"Absolutely," I said, though with many, many secret doubts. My wife was talking about a baby—a photo of a baby. The child was big, round-faced, and, laughing or crying, making what looked like a horrifyingly loud sound.
"He," she said, "is the one."
I've often wondered what provokes love, or constitutes its image, in real life or photos. I'm not thinking about beauty queens or musclemen, or pleasing glimpses of naked flesh. But certain lines and shades coalesce, certain movements, rhythms, or gestures attract and make, somehow unconsciously, an impact on the viewer that can change a life.
"Art," we used to say in college, "can do that."
I still remember my first genuinely moving aesthetic experience, the one that committed me to a life in art, either as a practitioner or as a critic. It made me fall in love, just as my wife fell in love at the moment this story begins. During my junior year in high school, our French teacher arranged a one-week summer visit to Paris, and of course that included a tour of the Louvre. During our first afternoon there I felt tired and restless, partly because of jet lag, partly because I had been up late the night before. One girl and I had walked along the river, holding hands and kissing at several moonlit bridges, with the result that, next morning, we both missed the tour bus from our hotel. The girl had decided to sleep in, but I wanted to go to the museum, and so, armed with directions from the hotel concierge—two or three Metro stops away, as I recall—I arrived at the sprawling museum beside the river more than an hour late, alone, and not quite sure where to find our group.
I paid the modest student entry fee and wandered around the halls, trying to get my bearings. The rooms were hot and crowded, and I was surprised to hear American voices all around me as I strode the length of the main gallery—stopping at Giotto's portrait of St. Francis receiving the stigmata and Mantegna's "Martyrdom of St. Andrew"—arrows sticking from his body. I could not find our group, and decided to make the best use of my time alone. Retrieving a floor plan of the museum from my pocket, I continued down the main gallery to the small, crowded room where the Mona Lisa hung (encircled by a small crowd of tourists listening to a guide). Then I continued to the end of the gallery and down the stairs to the classical area. I saw the Venus de Milo first, standing before another crowd and, feeling groggy from the heat, went to sit in a small day-lit courtyard to rest.
The Louvre is huge, as everyone knows, impossible to tour completely in one day, and I felt the weight of all that I still had before me. I closed my eyes and dreamed, dozing for a good half hour to the sounds of home—more American voices, in other words—but none of them from my French class. "I'll do it alone anyhow," I said to myself when I awoke, and so with a stretch and a quiet yawn, I resumed my tour of classical works. But I soon grew weary of all that lost human time and, taking a deep breath, decided to mount the stairs in search of more modern things. I left the classical gallery, passing another naked Venus as I approached the hall, then lowered my head, leaned on the handrail, and pulled myself up the stairs. As I turned on the first landing—and this is the true order of the moment as I remember it—I dropped my hands, gasped, and then looked up from my shoe tops: A winged figure loomed above my head, soaring toward the ceiling.
It was a statue, not a monster, headless, armless, but leaning toward me with broad, outspread wings. Its position at the top of the stairwell gave it a rising, ascending quality that was half eagle, half mythological spirit on the way to the heavens—and yet all very distinctly human, female. I stood on the landing in awe, absolutely outside myself and, as I think of it now, outside the contemporary moment, too. What startled me was my gasp—the loudness of it—before I noticed the looming figure. It was a sound, I am sure, caused by the statue and something primitive in me that responded blindly with surprise. I had never seen this piece before, in pictures or reality, and so I had to ask someone about it.
"One of ze sree great treasures of ze Louvre," someone said next to me in passing. I saw a tour guide leading a group of Americans up the stairs. "Voici La Victoire du Samothrace," she said, fairly shouting. As the group filed past, I noticed my high school French teacher among them with five or six of my fellow students behind her. They all greeted me loudly, joking about my late night out and my flushed, excited face that seemed to imply some extended sensual pleasure. With a laugh and a shrug, I told them nothing but joined them for the walk to the top of the stairs.
I have seen the Victory of Samothrace hundreds of times since, occasionally spending an hour or more staring at it. I try to recreate and understand that moment of first perception, especially the nature of my visceral gasp. Something moved me to feel love at that moment, but for more than just the statue, grand and impressive though it was. Small birds and other animals respond suddenly to the shadow of a hawk flying above them, and because of its flourishing wings, I have thought that the Victory of Samothrace affected me that way—a sudden manifestation of threatening power, which turned out to be friendly.
I felt no fear in the moment—especially not physically. I felt energy instead, then inspiration and happiness, as if the wonder of life had revealed itself to me. I was amazed, in other words, but in a very solemn way.
Doubter that I am, I dislike describing the experience in quasi religious terms. Still I cannot deny the impression of being stricken, as I remember it, chosen to perceive something special. Beautiful women have affected me similarly sometimes, as have passages from music—Puccini, especially with a great soprano's ardor producing it—scenes of the countryside in France or Italy, and one or two paintings by Cezanne and Van Gogh.
A mystery, yet it became clear many years later when the photographs arrived from our adoption agency a few days after a phone call from Russia. I saw my wife reveal in her eyes something intense, like my own moment of wonder, although I must confess I did not share her feeling. The pictures came in a thick brown-paper-wrapped package, as if it were hiding something. Nervous, we sat next to each other on a couch, tore apart the wrapping, and, tensely, as if it enclosed a dangerous or contraband item, carefully opened the envelope of photographs. I felt my wife's body sag against me as we leafed through them—black and white portraits of lonely-looking, modestly dressed Russian kids smiling for the camera.
"They're trying so hard. Even the very little ones," Lee said. "It's as if they know they're trying to sell themselves."
"They probably do—or at least sense something from the photographer."
"Look. Her socks are mismatched."
Lee pointed to a girl. Eight years old, the information said, named Sonia. She stared at the camera with her arms outstretched.
"If she were here, how could you not pick her up?"
I turned the picture over, continuing to look through the others. To be honest, I felt frightened now, fearful of what we had started. The children looked pathetic, defeated, and terribly underfed. I wondered what kind of character could survive such gloom as they had experienced at the very beginning of their lives. Selfish, I know, but could they be happy, could they achieve? Russian painters, writers, and musicians had succeeded greatly, but I could think of none that had started with so little support behind them. Could Lee and I make up for it? Could we love enough, care enough, act unselfish enough to fill in the great void of their first few days, months, even years?
I looked at one boy, five, thin and smiling with rumpled sweater and trousers barely covering his lanky wrists and ankles, and something in his huge, dark eyes made me think we could never make him happy. Another five-year-old, a girl, stood with her little brother—he was one—and looked away from the camera. I saw no tears, or evidence of crying, but such a stoic coolness covered her face that I wondered if she could ever give a loving hug and smile.
"They're sweet," Lee said. Then, evidently thinking similar thoughts as mine, she added, "They reveal a lot about us as well."
She turned the photo over and, with a little gasp, held the next one very still.
Swaddling clothes are wrapped to bind and control a child as well as keep it warm, and I am sure Lee's reaction to the photo stemmed from the child's obvious attempt to break through the body wrap that bound him. It was a boy, on his back, facing the camera with his left arm reaching toward us from a blanket as his mouth, contorting into either a laugh or a howl, expressed an explicit invitation to be aided. Handled.
We both stared at the photo in silence—for me it was from intense fear, but for Lee, I am certain, it was out of absolute and intense love. "Mikhail Alexandrovich," appeared beneath the photo, "May 30."
"Four months," Lee said.
I stared at the boy wrapped in yellow and attempted to think rationally. The boy's round, baby-cheeked face looked distinctly argumentative, as if I could see already future disagreements about cars, schoolwork, and friends. His cheeks, flushed pink, brought to mind hefty Russian weightlifters and wrestlers, and I knew that while I held the advantage now in strength and endurance, each year would alter that—imperceptibly at first but with increasingly obvious results. Would he love a doddering father (and mother) as much as a strong one? Would he remain loyal without blood ties? Would I be a good parent under these circumstances?
"This is the one," Lee said, smiling. "I'm ready to call the agency."
"There are others to look at."
"No use. This is the one. I can feel it. I don't want to lose the opportunity."
"We've always said we would prefer a girl," I reminded her.
Lee paused at that, looking cursorily at other photographs. She returned and stared for a long time at the girl with her arms extended toward us. "Sonia would be lovely," she said, "but she's already formed. I want a chance to bond."
"So do I."
"Then it's all done," Lee said. "I'll go call the agency about... Mikhail. Let's call him Misha."
Within a day or two the official process had started, and the agency told us to plan on flying to Moscow around Thanksgiving. The idea of bringing a child home at that time struck us both as wonderfully poetic and a sign of some larger human plan. Certainly the wall had fallen in Berlin, and the Russian empire that had smothered Europe's central and eastern cultures as long as we had lived now seemed more American and free than anyone had ever dreamed. But cold war memories of pale imprisoned people, artists starving or executed because of independent thought, and philosophers and writers told what to think or write made the idea of escape to liberty and plenty an indivisible part of Misha's entrance in our home.
We renewed our passports, applied for visas, submitted medical and financial statements to Russian authorities in charge of the adoption process. By early October we felt ready to go at any time, but at the same instant bad news and information started to reach us.
As most people would, I suppose, we had begun to pay more attention to adoption stories in magazines, newspapers, and books. Much of what we read discouraged us. In addition to the stories of overturned American adoptions, we began to read and hear about disappointments overseas: unhealthy, drugged or alcoholic children, babies who were physically or mentally damaged at birth, large sums of money taken with no child being delivered—all this in a process that had very little international regulation and over which our legal system held no power. In addition, Russia's increasing crime rate worried us. Bloody stories of gunned-down tycoons mixed with ones about duped or assaulted tourists led to real apprehension, especially since, the agency told us, all transactions in Russia would be conducted on a cash basis, with American dollars—not rubles—required. Russia's Chechnyan campaign also filled the news, so essentially, as one psychological expert analyzed it, we would be starting family life in a lawless, war-torn country whose currency had very little value and whose people regarded all Americans, no matter their profession, as wealthy capitalists with yachts, private planes, and dollars to burn.
"Don't wear good shoes or clothes over there," someone told us. "It marks you as a target. And don't bring much baggage."
We decided not to take a chance. We bought money belts, chose jeans and sneakers to wear, and looked for the most worn sweaters and jackets we could find in our closet. Then we started to read press releases from the U.S. State Department and its embassy in Russia. The most frequent notice we found said that foreign adoptions had been halted by the Russian Duma (the country's legislature), and so the State Department advised against Americans proceeding with Russian adoptions.
"Disinformation over adoption," the adoption agency called it. "The American State Department is trying to discourage people. It's the old Cold War attitude, distrust of Russians and probably a resistance to bringing more immigrants into the country."
"Immigrants? He's a baby."
"Not to them he isn't."
The notices, along with the war, crime, and political confusion continued, and while several respected experts and family members cautioned us against proceeding, Lee stubbornly kept the photograph of Mikhail—enlarged now—taped to our bathroom mirror. When I shaved in the morning, looking out the window onto Riverside Drive, I saw a glimpse of our future in the yellow shawl, the hand reaching toward me, the eyes and open mouth shrieking silently for ... what? Food? Attention? Love? Obviously, we couldn't turn him down. We had to proceed.
In early November, the adoption agency called to inform us of a slight problem. Because of personnel matters, there would be a small delay—perhaps till December. I remember the letdown Lee and I felt, as if once again a pregnancy had ended suddenly and once again we needed to take a deep breath and start over.
"No, Mikhail Alexandrovich will be your son," the agency contact said. "This delay is merely procedural. Because our Russian program is so new, we have to get the proper people in place to help you when you are there."
At the same time, we read more discouraging articles about difficulties with Russian adoptions. One writer told of a severely handicapped child passed off as normal, another of an adopted infant who had disappeared—kidnapped by a distant relative not wanting the child to leave the country. Either scenario, especially the latter, struck us as awful, and when we read about doctors in Minnesota and Baltimore who offered advice on foreign adoptions, we called their offices. One knew of our agency and its primary contact in Russia and saw no reason not to continue, the other advised us to ask for a measurement of the child's head to gauge its health. Upon receiving the measurement a few weeks later, along with Misha's age and weight, she told us he was within normal ranges and advised us to continue.
"But when you get there," she cautioned, "pay attention. Hold him, look in his eyes, talk. If there's something that doesn't seem right, follow your instinct. Tell them he's not what you expected. If need be, you can choose another baby."
"You haven't adopted him yet. They can't force you. And in Russia there are plenty more."
"It will be hard. My wife is already committed."
"You can do it. I've advised many people who have."
With 1984-like images of Russian officers and cold-hearted, imperious women acting as civil servants in adoption institutions, I had real doubt we could say no. But Lee saw it as a viable alternative and felt more certain of moving on. In mid-November, the agency called to say that things were falling in place in Moscow and that we should prepare to leave for Russia any day. We sent them a certified check to pay for legal services and the caring and feeding of—yes, this is the way we phrased it—our son. A friend passed along a crib that her child no longer used, family members bought or lent clothes, basinets, and toys. "It's like a real birth," Lee said, smiling as she arranged things in his room. We bought mobiles, colorful pictures, and bright, cheerful music tapes (need I say Mozart, Bach, and Tchaikovsky?) along with a player to put in Misha's room. We repainted the walls, decorated them with hand-drawn Disney cartoons, found an abandoned wooden rocker in the street that we had repaired, and hung a huge picture of Winnie the Pooh and Tigger over the crib to give him company.
Two days before Thanksgiving, the agency called and told us to finalize our travel plans. In Moscow and Perm (a small city at the base of the Urals where Mikhail lived) people were in place and expecting us shortly. Russians who were fluent in English would meet us at the airport, chauffeur us to necessary appointments, and put us up in their homes.
"Great! And when should we arrive?"
"Around Christmas," the agency liaison said. "You should have a child before the new year begins."
We found an agent who specialized in Russian travel, received our visas in a surprisingly short time because of his contacts, bought toys and mobiles for children at the orphanage in Perm, as well as token gifts for the administrators there. The adoption agency also told us that from the moment we accepted the child he was ours—our responsibility—and we should therefore bring clothing, diapers, travel equipment, and formula to feed him.
We packed all that, bringing only underwear and toilet articles for ourselves. On Christmas day, wearing old down ski jackets and the only jeans, shirts, sneakers, and sweaters we would use on the trip, we drove to Kennedy Airport, checked our bags and traveling basinet, then went to the lounge to wait for the plane that would take us to Misha. "A nice Christmas present," one of the airport agents said. We nodded and smiled, but we looked on it differently—as the true beginning of a brand new life. The august sounds of Handel's "Messiah" had accompanied us for most of the drive to Kennedy, and now the dull glow of multi-colored lights flecked the landscape as we took off and flew toward Frankfort, Germany. There we changed planes and, in a heavy, beautiful snow that seemed to beg for sleigh bells, reindeer, and little children waiting for them in warm fire-lit rooms, headed toward Moscow, landing finally in the early morning on a dark, seemingly smoke-filled day.
The Moscow terminal was crowded, underlit, more like a rush-hour subway station than an airport, with mustached, soldierly men bumping into us and brusquely pushing us aside as we followed our young English-speaking guide, Oleg, through the halls. He led us to various counters and offices to have papers checked, exchange money, retrieve baggage, and, eventually, be admitted into Russia for a short time.
Oleg brought us to a waiting car outside the main building and introduced us to the driver, Gennady, a retired Soviet colonel. He drove us to his apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, fed us a meal of hard-boiled eggs, beets, and other crudités he had grown and pickled at his dacha, or "country house." After a quick tour of a dark downtown (the Kremlin, the American Embassy, and Red Square among other sights), he brought us back to his apartment for the night, letting us sleep in his bed while he slept on a living room couch and sent his wife and daughter to a friend's apartment.
It was a whirlwind, with Lee and me rising at three or four the next morning, drinking coffee and tea, then gathering our things to drive to the airport again for a pre-dawn flight from Moscow to Perm, at the foot of the Urals where our new life awaited.
Gennady and Oleg left us in the waiting room because they had to drive another set of brand new parents to the airport for a flight to the United States, and so we waited among tall, heavily-jacketed men and women for a sign or announcement to tell us when we should board the plane. Nothing came, at least nothing that Lee or I recognized. All I remember is that at some point all the men and women impatiently standing—and smoking—near the outside doors, opened them, marched down slippery ice-covered metal steps onto the tarmac and stood together at the bottom of the steps to a plane, showing more impatience than they had inside.
Great, but the problem was that three or four other planes stood there too, each looking ready to take off, and we had no idea which would leave for Perm. A man in a leather jacket and fur cap shoved me aside to stand at the base of the steps. He carried an attaché case in the left hand, puffed a fat tan-papered cigarette that he held in his right hand, and glowered menacingly at the open door of the plane where two disheveled stewardesses straightened their hair and worked to keep their blouses inside the waistbands of their gray skirts.
"Peeermm?" I said, attempting the Russian pronunciation I had heard from Oleg and Gennady. I pointed to the stewardesses and the door at the same time I prepared to duck should attaché, cigarette, leather-clad elbow or shoulder swing in my direction out of annoyance.
The man turned to me, his dark eyes sizing me up while his down-turned mustache brought to mind classical images of Ivan the Terrible or worse. But instead of a threatening rebuke he let his face soften. He smiled and his eyes brightened with a glance at Lee.
"Amerikanski?" he said. "Americans?"
"Da," I answered, imitating countless Soviet soldiers I had encountered in Cold War films. "Americans."
His smile broadened. He tugged at the tickets I clutched near my chest in my right hand, studied what showed between my fingers and his, and abruptly shook his head.
"There," he said, or some Russian-accented equivalent. He pointed to a different plane where a second group of about two dozen people huddled at the bottom of a stairway, passengers mounting it one at a time. "Peerm," he repeated, smiling, and led us to the crowd, pushing his way past people roughly while beckoning Lee and me to follow. At the bottom of the steps he elbowed two men aside, called up to the stewardesses at the top of the steps, stuck his cigarette in his mouth, dropped his attaché to the icy tarmac, and placed one hand on my back and the other on Lee's. "Go," he said. "Peerm," and shoved us up the stairs.
We smiled, thanking him, and found seats (unreserved since this was a commuter flight), immediately fastening our seatbelts, but seeing with amazement that even on take-off no one else, including the flight crew, did. The plane was old, rickety, with very little insulation against noise. One man lay across two seats on the other side of the aisle from us, another opened a bag and ate hard-boiled eggs; the stewardesses, like the ones in the other plane, let out curlers and rearranged their hair. We had several cups of tepid tea, a pale lemon-colored view of dawn spreading over the snow-covered landscape, and a surprisingly smooth flight that landed us on a sunny white field when we reached Perm.
No one waited at the base of the airplane steps; no one stood with our names on a sign (as we had been promised) inside the terminal. We carried our bags and backpack out the front door to a cab stand and stood near the curb, trying to look like we knew where our ride would be. Men in fur caps leaned against cars and smoked as they eyed us carefully. Toward our right I noticed several cars leave what appeared to be a parking lot, and for no reason except another place to stand, I motioned Lee toward it. We slogged through several inches of snow on an uncleared sidewalk, and, reaching the corner of the terminal building, stood at the curb again, staring at the lot in one direction and the cab stand in the other. No one, including the men leaning on the cars, looked expectant.
"Well?" I said, looking at Lee.
She shrugged and said it would be alright. "They're only a few minutes late."
We had a name, Olga, for our contact, but no address or phone number, and of course we had addresses and numbers for Oleg and Gennady in Moscow. I had just resolved to enter the terminal and try to phone one of them when a young woman in black wool coat, leather boots, and a tall, fur Siberian hat strode up to us and, nervously, pronounced our names.
"Lee? Ben? I am Olga Kolarova." A young man, clean-shaven, stood just behind her left shoulder. He held a black worker's cap in his hand. She introduced him as Andrei, and he stepped forward immediately, extending his hand warmly, first to Lee, then me. They led us through the parking lot to their car, Andrei taking Lee's bag and letting me manage on my own. Bags and backpack in the trunk, Lee and I took the back seats while Andrei drove us out of the airport grounds and Olga laid out the day's activities.
"First," she said, turning to face us from the front seat, "we'll meet Katharina, of the Child Welfare Office, who arranges adoptions for our children who need it. Then we'll go to the hospital and meet the child."
I looked at Lee, suddenly feeling my throat clench while my hand reached for hers. She smiled warmly, her face flushing a deep, pleasure-filled red. "Mikhail," she said aloud, as if tasting it. "Alexandrovich."
"Yes, Mikhail. He awaits us at the hospital. Katharina may go there with us, too."
I nodded, looking out at the snow piled high above the car's roof line beside the highway. As we rode, we began to see buildings, more brick here than the ubiquitous gray cement in Moscow, and, as if I would find a clue to future behavior in my son, I observed people closely along the streets, noting orderly queues at bus stops, well-dressed boys and girls on the way to school, and intricate ice sculptures with individual men and women working on them as people walked past.
"It's a very nice city," I said to Olga, remarking to myself that no one looked miserable, oppressed, or shabby in the way many, especially men, had looked in Moscow. I had read something about Perm—it had an artistic tradition, having housed the Bolshoi Ballet during World War II. It was the birthplace of the ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, and had a respected university as well as several prosperous theaters and industries. But seeing it firsthand still presented surprises, among them its quaint, European appearance that reminded me more of Switzerland than some backwater economic power with a city trying to survive.
"Yes," Olga said, smiling. "We are very proud of our Peerm."
She spoke a few words in Russian to Andrei, and as we drove through town she pointed to landmarks: the state theater and museum, the university campus, several schools and shopping areas, and then the principal river, the Kama, iced over in the center of town.
At some point, we turned off the main road onto a driveway and parked amid a group of stolid red brick buildings. Lee and I stayed in the car while Olga entered one. Andrei turned and smiled at us but said nothing since he apparently knew very little, if any, English. In about fifteen minutes Olga returned to the car with a tall, blonde woman in a plaid wool coat whose smile lit up the day. She opened the car door, slid into the seat beside Lee, and introduced herself as Katharina. When she took my hand and shook it, immediately calling me "Ben," I felt my throat relax at last and my voice regain a little of its normal timbre.
"Well," she said. "Let's go meet your child."
Lee nodded and smiled. I felt a bit of a clench return to my throat, and I must say it grew tighter as we drove, passing several more ice sculptures that Katharina said formed part of an annual festival competition. "It's well-known," she said. "People travel from all over Europe to see it."
I nodded, noting a particularly intricate white structure assembling a group of people in a line surrounded by a frame-like boundary that could have been a room or bus stop, but we passed too fast for me to make it out. Katharina pointed to several sculptured cartoon figures, a spray-painted Mickey Mouse and Goofy, among others, talking to a Donald Duck and Pluto, but before we could comment on them Andrei turned off the road, followed a narrow drive, and pulled into what turned out to be the hospital grounds.
"This is it," Lee whispered, squeezing my hand. "It must be."
Andrei parked, leaving the engine running, but Olga and Katharina got out, with Katharina leaning in again and smiling. "Come," she said, looking at both of us. "Meet your son."
"Will we be taking him with us?"
Yes, I had to ask that question.
"If you approve," Katharina said, frowning. "From that moment on he is yours."
"Perfect!" Lee smiled and left the car. I got out too and reluctantly followed the three women down the sidewalk.
Red brick gave way to gray and white institutional paint as Katharina, obviously in charge now, led us down a hallway and up a flight of stairs. I saw several children, in old sweaters and dirty sweat pants, standing around, talking as they looked at us. We crossed a room where two women in black-striped white hospital uniforms huddled together. It seemed to me they were trying not to stare. I smiled at them, nodding, and one embraced the other's shoulders. The embraced one raised her hands to her cheeks and lifted her foot.
"In here," Katharina said, beaming again. She opened a door, allowing Lee to enter first, then me, and finally Olga who had stood to the side to let us pass. We entered an office with a small couch, several chairs, and a desk, behind which sat a smiling gray-haired woman wearing a white lab coat with a stethoscope dangling from her pocket.
"Dr. Dugin, may I present the prospective parents of Mikhail Alexandrovich?"
The doctor nodded, rising to step around the desk, and nervously motioned us to the couch. I had the impression that much of this was new to her and that the only confident person in the room (other than Lee) happened to be Katharina. She spoke a few words to the doctor, a few more to Olga—all in Russian—and then Dr. Dugin sat at her desk. She asked about our trip, especially the flight from Moscow, and after smiling at my account of the seatbeltless stewardesses and passengers on the plane to Perm, asked us if we had questions about Mikhail.
"Is he healthy?" I asked. "And ready for all these big changes?"
"He has had a few problems, but medically he is ready to begin his new life," Dr. Dugin said. "He should have little difficulty."
"Can we see him now?" Lee asked, interrupting my next question. "We want to see him for ourselves."
"Of course, that's natural," Katharina answered. "The doctor can send for him immediately."
She nodded at Dr. Dugin, who picked up her phone, said a few words into it, and then hung up. Lee went to the backpack I carried and took out diapers and clothes for the baby, several mobiles and games for the children of the hospital, and a dozen boxes of snack packs for kids and staff. She also brought out a half-dozen pairs of pantyhose that had been suggested for nurses and others, and a pile of toddlers' pants and shirts.
She handed them to the doctor, who smiled gratefully but bashfully while placing them on her desk. Katharina grinned and said we were very generous. We sat in silence for several minutes, and then suddenly the door beside the doctor's desk opened. I felt myself holding back a gasp. A nurse stepped into the doctor's office, and then a second one followed, carrying a baby in her arms.
"Oh, there he is!" Lee murmured. She immediately reached out her arms, and the baby, in what must have been an automatic frisson of happiness (his first, I've always figured) beamed back at her, his face flushing, his baby goo-goo absolutely joyful, his body lunging forward as his hands and arms stretched toward Lee.
"Lyubov... Misha," Lee said. "He's beautiful!"
I embraced her as the nurse let him lean into her arms, and Lee held him to her face and breast. I put my hand on his back and felt myself giggling and cooing uncontrollably while Misha smiled, cuddled with Lee, and then reached out to my hand. "Please, take a picture," I said, turning to Katharina and handing her the camera I had brought. She smiled, snapping the picture without a moment's hesitation, while Lee and I huddled around the boy. His fresh baby smell filled the room, and I felt the strength of his joy as he squeezed our fingers and pinched our hands.
"Uh, so... " Olga stammered. "Is the child... satisfactory, then?"
We looked at her, giggling through our nervousness, not quite sure what she meant.
"The child. Is he...?"
"Oh, yes, yes, of course! He's more than satisfactory," Lee nearly shouted. "He's wonderful!"
Katharina nodded, motioned to the doctor with a large grin on her face, and, after we had signed several papers agreeing to the adoption, she led everyone out of Dr. Dugin's office.
And so in that brief political, psychological way, after a few signed forms, a brief gasp, that first photograph, the three of us became an American family. We changed Misha into the clothes we had brought, and after a few more stops for passport photos, a medical examination, and more adoption documents, Andrei dropped Katharina at her office and drove us to Olga's apartment. We remained there for two days while she completed official Russian paperwork and provided us with English translations as well as Russian copies.
She left us in the apartment at night, sleeping with nearby family members, while we dealt with our restless, sporadically unhappy son. Misha couldn't—or wouldn't—drink from the bottles we brought, and so he spent much of the two days and nights howling. He refused the formula, the warm milk we tried to substitute, and the yogurt we attempted to urge into his writhing mouth. Olga, with a daughter of her own, suggested we try finely strained baby food instead. More dribbled down his chin than into his stomach, and, finally out of desperation, she pulled out from a cabinet what looked like a classic Coke bottle with a large nipple slipped over its top.
"Perhaps he prefers the Russian style," Olga said, filling the bottle with American formula as I held Misha in my arms. She handed the bottle to me. With a doubtful look at Lee, I held it near his mouth and, like some sudden joyful miracle, he let a sigh replace the protest burgeoning from his mouth and took the rubber tip between his lips. We heard a little gasp of pleasure. Lee and I smiled at each other in relief as the liquid level descended rapidly and very little went down our Misha's chin.
The third night he slept a little better, and I remember checking on him in the crib and feeling a great sense of commitment and pride. When he awoke at one point, we brought him to the bed with us, and Lee let him sleep on her breast. It was a moving sight, much like a Madonna and child, and I felt very much a Biblical father figure. I promised myself that I would stay with Misha despite all my panic and fears about parenthood, and that he and Lee deserved every ounce and more of my attention and energy. It was a primitive, emotional flow that the sentences I write now only serve to outline. Yet I knew that despite all the psycho-social Babel of blood ties, maternal instincts, and fatherly distance, I was hooked. This boy was my son, this mother and child made up my family. Most importantly, I belonged to them as much as they belonged to me.
We flew back to Moscow on the fourth morning, leaving in the dark on a much more formal flight with well-dressed business people and flight attendants who attached seatbelts, sat upright in their chairs, and drank coffee as well as hot chocolate for the morning get-go.
Gennady and Oleg met us in the terminal, and the next day and a half brought multiple visits to the American Embassy for the purpose of receiving official American recognition of the adoption—already accomplished in Perm under Russian law—and securing a visa for Misha to enter the United States with us. The embassy seemed antagonistic at times, making us and other adoptive parents wait in line for hours just to see minor functionaries who reminded us frequently that the Russian Duma had suspended foreign adoptions, and we were lucky to have one completed. We needed to pay cash (American dollars) to acquire the visa, and so I freed myself of the burden of bills folded in a money belt beneath my shirt. But I never lost the fear that someone in the official lineups of two Cold War enemy countries would tear my son from Lee's loving embrace, and this new heart-binding dimension to our lives would disappear.
We toured Red Square, seeing a Russian Father Christmas as we shopped in GUM, the state department store, spent a lovely evening in the Armand Hammer Hotel, whose Christmas tree reached the ceiling. Well-dressed, well-behaved children roamed throughout the lobby dancing hand-in-hand as one young girl played pieces from "The Nutcracker Suite." The mood fit the season perfectly, and in anticipation of that we planned to stay through New Year's Day before flying home. But the next morning, when we received Misha's visa along with the United States government's official recognition of his adoption, we changed our minds.
"We want to get on with our new life," I told the disappointed Oleg and Gennady, enthusiastic about a Russian New Year's Eve celebration with us. "It's better to start it right away."
They drove us to the airline ticket office, where, to our surprise, we could buy seats for the next morning's flight to New York. After dinner with Oleg, his mother, and his girlfriend, we went to our small room, packed our bags, and, settling Misha on the mattress between us, waited for morning.
We arrived at the airport at six, boarded around seven, and flew westward into a snowy Frankfort dawn. To our delight, Misha slept most of the way, and after we boarded the flight for Kennedy, he remained asleep. Lee and I took turns carrying him as we walked up and down the aisles. At Kennedy, customs and immigration officials eased us through government formalities. On the drive into Manhattan, Misha became restless again, but the steady motion of the taxi once we left the airport seemed to comfort him. At home, we laid him in his crib, ordered Chinese delivered from a restaurant on Broadway, opened a bottle of champagne our neighbor across the hall had stored in the refrigerator, and sipped it as we looked out the window above Misha's crib. In an apartment across the way, a balding man danced with a scantily clad young woman, apparently at a party since streamers billowed above them wall to wall. Someone from the street below released a pair of white balloons, and we watched them—two new Christmas stars—sail quickly into the luminous night. We slept, finally, our foreheads on the kitchen table, resting next to cartons of uneaten Moo Goo Gai Pan. When the whistles blew at midnight, we dreamed right through them.
It would take a more vital, human sound to wake us into the joys, possibilities, and regular diaper-changes of the brand new year.
Title graphic: "Voici La Victoire du Samothrace" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2014.