Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Past couple weeks

I am guilty of blog-delinquency!   I haven’t time to write a blog post, so instead I’ll just copy and paste a few FaceBook posts here as a “catch-up” offering.  But the really big news is that today may be GOTCHA DAY.   Jeanne and are I sitting in our apartment, bags packed, diaper bag loaded, one foot out the door, awaiting news of Leeza’s passport!    

I was at home for less than one week at the end of March – spent catching up with my kids who have grown in my absence, logging in a few days at work, willing my body to find some time zone and stick with it, re-packing bags (this time with baby gear!), making Easter magic, and that was it:  time to turn back around for the final leg of our adoption journey.  This time, however, Peter remained at home with the children, and I left on Easter Sunday with my sister Jeanne, who hails from Canada, and my dad who drove us giddy girls all the way to the airport. 
Easter morn ... leaving my chickees was hard.
April 4, 2013 (from Facebook):  Hi all! I'm back in Ukraine ... this time with my sister Jeanne. I think traveling with a sister is a total crack-up, and we make each other laugh when things aren't exactly funny. We arrived Tuesday night after an insane airport-dashing/crashing session where we were re-routed to various places and airlines such as Istanbul and Turkish Airlines. We eventually arrived in our region’s airport unscathed (just dropped a couple tears along the way), but our bags did not. Now, that may sound like a trite thing, but the littlest of dilemmas get magnified 1000 x when you don't speak the language of the problem-solvers, which in this case was either Turkish or Russian, and furthermore you can't figure out how to work a phone here anyway! But here is the amusing part about that:
We left for the Ukraine on Easter Sunday, after a lovely morning of Easter egg hunting, easter-basket-chocolate-mania, and waffle breakfast. I had this crazy idea that I would like to make a mountain of chocolate chip cookies to bring to the orphanage on Gotcha day as a special treat in this biscuit-cookie-land... only trouble is, my bags were over-maxed out, so I would have to persuade my sister to lug the double-pack of chocolate chips. Only, I worried that I would need baking soda too, so I packed that in a sandwich bag. Only, that looked like a drug deal coming down, so I thought maybe I should just hide it in four cups of sugar which should also travel with us. Along with a bottle of vanilla of course. When everyone I encountered told me that I was being ridiculous and that the cookie supplies really aren't top priority, my uber-stubborn streak kicked in and I guilt-tripped my sister into hauling the chocolate chips in her carry-on -- which meant she had to take out her spare change of clothes. NOW YOU SEE THE TROUBLE!! :)  I hauled the remaining ingredients which get inspected and scrutinized at every security stop.  So five days later, when she is still sitting here wearing the same pair of jeans which she cannot wash because she hasn't a spare, or any clothes at all to speak of because they are who-knows-where between Newark, Munich, Istanbul and Ukraine -- but HEY! we have cookie-making ingredients! -- I thought she was going to clobber me with the sack of chocolate chips.  However, thanks to her equally-stubborn husband Mike who has been sitting in Canada trying to track down our bags for the past couple days, they were eventually located and retrieved late last night. Mike is our hero.

Things are moving fast here! We just spent the bulk of two days on a paper-chasing mission in a car, which included a drive to Leeza's birth town, a quaint little place with teeny little houses lined up in perfect rows ... we were mesmerized by it.  Leeza's birth certificate has been changed to reflect her new parents (us!) and same with her social security numbers! Will post some pics soon. We arrived back in Donetsk on Wednesday at 3:00 and our facilitator took a leap of faith and announced that we were going to pick up the babies from the orphanage and take them to get passports (at a city over an hour away). She was praying that she could persuade someone to issue passports after-hours. So we swooped into the orphanage (with fellow adoptive parents M & A who are adopting two baby boys from the same orphanage), grabbed the three babies, stuffed them into the van, and off we went! Now, mind you, we had been driving since 9:00 a.m. and hadn't eaten or drank anything all day. I don't think any of us will forget that car ride with seven adults and three babies. It seemed like a crazy dream, bouncing along a highway at a high rate of speed in a vehicle with no carseats or seatbelts in the middle of a foreign country, with babies all looking around in awe of us, the passing sights, etc. Spending that much time with Leeza laying on my chest was exquisite ... how I missed her! The other magical thing was the M & A’s baby boys, who are now brothers, met for the first time. On the way up to the passport city, we whizzed past a crumpled body laying beside the road, and no one said anything. I couldn't take it anymore, and I blurted out: HEY! Did anyone else see that body laying beside the road? No one did. I continued: WELL, it was all crumpled up ... do you suppose it was dead? Who knows, said the local folks up front. I sat stewing about that, and then we encountered a thick smoke. And flames. A ginormous (sp?) fire was blazing across the countryside and had reached the highway, where a wall of flames was reaching up and over the other side of the highway and trying to jump to our side. Cars were just driving right on THROUGH the fire. Except for the lone curse emitted from my sister in the back seat, again no one said anything, despite the smell of burning rubber. I couldn't take it anymore and blurted out:  Didn't that totally freak you out? Aren't you scared to come back home and drive on THAT side of the highway?  Our Ukrainian crew up front merely shrugged and said, "Nah." And that's the thing: These things just HAPPEN here.  The babies cooed and played the entire way there and back, alternating with cat naps on our laps ... and their passports have been ordered! We arrived back to the orphanage at around 8:30 p.m. and passed off our happy, sleepy babies to their worried nannies. Love to all! Mom/Sharon


April 6, 2013 (from Facebook):   During our first stay in March, I showed Leeza the sign for "mommy." She thought about it for several days and then began doing her version, which is to extend her palm out, stare at her hand, and then lay it across her lips -- and then LAUGH. My first day back on this second trip, she did it -- unprompted. I caught it here!

April 7 2013:  We are now quietly awaiting Leeza’s passport; in the meanwhile, Jeanne and I visit Leeza at the orphanage twice a day and spend as many other daylight hours as possible touring the open air markets, where we people watch and breathe the culture and sample the baked goods and stockpile on things that please us like pieces of fabrics and tea towels and wooden eggs.  Orthodox Easter is coming up here, and Easter decorations and treats are everywhere you turn.

April 9, 2013 (from FaceBook): Barring any unforeseen obstacles, today will most likely be Gotcha Day! Right now we are awaiting "word" about whether the babies' passports will be ready this afternoon -- and if so, we'll be jetting off to pick them up from a city an hour and a half away, and then returning here for "Gotcha"! We think we will miss the evening express train which means we would likely be on the 12-hour overnight train ... we'd arrive in Kiev in the morning perfectly disheveled for our day-long embassy and medical appointments. But we sure have learned to laugh, which helps. Our bags are loaded with good-bye gifts to bring to the orphanage: A big basket of bright, colorful socks for babies, books and toys, Jeanne's quilts, ten Tupperware containers filled with trinkets for each nanny (thank you, Ruth!
...) Jeanne’s trinkets from Canada that she is giving out, scarves for doctors and staff, etc.  And YES!!! Chocolate chip cookies for all!  We never could get our gas stove going (I had no problem squirting gas but just couldn’t figure out where to stick a match without causing a disaster) so we had a baking session last night down at A & M’s apartment, since M claims his oven has only singed his arm hairs once.  It has no temperature to set … just a guessing game of generally how hot it feels in there.  Our first batch caused the apartment to fill with black smoke.  Eventually we ended up with a proper and edible “motherlode.”

We will try to post a picture or two or at least a Gotcha story in the next couple days, but it may be that we’re simply on the run with a baby, headed home ... 
At last.  xoxoxo

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Snowbound - March 24, 2013

On Friday after court, we returned back to the apartment to pack and catch the "express train" to Kiev (a six-hour ride versus the 12-hour overnighter train that we took last time).  A freak storm had hit Kiev, we were warned, and there was concern about whether the train would make it in and -- even if it did -- whether our flight would be leaving the next morn.

We pulled into the train station at Kiev shortly after 11:00 p.m.  This was no snow storm:  It was a blizzard!  Snow lay in heaps and drifts so deep that it was hard to imagine we were at a railway station because there were no tracks in sight!  Snow swirled, whipped by wind so hard that it appeared to be coming from every direction including from the ground; it hurt when it smacked against your cheeks.  Streets were dead quiet with buried and abandoned cars.  Our driver, who confessed he, like most other drivers, had just removed his snow tires the week before in preparation for spring, worried about us being stranded at the station, so he slid his way to the train station earlier in the day and then spent six hours waiting for our train to get in.  As he attempted to get his van out of the parking lot, which was by now snowed in, he explained to us that the blizzard has "paralyzed" the city.  When it took two men pushing for several minutes to get the van slowly rolling, I fastened my seatbelt and took a very deep breath.  "Here we go," I cringed, certain that a better option is being stranded at the train station.

 The next two hours were spent creeping and careening along almost empty roads, as the government had issued a warning to stay off streets.  No road crews were in sight, and snow was so deep on the roads themselves that cars' bottoms dragged against it.  Peter had to get out and push several times, and once we both did, with a sprint to catch up to the rolling vehicle and hop in before it got rolling too fast.  When we finally got onto the highway, pointed towards the airport, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, thinking we were home free.  However, the highways were even worse, with snow banks drifted so high that most exits OFF the highway were completely blocked.  Semi-trucks, who could not get off the highway due to the blockage of off-ramps, had given up and were lined up silently in the dark for miles in the middle of the highway.  At one point, a police car sped around us, took the next exit and POOF! smashed headlong into a bank of snow that was formerly the exit.  It sat there cock-eyed and poking out of the snow, its lights still on, surreal as a bad dream. A few minutes later, a stubborn truck driver who was determined to keep forging on got himself jack-knifed in the only narrow strip of a lane that was still barely passable, and the highway shut down until a swarm of people managed to push the entire semi backwards into a more crippled jackknife position but now slightly off to the side.  We creeped past and arrived at the airport around 1:30 a.m.  We later found out that our driver couldn't make it home and slept at a gas station.

But we were on a mission:  We were COMING HOME, and nothing would stand in our way ... or so we hoped.  The airport full of sleeping travelers told us otherwise.  We sat up throughout the night, awaiting some news, and when our flight departure bulletin flashed "cancelled" at 5:00 a.m., Peter joined the two-city-block-long line of stranded travelers in the re-ticket line.  Four hours later, he was still standing in the line when tempers began to flare and fights began. One person who was accused of "cutting" told the crowd who was yelling at him in Russian that he doesn't understand because he speaks only Spanish, so Peter bellered at him in Spanish to GET TO THE END OF THE LINE!! and he sulked off.  By noon, Peter had managed to get our tickets switched to a tentative departure on Monday, since the storm was expect to continue through Sunday.  Our amazing facilitator was able to find us a motel room near the airport.  It appeared to be a funky thing in the middle of nowhere, but when the world is blanketed in white, everything looks kind of "nowhere."  Our room came equipped with WiFi, for which we were grateful, so we could communicate back home to Pilar (who has been stoically caring for our children, pets and household the past month) that, um, she's not quite off the hook yet .... we are stuck.  By now we were hungry and comically tired; when we asked how we might find something to eat, the motel clerk pointed outside to the snowy mess.

Let me tell you that if roads were not being maintained, sidewalks were even worse with thigh-deep drifts in areas.  We stumbled down the main drag for a bit in the valleys cut by tires, jumping into the drifts and out of the way when cars slid by, only to look up at one point and discover that we were standing in front of what appeared to be .... A MALL!!!!  :)  With restaurants!

We picked the one that looked most inviting and then stared at the Russian menus for a while, stumped.  That's what happens when you don't have pictures to cheat and are language-challenged.  Within seconds we managed to get our waitress so flustered that she dashed off to get a new waitress.  Peter gave up and pointed to a neighboring customer's plate of food and said good-naturedly "THAT"!  (For the record, "that" never arrived.)   This is essentially how my conversation went: "Bees myasa, pah-zahl-sta (no meat, please!)."  Mmmmm.... no chicken?  "No chicken."  Mmmmm... no fish?  "No fish." Mmmmm ... no pork?  "No pork.  Bees myasa! No meat!!"  Mmmmm ... Ah! Ah-hah!!  A light went off.  Relieved, she headed off to the kitchen.  Five minutes later, I sat staring at a nice fat steak.  Sigh. We failed to cover "beef" in our conversation.  Or maybe my "NO MEAT!" was interpreted as, "No: MEAT!!"   Luckily there were plenty of surprises that kept arriving at our table, since we didn't know what we ordered in the first place, all of which appeared to be borne of the same thing:  Starch and grease. French fries, white rice, and fried potatoe pancakes ... we were so hungry that we devoured it all despite its random-ness.  Peter, who was almost asleep on his plate, headed back to the motel, bravely leaving me in that mall conveniently located in the middle of "nowhere" with a few hundred hryvnias -- which left me only one option.  SHOP!  One can never haul enough cookies home.   

                                                              A "Cheater Menu"

Today is the next day, and it's snowing.  Again.  Feeling snowbound, we ventured back to the mall  this afternoon during a lull in snowfall, in search of a cafĂ© with cheater menus.  We are set to leave to for the airport at 3:30 a.m. and hang out in hopes that our early morn flight will depart. Despite poking fun at the past 24 hours in this winter wonderland, I'm ready for THIS leg of our adventure to be done.  I need to be home now.  I really, really miss my home, my scene, my children.  In less than 10 days, I turn back around to leave again for Ukraine for the last leg of this adventure:  Bringing Leeza home.

Friday, March 22, 2013

One More McCracken, One Less Orphan - March 22, 2013

Our court session was just as we had been told it would be.   It took place in the judge’s room, with chairs packed in so tight you are almost sitting on your neighbor’s lap.  The judge presided from her elevated desk, with a clerk beside her; below her sat the prosecutor and two jurors.  In the audience were myself, Peter, our interpreter, and two witnesses: the orphanage attorney/representative, and the regional social worker of children’ services.  As the court directed questions back and forth to Peter and myself, we took turns standing up to answer.  At one point, we showed her a picture of Gillian, and for a brief second, the judge raised her eyebrows and smiled.  She did this a second time when I explained to her that in our country, Leeza will have rights the same as any other human being:  The right to family, the right to participate in activities, the right to an education, the right to seek medical attention, the right to attend college if she’s so inclined.  When the judge finished her questioning, we were cross-examined by the prosecutor.  Next the witnesses were asked for their recommendations, which were favorable.  The orphanage representative in particular gave a sweet recount of her observations of my daily visits with Leeza (I did not know that I was being observed!) -- that we sang and played and snuggled and even did PT exercises together, and that Leeza was clearly bonded and responsive to me.  She also explained Leeza’s sad history, which (like most children with Down Syndrome in Eastern European countries) was a story of being given up at birth, with never a visitor.  She reiterated for the court that Leeza has no hope in her country.  When questioning ceased, we were asked to leave while the court deliberated.  About five minutes later, we were called back in:  The decision was rendered; the court found in favor of our petition to adopt.  I cried so hard, the tears were splashing off my sweater.  Peter was crying too.

We are pleased to introduce our youngest daughter, who -- by order of the Court today in Ukraine -- will be named “Elizabeth Jean McCracken.”  We will call her Leeza, as it is what her nannies have always called her.  The “Jean” is named after her Gramma Jean McCracken, who ultimately propelled us on this journey that led to finding Leeza.  If she had never mailed us a newspaper clipping, it is entirely possible we’d never come to know that there are specially-abled children like Leeza living institutionalized lives.
Elizabeth Jean McCracken ... "Leeza"
When we sat outside the courthouse building early this morn, after a sleepless and fret-filled night, I suddenly felt warmth like a ray of sunshine surround me.  I turned to Peter and said, “I can feel it. I can feel our friends and families.”   I could feel the prayers.  I could feel the love, the support.  We stepped out of the car into the cold air, but that feeling of peace stayed with me … right through the court proceeding. 

To all who helped us along this journey, there really are no words to express our gratitude.  There is no way we could have done this alone.  Your kind words, your interest in this little blog, your offers of assistance, your prayers, your sweet gestures, your donations to our fundraiser … you are our village, and we thank you.  Immensely.
Today Leeza  is somebody:  She is a daughter.  A sister.  A niece.  A grand-daughter.  A friend.  And very soon, a member of our community that helped to bring her home.


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Seeds of doubt - 03/17/2013

As we draw nearer to our court date, I cannot swallow this sense of dread -- for ourselves and our families, should an unfavorable result occur; but above all, for Melody, whose future is worse than bleak here.  In less than two years, Melody will be removed from her loving baby orphanage and shipped off to a mental institution as an un-walking child with Down Syndrome, a one-way ticket to life in confinement. 

In the U.S., adoption court is celebratory.  Families are invited to attend, the adoptees themselves participate, all gussied up, and even the judge revels in the only superior court proceeding where everyone present is HAPPY. 

Not so here.  Our court session, tentatively set for five days from now, will be adversarial in nature, with a prosecutor, jurors and witnesses present.  We will need to provide reassurances to those in opposition to, or skeptical of, international adoption in general.  We will need to prove that we are okay people and that we can provide for this child and that we don’t have some perverse agenda such as organ eating.  More importantly, we need to articulate why on earth we would want this child.  And that’s really the crux of it.  It’s a deep-seated problem that goes deeper than ignorance or poverty or lack of medical care, prenatal care, or special education systems.  It’s a cultural perception that will take generations upon generations to alter, that an extra chromosome is not a curse.  It’s not a tragedy.  It’s not a deformity.  It’s a difference; that’s all.  Melody is perfection, specially packaged.  We choose her.
Human rights, advocacy, early intervention, mainstreaming … it won’t begin until the perception shifts. I can only pray that with each “special” child that is hoisted lovingly to the foreground, whether in international adoption court, or the hallways of a foreign medical providers who scoff why bother, or hospital birthing rooms across Eastern Europe where mothers are convinced to give away children less than “perfect, or a classroom where one mother dares to demand an education for her disabled child, eyebrows will collectively rise in these countries and seeds of doubt will scatter and take root.
Each visit, Melody spends the first several minutes spinning in my arms, gazing upwards.  We initially speculated that she wasn’t interested in us or did not enjoy being held.  Duh.  What we failed to realize is, she’s never been out of one room.  She’s never been outside.  The walls of her room are the confines of the only world she’s ever known. Sunlight through windows, different colored walls, echoes of hallways, unfamiliar light fixtures:  every bit of it is new, startling, exciting.  When she’s done spinning to and fro, she slowly turns to me … and smiles her big, silly, “I-am-so-in-love-with-you” smile.  And for the next hour, it’s just me that she wants.  Sometimes I take her to the window and let her gaze outside to the world not yet hers.  And while she gazes, I dream that soon she will step into that fresh air, feel that sunshine on her cheeks, and begin a life that any child should be entitled to.
Melody gazes outside her orphanage

Friday, March 15, 2013

Prams, Biscuits and Boots - March 15, 2013

I will miss this city when I leave.  Being here is like stripping life back to the basics, beginning with family and ending with chocolate.  All the waste and materialism layered between is just …. absent.

Everywhere I glance, there are children walking along holding the hand of a parent, grandparent or great-grandparent.   If they’re not walking, it’s because they’re being pushed in a pram -- rain, snow and shine.  On the stoops of apartments, you’ll see tween-aged girls sitting outside giggling and whispering the old-fashioned way, before Barbie movies were invented.  When it’s not snowing, boys are outside playing street-type soccer, of their own accord.  In the early afternoon, a fresh wave of school-aged children wearing backpacks emerges, attached to the hand of an adult; at five o’clock, husbands walk home from work carrying a loaf of fresh bread.   Any time of the day, the very elderly are seated outside their apartment doors, watching the world go by like cats perched on windowsills.   There’s a refreshing absence of electronic gadgets and superfluous trinkets, toys, and video contraptions. 
Mothers do not “wear” their babies here, which has caused my attachment parenting theories to crumple.  No Baby Kelties, Baby Bjorns, Ergos, or slings??  That’s right:  Na-da.  Do the children seem flawed as a result?  On the contrary, children out and about have wonderful eye contact and smile adoringly at their care providers.  They are well-behaved and HAPPY.  In lieu of baby-wearing, there are prams.  Everywhere there are prams, four-wheeled buggies with  large wheels, a canopy that extends from the feet upwards to the chin, and lots of spring action.  Rain, shine, or snow, babies and tots cruise in snowsuits so big, fluffy and luxurious that their arms look jackknifed, jutting straight up out of their prams.   Often the prams are being pushed by a grandparent or great-grandparent who watches the children while the parents work.  When the pram-pusher comes to a stop (to talk to a friend or at a street light), they have a way of gently and rhythmically rocking the pram back and forth sideways in the same way that we bounce our legs when we hold an infant.  And most interestingly of all:  I have never heard a baby crying. 

Other random things hardly worth mentioning, but here goes anyway:
Shoes.  Dare I start?  I’ve unknowingly planted myself in the middle of The Kingdom of Shoes.  If just I’d brought a shoe budget, I’d be in heaven.    I mean, REAL SHOES.  Shoes that fit.  Shoes that last.  Shoes that withstand miles of daily walking, mud puddles, and snow.  SHOES MADE OF LEATHER.  Boots that leave me drooling.  Stilettos that even my co-worker Patty doesn’t already own and probably hasn’t even dreamt up yet.  I could spend an entire day watching shoes walk by (and I secretly do).
 Lastly, addictions.  I’m shamefully addicted to the biscuit cookies which are sold bulk in open air markets so that I can just point with my fingers and indicate how big a bag I’d like!  It’s hard to feel guilty when an entire bag costs approximately $1 U.S.   I’ve cleverly cleared a section of my suitcase to accommodate a ton or two for the trip home.   

And the noodles, how they put our sticky, starchy U.S. counterparts to shame!  Noodles, which are also sold bulk here in open air markets, are shaped and textured differently than ours – and when cooked, they are almost a stand-alone meal, dense and flavorful.   And if that weren’t enough, decadent chocolate bars abound.  They stare at me from every check-out stand and find their way into my shopping bag, every time.  Tonight, as I ate an entire bar in lieu of dinner whilst typing this silly blog, I reassured myself that my protein needs were met by virtue of hazelnuts. 

Next blog, I’ll ramble about what doesn’t work so well here.  One of them , no doubt you’ve guessed ...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Time Slips By - March 13, 2013

Time is quietly passing here, each day centered around sliding and tripping my way to and from my visits with "Melody," (not her real name) as temperatures dropped  several days ago and froze the slush blob icebergs into a treacherous mass.   I laugh at myself stumbling in my high-tech snow boots while around me the women in stilettos and high-heeled boots walk daintily over the lumpy ice … I am seriously outclassed on every level, an ungraceful and un-elegant “Americanski.”  A routine of sorts has developed, from waking up at the crack of dawn in hopes that I can Skype with the kids as they’re getting ready for bed back home in U.S.A., to falling asleep with a book on my nose each night.  In the morns, before pedestrian traffic gets going, I drink coffee and watch the stray dog action on the street below.  Stray dogs are like undergarments here , a constant presence … wandering, watching, playing, fighting, and forever howling.  Like the cats, they don’t appear to be overly thin or unhappy … just scruffy looking.  Just as my coffee runs out, it’s time to start gearing up and head down the road, where I meet  my fellow adoptive friends A & M for our morning trudge. 
Stray dogs, bleeding hearts. Suitcase sized?
Once we arrive at the orphanage, A & M head to their baby’s groupa.  I take Melody to the locked “gym,” but first I wander halls saying, Isvinichya!  Isvinichya!  Knooch, pah-zahl-stah? (excuse me, key, please?).  Once in, I am to remove my boots, put on slippers and my mask, sanitize my hands, and fetch Melody  from upstairs.  Her nannies now smile and sing out “XXX (Melody’s real name) momma!  XXX momma!”  when I show up for each visit.
At today’s morning visit, an amazing conversation took place today with nothing but gesturing, a handful of *ussian words, and laughter to fill up the uncomfortable spaces where no one was understood.  The orphanage doctor met me as I climbed the stairs to fetch Melody from her groupa.  Five minutes of language bumbling later, the message was received:  Melody  is sick and would I please go to a pharmacy and purchase medicines for her?  A “prescription” was written which was nothing more than a handwritten list on a three-inch piece of torn-up scratch paper.  Not that that matters, as medicines are filled here “over the counter” and without a prescription anyway.  As far as I could figure it, based on my morning visit, Melody had a tad of a cold and a little rash around her neck … but my required “list” filled an entire sack with lotions, potions, and medicines including an antiobiotic!  I wonder what my shopping list would have looked like had she been REALLY sick?  No point in entering  into a viral-versus-bacterial debate using hand signals ... things are always better when you just go with the flow.   So be it.  (Nurse sisters, are you cringing too?)

The trouble of the day had to do with the car ride to and from the pharmacy.  I am car sick, seriously car sick.  The driving here is nuts:  There appear to be no rules or limits or road improvement crews, and it felt like we were doing 70 on a busy pot-holey city street with pedestrians walking just a couple feet away.   I got dropped back off at the orphanage in just enough time for my afternoon visit with my legs as wobbly as Melody’s.  The groupa head nanny was relieved to see the bag of meds and thanked me profusely … and then I had Melody to myself for an hour and a half.  Luckily, she  was full of spunk and vinegar today and took my mind off my misery for the most part, although I cheated and pulled my face mask down when no one was looking since wearing a face mask when you’re post-car-sick is torture.  Besides, I am starting to worry that Melody thinks the face mask is a permanent part of my head and will be frightened when she sees that I have a mouth that moves.  Sure enough, her eyes got very wide when she saw the new different me.   I put it back on.  Go with the flow, go with the flow …

As I was leaving my morning visit today, three groupa nannies surrounded  me, earnestly inquiring … something!!!  I finally figured out that they were very worried about what I would name “Melody” when she gets to “America.”  I reassured them, “Ah!!  (real name, real name)!!  Da, da!”  They were so relieved that you could see tears in their eyes, and they all hugged me.  The mistrust that was so apparent a week ago is washing away.  I love these women, who present Melody to me proudly each visit with a fresh hair-do, dolled up in her only dress (which I gather is the only garment here that fits her), and swaddled lovingly in an old stained blanket.  They are doing the best they can in a flawed, sad, and impoverished system, and they love their babies … Melody too.   I am grateful.
Limped my way home, still nauseated … I’m skipping dinner, saying hi and good night to ya’all, and calling it an early night.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Settling In-Counry - March 9 - 11, 2013

3/9/13 – Getting to know "Melody" (sorry I cannot post pics of her yet)
Despite the abundance of addictive "cookie biscuits" and scrumptious chocolate bars here, we’re losing weight.  Twice a day we bundle up and trek to the orphanage.  In the snow, it takes twice as long and twice as much work!  By the time we get back home from the morning visit and de-thawed, it’s time to turn around and do it again.  We’re all grateful for our snow boots. 

"Melody" (not her real name) is 20 months old, looks about the size of a very thin six-month-old, and is developmentally about a 4-month-old.  She cannot sit up on her own, and her skinny little legs are like jell-o and cannot support any weight.  She has the cutest ponytails ever, thanks to her groupa nannies :  two brown fountains at the top of her head, secured by neon-colored pony-tailers.  She loves to spin around in your arms to gaze at light. The first couple days, she showed no interest in us and was unresponsive to pretty much everything (sounds, movement, faces, coo-ing, singing, touch, etc.).  She wasn’t very comfortable being held, and would arch her back and spin and twist the whole time.  We started to worry that she cannot hear or see (she’s very cross-eyed) … but it became apparent that she sure has a sixth sense about the whereabouts of toys!  If she sees a rattle, she’ll reach over and grab it so fast in her teeny little hands that she will almost flip right off your lap.  We no longer worry that she can’t hear either, as she spun around and stared at the door once when the food cart rattled by down the hall.  She simply wasn’t seeing or hearing US! 

On day three, she looked at my face for the first time and studied it a bit.  We got one smile out of her.  She has two long bottom teeth and nothing on top except one gargantuan molar in the back, which makes her look a bit like a pumpkin when she smiles, as she opens her mouth wide and smiles with her whole face.  It about kills me, it’s so cute.  On day four, when we picked her up, she sank right into my arms like “this is home!” and it’s been like that ever since.  She’s enjoying being held!  The rare occasions that she makes eye contact feel like huge milestones for us, and we’ve even figured out how to make her smile and laugh by kissing her neck under her ear.  Today she kept lifting her chin so I’d do it again … and she was playful, making kissing-smack noises, shaking her head, and jabbering.  We were able to check out her heart surgery scar which starts at her collarbone and runs down to her upper belly and fans out.  With each passing day, with each shared moment, we can sense her ease, and we feel hopeful.  If there’s one thing she has going for her, it’s her spunk and the shine in her eyes.

3/10/2013 – Here alone
Peter left last night to catch a train and then two flights home.  We both felt that due to our inability to connect with our family (no internet most of the time, no phone – period!, and no Skype), and the fact that our court date is so far away, that one of us needs to get home, despite the cost of the extra plane tickets.  As I watched him walking down the alley, tromping through the snow with his duffel bag and suitcase, I panicked.  I kept thinking, I’m sitting here in XXX with no phone, internet only if I’m lucky, and I haven’t learned how to say “help” in *ussian, let alone get ahold of police (I’ve never seen police here, which makes me wonder if there are any but may actually be a good sign).  I woke up last night every time I heard a sound.  Peter will return on March 20 to arrive in time for our court date.

This morning I swallowed all of my fears:  Lit the gas stove myself, mastered the coffee French press, took my bath by flashlight, finagled my way out of the apartment (I can never figure out all the bolts and literally got stuck INSIDE the apartment once), and found the orphanage, which is like weaving your way through a maze of a mile of old apartments that all look the same in the snow – by myself!  Melody had her best day ever … studied my face for about five minutes and laughed again and again before “spacing off” (completely relaxed and content in my arms, but suddenly more interested again in lights.)
Feeling brave, I discovered a children’s shoe store on the way home and, using a sketch of Melody’s little foot, discovered -- by having an entire conversation in hand signals -- that shoes are not made that small here.  Instead, I walked out with two pairs of the plush thick tights that both boys and girls wear here and a bag of cabbage and veggies.  Nutella wasn’t quite meeting my nutritional needs after all.

Haven’t talked to the kids since we left, and it eats me up.  Once we had a spastic Skype connection which appeared to be counterproductive because the kids saw our faces for one brief second and heard our voices – but then as we cut out and the picture went away, we could hear them erupt into howls.  I’ve heard a couple stories, like Pilar’s description of the kids as being almost cute and inquisitive and funny when they’re not being ornery about nothing in particular.  We heard that Gillian has pulled a couple “refusing to budge” stints on Pilar, who sent her on the bus one day in her PJs with her shoes in her backpack.  We heard that Princess R told Grampa, “I miss my mommy and daddy.”  Other than that, I’ve no idea what’s going on at home except that Pilar is one brave and exhausted young lady.  And as much as I miss having Peter here (he is always the life of the party), I am so glad he’s headed home.

3/11/2013 - Slush hopping

Snow is melting and the twice-daily walk to the orphanage is all about guessing which slush-puddle might be deeper than the one next door, hopping from miniature iceberg-looking-formation to formation, trying to keep your feet dry.  I LOVE MY SNOW BOOTS!!  Fun day with Melody:  In her own little way, she's learning to be "silly," making sounds so that I laugh.  While she puts on a show of being preoccupied with her toy (usually a rattle), if I stop singing or whispering to her, she'll pause ... and then start in on a I'm So Cute, So Pay Attention To Me! repertoire which goes kinda like this:

     One raspberry
     One ma-ma-ma-ma
     One shake-shake-shake-your-head-so-your-ponytails-fly
     One kissy-smack sound
     Two tugs on your ear

... and then start back over.  She likes when I laugh!  Today is the first time that she actually looked -- for a few seconds anyway -- at a picture book.  Her stamina for stimulation, interest in what goes on around her, and intrigue with me is increasing a bit daily.  Love it!

Meeting "Melody" - March 4 - 6, 2013

3/4/2013 Overnighter train

"Train Coffee"
We took a 12-hour train ride on a rickety 1940’s-or-before-era train all through the night and into the morn, headed southeast towards *ussia to the region of XXX,  a city called XXX.  We were in a “sleep” car, a teeny compartment with four iron bunks, but I couldn’t sleep and watched XXX  pass by for hours on end until the sun eventually came up, listening to the groans and clackity-clacks of the old train.  The landscape was primarily countryside and abandoned war-era brick buildings without windows and shacks pieced together with concrete, tin, bricks, etc., broken up by occasional graveyards that ran along the train tracks.  Mostly it was a blur of birch trees passing and decrepit buildings … and no snow, much to my surprise!  Peter was like a little boy on the train:  He LOVES old trains, and when he was able to purchase a couple cups of strong “train” coffee  early in the morn, he was like a little boy on Christmas morning.  We arrived in XXX at 7:30 a.m., disheveled and spaced out … with just enough time to drop of our packs to our apartment, brush our teeth, drive to the office of the regional social worker to pass off paperwork, and head to the orphanage!
3/5/2013 Meeting Melody for the first time  (sorry I cannot post pics of her yet!)

It happened in the orphanage director’s office, along with the director himself, our facilitator who translated for us, the regional social worker, another adoptive family, and the children’s doctors.  First, each family was given a cryptic prenatal, birth, and medical history of their child in *ussian which was translated into English -- no easy task when it came to describing the heart surgery Melody had a year ago in which three separate defects (two of which I'd never heard of)were repaired.  We scribbled notes as fast as we could, as this is our only opportunity to get medical info about the children.  When the doctors finished, our children were “presented.”  Melody arrived first, carried in by two groupa nannies who appeared to be under pressure to have her perform well for us, as they nervously cooed  her name every time she made a little squawk, lest she start to fuss.  I burst into tears when I saw her.  She looked just as I dreamed, only more beautiful and about half the size.  She has gorgeous dark hair, eyes, and lashes, and a perfectly chiseled nose.  She was chirping loudly (“singing,” they called it) and was described as “strong-willed.”  Her thin little legs poked out from beneath a ruffly dress, and her hands looked the size of a newborn’s.  She twisted around to see the lights of the office, which intrigued her.  I was able to hold her for a couple minutes before the next baby was “presented” and Melody was whisked out.  Peter appeared to be in shock.  After presentation we were given one more opportunity to ask questions of the doctor, and then asked right then and there if, given all we’d seen and heard, we still wanted to adopt these children, all three of whom have Down Syndrome.  We of course accepted.  :)  T'was love at first sight ...

3/6/13 City XXX
City XXX, from the outside, resembles a slum … miles of ancient, crumbly apartment buildings  with balconies pieced together of scrap metal, corrugated tin, wood pieces, spray-painted all different colors.  But the sidewalks are alive with people and families bundles up in their finest and warmest, walking to whatever their destination may be.  Despite its sketchy aesthetic, it feels very safe outside amongst the crowds and stray dogs.  There are little playgrounds everywhere, nestled beside most apartments.  I love how the children are always well-behaved and holding the hands of their parents.  Most families appear to have one child; occasionally you’ll see two.  It’s ironic to me that sitting just behind these apartments is our enormous orphanage, housing approximately 160 institutionalized babies, most of them perfectly healthy.  There is nothing tourist about this city; indeed, we’ve yet to meet anyone who speaks any English except an occasional “good-bye.”  Our court date has been tentatively set for March 22, which means for the next 2-plus weeks, we’ll be walking to the orphanage twice a day for a one-hour visit with Melody, and traversing the area and shops on foot.  I love it here, moreso with each passing day.

Our little apartment is on the fifth floor.   The stairwell, which is dark and cement, freaks me out.  But the inside of the apartment is bright and warm and comfortable.  We never could get the internet via the apartment’s Ethernet to work, but we were finally able to find a dicey Wi-Fi connection.  We were warned that the bathroom light doesn’t work, so we do our business by flashlight.  The showerhead doesn’t work either, so I curl in a ball underneath the spigot.  Peter’s found a different method. 
Each day seems to get a little colder and finally it snowed … and snowed.    It doesn’t slow anyone down:  STILL the sidewalks are full, STILL the cars rip by, and STILL the beautiful women wear boots with heels!  Snow has taken the harsh edge off, and it’s magical outside.

Monday, March 4, 2013

We made it! March 5, 2013

Blogging has been a luxury, and there’s been no time for luxuries the past two weeks!  Fast forward through a whirlwind of scrambling, packing, crash courses in Russian, tying up loose ends with our jobs, our household, our finances, schools, day cares, preschools, assembling lists and more lists … topped off by the arrival of Pilar, our 28-year-old brave goddess who’s charged with the daunting task of managing our home, kids, and pets for the next three weeks…

And here I am, sitting at a table in a teeny apartment overlooking a busy street in a one-thousand-year-old city in Eastern Europe, drinking coffee that we’ve made out of bubbly, gassy water that we purchased by accident, not understanding the language – and even if we did, not understanding the Cyrillic alphabet. The sun is beaming through the window at 6:00 a.m., but outside snow lines the sidewalks and mottles the crazy roof lines, and the cold bites right through your clothing as if you weren’t wearing any.
It’s a moment of peace in what has been a couple weeks of sleep deprivation and an emotional rollercoaster unlike any I’ve known. 

And now it really sinks in.  I don’t know how we did it, but we’re here:

Peter has been patient with my hysteria over technology, or lack thereof, which has almost resolved itself so that we can relax from the panic that has gripped us by spending several days en route with no means to communicate home.  Now we can laugh a bit and – more importantly – look forward.  A word of advice for those who may be traveling out of country soon:  Learn your technology BEFORE you leave.  For whatever reason, our phone will not work here.  Our brand-spanking new laptop that we purchased just days before flying out is loaded with Windows 8, which is about as user-friendly as changing the diaper of a wiggly toddler with only your left hand.  It REFUSES to acknowledge any wi-fi that’s been made available to us.  That left all hopes pinned on an old I-pad that a neighbor was kind enough to run over to us the day before we left … but never having seen one, let alone used one, we found that learning on the fly (literally!) does not work out so well if you’re not a gadget-savvy teenager or you’ve left your gadget-savvy teenager at home.  What this meant was, by the time we were flying out of Munich, not having talked to our family in two longgggggggggggggggggggggg days, I panicked.  I mean,  seriously panicked.  The nose of that plane  was pointed in the wrong direction:  How could I put myself on the other side of the world from my family without a means to communicate?  I sobbed the entire flight to (Our Country X).  When it became apparent that the drunk man two rows back had died en route, a little perspective settled in.  Things could be worse.
Yesterday I staved off my mounting panic to make our first appearance at the department of orphans, the moment we’ve been anticipating for months.  Sitting in a room lined with binders full of pictures of the country’s orphans, we held our breath that our girl was still amongst them.  And she was.   And she’s still available.  We were given an opportunity to view other orphans or to change our mind.  We didn’t hesitate for a micro-second:  We accepted her referral.

Afterwards, we walked across the street from the government building to a local restaurant and met for the first time many of the folks behind the scenes of this country’s sad orphan situation, whose passion and perseverance in fighting to create adoptive opportunities for the cast-away special needs orphans is remarkable.  Were it not for them, we would not be here.  Were it not for them, these children would never know a family or a world outside the confines of their institutional walls.  You could almost see their halos.
We also met several U.S. families who are adopting special needs children.  One of them, as it turns out, will be adopting from the same orphanage as us.   Lucky for us, they are avid i-Pad users and were willing to give us a crash course right then and there.  Voila!  I was able to send a cryptic and hilariously desperate message to Facebook, begging someone, anyone to check in on my family and Pilar.  By the time we’d left, we’d received response back from family in the U.S. and, for the first time in several days, the cloud of panic lifted.

Now I can look ahead!
This afternoon, we will pack up, drop by the government building to pick up our orphan referral, and head out on a 12-hour overnight train to the region in which Melody’s orphanage is located.  (Sorry, still can’t disclose her real name or specifics of our whereabouts!).  Tomorrow will be spent running around gathering paperwork, meeting the director of the orphanage, and setting up a visitation schedule with Melody, whom we will be meeting within the next day or two.   The length of our stay there will depend on how long it takes to get a court date, as long as a couple weeks.  Between now and then, we’ll make a daily trudge through the snow  to the orphanage to spend time with, and get to know, our Melody.

Last night I dreamt of her.  I dreamt that her groupa nanny walked her out to me and gently set her down in front of me.  I expected her to topple over, but instead she took several  steps to me in that crooked just-learning-to-walk way.  Her long dark hair was held back in two ponytails, and she smiled shyly at me.  I picked her up, surprised by her healthy weight, and she perched on my hipbone as if she’d always been there.   I woke up this morning at 4:00 a.m. feeling hopeful and, for the first time in a week, semi-refreshed.  Six hours of sleep sure beats the heck outta my two-hour average over the previous few days.  Add a pot of bubbly-water coffee and a chunk of a chocolate bar for breakfast, and I’m ready for anything.  Speaking of, everyone talks about how much weight they lose when they come here, but I don’t see that phenomenon in my horizon when bakeries and chocolate and fresh bread abound here.
We finally got our (until now useless) laptop online, thanks to an old-fashioned Ethernet cable that was lent to us by our apartment’s manager.  Since we need to return it to him today, Peter just set off on a mission to buy another cable before we head out to country, assuming our wi-fi woes will continue.  All you can see of him is his nose poking out from behind a wool hat with earflaps and a scarf wrapped tight.  He'll face the cold rather than face a panicked mama again.  Oh, and he's searching for water that tastes and acts like water.  Buying anything here is an adventure itself. 

I’ve packing to do, so that’s all for now.  Love to all, and miss you so much I feel it in my bones.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Very Big News - February 14, 2013

I somehow thought I’d have a great, memorable story to tell about the moment that our Big News arrived.   Oddly, I don’t.  But here’s a modest recount …

At 6:00 this morn, I woke up in a start, glanced at the clock, and flew out of bed.  I sprinted down the stairs in darkness, intending to plant myself somewhere conveniently between the phone and the coffee pot, as I’d heard a rumor that we may be receiving some news today or tomorrow.  Not just any old news, but either an invitation or a rejection from Country XX for the purpose of adopting a special needs child.  It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for, praying for, and worrying about for the past five months.
But alas!  There was no phone on the receiver!  THAT meant, gulp, the phone was *somewhere* in the house.  Now, don’t get me wrong:  Our home is tidy and clean.  Okay, most often. This week has been an exception.

Allow me to paint a picture: 
For the past week, the flu has woven its way through our house, randomly snagging this one… and then that one… leaving no tow-head untouched.  A fever for you, stomach flu for you, lung guck for you, nose goo for you, all of the above for you, you, and you ….  At any given moment over the past five days, the limp bodies of the sickest ones line the couches, their fevered little feet poking out from beneath their favorite blankies.  Buckets, tissues, blankets, pillows, and towels litter the floors, couches, window ledges, and couch arms. 
In a panic, I pressed the “pager” and eventually discovered the phone at the other end of a muffled “brnggg!” buried beneath a two-day mass of Valentine crafting projects totaling over 200 hand-made and individually-signed cards between the five sick kids – in the hopes they’d each have a miraculous recovery so as to attend their class parties today.

6:15:  Silence.

Peter, who was still sound asleep, had offered to take “sick kids shift” today so that I could go to work. . So as I stood there, pondering whether to start the shower next before the kids awoke or the coffeepot, the phone rang eerily in the morning silence … in my hand.  I let it ring a couple times before answering, knowing that Melody’s future – and our family’s -- will be forged by what is said on the other line.
What was said was a blur.  But what happened was this:  I ran back UPSTAIRS faster than I’d run down and jiggled Peter awake, whispering, “Peter!! PETER!!! We’re going!  We’re going!  We’ve been APPROVED!!”

So our big news is this:  We leave for Eastern Europe in just 2 weeks.  In just 2 and a half weeks, we’ll be kissing the cheeks of our Ms. Melody. 
Happy Valentine's Day ... indeed!!  :)