Monday, December 24, 2012

One Week Home Already!

So our driver picked us up last Friday at 3am and headed to the Kiev airport to board the first of three flights.  Want to know what Terminal D looks like at that time of morning?

As the plane sped down the runway and began its ascent, I had to quickly wipe away a tear or two (didn't want Bella to see me cry and become concerned).  I was so RELIEVED and HAPPY this journey was almost over and I was leaving this country to go back to my home.  Don't get me wrong - I had a good experience there, and I met people who I believe will be part of my life forever.  But there are things about Ukraine that make me feel sad and hollow inside, that make me try to find answers to questions that I sometimes I wish I didn't even know to ask. 

And so it was when we landed in Frankfurt, Germany a couple of hours later...this time I think I cried a little because it just all looked so beautiful and so normal to me - like confirmation that I was back in the "real" world instead of bleak otherworldly Eastern Europe. 

Meanwhile, Bella was handling all the travel extremely well!  I had to purchase two airplane seats for her since she cannot tolerate sitting up yet.  Our next flight was from Frankfurt to San Fransisco - 11 hours and 40 minutes, and she was so good.  I know adults who can't behave on a flight that long!   We met some neat people along the way - for example, there was a Russian-speaking missionary on our long flight who had actually lived in Ukraine for two years.  He happened to be standing behind us as we were waiting in line to get on the plane and we struck up a conversation.  He was able to help me out some.   Once we cleared customs in San Francisco (and I said I had no prohibited items!) and were waiting to get our bags and recheck them, an airport dog made a hit on my carry-on bag.  The agent asked me if I had produce and I discovered that I'd accidentally carried a banana from Europe.  He was nice about it, and as he wrote on my customs form, he asked me about what I had been doing in Ukraine.  When I told him, his eyes lit up and he told me that he and his wife had adopted one child internationally and were in the process of adopting another :)  After our layover we boarded our last flight to Honolulu.  Unlike the other flights, Bella slept for the entire time but I was too excited to do anything except watch the minutes tick by.

When we arrived in home sweet Honolulu, there were no tears for me.  I was soaring with excitement and relief.  We were greeted by many of our friends (some of whom are adoptive families) - it was very special to have some of the people who supported us and prayed for us throughout this process there to see it all come to fruition.

Bella took everything in stride - smiling at everyone, extending her hand to greet them, and reveling in the attention from the other children present.  My friends Andrea (mom to two internationally adopted children) and Amy captured some special moments for us: 

The only time I got choked up was when my two year old son came running toward me, arms spread wide, and jumped into my embrace.  Oh, it has never felt so good to hold my little boy. 

Here is our first family photo (with friends Anya and Brandon).  Anya is from Uzbekistan and speaks Russian, so she and Bella were instant friends!  We are very thankful for her.

We had arranged to admit Bella to the hospital as soon as we arrived in Honolulu due to some risks associated with her condition, but she was doing so well that I thought it would be better for her emotionally if she was allowed to SEE her new home and spend one night there prior to going to this hospital.  Anya explained the plan to her, and she understood.  She loved our house, our Christmas tree, and her new room.  She also LOVED being with her sister again!

Saturday morning we headed to the hospital where Bella spent the next five days being monitored for refeeding syndrome and getting everything else she needed.  She was a champ!  She only cried a few times during the entire stay, when she was afraid or hurting.  Her emotional responses were appropriate and when it was over she recovered quickly.  That was very encouraging for us to see!  It went better than we could have ever hoped for.  She has a long, long road ahead of her but we know that she will persevere.

 On Wednesday Bella was discharged to home!  Since then we have just been concentrating on starting life together as a family of five.  She has experienced many firsts in just a few days.  She is picking up new English words every day.  She is just a delightful little girl.  I sometimes look at Rob and say "Is this real?"  There has been no anger or grief on her part, no tantrums, defiance, or inappropriate behavior.  She seeks out eye contact and smiles, is happy to receive affection, willing to try any new food, says please and thank you, and loves her siblings.  Of course we know that things may take a turn at any time, as this journey has just begun.  But after a week home with this joyful child, we are cautiously optimistic that things will continue to go well.  Through almost nightly conversations with our Russian-speaking friend, we have learned of Bella's rather insightful observations about life in an institution, and how she feels about leaving there (more encouragement for us).

So I'll close with a video and couple of photos from her first official outing with her new family, to watch her sister's Christmas hula performance.  Bella LOVED it - the music, the children, the socialization - she just soaked it up and the smile never left her face.

I added the video for a few reasons:  the song is beautiful, the hula is beautiful, Bou is in it (angel in the center), and you can see Bella's reaction at the end of it :)

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Beginning of a New Beginning

I am a terrible blogger!  I have so many posts in my head, but lacked the mental energy to put them into words while I was in Ukraine.  So I will attempt to get everyone up to speed on what has happened over the last several days.

We did not get to take Bella out of the orphanage and leave Krivoy Rog as expected last Tuesday.  A snowstorm hit Kiev and prevented her passport from being delivered to get the necessary stamps (it's not even worth explaining - just more Ukrainian red tape!).  Without the passport, we could not proceed to Kiev and clear the U.S. Embassy, so we stayed put for another day.

On Wednesday, December 12th, I was informed that the passport was ready, so we headed to the orphanage at about 10am to get Bella out.  When I arrived at the orphanage, there was an air of anticipation and excitement among some of the workers.  I was greeted by two of my favorite people there, Olga and Sveta.  Olga was a tremendous help in preparing all of our documentation, and Sveta is the orphanage receptionist.  I have spoken about Sveta before on this blog - she was the first face I saw when I first visited this place back in February.  She has always greeted me with a warm smile (a rarity here) when I walked in the front door.

From left:  Olga, Me, and Sveta

I then carried Bella's clothing upstairs to the laying room where she was waiting.  Orphans own nothing, so in my bag was a coat, hat, mittens, sweater, dress, undershirt, underwear, tights, and shoes.  I gave everything to the caregivers and tried to elicit a few more tidbits of information from them while they dressed Bella.

I glanced around the laying room (a place I had been granted access to only twice during the past six weeks) for the last time.  I was afraid to take photos, but at the same time I felt compelled to snap a couple of quick shots of the place - the one and only room - that Bella had existed in for the last 4.5 years.  I saw the faces of her groupa mates barely peeking out from beneath heavy comforters - some sweet, some sad, some seemingly lifeless.  Two were excited by the commotion.  I told myself this was the last time I would smell what I dubbed the "orphanage stench" on Bella - a combination of bad breath, sporadic baths, and old clothes that are worn day after day.  It was the last time that I would smell the diapers that permeated the room, swollen with concentrated urine.  It was the last time I would hug sweet child standing in the photo below and tell her "Paka!"
Soon Bella was adequately bundled and deemed ready to be carried downstairs to the waiting van.  

When we got downstairs we discovered that Natasha (whom I plan to write a post about later this week) was there to say goodbye to us.  She spoke to Bella for a minute, and gave her kisses and a little teddy bear to take with her.

Then she turned to me, and we "said" our goodbyes.  She doesn't speak English, I don't speak Russian- yet love transcends language.  We both fought back tears.  Natasha and I will forever be connected at the heart.

Finally it was time to carry Bella outside. Light snow began to fall as she was laid down on a small mattress on the floor of the van (the middle bench seat was removed to make room for it).  I was worried that she may become upset or scared when the reality of leaving the orphanage behind hit her.  After all, as much as I think it was a terrible way for her to live, it was what she knew.  She does not have the advantage of seeing all that lies before her, as I do.  But she was as happy as she could be.

And so that's the way it was for the next nine hours.  Yes, nine - what should have been a six hour drive to Kiev was delayed by a constant onslaught of snow and icy conditions.  Our driver, Igor, did a great job keeping us safe!  This is not a very good photo of him, but it's the only one I have - on a cigarette and espresso break.  He is so nice!
Through it all Bella was a fabulous traveler, never complaining or getting upset.

 When we got to Kiev late Wednesday night we settled into the apartment, fed Bella, and got her dressed for bed.  She was as happy as could be:
At bedtime she wanted me to lay down with her, and she fell asleep in less than five minutes, no problems!  She woke up the same way she went to bed - happy!
We spent most of the day Thursday in the car, going first to the medical clinic, and then to the U.S. Embassy to get Bella's visa.  All was well, and I got a "thumb's up" many times throughout the day.
Kiev was a winter wonderland, and I loved seeing so many trees and beautiful buildings covered in snow.
We were able to get all of the necessary documentation done in one day and woke up very, very early Friday morning to leave Ukraine and fly HOME!  More about that in the next post...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Around Town

This is likely my last night in Bella's orphanage city, Krivoy Rog.  Tomorrow I hope to be able to take her out of the orphanage and complete the final steps necessary to board the plane and fly home in just a couple of days!  These are random photos I took of places and things that I want to remember about the area.  Most were taken with my iPhone, so they aren't very good quality, but you get the idea :)

The cathedral right across the street from the orphanage.  Beautiful and sad at the same time.

View from our first apartment on the ninth floor.

One of the many playgrounds Bou liked.  Most of them have been neglected and are in disrepair since the fall of the Soviet Union.  

At the open air market - they sell everything from snowsuits to cleaning supplies to fresh produce here.

Now these are fresh carrots - straight out of the ground and still covered in dirt!

More beautiful produce at the outdoor market.

Remember when I said the open air market sells everything?  Yep, even furry, boob-shaped pillows - I just couldn't resist!

Celantano's Restaurant, where we went to get internet access for the first 10 days we were here.

These cars are still very common here.

Krivoy Rog is not a particularly pretty town, at least not in the winter!  There's something that looks like an outdoor living room in this common area, complete with a fake light hanging from the tree.
One of my favorite meals here - a baked potato with melted cheese and crab meat.

Stray dogs are everywhere in Ukraine.  Saw these buddies together every time I went to the outdoor market.
And stray cats too.

Shopping at the underground stalls beneath one of the roundabouts.
A really nice restaurant that my facilitator took me to - we celebrated after passing court!

Driving to the orphanage.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Field Trip!

We took Bella out of the orphanage for over seven hours yesterday!  We had to take a two hour drive to the capital of this region in order to process her passport application, and her presence there was required.  I was really curious about how the trip would go, given her current living situation.  She has existed within the confines of the same room in the same orphanage for the last 4.5 years.   As far as we know she's only been outside once during this time, to go to the hospital two years ago.  Bella spends almost all of her time lying in a bed.  It's easy to see how she could become overwhelmed by car travel - the sounds, motion, change of routine, etc. could be enough to traumatize her or make her physically ill.  I had very low expectations for the day, and viewed this as sort of a test run for the long trip home we have to make next week. 

But guess what - that's not what happened at all.  This kid was a FANTASTIC traveler!  Our driver took the middle bench seat out of his van, making room for a small mattress on the floor for Bella to lay on.  The caregivers bundled her up orphanage style (think layers and layers of clothes) and carried her downstairs to  the waiting van, where they then put a thick comforter over her.  She was grinning from ear to ear!  The rest of us settled in - Ira up front with the driver, the orphanage caregiver and I on the back seat looking down at Bella. 

The roads here are just awful, really in disrepair.  Add to that the driving, which can best be described as treacherous, and I sometimes feel a little carsick.  Bella took it all in stride though, talking to all of us, listening to music on my phone, looking at books, and just laying there being content.  I am not kidding when I say she smiled for the entire two hour drive!   Her only complaint was that she was hot.  In addition to the layers of clothing and the comforter, she was also wearing a heavy jacket and an orange knit hat.  I felt so bad for her, because the car was warm and I had to take my jacket off to be comfortable.  She tried to remove her hat and pull down the comforter a couple of times, but the caregiver stopped her, tucking her hands back under the covers and pulling the hat down low on her head.  Even then, her mood was not dampened.

She was looking a a little "Bitty Bear" book I'd brought when she began talking to Ira.  Ira then translated for me, saying that Bella was reciting a poem about bears in the forest.  She went on to say that Bella knows many poems and proverbs, and has a great memory.  Ira wanted to know how she learned those things, since children at this orphanage do not receive any education.  I told her that she must have learned it from Natasha, an orphanage visitor who I will devote a whole post to later!

Once we arrived at the regional passport office we learned that the person we needed to see would not be back for another hour, so we just had to hang out in the car and wait.  We ate the lunch we'd brought and then Bella played with some toy cars for awhile (her eyes closed every time I tried to get a pic and the flash went off, but you get the idea!).

Finally, we were able to take her in for the passport photo.  We had to carry her stiff little body up five flights of stairs (there are very few elevators here).  Nothing but tights covered her withered legs and once we were inside, I was keenly aware of the stares that followed us as we passed through.  People in this culture generally aren't confronted with disability, especially in children, because those who are born less than "perfect" are hidden away.  Some of them made no effort to hide their disgust.  Others turned away, as if looking at her would cause them harm.  If I hadn't been so preoccupied with worry about how we were going to get this photo, I probably would have cried. 

Getting the photo was hard on Bella.  She is not able to tolerate sitting up at all right now - that's because her muscles have completely atrophied due to malnutrition and laying down all day.  She was so brave though.  They took three photos before they got one that was acceptable, and twice when they positioned her on the caregiver's lap she cried out in pain.  She had tears in her eyes, but each time they asked her to look at the camera she gave them a tiny smile.  I was so proud of her and heartbroken for her at the same time.  When we were done, she quietly said "Paka" (bye) to the three office ladies, and then gave them a more formal "Dasvidanya" as we walked out.  Tears began to fall from the eyes of the older lady.  I don't know why she cried - maybe it was because Bella was so sweet on the way out, even after being in pain, or maybe it was being confronted with disability as I mentioned before.

I gave her several kisses on the forehead and told her "Good job" and "I love you" many times in Russian.  In turn she gave me the big smile.  We were both sweating when we left - her from the effort and me from stress!  When we returned to the car she was exhausted and it took her a few minutes to recover.  But she once again enjoyed the ride home, even after it got dark.  She stayed awake for the entire trip and whenever we asked her if she was getting tired she would shake her head "No" and smile!

Bella, if you read this one day I want you to know that my heart was bursting with pride yesterday as I watched you being so courageous even when you were scared and hurting!  I wish I could have said more to you than just "Good job" and "I love you" in your language, but one day soon when we are able to communicate better, I will tell you how impressed I was - you have an incredible spirit!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Paper Chase (or Perfecting the Art of Waiting)

Before I write about the paper chase, I wanted to clarify something for those of you who may not realize:  "Isabella" was not our adoptive daughter's real name.  It was a name assigned to her by an adoption advocate to protect her privacy.  In Ukraine, the real names of orphans are not allowed to be used publicly.  Because our girl is older, we kept her given birth name and gave her a middle name and our last name.  I don't use any of my children's real names on the blog, so from here on out, I will refer to "Isabella" as Bella.  So now if you look on the left column, you will see my Bella, Bou, and Buddy :)

I left Hawaii on Sunday evening.  We tried to work out a way for Rob and I to travel to Ukraine together for the second trip, but were not able to make it happen in the end.  We are very appreciative to our friend Amy, who offered to keep our children for the entire time, and to others who offered to help as well.  Joanna, Sarah, Alice, Suzy - we are so appreciative to all of you!  Unfortunately, Rob had a commitment he could not risk missing, and because our court decree had to be redone and our 10 day wait stretched past 10 days, I came alone. 

I arrived in Kiev on Tuesday.  As we landed I saw several inches of snow blanketing the ground below.  I had some time to kill before my 10 hour train ride to the orphanage city (Krivoy Rog) and was able to meet three more adopting families during the wait.  Very cool!   I was also able to go to Hospitality House Kiev (one of missionary Karen Springs' endeavors) for a much needed shower and rest.  It was such a pleasure to get to meet Karen and hear a little bit about her work here in Ukraine during the past eight years!  After hanging out there for a little while it was time to catch my overnight train to Krivoy Rog.  I was very happy to have my Russian-speaking facilitator with me - I could fall asleep and rest easy knowing that I wouldn't miss my stop or anything crazy! 

We arrived in Krivoy Rog at 6am and took off to get Bella a new birth certificate - one that lists me as the mother!  New birth certificates must be created in the child's city of birth, so for us that meant a two hour car ride to the town where Bella was born.  When we arrived Ira told me "Wait here" then jumped out and disappeared for about two and a half hours.  When she came out she said that the birth certificate still was not ready and "we must wait half hour more".  So we went to the store for a snack, and I saw a really cute stray dog hanging out at the entrance, eagerly greeting every customer.  On my way out I decided to feed him my some of the leftover muffin I'd brought with me from home.  I broke it in pieces and put it on the ground,  where he promptly turned his nose up at it after sniffing!  I didn't feel so bad for him then - apparently he gets enough to eat that he has the luxury of being picky :)

We then return to the birth certificate office, and this time I am allowed to come in and sign it.  Yay!  Then we head to the tax office - Bella keeps the same Ukrainian tax identification number but her new name must be registered with the tax office.  Ira tells me that this is the worst tax office in Ukraine to do business with, and that they always give families trouble.  So she goes in and I...sit in the car.  And wait.  I fall asleep.  I wake up and decide to get out and take a photo.  The driver points to a monument across the street and motions "photo".  I walk over there and take a picture of a tank monument commemorating World War II (will have to add those later, can't do it right now!).

By then I am freezing so I decide to get back in the car.  About 40 minutes later Ira comes out, gets in the car, and exclaims "I HATE business in this region, everything is so hard in this region!"  Hmm...  Then she looks at me and says "I tell you now, everything is okay but they give us trouble.  Here is what he says..."

Taxman:  "Come back in two weeks to pick up tax receipt."
Ira:  "No we do not have two weeks, we need to get it sooner."
Taxman:  "I don't care, I will not have it ready sooner than two weeks."
Ira:  "And then I start to cry," and she runs her index fingers down each cheek to demonstrate the tears flowing.  "And I tell him this child is sick, this child needs medical attention and needs to go to America now."
Taxman:  "Still answer is no."
Ira:  "Then I stay here all day til you give it to me."
Taxman:  "I don't care you sleep here, I will  not do it."
Ira:   "Then you have to call police to take me away."
Taxman:  "Still no."
Ira:  "Then I go get child's mother and she come in here and she will cry too if you tell her no, and then you have two crying women in your office. This is what you want?"
Taxman:  "Here."

Ira walked out of there with a tax receipt that supposedly took two weeks, but was instead prepared immediately.  I love her!

From there, we made the two hour drive back to Krivoy Rog and stopped at several more offices to get various documentation we need to process Bella's passport and visa.  We got some run-around, and had to go to one office three separate times, but in the end we got everything we needed.  I finally got to my friend's apartment at about 6:30pm.  After spending two nights on an airplane and a third night on the train I was very happy to sleep in a bed last night!  I woke up refreshed and ready to go this morning.   It was another all day adventure, and this time we took Bella out of the orphanage for a few hours, but I will have to write more about that tomorrow!