As it turns out, once you get across the border, kidnapping is a piece of cake. In fact, everyone and their uncle seem happy to help you get away with it – even a whole lot of government officials.
Our arrival in Vienna was one of the top three moments in my life. The relief, the excitement of the family, the stork sign, the new grandma’s tears, the new grandpa’s face bright red with joy and excitement, the champagne cork popping, the hundreds of passing strangers staring at us with smiles on their faces and stories to tell when they got home about the crazy family who had a baby shower in the arrival hall of the airport . . .
All of the family members perfectly hid their shock about how tiny Mitzi was and – despite her beauty – how sickly and malnourished she apparently looked. They only confessed these impressions months and months later. If they had said something at the time, my husband and I would have been surprised. In our eyes, she was already soooo much better than she had been at the start. She had gone from 4 ½ pounds to pushing 6. We had already jokingly called her “Chubs” a few times.
Despite all the drama of our adoption on the legal side, we had been typical young parents for two weeks – almost totally focused on our baby. Together with Arthur and Jean, we had spent hours discussing the color and texture of the poop we examined in diapers, the pros and cons of various formulas, bottles and diaper brands, the importance of finding a good pediatrician, the various habits and movements and sounds and special qualities and idiosyncrasies of our very similar babies. Having the benefit of living in the country, they had been able to take their daughter home from the orphanage very early – I think she was only two or three weeks old and in even worse condition than Mitzi. On our first visit to them, we took this picture of the two babies sleeping on the couch. These two girls had been born within hours of one another, but their daughter had had the benefit of over two weeks, rather than two days, in their care – and it showed:
We saw in their baby how quickly our Mitzi could recover now that she was getting warmth, food, care, attention and love around the clock. We were confident that it would happen for us too. And over those two weeks we obsessively monitored her progress in milliliters drunk and grams gained. By the time we arrived in Vienna, we were so proud of her progress and knew in our hearts that she was going to recover completely.
And yet . . . after my first good night’s sleep at home, we went directly to the pediatrician – as we had arranged to do beforehand. This was a man who had had thousands and thousands of tiny patients in his long career, but this appointment was clearly something completely new for him. Something outside of his usual experience. He took an immense amount of time observing and testing Mitzi. He asked us 100 questions, only half of which we could answer. I have a memory seared into my brain of him taking a blood sample from her. He did it from a vein in her head. I had to turn away after a few seconds. He gave us a bunch of great advice and we arranged to come again the following week.
When we arrived at the second appointment, he took one look at Mitzi and almost shouted “Now THAT’S a baby!” and then complimented us on how much she had improved in just those seven days. A week after that, she had gone
from this: to this:
(She never liked having baths!)
So, in terms of Mitzi’s health, we were out of the woods fairly quickly. Legally, things were a bit more . . . sticky.
I called our social worker in the first week to make an appointment. Our conversation was short, but I did let her know about the unexpected turn of events in Ethiopia and that the adoption process was still ongoing. Now, years later, I wonder what she made of our situation. Mitzi entered this country as a citizen of Ethiopia with no known legal parents. That made her immediately a ward of the State. We were the people that brought her here. Did that make us . . . (strictly legally speaking) . . criminals? This woman had signed off on an Ethiopian adoption and now she had to deal with just an Ethiopian.
I brought Mitzi with me to the appointment which assured that the first 10 minutes would be filled with cooing and gooing. Each second made it harder for this woman to become officious. She decided that the best way of going forward was to issue us permission to foster and made that happen within the next few hours. From there it was a matter of minutes to get Mitzi covered by national health insurance. A day or two later, I was notified that I would start receiving the Austrian family assistance payments – about $200 a month for the next 26 years.
That was easy!
As we settled into our new life as a family of three, the courts in Ethiopia reopened. The judge finalized our adoption and the documents were sent to us in November.
But it seems Mr. T still had one last screw-up in him. Of course he did. The court papers were all there, but the original adoption contract they all referred to was missing. It made it nearly impossible to get the adoption recognized here in this country. We were in a Catch-22. The judge said we needed to apply for citizenship for Mitzi first and immigration officials said the adoption had to be legitimized first. We needed that contract. Despite having no immediate solutions to offer, all of these officials clearly wanted to help. We kept hearing “Don’t worry, somehow we will work it all out.”
And once again – Jean and Arthur to the rescue. They hunted down Mr. T and Mrs. Herewego and got the missing document. Then they came to Austria for Christmas and visited us – with the contract in hand. I stared at it in disbelief – not because our problem was finally over, but because it was the cheesiest looking thing you’ve ever seen. Written on one crumpled sheet of smeary paper was some barely intelligible English full of basic mistakes. It was covered in weird scribbles and smudged stamps. How was this scrap of paper ever going to be taken seriously as a legal document?
As I attempted to translate it into German, I found myself getting freer and freer in my word choices – to the point where the official translation sounds quite different from the original. I then made use of another personal connection – a friend with an agency and the power to certify translations as true and accurate. Once again, like all the previous officials before her (including, to be fair, quite a few Ethiopian ones), she averted her eyes from the glaring legal irregularities and focused on “the well-being of the child”. She was more than ready to help us out and slammed her stamp on my German version of the contract without even glancing at it or the original. We were now on the home stretch.
That was easy!