  This afternoon we’re going to the pool and then tonight we’re heading to the Fairgrounds to watch a rodeo and after that, the fireworks.  I hope the evening is as full of old-fashioned, small town fun as I’m envisioning it will be.  All I ever wanted to do was help our son, but when reason, hard evidence and sugar produced no results, I’ve had no choice but to put on my boxing gloves and get tough.  In the process I’m afraid I unwittingly may have created the persona of a crazed mother on a jihad, but there’s very little other choice.  If I keep shouting our story from the highest ridge, my voice ringing through the dips and crevices of the valleys below, my plea for our son just might reach the heart and mind of someone, somewhere, who’s in a position to intervene, who can and wants to stop this madness.  But this weekend I want to set these worries, this mission, aside.  This weekend I just want to be Mom.  I want to have fun with my kids and my husband.  I want to shield Sophie’s eyes from any scary parts of the rodeo and run back to the car with Peter in tow if the booming fireworks are more than he can handle.  I want to put the kids to bed early one night and coax Pat into a relaxing, romantic evening where we can escape our problems, if only for a few, stolen hours.  Most importantly, I need to remind myself that what Pat and I are doing right now is not a sustainable, much less desirable, life pursuit.  It’s temporary, and it will pass.  We will have a life beyond fighting for Peter’s rights and his future.  But in the meantime, we’ll have to settle for stealing snatches of normalcy when we can, like this weekend, for instance.  I smile just thinking of Sophie singing You’re a Grand Old Flag in the backseat on the way to the lake.  Such a small little dream, but I sure hope it comes true.

June 26, 2010

June 26, 2010

Peter, my nephew Steven, and Sophie (St. Pete Beach, FL, May 2008)

June 26, 2010.  I spent Peter and Sophie’s first day of summer vacation in our third week of the Due Process Hearing.  With still no end in sight, we received yet another affirmation from the school district that they’re unwilling to discuss settlement.  As of now we have dates scheduled into August, including August 4th, which is Peter’s 9th birthday.  I don’t think anyone involved in the hearing besides Pat and me sees the irony in the fact that none of them, including those who espouse their unfailing commitment to our son’s educational and emotional development, i.e., the school, can suggest or commit to a single alternative date.  But that’s okay, we’ll make up for it.  Peter knows who loves him, its wonderful to be able to say and believe that, and no one can take that away from us.  After yesterday’s considerable shenanigans were through, we picked up Sophie at her friend’s house and met Peter at the town pool, where he spent the day with his best buddy, Montana.  He gave me a big wet hug, brown as a surfer and with eyes groggy from spending all day in the sun and water.  When we get home he tells us that before they went to the pool, he played video games, watched TV, and Montana’s oldest brother, a nice kid who’s 16, wrestled with them and gave the boy’s Dr. Pepper and lots of sweets.  With that good news, we put the kids to bed early and I succumbed not too long afterward.  I fell asleep to the click click of Pat’s keyboard as he squeezed in a few hours of work.  He was as tired as I, but the nagging worry of falling too far behind kept him energized a while longer.  This morning the kids don’t wake until 8:30, which is a minor miracle, so Pat and I head down to breakfast feeling much more human and ready for the day.  Within minutes it’s apparent the quadruple whammy of electronics, wrestling, caffeine, and sugar are still coursing through Peter’s body, wreaking mayhem on his delicate nervous system and metabolism.  As is often the case, we’ll pay the piper today, and possible tomorrow and the next, for yesterday’s lack of regimen.  On all fours, Peter bucks himself wildly on the tiled kitchen floor, his knees already off the ground before I realize what he’s doing.  When his legs come crashing down, as gravity always insists they do, he howls in pain.  His bewildered expression confirms that he didn’t foresee the consequences of his actions.  The rest of the morning proceeds similarly.  My son has morphed into a throbbing, pulsating bundle of raw impulse with two moderately bruised knees and a wicked summer tan.  When I head barefoot upstairs to put laundry away, I step onto various urine-soaked spots on his carpeting.  I also find Sophie’s toys stashed under his bed and soiled underwear stuffed behind his dresser.  Where there’s urine on Peter’s floor, there’s usually urine on Peter, and sure enough, I find him downstairs getting ready to play outside, completely unaware or unmoved, I’m not sure which, by the fact that he’s leaving a trail of piddle behind him.  I guiltily relish the knowledge that in a half hour I’ll be left alone in the house for a considerable chunk of time.  Pat’s taking the kids to his mother’s because his brother and family are visiting for the day.  I have cross-examination to prepare for our next hearing date and so I’m meeting them later, around dinnertime.  It’s extremely difficult to work with the kids in the house, especially Peter, even more so given the aftershocks of his complete freedom yesterday.  As I gather my hearing materials and prepare to work, I find myself surprisingly calm, and without resentment.  We’re fighting for a proper educational placement for our son, a program that can stretch his brain toward higher function rather than confuse it into submission and eventual mush.  An important and necessary battle, certainly.  But what’s clear is we’ve already won the war.  Peter’s not going back.  One way or another we’re keeping him safe, preserving the promise that’s left in his brain from further deterioration; that in itself is both gratifying and comforting.  It’s like his wild, carefree day yesterday.  He had fun but at too high a price.  He’ll suffer from the after effects, which means so will we, much longer than he reaped the benefits.  And it’s really no different with the school.  The marginal social improvements simply aren’t worth risking further cognitive decline.  It’s a simple cost benefit analysis.  The unfortunate part is that the school’s done their own cost-benefit analysis, and I guarantee it’s not a metaphorical one.  Inclusion is cheap.  An appropriate program for Peter, a program designed to stimulate his brain but not his body, a program based on a neurocognitive approach such as those used with classically autistic children or the brain injured, is not.  But he’s going to get it, one way or another, even if it means implementing one myself.  Dr. Federici’s recent evaluation once again has confirmed for us that Peter’s not the boy that can fly high all day and bounce back.  His brain, his very person, is too fragile.  It’s taken nearly 6 years to teach Peter to love and trust.  I will never again allow personal agendas, or in some instances, maybe even vendettas, plunge our son into an abyss of regression from which his heart and mind might never again emerge.

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June 21, 2010

June 21, 2010 Journal Entry

Peter, Giada & Sophie in the Bounce House (Father's Day, 2010)

June 21, 2010.  Despite a rough morning, Peter rallied beautifully and we were able to celebrate a wonderful Father’s Day with Pat.  His beloved granddaughter, and his oldest daughter Jennifer and her husband, drove from New Jersey for the afternoon.  At 19 months, the baby is a dizzying blur of delight.  It was a hot, happy day, filled with fresh berries, burgers, hot dogs, and corn on the cob.  The waters of the gulf between Pat’s old and new lives were calmer and somehow less vast than they sometimes seem.  I think everyone felt it, Sophie and Peter included.  I was so grateful that Pat wasn’t made to sit on the fence between alliances.  We are one family and we all belong to him, and him to us.  Baby Gia, at the age where everything is new and worthy of exploration, found tremendous joy in whacking the dogs’ water bowls with a wooden spoon.  Later, after they left, we watched The Indian in the Cupboard with the kids and Grandma.  Peter snuggled with me on our big green velvety chair and I drank in the smell of his freshly shampooed hair in the sublime stillness of the moment.  These intimate occasions, though still not common, and definitely not a given, are occurring more and more often, and with less and less awkwardness.  Pure bliss is what they are.  With 4 days left of school and no real lessons on the horizon, we let the kids stay up later than usual.  The movie, like the book, captured their imaginations and I listened with great  joy to Sophie’s running comments directed at the characters on the screen.  This morning they are both like overcooked noodles, though, as we try to pry them from their beds toward a more vertical position.  Summer vacation comes late in the Hudson Valley and Sophie and Peter are past ready for the school year to officially end.  Peter’s 3rd grade swim party is today which I miss because I’m currently in 24/7 Due Process Hearing mode.   Dr. Federici is concerned that Peter is experiencing “break through seizures” and has urged us to get another 24-hour EEG and MRI.  None of those have been scheduled yet so now that the town pool is open, I have been keeping an extra vigilant eye when my son’s in the water.  Peter had an episode on Saturday that scared us both.  He seems to have lost swimming skills over the winter and struggled underwater to the point where he threw up in the pool.  I don’t know whether he had a seizure or just panicked but something definitely happened and his proficiency in the water has definitely diminished.  “I almost drownded, Mommy!” he cried.  “I do not know what happened but I couldn’t get up to the top of the air.”  Worried, of course, about today’s swim party, I write to his teacher, who I just have spent two days cross-examining at the hearing, and ask that he stay out of the deep end, explaining in an abbreviated way my reasons.  When I pick Peter up this afternoon, exhausted but happy as he sucks on a ring pop that turned his teeth green, he informs me that he “passed” the swim test and was allowed to swim in the deep end.  I was terribly angry, of course, with all kinds of colorful expletives racing through my head as I smiled to the other parents as we left, but I also was relieved he was okay.  Why certain persons at this school feel entitled to supplant their judgment for ours, I will never understand.  If I had relayed this kind of information to Sophie’s teacher, for instance, she would have been on it like a hawk on road kill.  I have no doubt whatsoever.  But there’s something about Peter, or me, or the bizarro world of special education, that invites constant criticism, constant second-guessing, and endless usurpation of parental prerogative and wisdom.  The unforgiveable part is that Peter really could have been harmed, even killed, if something had gone wrong.  In three more days though, Peter will be saying goodbye to Mill Road Elementary for good.  He is not returning.  The stakes are too high.  He is done and so are we.  A new chapter in his education, and hopefully his future, is around the bend.  Don’t get me wrong: I was thrilled to see his goofy green-toothed grin today.  He had a great time, and for that I’m grateful.  But also make no mistake: I’ll be much more grateful come Thursday at 11:45, when school’s dismissed for summer.  Its just one more important step toward divorcing ourselves from the turmoil of Peter’s integrated education that constantly distracts us from the business that matters: our family.  Happy Father’s Day, Papa!

May 20, 2010

October 15, 2007 and Chapter 22

Apple Picking (October 2007)

October 15, 2007.  The script for Peter’s synthetic B12 injections arrive today.  The geneticist has been trying to track down a drug manufacturing company to make this formulation for the past four months.  In June, we learned that Peter lacks the enzyme necessary to metabolize B12, which means the vitamin can’t get into his cells, a genetic deficiency which negatively impacts normal brain development.  The kind of B12 he’ll be receiving relies on a different enzyme for metabolism.  If we see improvement, he’ll need these shots every other day for the rest of his life.  Although I’m excited over the prospect, however slim, of Peter’s autistic features and brain function improving, I’m equally wary that the injections will turn out to be another dead end.  There have been so many dead ends in our quest to improve our son’s conditions and I fear the cumulative effect of lost hopes.  Later in the day I tell Peter what’s in store and as I focus on how he’s handling the news, Sophie begins to cry.  “Don’t do this to my brother,” she says.  “Please don’t do it, Mom.”  I have never loved my daughter more than I do in this moment.  There are so many things wrong in our household, so many days gone awry that end in tears or angry outbursts, yet this tiny five-year old reminds me that first and foremost, we are family, and that we love each other.  Peter may be relentless in his efforts to upset and tease Sophie, but he is her brother and in this perceived time of crisis, his offenses slip easily from her mind in favor of solidarity.  Sophie reminds me of the need to shed my own resentment and anger, pestilent feelings that too often color how I view, and undoubtedly on occasion treat, Peter.   I pull both my children close to me and kiss the tops of their heads.  I do my best to explain why Peter needs these shots and how they might help.  Then I silently pray my son forgives me for subjecting him to yet more physical assault.  I thank God for allowing Sophie to instruct me in the art of unconditional love and I pledge to hold against my heart the gift of her lesson.

Chapter 22:  From Albany to Virginia

Our work continued with Sue over the course of the next few months.  Peter’s transformation on Risperdal was nothing short of miraculous.  Although not a magic bullet, the tantrums, the toileting escapades, and much of the other unmanageable behaviors either diminished significantly or disappeared altogether.  Each night I drifted off silently thanking the pharmaceutical company that manufactures those tiny round pills so that parents like Pat and me might occasionally sleep with both eyes closed.

The other noticeable difference had to do with Peter’s speech.  Despite speech and language therapy twice weekly, which had begun six months or so earlier, we hadn’t noticed much improvement before Risperdal.  I don’t know why the medication helps so many autistic kids and other children with autistic-like brain disorders, but there’s no doubt it works.  The medicine didn’t bring him out of his fog entirely, but the change was like the difference between a fog so thick you can’t see your own hand in front of your face and one where visibility is low but its still safe, let’s say, to drive.  To us it felt like a clear, crisp fall day, the kind of day where a steady stream of blowing leaves filters and purifies the air.  Without warning, pronouns began to show up, as did plurals and even a few conjunctives.

Spring 2006

He was becoming another child, at least for a while.  Sue began making small but noteworthy inroads, optimism returned, and I found myself anxiously awaiting each Tuesday so that Peter and I could make the trek to Albany and learn something new I could then take home and practice.  But then something happened and the medicine seemed to stop working, not all at once but slowly, like a slithering snake.  Over a period of weeks the aggressive edginess returned, the dizzying mood swings, the rages that seemed to last for hours and that left Pat and me feeling like we’d been slowly dismembered by a rabid forest animal.

This unexpected downturn lead to more drugs, and sometimes different drugs, though nothing brought back the window of opportunity Peter experienced during those first virgin weeks on Risperdal.  We gave Ritilin a try, but stopped after watching our son sob uncontrollably for three days.  Then we added Risperdal back but at a higher dosage.   The unwanted behaviors only escalated.  We’ve since learned the Risperdal dose that works best for Peter is an extremely low one, .5 mg twice a day.  So far age and growth have not altered this fact, though we have tinkered with dosages now and again, just to make sure.

Pat and I knew that yielding to the temptation offered by medication would be a tricky proposition, but we had no idea of the emotional rollercoaster it entailed, both for our child and us.  We were confused, frustrated and angry.  We weren’t happy with the prescribing nurse practitioner because every time we went to see her she asked the same solitary question: “What behaviors are you trying to control?”  She barely ever spoke to Peter and she certainly didn’t interact with him or make any effort to evaluate or understand his problems.  To us she seemed nothing more than a dispensary.  She was also not accessible by telephone.  Every single tinker of medication, every little report of a possible side effect, or change of dose required a $75 cash-only, 5-7 minute office visit, with Peter in tow.  I found myself making the trip to Albany two or three times a week.  It was ridiculous, expensive, time-consuming, and entirely unfair to Peter, who once we arrived, was completely ignored.

Sue was sympathetic when we shared our complaints, but she also offered a gentle reality check.  There are very few child psychiatrists within a 90-mile radius of where we live and waiting lists can reach well into the following year. Second, medicating children for psychological disorders is an unpredictable business, even more so than it is with adults.  This was especially true in Peter’s case because we had no family history and no confirmed diagnoses from which to make at least a few education guesses.

Spring 2006

So we kept plugging along, returning eventually to our original dose of Risperdal, but without much forward progress.  For instance, during one session I shared with Sue that Peter threw a stone directly at Sophie’s head, and so then he and Sue reenacted the incident using rubber frogs on the floor of her office.  Although she did her best to tease from our son a rudimentary sense of empathy, responsibility, and cause and effect, in the end, her efforts proved largely fruitless.  Peter showed no understanding or interest in what she was trying to accomplish and he often behaved sarcastically, certainly passive-aggressively, toward her.  Before long, it was clear we had reached another stalemate and Sue finally said as much one afternoon.  I knew it too but our sessions, though frustrating in terms of Peter’s progress, benefited me tremendously.  I wasn’t ready to give her up, even if she knew it was time to turn Peter over to someone more specialized.  In some ways, over the course of our year together, I had become the patient.

I remember Sue smiling sagely when I brought this to her attention.  She implicitly understood my struggles in a way no one else besides Pat ever could have imagined.  But we weren’t there for me, at least officially.  Helping Peter was the goal and primary purpose.  “I think his problems are organic,” Sue broached.  “I think there’s some physical damage.  Neurological.  His responses are the same no matter what we do.  It just doesn’t add up.”  I knew in my mind if not my heart that I was hearing the truth, so I nodded slightly.   “It’s beyond what I can do,” she whispered.   “Let me make some calls and see what I can come up.”

When we left that afternoon I hugged Sue goodbye and then ambled out of her office with Peter’s hand firmly gripped in mine.  When I let go, he ran to push the button on the elevator, something he still enjoys doing, and my stomach sunk as we descended to the ground floor, knowing full well the two of us were on our own again, flung lovingly, but irrevocably, from the comfort of Sue’s nest.

While I waited for Sue to make her calls, I began making some of my own.  My first was to Jane Aronson, our trusted ally in what had proved to date a very bumpy adoption journey.  I had made this call before, without much to show for it, but I knew I needed to try again.  Sometime after we had started vocalizing our concerns about Peter, but while we were still in the stage where everyone kept advising us “to give it time,” I sent an email to Dr. Aronson, asking for help.  She suggested we visit a therapist in the city, and so we made an appointment.

Despite hearing the problem was Peter, the therapist asked to meet us alone, as a couple.  So we arranged aftercare one day at the kids’ preschool and dutifully drove into New York for our childless appointment.  The therapist was stylishly dressed, older, and I distinctly remember her asking whether we’d like some iced tea.  I smiled because the offer was so Southern; in fact, I don’t think anyone had ever offered me iced tea since moving up north.  After 30 minutes or so of extracting our personal histories, she announced that our problems with Peter, and mine in particular, were a direct result of my not having sufficiently grieved over my miscarriages and infertility, as well as the loss of Ben, the baby we turned down in Russia.

I recall scrambling for the elevator, speechless and in shock, as Pat stayed behind to scribble out a hefty personal check.  We were both fairly quiet in the car for the first few minutes but then Pat slammed his hands on the steering wheel.  “That was complete bullshit!” he screamed.  “My God, did it not even occur to her that we’re doing fine with Sophie?”  I began crying after that but not because his outburst upset me but rather because it gave me permission to release all the pent-up confusion and frustration I’d been holding inside since that woman with her pitcher of iced tea first opened her mouth.  Needless to say, we chose against scheduling a second appointment.  Pat drove home with my head resting in his lap, where the tears subsided in favor of the calming warmth his presence most always offers me.

Luckily for us, enough time had passed since then that I was willing to give Dr. Aronson’s recommendations a second chance.  After all, how could she know the therapist she referred us to would suggest I was the one interfering with Peter’s attachment and generally causing all our family’s problems?  And besides, by that juncture, we’d spent enough time with Sue, a known and respected expert in the field of attachment, to know in our hearts, once and for all, that Peter’s problems were bigger than us, and that neither of us had caused them.

So the second time I called Dr. Aronson’s office to get the name of someone to whom we might bring Peter, she didn’t mince words.  “It’s time to see my friend Ron Federici.  He’s the best, Mary.  It sounds like this is a serious problem.  I’ll call him first to see if he can get you in sooner than later.  Give me a day or two, then call yourself.  In the meantime, look him up on the web.”

True to her word, Dr. Aronson made her phone calls to advocate on our behalves, and we were able to plan a trip to Virginia to see Dr. Federici within three weeks.  As far as I can tell, her intervention saved us about four or five months of waiting for an available appointment, and therefore further decline.

Ronald Federici is a board certified clinical neuropsychologist with a host of other impressive credentials too numerous to list.  He’s also the adoptive father of seven children, many of whom were rescued from Romanian orphanages in the 1980s and early 90s.  International adoption, and more specifically, the developmental, behavioral, and emotional issues that plague orphanage children, which in turn wreak havoc on the grossly unprepared lives of their new, mostly well-intended parents, is both his business and passion.  The prospect of meeting this man, and having him examine our son, felt both exciting and worrisome.  After reviewing the materials on his website, and watching some of the video clips from various interviews and public appearances, it was clear this man knew his business.  He also seemed tough, a real roll up the sleeves kind of guy.  Though I couldn’t predict exactly what he would say when our visit was through, I knew it’d be substantial, as well as life-altering.  In the private chambers of my heart, where my deepest fears are lodged, I’d always felt there was something wrong with Peter, something serious and not amenable to an easy fix.

The waiting period flew by because it’s not easy to prepare for a trip to see Dr. Federici.  The amount of paperwork to be filled out rivaled what I imagine an IRS audit process requires.  But we did it.  The extensive background questionnaire, the rating scales, the teacher forms, and copies of all past evaluations.  The list goes on and on but I understood then and still do why he insists on being able to study the child’s entire “knowable” past from every possible angle.  With kids from Russia, and I’m sure other countries as well, there is no prenatal or birth history, no family medical history, no history of any kind prior to adoption.  Even vaccination records, which some orphanages provide, are suspect and which is why many parents opt to revaccinate their children once in the United States.

But none of this bothered me.  Like filling out the droves of pre-adoption paperwork, I was very motivated, almost as though I was jump-starting the engine that would lead us toward our son’s restored health..  The only real difficult part of Dr. Federici’s pre-appointment requirements had to do with his position on medication.  He feels that children should be evaluated, whenever possible, without benefit of behavioral medications in order to establish both a baseline and to accurately identify any underlying organic or psychological conditions.  Although we agreed to this prerequisite, tapering Peter off Risperdal was no romp in the park.

I think after a time, most parents with children on behavior medications often start questioning whether the meds are still working.  However, all any of us have to do to reassure ourselves otherwise is to slowly and properly withdraw the medication(s) and observe what happens.  It’s not a pretty process, at least it wasn’t with our son, and it was painful to watch him backtrack. Every day a few more of the unbearable behaviors returned, some of which we’d almost managed to forget: playing with poop, “da tee tee da da”, and spinning like a top on amphetamines, just to name a few.  By the time we were ready to leave for our 5-day sojourn, Pat and I were pulling our hair out.

But as when we started working with Sue, there was still something invigorating, even hopeful, about embarking on this mission to Virginia.  I imagine it’s a little like fearing you might have cancer but are too fearful to visit the doctor.  Denying reality has its drawbacks and almost always backfires.  There can be great relief in finally confronting the truth and then formulating a plan for addressing it.  I felt like I’d much rather go down trying then continue to fool ourselves about the seriousness of our problems with Peter.  Cancer can be treated, and more and more often cured, with proper intervention.  Despite real trepidation, I was hoping the same held true for our son.

And we wouldn’t be traveling alone.  By this time we had convinced Pat’s mother to move from West Palm Beach back to New York to be closer to us, her other son John, and her five grandchildren, old and new.  We bought a little house about a mile from ours and Pat used part of it as his office, which worked out perfectly.  His mom had company and Pat had a quiet place to work, away from the noise and commotion of our bustling household.

Peter, Sophie & Grandma (Christmas 2007)

Despite her age (81 at the time), Pat’s mom insisted on taking the 6-hour trip with us to watch Sophie during the first day of neuropsychological testing and participate with the rest of us in the subsequent 2 days of behavior intervention.  Pat’s mother has this amazing ability to keep the two of us sane, and perhaps because we try harder to achieve some balance toward the kids when she’s with us, we always seem happier as a family.  She’s somehow able to deflate our ever-ballooning feelings of despair and exasperation with her wit, advice and example.  Though she loves our kids completely, she worries about their futures as much as we do, especially Peter’s.  But she also accepts their pasts as part of who they are, and never seems to take their behaviors personally.  If she were only 50 years younger, I believe she would be the ideal candidate for parenting alcohol exposed, attachment-disordered children.   As it is, she’s a Godsend in my life.

When we left early the day before the evaluation, car packed, DVD player poised for Finding Nemo, and the cooler filled with snacks and drinks, it almost felt like we were leaving for vacation.  Poor Grandma, who’s tiny even by Sicilian standards, was sandwiched in the back between Sophie and Peter, who were both still in car seats.  It was a long trip, to be sure, but we arrived early enough to get situated in our rooms and settled.  The hotel unapologetically flubbed our reservations and gave away the adjoining rooms we were promised.  So Pat wound up sleeping with Peter in one room and I stayed with Sophie in the other.  Grandma deserved her own room.

Late that afternoon we walked around Fairfax, which is a beautiful, historic city dating back to the 1700s and within shouting distance of the District of Columbia.  We chose what looked like a kid friendly restaurant and enjoyed a decent, if not spectacular, seafood dinner.  Peter made himself vomit at the table, but luckily not until we were mostly finished.  Thinking he was sick, the waitress was sympathetic.  As is usually the case with those who briefly peer into our lives, she undoubtedly failed to understand, much less appreciate, why we left in a disgusted, embarrassed rush.

After the dinner that was cut short, we walked until we found a big green space where the kids could run off some energy before going to bed.  Because we wanted Peter well rested for the next day, both kids were tucked in by 7:45.  I read for a while and then Pat and I emailed back and forth from our laptops, neither of us savvy enough to have figured out “live chat” or Facebook.  In a way it was a little romantic, we’d never been separated in a hotel before, and each time I clicked the send button I’d wait anxiously for his cute, sometimes flirty replies.

Meeting Dr. Federici the next morning was an unforgettable experience.  His office was nondescript, very low key, the way I think all offices of this type should be, but as soon as he walked into the waiting area the energy level increased tenfold.  Tall and a little lanky, he possesses this booming, fast-clipped voice that leaves no doubt about who’s in charge.  We have taken our son to see Dr. Federici three times, but on this first visit he spent 45 minutes or so with Pat and I before he took Peter for testing.  He wanted to hear our story, our adoption history, including the foul-up with the baby we called Ben and our decision not to move forward with that adoption.

While in Russia, the orphanage director told us that Peter’s teenage mother came to visit him 3 or 4 times and brought an apple, but then stopped coming.  When we got to that part of our story, Dr. Federici interrupted and said, “I know – the mother brought him an apple.”  Pat and I just looked at each other.  Despair and astonishment swirled inside our foolish brains with sickening synchronicity.  How could we have been so naïve as to accept as truth this pitiful, rote attempt on the part of the Russians to prove a bond, a connection, to offer a hint of reassuring hope that someone nurtured and loved our child as an infant?  They must think Americans terribly stupid, and at that moment, I wasn’t in a position to dispel any myths.

When we finished unraveling our tale, Dr. Federici paused for a minute, leaned toward us and said in a softer, more solemn voice.  “Let’s get this mess figured out.”  Standing up, he shook our hands, exchanged Italian niceties with Pat’s mother, and then handed us a stack of additional forms and questionnaires to fill out while we waited.  We were to take Peter with us at lunchtime and return him for more testing in the afternoon.  Busy banging something on the floor, Peter failed to answer the first time Dr. Federici called his name, which I found surprising because I nearly sprang to attention at the sound of his commanding tone, and so did Grandma and Sophie.  He didn’t bother asking a second time.  Instead, he leaned over, took Peter by both hands and without a hint of roughness pulled him firmly to his feet.  “It’s time to come with me now, Peter,” he said.  I bit my lip as I watched them turn the corner.  Our son never even looked back.

Hand-Flapping (Fall 2008)

Although I had a sense of what lay ahead, at least partially, the unknown diagnoses we were on the brink of receiving were terrifying to contemplate.  Autism was already a key suspect because of the previous questionnaires we had answered.  I had been asking “experts” for two years why Peter flapped his hands, walked on his toes, repeated his name, pulled his toys apart, was often unresponsive, tantrumed excessively, and spun in circles.  I still don’t understand why, up until then, the various professionals in our lives couldn’t see the obvious because every single one of Peter’s puzzling behaviors, which he exhibited routinely, was on the parent autism questionnaire.  It was abundantly clear to me by the time we reached Dr. Federici’s office that our Russian born son was somewhere on the spectrum, so I was prepared for that.  I was also prepared for a diagnosis of alcohol exposure, if not full-blown FAS.  Jane Aronson had primed us for that culprit within ten days of our bringing Peter and Sophie home.

When the testing was through, Peter emerged bouncing and toe walking, with an impish little smirk on his face.  We had brought plenty of toys and books to occupy Sophie during the long day but Peter simply walked over to the stack of adult magazines and started turning the pages to Newsweek robotically.  Dr. Federici motioned us into a conference room, a tiny bit exacerbated, maybe a little amused, and definitely shaking his head.

“The little bugger snuck one over on me,” he said with a hint of disbelief.  “You’ve got a sneaky one, there.  When we were taking a break, and I saw he was doing a puzzle, I took the chance to use the restroom.  I was gone thirty seconds, no more.  I swear.”  By this point I was fairly nervous.  Looking over, I saw Pat squirming in his seat.  Whatever happened was not good.  “And somehow he managed to destroy my office!”

I remember thinking the damage must be substantial for the unshakeable Dr. Federici to sound so astonished.  “In less then a minute, he took my letter opener and slashed my leather desk chair, he pulled every single plug out of the socket, swept my desk clear, he did something to my. . .” and then his voice trailed off.  I didn’t know what to say.  Either did Pat.  We’d become mutes glued to our chairs.  Horrified, I envisioned getting slapped, unceremoniously, with a damage bill for $10,000 and a concurrent invitation to never return.

“I gotta give it to him,” he finally continued.  Then he looked up, shook his head, and though I can’t be certain, I think he smiled.  He must have read our thoughts.  “It’s okay, guys.  My fault.  I got fooled.  By a 4-year old.  Honestly, it’s a good lesson.  I didn’t think it was possible anymore.”

Although relieved we wouldn’t be applying for another equity line of credit, it was unsettling to hear that of all the thousands of children he’d seen, ours was the one to pull a fast one over him.  I felt like I needed to apologize, profusely, but as soon as I started sputtering, he waved me off.  “Listen.  That’s over.  Here’s what matters: I know what to do.  There’s good news and there’s bad news.”  He paused to make sure we were listening.  Taking his cue, I did my best to erase the image in mind of Peter slashing a leather chair, but it wasn’t easy.  “Okay.  I’m gonna start with the bad.”

So we listened and took notes.  Peter was autistic.  Although his behaviors fell squarely in the moderate range of the spectrum, Dr. Federici felt other factors, including his early institutionalization, were causal factors for his symptoms.  He therefore believed the most appropriate diagnosis was “high-functioning autism” or PDD-NOS, which stands for Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.  Seems like a catch-all, and maybe it is, but what it really means is that the person isn’t “classically autistic” but also is too impaired, including intellectually, to meet the criteria for a diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.  On the spectrum, PDD-NOS falls more or less in the middle.   This was not good news, of course, but Dr. Federici made clear that autism was the least of our problems.  This was hardly a comforting statement to hear right after being told our child was autistic.

Peter also had full-blown Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, his symptoms and impairments falling within the mild to moderately affected range.  This news, though not surprising, was particularly difficult to hear.  It was the one possibility that truly terrified Pat and I since the onset of our adoption journey.  We tried so diligently to protect ourselves, as well as our future family, against this devastating condition but now we knew our efforts had failed.  “But it could be worse,” Dr. Federici jumped in as he watched our faces fall.  “Most kids I see with FAS are retarded.  Peter’s not.  His IQ is low, but in the low average range.  And with the right help, I’m certain we can raise it.  The autistic traits too – they’ll improve.  The autism is secondary, like a side effect – to both his early institutionalization and the FAS.  The point is, he can learn.  He can improve.  Believe me, I often sit in this very seat and tell parents there’s really very little to be done.  It’s devastating.  But Peter can be helped.”

Outer Banks, NC (June 2007)

I have this horrible problem, or maybe condition, I’m not sure, where my face turns beet red whenever I drink (which I rarely do), get angry, upset, embarrassed, even slightly overheated, or when I feel a migraine coming.  Since this covers a lot of territory, I’m forever feeling like I look either drunk, sunburned, or on the verge of a coronary.   My mother had the same problem so maybe its hereditary.  I could feel the heat rising in my face as I took in the news, trying desperately to understand how an IQ of 80, autism and FAS were not such bad things.

Next, he said we should have our son evaluated by a neurologist because he was concerned Peter was having seizures.  “Why?” I asked, puzzled.  No one had ever suggested this before.  “Because of the staring spells – lots of them.  Also because most of these kids I see, like Peter, have abnormal EEG findings that need and respond to treatment.  And treatment means improvement.”  Then he took a breath, exhaled, and said, “but here’s what really concerns me.”

As my flush spread to the point I could have fried eggs on my face, I looked over to see Pat so slumped into his chair that he looked like he could have faded right into the fabric.  How could there possibly be anything worse that what we’d just been told? “What really concerns me,” Dr. Federici continued, “are his dysregulated thought patterns – Peter shows little to no grasp on reality.  He doesn’t seem to know what’s real and what isn’t.  And he’s almost 5.  He should know, at least somewhat.”  Then he gave a few specific examples.  Honestly I think I’ve blocked them out because try as I may I can’t remember any.  One phrase from the written report that followed, however, remains etched forever in my brain: that Peter displays “pseudo-psychotic logic patterns.”  Holy Mackerel.

“But couldn’t that just be a developmental thing?” Pat pleaded.  After all, Dr. Federici also had told us only a few minutes earlier that despite our son’s low average IQ, he was functioning significantly below his potential.  His adaptive IQ, meaning how he was using his intelligence to interact and problem solve in the real world environment, was in the high 50s, which put him squarely in the retarded range.

“No.  Significant difference between straight IQ and adaptive IQ always indicates brain damage – which is what we’re dealing with here – Peter has FAS.  Maybe heavy metal exposure too.  You’re right in that he’s functioning like a much younger child, but my concern about his thought patterns, well, that’s a whole different thing.  You’re going to need to keep an eye on that.  Keep a journal.”  And then he gave us a list of behaviors to watch out for and write down.

Four or five months after our visit to Virginia, I almost hit a deer on the way home one day, with both kids in the car.  A little shaken, I pulled over to settle my nerves.  “Peter say go button,” he offered.  “Make car zoom on air.  Flap Flap.”  He was referring to something recently we’d watched on Lilo and Stitch, a kids cartoon.  He thought I could press a button and make the car hop and fly right over the deer, literally.  When I tried explaining, for the zillionth time, how cartoons aren’t real, that lots of things happen in them that can’t happen in real life, he began to tantrum.  “Peter fly car.  Peter fly car.  Mama don’t know.  Peter fly car!”  So into the journal it went.

By the time we were through with our post-evaluation debriefing, Pat and I were wobbly and on the verge of hallucinating ourselves.  In addition to learning our son was autistic, had FAS, possible seizures, and psychotic tendencies, we also learned that he suffered from ADHD, a mood disorder (probably bipolar-type), severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), sensory integration dysfunction, severe Attachment Disorder, and a host of learning disabilities across all domains.

When Pat and I lay in our separate hotel rooms that night, thinking our separate thoughts but occasionally emailing each other, we realized our reaction to the day was basically the same, and went something like this:  Oh my God!  Now what do we do?  Are our lives over?  Should we dump the kids with family members and disappear into the Alaskan Wilderness?  But as our panics waxed and waned, we tried to remind each other that Dr. Federici had a plan that he promised would help our son and return some semblance of normalcy, or at least functionality, to our home.

The next day we arose and met downstairs for breakfast.  Sophie was in a foul mood over the thought of spending another day in Dr. Federici’s waiting room, and Peter was on the loose, medication restarted but still incredibly jumpy.  I had wanted to switch rooms with Pat so that he didn’t bear the entire brunt of spending every night with Peter, but he characteristically declined the offer.  He looked so tired that morning, the kind of fatigue that derives from worry more than sleep deprivation, and I fought back a rush of emotions as I watched my deflated husband shuffle toward our table.  I realized right then how angry I was, at Peter, at our situation, at the fact we were spending four days with a neuropsychologist when we should have been enjoying D.C.’s glorious Cherry Blossoms. I was angry at the world, at God, for what felt like perpetual punishment, and all because we wanted a family.  Because I wanted a family.

Summer 2007

Pat’s mom sensed the change, the gravity, and as usual intervened.  She suggested we finish breakfast quickly and enjoy the morning sun for a few minutes before we left for our appointment, which was day 1 of Behavior Intervention.  At this suggestion, Peter began his ceremonial purging at the table but we caught it in time.  In no uncertain terms Pat made clear that he would be a very unhappy boy were he to pursue this particular line of sabotage any further.  Something in Pat’s eerie tone convinced Peter to stop.

Despite the early hour, the day was already hot and hazy as the D.C. area can be, even in early May.  We strolled slowly around a few neatly trimmed blocks.  The characteristic brick buildings, with their blooming window boxes and glossy black doors, reminded me how much I enjoy the greater D.C. area.  Our leisurely pace felt inconsonant against the hurried gait of business people rushing to catch their trains.  I’m sure most, if they even paused to notice, thought us tourists.  But tourists we weren’t.

I had the same feeling that morning watching the throngs of people passing that I had in the airport the morning my father died.  The news we had received only the day before in Dr. Federici’s office had turned my world upside down, completely, and was as difficult to process and accept as the news of a death in the family.  I was envious of these oblivious people, who had ordinary thoughts on their minds, and who neither knew nor cared that our lives were now changed, forever.  Theirs was just another day, indistinguishable in all likelihood, from a thousand others.   This day for us would be forever frozen in time.  Our son was damaged, seriously and permanently.  There was no turning back the clock of our lives.  We’d have to find a way to move forward.  I hoped Dr. Federici was right when he said he could show us the path.

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May 9, 2010

October 2, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 21

Tweetsie Railroad (Blowing Rock, NC, Summer 2005)

October 2, 2007.  Dr. Federici, the neuropsychologist who evaluated and diagnosed Peter in May 2006, wants us to send our son to the Scar Residential Psychiatric Treatment Program in Jasper Mountain, Oregon.  An enticing opening salvo on the Scar website states “Achieving Success with Impossible Children”.  One fact-finding phone call and I’m convinced the people at Scar have seen children like Peter before.  In fact, there are so many “Peters” in the United States, children adopted mostly from Eastern European countries who are “scarred” beyond the realm of what even extraordinary rehabilitative efforts can address, that an entire (and expensive) medical, psychosocial, and educational system has evolved to support them.  Until recently, Pat and I never had considered the possible need for residential treatment, but the idea has crept into our consciousness like a slow but steady cancer.  Peter at some point may well require residential treatment and if so, then it becomes a question of when, how, and whether we’ll be able to afford it.  The thought of existing, indefinitely, on a rollercoaster ride would fill any normal person with dread.  But imagine the rollercoaster was designed and operated by a person with frontal lobe damage, a person who can’t remember the peril he put his passengers in yesterday so is destined to repeat the same misstep today that he’ll in turn repeat tomorrow.  This is life with Peter.  I can cry and hug and hold and reassure until I’m more tired and drained than I ever imagined possible, and little changes.  I still believe Peter is reachable in those moments, but I’ve come to realize, and begrudgingly accept, that sustained emotional growth must be measured in miniscule increments, and over long periods of time.  His brain lacks storage capacity for the kind of complex, emotional learning that even newborn babies are equipped to internalize.  The old behaviors return the next day, or the next hour, not because Peter is defiant or merely shedding crocodile tears, but because the moment is gone.  Vanished.  His mind is more permeable than Swiss cheese but much less malleable, at least when it comes to shaping healthy concepts of love, family, and respect.  Sometimes I worry that we’ve missed our opportunity, if there ever was one, to leave our imprint inside the echoing, dark caverns that form the mystery of Peter’s brain.  I’m not sure how residential treatment would alleviate this problem.  I imagine, rather shamefully, that the mollifying aspect of a place like Scar accrues not so much to the children themselves but rather to the benefit of parents, like us, who have reached the zenith of their capacities.  At some point, if ever we need to set this course in motion, we’ll have to acknowledge a painful paradigm shift: the welfare of Pat, Sophie and me may become inconsistent with and need to take precedence over the welfare of our son.  Our beautiful but damaged son.  The very thought of sending Peter away, even temporarily, is anathema and yet sometimes I feel myself yielding, all the same, to the slow caress of temptation.

Chapter 21:  Attachment 101

One of the first things Sue made clear was that attachment work was serious, all-encompassing business.  Because Peter was institutionalized from the age of 5 months until he was almost 3 ½, he was deprived of certain crucial developmental steps that permanently affect his psychological and social functioning.  Children attach to a caregiver when their needs are met on a continuous and predictable basis.  A baby cries when he’s wet and he gets a clean diaper.  The same holds true for hunger, thirst, temperature control, tiredness and boredom.  At birth, any baby will seek comfort from any person as a matter of survival but as early as two months, all normally developing babies start to discriminate, relying on familiar caretakers to meet their immediate needs and provide a sense of security.

Most of us take this cause and effect relationship for granted because someone, a mother, father, grandmother, aunt or foster parent, routinely responded to our cries and subtle signals when we were infants.  Our primary caregiver’s consistent, loving, and nurturing responses provided the essential sustenance our brains required to develop normal, healthy abilities to process and cope with feelings, thoughts and complex relationships.  These interactions are as essential to normal brain development as nutrition, sleep and physical safety.  Children deprived of early attachments risk lasting neurological impacts that interrupt not only their abilities to relate socially and emotionally, but also their cognitive capacities.

Sophie kissing her new baby cousin (Blowing Rock, NC, Nov. 2006)

During WWII, babies and young children were sent away in droves from London to avoid the bombings.  When they returned, sometimes years later, parents were shocked to discover their formerly happy, well-adjusted youngsters had regressed, both socially and intellectually.  The disruptions in attachments were responsible.  In the 1960s, researchers studied a group of babies and toddlers ranging in age from 7 to 36 months who were moved from an orphanage to an institution for retarded adults because of overcrowded conditions.  The retarded people cared for, played with and loved the youngsters on a consistent and regular basis.  When these same children were returned to the orphanage several months later, their IQs had improved 27.5 points on average.  The children who remained in the orphanage during the trial period however, continued to lose IQ points.

There are plenty of other studies as well.  One of the most heart wrenching took place by a researcher named Harry Harlow from the late 1950s through the early 1960s.  Taking day-old monkeys away from their mothers, he put them in separate cages where they could see other monkeys but had no physical contact.  He then placed these monkeys in a room with man-made “mother” dolls.  One was made of wire but offered milk through a bottle secured between the slats.  The other was furry and warm, but offered no nourishment.  The newborn monkeys without fail chose the security of the “living” doll over the nourishment offered by the wire doll.  The monkeys permitted to receive comfort from the warm, furry doll, though feeding occurred elsewhere and antiseptically, fared far better than their counterparts, in terms of both cognitive and psychosocial development.  Those monkeys exposed only to the wire doll and who had no physical contact with other monkeys became highly disturbed and incapable of rehabilitation.  Though controversial for a number of reasons, including the ethics of animal research, these studies were responsible in part for the birth of the foster care system and the demise of orphanages throughout the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.  It seems the profound damage in these monkeys caused by the lack of physical touch and maternal bond simply could not be ignored.

This was weighty stuff to consider in a cozy office in upstate New York as we watched our disorganized, hyperactive child bounce from corner to corner making quick work of destroying the room.  I hated to think our son, and maybe even to some extent Sophie, had been treated like one of those horribly deprived monkeys in the black and white films.

“Peter,” Sue said.  “Come here.”  He looked up from whatever he was pulling apart and obediently walked over.  “Now look at me.”  He wouldn’t.  With eyes diverted toward his shoes, he simply smiled and grunted as she attempted to grab him lightly by the wrist.  Once he shook free, he quickly returned to his corner and his purposeless activity.

Timeout (Spring 2005)

I found Peter’s reaction to Sue very curious because usually when he met someone new he happily ran to them, often plopping himself backwards into their laps.  He would kiss and hug and say “Hi, I Peter” to countless strangers’ delight.  In fact, he was much more social and affectionate to people he didn’t know, or at least didn’t know well, then he ever was with us.  But with Sue, it was as though he sensed something different about her.  His body language was pensive, his eyes wary.  He seemed to understand, somehow, that this benign looking woman knew what he was all about.  Pat felt the same way.  I realize we were assigning a lot of credit to a very damaged, trouble little boy, but it’s the feeling we had all the same.

I remember watching with fascination as Sue attentively followed our son’s every odd move, his back to her almost the entire time.  After a few minutes she pulled out a bin of Lincoln Logs and asked whether he would help build a house.  “Peter no build.  No thank you,” he mumbled, returning to the puppet he was manhandling.  Sophie, of course, immediately dropped what she was doing and joined the activity.  When Sue finally coaxed him into joining them, Pat and I realized he had no idea how to follow her lead.  She’d put one piece down, show him where the next went, and then ask him to follow suit.  But he wouldn’t.  Or couldn’t.  At the time we could never be sure, it’s a paradox with which we still struggle today.  He didn’t know how to interact with her, or Sophie, and he certainly didn’t know how to play – at all.  Left to his own devices he began throwing one Lincoln Log at a time into the air, watching with awe and horror as each came crashing back toward the floor.

He repeated the pattern over and over as Sue mostly ignored the behavior and spoke directly to Pat and me.  She didn’t seem to mind that Peter was fixated on throwing toys into the ceiling, though she did at one point redirect him toward the softer stuffed animals.  “This is what you need to do,” she said.  “You have to start from scratch.  I’ve seen this over and over with internationally adopted kids.  He doesn’t know how to play, think, organize or take direction.  He’s confused and scared and completely inside himself.  He’s missing a lot.  He doesn’t trust.  It’s not your fault but you’re the ones who’ve got to deal with it.”

She sent us home that first week with instructions to nurture and treat Peter like a baby.  The idea was that he needed to experience the developmental stages he missed so that his brain might make new connections and fill in the gaps.  I was to cradle him several times a day, rock him before bed, sing lullabies, devise tricks to engage eye contact, even give him warm milk with a bottle while I held him in my arms.  We were never to look him directly in the eye when we were correcting his behavior or if we lost our cool; eye contact from this point forward was reserved solely for bonding and making up for three years of lost parenting.

We were also instructed not to let him jump into other people’s arms or otherwise monopolize their attention.  “You just need to explain ahead of time,” Sue said.  “Or when it happens, just politely remove him and tell the person that hugs and snuggles are for parents only right now.”  Easier said than done, certainly.  Some people understood but others would look at us like we had Medusa heads as we bent down and removed our soon to be screaming son from the joyful contentment of their laps.

But other than committing social suicide in public places near and far, the approach seemed to be working, at least somewhat.   If Peter could receive physical comfort only from us, then he would have no choice but to allow us to meet his needs, both physical and emotional.  We played Peek-a-Boo (still Koo-Koo in our house) to encourage eye contact.  After dinner we sang and softly drummed our hands on the table to a song we dubbed Abu De Abu Da, which was something of a rhythmic chant.  Peter couldn’t sing, he can’t to this day, because he can’t process the words and the music at the same time.  We didn’t know that then, not specifically, but we did realize he garbled the words and sounds of the simplest children’s songs but was able, with practice, to manage the four sounds in our LoBrutto after dinner mantra.

St. Pete, FL (Spring 2005)

In the ensuing weeks and months, I dutifully drove Peter the 60 miles to Albany and back once a week to see Sue.  Sometimes I took Sophie, occasionally we went as a family, but mostly Pat took a half day off each week from his business to stay home with Sophie.  During our sessions, Sue would interact with Peter, trying to engage him in purposeful play while she and I rehashed the previous week’s progress, or in some instances, regression.  I found her incredibly helpful and understanding when it came to expressing my worries and frustrations, as well as celebrating our small but significant strides forward.  She understood what Pat and I were going through in a way I hadn’t previously experienced, and it was tremendously comforting to let my pent-up concerns pour out without fear of judgment.

By this point into our adoption journey, I was having thoughts not unlike the single mother from Tennessee who’s been in the news lately.  Although I can’t pretend to know the facts, the media reported the woman was so distraught over her 7-year-old Russian adopted son, who had been “home” only 6 months, that she sent him on a one-way United flight back to Russia.  He had nothing with him other than his book bag and a note directing a prearranged driver to take him back to his orphanage.  I’m neither qualified nor inclined to pass judgment on this woman, but I will say I can understand the sheer terror and frustration that might lead to such an ill-conceived solution.  By six months into our adoption journey, I was a deer in the headlights, working on autopilot, doing my best to survive Peter’s inexplicable behaviors one day at time.  But unlike the Tennessee woman, at least I had an incredibly loving, supportive, though equally perplexed partner on whose shoulder I could lean.  We also, within the year, had Sue.

After our very first meeting she suggested it would take about 6 to 9 months of intensive work both at home and in her office for Peter to become more securely attached to us, and for us to notice measurable change.  A lofty goal, for sure, and one I dreamed longingly about as the endless days continued.  During the times Sophie was with us, she’d leap around Sue’s office like a Kangaroo on speed, often refusing to take direction or calm down.  I could see the unspoken worry in Sue’s eyes, but because she always returned to me once her blitzes had run their course, I felt we were okay, that we were bonded.  In short, that Sophie’s problems were fixable.  It turns out I was a little naïve in this regard too, but at least not entirely off the mark.  But I couldn’t say the same about Peter, not even remotely.  I believed in the work Sue was doing with our son, and maybe more significantly, I needed to believe in it, but secretly I struggled to see an end in sight.

“That’s okay,” Sue would laugh, whenever I confessed my reservations, usually when Peter was taking one of his lengthy bathroom breaks.  “As long as you keep doing what we talk about.”   So every week I would leave recharged, ready to give the bottle another try, which never did work, and stay committed to practicing our other assignments, which did seem to produce some improvement.  For whatever reason, Peter could not tolerate either Pat or me trying to give him milk (including chocolate milk) from a bottle.  He would squirm and giggle maniacally.  Any milk that made it into his mouth would come out in a bubbling, spurting mess that would then invoke another wave of hysterical laughter.  He simply couldn’t handle physical contact, and certainly not the intimacy.

One thing I realized early on though, was that Peter would look at me using the rearview mirror from his car seat.  At first I thought it merely a coincidence, but then I started noticing how he’d stare at me while in the car more and more.  It was as though the mirror was a go-between, a metallic medium that made the interaction for Peter somehow less intense.  When I shared this theory with Sue she was thrilled, and not particularly surprised.  She said it wasn’t that different from sending an email to someone you’re afraid or unwilling to confront face to face.  So this was progress, I learned, though of a variety I hadn’t expected.  Just one more reminder that improvement for a child like Peter must be measured in miniscule, sometimes barely perceptible increments that nonetheless add up, slowly but surely, over the course of a month, a year, or in some cases, a lifetime.

But in other ways he wasn’t improving, at all.  Peter still smeared feces and sometimes hurt himself.   The worst injury he ever inflicted was the day before Sophie and Peter’s joint birthday party, which was our first as a family.  Sophie turned 3 on July 22, 2005 and Peter turned 4 two weeks later, on August 4th.  He had been screaming and stamping his feet about something, and Pat and I had sent him to his room.  When he began swinging the door open and closed with such ferocity that we were afraid he would hurt himself or pull the door from its hinges, Pat closed it, which sent Peter into some kind of frenzy.  As best we can tell, he leapt from the bed directly at the door, the left side of his face making impact with the doorknob.

Pat was still upstairs when the screams began and by the time I turned the corner to peer up the stairs to the landing, tears were streaming down my gentle husband’s face.  “I did it to him,” he sobbed.  “It’s my fault.  I closed the door.  This is no good.  I just can’t do this.  I can’t,” he continued.

The blood pooling beneath Peter’s skin and along his cheekbone and brow formed an exact replica of the doorknob, including the push lock.  By morning, his face looked monstrous.  Pat had deep circles etched beneath his eyes from sorrow and regret on a day that should have been filled with happiness and celebration.  It was no fun explaining to the other parents what happened as they watched Peter flit from present to present with obsessive, bug-eyed interest.  I remember some of the other parents nervously laughing, doing their best to reassure me that all kids do that kind of thing on occasion.  I couldn’t help but wonder whether they were referring to the doorknob impression on my son’s face or his compulsive interest in the birthday presents to the exclusion of everything else that was occurring around him.

Peter's Doorknob Injury (4th Birthday, 2005)

Although another incident that severe never reoccurred, he was still banging his head, throwing his body against doors and walls, and occasionally hitting himself several months into our therapy.  We also weren’t making much headway with the attachment parenting except for the small gains regarding eye contact.  Peter routinely cringed whenever I tried to hold him.  He became so stiff that his joints locked.  My feeble attempts at reenacting his lost infancy felt more like snuggling with a tire iron than a child.  But I kept trying.  And so did Pat.

First Birthday Party Home (late July 2005)

During our rare times alone we would discuss how things were progressing with Peter, sometimes fooling ourselves, sometimes not.  By then I had taken a post as a Visiting Professor at Bard College, teaching environmental law and policy to graduate and law students who were mostly in their early to mid twenties.  It was an exciting and terribly welcome change to be able to channel at least a portion of my nervous “Peter” energy into an intellectually stimulating pursuit.  The only problem, which any first year teacher knows, is that my course load was more time-consuming than I anticipated.  I was a part-time faculty member, earning a part-time salary, but easily working 50 or more hours per week.  Each 2½ hour lecture had to be prepared from scratch, using a textbook and other materials with which I was wholly unfamiliar.  I also found myself often covering for our program’s director, who is a dear and important person in my life, but whose substantial expertise in international environmental policy was far beyond the realm of my more modest federal environmental law background.

So in short, I was busy, very busy.  I often graded papers and worked on upcoming lectures starting at 7 pm when we put the children to bed and continuing until 1 or 2 am.  I did this so that I was able to spend every minute with our children that they weren’t in preschool.  This was especially important for Peter, but Sophie needed me too.  Pat and I didn’t travel half way around the world on two separate occasions to turn our children over to someone else.  It just wasn’t going to happen.  My only concession, which was unavoidable, was that on the two afternoons a week that I was physically teaching, the kids stayed for both the morning and afternoon preschool sessions.

But despite my fatigue and the welcome distraction that teaching provided, I was never able to shake the feeling that our situation with Peter wasn’t really improving.  He was still unengaged with us, he still didn’t interact with other children, and he could alternate between screaming over the simplest injury, such as a slightly torn fingernail, to not reacting at all upon being stung by a wasp.  He laughed when others hurt themselves, and sat down like a wooden puppet, refusing to move, whenever he became irritated or angry.  And most alarmingly of all, he began directing more and more of his hostility toward Sophie.

After a while Sue began suggesting that we double our sessions, which we did.  She and I would do our best to engage Peter in meaningful, organized play, but to little avail.  She also had me read to him in her office, cuddled on a couch and wrapped cozily in a blanket.  They were always books that addressed attachment, whether directly or indirectly, such as Llama Llama Red Pajama or Twitchy.  Although Peter still struggles to read, he’s always been drawn to books, a characteristic very much in his favor and one that certainly endears him to his book-loving Mom and Dad.  At the time, books were one of the few and easy inroads into our son’s troubled and heavily cloaked heart.

But not all our sessions were about books, snuggling and play.  Often Peter was very angry in Sue’s office, he didn’t like what she was doing and let us know loud and clear.  He would throw toys and stuffed animals across the room and dig his nails into the walls.  Sometimes when I was trying to cradle or otherwise physically comfort him, he’d bite me.

When he wouldn’t calm down in her office after one or two verbal warnings, Sue made him practice “strong sitting”, a technique we still use with Peter and on occasion, even Sophie.  It entails having a child sit cross-legged (something Peter physically cannot do so we relax this requirement) with hands on lap, back straight and head held high.  The psychological point of the exercise is to allow the child to regain the strength and self-control that was obviously lost as a result of the outburst.  “You need to get strong again,” Sue would whisper softly but with authority.  Peter would face a wall and practice his strong sitting until she thought he had regained his composure enough to rejoin us.  In the meantime, she and I would talk as though he weren’t present.

Although Sue hinted about the possibility that Peter was alcohol-exposed, and definitely thought he exhibited attachment problems, she never addressed the concern head-on.  But she did acknowledge he had trouble with impulse control, distractibility, organization, problem-solving, and self-regulation, all telltale signs of executive dysfunction.  Not a good thing.  The executive function center of the brain, which is located in the frontal lobe, is responsible for working memory, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions (and inhibiting inappropriate actions), and selecting relevant sensory information.  In short, although Sue was a social worker and not a diagnostician, she sensed that for Peter, the wiring in the area of the brain that makes us uniquely human was riddled with short-circuits, missing links, and faulty pathways.

A Joyful Moment (Spring 2005)

“He can’t organize his play,” she commented one afternoon.  “He moves around so quickly from one thing to the next.  And he never chooses people to play with.  Only things.  He won’t let me in.  It’s as though we’re not even in the room with him.”  I hadn’t heard this level of frustration in the six or so months we’d been coming to see her so my ears, as well as my heartbeat, naturally perked up.  “Mary,” she paused, her hands dropping heavily in her lap.  “I would have hoped to have made more progress by now.”

So there it was.  Pat and I weren’t the only ones at our wit’s ends.  The “Adoption Whisperer” was frustrated too.  “I’m thinking you and Pat should consider a short-term round of medication, Sue offered.  “Just to see whether there’s something that might help lower his resistance a bit.”  I hadn’t thought of medication, Peter was only 4, and the very idea terrified me.  Pat didn’t receive the suggestion any better than I; in fact, he was even more opposed to the idea.

But then another month or two elapsed, the conversations continued, and Peter’s behavior and development was at best stagnating and at worst deteriorating, despite our constant efforts and our weekly double sessions with Sue.  Pat and I were also becoming more and more exhausted.  Any unsuspecting babysitters we cajoled into our home fled so quickly upon our return, puzzlement and fear evident in their eyes, that their otherwise bouncy ponytails remained suspended by the sheer loft created by their hasty escapes.  The only young woman whoever came back more than once was the 20-year old daughter of our friend and house cleaner.  She worked as an aide at the Children’s Annex, an area school for autistic children, so we thought she might have the training and stamina to handle our kids, especially Peter.  But we later found out she would call her mom several times during the three hours we were out for tips, survival advice, and general encouragement.  We couldn’t keep doing this to either our friend or her daughter, especially knowing they were basically having to conduct a sort of spiritual séance over the telephone wires just to make it through the evening.

Finally the proverbial shit hit the fan.  When Pat went out of state for one of his writer’s conferences later that winter, which are absolutely necessary to maintain business and attract new clients, the director of my teaching program also happened to leave for China at the same time.  It was a double whammy that left me with twice the teaching responsibilities and no help at home.  Although I’m not the type to fall apart when my husband leaves town, I have to say this particular trip was a cathartic experience.  Peter never does well with change, and certainly didn’t then, but what happened over those three or four days cemented my decision to medicate our son.  The strangest part is that I can’t even tease from my mind a single event.  I do recall, however, that I endured a constant onslaught of unrelenting attacks, tantrums, and waves of nonsensical laughter that caused chills to run up and down my arms.

As I came gradually upon the little love notes that Pat leaves me when he travels – an “I love you” in the medicine cabinet, or an “I can’t wait to be back in our bed” on my nightstand – I tried to survive being bitten, spit on, kicked, hissed at, and vomited upon by Peter.  Sophie was so overwhelmed by his behavior, as well as the anxiety, no doubt, oozing from my pores, that she began putting forks in her eyes and jamming crayons in her ears.  Despite my efforts otherwise, I found myself sobbing on the phone almost every time Pat called, which I knew was a horrible thing to do to him.  And I don’t know what’s worse: being in the middle of a blitz or knowing the one you love is fighting for her life and there’s nothing you can do.

We were both miserable, and we knew it.  As hard as it is to admit, we decided then and there to medicate Peter, if not for him, then for us.  Within two weeks we obtained a prescription of the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal, prescribed by a psychiatric nurse practitioner with whom Sue worked.  That night we gave him the tiny terra cotta colored pill and kissed both our children goodnight.  We had been warned that the drug would need to be in his system for a few days before we could hope to notice any changes.  That night Pat and I stayed up watching dopey horror movies, neither of us able to sleep.  The decision had seemed so huge, and it weighed heavily on our hearts and consciences.

But at some point I obviously did fall asleep because I woke to the familiar plop of a small body at the foot of the bed.  I opened my eyes expecting to see Sophie, who loved to burrow under the covers and snuggle in the morning.  But instead I saw Peter, who had never, not even once, come into our room to say good morning or seek comfort because of a nightmare or thunderstorm.  “I love you, Mama!” he announced, his eyes shy, his voice monotone, and the smallest of smiles creeping across his face.

March 2005

“I love you too,” I cried.  Within seconds the tears gushed unchecked down my face and neck and onto my silly, flannel nightgown.  I opened my arms to receive him but he couldn’t move any closer, and that was okay.  “I love you, too, my darling Peter.”  I could barely choke out the words.  I had waited more than a year to hear that phrase from my son and it was the most melodic, beautiful, and divine declaration I’m likely ever to have the privilege to hear.

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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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February 20, 2010

September 19, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 17

Sophie and Peter (Summer 2005)

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

Chapter 17:  The Parade Marches By

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

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

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

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

Little Tikes Assembly Success (Nov. 2004)

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

Aunt Paula (Nov. 2004)

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

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

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

Sophie with her cousin Haley (Dec. 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

Pat and Peter (Nov. 2004)

Pat and Peter (Nov. 2004)

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

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

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

Sophie watching TV (Dec. 2004)

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

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

Dec. 2004

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

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

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February 16, 2010

September 16, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 16

September 2007

September 16, 2007.  Peter is so difficult on the way home from school Friday that I ask Sophie to go inside so he and I can have a private discussion, right there in the car, inside the garage.  No distractions, no getting out of his car seat until he at least hears me out.  Peter can’t or won’t answer “why” questions and so instead I offer several suggestions to open him up, hoping something finds purchase.  When I finally ask whether he thinks I love Sophie more than him, the usual parroting stops and he answers “yes”.  My heart sinks.  We’ve covered this territory before but Peter doesn’t understand cause and effect.  He doesn’t understand his behavior affects how people treat and feel about him at any given point in time.  For instance, he shouldn’t expect to be showered with affection on the heels of throwing Sophie’s presents in the garbage bin, but he does.  I try explaining again, a wrenchingly sad task because Peter also doesn’t accept or trust the permanence of love, but then I stop.  What he does next takes my breath away.  My emotionally blunted son, the boy who hurts himself and tells me I smell, crawls over the seat into my lap, takes a tissue and gently dries my teary eyes.  I suddenly ache with a pang of love so big that it catches me off guard.  I can’t stop crying now and so he comforts me, “I know, Mom, I know,” he says.  “I’m sorry, Mommy.”  I tell Pat that night and cry again all over.  But the same volatile, moody boy wakes us the next morning; the talk has had no effect and my renewed hope wilts.  The opportunity arises again later in the day, and the talk begins anew, as though Friday’s discussion never occurred.  This time Pat is with us.  Twenty minutes later, we arrive at the same emotional, cathartic end point that we reached in the garage the day before.  And again, Peter is wiping my eyes, gently following the path of my tears with his fingers.  He’s not faking or manufacturing a moment.  It was as real to him last night as it was Friday after school, and so it is real for me too.  I have no choice but to sway in time to Peter’s rhythms, no matter how inconsonant.  This morning he runs into our room and tells me he loves me.  The second talk, it seems, has taken hold.  Sophie and Pat go downstairs to start breakfast and we play a game where I hug all his parts.  I hug his feet, and his knees, his thumbs and even his hair, careful not to tickle or squeeze too hard.   This moment feels so good, so natural.  Peter feels it too.  He smiles easily at me and my heart soars.  A moment later I feel his body tense, slightly, and he kicks me; not so hard it hurts, but it’s not friendly.  He turns his face away and swings back, anger flashing, revealing, if only briefly, the aggression that lurks beneath the surface.  He doesn’t know why this happens.  I ask and he says he doesn’t know.  He is sorry.  I’m sure he is.  He can’t seem to hold a mood.  He tries but something dark inside grabs hold, snuffing his will away.  The spell can be broken, though I’m not sure by him.  Someone else has to intercede, and usually it’s me.  I’ve become chief guardian of Peter’s happy moments and easy mood, all the while staying vigilant against the undulating lability of his mind.   The boy I love traces my tears with his fingers while his own drip shamelessly down his face.  That boy deserves protecting.  That boy deserves to know, deep in his bones, that I love him with every fiber of my being; that my love, though imperfect, is complete, whole and inalterable, just as my love for Sophie and Pat.

Chapter 16:  We’re Home!

Before we adopted, most of my career was spent working as an enforcement attorney for the United States Environmental Protection Agency.  Eight years in Atlanta and almost four in New York City.  Pat playfully still refers to two of the attorneys in my division, Carl Garvey and Tom Lieber, as my “office husbands”.   Carl was a fellow staff attorney and Tom was our supervisor.  Both are exceptionally kind and generous people, and kidding aside, they and their families are among our most cherished friends.

When we finally made it through customs at JFK, where a bewildered Sophie and Peter were welcomed as U.S. citizens for the first time, Tom and Carl were waiting for us, happily waving a stuffed horse for Peter and a blue elephant for Sophie.  They had picked up our car, which had been left at the Lieber’s in Oyster Bay, and driven it to the airport during rush hour so that we could leave directly for upstate.  I was so happy to see my office husbands, with their goofy grins and bouncy steps, I audibly gasped with relief.  We had gone through so much, our new family of four, in such a short time, and the finish line was within sight.  Exhausted, scared, disoriented, and excited, we were in one piece, and thanks to our friends, would be home for good in just a couple more hours.

I don’t know how Pat managed to drive the 100 miles or so in his near comatose condition, but we arrived home in one piece.  It was about 8 p.m. in New York and we decided to put the children to bed in their new rooms without fuss or fanfare.  There would be plenty of time for exploration in the days and weeks to come.  Sleep was priority number one.  We changed them into pajamas and Pullups, brushed their teeth, and tucked them gently into their new beds.  I remember them staring up at us, confused and disoriented but too exhausted to complain.  Bending down to kiss the downy soft skin of their foreheads, I forever marked the memory of this occasion in the quiet refuge of my heart.

Peter's room, just waiting (Nov. 2004)

Peter's room (Nov. 2004)

I was shocked to wake up that next morning and find the children still sleeping.  I had listened for the better part of the night to the hushed sounds of the house, napping in brief snatches in case Sophie or Peter woke.  I had every right to be dead on my feet but instead I felt exhilarated, ready to plunge into the life and role I’d been longing for since Pat and I first met.  I’m not sure what I expected – pouncing, screaming, general chaos certainly, but what I found that early morning was a stillness that belied my newfound status.  With Pat still sleeping too, I decided to tiptoe downstairs and survey our depleted breakfast stocks.  It felt strange being in the house without our dog Scout, whom we would board for another two weeks.  Normally she shadowed my every move.  Though the size of our family had doubled, I felt oddly alone as I rummaged through the pantry, finding nothing to eat accept cereal with Parmalot milk and instant oatmeal.  In the stillness of the kitchen, I noticed the sky blue boosters already strapped onto our kitchen chairs, standing empty but ready for action.   Like the car seats, we had installed and tested them before leaving for Russia.  I smiled a little nervously with the knowledge that our quiet home was about to come alive with the noisy throng of children.

Before we bought in early 2002, a 93-year-old spinster, the last of her line, had been born, raised and died in our old stone house.  Her death ended 250 years of continual residency by one or more members of the same Dutch farming family.  How many decades, I wondered, had it been since the old plank floors shook with the patter of little feet, the high-pitched squeals of laughing children reverberating off the thick plastered walls?  Too long, I guessed.

But change was coming.  There was no misinterpreting the sound of heavy thumping I soon heard upstairs.  Merely 26 pounds, Peter nonetheless walked as heavily as a lumberjack, an undeniable fact Pat and I recognized almost immediately upon meeting him.  ThudThud. My son was up.  Our life as a family was beginning in earnest.

My sister Patty was due to arrive from Atlanta in four hours.  Since our own mother had died a few years earlier, she would be filling the expanded role of mother, sister, friend and all-important crutch.  Sophie and Peter adore Patty because of the way she treats and loves them, but also because children are programmed to intuit from their parents who is good, who is dangerous, who will protect, or who is trustworthy.  Patty exudes goodness and quiet confidence, and when I was little I wanted to be just like her.  Although some might say we’re more different than similar, I do believe we bring out the best in each other, and I’m certain Peter and Sophie sense our closeness.  When we’re together, we have this way of filling the spaces around us with laughter, happily retreating into the center of our shared, occasionally secret, and always silly experiences.  I desperately wanted her to meet Sophie, and to watch and study Peter, without the benefit of Pat’s and my concerns or preconceptions.  I suppose I was looking for her reassurance that our fledgling family would be okay; whole, healthy and in possession of all of the ingredients needed to grow and thrive.

By the time I ran upstairs to check on Peter, the whole house was awake.  Pat was wrestling into sweats, greedy for a cup of non-instant, fresh ground coffee.  I gave him a quick kiss and hug, and then followed the noise across the hall.  I found Peter in Sophie’s room, touching her new possessions one by one with wide-eyed wonderment.  Stroking her pink and yellow quilt with one hand as she clutched the blue elephant given to her by Carl and Tom in the other, I watched as she studied, mouth agape, Peter’s near reverent explorations from the quiet command post of her new bed.  Furniture, rugs, rocking chair, wallpaper, books, closets, clothes, stuffed animals, drawers, and hampers: items commonly found in children’s bedrooms around the world but notably absent from Russian institutions for orphaned babies and toddlers.

Sophie's room (Nov. 2004)

After having them use the potty, Pat and I tried carrying the children downstairs but both insisted on walking.  Sophie was particularly unsteady on her feet and was already covered in bruises from the collective effect of her newfound freedom.  She didn’t want me to hold her hand on the stairs but I insisted.  I counted one two three as we slowly stepped down, Peter’s footsteps pounding heavily behind us.

“Gera, Gera, Gera . . .” he repeated.

“Peter-Gera,” Pat suggested.

Since Peter had not stopped repeating his name, Pat cleverly decided to use this preoccupation to introduce the American name we had chosen for him.  After the adoptions we began calling them “Gera-Peter” and “Katya-Sophie” but once home, we reversed the order in an effort to gradually drop the Russian familiar.  At the time, I was convinced of the correctness of our decision to change their names, especially since German LoBrutto and Ekaterina LoBrutto don’t roll easily off the tongue, but now I’m not so sure.  In the name of rescue and family, we stripped our children of every ounce of their former, tenuous identities.  There’s no doubt they are forever Peter and Sophie now, their names imbued with our love to the same extent as would have occurred if we’d named them at birth.  But still, it may have been an unwise choice.  Their Russian names were the one part of their former lives we could have left intact.

Pat managed to make pancakes for breakfast thanks to a squirreled away box of Bisquick, and the children gobbled up every bite.  I remember Pat staring at the two of them, happily belted into their new boosters at our breakfast bar, and noticing that the bags under his eyes were deeper than they should have been.

Sophie enjoying breakfast (Nov. 2004)

He was so tired.  At 56, he was no longer a young man, and we had committed to an incredible, life-altering undertaking.  Sophie and Peter were needy, not necessarily healthy, and undoubtedly carrying emotional and developmental scars that had yet to reveal themselves.  They were also virtual strangers.  I could see the self-doubt in his face but there was nothing to be done, at least not then.  This was Sophie and Peter’s first morning home, and they needed us.

I needed them too.  I was desperate to interact with Peter and excited to strengthen the fledgling bond I was cultivating with Sophie.  Because we had read so many books about adoption and attended Dr. Aronson’s adoptive parenting classes, we were careful not to overload the children’s sensory systems with too many new toys.  So I took out the same few Duplo blocks from Peter’s backpack and the doll and kitchen toys from Sophie’s, and placed them on the floor in front of the fireplace.  Then I patted the rug to entice them to come toward me.  My efforts were interrupted, though, because the kitchen door swung open and I found myself staring at my brother Mark, who was standing impishly in the doorway with a small duffle bag in hand.

“Facial,” he beamed, addressing me by one of several inexplicable nicknames he’s devised over the years.  “Are these the kids?”  I nearly broke down in tears when I saw him.  Not only was Patty on her way, but Mark was there too.  The older brother who terrorized me daily throughout my childhood was at that moment, and in my eyes, the sweetest, most welcome sight in the world.  While we were still in Moscow, he figured out a way to finagle his impossibly busy trial schedule so that he could spend 32 hours with the kids and us.  Grabbing Pat and I brusquely by the shoulders, he pulled us to him like a quarterback preparing to huddle.

“So what are we doing today?” he laughed.  Peter and Sophie hadn’t moved a muscle since their new uncle appeared but they knew enough to stare, transfixed.  In the way that big men can be surprisingly gentle, Mark untangled himself from us and made his way toward the children, bending down to their level and then ever so carefully lifting first Peter, then Sophie, into his arms.  Any faint doubts I had concerning whether my family would be able to fully embrace our Russian children disappeared in that instant.  The tears I’d been holding back flowed freely and with quivering voice I managed to yell shut-up to both Pat and Mark as they began teasing me about the waterworks.

Mark and Peter (Nov. 2004)

Although I admit I’ve been known to sob without warning over the milk carton children, these tears were fully justified, and personal.  I was tired and running on nothing but nervous energy.  Pat was near shock too and showing signs of becoming seriously overwhelmed. Even though I always believed my southern siblings would hop on a plane at a moment’s notice if ever I truly needed them, the theory had never been tested.  The surprise of watching my brother walk through our door made me realize how wonderfully important it is to be loved, truly loved, to be part of a family or circle of friends larger and stronger than yourself. Mark was standing in our kitchen, grinning like a kid at Christmas, and Patty was on her way.  Pat and I could have survived those first few days on our own, but it was a great relief knowing we weren’t alone.  Pat and I may have made a mistake changing our children’s names, but the gift of family is one I hope Peter and Sophie will always cherish and appreciate.

Patty, Mark and me (St. Pete, FL, 1968?)

Patty pulled into the driveway in a Ford rental a few hours later, ushering in a second wave of energy and a necessary call to action.  She was the only one in the house who had more than a week’s worth of bona fide mothering experience, and so she naturally assumed a commanding role.  Groceries had to be bought, clothes and shoes that actually fit needed to be secured, and for some reason, the four of us decided that Sophie and Peter needed to have tricycles, immediately.

Patty and I would shop later that afternoon, once Sophie and Peter were napping.  I remember being so proud of my children as I watched them interact with my sister and brother.  Despite the complete upheaval they’d been made to endure, their resilience, with some notable exceptions, shined through in those first days and weeks at home.  Sophie examined every square inch of Patty, looking in her mouth, her ears, her nose, even pulling apart strands of hair to study her roots and scalp.  She had done the same to me in Russia and I was tickled to see the routine repeat itself on my living room couch.

Peter was indifferent toward my sister but mesmerized by Mark, whom he followed with great devotion.  I watched as they built Duplo towers together and laughed when he showed Peter how to make them crash, causing my new son to scream at the top of his lungs and wag an angry finger in Mark’s direction.  It was the loudest noise Peter had made since that first night in Moscow and it caused all of us to stop and take stock.  It was also an early clue as to his absolute need for external order and predictability.

One of my favorite memories of those first days home happened on the same night that Patty and Mark arrived.  After putting the children to bed, which was shockingly easy as they showed no inkling of being afraid as well as no inclination to wander, we set about unpacking the large Fischer Price tricycle boxes that Patty and I had purchased at Toys-R-Us earlier that day.  We planned to spend no more than forty minutes on assembly so that we could devote the rest of the evening to talking about our trip and just enjoying each other’s company.  What we didn’t take into account was the fact that my siblings and I are lawyers and Pat is a fiction editor, which means the four of us are largely devoid of everyday, useful skills.  It didn’t help that the directions were the size of a hymnal and each box came with six bags of plastic nuts, bolts, and other integral yet mysterious parts.  Not even the pedals came preassembled.

Patty and Mark, assembling the trikes (Nov. 2004)

In no time at all, forty minutes became four hours and the living room was still strewn with plastic parts whose bright colors flickered ominously in the fireplace light.  For reasons that remain unclear, I decided that smores might improve our chances of success and so I searched for the necessary ingredients and a few spare coat hangers.  I don’t know if it was the smores that did it, but eventually we finished, a few beer bottles littering the coffee table, somewhere around midnight.  We were exhausted, stiff, and punch drunk, but we stood united and humbled in the presence of our awesome, and slightly sticky, accomplishment.

I awoke smiling the next morning with the memory of the previous night’s escapades.  I’ll never know why we decided tricycles were necessary for Sophie and Peter to begin their new lives, especially since their legs were too weak to even pedal.  But the trikes were downstairs, ready and waiting to be used, and hopefully without serious defect in assemblage.  The thought of taking our children to the emergency room on our second whole day home was not one I savored.

Pat was the first to greet Peter that morning and was therefore the first on the scene.  In the months and years to come, we would grow accustomed to the ritual though never the shock.  Pat found Peter sitting squarely in the middle of his bed, wearing his pajamas and peering serenely about the room.  He had defecated on one end and urinated on the other.  At three years three months, his caregivers told us that Peter was completely potty trained, day and night.  True to their word, he had not had a single accident since becoming ours.  That morning was no exception.  Upon inspection, Pat discovered that his pajamas and underpants were dry and completely unsoiled.  The quest to unravel the mystery of our son, his mind, his motives, his fears and damaged heart, was officially underway.

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February 7, 2010

September 14, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 15

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer 2006

September 14, 2007.   I just read a news article about a sparsely populated region near the Volga River that is giving away free cars, money, refrigerators and other prizes to couples who procreate now and give birth on June 12, Russia Day.  Workers who signed up for this contest, now in its third year, were given a half day off on September 12 to boost their chances of winning.  President Putin claims Russia’s falling birthrate is its most acute national problem and he applauds the creative genius of the regional governor.   I have a problem with this.  Quite a few, in fact.  Foremost has to do with the host of overcrowded orphanages generously scattered across the country, institutions in such poor repair they are crumbling on their own foundations.  In late 2004, when we adopted, over 600 children under age 4 were living in the baby home in Birobidzhan, a city of approximately 220,000 people.  Extrapolating this figure to age 16, the age of emancipation, means there must be roughly 2,500 institutionalized children in Biro at any given time.  There is such a shortage of jobs, food, and services that parents give up their children because they know even the skeletally staffed orphanages can better provide for them.  Alcoholism is so prevalent in Russia that health officials don’t ask pregnant women about their drinking habits because they don’t want to compile the sobering statistics.  What percentage of Russian children born on or around June 12 will end up alcohol exposed, neglected, malnourished, learning disabled, and residing in an orphanage?  I’m not sure the free car is worth the price.  My son often doesn’t know right from wrong, has severe memory deficits, may never understand the relationship between cause and effect, is learning disabled, lacks impulse control, is devoid of judgment, suffers from multiple physical disabilities, and has a whopping 60% statistical chance of being arrested between the ages of 12 and 21.  Sophie is doing well but even she carries telltale, perhaps permanent, signs of her early institutionalization.  I will always love Russia because my children are Russian.  But I still wish Peter was whole, so he could grow with the potential God intended rather than stumble through life impaired and disoriented, a tragic symbol of everything wrong in his country of birth.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the national crises that seed children like my son should be addressed before Russia gives too many more free cars and refrigerators away.

 

Chapter 15:  We’re Home (Almost)

Lunch, homemade cake and a beaming Galina awaited our new family when we arrived back at the apartment after the hearing.  But despite the festivities, picking up the children, seeing them for the first time since they were “ours”, I remember this time as quiet and peaceful.  Sophie had claimed every fiber of my being the instant our eyes met in August and although my commitment to Peter was more contemporary, he already was mine too.  I had made a resolute decision about my new son, having sealed our fates together during a restive night less than 48 hours earlier.  Turning back was neither an option nor desire.  Pat and I were happy, certainly, but we were mostly relieved.  We had many more hoops to jump through before going home, including several days in Moscow, but from this point forward none of our decisions, fears, misplaced words or misunderstood actions could in any meaningful way jeopardize the formation of our family.  We had reached the finish line.  Peter and Sophie were ours.

But it didn’t quite feel that way at first.  For one thing, there was no room for the children to stay at Galina’s so they remained at the orphanage and on the same strict schedule until the morning we picked them up at 4:30 am for the drive to the Khabarovsk Airport.  The night of the adoptions I was keenly aware of how incorrect it felt to lay in bed with Pat knowing our children were still being made to fall asleep amidst more than a dozen other toddlers, most of whom, Peter and Sophie included, had never known the comfort of being kissed goodnight.

16 beds for Sophie’s group of 16 (Biro, Aug. 2004)

The authorities waved the post-adoption ten-day residency requirement, which enabled us to leave Birobidzhan once the children’s Russian passports, new birth certificates and adoption certificates were ready.  Ten days in the region post-adoption were suddenly compressed into two, causing us to become a flurry of activity.  We wanted to make a contribution to the orphanage, and had intended to donate cash, but the women in the white coats told us that money had to be declared and that most would be eroded by taxes and “less official” fees. They instead suggested we buy snowsuits, jackets, mittens, boots, and hats at the store because these items could not be easily tracked.  Tamara took us and we bought more than we could afford.  We nearly emptied out the entire children’s section, which was smaller than our kitchen.  We also bought brightly painted chairs that were locally made and that we’d seen in abundance at the orphanage as keepsakes for Peter and Sophie.  Other than the grocery store, it was the only store in town and therefore the only place to buy clothes, shoes, books, toys, bedding, household appliances, cosmetics or baby supplies.   Even though more than 200,000 people live in Birobidzhan, we were its only customers that day.

Our next stop was the farmer’s market, which was busy and boisterous.  Pat kept whispering for me to keep a firm hold on my purse because he didn’t like the vibe coming from a scattering of young men who patrolled the aisles with heads bent and arms shoved deep into heavy canvas jackets.  He needn’t have told me.  His body language changes so abruptly in these instances, reverting with a flash to his Brooklyn-bred street smarts, that I read his thoughts with a single glance.  We quickly bought a bushel of bananas big enough for King Kong to enjoy, at least 80 bananas, and as much other fruit as the three of us could carry.  We took great pleasure in distributing our bounty when we returned, to the mostly nonverbal toddlers who nonetheless had mastered how to say “Mama” and “Papa” and who still clamored for our touch and attention.  It was both wonderful and profoundly sad to watch these children’s faces light up and their mouths water over the prospect of something as simple as a piece of fruit.  There was nothing they took for granted.

Peter eating with his group (Biro, Oct. 2004)

It was also funny and wonderful to marvel over the way Sophie began exhibiting proprietary behavior in our presence.  To this day we don’t know exactly what she was saying, but whenever any of the children in her group showed us more than casual interest, she would furrow her brow and wag her finger in the direction of the small offender.  She would then fire off a maelstrom of verbal warnings so caustic that any children brave enough to have remained in the wings scattered in retreat, immediately.  With clutched fist and steadfast determination, she also had no trouble establishing ownership over the pink little gingham pillow with our picture in the sleeve.  She carried it everywhere she went and according to her caregivers, whose eyes sparkled with the telling, refused to relinquish possession no matter what the circumstances, including using the potty.  She behaved like a crazed old Babushka rather than a barely two-year-old child.  We loved her for it, and still do.  Immensely.

Sophie eating soup (Biro, Aug. 2004)

That night we sat in the easy company of Galina, Bogdan, and Sergei, another grandson who stopped in frequently, and watched their favorite Russian soap opera, which had become our custom.  There was nothing else to do.  We couldn’t visit the children and roaming the pitch-black streets of Birobidzhan after dark, which by late October was somewhere around 3:00 p.m., was not a safe option.  We had brought books and a portable chess set but were too exhausted and mentally depleted by this juncture of our trip to focus on anything that required even minimal mental acuity.  The wardrobe in the soap reminded Pat of 1974 Staten Island on a Saturday night.  We knew it was time to leave when we earnestly began looking forward to the next episode, checking our watches to make sure we didn’t miss the kickoff.

Peter stopped screaming at me about the time we were ready to say goodbye to Tamara, Galina and the orphanage staff.  He even begrudgingly allowed me to sit near him and interact with the blocks and plastic truck we bought at the store and left behind for the orphanage.  But I still couldn’t interact much with him.  If I picked him up and sat him near me, he’d bounce up and run over to Pat, his short little legs moving faster than what seemed anatomically possible.  But he didn’t scream.  He merely grunted.  I interpreted this transition as progress and cheerfully continued my strategy of inching my way toward intimacy, or at least casual contact, often with food in hand as collateral.

Sophie too began loosening up around this time.  Galina’s living room could be closed off with French Doors and we took advantage of this design to contain our new cubs.  They had never been in a home before and for Sophie, everything was worthy of exploration: the furniture, the kitchen, the television, Galina’s fish tank, her knick-knacks, the light sockets.  The toilet topped the list of curiosities though, as she had never seen one.  The orphanage used pots lined up in rows for toileting, one child next to the other.  The entire contraption, especially the flushing mechanism, fascinated her and it wasn’t long before we realized she didn’t have to really go peesit every fifteen minutes.

Potty training, orphanage style, with Sophie is on left & Peter Barnes next to her (Biro, Oct. 2004)

But even confined to a single room, Sophie was a challenge.  What became obvious quickly was that she had long ago mastered the art of playful defiance.  She understood the limits we had imposed, she just didn’t agree with them.  And the mischief in her eyes, the twinkling intelligence that belied her tender age, was difficult to ignore and even more difficult to curtail.  We would soon learn that we weren’t the only ones under her spell.  People fell victim to her charms wherever we went, and still do.

What wasn’t so obvious at the time, but now stands out as clearly as fireflies against a night sky, was Peter’s complete lack of curiosity about his new environment.  I was chasing Sophie around like a madwoman, convinced her frenetic activity would result in instant and tragic death before we ever got home, but Peter barely budged.  All he wanted to do was sit with his blocks or look at a book with Pat.  But this behavior didn’t strike us as necessarily strange back then.  After all, we were strangers, we didn’t speak Russian, and we were planning to whisk him away from the only home he ever knew.  We thought he was scared and tentative, which I’m sure he was.  Though we’ve seen vast improvement, we understand now that Peter tends to behave this way no matter what the circumstance or environment.  He’s uncomfortable navigating the contours of new experience.  Rather than struggle to integrate, he retreats into the comforting spaces of his own thoughts or the rituals of repetitive play.  It took years of intensive intervention to coax him from this mindset and even today, constant vigilance is required to keep him from withdrawing.

From left: Sergei, Galina & Bogdan (Biro, Oct. 2004)

When it was time to leave Birobidzhan, we thanked and hugged Galina, promising to send pictures and updates once we were home.  I don’t remember whether we went to bed that night but I’m guessing we didn’t.  Tamara took us to the orphanage at 4:30 a.m., where the children were already bundled in their new clothes and jackets, standing with two women beneath the shelter and light of the entryway’s concrete overhang.  Since we knew we were leaving before dawn, we said our emotional goodbyes to the women at the orphanage the night before.  Two of Sophie’s caregivers had rattled off instructions for us to keep Sophie on schedule and content, tears overflowing while they competed to stroke her tiny back.  One of the doctors insisted we take a tube of cream to ease Peter’s itchy skin.  They were decent, basically kind people who were forced to look after Russia’s discarded babies under conditions of extreme poverty.  Although I was moved by their affection, I also was invigorated with the knowledge that Peter and Sophie were finished with orphanage life.  Peter had spent all but 5 of his 39 months in an institution and Sophie, who was 27 months old, had joined him before her first birthday.  They had served their time.

Goodbye orphanage (Biro, Nov. 2004)

Both children were dazed, confused and exhausted the entire bumpy trip to Khaboravsk.  Our driver dropped Tamara at her apartment on the way out of town and I watched her wave to us as we began our journey home.  Our translator, who in the process became our friend, was gone.  Until we reached Moscow, where Sergei awaited, we were on our own, relying on gestures and the few Russian words we had committed to memory as our only means of communication.  Sophie sat on my lap and Pat held Peter.  There was no room for car seats much less our luggage, which was tied to the roof with lengths of scratchy twine.  When he wasn’t dozing, Peter repeated his Russian name the entire ride while Sophie stared, unmoving, out the window.  Listening to the eerie rhythm of this cadence, the rise and fall of Gera Gera Gera against the clanging backdrop of the car, I worried whether our new son was trying to hold on, somehow, to his former life, even his very identity.  The idea made me shudder.

The plane ride from Khabarovsk to Moscow was uneventful, thanks to a young Russian girl who appropriated Peter, drawing and otherwise entertaining him for most of the flight.  Sophie stayed content as long as I kept the Goldfish and Cheerios flowing her way.  Neither of them slept during any portion of the 10-hour flight and by the time we arrived in Moscow, they’d been awake, except for momentary catnaps, for almost 24 hours.  Their bellies were full, they had their first lollipops – for take-off and landing, found the airplane ride exciting, and were uncharacteristically compliant for children their age.  But the poor babies also were dead on their feet.

Leaving Biro (Nov. 2004)

For me, the most challenging part of this segment of our slow progression east had to do with our flight’s five-hour delay and the prolonged agony this inconvenience caused.  Specifically, I had drank too much instant coffee at Galina’s in the middle of the night and desperately needed a bathroom break by the time we arrived at the Khabarobsk airport, which was somewhere around 8 a.m.  But I couldn’t figure out how to use the public toilets in the airport and I was unwilling to experiment.  The lavatory consisted of several holes in the ground surrounded by slippery filth.  Indented footprints flanked the sloping sides, apparently to coax hapless users like myself into the correct position.  I envisioned me sliding inexorably into the unspeakable abyss and then spending the next twelve hours living with the aftermath on my clothes, skin and hair.  No thank you.  Even if it meant keeping my legs crossed for 13 hours, which it did.

The four days we spent in Moscow were exciting, scary and in every way novel.  The Presidential Hotel is more than accommodating of newly adoptive parents and we were happy to find two cribs set up and ready to go when we opened the door to our room, which was really a suite.  It was the first night we would spend together as a family and I had a raging yeast infection, which for me, was a first.  I had ignored the mild symptoms that started to develop our last day in Birobidzhan.  With so many important things on my mind, and having no idea how bad this kind of problem could get, I simply dismissed the warning signs as an aggravating nuisance.  Boy was I wrong.  The culprit turned out to be the powerful antibiotics our doctor had us taking throughout the second trip, to stave off giardia and any other nasties.  By the time we reached the hotel room in Moscow, sleep-deprived and with two bewildered and exhausted toddlers in tow, I was desperate for intervention.  Pat was uneasy about me venturing into the Moscow night by myself, but there was no reasonable alternative.

Trying to explain to the women at the front desk the nature of my problem was about the funniest and most exasperating experience of my life.  The word yeast in Russian has no meaning unrelated to bread-making.  After many rounds of passing the dictionary and using gestures not suitable for polite company, a eureka moment finally occurred and they understood what I needed.  These otherwise stone-faced women giggled like schoolgirls as they wrote down the address of the nearest pharmacy and showed me on a map how to get there.  It was past midnight, I hadn’t slept in God knows how long, Pat was no doubt panicking in the hotel room by himself with the kids, and I had no choice but to venture into the Moscow night in search of over-the-counter feminine relief.

Luckily, the directions were good and I arrived at the pharmacy after a fifteen-minute walk.  Then I encountered the next hurdle: the pharmacist didn’t understand what I needed either, and unlike American drugstores, customers in Russia do not have direct access to nonprescription drugs.  Products are locked up and out of view.  So I started my ridiculous pantomime routine all over again.  Eventually a tall, elegantly dressed businessman walked in, saw me gesticulating like a crazed woman, and asked in fluent English if he could help.  Ordinarily I would not have pulled an innocent into such a private matter, but I was desperate.

“I need something for a yeast infection,” I said.  Luckily I was too exhausted and uncomfortable to worry too much about his embarrassment either.

“Uh, oh.  Well, yes, of course.  I can help with that.”  I thanked him for his kindness and apologized for the awkwardness of the situation.  He took my place at the counter and explained to the pharmacist what I needed.

I might have emerged from the store with some semblance of dignity intact if the humorless pharmacist hadn’t then decided to ask the man to translate the package directions.  He really was managing well until that point, but this taxed his Samaritan attitude well beyond the tipping point.  Bowing his head to review the instructions, he slowly looked up at me with what can only be described as horror.

“I simply cannot do this, Miss.  I am quite sorry.  But I cannot read these words to you.  I just cannot.”  His face was beet red and his eyes implored me to release him from this unbearable task.  He continued, “You can manage from here on, right Miss?  I’m sorry.  Goodnight and good luck.”  And with a slight bow and what I thought might be the click of his heels, he disappeared into the welcoming anonymity of the Moscow night.

When I entered the hotel lobby, with white paper bag in hand, I was greeted by the sounds of the reserved but jubilant desk clerks cheering my success.  I thanked them hastily and then raced to my room and waiting family.  Now the middle of the night, Peter and Sophie were still ambulating like Zombies on parade.  I was still working off the adrenalin boost fueled from the pharmacy adventure, but Pat was out of juice. I found him slumped like a rag doll in an armchair, supervising our children in a semi-conscious, unshaven and close to delirious state.

We spent the rest of that night with all the lights on and Peter thrashing between us in the big king sized bed.  He had screamed with terror every time we put him in the crib or attempted to dim a light, so we thought bringing him into bed with us would help.  We were wrong.  Sophie fell asleep in the crib after methodically rocking herself for 45 minutes in spite of the considerable racket.  Flat on her back with arms stretched toward the ceiling, Pat and I watched helplessly as she swung her body from left to right, the muscles in her neck taut and twisted.  She was not ready or willing to receive our comfort.

Sophie and Peter’s 1st night away from the orphanage (Moscow, Nov. 2004)

Despite how exhausted we were the next morning, the prospect of eating breakfast as a family held great appeal.  We watched in amazement as Sophie and Peter, regardless of the fatigue and trauma of the last 36 hours, ran with abandon down the long hall of our floor, falling, rolling and generally howling with delight.  From their expressions, we guessed they had never experienced any real sense of personal freedom before.  In fact, just like that first morning in the hall, Sophie and Peter would continue to react with complete and utter delight in response to the simplest pleasures for the entire first year they were home.  The gift of a balloon, for instance, brought shrieks of joy, as did the sight of hamburgers, balls, television, bananas, frogs, honey, open spaces, milk, grass, and even their double stroller.

The breakfast buffet at the Presidential provoked a truly unforgettable feeding frenzy.  Eggs, crepes, bacon, sausage, milk, orange juice, oatmeal, fruit, breakfast potatoes and French toast.  They devoured everything in sight and then lifted their plates for more.  Sophie ate three times as much as Peter, which is saying something because he ate more that morning than he’s ever eaten since.

Peter’s 1st breakfast at the hotel (Moscow, Nov. 2004)

The rest of our time in Moscow was spent getting mandatory medical exams for the children at a Russian clinic, making sure the U.S. Embassy processed their visas correctly, and generally tagging along with Sergei as he skillfully navigated the remaining post-adoption paper chase.  In between appointments we did some sightseeing and bought some incredibly expensive clothes for the children.  The clothes I picked out  prior to the adoptions, mostly 3Ts and 2Ts, hung from Peter and Sophie as loosely as potato sacks.  We wound up buying Peter a few outfits in size 18 months.  Sophie easily fit into size 12-month clothes.

Breakfast ecstasy (Moscow, Nov. 2004)

Three other memorable events happened while we were in Moscow.  The first had to do with bathing.  Russians shower, even their babies, because they feel bathing in a tub full of water is an unclean practice.   Sophie and Peter were so terrified of the water when we first put them in the tub, screaming like teenage victims in a horror flick, that I’m surprised someone on our floor didn’t call security.  But then in a last-ditch effort to salvage the experiment, I splashed my hand in the water and gently splashed their bodies.  Sophie paused for one second, considering the implications of this act, and then we watched with amazement as her features transformed and she surrendered, completely, to her childhood instincts.  Attack!  The ensuing water fight was a moment that will be forever imprinted on my brain.  Blood-curdling screams of terror became peels of laughter and Pat and I were drenched and covered in bubbles by the time we wrapped our two happy and clean toddlers in warm towels.  Bath time was never a problem again.

The next unforgettable moment occurred at a Moscow McDonald’s, where Sophie caused a considerable crowd to gather.  We ordered Happy Meals for the kids but they didn’t know what to do with them.  They ate their apples but their hamburgers went untouched.  Sergei tried to coax them into eating but they just stared blankly.  We finally gave up and began eating our own meals.  As soon as one of us lifted our burgers to our mouth, Sophie picked hers up, staring at it curiously.  It then occurred to us: they had never had a sandwich before.  They either didn’t know it was food (yes, I know, it was McDonald’s) or they didn’t know how to approach it.  So Pat picked up Sophie’s cheeseburger and helped her position her infant-sized hands on either side.  Then all three of us illustrated the chomping procedure, looking ridiculous I’m sure.  And that’s all it took, at least for Sophie.  Squeezing both sides of her cheeseburger so hard that bits of grizzly meat squished between her fingers, she took a single bite and paused.   Her eyes moved back and forth with measured deliberation and then an impish grin, one of her hallmark characteristics, slowly emerged. She ate the rest of her burger, which was nearly the size of her head, with such gusto and intensity that people began gathering around us in amazement.  Half act, half genuine enjoyment, she played to her audience like a seasoned professional, relishing all the while in the glow of the spotlight.  Though we never convinced Peter to eat anything else that day, Sophie had seen the face of God, and her name was American Cheeseburger.

Cheeseburger in Paradise (Hyde Park, NY, Dec. 2004)

To this day, Pat and I refer to the last noteworthy event as simply The Fight, which occurred in the late afternoon of our second full day in Moscow.  We were taking a well-deserved break in our room’s big, overstuffed chairs, watching contentedly as the children played and continued to explore their new environment.  Sophie played kitchen with her doll and the plastic food, dishes and pots we bought for her while clothes shopping in the fancy Moscow department store.  Peter spent his time stuffing everything he could into his new backpack: Duplo blocks, books, cars and trucks, hotel magazines, water bottles, action figures, and even wash clothes.  Nothing was too banal for inclusion. When finished, he’d hoist it onto his back, circle the perimeter of the room, dump the contents out, and then start the process anew.

Although Pat and I exchanged worried glances over Peter’s repetitive, ritualistic play, neither of us had the energy to intervene.  Instead, I asked whether Pat would get me a pillow from the couch to prop behind my back, which had begun to ache.  Both of us were unprepared for what happened next.  Peter stopped what he was doing, went over to the couch, and brought me the pillow.  He understood what we were saying!  What a remarkable moment!

Our joy and surprise over this revelation was soon dwarfed, however, by what began as a simple breach of toddler territory.  While praising Peter for his brilliance, Sophie seized the opportunity to snatch what had become a prized book from his otherwise closely guarded backpack.  Until that point, neither of them had paid the slightest attention to the other.  But all that changed when Peter discovered the missing item and in Sophie’s hand.  The boy who we’d begun to worry was completely passive suddenly exploded with a litany of verbal outbursts.  Sophie followed suit.  With her brow knit in consternation, and her fist shaking savagely in Peter’s direction, she came back with a barrage of her own.  The indecipherable argument continued, with both of them charging the other, fists drawn and chests puffed, for a considerable length of time.  Pat and I watched in stunned silence as this unforeseen drama unfolded.  To this day I don’t know whether we chose not to intervene because the fight wasn’t physical or because we were simply in shock.  Regardless, the chaos stopped as suddenly as it began.  Sophie and Peter had reached some sort of understanding.  Although far from kismet, they no longer ignored each other, and in ways small and large, began acting like the siblings their adoption papers declared them to be.

Overall, our time in Moscow was lovely.  The days were crisp and clear and we could see the children’s health improve on an almost hourly basis.  Sophie’s skin became less translucent, Peter’s angry red rashes began to subside, and the dark blue bags under their eyes diminished by the minute.  Breakfast continued to be a show worthy of charging admission, and running the length of the long halls a favorite daytime activity.  At night we’d read to them in the big king sized bed and then let them watch a Russian cartoon with the lights dimmed ever so slightly.  Peter never slept well in Moscow but at least the screaming lessened.

Sophie at the Presidential Hotel (Moscow, Nov. 2004)

In fact, the only real troubling part of our stay revolved around our children’s intestinal health.  Although we at first thought the change in diet was to blame, the frequency, volume and room-clearing odor made us rethink our diagnosis.  I frankly had never smelled anything so foul in my life, and it was coming from both of them.  But without additional symptoms, nausea, cramping, fever, or any other kind of distress, we decided the problem could wait until we got home.  Having already obtained their medical clearances, we didn’t want to jeopardize our departure date.

Peter at the hotel (Moscow, Nov. 2004)

With Sergei serving as our guide, translator and companion, we spent our last afternoon in Moscow exploring the city, which was both exciting and sad.  Moscow is every bit as alive and vibrant as New York City, Los Angeles or Boston, with all the noises, energy and pulsations, but there is a crucial difference.  The disparity between the wealthy Muscovites and the residents, not to mention the rest of the Russian citizenry, is abundantly apparent.  The ostentatious displays of wealth in Moscow make American vanities seem almost modest by comparison.  I found it difficult to reconcile the abject poverty my children had experienced with the incredible brand of nouveau riche consumerism on constant exhibit in the streets of Moscow.  I truly hope the country one day settles on an economic and social model that allows capitalism to flourish and wealth to accumulate, but in the presence of a healthy middle class, and without so much graft that basic human rights are overlooked.

I was never more aware of the depths of Russia’s troubles than when I stepped on the plane that would take us home.  Sophie and Peter had experienced unimaginable hardship in their first, most crucial years, and theirs were the faces I saw when I reflected on the failures of their birthplace.  Pat and I were confident we could change their health and living circumstances for the better.  What was less certain was the impact we’d have on their psyches, our ability to heal the damage to their developing brains and hearts, damage that was the result of neglect, abuse, and deprivation; the hopelessness, and in some ways, indifferences, of an entire people.

Bound for New York (Nov. 2004)

I said goodbye that morning to Russia, grateful for our children and poised for the adventures and struggles ahead.  I was ready to go home.  And I would not be looking back.

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February 2, 2010

September 10, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 14

October 2006

September 10, 2007.  I lay awake wondering how long we’ll be able to keep Peter safely home with us.  My thoughts race in the quiet hours before dawn, when worries and fears amplify beyond ordinary bounds.  Our son lies and steals and sometimes destroys with an appetite that belies his tender age.  The latest is that after ten days he finally confessed to throwing Sophie’s prized birthday presents in the trash.  I bought replacements to surprise her but Peter wound up the more surprised.  Looking like he’d seen a ghost, and making what lawyers call a statement against interest, he stared at the toys and shouted, “But they gone away in the garbage!”  Sophie is too often the object of Peter’s resentments, and though I’m glad he was caught in this particular deceit, I worry that nothing will change.  He seems organically incapable of learning from his mistakes.  I’m mindful of the time he hurled a fist-sized stone at close range, striking her on the temple with deliberate aim.  He was restive and angry the remainder of that day, blaming Sophie, incredibly, for the injury he caused as he watched me ice the swelling knot on her head.  He has a fantastical ability, when ensnared, to recast himself as the victim, the misunderstood innocent who should never bear blame.  I’m tired of the lecturing, the picture drawing, the social stories, the role-playing, the disciplining, the resort to yelling and the cycle that begins anew when none of the latter works.  To a large extent, Peter is right.  He is a victim.  How can he be held accountable if his brain won’t allow him to learn from his mistakes?  Who did this to him?  Was his biological mother a teenage binge drinker or had she graduated to a more steady intoxication?  What other wrongs has Peter suffered, wrongs so horrible that his psyche is imbedded, indelibly, with feelings of mistrust, contempt, and at times, unchecked rage?  Alcohol exposure alone can’t account for all that’s skewed inside his brain.  My damaged child holds me hostage, just as Russia itself holds him in the iron-fisted, immutable bonds of alcohol damage and institutional neglect.  Escape isn’t possible.  I belong to Peter and he to me.  And so I continue to love him, knowing full well that love alone may not be enough.  For my daughter’s sake, I must remember that Peter acts on uncensored impulses, some of which can be meant to harm.  Lest I forget, Sophie gives me her unicorn to sleep with tonight, assuring me as we kiss sweet dreams that its magic horn will keep me safe.

Chapter 14:  Adoption Day

My parents were married on October 25, 1948, in St. Petersburg, Florida.  They remained for the most part happy and in love for the next 46 years.  On October 25, 1994, the first time my mother spent her anniversary as a widow, my niece Haley was born.  A day destined to aggravate an open, grieving wound transformed into a celebration of family and possibility restored.  The fact this squawking baby resembled my mother and would later become the apple of her eye was another blessing that with time would joyfully reveal itself.   On October 25, 2004, three and a half years after my mother’s death, Pat and I began our family in a colorless courtroom in Birobidzhan, Russia.  For my family, this date has always resonated with hope, celebration and new beginnings.  I never doubted it would be different for Pat and me, and so despite our being halfway around the world, I awoke that morning feeling the enveloping presence of family, their warmth, comfort and companionship a welcoming contrast to the bleakness of our surroundings.

Birobidzhan (Oct. 2004)

My greatest hope, both then and now, was that we could in turn bestow this gift, this sense of belonging and place in line, to Peter and Sophie.  So as I dressed that morning, rehearsing answers in my mind to questions about my suitability or desire to parent, a sense of calm emerged.  I realized that Peter and Sophie were already a part of our family and just waiting to go home.  They felt as much a part of me as the memories of my brother singing White Wedding at our reception, or the churning sensation of riding in the backward-facing seat of my mother’s station wagon, even the autumn afternoon in Tallahassee that I learned my father had terminal lung cancer.  These children were already woven into the fabric of who I was, and who I might one day become.

I clung to this realization like a rudder to help steady me through the next several hours.  At the appointed time, Tamara arrived and drove us a mile or two down the main road to the courthouse, which was distinguishable from any other building in Birobidzhan only in that it enjoyed a more official-looking façade and a clearly marked entryway.  As with other buildings we encountered, whether official or otherwise, the concrete on the stairs was disintegrating and the handrails offered a minefield of splinters just waiting for purchase.  Inside, a number of blown-out light bulbs created a dappled glow to the otherwise décor-less halls.  Tamara led us around two or three corners and then asked us to take a seat on a bench next to the courtroom door.  She was clearly not worried about the impending hear.  Despite what I had read and watched about the topsy-turvy nature of Russian adoption proceedings, how judge’s can and do make unexpected, even arbitrary and devastating decisions, the vibe that day was matter-of-fact and therefore strangely reassuring. We eventually were invited in and took our seats on either side of Tamara in the front of the courtroom.  Two female doctors wearing white coats and one other orphanage staff member sat directly behind us.  A stenographer was present too.  We recognized the one doctor because she was the woman who had taken us around to meet the three boys at the end of our first trip.  Through the whole torturous process, she had treated us with kindness and compassion.  It felt good to have her there.

October 2004

Unlike the rest of the building, the courtroom was sparkling clean and brightly lit.  Except for the peculiar jail cell that was located to the left of the judge’s bench, I found it completely ordinary.  Tamara explained that defendants must sit in locked cages during their trials.  In Russia, it seems the presumption of guilt is a difficult hurdle to overcome.  The lawyer in me was still contemplating the obvious differences in our legal systems when the bailiff walked in and directed us in Russian to stand for the judge as she walked in and took her seat behind the bench.  She was a plain and sturdily built woman in her fifties, and it was clear she orchestrate these proceedings in her sleep.  An unceremonious rap of her gavel and the hearing was underway.

The orphanage representative read into the record the case histories of first Sophie and then Peter: their birth histories, social circumstances and the reasons they became wards of the state and were unsuitable for domestic adoption.  Even though I knew this was part of the Russian adoption proceedings, the whispered translation of these dire reports, the extent of poverty and deprivation that our children had endured, the defects of mind or body officially alleged, was difficult to endure.  This was true even though I knew the sole reason the speaker was making the case, that Peter and Sophie were of no value to the Russian people, was so they might lead the kinds of lives she dared not wish even for her own children.

The judge then asked Pat to stand and approach the bench.  Pat answered soberly in response to a number of questions and then I stood and repeated the process.  How could we give two needy children the individual attention they each required?  What was the state of our finances, our views on education?  Did we have proper support to help us through what would undoubtedly be a difficult transition?

After that, the judge asked me to describe Sophie in my own words.  Amazing, inquisitive, beautiful, mischievous, headstrong, smart, funny and enthralling.  I said all these things and more.  “And Peter?” she asked.  I held my breath for a moment and stared at my shoes.  The moment of truth had arrived.  I didn’t know whether the judge was aware of the circumstances that brought us to Peter or was on board with the relaxation of procedures that was clearly occurring on our behalf, but I didn’t want to lie.  I didn’t want the start of our family to begin with fabrication and deceit.

“I don’t know him too well, yet,” I said.   “We came to Russia the first time to meet Sophie and another baby who turned out to be very ill.  We had to say no to him and after we got home, our agency told us about Peter.  I hope you already know this.”  My heart thumped inside my chest and I couldn’t bear to meet Pat’s gaze.  I could see the judge rifling through paperwork and I was afraid to keep on speaking.  After a torturous minute, the judge looked up, nodded gravely, and waved at me to continue.  “He won’t come near me unless I’m feeding him.  He seems to like my husband.  I think he’s afraid, which I understand.  He’ll come around.  He’s beautiful and we want him.  I want him.”

And then she asked me to sit down.  I was shaky but holding my own until I felt Pat’s physical presence, and then the tears began.  He has this profoundly kind way of absorbing my pain, taking it wordlessly as his own, without fanfare or complaint, so that my burden is lessened.  To this day I honestly don’t know whether those tears came from the enormity of the moment or the awareness of how precious my life with Pat is.

Tears of worry and relief soon turned into tears of genuine laughter when the three orphanage women stood up at the judge’s request and began describing Sophie’s personality.  “There is no one else like her,” Tamara translated.  “She is naughty, very naughty,” one of them said.  “The mama and papa must not be afraid to discipline her!”
And with that suppressed waves of giggles spilled forth from all three women, their hands reflexively and in unison rising to cover their mouths.  “We are sorry,” they sputtered in tandem.  “There is something special about this child.  She’s a good girl.  A very good girl.”

The hearing part of the proceedings ended on that note and the judge excused herself for deliberations.  The mood in the courtroom remained light.  I was curious about why the judge hadn’t asked the orphanage staff about Peter, but having already said more than what was probably prudent, I decided to keep my mouth shut.   Tamara kept us occupied during the ten minute or so wait by discussing our afternoon plans with the children and how we intended to celebrate.  Because Sophie and Peter were too young to participate in the adoption decision, they had stayed behind at the orphanage.  She knew we would be anxious to see them.

The three of us spoke in hushed tones, Pat and I instinctively assuming the quiet cadence of Tamara’s manner.  She reassured me that my honesty about Peter had not been a mistake and that all was well.  I took comfort in her words despite the fact that the emotion in her eyes betrayed her soothing tone.  Early during our first visit Pat and I had guessed there was a deep and penetrating sorrow inside Tamara that her eyes could never quite conceal and that had nothing to do with us.  Though I barely understood it, I came to recognize this melancholic trait in the faces and expressions of many Russians, Peter included.

Before long the bailiff reappeared and we were anxiously on our feet again, watching the judge as she briskly walked, head bowed, toward her place behind the bench.  The stenographer shuffled some papers and then gave a slight nod toward the judge, which must have been her cue to proceed.

“Mary Evelyn Greene and Patrick John LoBrutto,” she said, in halting but clear English. “The married couple residing in Kingston, New York, and who are citizens of the United States of America?  You are now the legal parents and guardians of the minors known as . . .”

And with that, the judge stood up, walked around the bench and over to where we were standing, and gave me what may be the most hearty, memorable, and unanticipated hug of my life.

Pat’s and my quest to adopt two orphaned children was finally over, but my journey toward becoming a mother had only just begun.

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February 1, 2010

September 7, 2007 Journal Entry and Chapter 13

Grrr . . . (Summer 2007)

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

Chapter 13:  Russia, Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter wearing my sunglasses (Oct. 2004)

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

Sophie being held by a caregiver (Oct. 2004)

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

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

Sophie and me (Biro, Aug. 2004

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

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

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

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

Oct. 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sophie outside the orphanage (Biro, Aug. 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

Food! (Galina’s apartment, Oct. 2004)

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

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

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

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

Sophie (Oct. 2004)

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


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