Fifteen years ago, Bill and Susan Belfiore began to mark their wedding anniversaries by jotting down wishes on scraps of paper. After they had committed the first of those goals to paper, Susan announced that she was going to save them in a special jar, and the Anniversary Dream Jar was born. It’s been the nesting place, for 15 years now, of wishes, hopes, and prayers. Over the years Susan has revisited them, taking the pieces of paper out of the jar and reminding herself of what those wishes were. That, she says now, is how she knows that every one of them has come true: greater intimacy, simplicity, a sense of working for something bigger than themselves. Oh, and a family.
“Family and children,” Susan says, laughing. “We asked for that a lot.” You might think, looking around this large, modern house near Rocky Hill, New Jersey, that family and children were never in doubt. There’s a playground in the yard and boxes of Legos in the living room. But rewind back and you’d find the house a very different place. Only two people lived here, both 40 years old. One commuted to New York City, where he worked as a corporate bond broker. The other was a practitioner of Hellerwork, a system of body realignment and reeducation derived from Rolfing, who saw her clients in a small guesthouse. After trying for years to have children, they had made their peace with childlessness. They were happy. “We had a lot in our lives,” Susan recalls. “We enjoyed our work; we had good friends, a lovely home. And we had each other. But we were looking for something we could do with all of this abundance. We didn’t know what it could be or how it would show up.”
It showed up on television. One night, that summer long ago, the Belfiores, along with millions of other Americans, saw a report on ABC’s PrimeTime Live about Romanian orphanages, in which thousands of children were stockpiled in horrific conditions. Many of them were infected with HIV, which they had contracted during birth or from contaminated needles used for vaccinations and transfusions. They lay in stark cribs all day and were never played with or taken outside. The sick ones died in great numbers, and the healthy ones became sick from neglect.
The report featured an American Catholic lay monk named Brother Toby, who was attempting to improve the children’s lives by transforming the warehouse atmosphere of one orphanage into a more familial structure. At the end of the program he asked the American public not for their money but for their time.
“Do you think I should go become an orphanage volunteer?” Susan asked Bill.
“Yes,” he replied.
In Susan’s letter to Brother Toby, she wrote that she did not consider the Romanian children victims who had been put on earth only to suffer. “I said I thought that they were here to teach us, and I felt that I was someone who could learn from them.” Furthermore, she was not “afraid of the idea of being an orphan.” Susan herself was orphaned as a child. The youngest of six children, she lost her mother to a stroke when she was six, and two years later her father died of a heart attack. In the intervening period, however, Susan’s father had remarried. Susan and one brother (the rest were much older) were raised by their stepmother, who formally adopted her when Susan was 16. “I know the feeling of having love for someone who’s not your biological parent,” she says. “I know the bond. I wasn’t afraid of being an adoptive mom.”
Nevertheless, an adoptive mom is not what Susan set out to become when, in the winter of 1991, she left for Costanta, Romania, three hours from Bucharest, on the Black Sea. “I thought I was going to Romania to rock sick and dying babies,” she says. In the orphanage wards, babies were desperate for stimulation. When an attendant entered the room with bottles, the babies would raise their arms and call “Mamamama.” “It was very difficult to walk into the ward,” Susan remembers.
She moved into a three-room apartment in the orphanage and took over the care of five children, all diagnosed with HIV: an infant boy named Costin, a two-year-old boy named Ionel, and three girls—three-and-a-half-year-old Ramona, and two two-year-olds, Mihaela and Loredana. Susan had a small room of her own, an adjacent room with five cribs in it, and a play area. She tried to focus on her goal—she was there to rock dying babies—but this goal did not seem to be what her charges had in mind. “They wanted to live,” says Susan.
And live they did. Mihaela, who was erroneously thought to have a hearing problem, began to come out of her shell. Ramona, who was so frightened of grass that she shrieked the first time Susan let her touch it, learned to love the outdoors. Costin, the infant, spent months “attached to my hip,” and Ionel, who had spent more time than the others with his birth family, was an open, loving baby who flourished under Susan’s care. Loredana—at eight pounds, the smallest and sickest of the girls, the one whom orphanage workers had not wanted Susan to have (“She’ll only give you problems”)—was so physically delayed that she had to be propped into a sitting position. But she developed a passion for the jumper that Susan had brought from America and hung in a doorway, and she would bounce for hours, enthralled. The muscles in her legs began to build up, and soon she was moving around. Susan used her Hellerwork training to help Loredana learn to crawl, a neurological and physical milestone. Soon Loredana defied expectations by walking.
Conditions were, as Brother Toby had promised, very difficult: no hot water, no diapers, light bulbs constantly stolen out of the building’s sockets. When Susan and Ionel contracted hepatitis A, they were hospitalized together, in the same bed. The babies were so needy, Susan recalls, that every time she sat down, all five would pile into her lap. But Susan loved every minute of it and quickly underwent a transformation of her own. “I thought, I can either do this as a volunteer who’s going to be here for six months and hold back a bit of myself, or I can allow myself to totally open up and love them unconditionally and take a chance. It was not a labored decision. I chose to open up.” Not long afterward, during one of their daily telephone calls, she asked Bill how he would feel about adopting one of the children.
“Which one?” he asked.
She never intended to take just one. “I had to start somewhere!” she recalls now, laughing.
Romania, however, had halted all international adoptions, and the United States had yet to allow into the country HIV-positive children who hadn’t already been adopted. When Susan met with the Romanian official in charge of adoptions, the woman said plainly, “This adoption is impossible.” But what Susan heard was “It’s not possible for me to approve this adoption. You have to find someone who can.” The adoptions took a year and a half of almost weekly trips to Bucharest and a return journey home to the States, where most adoption agencies were equally unhelpful. (“You want to adopt five kids with HIV?” one agency worker said snidely. “Why not 10?”) While Bill lived “in suspended animation” in the empty New Jersey house, waiting for his wife and the children he had visited and fallen in love with, Susan banged her head against the Romanian bureaucracy. Finally, one night, she called Bill and said she couldn’t go on. She was never going to be allowed to take the children home. “We’re not through yet,” Bill said.
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“That was easy for me to say,” he remembers, “sitting here in America!”
They had no plan B in case the adoptions failed, but Bill now supposes he would have packed a suitcase full of light bulbs and moved to Romania, because it was clear that his wife was never leaving those children. Costin had unexpectedly tested HIV negative, and his birth parents were able to take him back. Then, a few months later, the other four adoptions were approved, and Susan quickly flew to the United States with the children before another obstacle could materialize. They got home on July 28 a day the family celebrates each year with cake and a ceremonial viewing of the video of their arrival at the airport.
At first the children, who were by this time three and four years old, were shocked at the amount of space in their four-bedroom house. “For the first few weeks, we would move as a group,” Susan remembers. “If I went into the living room, we’d all go.” Soon enough, however, they spread out, filling the house with the sounds of playing and growing up.
Susan and Bill’s dreams of a family seemed more than fulfilled. Then, one morning three years later, Susan was looking in the mirror and asked her husband, “What happened to my waist?”
“I wasn’t falling for that one,” Bill laughs. He gave the only correct answer: “You look perfect.” But she didn’t feel perfect. She felt rotten. It was probably menopause. After all, she was 45. In fact, a few months before this, her period had stopped.
Susan went to her doctor. She took a long, unmistakable look at the sonogram of her three-month-old fetus. She called Bill at his office. “I couldn’t work for the rest of the day,” he says. “I just sat there.”
Aidan, born late that year, is now an exuberant six-year-old who sometimes wishes people would fuss over him for the same reasons they fuss over his big brother and sisters.
“I wish I was adopted,” he complains to his mom.
“OK,” says Susan, “I’ll adopt you.”
“No,” Aidan whines. “From Romania.”
Susan now recognizes that she was not ready to be a mother back when she was trying to become pregnant: “Whenever I baby-sat during those years, I felt stuck. But later, when my own children arrived, I never felt that I wanted to do anything other than be with them.” If she had had her own biological children in her thirties, she would not have been available to Ionel, Ramona, Mihaela, and Loredana, and they would not have been available to her. She believes that another—yes, higher—power is in charge. “What more can you ask for in life,” she says, “than to know there’s a larger purpose than we might be aware of on a day-to-day basis?”
The Belfiores do not focus on what Susan terms “the horrors of HIV.” Two of the older children are now asymptomatic; the other two are closely monitored. Susan is hoping for the best and is grateful for the new drugs that have made a big difference, but “life is too precious to be worrying about the future,” she says. “After all, who knew we were going to get these 10 years?” Often people will come up to Susan or Bill and tell them how lucky the children are to have been rescued. “But every now and then, someone will say, ‘You’re so lucky.’ And when they do, I always think, This person has really got it.”
This article is reprinted with permission from Real Simple.