There are two soundtracks running in my head as I sip my hazelnut coffee and watch the sunrise on my first morning in Milwaukee and they couldn’t be more different. They compete with one another for my brain’s favor. First I envision the West Side Story dancers and hear:
I like to be in America!
O.K. by me in America!
Ev’rything free in America
(For a small fee in America!)
Suddenly there is a mental scratch of the needle on the record and the music changes to sultry sounds of Nina Simone – or Muse – singing:
It’s a new life,
And I’m feeling good.
I think my brain cannot decide on the soundtrack for this day because it feels there is just a bit more waiting to do before this vacation can really begin. Just as it evades sensory input of people smoking around me, it refuses to accept the reality of our arrival here. So when we passed this view yesterday – one that had evoked the feeling of finally being home the previous 20+ times I saw it – there was no excitement (or at least none I allowed myself to feel.) And last night when we all sat together on my sister’s porch and reeled off a litany of possible activities for the next three weeks, I thought a lot of them sounded nice, but that it was too early to start planning . . .
And all of that is so, because my brain pushed the “Pause” button on receiving this message off my computer screen several weeks ago, along with the subsequent letter telling us to appear for our interviews on July 19th.
July 19th. That is tomorrow. (Wish us luck.)
Tomorrow, one of two things will happen.
EITHER . . .
my daughters will officially become certified citizens of the U.S. and this long, at times nightmarish, bureaucratic odyssey will be over,
OR . . .
the odyssey will continue and the vacation will be over (at least for me.)
On the bright side I will probably be able to finally decide on a soundtrack – will it be the lightly cynical but happy patriotism? or the moody and dark irony of a new day dawning?
(Note: This post is part of a longer story. If you are interested in reading it from the beginning onward, use the links at the end of this post.)
Our pediatrician of almost 17 years retired recently. My first thought was to feel sorry for all the soon-to-be new parents around here. Dr. P had provided my daughters – and us (!) – with excellent care and even became something of a friend.
The first time I met him was in his own home on a Sunday. We were about to leave for Ethiopia where Mitzi was waiting for her hopelessly inexperienced new parents. Dr. P had done some research before our arrival and, over breakfast, he gave us all sorts of advice, answered our questions and wrote out prescriptions for medications that might be needed, depending on Mitzi’s state of health. Even more important, though, is that he calmed us down. That was his specialty after decades of dealing with slightly hysterical, young parent-hypochondriacs. We left his house feeling that things would be alright. And they were.
In our second adoption of Lily, our first action on returning home was a trip to Dr. P’s office – and once again, it was a specially arranged appointment outside of his normal practicing hours. He observed Lily as we told him about our trip and how she was recovering from the measles. He did a few quick reflex tests and some physical examination. He checked her responses to different stimuli.
“How old did you say she is?” he asked.
We explained how we had been asked to decide on her birthdate based on pictures and information from police reports. (Which, by the way, is a very strange thing to have to do!) Our guess at the time was that she was about five months old, so we suggested May 5th (the birthday of a dear childhood friend). The answer came back that it was too early, and were we okay with June 2nd? A month later, the trip to Ethiopia behind us, we told Dr. P that she was now five months old. He looked intensely at Lily and tried a few more things.
“This child is much older than 5 months,” he said. “In fact, I’d say she is somewhere between 3 to 6 months older.”
I stared at my new 9 pound baby and tried to imagine her as 11 months old – it didn’t seem possible.
Then Dr. P explained that her motor skills and intellectual capabilities were way beyond what a 5 month old would normally have. He seemed very convinced.
Over the years, I have come halfway around to his opinion. I had learned earlier that the miraculous infant brain will protect its own development by slowing bodily growth if need be while devoting all nutritional resources to itself. So, undernourished babies will often remain very small even as they develop mentally. A specialist once told me that once regular good nutrition is restored, it can still take up to three years before the child catches up to his/her genetically pre-determined height and weight. On the other hand, I have also read that evolution has led to faster infant development in poorer countries. It is said that a two year old Ethiopian child – if abandoned – can survive on its own, finding food and shelter of some sort in the streets. I don’t know if that is true, but it is absolutely unimaginable that an Austrian child of two could do such a thing. And Lily comes from a particularly poor part of Ethiopia where the average life expectancy is less than 50 years. It would make sense that people there, over the centuries, would develop faster and reach reproductive age earlier.
In the end, maybe it doesn’t matter if Lily was born in January or March or June, but I can’t help wondering how it must feel not to know this about oneself? What we do know of her story is extremely low on facts, filled out somewhat by oral reports. The rest is supposition. There is a police report which says she was found “under the cactus tree in A….” The problem here is that “A….” is such a huge area. It is the equivalent of saying something like “under the maple tree in Delaware.” We heard secondhand that she got her name from the policeman who went to get her and took her to the nearest orphanage. The way Lily moved when I held her made me believe that she had been breastfed – so possibly her birth mother fed and cared for her for a while until the day she no longer could. Lily’s delighted reactions to older men with white hair – in stark contrast to the reserve she showed to other people – made me think that there might have been a kind and affectionate grandpa in her earliest months. And finally, it is absolutely clear to us that whoever her biological parents were, they had beauty and intelligence and music in their genes.
These are the things (we think) we know. They are the elements of Lily’s story. In a way, hers is not so different to anyone else’s. Memory is a strange thing – blogging has taught me that. When we tell our own stories, facts tend to get intertwined with rumors, family legends, myths, guesses and details which have morphed over time. And from things others have told me, I believe we all have gaps – little mysteries about ourselves that we may never solve. There’s the woman who spent her childhood fearing she was actually adopted. Another who found out that her father had an entire second wife and family in another town – leading her to meeting her half-siblings for the first time in her thirties. I, myself, often wondered whether I was a planned fifth child or an accidental one. I doubt there is a person on this planet who can truly answer the three most basic existential questions: who am I? where did I come from? and why am I here?
Dr. P may have instigated a mystery that we will never solve, but he did give Lily great care – and a lot of it! There were a lot of after-effects from her bouts of the measles and scabies – an ear infection, stomach troubles, a respiratory infection, rashes, the Epstein-Barr virus . . . It seemed like I was hauling her to Dr. P every week with something new. I spent many an hour worrying in his overcrowded waiting room and often felt that he was hectic and rushing when our turn finally came. I even briefly considered finding a different pediatrician with more time and fewer patients. But then, during a classically speedy appointment, I blurted out how guilty I felt that Lily was sick once again. He stopped what he was doing, sat down, and talked slowly and calmly, taking his time.
“Just look at her and how well she is developing! You may not see it, but she keeps growing and filling out and getting stronger. Her skin has cleared up and started to glow. Each time you come here, it’s like I’m seeing a different baby.”
My guilt subsided and loyalty was restored.
Once we had gotten through all these follow-up illnesses, Lily turned into an eerily healthy child. Her immune system had been massively kick-started, I guess. And now, many years later, with Lily’s 15th birthday just around the corner, those old worries and feelings of helplessness or guilt have faded from memory. Couples adopting internationally are often more worried than biological parents about what illnesses their future children might have. But in some ways, helping my daughters back to good health – seeing how quickly they responded to loving care and how fully they recovered – has become a special and enriching part of my adoption experiences. Thanks, as well, to a little help from a friend.
The back story:
My elder daughter broached the subject of when she should start her Driver’s Ed course. Boy, was that a mistake. Not only did it bring back my own memories of Austrian Driving School, but she was really jumping the gun here!
“You know I am going to be 18 next summer,” she said.
“No you’re not.”
“You are NOT! At least not if I have anything to say about it!”
We quickly agreed that this license thing was a topic she should take up with her Papa.
18! My first baby is going to be 18 next year! And the way time has sped up since we’ve had her – this is going to feel like . . . next month!
I suddenly remembered a box of little treasures I kept upstairs in my closet, because I’d had a vague plan of giving it to her on her 18th birthday. I dragged it out and found the blanket she was wrapped in when I first held her, the first baby bottle we used, her baptism presents and dress, her first stuffed animal . . .
And then I found these:
During the adoption process, I was teaching the third of a four year course and had developed a close relationship with a lot of my students. They were aware of my situation and even a little emotionally involved. When we came home with Mitzi, a lot of them visited us with presents in hand. That is how this little stuffed sheep – whom we named Fritz – became Mitzi’s Velveteen Rabbit for a while. Two other students later presented me with the book “Fritz the Sheep”. They had drawn all the pictures and written the text themselves. Some people are so incredibly thoughtful and good at gift-giving! (I’m not one of them.) I adored this book from the start and displayed it prominently in my house. Unfortunately, it suffered a little water damage once when a wild thunderstorm blew open the porch door and caused some minor flooding. And Fritz himself is also looking a bit forlorn. But both still qualify as priceless. So I’ve decided to share them.
Here’s the (translated summary of the) story:
Fritz the Sheep lives in a nice place outside a small village, but for some reason, he is a little sad and a little lonely. He decides to take a walkabout.
He meets Lisa the Cow and tells her about his travels. Lisa doesn’t really understand why he isn’t satisfied.
Fritz meets Pino the Woodpecker. (Let it be known here that “Pino” was the nickname of one of the authors.) Pino tells Fritz that what he is really looking for is happiness and tries to teach him to fly. It doesn’t work out well.
As Fritz wanders away, Pino decides he could still help. He brings Fritz to a birdhouse where they meet Gina the Cat. (Let it be known that our Cat One was named Gina.) Gina is nasty and makes fun of Fritz at first, but after Pino flatters her, she decides to help. And, deep down, she is wise and has a good heart.
Gina leads them to a house, telling Fritz that she spends a lot of time there. (Just like our house at the time, there is a rocking chair on the front porch, a basketball stand and a blue car.) Fritz asks why they are there. Gina tells him to figure it out for himself and takes off.
Fritz is greeted by a barking gray woolly sheepdog named Whitney. (Long-time blog readers will know her as “Dog Two” – and if they look closely down the hallway, they will see “The Nemesis”.) Whitney makes it clear to Fritz that no one can come in here – unless, of course, they have a reason to . . . then it’s okay.
Fritz saunters into the house and then goes out to the terrace where he finds me reading to Mitzi – who doesn’t look at all sleepy. He has an idea.
Fritz starts jumping over the fence again and again until Maria gets tired and falls asleep. This makes Fritz happy and he decides to stay with this family till the end of his days.
So, the plan was to give these things to Mitzi on her 18th birthday – that is what a thoughtful and great gift-giver would do. (Did I mention I am not one of them?) But I suddenly find myself having a little trouble with the thought of letting precious things go. Maybe she will just have to wait a bit longer – like . . . say . . . until she has her own first child (assuming that happens).
Serves her right for growing up so fast.
So. The deed is done. My application for US citizenship for my adopted daughters is in the mail. My nearly yearlong odyssey to make this happen is nearing its conclusion. Now it is Wait and See time.
I can’t believe how convoluted this process has been from the very onset. And, of course, there were a few more stumbling blocks set in our path through the second to last stretch. Like the fact that permission from the Austrian government for dual citizenship took over six (!) months, meaning that the time window is now very small. (Although, when I picked up the documents, I saw that they were dated October 10th 2016. Seems like we could have had them five months ago, but no one got around to notifying us . . .)
Then, there was a new version of the application form – now 13 pages long instead of the 8-page one I filled out last summer. If I had sent that one in, it would have been immediately rejected. I only stumbled across the new form through sheer dumb luck.
And then came the dilemma of how to pay the (discouragingly hefty) filing fee from abroad? After reading every square inch of the website and consulting its Avatar “Emma”, who answered each of my questions by directing me back to a webpage, I took the desperate step of trying to call our – in this case, frigging useless – embassy.
Unfortunately, there are only two telephone numbers listed on the embassy website – one for visa questions and one for dire emergencies. I dialed the visa number and went through an endless series of “Press 1 for lahdeedah. Press 2 for weebeejeebee . . . Press 269 for zippowingo. Hold the line to talk to a human being.” I held. After what seemed like two days – finally! – a voice of a real person. To keep a short story short, here’s what he told me. He doesn’t know anything about my situation except that he knows that I can’t pay the fee through the embassy and, no, he can’t connect me to anyone else there who might know, and, no, it won’t help to come in person.
So how do I pay this stupid fee? The website makes clear that the application will be rejected if the cash is not forked over upfront and that the money has to come from a US bank.
I was without options.
Time to call Sister Ambassador.
We hatched a plan. I filled out the form for credit card payment that is used for different type of application and then wrote a cover letter saying that if it was the wrong one, my sister would write a check. Here’s all her contact information. Please work it out with her! And then, in a blind leap of faith, I stacked it all up – my cover letter, my G-1450 form, my G-1145 form, my N-600K application form, my thick folders full of supporting documents (with certified translations!) – and I stuffed it all into a bubble envelope and addressed it to the USCIS. I drove to the post office.
May the fates be merciful.
Best case scenario: The payment is accepted. The application is accepted. We are notified. No more documents are requested. No specialized visa is necessary which would require me to visit the US embassy. We get an interview appointment in the Milwaukee Field Office during the time period I suggested. The interviews go well. My daughters are handed their Certificates of Citizenship. We celebrate.
And then, sometime next fall, my daughters and I go to the embassy and we watch with gratification as they hand over the US passports. A small part of the world has been righted: adopted children DO have all the same rights as biological ones. It just requires some extra paperwork. And a flight or two across an ocean.
It’s March 31st, 2017. I want to remember this date.
In March 2016, two things were set into motion that have kept me internally rocking and reeling ever since. In March 2016, I enrolled my daughter officially in the Milwaukee Public School System for her high school exchange year and in March 2016, my school team officially applied to take part in a two-year European Union project in partnership with institutes in Portugal and Italy. Had both “projects” gone smoothly, I would be heading for Vienna on Monday to take part in a big Kick-off Meeting. I would also probably be skyping daily with my distant daughter from my very quiet household.
Things didn’t go smoothly. In either case.
The first enrollment set off a series of visa nightmares and disappointments, but then – as a silver lining – a year+ long quest through the bowels of bureaucracy to get dual citizenship for my (adopted) daughters. The second application set off a yearlong series of frustrations and added stress that had my idealistic and hard-working colleagues nearing the burn-out point. (Did I mention that the EU project aimed to find good practices for preventing Burn-out?) Both issues have kept the back of my mind working on overdrive for most of the year.
Today, within a span of 3 hours, both issues resolved themselves abruptly and unexpectedly. Shortly before noon and six months (!) after our original application, the mailman arrived with a registered letter from the Austrian government granting my daughters permission for dual citizenship. Two hours later, I left a meeting at the school in which we had extricated ourselves successfully from the EU project – with no bad feelings, no lingering resentments and no danger of tanking the project as a whole.
My inner worrywart doesn’t know what hit her. It’s like she suddenly has no reason to exist. She’s dazed and confused and I almost feel sorry for her.
Note: This post is part of a longer story. If you are interested in reading it from the beginning onward, use the links at the end of this post.)
Despite the whirlwind of last minute activity before my second trip to Ethiopia, it took every last iota of my energy to keep tamping down my worries. How is Lily doing? Is it really just chicken pox or is it . . . god forbid . . . the measles? Surely Monty would tell me! I had the hour count in my head of how much longer it would be before I had Lily in my arms. As I ticked them off one by one, each hour seemed to be longer than the previous. Time was slowing down. Still, by the time we got to the airport, my count had made it down to a maximum of 15 hours till I would see her, hold her – and with a little luck, maybe 14 or even 13!
My arrival in Addis Ababa for the second time was quite the opposite of the first experience – with one little exception. To begin with, I personally knew Monty who would be there to meet us at the airport in the middle of the night and I was ready when she flung herself at me and began a series of traditional three cheek kisses interspersed with strong hugs. She chattered away and began organizing us all for the drive while simultaneously being introduced to the others and laughing and then coming back to me for yet another hug. Somewhere in there I managed to work in my burning question: “Are the babies okay?”
“Yes yes yes, the babies are good!” she said and then got back to the business of distributing suitcases and passengers into the two cars.
I was surprised to find her husband, (I’ll call him “Daniel”), in attendance too. In contrast to Monty (not to mention the hapless, Mr. T) this man was quiet, reserved, distinguished. I would find out that he was a former Economics professor and an author, now self-employed and working to patiently reform the Ethiopian economy. His English was impeccable. His presence there was meant to honor us and thank us for our help to his son in Austria.
After the initial introductions, we headed to their two cars – neither of which needed any duct tape to hold it together. I ended up riding shotgun with Daniel. As we approached the one large intersection with traffic lights, I remembered how, two years earlier, Mr. T. had simply shot through it obliviously, despite the red light. It surprised me to see this man gunning toward the red light in the same way, with no hint of him even considering using the brakes. After barreling through, I asked him if it was customary there to simply ignore stoplights. He looked at me with a tiny smile. “When no other cars are around?” he responded. He seemed to be questioning me. I liked the twinkle in his eyes.
We got to the Mission we were staying at around 4:00 in the morning. After helping us with our luggage, Monty brought in bag after bag full of food, water, bananas, bread . . . Anything and everything she thought we might need in the next 7 hours before we would meet again. She ordered us to go right to sleep and then to be ready at 11:00 am the next morning, when they would pick us up again.
“And then we will go to the orphanage?” I asked.
“No, no. We will have lunch first. Sister Mariska said Visiting Hours are between 4 and 6 pm. Then we go.”
Monty made her vivacious goodbyes, ordered us to go to sleep once again, hugged and kissed me several times and then handed me a banana and told me to sleep well. And then she was gone.
I was so disappointed. 4 o’clock pm! Twelve more hours! How would I make it that long?! I was so close to Lily now (or at least I thought) and still had to wait! Life was cruel.
I ate a banana. As ordered. And I went to bed. But I didn’t really sleep.
I waited till it was light and I heard noises of the others – the other adopting couple and my sister-in-law who had come with me. (My husband had stayed at home with our elder daughter.) We whiled away the time as best we could, battling impatience. We wandered around the garden and took strange pictures. Time had slowed almost to a halt. Monty and Daniel’s arrival felt like redemption.
Our lunch was wonderful but I could hardly wait for it to be over. It was followed by an almost painfully long traditional coffee ceremony (which begins with roasting the beans). We asked intermittently about the babies, but Monty kept her answers short and quickly changed the subject. Once the coffee had been drunk and cups returned, I assumed we would be off to the orphanage – a bit early, but not by much. Monty had other plans and we proceeded to drive up the mountain Entoto by one of the back roads. We would take in the view of Addis and maybe look at the churches.
Never before and never since have I been so ungrateful for such kindness – but I was wilting inside. It wasn’t even nervous energy keeping me going anymore, it was just the fumes. It was already 4 pm when we entered the second church. My brain was calculating the shortest period of time we could spend pretending to look at it without being rude. That’s when the curator came over and offered us a private guided tour. I thanked him and tried to beg off by explaining how we were on our way to the orphanage, but Monty stopped me. She whispered “This is great honor!” So we traipsed from artefact to artefact as the curator droned on unintelligibly about which king or priest did which historical thing in which year, after which he stopped and waited for me to translate it all for the German speakers while I was dying inside.
It was . . . excruciating.
The other adopting couple – let’s call them Ellen and Ronny – looked at me with something like pain in their eyes. This was their first time in Ethiopia and their first adoption. My nervousness and anxiety were nothing compared to theirs. They both looked like they were about to throw up. So, instead of translating the wonders of the next artefact, I said in German, “I should be telling you what he just said – which I didn’t really understand – but I’ll use this chance to ask you two how you are holding up.” I then added a bit louder: “King Fasilides in the 17th century.” Ronny then asked me in German how much longer this was going to go on and weren’t we going to miss the visiting hours? I told them I would try to get us out of there and then pointed out the pattern on the artefact as if I were explaining it.
As we walked to the next display case, I whispered to Monty that Ellen wasn’t feeling well and needed some air. Monty and the curator then had an intense discussion during which he seemed a bit affronted and she talked a mile a minute. At one point he looked over at us and seemed to soften a bit. We all thanked him profusely and he almost smiled. (I think Monty’s donation to the church helped a bit too.) We were free! We were finally on our way to Lily!
To be honest, I have almost no true memories of the next hour. I only have the ones my mind later constructed around the pictures we took. The red couch. The bundle. Lily in my arms, confused, straining away from this stranger and looking around for Monty or Sister Mariska. Those two women were in intense conversation, interrupted occasionally by one of them telling me “On the mend! On the mend!” In the pictures, a black splotch is visible on the corner of Lily’s mouth, but I don’t remember seeing it in those first moments. I do remember realizing suddenly that I had forgotten the Baby Bjorn back at the mission. I kicked myself mentally. I had had Lily for all of ten minutes and had already made my first mistake. I took off my sweater and tied it around my waist to fashion a make-shift baby carrier. It would have to do.
(Years later, Monty told me a story. She said that Daniel had watched me doing this with some fascination and then said, “Now THAT is a mother!”)
Sister Mariska had a lot of work to do, so she kicked us out after a fairly short time. Before I knew it, we were back at the mission and I had a sick baby to take care of. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know what I would have done without Monty and my sister-in-law (– I’ll call her “Sue”). Both of them were experts in childcare. (Despite having a surgeon, two dentists and a gynecologist in the family, it was Sue that we all called when we needed medical advice – and especially when it was for a sick baby.) In those first hours, Monty and Sue prepared the antibiotics for Lily and discussed how and when they should be administered. They helped me bathe Lily in specially prepared water to treat her scabies. It was Sue who sat next to me as I gave Lily her first formula. Sue kept me from panicking when I realized that Lily was too weak to suck it out of the bottle – even after we painstakingly enlarged the nipple hole with a pin. It was Sue’s idea to try spoon-feeding. We began pouring the formula drop by drop onto Lily’s lips and saw that she was taking it in. We kept this up for hours and through much of the next day until Lily was strong enough to use the bottle.
At some point, this longest day of my life had to end. Lily was sleeping (if somewhat fitfully) when I placed her in the crib and then lay down. I listened to her wheezy, rattly breathing and worried. Then the sound stopped and I worried more, so I got up to check her breathing. After the third time, I realized this wasn’t going to work. I had read in a baby book somewhere that it is dangerous to have an infant in your bed, but I saw no other option. I rolled up extra blankets and laid them to the left and right of me. Then I got Lily and laid her on my chest and covered her up. Her breathing quieted, but I could still feel her lungs expanding and contracting. I drifted off and woke hours later in the exact same position.
Between the Baby Bjorn and this sleeping arrangement, Lily spent about 100 of the next 120 hours at my chest. Heart to heart. We were soon both on the mend.
We spent another five days in Ethiopia during which Monty spoilt us rotten with attention. We were chauffeured around to sights and restaurants and visits to families of other children adopted by Austrian friends. We brought presents to people and went shopping for souvenirs. We watched Lily get stronger and stronger. We learned her noises and her ways. Once she seemed out of the woods, I finally maneuvered Monty into a corner. We were in the car on our way somewhere when I told her in no uncertain terms that I wanted to know the truth. “Lily had the measles, not the chicken pox, didn’t she?” I asked. There was a long silence.
“Yes,” Monty finally admitted.
“How bad was it?”
“You do not need to know this.”
We drove on in more silence for a while. And then I said, “Okay. But I want a promise from you. Someday in the future you will tell me the truth.”
She thought about it for a while and then made the promise.
In the absence of facts, theories and stories and, eventually, legends emerged about Lily and her medical history. Sue has come to believe and say that if we had arrived just one day later, Lily would not have made it. I know that she is telling her own truth and that with her expertise, I should believe her, and yet I don’t. Because I can’t. The what if’s are simply too awful to contemplate. And then there is the memory of Sister Mariska’s confidence. Lily was already “On the mend!” when I first held her . . .
And then there was Monty’s version of the truth, which I heard a half year later when she visited us in Austria. She told me that two nights before our arrival, she had visited Lily in the orphanage. Her condition was dire and Monty didn’t think she would survive the night. She recognized that it was in God’s hands now, and that if Lily was still alive the next morning, then everything would be alright. And that was what happened.
I know Monty was telling her own truth. And I should believe her. But I can’t.
Adopted children do not like hearing that their experiences were “meant to be” and I understand fully why that it is so. How could it ever be “meant to be” that a person loses his/her mother or father in infancy? Beginning one’s life in loss can only be bad luck and never destiny.
I cannot and will never stop feeling that Lily and Mitzi and Hubby and I belong together for no other reason than there is no alternative. We four are NOT simply the product of a string of decisions and coincidences and timing and luck . . .
We are meant to be. It is my own truth. And I believe it.
The back story: