We could call him Riley,” my husband, Brett, said, referring to the Chihuahua mix playing on the Humane Society floor with our son, Ryan. Snuggled close, Ryan and Riley touched noses.
Ryan looked up at me. “Can we bring him home, Mom?”
The papers we signed that night were labeled “Adoption Papers.” But bringing home a new animal, as much as our pets are members of our families, is not adoption.
Adoption is opening your heart to a baby, then waiting six months to meet him. Adoption is worrying about who rocks him at night, then hoping someone just comes when he cries. Adoption is squeezing your eyes and ears shut when people tell you what happens in Eastern European institutions. It’s filling out forms with questions so personal you wonder how having a biological child, no forms required, is even legal. It’s inviting a social worker into your home to review all those questions and ask even more.
“How Can We Help Him?”
Seventeen years ago, Brett and I flew to Moscow, then took a train 14 hours east to meet our 18-month-old adoptive son. The medical report, proclaiming him healthy, had allayed our concerns. But not until our visit to Filotav Hospital in Moscow did we learn how wrong that report would be.
“See his big forehead? Water on the brain,” the doctor said in a thick Russian accent.
I felt dizzy. The exam room was sweltering in the 95-degree heat. Ryan’s fine, short bangs were plastered to that big forehead. Sweat rolled down my back, my short-sleeved top glued to my skin.
The doctor had quickly reviewed Ryan’s medical records, then turned his attention to the eerily quiet toddler on the exam table.
“Boy wasn’t breathing when he was born. Hospital gave oxygen,” he added.
I felt like I was fifty yards away. “How long?” I mumbled from that far away place, looking at the limp toddler on the table.
“Not so long.” The doctor moved our son’s legs. “Boy’s legs are weak.”
The doctor scooped Ryan up off the table, then set him on the floor, where he stood looking at the wall. He spoke in Russian to our son, who glanced at him for a split second, then quickly away before he took slow steps in his odd, Frankenstein-like gait. I looked over at Brett. His face was ashen, eyebrows furrowed.
“Pyramid insufficiency,” the doctor pointed to Ryan’s legs. “This is problem.”
What was he saying? His words conjured medieval charlatans.
“Will he get better? Maybe he needs more practice walking,” I said in a small voice. Why wasn’t Brett saying anything? A knot of anger formed in my chest. I looked at Ryan, so eerily still.
What were we doing here? What about the medical report they’d faxed that said Ryan could “speak in full sentences”?
Just then, Brett, a strong, 6’5” man whose height regularly brought stares, crumpled onto the bench in a fainting heap.
The doctor slipped quickly out of the room while I used a diaper to fan Brett. Ryan stood there, eyes wide, meeting mine occasionally with furtive, sideways glances. I reached out to our boy, but he looked away, unmoving. Brett sat up slowly but still looked pale.
Returning with a can of soda pop, the doctor handed it to Brett. “Drink this. I need to see next patient.”
“But, but—we have more questions,” I insisted. “How can we help our son? His leg strength?”
“Get ultrasound of brain.”
“Can we get that here?”
“Ultrasound office closed,” he answered, handing us Ryan’s records.
“When does it open?” we asked in unison.
We stared, open-mouthed. This was July.
“On vacation,” the doctor added, arms wide in an expansive gesture as if to say everyone took long holidays. “Get ultrasound in States. He is good boy. Only 25, mebbe 30 percent chance of real problem. Doctor will tell you in America.”
Was Ryan OK, or wasn’t he? He’d gone to sleep in my arms. We knew that institutionalization could cause developmental delays, but we hadn’t prepared ourselves for other issues. Now, without understanding the extent of his needs, how could we help him?
“I Think He’s Your Son”
Back in our hotel room, Brett called our pediatrician. Ryan stood stiffly near the edge of the bed, eyes averted. Even the toy I offered didn’t interest him.
“Does he what? Walk on tiptoe?” Brett was saying. “No. He hardly walks at all. Stands and stares.”
I looked at our son, remembering all the warnings from well-meaning friends and family. News of children adopted from Eastern European orphanages had generated a flurry of concerned phone calls and e-mails.
“What’s that?” Brett put his hand over the receiver. “He says to offer him something, get him to walk to you, Sue.”
I reached into my bag, fished out some crackers, and held them out to Ryan. He took some goose-steps my way, reaching tentatively for the crackers, pushing three of them into his mouth at once.
“Yes, he walks stiffly, but not too wobbly,” Brett was saying. “What do you think?” he asked this doctor, whom we trusted. Then he was silent, listening. How I wished for a speakerphone! More listening, then Brett’s eyes welled up with tears as he put down the receiver.
“What? What is it?” I reached up to hug him.
“He says—” he choked up for a minute. “He says, ‘I think he’s your son, and you need to bring him home.’ ”
As I watched our son playing on the floor with the dog that night at the Humane Society, I thought about that day in Moscow 17 years ago. Ryan. Our born athlete, our prankster, our tall, lanky, typical teen. Our son.
“I want a dog, Mom,” he’d said, “but will he get along with the cats? Will he be OK? Can we bring him home?”
“Of course, Honey,” I’d said, tears in my eyes. “Trust me. He’ll be OK.”
This essay was first published in Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers. All rights reserved.