June 8, 2013. The saddest and most telling thing happened yesterday. I normally make the long drive back and forth from Peter’s school on the weekends but Pat brought him home this time. Peter was drawing a Pokemon dragon in the backseat, and then out of nowhere, began sobbing uncontrollably. Pat had to pull the car over on the Taconic. Having no idea what was wrong, he just held our son until he calmed. It turns out that Peter thought he’d ruined his picture by coloring the dragon wings with a ballpoint pen. He didn’t like how it looked. When he walked in the house, Pat still lingering outside, I knew immediately something was wrong. His normally happy-to-see-me-face had transformed into a portrait of childhood devastation. Pat did his best to relay what happened, but I didn’t quite get it until I saw the drawing. And then bam, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s the best thing that Peter’s ever drawn, hands down. It’s clear that in those few minutes, holed up in the quiet monotony of the backseat, all cylinders were firing. What breaks my heart is that Peter knew it, too. I know he did. I could see it in his eyes. He thought he had lost the moment, that opportunity to ride the wave of his own capacity until the switch of disability shut down the access. He doesn’t have that many of these moments, perfect spurts of neurotypicality, and he’s now smart enough, and mature enough, to recognize when he does (as well as when he doesn’t). How he must thirst for those feelings of completeness within himself. I hate that mournful look in his eyes, the look that tells me he appreciates that he can’t always accomplish what he sets out to do. His anguish in the car came not from frustration but from fear, the real fear that he wouldn’t be able to reproduce that drawing again if his life depended on it. Peter’s journey is one of fits and starts, and though he’s made great progress, he has come to appreciate that it’s a rockier road than most. I know his burgeoning self-awareness is good, developmentally important even, but I selfishly wish it were absent. 11-year olds shouldn’t have to bear the weight of their disabilities, especially ones thrust upon them not by chance but by prenatal recklessness and post-natal deprivation and neglect. But I can’t shield him from himself, not in the end. So instead, Pat and I reassure him that the drawing is still superb. I make sure and post it on Facebook so as to provide tangible proof of our parental pride. It’s a wonderful drawing, and not with the caveat “for a kid with special needs”. Normally his drawings are a bit nonsensical, they lack cohesion and are disjointed and difficult to interpret. Often imposing one figure on top of another, I’m never sure whether that’s how he sees the world – a layered abstraction that has meaning only for him, or whether it’s simply a problem transferring thought to paper. But yesterday he got it right. Now I have to gently steer him toward a more confident belief that it wasn’t just an anomaly. That he has many varied and wonderful abilities that he indeed is learning to access more reliably. And perhaps more importantly, that he will succeed when he sets his mind to it and not just when the window randomly opens. But that’s a lesson learned over time, and I didn’t want to bore him with a lecture or overdue the praise and make him even more self-conscious. So instead I kiss the top of his head (which I won’t be able to do much longer) and ask about the rest of his day. My brave boy takes the cue and I listen carefully as events unfold before me.
June 8, 2013
Tags: fetal alcohol, Green Chimneys, orphan, pokemon
December 22, 2011
Tags: adoption, attachment, autism, Dr. Federici, FAS, fetal alcohol, orphan, post-institutionalized, Red Hen Press, Russia
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
January 13, 2011
Tags: attachment, autism, career, fetal alcohol, motherhood, orphan, parenting, post-institutionalized, puppy, women's issues
January 13, 2011. Next week I go for a second interview regarding a position I nearly covet with an environmental advocacy group. It’s a chance of a lifetime, a chance to jump back into a meaningful career, to contribute, and to turn some much needed attention to myself, to my own goals and aspirations, my own sense of accomplishment and purpose. When I look back over our time as a family, I realize I’ve been happiest, and most sane, when I was immersed in work, teaching at Bard. My life is still incredibly busy, but my days are filled disproportionately with managing my son’s physical and mental health, his education, and working, always working, to help him integrate more successfully into daily family life. And it’s wearing me down. I know I’m giving him my best, at least on most days, but I’m also getting to the point where I’m not sure sacrificing every ounce of every fiber of my being for miniscule progress is prudent, or even very beneficial. I may have already brought him as far as he can go in terms of attachment and orientation to his world. It’s very possible that he’s the best that he can be and the time has come to loosen the reigns and somehow expand his circle of caregivers. When he became our son, Peter trusted no one, he was lost inside his own disordered mind, and was more alone in the world, literally and figuratively, than any child on the planet deserves to be. Pat and I have changed those facts, substantially, and I’m proud to acknowledge that our son is now a child who knows how to give and receive love, who knows what it feels like to trust and who shows compassion toward others on a daily basis. There are times he looks at me, shy at first, and then his eyes light up, all at once, as they meet mine. My heart soars in these moments to heights I never dreamed possible. They are transcendent in their beauty, and in many ways, nothing short of miraculous. I realize that. But I also realize that despite these achievements, Peter forever will require 24/7 care, there’s no doubt about it. He can’t regulate his own behavior for even a nanosecond and will always need someone to model and talk him through appropriate choices and more generally, help him navigate the everyday terrain of his life. The professionals in our lives are telling us that Peter needs an entire system of care beyond what we can provide as parents and that its time to start turning over the reigns, at least in some respects. But even though I accept the truth in these words, I realize that I’m still thinking and behaving as though his condition can be substantially rehabilitated, that I can will our son toward a more meaningful, more complete future. Maybe I’m not ready to let go of that dream, maybe certain dreams do help us sustain rather than delude. Or maybe holding onto the hope that Peter will emerge higher functioning than seems practicable is the only rational course of action – after all, to admit otherwise is to give up, and I can’t and won’t do that. So where does that leave me? If I’m fortunate enough to be offered this position, can I in good conscience take this full-time job or will I be turning my back on our needy children, on the 24/7 demands of raising Peter, not to mention the less urgent but just as important responsibility of helping Sophie blossom and overcome her challenges? I think the answer lies in believing in myself, and in realizing that its okay to have my own life, my own aspirations, and that career, family, children (even special needs children) don’t necessarily have to be either/or propositions. So many women grapple with this balance, there’s nothing new here, but somehow the stakes seem higher because our children are former Russian orphans, and because Peter has overwhelming needs. Egocentrism at it’s best perhaps. But one thing I do know: I’m hopeful about this opportunity. If I’m able to persuade the folks that need persuading that I can contribute substantially to their cause, then I want to find a way to make this work. I want a chance to rediscover myself in a manner that expands my identity as Peter and Sophie’s mother to include career and colleagues. I want to think that diving back into my professional field, coupled with my new teaching responsibilities at Marist College, may even make me a better parent. I’m too consumed right now with the problems, the heartache, and the never-ending, drive-you-nuts redundancy of life with a brain-injured child to have any sense of perspective, or balance. Plus, the issue of income and benefits can’t be ignored. Peter’s problems have caused an enormous financial strain, one that Pat bears 100% right now. The fact that he’s significantly older than I and under tremendous pressure doesn’t escape me, ever. Our financial safety net has been chewed clear through by private therapists, evaluations, specialists, equipment, medication, relocation, and countless – sometimes foolishly desperate, interventions. If Pat were to get sick or injured or worse, well, I’m not quite sure what I’d do to keep our family afloat. Our lives are insecure in so many regards, a hard pill to swallow for a person who craves security and stability. The bottom line is that I’m very excited about this opportunity and look forward to learning more about the organization and the people who work there. At my initial interview, I noticed a dog bowl and a large bone in the building. I wonder – if I’m fortunate enough to be offered the position, whether I’ll be able to bring our dogs (okay, maybe just one) to work!
September 13, 2010
Tags: adoption, autism, biro, birobidzhan, Dr. Jane Aronson, Dr. Ronald Federici, fetal alcohol, international adoption, orphan, post-institutional autism, post-institutionalized, red hook central school district
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
Tags: adoption, alanna ramirez, autism, biro, birobidzhan, Dr. Jane Aronson, Dr. Ronald Federici, fetal alcohol, international adoption, orphan, post-institutional autism, post-institutionalized, red hook central school district, Trident Media Group
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
Tags: adoption, alanna ramirez, attachment, autism, biro, Dr. Jane Aronson, Dr. Ronald Federici, fetal alcohol, international adoption, orphan, post-institutional autism, post-institutionalized, red hook central school district, Trident Media Group
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 14, 2010
Tags: adoption, alanna ramirez, attachment, autism, biro, birobidzhan, Dr. Jane Aronson, Dr. Ronald Federici, fetal alcohol, international adoption, orphan, post-institutional autism, post-institutionalized, red hook central school district, Trident Media Group
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
Tags: adoption, alanna ramirez, attachment, biro, birobidzhan, Dr. Jane Aronson, Dr. Ronald Federici, fetal alcohol, international adoption, orphan, post-institutional autism, post-institutionalized, red hook central school district, Trident Media Group
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
Tags: adoption, alanna ramirez, attachment, autism, biro, birobidzhan, Dr. Jane Aronson, Dr. Ronald Federici, fetal alcohol, international adoption, orphan, post-institutional autism, post-institutionalized, red hook central school district, Trident Media Group
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.
July 14, 2010
Tags: adoption, attachment, autism, biro, birobidzhan, Dr. Jane Aronson, Dr. Ronald Federici, fetal alcohol, international adoption, Jane Aronson, orphan, Post-Institutional, post-institutionalized, Ron Federici
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.
March 13, 2010
Tags: adoption, attachment, autism, Dr. Jane Aronson, fetal alcohol, international adoption, orphan, parenting, post-institutional autism
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
: : : : : : : : : : :
January 25, 2010
Tags: "Russian boy", adoption, attachment, autism, fetal alcohol, Hansen, international adoption, Jane Aronson, mitochondrial, orphan, Post-Institutional, Ron Federici, women's issues, writing
When Rain Hurts is the story of how our Russian adopted son Peter came into our lives, the series of events that led us there, and my successful journey toward loving him, while accepting and adjusting to the fact that I will never completely heal him. Peter suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Mild Autism, Seizures, BiPolar Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attachment Disorder and suspected Mitochondrial Disease. He is also, on most days, our beautiful and loving boy.
Through journal entries, I attempt to demonstrate how love can flourish in the most hostile environments, if nourished with compassion, humor and humility. These journal entries, and the narrative that accompanies them, aren’t a memoir so much as an exploration of the transcendence toward peace that one can experience in life-altering situations once hope is chosen above despair, and acceptance over resignation. This project is about the growth that occurs through the examination of grief, the adjustment of dreams, and the acknowledgement of one’s own capacity.
I hope this blog has interest and relevance to readers who have adopted or are considering adoption, as well as those who have suffered loss through illness, trauma, death or disappointment.
I begin by posting journal entries starting in the summer of 2007, when our son was turning 6. Each journal entry is followed by a chapter, which tells the narrative story of our adoption journey. I am also including more recent journal entries, which can be found under “pages”, on the right-hand column of this blog. I haven’t yet determined how they’ll fit into the overall book concept; they may end up replacing the earlier entries. I hope to be finished with the entire manuscript, which is 3/4s complete, by well, who knows? Sooner rather than later, I hope.
I undertook this project because I felt demoralized after reading the plethora of adoption- and autism-related books on the market. Most if not all portray a family who struggles with their child’s difficulty at first, but who ultimately learns to embrace the problem and become enriched because of it. Reading these accounts made me feel inadequate, as a mother and as a human being. I love my child, fiercely in fact, but hate the disabilities that plague his future and pepper our daily lives with genuine chaos. I want my child to be whole but I will love him every day of my life no matter how damaged or battered he remains or becomes. This project seeks to explore these feelings. Adoption isn’t always easy and adopting an alcohol exposed child carries with it inherent booby traps that simply cannot be overcome by love, faith, medication or any other kind of intervention. I know because I’ve tried. What works is blood, sweat, and tears, a healthy dose of humor, a barrel full of patience, and the wisdom to know when the zenith’s been reached; when its time to let go and let be.
Thank you in advance for taking this journey with my family and me. I came to this occupation of “part-time writer” out of what I felt was necessity. By training and passion, I’m also an attorney who has spent 13 years with the USEPA enforcing environmental laws that help ensure clean water, air, and land, and more recently, I’ve begun teaching environmental law and policy at the undergraduate, graduate, and law school levels. I’m 40-something, married to the most wonderful man on the planet, have more pets than I care to divulge, and together we do our best to raise our two children, whom we love and adore but who definitely give us a run for our money.