A Day In The Life of a Family Adopting a Child From An Institution

In the late morning we wake up to a busy bustling street below. This city, although considered country against the metropolis that is Kiev, seems to never sleep. I was up most of the night trying to get my son to sleep, and scrutinizing the happenings of the day. It is exhausting the way I over analyze each small piece of my behaviors as a mother to my sons, one of whom is beside me, kicking me in his sleep, and the other who lives (and sleeps?) in a place that I fear going to. I think about what his night must be like, and I worry, I worry, I worry, all night about him.

The various vendors are setting up their ware as our family pours out from our hotel onto the cobblestone sidewalk. Elderly ladies are filling large buckets with flowers, their arthritic hands aching as they adjust them into place. One of the women gives me a soft smile, the wrinkles on her face speaking to a hard life of work, and one that has softened her soul. She tends to her flowers like small children, and perhaps she hopes I will take one of them home too. Teenagers and children headed to school, laughing and pushing one another and periodically adjusting the sashes that designate them to one institute or another. Men are drinking coffee at one of the hundreds of stores and stalls that are trickled all over the sidewalk. You can still hear the soft hum of espresso machines, under their loud banter. Ukranian women, beautiful and made up, either pushing what look like vintage strollers over the cobblestone, their babies bouncing rhythmically, or they are walking confidently past groups of men who eye them up and down, some whistle in pleasure. I wish I had brought better shoes because these stones make my feet ache.

We stop at the same cafe every morning so that my husband can indulge in his espresso based drink. It is a moment of pride for him to know that he pays only cents for the same drink that costs Canadians several dollars. It is one of the few joys he has on these days, and he slurps it back quickly, but lovingly; it warms his belly. I keep my eyes to the sidewalk and our son. I don't like how he is so dangerously close to the fast moving vehicles. He rides the edge of the sidewalk to see how much it takes to get him in trouble by us. I tell him to come closer to me, he declines. He is testing us a lot these days.

Our entrance into the "other part" of the city where our son's institution is located is sharp. The stores dwindle, there is less hustle and bustle, and what is left is the cobblestone as well as small houses locked behind rod iron gates, and some street dogs hoping that we will feed them. One of them itches themselves so violently that I wish I had packed flea killer. Her nipples suggest a pack of puppies nearby, likely dead judging by how swollen and sore they look. The line of houses stops and the large brick wall that contains my sons "home" sparks my anxiety. I already want to leave, but the joy on my son's face when he sees that we have returned to play with him prompts me forward. I move a little quicker.

We open the large metal doors to the institution and are greeted by a security guard who we do not recognize but he seems to know us very well. "_______? Canada?" he questions and then points us to the direction we need to go, as if it is not already painfully etched into my mind. In the distance we can see several adult orphans pacing back and forth, periodically yelling to the sky, hunched over, or leaning against walls. The more we come to this place the more we see of them. They all know now what we are here for and they want to soak us in, just like our son does. I pass one small forlorn man sitting on the ground. He looks at me and whispers "mama". A child, still, who aches to feel the warm embrace of someone who will love and nurture him and although that person is not me, I want that for him too. I dart my eyes to the broken playground that is central, rusted, dirty, definitely not a centre for play. Too dangerous for any child. More like a graveyard. To my right is a line of portables. Maybe houses? Or classrooms? They all are painted the same institutional grey. I spot the one where our visits always happen and say a little prayer that this time they won't have to "kick out" the other children, my sons housemates, who have very few options for places to play away from the adult orphans who could hurt them. We open the door and a stale air meets us and I see their sad faces. They are still here. This worker, one of few, did not know we were coming. She quickly files them out of the meeting room, hurriedly putting on their jackets and boots, apologetically lowering her head. The smallest of the children starts to cry because he wants to play with us too. All of the children look at us as prized possessions, and there is so much sadness in their eyes that I can barely look at them. I try and rub each of their backs as they are pushed past me. One of them tries his hardest to open my back pack so he can grab something, anything, before the worker grabs his arm and shushes him out of the door. I wish I could bring them all home, but I know I am not their mom, even if I want to be.

Our son waits for us, leaning crookedly on a chair, his smile is so big and earth shattering that I nearly forget where we are. He wiggles his feet up and down, a little happy dance, does his signature laugh of glee, and motions with his hand for us to come and play with him. I notice he is still wearing the same outfit that he has been wearing for a whole week. I cringe at the idea of peeling those dirty clothes off of his body, and am fearful of the condition of his skin underneath. Judging by the large rash that begins on his neck and spreads menacingly down behind his shirt, I know that his first bath with us will be a very difficult one. Bed bugs? His smell suggests other possibilities. We walk across the carpet that has almost certainly never been cleaned, and place our belongings on the familiar wooden bench, our son hobbling behind us, waiting for me to put down my back pack so he can help us set up our first game. He takes out the hot wheels tracks one at a time, eager to put them together, but careful not to drop them. He brings them to the other side of the room grunting and motioning with his hands that he requires my help. I move chairs into place, and help him with each piece. "Dobre ______" I say as he tries to put together some of the pieces on his own. Our son motions for my husband and youngest son to come and play with him, while I work to organize the room for our hour together. An understanding between us became clear early on: he wants me to be like all of the other "mamas" (the female workers) in the facility. I am not the nurturing loving mother figure I want to be, a central player in his emotional core, but someone who merely facilitates and works to meet some of his physical needs. I give him his space and watch lovingly while he enjoys his time with his brother and new Papa. I am happy to take a back seat in his world in these early days getting to know him. My boys laughter is hypnotic.

The "classroom", or at least that is what they call it even though it has nothing in it that makes it that way, smells strongly of piss and mold. There is a table with several small wooden chairs surrounding it. There is a large shelf on one of walls that is covered with stuffed animals and other toys, none of which are played with, or have ever been played with, at least not by these children. I know this because there is an inch of dust on each of them. I note the small airplane we gave our son on the first day we saw him hidden away behind a stuffed toy duck on the top shelf. I picture the children in this room, sitting and looking up at the dusty toys and imagining themselves joyful in play with them. Beside this room is another room lined with small beds. Although the beds seem untouched I know that they are slept in, or have been slept in, because at least one of them smells of urine. Or maybe it is just the whole room, it's hard to tell. During one of my youngest son's many temper tantrums while in this place I was brought to one of these beds because I was trying to seek comfort and soothe him, only to find the urine smell was unbearably strong when I sat. I understand why he is so angry, I am too, and I know that I cannot adequately comfort him here. It will be a long time before he can feel like himself again after what we have chosen to, needed to, put him through because of this adoption.

I watch my other son buckle and fall to the ground, hear him let out a small groan of pain after trying to will his hip into the right position so he can aid the hot wheels car on its decent down the track. Many times before he would persevere through this pain and try to stand up again, but today he is very tired and I almost feel guilty for him having to do these visits, even though I know he is elated to be with us. Lying on the ground he gently pushes the car back and forth, trying to muster up just enough enthusiasm to warrant the sore shock that now radiates from his hip. Time for a new game, I decide. He watches me with a smile on his face as I set up sticker books on the table near him. My youngest son declines the sticker game, and chooses to run around kicking and punching a balloon instead, periodically rolling on the dirty ground only to jump back up again with boundless energy and enthusiasm. My husband gently carries ________ to a chair near his sticker book where he will stay for the remainder of our visit. They begin the repetition of taking a sticker off one page, and placing it on another. I watch my son's tiny chubby fingers expertly smooth down each side of the sticker, only beckoning for another once he is satisfied with the way the previous sticker has been placed. It seems so very important to him that the job is done right. These quiet moments of play seem so luscious to him, and I love watching him drink it in. I wonder if he knows we will come back the next day, and the next, our whole lives, or if he tells himself we won't, and so he must file these feelings of pleasure away somewhere in his heart to recall and get him through the worst of days. But he is tired, and his body aches, and though he wants us to stay so very badly we know he needs to rest. We find the first worker we can and in broken Ukrainian we let her know, with an ache and longing in our hearts that our visit for today must be finished. A sadness sweeps over our son's face briefly, but passes quickly as he stands up to help our first son put on his jacket and boots. He is used to being disappointed. It is a very sweet sight to behold him helping his younger, but taller brother, but I wonder if  he does this out of a distant sense of brotherly affection, or if he feels he needs to help, to work, in order to push down those horrid feelings of abandonment that surely sweep up each time we leave. That feeling is more familiar to him than love is. Or maybe he wants us to leave, because the truth is I really can't know for certain what he wants when he is unable to talk much with us at all. Our first son gives him a hug and their embrace, although brief, tells me that he makes our family complete. After waving goodbye my husband picks up our youngest son and heads towards the door. I hang back with ________ because I desperately want him to know that I do not want to leave him here, but I don't know how to show him that. I bend down to his level, reach out my arms in a hug position and wait.  He waves his hands at me, like a push, telling me he doesn't want my affection. "Goodbye _________" I say and he does several bursts of short waves behind me and looks out the window. I have to leave him once more and my heart nearly bursts into a thousand pieces. I truly feel as if I am leaving a piece of me,  want to leave a piece of me, back with him in that moldy room.

The door to that classroom opens and I welcome the fresh air into my nostrils, breathing deeply, it dries the tears that I did not know were threatening to fall down my cheeks. We walk forward into the many peering eyes of adult orphans. The word had been spread that we were here and they watch us with anticipation. I am beginning to recognize several of them, particularly the one who always comes so close to us, waving some sort of a plastic bag in our faces and asking for money repeatedly. One of the workers shoos him away, and he cowers away from their touch. Several of them mumble to themselves, a few of them giggle and smile at us with mouths fill of browning and missing teeth. One comes up to us confidently and tells us he knows a bit of English. He clearly wants to practice, and we are very impressed with his ability to recall what was likely earlier lessons at another institution. I am amazed by how able he is in comparison to some of the other men, and I am saddened with the knowledge that his skills are not put to better use. He is a ward of the state with no privileges in the outside world. He asks us where we live, what work we do, and whether we like Ukraine. I lie and say we are happy to be here, even though I ache so badly for home with my sons. He asks me the same question that many of the workers here ask, or try to ask: "Is _______ being a good boy for you? Do you like him?". All at once this sick feeling spreads over me, that I am shopping for the children they are selling. As any good salesman would do, he wants to ensure that as a customer I am satisfied with this purchase. I feel sick to my stomach, and want to get outside these walls. I can barely breathe as one of the residents playfully touches my arm, and another yells out "Canada!" in excitement. These are all children who did not get what they deserved, and _______ will never have to endure a cruel fate that locks you behind these walls for your whole life. Wards of the State. Prisoners of the State. A death sentence.

The familiar large brass door comes into view, and as soon as I leave through it I almost immediately want to go back inside. Grief sweeps in so strongly, and I look into my husband's eyes and know he feels it too. How do I leave my heart, my _______, in that place? I look at my youngest son who is crying. "I want to go home" he says, "I want my brother to come home". I remind him that there is a market place just up ahead and he will get to pick whatever treat he wants from it. Wrong or right, my husband and I will also buy ourselves a treat, usually one of the chocolate croissants, to gorge ourselves with once we get back in the hotel. A sweet momentary pleasure to cover up the deep feelings of sadness that will overcome us for the rest of the night.

Once back at the hotel we try to keep our routine as normal as it would have been at home. We make dinner, we bathe our son, we read him books, and we try and help him sleep. "I don't want to be alone, I'm scared" he says, and so we watch a show as a family until he falls asleep. Sometimes we need to give him gravol just to get him to relax. I worry about him. I see a change in him, an unwanted change. I worry that we are making a mistake and that we are breaking his heart and damaging who he would have been without the madness that this adoption has brought. I am reminded of the endearing moments of the day: him hugging his brother, his brother helping him with his boots and zipping up his jacket, the giggles when they play. I envision us as a family at home, eating dinner together, see my boys playing at a park, see them wearing soft pajamas and tucking them into bed. We will build this family together. My sons are stronger than I give them credit, I hope.

Eventually we will go home and ______ will be with us. That thought makes me so happy and terrified at the same time. Can he heal from all of the things he has had to endure at such a young age? Do I have the capabilities as a mother to give him what he needs when home? So many questions...none of which I can answer. Only God can.

God. He is in all of this. I feel wrong throwing God at the end of such a long post, and I will admit that oftentimes He is the last one that I lean on, but I always feel a sense of peace and assurance when I do. I wish I would allow myself to lean on Him more through this process rather than feeling so heavy all of the time. Perhaps that is my prayer, to be with God more. This adoption began over 3 years ago when I told my husband that I felt called to do this. It began with God, as all things do, and I know that it will continue and end with Him. I should be more confident in myself too- know that God must have thought that I was a person who could handle all of this, even though I doubt myself constantly. So we move forward with the process, we survive the hard things, and hope for better things to come, because this choice to bring _____ home is much bigger and more meaningful than the individual parts, my fears and insecurities. 

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