My son is sleeping peacefully in the next room as I write. He fell asleep to the sound of me singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as he has done almost every night since I brought him home from Russia nearly 31/2 years ago. It would be impossible to count the number of times I sang it as we walked around the grounds of his orphanage in Rostov-on-Don — or how many since. I can tell you that it was the first song he learned to sing — he comforted himself with the melody before he knew the words — and that I can sing all five verses.
Since the news of the ban on intercountry adoption of Russian orphans by American citizens, there have been many stories about Russian adoptees who grew up to be Eagle Scouts, National Merit Scholars and even a Paralympian. Now that Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a law banning the adoption of Russian orphans by American families, I’d like to share a different kind of a story, one that I assume is much more common. Mine is a story about lost mittens and sticky kisses and bicycle tires that seem to always need air. Nothing spectacular. Nothing newsworthy. Just the everyday life of an ordinary 5-year-old. But perhaps, given the circumstances of his early life, the life we have together is nothing short of extraordinary.
My son spent the first two months of his life in a neonatal intensive care unit — he was a preemie — and the next two years in a dom rebyonka, or baby house, where he was one of about 100 children ranging in age from birth to four. His caregivers certainly loved their charges and did the best with what they had, but supplies and time were scarce. Two, perhaps three caregivers washed, dressed and fed 15 toddlers in eight-hour shifts. The children always had bite marks or scratches or bruises; commodities were scarce. The children were allotted two diapers each day. On the playground they wandered aimlessly, unengaged. There was a lone swing and a seesaw. Toys were broken; there was not time to teach children to care for their things.
When I traveled to Russia in 2009, a child had to be available for adoption solely by Russian citizens for nine months before the child became eligible for international adoption. Russian families had the opportunity to choose my son. They didn’t. Maybe it was something in his medical records (what diagnoses there were seem to be false or insignificant). Maybe it’s that Russians overwhelmingly prefer to adopt girls.
When I picked up my son he spoke six words in Russian; by the time we reached home, he spoke nearly double that in English. I remember sending an email home telling friends and family that we would have to teach him how to hug. The lessons paid off; he is now a champion hugger, going back to pile on the affection two or three times whenever he leaves someone he loves, and that is a long list.
When I met him, my son’s life was small. He had never ridden in a stroller or petted a dog or eaten an ice cream cone. He was reluctant to climb a slide. He was scared of stuffed animals. Except for fear and sadness, his face was mostly expressionless.
That has all changed. Now he has ridden in cars and planes, on trains and subways and bicycles and scooters. He runs giddily up to dog owners and asks them politely if he can pet their dog. He’s an avid climber. He isn’t afraid of anything. And he’s not at a loss for expression. He loves our costume closet and is often dressing up as one character or another, complete with an accent or particular persona. He, like many his age, delights in telling long and fanciful stories full of plot twists and digressions.
Though I’ve had the privilege of watching this amazing transformation, what’s been the most awe-inspiring is watching my son as others celebrate him. When he lost his first tooth, my father went to the bank and stockpiled coins so that the tooth fairy would have an ample supply. My mother cried at his first school performance; he was a snowflake. My sister taught him to sew and marveled at every stitch. Assorted friends and relatives cheer him on as he counts by tens or listen with great interest as he tells them in great detail about his pet turtle’s diet. You should see the look on his face when someone delights in him.
But of course you have. You’ve seen it on the faces of your children and grandchildren. On your nieces and nephews and the face of any child you have had the good fortune to love. And now, every year nearly 1,000 Russian orphans (roughly the number adopted by U.S. citizens in 2011) won’t have a chance at that look — of pride, of security, of happiness, of hope.
I’m hoping that Putin makes good on his promise to do better, that conditions in Russian orphanages improve, that more Russian families adopt. There are more than 600,000 orphans in Russia and I’m really hoping that the ban is temporary. As I look at my child sleeping, one leg dangling off the bed, blanket askew, my heart breaks for the Russian children being deprived of a chance to be adopted into a loving American family.
Rabbi Toby H. Manewith is the director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Beth-El in Northbrook.