Wednesday, November 28, 2012

For Henry

I had planned to write a different post tonight - a lighthearted account of what daily visits with Isabella were like during our first trip to Ukraine.  Instead, my heart is heavy now, burdened with grief for my friend Carla and her family.

Fourteen months ago they adopted Henry, also from Ukraine - they brought him home just before his first birthday.  I contacted Carla via email right after they returned to the U.S.  and told her that I was interested in a little boy from Henry's orphanage, and hoped that maybe when she got settled in a couple of weeks she could email me back with some information.  She immediately responded and included her phone number, asking me to call her.  When I called, we talked for well over an hour.  She was the first person I ever talked to out loud about the possibility of adopting a special needs child.  She was so eager to share her experience, and I was so grateful for her openness - her enthusiasm for adoption was contagious.  I remember how she said she immediately loved Henry so much, that she would lay down her life for him just as she would for her other six children. 

That little boy we were interested had a family step forward and adopt him shortly after our conversation, but Carla was one of the people God used to prepare my heart for the child He had waiting for us - the child I did not yet know about.  Fast forward a few months - I met Isabella and we decided to pursue her adoption. But we were almost stopped in our tracks by the home study provider, who did not believe in adopting special needs children out of birth order.  Being on a small island with few home study providers, I thought we were out of options.  I was in despair, ready to give up.  I emailed Carla, and again she said "Call me, hon."

She was so full of wisdom, so gracious, and still so enthusiastic about adopting these precious children who are unwanted and unloved, relegated to a life of institutionalization unless families step forward and claim them.  When I hung up the phone, I felt a renewed sense of resolve, and was again ready to fight for the approval we wanted.  Of course we eventually got it, and the rest is history.  Carla's support throughout the entire process meant so much to me.

Today, Carla lost her precious Henry - he is home in Heaven now.  He was recovering from major surgery when he developed an infection and was readmitted to the hospital last week.  He coded twice today, and attempts to resuscitate him the second time were unsuccessful. 

I can't imagine the heartbreak they feel - I can't find the words to express my sorrow.  But in the midst of the grief, I am thankful that Carla had the courage to go get this baby boy and make him part of their family.  For fourteen months he KNEW LOVE, knew what it was to be cherished by his sweet Mama.

Henry, your legacy will live on in our house.  God used you to spare at least one other child - my child - a lifetime of institutionalization, loneliness, and neglect.  Instead she gets a family, and hope.  Had it not been for your mama's encouragement...for her passion for orphans...for her love for you... I would have given up on Isabella.  Instead I will be bringing her home in two weeks.  When I look at my girl, I will think of you.  Rest now in the arms of Jesus.

Monday, November 26, 2012


I'll start with the best news:  we are now the happy parents of this girl!

On Wednesday evening I received a phone call from my facilitator ‘Ira’ telling me that we would have our adoption court hearing the following afternoon.  I began packing my bag right away because I knew that court day would be a busy one and that I would be headed to the airport as soon as we finished everything up.

When I woke up on Thursday morning I was greeted by beautiful, sunny weather.  I really didn’t begin to get nervous about court until the driver and Ira came to pick me up just before noon.  Our first stop was the orphanage – we needed to speak to the director since she was going to testify at our court hearing.  The problem was that during the past two weeks when I’d had daily visits with Isabella, she had never met with us even once.  Rob and Bou were there for the first nine days and though he asked to meet her, he was never given the opportunity.  As I understand it, this is very unusual.  Normally families speak with the orphanage director on the day they arrive with their referral, before they actually meet their child.  In our case, there were many other staff members present for our first family visit with Isabella, but the director was not one of them.  This was worrisome because we had no idea how she would know what to say about us in her testimony.

So there we were, less than two hours before court, seeing the director for the first time.  The meeting didn’t last very long – she asked me a few questions and Ira translated them.  Then I was allowed to go upstairs and say goodbye to Isabella.  I brought her usual treats of juice, banana, and a small cake.  One of the caregivers explained to her that I would not visit for the next several days because I had to go home to get everything ready for her, but that I would return to the orphanage and take her with me soon.  She seemed to understand and was okay with the explanation.  Still, before I left she asked me, as she does at the end of every visit, “Mama?  Tomorrow?” to which I had to reply this time, “No, Isabella, not tomorrow.”  I told her I loved her, gave her kisses, and left the orphanage.

In the car on the way to court, my facilitator began quizzing me on possible questions the judge might ask me.  In the middle of my response to the second question, she stopped me and said (with a smile), “No, you say too much.  Short answers only, the more you tell them the more questions they keep asking.”  Okay…I’m fairly certain she isn’t the first person in the world to tell me I say too much!  She told me to try to answer in one sentence, and I promised to try my best to do so (if you know me well, you understand how that could be challenging for me, lol).

We drove to a tiny court building on the outskirts of town – not at all what I’d imagined.   

Once inside, we sat on a wooden bench in the hallway and waited.  Now I am really nervous.  We are summoned to the courtroom at promptly 2pm.  In front of me was the judge’s bench, and spots for a juror to sit on each side of her.  The prosecutor as well as the city inspector from the social services department sat down below.  Behind the bench hung a crooked Ukrainian flag (I can say the name of the country now!).   To my left was the court recorder, the only person in the room who ever cracked a smile during the entire hearing.  To my right was a jail cell-type enclosure that I assume was used for criminal court proceedings.  Behind me sat the orphanage director.  We all stood when the judge entered the room.  She was a middle-aged woman with a blond bob-haircut. 

She asked for some documentation from Ira and I could tell immediately that something was wrong.  Ira got out her passport and launched into some sort of explanation in Russian.  The judge interrupted her and though I didn’t know what was being said, I knew it wasn’t good because I saw Ira’s face just fall.  At one point when the judge was reading more paperwork and the room was silent, I whispered to Ira “Is everything okay?” to which she replied, “Don’t talk!”

More Russian dialogue flew back and forth, then questions were directed at the city inspector, prosecutor, and orphanage director.  Ira looks at me and says that the judge says that we may not have court.  Then the judge promptly got up and left the room.  At this point I am very scared – the seemingly angry judge has just left the hearing before it even started, but I don’t dare open my mouth to ask any more questions.  I glance sideways at Ira who looks kind of ashen.  My mind starts to race – here it is Thanksgiving day, the busiest travel holiday period of the year in America, and I have a ticket to fly home in 16 hours.  I think about how I am going to be able to change that ticket now, when court will be rescheduled, etc.  But the judge returns quickly, asks a question, to which everyone in the room answers “Da” (yes) in turn.  Ira nudges me to stand up with her.  So we are having court?  Yes, looks like we are.

I was questioned by the judge for one hour and twenty-five minutes.  I got the normal questions about why we wanted to adopt, why from Ukraine, and why an older child with special needs.  She also asked about income, medical insurance, etc.  A lot of her time was spent focusing on two other issues:  1) why I was adopting as a married individual instead of a married couple and 2) how I could care for a child who cannot even sit up.  I explained to her that I was adopting individually due to Rob’s deployment and uncertain return date at the time we submitted our paperwork.  She asked many questions regarding his feelings about adopting – she wanted to be sure he was completely on board, even though he had signed a document endorsing the adoption.  I understood her motivations, and thought that was a good thing. 

Questions about caring for Isabella ranged from feeding to toileting to transport issues.  She also remarked that we had a “small home with only two rooms for the children” and was not sure that our plan to allow the girls to share a room would work.  I was very surprised by this statement (our house, if you are wondering is 1620 square feet with 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms – definitely not large by American standards but a good size for Hawaii or for Ukraine, for that matter).  We offered to show her photos of the kids’ bedrooms, but she declined.  She wanted to know why I stated in the home study that the girls would share – she thought a child “with such high needs” might need her own room.  I wanted to point out that she has spent her entire life sharing one room of an orphanage with over a dozen other kids.  She and her bedmate lie 18 inches apart, all day long, every single day. 

I actually think that sharing a room with only one other child and having your very own bed is a huge improvement!  I didn’t say that though, I only said that if necessary we would put our biological children in the same bedroom for awhile in order to accommodate Isabella’s needs. 

When she was done, it was the prosecutor’s turn to ask questions of me.  She was a very young, stylishly dressed woman with long blond hair.  Wearing her clingy sweater dress and knee-high boots, she looked more like a supermodel than a prosecutor.  She stated that she was in favor of international adoption for special needs kids here because they have no chance for life otherwise, and that she had no questions!  Ironically, before going in I was more nervous about the prosecutor than the judge but she turned out to be no threat at all.

The judge then asked the city inspector to give a report about me.  She’d been present at our first meeting with Isabella, and gave us a very favorable review.  The way she spoke about Grace’s interactions with Isabella brought tears to my eyes.  The inspector clearly saw the immediate bond they had and she was touched by it.  She said that she was surprised by the way Grace approached this “severely disabled” child without any trepidation, the way she played with her, and the way they hugged and kissed each other when it was time to go.  I wasn’t :)

The last person to testify was the orphanage director.  She too gave a favorable review, and the court hearing was over.  The judge and jurors retreated – as soon as they were out of the room Ira looks at me and says “Oy, I need vodka.”  At the time I didn’t know if she was serious or not (since drinking vodka here seems to be one of your patriotic duties), but she told me later that she doesn’t even drink.  She was just making a point about how stressed she was.  For thirty minutes we sat in near silence waiting for the judge to return.  When she did, we listened as she read a lengthy verdict and Ira translated.  When she was done, Ira asked me if I understood the decision, and I asked “We got approved, right?”


The judge left again, and when she returned her demeanor was completely different.  She had a smile on her face and she was carrying flowers for me, and gifts for Isabella!  As she presented us with a traditional Ukrainian doll, sash, and lacquer painted plate she told me about how happy she was for this child who has no future here to now be going home to a family.  I was overcome with emotion at that moment and shed a few tears.  Then the judge cried too.  When I later remarked to Ira in the car that everyone probably thought I was crazy when I started crying, she said “No they didn’t – didn’t you see that everyone in the room was crying?”  I really did not notice! 

After the gifts were presented, we took some photos together.  Then the judge – who declined to see our photos twice during the court hearing – asked to look at the photo book.  Everyone in the room looked at the pages and read the captions (which were also printed in Russian thanks to my friend Anya!).  They all loved it.  

From left to right:  Juror One, Judge, Me, City Inspector, Juror Two, Orphange Director, Prosecutor, Facilitator "Ira"

It wasn’t until we left the courthouse that Ira explained to me what was going on in the beginning and why we almost didn’t have court.  It was an issue involving Ira’s translating services, not our family.  Though I was scared during court, and the judge seemed so stern, once it was all over I saw that her heart is soft and she truly believes in adoption.  I think I was the first married individual to have court with her, and she was just doing her job in ensuring that both my husband and I were fully prepared to care for a child that most in this culture view as being incapable of functioning in society.  She took her responsibility seriously and I have a lot of respect for her!

We spent the remainder of the afternoon running around doing paperwork, then hopped in a car to make the six hour drive to the capital city airport.  Thrity-two hours after boarding my first flight I made it home and was kissing my other babies.  When the ten day post-court waiting period is over, I will return to Ukraine to finish Isabella's paperwork and bring her home.  I'm so excited that the five of us will all be together under the same roof for Christmas!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chocolate-Covered Cheese and Cranky Canines

There are quite a few random experiences I've had here in Eastern Europe that I want to write down and preserve for posterity.  Some of them funny, some of them a little scary, some of them frustrating.  I'll start with a culinary experience.  I am generally willing to try any reasonable-sounding food at least once, so when my friend N said to me something like "Hey I have some chocolate-covered cheese stuff in my fridge that I can't eat (due to allergies).  Do you want to try it?" I said yes.  I love chocolate.  I love cheese.  How bad can it be?  Turns out I like it a lot.  It is similar in size and shape to a small ice cream bar and the cheese inside of it has a consistency kind of like ricotta.  I actually bought a few more when we went to the market.  Now the mystery meat that seems so prevalent here, that's another story...

Now for the scary.  I am a dog lover - we have two mutts at home.  There are stray dogs everywhere here.  They roam the streets, sometimes alone and sometimes in packs of three or four.  They sleep in the underground tunnels and on door stoops.  Most of them look like they get a decent amount to eat and seem generally healthy, which is all that keeps it from being heartbreaking to me to see them wandering around.

They usually keep to themselves and don't look the least bit menacing.  Last time I was in this country I became really accustomed to just walking by them - we have mutually ignored each other.  Well, last week while Rob and Bou were on the playground I decided to cross the street to take a photo of a church, and apparently this was the wrong move!  A medium-sized shaggy black dog who had been curled up on the dirt suddenly jumped up as I passed by.  He came running at me, barking wildly.  At first I wasn't too worried but then he started trying to nip at my heels.  Two of his medium-sized buddies heard the commotion and joined him.  My inner redneck snapped to attention.  I took my bag off my shoulder and started swinging it at them, kicking my feet in their direction, and yelling "You better GIT outta here!" and "Go ON!". The people nearby watched me with trepidation but did not move.  Finally the dogs backed off - they may be of Eastern European descent, but clearly they understood that a Southern woman with a handbag and boots is a force to be reckoned with :)

Here's another kind of frustrating but mostly funny story.  I have been fighting an upper respiratory virus since the day we arrived in country.  By the time we had our first orphanage visit, I had lost my voice and was a little worried that they wouldn't let me in for fear that I may make Isabella sick.  It didn't seem to be an issue at all though.  After we left, I commented to my translator (in my raspy whisper) that I was really relieved it hadn't prevented me from seeing her.  She replied, "Oh that's because I told them you were nervous and under psychiatric stress about seeing your new daughter and it caused you to lose your voice.  That's why you got in."  That's nice.  So when I still had no voice three days later, I imagined that as I walked in, the staff were probably saying to each other "Hey, that crazy woman who sounds like Darth Vader is here again."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

What I'm Thankful for Today

There are so many things I’d like to write about that I’m not sure where to start.  I think I’ll begin with thankfulness.   We have very little internet access right now, as I mentioned in my last post.  When I have been able to log on to Facebook, I’ve seen countless friends writing their daily “I’m thankful for” updates to celebrate this month of Thanksgiving.  I feel like I generally walk around cognizant of some of the ways in which I have been blessed beyond measure – sometimes I am overcome with emotion and gratitude for what God has provided my family.   It may all sound cliché but it’s true – there are nights when I go to bed and lie there with tears of thankfulness streaming down my face because I know what I have.  And I know what others don’t have.  Or at least I think I do.  

Tonight, as I sit in someone else’s kitchen thousands of miles away from my own home, I have been reflecting on some of the things I take for granted.  I’m okay at remembering some of the big things I’ve been given – like freedom of religion, a home, good healthcare, etc – but what about other things, like communication?  I rarely consider what a gift that is.  Here, the Cryllic alphabet and Russian language mean a constant struggle for us to buy food, get directions, or figure out what people want us to do.  The day we arrived in our region (last Friday) I lost my voice and have been fighting an upper respiratory virus ever since.  It has been very unpleasant and though I’ve gotten medication it hasn’t worked too well – and don’t ask me what it is because I have no idea, LOL!  This isn’t a complaint – I’ve been here once before and I knew it would be challenging.  It’s just a reminder that being able to talk and share information with those around us is something to be thankful for!

And water – I will try to never take that for granted again.  Sometimes our apartment building has no hot water.  Other times it has no water, period.  It usually only lasts for a short amount of time but it’s enough to make me thankful that I just don’t have to deal with it on a daily basis at home.  Rob and I have been somewhat reckless with our use of the water.  There are people who travel here and use bottled water for everything, including brushing teeth, washing dishes, and cooking.  We use the tap water for all of those things, and I make hot tea with it twice a day (I should add though, that we’ve both had every vaccination known to man thanks to the military, and we have stomachs of iron too!).   But it will be nice to return home and use tap water freely, to run a nice clear bath for my daughter instead of the beige-tinged stuff I see in the tub here. 

Laundry – I won’t even get started! 

What I keep coming back to tonight though is how thankful I am that my children have never known a day without the love of their family.  The security that comes with that is irreplaceable.   In America, we generally believe that children belong in families.  Maybe we assume that everyone, everywhere believes the same thing.  They do not.  In the last few days, I’ve seen many of the faces of those deemed unworthy of families.  Little girls with Down Syndrome – maybe seven or eight years old – who only need a smiling glance or wave to give them the courage to bolt over and hug us.  Another sweet girl who wants desperately to come out of her groupa room and play with us during our visits with Isabella.  Some caregivers allow her to and others do not.  Our own girl who, with the exception of our first meeting on Friday, has been wheeled out to the visiting area on a flat, blue wooden cart that is too short to support her entire body, so her limp little legs hang off the bottom.  Some days there is a pillow underneath her and some days there’s only a thin blanket between her head and the hard wood.  On those days, Rob and I fold our scarves up and place them beneath her.  This part is hard for me – I don’t like the wooden cart at all.  It feels to me as if she is treated without dignity, even though I don’t necessarily think that’s the way the caregivers see it.  More than likely they are just using the means they have available to wheel her out to us.  Still, I wonder why can’t they just carry her downstairs to the room with the comfortable bed where they brought her for our first meeting?  Or why can’t we carry her down there?

She is always thirsty, immediately asking for the juice and banana we bring her.  When it is gone, she asks for more.   I know why she is thirsty and this part is hard for me too.  I’m not going to write about it because I don’t want this post to turn into a negative-sounding rant about the care she receives in the orphanage.  The truth is that she is loved by several caregivers there and probably receives better treatment than many of the children do.   But it is not enough – it is not the love of a family that I alluded to earlier.  When I see her, and those little girls with Down Syndrome, and those teenagers who just want you to smile back at them, it makes me aware that my own children have never truly known what it is to be lonely, or uncomfortable, or thirsty.  And I am so thankful for that.  

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Catching Up!

I will have to play catch up on this blog!  We arrived in Isabella’s country on Tuesday night and stayed in the capital city for a couple of days.  We spent a little time doing paperwork, but most of the day Wednesday and Thursday we were free to roam around and explore the area.  We also met five other adopting families, which was very cool!  I have many photos I’d like to post, but most of them will have to wait until we get back home. 

On Thursday evening we boarded an overnight train that would take us from the capital city to Isabella’s region.  After arriving there at about 6am on Friday morning, we were taken directly to our apartment.  It is on the ninth floor and is located within a cluster of dilapidated Soviet-era buildings.  We were greeted warmly by Ola, the apartment owner, who obviously takes great care of this two bedroom home – it is warm, clean, and very nice by Eastern European standards. 

The downside of the apartment (a HUGE downside for us!) is that there is no internet, and none is available despite our facilitator’s best efforts to get it for us.  So for now, I will be typing this in Word and copying to my blog whenever we make it back down to the restaurant that has internet access! 

We also had our first visit with Isabella on Friday morning.  As the driver pulled into the orphanage I noticed how much nicer the grounds look to me in the bright fall weather than they did under the cover of grey snow last February.  We walked up the steps and into the reception area, where we were greeted by the same warm, smiling woman I have written about before.  A small crowd quickly gathered, speaking Russian amongst themselves and gesturing.  In addition to the three of us, there was our facilitator, a city inspector, psychologist, several caregivers, and the receptionist.  Our facilitator translated a little bit of the conversation for us:  a couple of the caregivers remembered me from February and everyone was excited that we came back to adopt Isabella.  I looked at them and they were smiling – big, genuine smiles J.  That was a good sign, right?

They ALL followed us into a room where Isabella was waiting, and as we approached I could hear those same little shrieks of joy from her that I heard months ago.  We walked in and there she was, laying on her right side on the bed, looking up at us with a big grin on her face.   I noticed the grin first, and then her legs.  They were covered when I visited before, but today she was wearing nothing but tights under her dress, and they clung to what were the skinniest little thighs I have ever seen.  I was in disbelief even though I was well aware of how malnourished she is. 

We said hello, and I sat down on the bed beside her while the psychologist began to discuss the details of her file and the facilitator translated.  Honestly, I heard maybe half of it.  My husband (who is a surgeon) listened intently while Grace and I played with Isabella.  I knew I could trust him to relay the info to me later, and I also knew that whatever her file told us, it would have no bearing on our decision to adopt her at this point.  We were committed.  Isabella is so observant – she also listened the entire time to what the team was saying about her. 

I was somewhat surprised by the positive things the psychologist had to say about Isabella.  In this culture, the overwhelming belief (even among health care professionals) seems to be that special needs children can accomplish little, if anything, in life and are best kept institutionalized.  However, it seemed to be important to the psychologist that we understand that she feels Isabella is smart, observant, and has a good memory.  She spoke about all the things Isabella knows in spite of the fact that she has never received any education, and that when we “get her home and give her lessons she will learn so much”.  Now of course we know that Isabella has great delays to overcome due to eight years without a family and appropriate intervention, but it was so encouraging to hear this woman who knows hers speak about her in this way!

The medical and social history we received does not match exactly with the info we were previously given, and I don’t want to elaborate any further right now.  We will wait until she gets home and is assessed by our pediatrician.  She also suffers from chronic malnutrition.  More importantly, she is a happy, smiling little girl who finds joy in everyday life, even when it is hard for us to understand how there is anything worthy of rejoicing in.  She seeks out eye contact and touch (she loves to hold hands!) from us, and her laugh is awesome!  Isabella and Bou took to each other right away.  We have been preparing Bou for what Isabella would be like when she meets her, but still she is only six, and we wondered if she would be afraid when we got there.  Not at all!!  She already has such a heart for orphans and was so excited to meet her new sister.  They both did great together and I am SO proud of them.  Want to see?

Here they are!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Up, Up, and Away

Up, up and away we go, 
Into the great beyond.
Wherever we go and whatever we do,
We're trusting God all along.
We will fly,
We will soar.
Nothing is impossible.
We will rise,
Through the storm.
Trusting God and leaving our fears behind, 
We will fly!

Lyrics from a Vacation Bible School disc that my kids love to listen to.  I've heard the words so many times -such simple but profound truth in them.  I think of them now as we prepare to begin our journey halfway around the world in just a few hours.  We will fly from Hawaii to the east coast first to drop our son off at my parents' house.  Then Rob, Bou, and I will continue on to Eastern Europe.  Will update in a few days when we are in this little girl's country :)

Homecoming: A Photo Story


I see him!

Daddy's girl, all smiles.

Not quite sure what to think at first...

I love you, Daddy.

The look of pure contentment on my child's face is a thing of beauty to me.

The feeling of pure contentment in my heart as I see my children back in their father's arms is also a thing of beauty to me. 

Let's go home!!


Robert, I love you more now than I did when we began this crazy journey 10 years ago.  I will love you through five more deployments, or a hundred.  We can do anything when we are together.  Let's go!