For about a year, I was addicted to a Web site. Well, two Web sites actually, both of which did the same thing. They listed beautiful, tragic children, whose photographs were displayed in colorful rows or with banner headlines, pleading with someone to take them home.
There were some babies in the mix and some older kids. Most were toddlers, clasping toys or wearing huge bows in their hair.
Each morning I would scroll through these hundreds of kids, sorting them by age or country or gender. I knew I couldn’t actually adopt any of these kids online, but the sites were so seamless that it often felt as if I could. You find a kid, click on his photo, and get whisked off to an adoption agency, where you’re presented with more information designed to rip out your heart: “Rashid is a cutie pie who is waiting for a Mommy and Daddy to bring him home.” “Yamile likes to write and draw and dreams of being a doctor when she grows up.”
There was no reason for me to be messing around on these sites. I had two school-age sons already, plus a job that devoured both time and energy. And yet there I was every morning, logging on to check “my” kids. I wanted Yamile and Rashid and whomever else I discovered in my morning haunts. I wanted the beautiful little girls from Cambodia, and the hungry toddlers from Haiti and the older Russian siblings who probably had no chance of ever being adopted. In some strange way I would start to fall in love.
Eventually I took the next step. I told my husband what I was up to. He was surprised at first, but the pictures tore his heart as well, and he realized how committed I had become. So we agreed hesitantly to find out more.
On a brilliantly sunny June day, I went to a local adoption agency and confessed my obsession. I received the first pile of paperwork and, while I was there, I was attacked by photos again. One of those children, I giddily felt, was mine. My kid, misplaced somehow, and determined to find her way home.
For the next several months my husband and I grappled with this sudden odd calculus. I couldn’t explain what was driving me to those pictures. He couldn’t understand what was missing, or wrong. Everything about adoption seemed scary and unnecessary. We worried about the health of an unknown child. We worried about our boys, about our jobs.
Mostly, though, we worried about our choices. When we had decided to have babies the old-fashioned way, the decisions had been simple: yes or no, now or later. Now it involved all those horrible variables that hit me each morning from the online sites.
How do you pick a child who already exists? If there are pictures, you are inevitably choosing on looks: brunette versus blond, short versus tall. For girls, this process seems particularly cruel: a beauty pageant that plucks one little creature from the orphanage and leaves the others behind. And so my husband issued his only ultimatum: we were not going to pick this child ourselves.
We were not going to plow through any more photos or through the glossy newsletters that now arrived regularly in the mail. Instead we would pick an agency and let it choose for us. It was tough, this vow of blindness. When no one was watching, I would occasionally trawl the photo listings, half-hoping, half-dreading that my child would somehow find me. Then, nine months after we started, the agency called: It had our daughter.
The next day my normally reticent son, the son who had stayed aloof from this whole process, called me, breathless, during a meeting. He had ripped open the brown envelope and seen the girl who would soon be his sister. “Mom,” he screamed, “she’s the most beautiful girl in the world. And she looks like me.”
That night we watched the video, a polished presentation that was clearly designed to market a small child. We saw the pouffy pink dress and the shoes that were way too big. We saw a little girl who couldn’t stop talking, who loved to build with blocks and who sang very loudly and distinctly off-key. My son was right: she was the most beautiful girl in the world. This time, for the first time, my husband fell hard. “That’s her,” he said. “Let’s go get her.”
Six weeks later we flew to an industrial city on the western edge of Siberia. The first meeting was exquisitely hard. Because what do you say when you meet your daughter for the first time and she’s already six? We followed the instructions: to give her a doll, some stickers, and to repeat the few comforting Russian phrases we knew. The thing that captured her attention, though, was exactly what had captured ours in the first place: photos. Pictures of us at home, with the boys, with the cat.
Clearly the photos were more intriguing to her than we were. It seemed that the image of a home, rather than the presence of two grasping strangers, was what gradually reduced her terror and allowed her to trust. When we left four days later, to await our court hearing, the photo album remained. All of the other trinkets, the stickers, clothes, toys, quickly disappeared into the communal nooks of the orphanage. But the album stayed. When we returned six weeks later, she was clutching it, imagining her new life from a handful of photos.
That was three years ago. After a frenetic few months, our daughter blended almost seamlessly into our lives, convincing us, in the way of all parents, that no other child could possibly have been ours. She builds like her father, sings like her brother, and talks, as we all do, too much. Although she doesn’t bear a genetic relationship to our family, we constantly find resemblances: the same blue eyes as her brother, the same craving for pickles.
Her room is cluttered with the usual jetsam of nine-year-old girls, but her four most treasured possessions never leave her bedside: the album we took to her in Russia; another compiled later of the friends she left behind; and two snapshots, saved by the orphanage, of her as a toddler, posing in a crowded kitchen with grandparents we never knew.
These days the photos move in the opposite direction. Once a year, under Russian law, we mail an update to the local authorities. I find myself selecting the pictures with ritualistic concern because I want them to represent the best of both her worlds. I want whoever looks at this record to see the soccer games and ballet lessons and birthday parties. I want them to see her happy, with the family that’s now hers. But I also want them to know that this child is still who she always was: fiercely independent, and full of joy, grace, and pride.
My daughter, meanwhile, uses the photos to send what she sees as missives back to her friends. She wants them to see a new dress, or a picture of her skating, or her at the beach, so that they can catch a glimpse of the warm waves that will never reach Siberia. I don’t return to the listings very often anymore. I suppose I shouldn’t go at all, but every once in a while something pulls me back.
Several weeks ago a boy leaped out at me. He made me look at his shy face, at the self-conscious way he stood for the camera. I can’t adopt this boy. This time I know that. But I can’t help hoping that someone else will recognize him as her own: a stranger who becomes the most beautiful boy in the world.
Copyright 2005 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.