Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Small Boy from a Russian Orphanage

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

A Small Boy from a Russian Orphanage

Article excerpt

I AM standing on the seventh-floor balcony of an apartment building overlooking the heart of Moscow. It is a dark city, some might say grim. It looks and feels as if it has been worn down to its bare bones: broken sidewalks, cracked facades, weeds rooted in the very mortar. This city is not easy to look at. So I avert my eyes, and they settle on a little boy sleeping inside the apartment. His name is Alexei. He is 7. With every rise and fall of his chest, Moscow, the used, broken city, is renewed for me a thousand times. A dark place has given me light in the form of my adoptive son.

Alexei has been my son for only two days, but I have been waiting three years for him. That's when I began the adoption process, three years ago, before I even knew of Alexei's existence. Never in my imaginings did I think that I would one day be so far from home, counting my son's breaths, counting the hours until we would board a plane for America, a place that he had no conception of. "Alexei," I had said through a translator as I knelt before him at the orphanage and helped him with his socks. "What do you know about America?" His reply was immediate: "I will have all the gum I want."

Most people adopt infants or very little children so that as much of their history as possible will be given to them by their parents. But Alexei carries an effulgence of native culture: his memories of orphanage life in the once-closed city of Tula; the large, gracious, doting Russian women who have cared for him all his life; the aromatic Russian foods he loves; and the language, that impossible, expressive, explosive Russian language that sometimes separates me from him like a wall, but also summons us to heroic lengths as we attempt to communicate.

I have been in Russia for two weeks. But it wasn't until the fourth day that I was brought to see Alexei. My Russian contact drove me through 100 miles of a country struggling to get back on its feet after years of internal neglect: pitted roadways, crumbling bridges, warped roofs. It made me recall what someone had once said about Russia, that she is a third-world country with a first-world army. We finally came to an orphanage overgrown with weeds, its play areas knee-high in goldenrod and other opportunists. Once inside, I stood in a near-empty room, hovering precipitously, reminding myself that this was the culmination of three years of scrutiny, disappointment, and dead-ends.

There were moments when I had told myself, "It's so much easier to have a kid the natural way. Nobody asks any questions." But as a single man, a biological child was not a ready option. I now recognized these as idle thoughts, for I realized that Alexei, even sight unseen, would be as much mine as if he were my natural son.

A door opened on the other side of the room, and I rose up on my toes in anticipation. No one appeared. Then the door closed, and I backed down. I looked to my liaison, who nodded reassuringly. The door opened again. This time a woman came out, her hand on the shoulder of a little boy just awakened from sound sleep. Rubbing his eyes, he shuffled over to me. "Do you know who this is?" asked his caretaker. Alexei raised his head and squinted. "Papa," he said matter-of-factly, but with the barest hint of, "What took you so long?"

I gave Alexei a Pez candy dispenser, something as alien to him as life in America. After a few moments of scrutiny, he filled it with candy, a sure sign of intelligence, for Pez dispensers are notoriously difficult to load. Then he took my hand and showed me the bedroom he shared with seven other boys. We walked out of the building and visited his playground, then the refectory, where he showed me the particular place where he sat and ate his meals. …

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