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Russia Adoption

The gift of Nathan:
For months and months we waited, almost afraid to imagine what life with Nathan might be like. Now, we can't imagine life without him.

 

Every night when I get home from work, Liz and I sit with Nathan on the floor of his room and build Lego skyscrapers. We drive cars around the Little People track, and shoot baskets on the Nerf hoop. Ruby, our red heeler, sneaks in from time to time to give Nathan a fresh coat of kisses. (Some puppy love is too strong to deny.)

Around 9, we wind down with a song or a dramatic reading of Goodnight, Gorilla; it never disappoints. And as Nathan drifts off to sleep, the world feels incredibly small. Safe.

Perfect, actually.

It doesn't seem possible that he's only been with us six months. The promise of him has been with us so much longer.

Through 12 years of marriage, really. And a year and a half of navigating the paperwork jungle of international adoption.

Through intimate interviews with a social worker and gratifying days volunteering at a day care. Through the fingerprintings, and the physicals.

And finally, through six brutally long months of waiting, after we met him, to return to Russia to bring him home.

So many of those nights I'd sit alone in his empty room, convincing myself this odyssey had to have a happy ending. Nathan needed us, I reasoned.

Even more, we needed him.

But for a while, at least, it seemed we might never be together.

Tonight, as we light the Hanukkah candles and bask in the glow of family tradition and routine, we'll say an extra prayer for those parents who are still waiting, hanging tight to hope as the holiday passes. Maybe our story -- our joy -- can help light their way.

Angel in a photograph

I was asleep when the phone rang that Monday morning in June, but I knew it would be The Call. Only a few hours earlier, I'd finished celebrating with colleagues the four weeks we'd spent covering The Cliburn international piano competition. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my career, and one of the most difficult.

The entire time, I was holding my breath, hoping to hear something about Nathan. His photo, all golden curls, soulful eyes and cleft chin, was taped on the wall above my computer at Bass Hall -- a beautiful, bittersweet reminder of the boy who was still waiting for us five months after we first met him.

Russian adoptions involve two long transcontinental journeys: one to meet the child, and a second to finalize matters in court and bring the child home. Our Texas-based adoption agency told us the average wait between visits was six weeks to two months. But days before our first trip to Krasnodar in January, the laws changed slightly, and our two-month wait stretched to three months, then four, now five. Paperwork had ground to a halt; the letter inviting us back was in limbo.

So we waited.

Back home in Fort Worth, we tried to stay busy, positive.

We pestered our adoption-agency contact for regular updates on Nathan, but when the details came they were a double-edged sword -- he was an inch taller; he had started walking.

He was growing up without us.

So as I reached for the phone, I needed this to be The Call.

The Russian odyssey

The first time we met Nathan, he'd just turned 10 months old.

We had seen no pictures, and had very little information about him. So when we sat down in a nondescript government office at the ministry of education in Krasnodar, a farm-rich region in southern Russia, we were breathless to hear his story, see his face.

But the social worker didn't offer a photo or many details, just his name: Aleksander; his age: 6 months old (a misprint in his file, we would soon learn), and that he was living at the "baby home" in Novorossysk.

We would have to travel

2 1/2 hours southwest to the town, nestled against the Caucasus mountains and the Black Sea, to meet him.

It was a strange trip, indeed. Liz and I barely made a sound as we raced along the countryside, past cottonfields and through the poor Russian villages. I don't think Natalia, our adoption agency coordinator in Krasnodar, or Sasha, our driver, were surprised by the silence. They had seen this all before.

Natalia, a part-time English teacher, had helped foreigners build families for years, against an undercurrent of ambivalence in her own country. She knew the wrenching emotions that came with this territory. And she was a sturdy lifeline, guiding us through the most crucial steps of the odyssey.

We followed close behind her as she hustled into the stone walls of the orphanage in Novorossysk and into the director's cramped office. On the edge of our chairs, we listened as Nathan's story was translated -- and the abstract finally became reality.

The flesh-and-blood details stirred a gale of emotions:

Empathy for Nathan's young birth mother. No doubt she was scared. Conflicted.

Guilt, because we knew Nathan's story was the story of so many other children here, and we couldn't help more of them.

Relief, as the doctor assured us that Nathan was healthy and strong.

And pure elation, because our son -- the son we were never sure we'd have -- was only a few feet away.

The Call: Another hang-up

When, in a slumberous fog, I picked up the phone, Rosie, the owner of our adoption agency, was on the line. A good sign, I thought.

But as she spoke, my ears filled with anger.

Her agency had lost its accreditation in Russia, she said. Other American agencies had, too. Something about post-placement reports that didn't get filed.

There was an Associated Press article online about it, she said. Maybe I'd seen it.

Other arrangements would be made if need be, she said. We would be going back. She just couldn't say when.

I could feel veins pulsing in my head. Hopelessness standing on my heart. After five months of waiting, my patience had run out.

I sat back in bed and waited to implode, literally. No amount of shouting at the wind (or Rosie) could move this boulder.

I drove to the office to tell Liz because, well, I couldn't do it over the phone. I asked her to come outside, and she knew something was wrong. Through my rage, I explained things the best I could. Somehow, she pulled me back from the ledge. (Thank goodness I married a woman who is stronger than I am.)

We had waited this long, she said, we can wait longer.

We'll finish it as a private adoption if we have to, she said. It'll cost more, but so what?

Finally, she said: We are not giving up.

Paralyzed by love

The door to the second-floor playroom swung open, and we saw a tangle of six or eight babies crawling around on the red and yellow mats. Before we could ask: "Which one is he?" we looked down and there he was -- standing against a nurse's knee.

The social worker in Krasnodar had told us he was 6 months old, so I suppose we both expected to be handed a little bundle. But there he was, 10 months old, looking up at us with expressive gray eyes, curly blond hair and that Harpo Marx grin.

We froze for a second, paralyzed by the gravity of the moment. Gently, we put down our bags.

We were tentative, he was not.

Clad in a baby-blue sweater and reddish tights, he reached for us, and we've been lovestruck ever since.

For the next hour or so we sat and played, and Nathan took turns crawling to us. He chewed on Tramp, the stuffed dog we brought him. He laid his head on my shoulder. He touched his hand to Liz's face.

It was amazing. Perfect, actually. We were a family.

As tough as it was to leave, we knew it wouldn't be long before we'd be together for good.

So Liz and I flew back to Moscow and spent what may have been the second most memorable day of our lives together. A light snow was falling, and we strolled through Red Square, toured the cathedrals of the Kremlin and soaked in the culture of our son's country. We stood straighter than we had in months, the weight of not knowing lifted off our shoulders.

We had met our son, and he was wonderful.

Hope waits

Every couple of hours on the 16-hour plane trip home, we'd pull out the digital camera and scroll through pictures. We couldn't stop smiling -- for months.

On March 19, Nathan's first birthday, our friends threw us the baby shower to end all baby showers. There was a White Russian bar and centerpieces with rubber duckies floating in them. There was even a special "Babushkapalooza" soundtrack. (Let's just say the singing and dancing carried on well past Nathan's bedtime.)

If we had to be away from him on his birthday, we couldn't think of a better way to spend it: wrapped in the warm embrace of friends and family. Over the next few months, when we got wobbly, they kept us upright. When Mother's Day and Father's Day passed without word from Russia, they reminded us that we were parents already -- with all the joy and anxiety that brings.

They never let us lose hope. And finally -- after all the highs and lows, the legal obstacles, the waiting -- The Call came.

Three of a kind

We had a choice of court dates: July 15 or July 18. That's what the adoption-agency rep told Liz when she called. And it left us dumbfounded for a moment. We'd grown so accustomed to feeling powerless that a chance to control our own destiny felt, well, unimaginable.

I scribbled down the details, and my fingers tingled with excitement. Gone was the familiar ache of waiting, replaced by the jolt of possibility. Time sped up, days flew by, and before we knew it we were on a plane to Moscow, about to become parents.

We thought appearing in a Russian court would be intimidating, but it wasn't. After months of feeling as if the world was against us, the stars had aligned and everything was falling into place. The judge was kind, supportive. Afterward, she even thanked us for coming such a long way to give a child a home. She called us "courageous," but we knew different. Nathan was the brave one.

The next day when we arrived in Novorossysk to bring him home, it was clear that the six months had not changed his spirit. He had been loved at the baby home, and now he seemed ready to embark on his new life. "He is a leader," one of the nurses told us, tearing up as she waved goodbye. As I waved back, Nathan closed his eyes and fell asleep in my arms.

Over the next few days in Krasnodar and then Moscow, we dubbed Nathan "The Wonder Boy" because he adapted so quickly to everything: his first car ride, his first night sleeping in a hotel, his first plane trip, riding in a stroller, eating at a restaurant. And, mercifully, his new parents.

When he wrapped his fingers around mine, leading me across the polished bricks in Red Square, the experience was surreal. When he ran into Liz's arms just two days after being with us, we both dissolved into puddles on the spot. He did need us.

That night, as I sat in the Internet cafe of the hotel, tapping out an e-mail to friends and family, I finally exhaled. "It's official," I wrote. "Nathan Revel Press is our son!"

Nathan's home

After a year of lurching emotions and life-changing events (I turned 40 in August, but barely noticed), it feels great to be home for the holidays. No planes to catch. No paperwork to fill out.

We spent Thanksgiving at my parents' house in Fresno with 20 or so of our closest relatives. It was chaotic. Nostalgic. Perfect, actually.

Cousins, aunts and uncles came from all over California and Chicago to meet The Wonder Boy from half a world away, and it reminded me of the many Thanksgivings I'd spent as a child. As Nathan raced around with his cousins, giggling, bumming piggyback rides, I saw myself in him.

But Hanukkah will be a more low-key affair. Just the three of us playing with a new toy or two, watching the candles melt away on the menorah. I'm sure we'll reflect on this most amazing year of our lives, and give thanks for all the people who helped bring us together. We'll think, too, of the many parents who are still waiting for a child -- many longer than we did. Don't lose faith, I'd say; the wait is definitely worth it.

Way back in January, we chose the name Nathan to honor my father's grandfather. Only later did we learn of another special meaning. It is a Hebrew name for the "giver" or the "gift."

Nothing has ever made more sense.

 

This article was written by By Rick Press for the Star-Telegram.


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