Friday, January 06, 2006

The Year in Review

As 2005 draws to a close with our first Christmas as a family, Alli and I wanted to share with you the events and experiences of our wonderful and blessed year of dreams come true.

Let me start in March of 2004 when Alli attended an informational meeting on international adoption at the office of a local adoption agency. We had discussed adoption on a number of occasions during our many years of trying to begin a family. Alli finally took the initiative and came home with folders filled with information on the program options available at the time, i.e. those foreign countries offering adoption opportunities to citizens of the United States.

We discussed numbers – I favored one child, Alli wanted two – and deliberated on the many factors involved when one considers international adoption as a whole and specific programs/countries in particular. We eliminated countries from which we might adopt just one child – Alli won again - as well as those more gender specific in availability of children for adoption. We evaluated expected duration of process, projected length of stay abroad and, of course, financial obligations. In the end, we settled on Kazakhstan. Once part of the Soviet Union but independent since 1991, Kazakhstan is among the world’s largest countries in land mass, shares borders with Russia and China and counts among its other neighbors combustible countries including Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran. We had never heard of and knew little about Kazakhstan, but hoped it held the answer to our prayers for children.

The arduous process of evaluation and qualification began almost immediately, and we spent weeks completing paperwork, soliciting references, submitting to local and federal background checks and FBI fingerprinting, and proving ourselves physically and financially fit. In July of 2004, our home study behind us and our dossier complete, the waiting began while our agency and the baby home they work with in the town of Kostanai worked to match us with the children who met our qualifications: We hoped for a boy and a girl and expressed preferences for Russian children, one a toddler and the other an infant, with neither older than 24 months and one between 6 and 12 months. We thought we’d like the infant to be a boy, a notion the agency supported at first but later suggested we revise in light of the scarcity of toddler girls. Weeks by with no word as summer turned to fall and then winter.

Early in January, 2005 we spoke with our agency’s stateside placement coordinator, and she encouraged us to further expand our horizons to include children of Kazakh heritage, children closer in age to one another and children of the same sex. We continued to insist on our high-end age parameter but were agreeable to her other suggestions. On January 24, we received our “referral:” pictures and medical histories on two children, a girl (Viktoria Shihova) and a boy (Artyom Lobas) born within eight days of one another in October 2004. We took the medical records to a local pediatrician who specializes in international adoption and is herself the mother of two adopted children. While some of the verbiage in the reports was unnerving to us, the doctor quickly explained the problem lay not in the content of the reports but in what might be lost or confused in the translation of three distinct languages – Russian, English and medical terminology. She was pleased with the information and offered her enthusiastic endorsement of the referral. We accepted the referral on January 28.

The paperwork was grueling and the search for a match very difficult, but the worst was yet to come: The next step involved waiting for the government of Kazakhstan to issue an invitation for us to travel. Only with invitation in hand could we secure our visas, make our travel plans and, of course, meet our kids. At the same time, we were both having an increasingly difficult time of things at work, and we moved from week to week hoping word would come, bringing with it an opportunity to close one unhappy chapter and open a wonderful and exciting new one.

Salvation arrived on May 17: Alli received a phone call at work telling us we were welcome to enter Kazakhstan on June 7. In the ensuing days we began processing the paperwork for our visas, secured transportation to and from Kazakhstan and broke the news at work. The next two weeks were a whirl- wind of planning, packing, preparations and good-byes until Sunday, June 5 arrived and we departed from Newark Airport for what we anticipated would be five to six weeks away from home.

7 ½ hours to London, an eight-hour layover in Heathrow and ten hours from London to Almaty later (Almaty is the former capital city of Kazakhstan and still home to the US Embassy), we were going through customs at 5:30 in the morning under the watchful eyes of very stern-looking, non-English-speaking military personnel. To hotel and bed at 7 AM Tuesday morning Kazakhstan time (9 PM Monday night back home), we awoke in mid-afternoon to word we would fly to Kostanai by way of Astana (the current capital city) the following day at 1 PM. We arrived in Kostanai at 5:30 PM, were greeted by our smiling facilitator, Olesya, and (surprisingly) went directly to the baby home! Less than an hour later, following a brief interview with the head doctor, the children were brought in: first Molly, then Aidan and finally Nicholas (adopted by our traveling companions Bob and Beth Meuser). After nearly 16 years of married life, more than a year in the adoption process, and nearly six months since we’d fallen in love with two tiny photographs, we held our children in our arms for the first time!

Molly was a sturdy nineteen pounds, able to sit without assistance, hold and throw toys and chatter animatedly to herself and others. Stoic and skeptical, a favorite among the baby home staff and the more engaging of the two children, she liked to laugh and shout, took active if briefly focused interest in the goings on around her and expressed both happiness and annoyance with unmistakable clarity. Aidan was tiny and shy. Not quite 16 pounds but two inches longer than Molly, he looked particularly slight and almost frail by comparison, and he was unable to sit by himself or hold any but the smallest toy. He was quiet and withdrawn, rarely made eye contact and seemed to take comfort in studying his fingers. He was more curious about things generally and took time to study that to which Molly might give only passing interest. He liked to snuggle more than his sister and took a shining to his mom.

We visited the children in the baby home every day for 90 minutes from 1 to 2:30 PM. Though the same age, they were housed in different rooms and in all likelihood had little if any contact with each other before we arrived. It was interesting to watch them get to know one another while becoming more comfortable with us. For the first two weeks, the court-prescribed bonding period, we were permitted to feed the children their lunch before taking them to a private area for play and interaction. Through-out the summer, we had opportunities to dress and change them and put them down for their after-noon naps. During our visits, we took them outside as often as possible, and on one occasion took them on a” field trip” off the grounds to have their passport photos taken.

We filled the time around our visits with a variety of activities. In the mornings, Bob and I worked out and carried on a summer-long ping-pong tournament at a local gym while the girls walked from one end of Kostanai to the other. In the afternoons, we’d join Olesya in procedural activities – filling out more paperwork, visiting the notary, etc. – and spend time in the Internet cafĂ© maintaining our on-line journal for the folks back home. In the evenings, we went to dinner with our translator, Dana, and enjoyed summer sunlight that lasted well past 10 PM. Soccer matches, shopping in the outdoor markets, mass on Sundays, court proceedings, our first Father’s Day, my forty-fifth birthday and too many wonderful, poignant moments to relate here filled our days with memories to last a lifetime. On July 9, the second of our court dates, the judge read her decision naming us parents to Molly Claire and Aidan Patrick. On July 25, after a mandatory 15-day waiting period, we officially became mother and father to our daughter and son. Finally, on August 8, we took Molly and Aidan from the baby home at 10 AM, flew to Almaty on a 4 PM flight and began life as a family.

Let me tell you: Ninety minutes of lunch and playing and maybe a little snack before afternoon nap did not come close to preparing us for parenthood, particularly when it began in a hotel with two kids who had never been on a plane or in a car at night, slept in air conditioning, seen a swimming pool or walked around in a large and bustling city. We ordered hot water from room service for bottles and ate our own room service meals in the bathroom so as not to disturb the kids after we’d finally gotten them to go down for the night. Many hours were spent walking around the hotel hallways and grounds at all hours of the night with children who could not have been less interested in sleeping. We soldiered on with the unfailing assistance of Bob and Beth, took Molly and Aidan for medical examinations, met with officials at the US Embassy to secure the children’s’ visas, and endured a two-day delay before leaving for home (the result of the British Airways strikes). On the morning of get-away day, yours truly spent nine hours throwing up in the hotel, the airport, the customs line and the airplane. Alli, Bob and Beth cared for the kids – all of who decided the close confines of the airplane were the perfect place for relentless diarrhea - while I struggled to take care of myself.

We reached Heathrow - a five-hour layover on the way home – where I slept throughout and awoke with at least minimal ability to participate in the final leg of the journey. Arriving in Newark (we left on Sunday and arrived on Sunday!), we were processed through customs and immigration and were met by my mom and dad. Exhaustion and emotions got the better of us all and tears flowed freely among the weary travelers and our families. We arrived home at 1 AM – 11 AM where we had just been for nine weeks – and I felt well enough to drink a beer with my dad to celebrate the moment.

We had an appointment with the pediatrician Monday morning at 11 AM. I was up walking the kids around the neighborhood at 5:30 AM – the kids went to bed around 2 AM but were up in just a few hours – and it seems as if we’ve been running at full speed ever since. I stayed home from work for three weeks after we were home , while Alli retired from Rodale and became a full-time mom. The children adjusted quickly even though in a very real sense day was night and night was day for the first several days. Mom and Dad slept very little, however, as Aidan developed a routine of waking every two hours throughout the night and crying until someone went into his room, picked him up, found his pacifier (on which he was typically standing) and plopped him back down. After a month of that nonsense – Alli is such a softy – we initiated bedtime boot camp and haven’t looked back.

Molly and Aidan were baptized in September, began walking shortly before they turned one in October, enjoyed a family Thanksgiving Donohoe/Dwyer style in November and their first college basketball game (La Salle women) in December. Molly loves stuffed animals (much hugging and kissing!), dancing and books, often “reading” aloud to herself. She says cheese, juice and eye (we think) and responds to simple questions and direction with the correct answers and actions. She is extremely observant and hasn’t missed a decorating trick in our Christmas season preparations. Aidan remains inquisitive and must touch everything and know how it works. He is very adept at observing something done once and figuring out how to do it for himself. He says cracker, cake and Pop-Pop (we think) and sings quietly to himself. They enjoy being outside, don’t particularly like grass and don’t know quite what to make of snow. They are napping well (once per day) and sleeping through the night. They enjoy playing together (essentially throwing their toys into each other’s cribs) prior to naps and upon waking in the morning and love to chase each other around the house. Regularly scheduled check-ups have all been very good: They are happy and healthy and developing on schedule. They fill our lives with oh so much work – Alli’s in particular, and she’s been great! - but reward us with many, many moments of joy, laughter and love.

We are reminded each and every day that we are truly blessed. We wish you the special blessings of Christmas throughout the season and the New Year.

Merry Christmas with love,

Pat, Alli, Molly and Aidan