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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Becoming a Family

Seven years ago this week, I became the mother of an 11-year-old Russian girl. I had traveled literally half-way around the world, to western Siberia, to appear before a stern judge who would decide whether to approve my application to adopt a beautiful, shy girl known as Yul'a. I guess she approved of my application and my answers to her questions, because it took only a few minutes of deliberation before she returned to her courtroom with an affirmative response. She also, fortunately, approved my request to waive the standard 10-day waiting period -- a time ostensibly set aside in case I wanted to change my mind about the adoption.

As someone who hates cold weather and snow, I wasn't thrilled with the thought of flying to Siberia in late December. But I had no choice. I was told, with only a short advance notice, what date to appear in court. The date was not negotiable. I had expected not to get the call until spring, as the typical wait after submitting the dossier of required documents was usually several months. My dossier went to Russia in September. I don't know, and never will know, the reason for the quick turn-around. Maybe it's because I speak Russian. Maybe it's because my undergraduate degree is in Russian language. Maybe it's because I had lived and worked in Moscow for several months and had made half a dozen trips to the capital city.

I flew into Moscow, and after a couple of days, went on to Tyumen', a large city in the heart of Russia's gas and oil region. The day after my arrival there, I met up with my interpreter, facilitator and driver for the 40-mile trip through the Russian countryside to the village of Berkut, where my daughter lived in an orphanage with approximately 35 other kids.

The director, a nice woman named Ol'ga Mikhailovna, greeted me warmly, and I gave her the  numerous scarves, gloves and mittens I had brought for the kids. We chatted for a short time, and then she sent for Julia (who was in school), after explaining that Julia had no idea I was coming for her that day. She felt that Julia would have been too excited to do anything had she known of my pending arrival.

Julia looked stunned to see me. I had tears in my eyes and was barely able to speak her name. Because it was her birthday, I had brought some hard candy (I was told not to bring chocolate), a cake and some oranges. The children and staff had a little party in the multi-purpose room, then Julia gathered her meager belongings and changed clothes. She was required to leave all her clothes behind, so I had brought some new outfits for her to wear until we got home. After taking a few photos, we were on our way back to Tyumen'.

After court the next day, we set out on a whirlwind of visits to various offices to obtain a new birth certificate (with her American name) and a Russian passport. We had time to do some sightseeing and shopping at a local department store before flying back to Moscow the next day. We went directly from the airport to get pictures taken for Julia's required U.S. visa application, and then to a doctor's office for a physical and chest x-rays.

The U.S. embassy was closed for a few days in honor of Christmas, so we did some sightseeing and shopping in Moscow, and we got to visit Linda, an old dog I had befriended during my time in Moscow. Linda remembered me, wagging her tail and whining when she saw me after 5 years. The city was brightly decorated for the upcoming New Year's holiday, the major winter holiday in Russia, with decorations and 'Christmas' trees everywhere. Russian Orthodox Christmas isn't celebrated until Jan. 7, and New Year is the big holiday. So we spent a quiet 'American' Christmas spending time together, taking pictures along the Moscow River and visiting the magnificent Christ the Saviour Cathedral across the river.

By the Moscow River.
Once we got Julia's visa from the embassy, we prepared for the long trip home on the Russian airline, Aeroflot. Our departing flight was delayed by several hours, so we missed our connecting flight from Seattle to San Jose, Calif. When we finally got home the next morning, Julia snatched the house keys from my hand as I paid the shuttle van driver. She was so excited to be home! 

Things went smoothly for a few years, and then the problems started. Like many adopted kids, Julia has reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD. The latter can be treated with medication. The first two -- things adoption agencies don't talk about -- can be treated with lots of therapy, but they will never be 'cured.' Our path together has been a rough one at times, filled with failures, disappointments and heartache. But together, we have weathered the storm. Julia is a remarkable girl (now a young lady of 18) who has overcome more trauma than most adults will face in their entire lives.

The changes she has made through the force of her determination and inner strength, with her remarkable insight and with the help of some awesome therapists, have been nothing short of remarkable. She has learned to be part of a family, to be a daughter, and to trust. She has learned that she is worthy of being loved.

I pray that we have come through the worst of the storm, and that calmer waters await us. But as I continue to remind her, we are in this together. She knows that she will always have my support and love. We are a family at last.