Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Look Back: One Year Ago, Alina Comes Home

One year ago today, Chris and I brought Alina HOME.

Here's a look back, from the day we left the town where she was born through the day she came home to her forever family for good:

Leaving Zaporozhye

On the train with Mama's iPod
and the picture book

Self portraits while waiting in the cab in Kiev
for Daddy and Niko to finish grocery shopping

Still waiting in the cab, the first big smiles we got to see
(We'd known Alina 1 week)

Laughing while Mama tosses a hat in the air

Our short time in Kiev on the back end of our trip (with a busy toddler) was a bit different than our longer, and more free flowing stay there in the days surrounding our SDA appointment ;).  

In addition to Alina's final required medical appointment and finishing up our Embassy paperwork, we spent our few days there getting to know Alina and trying to keep her occupied in a very small city apartment.  We were also trying to figure out how we were going to get home since our flight out was cancelled due to the volcano.  

If you are interested in reading a few details of our short time in Kiev before coming home, go here.  

After much work, Chris found a way for us to get home by traveling KLM Royal Dutch Airlines through Amsterdam--staying overnight, and then re-boarding for Detroit the next morning.  There's a long story about getting a temporary visa for Alina (still a citizen of Ukraine) so we could stay in a hotel just outside the airport doors.  We eventually did get an overnight clearance to leave the airport terminal, and had a wonderful night's rest in a lovely and very comfortable room at the Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel.

Welcome to Holland :)!

In Amsterdam, on the trip home
getting settled for the night

Alina was a total trooper for us on the long trip home.  We were all exhausted, but so happy to be coming home to reunite our whole family, finally together under one roof...  


Meeting Emmy and Sara

Meeting the Siblings

Sweet, little feet

Baby Dolls & Crackers

From the adoption blog:
Alina seemed very happy to meet her siblings. She was full of smiles and was very relaxed, even though she must have been a little overwhelmed--she was surrounded by all the kids on the kitchen floor. Alina figured out that the kids think she is cute and funny--and she was enjoying all the attention.  Bridget and Alina seemed to recognize one another. They are adorable together! They're about the same height and weight, although Alina is almost 9 months younger than Bridget.  Their hands and feet look almost identical, except Alina's are a bit more chubby :). There was one point last night when I had them both on my lap, which was overwhelming in itself--it is a moment I will never forget. I keep thinking about the two of them together. They are a unit now. My almost-twins, born apart but raised together. 
When we were in Ukraine, someone asked us why we think God gave us four healthy children and then Bridget, a child with Down syndrome. Chris and I have a long answer to that question that we may write about here someday. The short answer, though, may be that Bridget arrived in our lives so that we would save Alina.

One year later and the experience still leaves me breathless and searching for words.  We were so privileged to be able to make that journey, and to bring our little girl home.  

Thank you so much for taking the trip along with us, for loving us and for loving Alina.  We are grateful for all of it....

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Look Back: One Year Ago (Post 6)

Gotcha Day

On Friday afternoon, while having our hurried, brief and last official visit with the orphanage director, we were told that we could take Alina out of the orphanage any time between then and Sunday since they finally had all of the documents necessary to close Alina's file. The director handed us the small slip of paper shown below.  It was up to us to decide the date and time of her "Gotcha Day".  

Permission to take Alina forever

We were scheduled to take the Sunday night train out of Zaporozhye back to Kiev, and decided we should do a little bit of last minute sight-seeing (since we had done NONE yet) and shopping on Saturday morning, before we had Alina with us full-time.  We agreed we'd go and get her Saturday afternoon and spend that night and most of the next day with her before heading out Sunday evening.

On Khortytsia Island

Our cab driver, Igor (pronounced EE-gur) picked us up at our hotel mid-morning that Saturday and took us on a ride through Zaporozhye along the Dnieper River, and over the bridge to historic Khortytsia Island, a 16th to 18th century fortified military camp and home to the Zaporozhye Cossacks (very interesting for others heading to Zap).

We then asked if he could take us to a market where we could purchase a few celebratory items to leave with the nannies and the groupa when went to get Alina.  

We ended up at the largest store you have ever seen under one roof, think WalMart and Sam's Club combined, and then some (and we'd just been remarking how wonderful it was to experience the outdoor markets and small mom-and-pop grocery stores in Ukraine compared to the big mega-stores so common in the States).  But this store had everything we needed:  chocolates, champagne, balloons and little toys for the orphanage and some diapers, food and snacks for Alina for the next several days.

Getting Alina

My description of Gotcha Day itself will be brief. It took more time to drive to the orphanage than it did to walk in and come out with her.

We had no idea what to expect from Gotcha Day. We'd heard descriptions from other adoptive parents of send-offs which ranged from very small, quiet and almost somber goodbyes to full blown parties including both celebration and ceremony.

Playing it safe, we figured our experience would be somewhere in between. So we brought items to give along with our sincere thanks, and planned to spend as much time as we were allotted to express our gratitude to the caregivers and say goodbye to the other children and the only life Alina had ever known.

We brought a large bag filled with gifts, our camera and a small bag with Alina's outfit, coat and a few toys for the ride back to the hotel.

It was a pretty day, with big blue skies and lots of sunshine. Chris took a couple of short videos with his Blackberry before we entered the room:



The door from the locker room area to the main room was open, and it was unusually quiet in there that afternoon.  We didn't recognize the woman who came to the door, but she knew why we were there and motioned for us to wait outside the room. 

Just like the moments before we visited Alina for the first time by ourselves, we once again waited in silence, standing just off the short hallway leading to her room.  We were both looking around, trying to focus on each little piece of the room where we'd met Alina and spent most of our time with her so far.  We looked at her locker, the one with her name taped to the front and a sticker of three small balloons--one blue, one yellow, one red.  (Her locker was now empty).  We looked at the board with the nursery rhymes used for circle time and the board of pictures of children who had already been adopted from her groupa, at the lace curtains and the tiny blue benches.  We wanted to take in everything about that moment.  Leaving felt as sacred as meeting face-to-face.

All the other times we visited, Alina came clipping out on her own, but that day one of the nannies we didn't know very well came to the door carrying Alina, who was wearing only a diaper.  The woman handed Alina to me, turned and walked back into the room, closing the door behind her. 

I took that as a cue to dress her.  We took our time, talking quietly to Alina as we put her new clothes on her.  She noticed, and I think she understood that the clothes and shoes and coat were hers.

We sat there for a few minutes trying to determine if we should peek our heads in and ask if they would like us to bring Alina back in the room to say goodbye to everyone, or if we could bring in the gifts we had for them.  We didn't know if there was a little party planned, or if there would be some other formal time to say our goodbyes.

Just then, two of the women who really seemed to like Alina came out into the locker room area.  They each gave her a long hug goodbye.  I picked up the bag of gifts and motioned that we would like to give them to the caregivers and the groupa, and one of the ladies motioned to the table, indicating that we should leave the bag there.  I hugged each of them before they went back into the groupa's main room.

As Chris put on his coat, one of the other nannies came into the hallway, patted Alina on the head and waved goodbye to her.  She turned back around and shut the door.

And that was goodbye.  

These are the moments directly following:


Images of the day we took Alina out of the orphanage...forever:


This was the beginning of Alina's new life.  From our adoption blog:

It was an exciting and emotional day.  And it all hit us at once last night. We have saved a life. This precious little ruby, this innocent child, has been hidden away since birth. What if we had not come for her?  Our hearts are so full and grateful for her and for this journey. At the same time they are aching for the life she has missed out on for three long years, and for all of the other little ones we had to leave behind yesterday--especially the ones with no families coming for them.
At this point, it is all too fresh to write about clearly. We are honestly moved beyond words...

In our hotel room that night

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Look Back: One Year Ago (Post 5)

Since court was scheduled for Friday afternoon, we spent our last day at the orphanage with just one (shortened) morning visit, which included a small amount of play time and snack for Alina, and a trip to the market (with Alina and one of her nannies) to purchase a gift to leave with the groupa.

Morning snack:  Warm apple cider, 
biscuit cookies (tasted like graham crackers) 
and a piece of candy

(An aside...we have no idea why there was a piece of candy on the tray, or if that was common practice.  It was a hard and somewhat chewy chocolate, which I immediately took from her plate for fear she would pop it in her mouth and choke.  The funny not-so-funny thing, is that the woman who came out when Alina was finishing her crackers decided that Alina had not eaten as quickly or as much as she should have, and proceeded to shove 3 whole crackers in Alina's mouth at once, while scolding Alina and giving her orders to swallow her food.  She kept looking at me as if to say, This is what you do when she doesn't finish her food.  Chris and I were both in shock.  I tried a few times to reach out and help Alina spit out the food she was trying to gag down, only to have my hand swatted away.  Alina's eyes were big, and she was really trying to comply.  We believe that she followed directions closely while in the orphanage.  The whole episode was an eye opening and jaw dropping experience--the only one of its kind the whole time we were there, but it served as a good reminder for us, as we began to transition Alina into family life, that we'd need to step back and consider the environment and expectations of the only life our little girl had ever known. 

We believe that she was very well cared-for overall, and that the majority of the workers in Alina's orphanage did the best they could under the circumstances.  Many seemed to really care about the children.  But the reality of the situation is that money and resources are limited, and the children far outnumber the staff.  There is not much leisure.  Everything about orphanage life is functional in nature.)

"Yes, I'd like to book a flight out, please."

Rather than bring something with us from the States to leave with Alina's groupa, we decided to wait until we we'd visited the orphanage to select a gift for them.  And rather than guess what they might like or need, we decided to ask.  A new stroller, table or rug for the room?  A nice supply of a particular type of toy or other item?  

We had no idea what they might want, so we were very surprised after the caregivers all met to discuss and came to us with this answer:  new shoes for the remaining children for the spring and summer--not a luxury item, but a necessity.  

It really puts things in perspective, and we were glad to be able to help with such a basic need.  Many of the children in Alina's groupa had orthopedic issues and the nannies wanted safe, reasonable quality sandals and close-toed shoes with good support for them.  They knew exactly what they wanted and who to send with us to get it ;).

One of Alina's favorite caregivers 
who accompanied us on our shopping adventure  

Alina's orphan shoes

At the market

Alina's shoes (the pair pictured above) were well worn and actually fell apart as we were walking into a shop that morning. The sole came completely unglued from the upper portion on one of the shoes and fell off, and the other sole was beginning to pull off as well. We were about to toss the shoes when Alina's nanny grabbed them and motioned that they would re-glue and reuse the shoes.


We were scheduled to appear in court at 2 p.m. that afternoon, so we left the orphanage as soon as we returned from the market. We ate a quick lunch and got dressed in our "nice" outfits. Our facilitator, Marina, was waiting for us in the lobby of our hotel by about 1:15. She wanted us to leave well in advance, even though the courthouse was only about ten minutes from the hotel, to make sure we were not late for our hearing.  
Happy & Excited
Self portrait in the cab on the way to court

The courtroom, 
a video Chris began taking before I realized it.
Please excuse me fixing the front of my dress :)

I never had the chance to write about our experience that day.  Looking back, it was as much of a marathon as our first day in Alina's region, though we hadn't really anticipated that.  

After our hurried morning orphanage visit and market excursion, and then making a mad dash back to the hotel for lunch and to freshen up, we headed into the courtroom without having the chance to take a moment to gather ourselves and to take a few deep breaths.

Before we knew it, Marina began to give us the "court run-down":  Stand unless you are given permission to sit.  Don't cross your legs while sitting or put your hands in your pockets at any point (both are considered rude, for men or for women).  When a question is asked, look at the judge and respond directly to the judge no matter who asked the question.  Speak slowly and clearly.  Try not to be too emotional.

Our court date had crept up very quickly on us.  We were not concerned about it, but began to remember that we were in a foreign country--where we didn't know the language or the nuances of the culture--where we really didn't know what to expect.  

We did know that we had a judge who was sympathetic to Special Needs adoptions.  It was basically a foregone conclusion that our adoption would be approved.

We knew that there would be a handful of people at the front of the courtroom along with the judge:  two members of the community acting as "witnesses" (who sat on either side of the judge at the head table) and the social worker we'd already met twice, plus a few other officals (who sat at a table perpendicular to the judge's desk).  All but the judge were women.  

We'd been told that our court experience would be brief, that we'd hear the adoption papers read aloud, and then would be asked about our hobbies and why we wanted to adopt a child with special needs.  We'd then be pronounced Alina's parents, would exit stage left and be on our way to finish the paperwork that needed to be wrapped up by the end of the work day in order for us to leave over the weekend.  

But the judge had other plans.  He came in smiling, and apparently in a mood to talk.

He greeted us warmly, talked a little bit about what the proceeding would entail and then began to read the official adoption documents.  

Marina translated while the judge spoke, talking quietly at the same time.  She was situated to my right, which made it very difficult for me to follow either of them.   (I lost hearing in my right ear with the surgery to remove my brain tumor in 2004.  I do fine unless someone is speaking quietly and on my right side, or unless there are multiple sounds competing for my attention from different directions, both of which were occurring in the courtroom that day.)  I was picking up bits and pieces, but really straining to do it, which was exhausting and made me feel even more "off balance".

I caught the part which mentioned Alina's parent's names and her given name (spoken in the order of last name, first name, middle name). I wish I could write her full name here--it was gorgeous, and sounded to me like a supermodel or an actress--very Eastern European, ending in -ovna.

The judge then read some detailed information about Alina's parents and how they came to place her for adoption.  He showed us the document they signed to release their parental rights that would become part of the official adoption decree.  

He explained that no one had visited Alina or inquired about her since she was placed in the orphanage.  We thought that might have been the case, but to hear it announced in the austere, quiet and cold courtroom setting that day made it seem so real, so weighty and so incredibly sad.

He then began the second portion of our adoption hearing: questions directed to us.

Chris was first. The judge asked him to state his full name and date of birth, and to explain why he was there that day.  He did ask Chris about his hobbies, and about his work.  But it became quickly evident that he was interested in knowing much more.  He wanted to know where Chris went pheasant hunting, and what month.  He asked about our relatives, where they live and what type of relationship we share with them.  He asked what Chris thought about Obama's healthcare plan, among many other things that had little to do with our adoption.

I could see Marina becoming concerned that our court hearing was going to last too long for us to get Alina's new birth certificate and passport by the end of the day.  I made a mental note to be brief in my responses.

The judge was wrapping up his questions to Chris.  He shuffled some papers, paused, and with a serious expression and tone, asked (through our translator):  When you first met this child...did you know right away that you wanted her for your own?  

Chris paused, and I heard myself inhale, feeling completely caught off guard by both the question and my sudden emotional response.  My eyes were stinging from the huge tears which appeared without warning, and which I was trying my best to draw back in. 

Chris was facing the judge, and I was sitting behind him, but I knew he was teary-eyed, too.  I began to sob.  Loudly.  I wanted to stop, but couldn't.  Chris looked back at me and was wiping tears from his face as his voice cracked, Yes, he said.  We knew right away that we wanted to make Alina part of our family.  We love her.

I believe that everyone in the courtroom understood that for us, the emotions of that day--of the whole journey, really--all culminated in that exact moment.  We wanted this child so very much, wanted to love her and parent her and celebrate her, this little girl no one else wanted.  We'd crossed the ocean for her, had left the comfort of a life we know well for a set of circumstances entirely unfamiliar to us.  We were standing in a court room in the middle of Ukraine expressing our hope and our faith, and our desire to make this little girl part of our family forever.  It was an overwhelming feeling--still is--one which is difficult to put into words.

It was my turn to speak directly after that moment, and I completely froze.  I'd stood and wiped away my tears as I faced the judge.  He asked if I needed a minute to compose myself.  I'd have needed much more than a minute.  I brushed away more tears, clasped my hands together and tried my best to listen carefully to his questions without looking away to read Marina's lips. 

I tried to remember the order in which the judge posed questions to Chris, assuming his questions for me would be similar.  Honestly, I thought my part would be very brief and would focus on how I planned to care for Alina and the rest of the kids.

I was asked to state my name and date of birth.  I was asked about my education, employment before having children, and about my interests.  I was praying for a quick end to the questions, and was fully prepared to answer anything about raising a child with Down syndrome, or being a stay-at-home mom to a large brood.  

It was chilly in the courtroom, but my knees were knocking out of adrenaline, emotion and fear.  The judge wanted to know what I did outside of taking care of the children.  I said, I'm a writer.  He wanted to know, What do you write?  (A reasonable question, only I was completely unprepared to talk about me, outside of the adoption.)  My answer:  Poems.  

Poems?  That is all I could think of?  I wrote a chapter for a book about our experience with Bridget, I write and manage an advocacy blog, etc.  There were lots of other, better answers I could have given, and I am not often at a loss for words.  But I froze, I'm telling you.  I just wanted court to be over. 

He wanted to know my favorite poet, favorite story, and all about the town where I was born (I was an infant when I lived there, and we moved before my second birthday).

He wanted to know the meaning and significance of my name (maybe better answered by my parents?).  He told an odd little story about Alice in Wonderland that had something to do with a pub and beer drinking...which I couldn't follow or assign a place of importance within the discussion.  I am not sure if he thought me being a "writer" meant I wanted to talk literature, or why he threw that in...but it was interesting and a bit confusing.

He then asked a few very serious questions, including one about what would happen in the US legal system to the woman who returned her adopted son to Russia. (This had just happened, and we had seen very little of the news.  We didn't even know the whole story.)  I had no idea how to answer that.  I believe I said that it was "heartbreaking and wrong" but that I wasn't sure what would happen to her.  He seemed satisfied to let it go, and turned the questions over to the witnesses and other members of the panel.  The social worker took pity on me.  She smiled very sweetly and said, I have no questions for Mrs. Peele.  God love her.  

With that, the judge read the adoption decree and proclaimed Alina ours.  With tears, we expressed our gratitude to the judge and the others in the room and told them how excited we were to begin our life with our new daughter, that we would love and cherish her forever and offer her every opportunity to live a long and full life.

The judge smiled and came to shake our hands.  He said that he was very happy for us and wished us well.  

As soon as he left the room, we took off behind Marina, who was already on her phone sprinting toward the cab in the pouring rain.

For the next two hours, we ran (I was still wearing 5 inch heels from court) in and out of office buildings and government agencies trying to wrap up our paperwork and obtain Alina's new birth certificate (with our names listed as her parents) and her passport.

Marina must have either used all of her charms, called in some favors, or have done a very effective strong-arm job on the gentleman at the passport agency and the woman at the bureau of vital statistics.  She asked them to wait for us, well after they should have been gone for the day, to process our paperwork so that we could leave Alina's hometown over the weekend and be back in Kiev for our embassy appointments at the beginning of the week.

Long story short, we made it by the slimmest of margins, and were able to get Marina to the train station as her train was in final boarding mode.  

What a day!  From our adoption blog on April 16, 2010:

New Life
When we arrived in Zaporozhye this past Monday, it looked like late winter. In less than a week's time, the trees have started sprouting leaves.  There are cherry blossom trees all over this town, and they are in full bloom right now. They are gorgeous and have become our symbol of this new life--for Alina and for us.
There is a new blossom on our family tree...

Alina Caroline

Adopted into our Family

April 16, 2010

Zaporozhye, Ukraine
 Next up:  Images from Zaporozhye and Gotcha Day

A Look Back: One Year Ago (Post 4)

Our trip to Ukraine was a whirlwind and you can tell by the limited posts during our time there!

Though we didn't know it when we committed to adopt her, Alina's region is traditionally a very "fast" region.  We met her on a Monday and had court that same Friday.  We were at the orphanage for such a short time, and with two visits daily plus spotty internet connections, it was hard to post much on our blog.  

So here's a re-cap (with additional details, pics and video) of the bulk of our visits with Alina (be is the motherload post on our adoption, with more information, pictures and video than any other post on either of our blogs!):

Day 2 

We arrived to find Alina in the same green dress from the day before, but with new tights :).  

(As an aside, Alina was always clean when we visited her, but she did wear that dress a majority of the time we were there.  It was their "good dress" for the groupa, and the zipper was broken and the inside layer was all torn up.  Someone had sewn two new--different--buttons to hold the dress closed at the top in the back.  That dress means the world to us. It is covered in memories of meeting our daughter and carries within it the significance of her life before that day.  So, we bought two new "dressy" dresses of the same size and asked if we could trade them for the green dress.  Her nannies let us take it home with us. It is the only thing we have from her childhood.)

Alina was happy to see us that second day.  She was still very reserved--and seemed unsure of what was going on and who we were--but was somewhat interested in us anyway and very interested in what we'd brought along (toys and yogurt).   

We were not as ambivalent about her :).  She blew us away.

In love, in awe

Alina, hairdresser
(She was very gentle & sweet, though my hair
did not look particularly great when she was done.)

A sweet moment sitting with Alina 
while she ate her yogurt...
until she turned and stuck the spoon in my mouth
without warning :).  I got over it :)!

Alina with empty yogurt container
Listen to Chris talking about her...
so much love already.

In all the excitement of packing up to go and see Alina after lunch that day, I left the memory card for my camera sitting in our laptop.  Chris took pictures and video with his Blackberry that afternoon, and that is what you see below:

The Music Room,
the setting for the video below:

Playing in the Music Room - afternoon of Day 2
(Please excuse me hiking up my jeans...
I haven't figured out how to edit my videos!)

Light fixtures in Music Room
(We thought they were pretty!)
Day 3
Adoption blog posts with additional details:  morning visitafternoon visit

Alina came out wearing...the same green dress :) on day 3.  Our morning visit was very relaxed.  We played, and then one of the nannies brought Alina's lunch out to the little table in the locker/hallway area.  We were thrilled to get to see her eat.

People have asked what she was eating in this series of pictures and video. Though it looks like cherry cobbler, it was actually chicken with apples and shredded, pickled beets. She also had a slice of whole grain bread, chicken broth and warm apple juice. All food was served warm at the orphanage, and the children eat with full-sized utensils. Alina's beverages were in an open metal cup (just a few ounces of liquid that she was expected to drink in a few gulps). 

Here is video of one of Alina's nannies helping her to eat. This particular woman really enjoyed Alina and was very talkative with us. She knew just a small amount of English, but she really wanted to communicate with us. She gave us some very important information about Alina: "Alina clever. Alina messy." She couldn't have been more on target.

We laugh now, knowing her. We are sure some of her nannies miss her, but they are probably laughing, too ;).

We went outside during the afternoon visit that day, and had a special treat when some of the other kids from the groupa came into the locker room with us to get ready to go outside. The little girl in the gold coat in the video below is the one I referred to here:  
The little girl who has the pair of shoes we brought is the most adorable little creature. I would scoop her up in a minute. She really likes Alina. She pats her cheeks and kisses her forehead as she says, "Lina!!" with a big smile. She looks out for Alina, too. When another child grabbed a book from Alina, she came over, took it and handed it back to Alina. She said, "no, Alina's" to the other child. It was so incredibly sweet. Chris and I were teary watching the interaction.
I have sent her picture to several people and have tried to find out her name, or anything about her...but have had no luck :(.  Tell me she is not the cutest.thing.ever.  (And don't worry, no children were harmed in the filming of this clip--even though I could not get a very tiny hat over one little girls large hair accessories!)...

Alina's groupa getting ready to go outside.
The little girl in the gold coat is the one
who took care of Alina.  

Alina's friend
We spent our morning visit outside on the playground.  We took Alina into one of the large metal play structures (a truck) and cuddled her in while we talked quietly.  She seemed sleepy and particularly content being close to us.  She had settled in substantially by this point in our visits...which is perfect, because we found out that afternoon that we'd be in court to make her officially ours the following day.

Our blue-eyed girl...
sleepy after snuggling with Daddy outside.
This picture is for Jodi and Faith ;).
Check out Alina's hat and tights under
the pants.  It was about 60 degrees that afternoon!

That afternoon we arrived to discover that we were loading up in a cab and going to get Alina's passport picture taken :).  She was quiet and held on to that large Evian bottle the whole time we were out.  We are not sure if she had been in a car before.  She was comforted by us, and was on her best behavior.  I am sure her little mind was racing.  She had no idea what to do in front of the camera, and the man taking the picture didn't try at all to get her to smile.  Her passport picture is hilarious.  It looks like something from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.  The little sweater they'd dressed her in that day made her eyes look bluer than blue.  She was soft and squishy and sweet-smelling.  And look at how cute she was...

Other images from our time at Solnishko:

Next up:  COURT