It’s ironic that the snow is falling and it’s cold today. I hesitate to use the term “bitterly” because I’ve been where it’s bitter cold and this, I’m afraid to tell you, isn’t. Bitter cold is taking a breath in through your scarf and the cold still burns your lungs and freezes the mucous inside your nose. It’s spitting and having it freeze before it hits the ground. THAT is bitter cold. This is just chilly.
It was in bitter cold that John and I made the trek 10 years ago today to a military style courthouse in Chita. We sat in a cold hallway waiting for the translator to tell us it was time for our hearing. The courtroom was even colder since it had tall windows along one wall that were thick with ice on the outside. The judge strode in along with everyone else and began barking out the proceedings in Russian.
Now, when we landed in Moscow the first thing that struck me was that the Cold War was still going on. The airport was painted in a cheery military gray and there were armed guards EVERYWHERE. In the midst of this, VH1 was on and there stood Mick Jagger on an 8 foot high screen belting out “Brown Sugar.” I still get a headache from the paradox.
Traveling to a foreign country is a unique experience. Now imagine doing it with $20,000 in cash strapped to your body. John and I had managed to split it up so we didn’t have to declare it coming into the country. We still panicked through customs, especially since we were the last Americans off our plane, the last to have our passports and visas stamped and the last to figure out where the heck we had to go. Finally we found our translator and she helped us get our luggage and explained the ground rules for the rest of our time in Moscow.
From Moscow to Chita, we were treated to an Aeroflot flight. Now, if you’ve never had the opportunity to fly on a post-Soviet era Aeroflot jet, DON’T. Seriously, run away! While standing on the runway with the couple we were traveling with to the region, the maintenance crew started tapping on the front landing gear with a screwdriver. Now, I am in no way a mechanical person, but it seems counterintuitive to tap on metal and rubber in the cold with a sharp instrument. My expertise is limited to watching Delta at the gate. I never saw them do it, so I’m assuming it’s an Aeroflot thing.
We were assured our crew spoke English. Yep, “Meat or Chicken?” “Water, no gas?” (Sparkling water is the drink of choice in Russia. This is flat water like what comes from the tap) and “You okay?” were the sole words we heard. Children were given potty chairs to use. The little girl in front of me used hers twice during the 6 hour flight. That was fun, especially since it was stored under her seat by my feet. I dropped my chicken on the floor. The plane’s bathroom was an experience. I quit drinking immediately after I used it an hour into our six hour flight and began about an hour before we would land knowing I could probably hold it until I got to the terminal. As I waited an man who obviously flew with a flask of vodka let me have it in Russian. He had tried to ask me a question and my response was, “Sorry, English speaker.” What a tirade. Of course, I am one of the few people I know who can say they’ve been cussed out in Russian.
The landing was fun – if you like ceiling tiles falling out on your head connected only by shoestrings. Yes, shoestrings. The look on John’s face is etched permanently in my mind. Normally, we are patient and will wait to exit the plane. I have never seen my husband move so quickly to get our things and shove us off a plane.
Exiting the plane, that was an adventure. Imagine walking onto another planet. That’s what we did. It was cold (-20F) and everyone is bundled up to their eyeballs. You walk down the steps and onto the tarmac. It’s 7AM but pitch black. Only the lights of the terminal and the runway are visible. There’s ice fog in the distance. You are searching in vain for the one person you know speaks English. Fortunately I am married to a very tall man and Katia (our host and translator) was able to spot John right away. She led us inside and to a clean bathroom. After waiting for over an hour for our luggage (yep, it happens in small airports too).
At this point, I am ready to chuck the entire trip. When I landed in Moscow, which was my first time out of the country, I sobbed – for hours. I wanted my Dad. I wanted my bed. I didn’t care why I had made the trip, I just wanted to go home. Even though the staff at the hotel spoke English, I couldn’t read anything. It was in Cyrillic. I had never felt so utterly alone.
Our arrival at Baby House #1 was surreal. The outside of the orphanage looked like a gingerbread crazed designer had taken over the playground. The playground was decorated in lollipops, gingerbread houses, sugar plums and anything else you can imagine, encased in a half foot of snow with a thick layer of ice on top. My glasses were fogged up from the change in temperature. When we entered the building the blast of steam heat caused my glasses to steam up more then defrost.
As we were lead through the Soviet era building to the music room, we met the 3 year olds who had been practicing for their New Years concert. Despite being cold, their little faces thawed all of us out. Then the wait began. This was why we had traveled half way around the world. After 20 minutes, it was all worth it. A baby boy with the most beautiful gray eyes and charming smile was placed in my arms. Despite John’s comment that he had a big, pale head, I was in love. This was the son God had promised me. I felt like Sarah holding Isaac for the first time. This was my child.
As I look over the last ten years, it’s been quite a ride. Kyle has faced his fair share of struggles. He has chronic gastritis caused by an antibiotic resistant ulcer as well as some other challenges that are a result of spending the first 5-1/2 months of his life in an institution with only his most basic needs being met (he remained in the baby hospital until there was room for him in the orphanage). When he was transferred to Baby House #1 the head caretaker, Ludmila, made sure he was cuddled, sung to and loved until John and I got there. I firmly believe that his intense love of music is a direct result of Ludmila singing to him every day.
Kyle has had to deal with more loss in his young life than most twenty-somethings have ever had to face. He lost his family of origin and his caretakers before he was 8 months old. He lost his beloved Papaw shortly before his 3rd birthday. His Opi died before his 6th birthday. Our family dog, who fiercely protected Kyle from the moment she met him, died in 2010. Last year, he had to face the very real possibility that his mom might die.
My son is amazingly resilient. I know he still fears losing me as much as I fear leaving him and his brother. Next week, I see my oncologist for my quarterly appointment. While he never says anything, you can see the subtle change in his eyes. He is more willing to hug me. He will actually sit by me on the couch. He never talks about how scared he is, because he is trying to be strong for me.
This child, who I would willingly give my life for, has put himself in front of me being my anchor to this world. In the little bit he has said, he firmly believes that we can beat cancer. Not me, not my oncologist, but we. He pushes me to be my best. He reads labels for soy and artificial sweeteners. He looks for opportunities to lay a teal ribbon. He sends “hellos” to my chemo nurse, even though he’s never met her. I always ask the boys if they have a message for my oncologist when I go to see him. Kyle’s is always “Please keep my mom safe.” Not cure my mom, not keep the cancer away necessarily. Just keep her safe. It’s as if he knows that someday I won’t be here, but for as long as he needs me, do your best to keep her here since I’m not ready to let her go yet.
So with tears streaming (yes, I do cry when I write these), I can hear my son flipping the pages of his beloved Sports Illustrated Kids. Occasionally he will spout off a statistic, but mostly I am hearing the sound of pages turning. While he can drive me nuts, as all kids can, I am so thankful that I have yet another year to celebrate the Forever Family that God blessed me with. Please God, keep me healthy so I can see him and his amazing baby brother, grow into the strong young men you want them to be.
Happy Forever Family Day, Dma. Know what whatever happens, your Momma loves you more than you will ever know.