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.


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


September 18, 2013

The book is out!!

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January 23, 2013

January 23, 2013

Visting the new camels at Green Chimneys with Aunt Patty (Jan. 2013)January 23, 2013. One of the many challenges of
 raising a child like Peter is coming to terms with the unequivocal 
realization that his needs supersede all others. No matter
 what the circumstance, if he’s not in a good place – in terms of
 mood, comfort or temper, then those within the perimeter of his 
reach will suffer too. There was a time when I rebelled
 against the restraints that this conclusion imposes, but I now
 understand that resistance is pointless. I have a number of
 major decisions to make in the next few months, and their impact on 
Peter is forefront in my mind. A few years ago I wrote a
 chapter for a special needs parenting anthology devoted to how I
 finally came to terms with the fact that I had to stop pouring
 every ounce of energy, and all our dwindling finances, into 
improving our son’s fate. I had chased the elusive “cure” for
 so long – and jeopardized the rest of the family’s well-being in 
the process, but I knew it had to stop. Although I wasn’t
 giving up on Peter, I had no choice but to acknowledge that my 
frenetic quest to make him whole was tearing the rest of us 
apart. I’ve tried to honor that reality, though some days I’m
 more successful than others, and Peter continues to do just as well 
(or not) as when my days and thoughts were 100% consumed with 
healing him. I still believe what I wrote in that anthology 
(Easy to Love But
 Hard to Raise), and I think it’s a confession that 
many parents of challenging children might be relieved to hear, but 
what I’m grappling with now is different. Any decision I make
 for myself – or that impacts the rest of the family, by definition
take into account, first and foremost, its affect on Peter.
 The few people I’ve spoken to about these upcoming decisions –
including some family members, urge me to stop thinking so much
 about his needs and focus a little more on everyone
 else’s, even my own. It sounds a lot like the 
argument I posed to myself when I wrote for the anthology.
  But it’s not – in fact, it’s completely different. I will 
never have the luxury of making a decision that omits an intricate 
analysis of how my choice might impact Peter.  I’ve been very
 optimistic in recent months about our son’s progress and our 
ability to transition him back into a home-based program. I
 detest the fact that on most nights, instead of kissing his 
forehead and tucking him in, he and I are forced to say goodnight 
over the telephone. I want him home; it’s that simple.
 But intrusive thoughts are again encroaching on the landscape of
 his mind, and this resurgence of psychiatric instability is a cruel 
reminder that hopes and dreams do not always proceed in a parallel
 course with reality. Peter hurt his sister a few weeks ago
 and he’s hearing voices again, voices that are violent and scary, 
both for him and us. My gentle son, who wouldn’t normally harm
 a flea, is doing his best to fight off the demons buzzing in 
his brain, at times with deviant intent. For a few days, a
 few weeks ago, he lost that battle. Sophie is working to
 shake off the trauma and I’ve gone back to timing my bathroom 
breaks in a way that protects against an even 30-second window of
 unsupervised opportunity in case the directive of the voices are
 stronger than Peter’s ability to reject them. It was an unwelcome 
but undeniable wakeup call. Peter is not yet ready to leave 
residential school – it’s not safe. He acknowledges that the
 voices and visions are more frequent at home and he told his social
 worker that he thinks it’s because he isn’t surrounded by staff the
 way he is at school. Idleness and alone time are his mind’s
 arch enemies. For Peter, unstructured play in the family room
 while I make dinner in the kitchen – 20 feet away and within easy
 sight and sound of each other, sometimes triggers overwhelming anxiety that 
in turn can trigger aberrant, potentially dangerous thoughts.
 Constant activity coupled with constant staff presence helps to 
keep his wandering mind in check. It’s amazing that Peter can 
articulate this – that he now possesses the insight and the 
language, but it’s also profoundly sad. It means he’s not yet
 ready to come home, it reminds me that whatever decisions I need to
 make in the next few months must take this into account.
 Parents never are free to act solely in their own best interests –
its part of the bargain we honor in exchange for the great
 privilege of motherhood and fatherhood, but parents like me – of 
kids like Peter, relinquish so much more. The reality 
of these circumstances pit financial security against physical
 safety, marriage against parenthood, one child’s needs against a 
sibling’s. There’s a course to chart but its one of discrete, 
not boundless, possibilities. I accept this – it’s an 
immutable fact, but I don’t much like it. When Peter emerged 
from his psychotic rage – the first, by the way, he’s had in almost two 
years, his exhausted body convulsed with waves of horrifying 
self-reproach. “Why,” he implored, angry self-inflicted
 welts rising on his cheeks as he sobbed, “why couldn’t you stop me,
 Mommy?” If only I could have answered his anguished question. If only I could have stopped him. Maybe then we wouldn’t be in this

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


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

August 29, 2011

August 29, 2011

Dutchess County Fair, Aug. 26, 2011

August 29, 2011.  I’ve been a half-hearted insomniac most of my life, teetering on the edge of clinical significance, as seems the case with so many other challenges in my life!  As I lay awake at 2 a.m. watching Mystery Diagnosis in the bonus room – a show Pat claims is at least partially responsible for my insomnolence, I can’t help but giggle to myself.  Our dog Pippin, loyally snug in the crook of my arm, looks up at me, sleepy but enthused.  It seems we share synchronicity of mood, a divine pleasure I think any dog lover understands and cherishes.  I was joking with Pat the other day in the car, accusing him, at age 63, of vacillating between adolescent rage and geriatric forgetfulness.  A little erratic behind the wheel, I honestly couldn’t tell whether he was experiencing road rage, absentmindedness or some combination thereof.  He thought my description funny and the memory of that drive had me laughing in the middle of the night despite the weight of the worries keeping me awake.  But all kidding aside, I think he and I are suffering from the same symptoms, they’re just manifesting differently.  It’s been nearly ten weeks since Peter entered Green Chimneys as a residential student, but we’ve yet to reach a new equilibrium.  I’ve read the Out of Sync Child cover to cover, maybe more than once.  If only it provided guidance for the out of sync parent, which is surely what Pat and I have become.  Before Green Chimneys, we were on a tumultuous ride with our now 10-year-old son, and one that didn’t always produce desired results.  But it was a ride we nonetheless came to understand.  It was familiar.  Now things have changed for Sophie, Peter, Pat, and I.  It’s like we’ve been flung into the realm of some metamorphic process and we’re waiting with bated breath to see how we’ll emerge.  Will we all become butterflies or will some combination of us turn out less desirably, like say, a newt?  Peter came home for his first lengthy break on Friday afternoon.  He doesn’t have to go back until Labor Day.  He’s lost a little weight, seems more wistful than I remember, and is acting more than a little shy.  Despite the awkward melancholy, we picked up his meds at the Health Center, said our goodbyes to staff, and headed straight to the county fair, which was a good thing because we later learned it was closing at midnight due to the anticipation of Hurricane Irene.  Our kids look forward to the fair almost as much as Christmas or Halloween and I would have hated them to miss it.  When we finally got home, exhausted, grimy, and smelling of corndogs and fried dough, I watched as Peter brushed his fingers lightly along the kitchen island and then the kitchen table.  The excitement of the fair had pushed the melancholy aside but now it was back.  When I asked what he was doing, he responded, “It feels like a new home, Mom.”  I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard, and yet I knew exactly what he meant.  Despite the fuzziness that coats so many of his thoughts, in that moment he experienced complete clarity of mind.  I almost broke down in front of him but I fought back my emotions, bit my quivering lip, and gave him the biggest hug he could handle.  “Your home will always be where I am,” I whispered.  I’m not sure he bought the half-truth but he was gracious and stoic enough to leave it alone.  We have changed, our little family of four.  But instead of slumbering peacefully until the final transformation is complete, I remain alert and restless, pensive but also steadfast in my conviction to stay the course.  I must have faith in myself, my husband, of our decision to place Peter in a residential school, and in the strength and resilience of our two remarkable though disproportionately wounded children.  Our metamorphosis, it seems, has only just begun.  I’m hoping all four of us have the stuff from which butterflies are made.

April 12, 2011

April 11, 2011

Aunt Pattys Birthday Visit (March 2011)

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

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.”

January 23, 2011

January 23, 2011

Poet's Walk (January 22, 2011)

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

January 13, 2011

January 13, 2011

Lulu LoBrutto, 5 months (January 2011)

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


January 7, 2011

January 7, 2011

An artist's eye (Dec. 2010)

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

December 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.

December 12, 2010

December 12, 2010

Peter & Sophie in their Russian Christmas outfits (Blowing Rock, NC, Nov. 2010)

December 12, 2010.  Nothing I’ve done to squelch the flow or urine at night, whether purposeful on Peter’s part or involuntary, has worked.  I literally have zero idea how he’s outmaneuvering us, but I’m nonetheless giving in and raising the white flag in surrender.  At this point, I have no idea how we’ll cope with the next ten years or so of nightly bed and pajama soaking; I only pray the output doesn’t rise to the level that it overflows the mattress, leaks onto the floor and eventually splatters the living room below.  If that happens, my contingency plan is to design and install a self-cleaning waterproof bubble in which he can sleep, thereby allowing the four of us to continue cohabitating without the threat of ammonia asphyxiation.  In the meantime, I need to turn my attention to Christmas and more pleasant preoccupations.  We’re scheduled to go into the city on Tuesday to see the Nutcracker and visit Santa at Macy’s.  I made the reservations six weeks ago, before Peter’s breakdown.  His behavior, meaning his self-control and frustration tolerance, are still well below what we consider his “norm”, and his grip on reality, though not slipping any further, is nowhere near where it was before this happened.  I hope he can endure the day’s events, and accompanying excitement, so that all of us, Peter included, can enjoy the experience.  Though it’s my most recent, and fervent, Christmas wish, I must admit I’m a little apprehensive.  On the way home from Sophie’s swim meet today, Peter asked why I didn’t just jump over all the icy puddles in the road when he heard that my car had slipped earlier that morning.  “We’re Rudolph now, Mom.  You can fly!”.  Lindy gave us a Rudolph car kit for Christmas last year and though I dutifully installed the antlers on the front windows and red nose on the grill, we lost an antler the very first day.  All that’s left to adorn our vehicle is the big, red nose on the front.  “Really, Mom,” he persists after listening to me explain how tying a red-stuffed nose onto the front of the car doesn’t transform us into Rudolph. “We magic powers now.”  At this juncture, I don’t dare argue with him or even try to restate my point – he’s been very combative lately when someone challenges his fanciful ideas, and so I let the matter slide and signal Sophie to do the same.  She gets the message and stops trying to convince him of the folly of his thinking, but she resents the request and makes sure I’m looking as she roll her eyes and proffers an ominous, low growl.  To de-escalate the mounting tension, I turn on the radio, hoping for a Christmas tune.  Instead, Peter’s nemesis of a song is playing, and I find myself laughing over the sheer absurdity of what was about to unfold. “Mom,” he pipe’s up, exactly on cue. “That is not a nice song you are hearing.”  He’s talking about “I Shot the Sheriff” by Eric Clapton.  “I can see why you’d say that,” I respond, having heard this lament at least a hundred times before.  My favorite radio station plays this song often.  I’m seriously considering calling the manager and asking them to delete it from their playlist. “The sheriff would not like that,” he continues.  “Oh come on,” Sophie bellows, unable to tolerate an iota more of this Who’s on First routine.  “It’s not a REAL sheriff, Peter!  It’s just a S-O-N-G, get it?”  Despite her obnoxious tone, I can’t get mad at her.  It bugs me, too.  As in R-E-A-L-L-Y bugs me, but he can’t help it.  He’s completely black and white right now – even more than usual, and as inflexible as a flagpole in his thinking.   The other day he orchestrated the perfect storm in the playroom, throwing toys, furniture and other objects against the walls and across the room, all because Lindy wanted him to acknowledge that it doesn’t always snow at Christmastimes but every now and then it snows over the Thanksgiving holidays.  This threw a wrench in his rigid construct regarding the seasons – “the leaves fall down at Thanksgiving, the snow comes at Christmas”, and that’s all it took.  Lindy said she was about to “take him down” in one of her last resort restraints because Sophie was on the verge of getting hurt, but somehow this was avoided.  Though licensed and certified to restrain a child who is in danger of harming self or others, Lindy’s as wary as we are of CPS after the school psychologist fabricated abuse charges back in the “Pre-Due Process Victory Era”.  Despite Peter’s significant setbacks however, I’m still returning to good cheer, and I want to count my blessings.   Peter was an angel today – a polite, model citizen during Sophie’s swim meet, and he kept himself nicely together for the rest of the afternoon, until dinnertime, when he fell apart again.  It’s the best day we’ve had with him since early November.  Pat’s upstairs, showering Peter, and Sophie’s dropping chocolate chip cookies on a cookie sheet.  She’s handed her baby doll over to me to “babysit” as she works, and I can’t help but grin as I listen to her belt “Deck the house with balls of Howie”, more or less in time with the CD playing in the background.  I’ll stop writing now because she needs me to put the cookies in the oven and we have a family date to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas in front of the fireplace together.   I’ve always had a soft spot for Charlie Brown.  Maybe because he was meant to remind me, even when I was a child, of the son I’d one day have.  After all, except for the not so small matter of fetal alcohol, those two boys have a lot in common.

September 28, 2010

September 28, 2010

Sophie's 3rd birthday (July 2005)

September 28, 2010.  Peter keeps asking why my face and eyes are red and I do my best to convince him that I’m having an allergy attack.  He and I are closer than ever now that he’s been home from school on doctor’s orders – at least for the next few days, and he’s very attuned to my feelings.  I hope he forgives the small lie.  The decision regarding our Due Process Hearing is expected September 30, two days from now, but I can’t presently afford to dwell on the possible outcomes.  Every fiber of my being is churning with despair over the latest news we’ve received from Dr. Federici, and this time Peter was not the focus.  Yes, it’s true.  We took Sophie to see him, too, a few weeks ago, because her behavior, as well as her school performance, has been gnawing at us like a festering wound.  The results of his testing are not good.  Our precious little girl – who is bright and capable in so many ways, is battling her own set of demons, psychological debris that is robbing her of the right to experience properly the simple beauty and gift of childhood.  What’s clear from neuropsychological testing is that she suffered significant trauma, though we’ll never know the forms it took, during the first 2.3 years of her life, prior to the adoption.  What’s also unavoidably clear is that the level of family stress and turmoil that she’s experienced in our home, byproducts of our efforts to redeem Peter’s heart, soul, and mind, has exacerbated the problem beyond our wildest prediction.  Our quest to reach the most obviously affected child – in our case, the one who screamed and kicked the loudest, has been more than Sophie’s fragile ego could handle.  According to Dr. Federici, she is lost, unanchored, severely depressed, melancholic, dissociative, unhappy, without empathy, and consumed with thoughts of death and dying.  A walking anxiety attack with blonde hair, brown eyes and a trumped-up bravado that belies her profound insecurities, our daughter is not the picture of psychological health.  What happened to our mischievous, precocious, funny, engaging, and emotionally connected little girl that we so often brag about?  I feel like Pat and I have been deluding ourselves into thinking she was healthy, maybe because we’ve been so overwhelmed with Peter’s crises that we had no capacity to think otherwise.  God, I could kick myself.  How could we have messed this up so profoundly?  I love Sophie with absolutely every fiber of my person.  She is an amazing child with more spunk than any one person by right should have.  When I daydream about pregnancy and birth, Sophie and Peter are the newborns I imagine delivering and cradling in my arms.  Always.  So why does it have to be so hard?  Why isn’t love enough?  I’ve had to claw and scratch to get Peter the help he needs, and still my efforts fall short.  And he has brain damage.  Measurable, quantifiable, undeniable brain damage.  I never imagined it’d be such an uphill, at times acrimonious, battle to address such unambiguous needs.  Sophie’s issues, on the other hand, are emotional and undoubtedly much more difficult to trace or treat.  It’s also a good bet we caused a fair percentage of them.  I recall those early years, when Peter would scream for hours, biting me, spitting on me, saying I smelled as he ripped wallpaper or ran his nails across leather furniture.  The days when he used to vomit at the dinner table or pull his pants down and pee on the floor on the rare occasion we had company.  Our reactions – my reactions, weren’t always textbook, they weren’t always calm, and hardly ever did they qualify for an outstanding parenting award.  Pat too has been less than perfect throughout this journey.  Already a grandfather at 62, and having suffered the deaths of his two biological sons, his stamina and optimism could use replenishing.  Sophie is a beloved it not easy child, and it seems she’s suffered the consequences of our fallibilities.  Her fragile sense of self, and the extreme insecurity caused by her uncertain but dark past deserved a Leave it to Beaver fresh start.  But we weren’t able to deliver that.  We’re not June and Ward material, and Peter in no way resembles Wally, the even-tempered big brother of the 1950s.  We’re two people who love each other and our children, who mess up all the time, lose our tempers, as well as our senses of humor and perspective, and then do our best to pick up the pieces and resume our forward quest and our commitments to each other.  I hope we have what it takes to reach her, to help our daughter heal as we’ve done with Peter.  She deserves so much, they both do.  I worry that I’m losing myself in the process, though.  I have so little that’s my own in terms of accomplishment or things for which to look forward.  I’ve given up my career, I’ve moved away from family and my closest, oldest friends, and we’ve largely become pariahs in our town because we’ve called into question the integrity and judgment of the local – and only, public school district.  This would all be okay, or at least more tolerable, if what we were doing was building our children’s characters, healing their hearts and improving their minds.  But now I’m not so sure.  Sophie, I now realize, is not secure in our home despite what I know in my heart has been my very best effort.  I guess my latest challenge, one from which I hope to gain a renewed sense of purpose, is to find that extra something inside myself so that I can improve the way I parent, and in doing so, help heal my child.  I have to admit, I never dreamed parenting would be this difficult.  I also never appreciated, despite voracious reading on the topic, how much damage a couple years in a Russian orphanage can exact on an innocent child.  What a lousy, lousy day it’s been.  As I reflect on this dreary, rainy day, a day filled with self-doubt and accusation, I recall how we finished watching Annie, as a family, just last night.  When I was eleven, I had no greater aspiration than to one day play the leading role on stage.  I begged my mother to buy me a red wig and drive me around to regional auditions in her station wagon.  Though I never realized that goal, I still cling tightly to the belief in dreams.  And so as I say goodnight to our children, both troubled, significantly, in their own ways, I kiss them and hug them tight.  I turn off their lights, one by one, and tell myself, with barely held back tears, that I do so hope the sun will come out tomorrow.

September 22, 2010

September 21, 2010

Go Gators! (Sept. 2005)

September 21, 2010.  “Annie’s not real?” Peter asks.  I don’t quite know how to explain, my previous 1,000 attempts haven’t done the job.  “No Honey, she’s acting.  It’s pretend.  Like when Sophie was in her play over the summer.  She was pretending, right?”  We watched the first part of Annie last night and Miss Flanagan’s rendition of “Little Girls” gave Peter nightmares.  “So Annie’s a robot?” he continues, undeterred.  The inflexibility of his thinking frustrates me and I struggle to remain patient as I think of ways to help him understand.  Peter at 9 still is unclear about the distinction between fantasy and reality, fiction and fact, film versus life.  If someone on TV, or even on stage, is a real, live human being, rather than a cartoon character or puppet, he stolidly clings to his belief that they are “real”, and therefore in many instances, an immediate trigger for his countless fears.  Carol Burnett’s rendition of Miss Flanagan might have hit too close to home for Peter’s fragile sensibilities to assimilate.  We don’t really know what our children consciously remember of orphanage life, if anything, but the preverbal memories are undoubtedly there, lurking in the corners, ready to spring at the slightest provocation.  Peter later tells me, on the way to the public library, that he wants to watch the rest of the movie tonight, if there’s time, and that he’s not afraid anymore.  “Why not?” I ask.  “Because that bad lady only gets mean to girls,” he answers.  It’s a valid point and I tell him so.  “Plus,” he adds, looking at me over the top of his glasses like a mini-version of his father, “she don’t talk Russian.”  That’s when I realize I’m not reading too much into our son’s distress.  He really did make the connection between his past and the movie.  Despite Annie being my favorite Broadway show when I was eleven, perhaps it isn’t the best choice for our family right now.  On the way home I distract him with chit-chat about which of his newly borrowed books we’re going to read first.  He’s dead set on reading a Magic Tree House book that’s well beyond his ability so we agree to read it out loud, together.  I don’t hold much hope for making it through the book – Peter’s not one to read (or listen) to a chapter or two a night and then continue the next day where he left off, but we’ll give it a try nonetheless.  Pat’s in the city today and I want to make sure I have a quiet, snuggly evening with the kids.  Sophie’s been out of sorts about Peter staying home from school and getting my attention all day and she could use some reassuring.  On the way home from the library this afternoon, Peter comments how Pippin, our little terrier mutt, loves to sit on my lap while I drive, preferably with my left arm draped around him.  Then he exclaims, “Mommy, I wish I was Pippin’s size!”  When I ask him why, he says because then he’d be little enough to sit on my lap all the time and be carried around.  “Wouldn’t that be nice, Mom?”  I’m so struck with the pronouncement that I have to fight back tears as my eyes meet his through the rearview mirror.  Not so many years ago, that mirror was the only medium through which Peter could tolerate eye contact.  I used to catch him staring at me in the car, his head whipping around, his gaze growing vacant, the instant our eyes met.  Then slowly, slowly, and with the mirror to cut the intensity, he began risking a brief moment of eye to eye contact.  Today, nearly 6 years our son, Peter not only looks at us directly, without the crutch of a mirror, he pines for those intimate moments -particularly with me, he either never had or was never able to tolerate.  There was a time I pined for them too, but not anymore.  Today I look at Peter and see my son, a loving, beautiful boy who greets the world with an easy smile and ready heart.  I never allowed myself to even dream that he would get to this point, that he and I would make the progress, as mother and son, that we’ve made.  So it’s true.  I’m through mourning the loss of the infant I was never able to hold, nourish, and protect.  That child is gone.  The boy in the car, the one wishing to be small again, that boy is my son, my Peter.  So tonight I plan to hold him tight, for as long as he can bear, so that together with his sister, he’ll know that intimacy, protection, and a mother’s embrace isn’t just for baby boys and furry friends.  They’re for Peter too.

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 5, 2010

July 5, 2010

Mudge Pond (July 4, 2010, Sharon, CT)

July 5, 2010.  Peter’s newest obsession is water, and like nearly everything with him, it cuts both ways.  The positive side of the equation is that one of Sophie’s swim coaches has been working with him in the morning and thinks he has real potential, something Pat and I frankly never considered.  Swimming is all about discipline, self-imposed discipline at that, and learning and mastering strokes, at least beyond the dog paddle, requires significant motor planning.  For years I religiously enrolled Peter in summer swim lessons, which were more or less disastrous.  The water was cold, he didn’t like people touching him, and he couldn’t seem to move his arms and kick at the same time.  I wound up teaching him to swim myself, and though it’s never been pretty, I was confident that he was safe in the water.  But like so many things with Peter, time has a way of instructing.  Maybe he wasn’t developmentally ready then.  Maybe he is now, I’m not sure.  But wouldn’t it be great if he was?  Wouldn’t it be fantastic if he could follow the routines, experience a sense of real physical accomplishment, and be surrounded by typical, positive role models?  Maybe at 9 he’s ready.  If we did give swim team a try, the coach said he would swim with the younger kids because despite his age, he’d be in the beginning group, which is perfect.  Unsupervised showering and dressing in the locker room however, is another matter altogether.  Pat would likely to have to meet me at the end of practice because there’s no way Peter can attend to the steps necessary to shower and dress while surrounded by a mob of rowdy boys.  He can’t manage these simple skills at home under close supervision.  The whole swim team proposition is riddled with maybes and what ifs and but hows, but still, the possibility is appealing.  The less appealing part of Peter’s recent interest in water, however, has to do with his pouring it on himself, usually in a semi-private place like the bathroom or his assigned third row seat in my Toyota Highlander.  Water bottles are now his new favorite thing to empty, and not via consumption.  Because Peter is both clumsy and prone to disruption, we’ve always limited liquids in the car to just water.  But for the past several weeks he’s taken to splashing water on himself in the sink and emptying water bottles in the back of the car.  It’s not the end of the world – its just water after all, but the behavior both annoys and puzzles.  I’m half thinking that because the water tends to be warm sitting in the car this time of year, he may be trying to replicate the feel of hot urine on his skin, which claims he likes.  I haven’t caught him in the bathroom yet, but maybe he’s using hot water there too.  I can’t think of anything else that would be triggering the behavior, but then again, like so much of what Peter does, often there is no plausible antecedent: just raw impulse and the tools at hand necessary to act on them.  In the past, we’ve weathered lotion-dumping themes, carving into leather furniture themes, defecating themes, spitting themes, stealing themes, and night-wandering themes.  The water obsession is the most benign theme we’ve encountered in some time, so I guess I should count my blessings.  Especially if it transfers even semi-successfully into an interest in organized, and for Peter, brain organizing, swim.

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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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 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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