Morning in America

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 dawn, It’s a new day,

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?

 

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On the Mend – (Reunions – Chapter 13)

 

(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.

Questions. Questions.

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?

Questions. Questions.

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:
Reunions – The Prologue
Part 1 – The Decision
Part 2 – Nine Months
Part 3 – The 4 o’clock 10 o’clock Man
Part 4- Seeing is Believing
Part 5 – Whirlwind Departure
Part 6 – Out of the Question
Part 7 – Body Language
Part 8 – International Kidnapping
Part 9 – The Well-being of the Child
Part 10 – Poons and Moons
 Part 11 – Oh No, Not Lily
Part 12 – Running On Empty

 

Bureaucratic Baby Steps

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.

 

International Kidnapping – (Reunions – Chapter 8)

Note: This is part of a longer story. To read earlier chapters, click on the category “Adoption Stories” (and work from the bottom up!)

 

WHAT IN THE HELL JUST HAPPENED IN THERE?!” I shouted.

Mr. T and Mrs. Herewego abruptly stopped their heated and frantic whispering and stared at me.

“I want to know what is going on here,” my husband added almost as loudly. “Do you two even know what you are doing?”

Mr. T spoke up first, saying “The judges refused to deal with the case.”

“Well, we figured out that much for ourselves! So what are we supposed to do now?”

Mitzi was waking up in my arms. She started squirming a little. And she wasn’t the only one squirming. Mr. T was too. He signaled “One moment, please” and returned to his nervous discussion in Amharic with Mrs. Herewego. After minutes of this, she turned to us and said quietly, “We will go to the President now.” They turned and started walking; my husband and I had no choice but to follow.

There were, of course, several offices to visit, signatures to get, discussions to listen to, and fees to be paid before we found ourselves in the waiting room outside the office of the Court President. I could feel myself losing it in waves, each time it got harder to hold myself together. Looking down at sleeping Mitzi seemed to help. But as we were finally ushered into the president’s office, my eyes were tearing up. I blinked through his unfriendly discussion with our representatives. He then turned to me and began speaking in perfect English. He grilled me for a while about why this is an emergency case. Is it really about Mitzi’s health? Or is it just because we don’t want to stay in Ethiopia any longer? He then started lecturing me about how there are very good doctors here in Ethiopia too.

Suddenly I felt Mrs. Herewego nudging me. She whispered forcefully, “Say something! Speak!”

I have no idea what I said. I doubt it was even intelligible. But it was enough that this man sensed he was dealing with a woman on the edge of a breakdown. He seemed to take pity on me and the tone of his voice changed. He ended up telling us to re-petition the next day – but this time to make a stronger case about Mitzi’s health. He even suggested we get our letter from the clinic translated. We thanked him and left.

Outside the office, Mr. T was suddenly all upbeat and confident again – but he was alone in that feeling. It dawned on us at that moment how incompetent this man really was. Why was he even here? He wasn’t our representative. He was a social worker whose job was to process our file, not lead us through every step of the adoption. His mere presence seemed to irritate every official we had seen so far. What was going on? We had originally thought he was a person of influence who would be important for us, but now we could see that his authority was just another borrowed car that he was trying to drive through red lights. We had been distracted, by our new daughter, her health issues and our beginning parenthood for too long. We had to turn our attention to the legal side of our adoption and give this man a good strong push. And we needed help.

Enter the two White Knights of this story.

I still have a mental image of the first time I saw . . . let’s call him “Arthur”. We were standing on a street corner in Addis attracting the attention of every sort of Ethiopian, pretending not to hear the requests for money, hoping we would not get surrounded by excited children again. Then Arthur came sweeping up in his big, new four-wheel drive car – appropriately white just like the proverbial steed. We piled in, all smiles, and all said how nice it was to finally meet in person.

You see, we had first contacted Arthur and his wife, “Jean”, weeks earlier. Jean was the secretary in the Austrian Embassy in Ethiopia and as luck or fate would have it – they were also in the process of adopting their first baby. That made them not only an excellent contact and source of information, but also meant that they were always gracious no matter how often we peppered them with emails and calls (even the one my husband made in the middle of the night and for which I apologized profusely the next day.) In all of those conversations, a long-distance friendship had formed. They were ready and eager to keep helping us from the moment we arrived in Addis. At that first meeting in person, Arthur was picking us up and bringing us to the Swedish Clinic to have Mitzi checked out. Later in the day, we met Jean after work. The first thing she did was supply us with preemie-sized baby clothes that their new daughter – just one day older than Mitzi – had already grown out of. We met up with them almost every other day and they suffered with us through our series of adoption pitfalls, offering vital advice, help and the missing information we needed to solve our sticky situation. They were our first call when we finally got back to the mission after that botched court date.

flying papers“I’m so sorry,” I remember Arthur saying when we told him the story of our adoption file being thrown across the room and the machine gun escort out. “And you really have to go through this all again tomorrow?” he added.

Well, my husband did, at any rate. I was in no shape to go through it a second time. Stress had been wreaking havoc on my ability to eat and digest food. The pounds were dropping off me. And Mitzi was in no shape to spend another day in cold and damp concrete rooms. So we decided that my husband would go alone with our representative and that I would stay back at the Mission with Mitzi. On Court Day Two, he came home empty handed. Despite waiting for hours, only two of three judges showed up so he never even made it into the chambers. Court Day Three turned out to be a repeat of Day One, right down to the soldier escort. Once outside the court, my husband basically exploded. He yelled at Mr. T that “This is NOT WORKING!” It was time to try something different. WHAT were we going to do? Mr. T assured him that he had a plan and would contact us soon. And then we didn’t hear from him for three days. In the meantime, we postponed our flight home and I started to come to terms with the idea of staying in Ethiopia for another 8 weeks.

You see, we had been dealing with the Emergency Higher Courts all the while because the lower courts were closed down for two months. There were two problems attached to this approach, as we eventually found out. The first was that our little adoption was of no real concern to the judges at this level to begin with. It was like the equivalent of taking a parking ticket all the way to the Supreme Court. The second problem is that they were given no reason to overturn the original judgment. This wasn’t an appeal – Mr. T was basically asking them to ignore it, pretend it never happened. And that was never going to fly. Our file did instead.

We discovered these things out slowly with the help of information from Arthur, Jean, and Mrs. Herewego, who dropped by to visit while we were waiting for Mr. T’s next great new plan. I made a point of building a relationship with her – with mixed success. There was something amiss in her relationship to Mr. T that we couldn’t quite figure out. Was he her employer in some way? Did she have to share our fee with him? Was she his way of avoiding those nasty lawyers he hated so much (the same lawyers that might have been more helpful to us in the courtroom than a social worker turned out to be?) We discussed all this and theorized with Arthur many times as he drove us around Addis. As we weaved and honked and swerved around little skinny goat herds and barefooted beggars and old bent over women with huge bundles of sticks on their backs, I realized that I was growing accustomed to this strange African city. I could imagine staying awhile after all, which was good, because I really had no choice. I could not leave here till Mitzi could go with me.

Our drives back and forth from the Mission to A&J’s house always took us past the slaughterhouse yard. The first time we passed I noticed the smell but not much more. The next time that smell came up, I took a closer look. Arthur and my husband were discussing Mr. T. once again in the front seat. They had started referring to him as “the Weasel”. As I stared at the tall wall and the huge white-grayish piles behind them – hills, really – I wondered . . . what was that?? Could those all be animal bones? Large black birds were perched everywhere on the piles and walls. Arthur was talking about how much corruption was a problem in this country and that the fee of $1500 we were paying was more than most Ethiopians earned in a year – definitely enough to tempt some official into vying for his share. Maybe that was the reason the Weasel originally got so involved in our case, why he disliked the lawyers. It would be harder with them to get his cut. Some of the big black birds were flapping and sparring.

“Are those . . . vultures?” I asked incredulously.

vultures1 vultures2

When the Weasel finally showed up again, he reported having a meeting with the original judge, but that it was not a success. The judge said he couldn’t do anything until the courts reopened. But never fear, Mr. T had a new idea. He was going to ask for special permission from the Immigration Bureau for us to take Mitzi to Austria for medical treatment. Our adoption could be finalized by our representative in October and the papers sent on to us. He was checking it out and would tell us the next day if that could work.

I rejected this idea out of hand and was surprised when my husband, Jean and Arthur later talked about it as a real option. They theorized that if Mitzi could get an Ethiopian passport issued to her with an exit permission stamp, and if the Austrian Embassy (where Jean had some pull) could put an entry visa stamp in there, well . . . what could go wrong? I couldn’t believe they were seriously considering this insane plan.

“So . . . you are saying that we come to Ethiopia, take a child out of an orphanage and bring her back to Austria without us having any legal attachment to her? Tell me,” I asked, “how is that different from an international kidnapping?”

Those three started throwing out more ideas and options. I put Mitzi in my husband’s arms and set off – once again – to use the bathroom. (My intestines had become something of an issue.) When I returned, Jean asked me, “Would it help if I called the Foreign Ministry in Vienna and got their okay on this plan?”

Would it? I felt a tiny glimmer of hope, and for the first time in over two weeks, a little twinge of hunger.

We had a Sunday to get through at the Mission House first. I spent it dodging the pious (who were constantly wanting to pray with us) and pushing the thought out of my head that we would actually be home now, if things had gone as originally planned. On Monday, Mr. T called with the news that his latest scheme was working. We just had to show up at the Immigration Bureau with a letter he was writing and they would issue a passport to Mitzi. Mrs. Herewego would pick us up after lunch.

She arrived as promised, but instead of going to Immigration, we found ourselves in Mr. T’s office where he was nervously still trying to compose the letter. He kept getting up and mumbling about “doing it later” and we kept coercing him back into the chair. Finally, Mrs. H stood behind him and dictated as he typed. Immigration was due to close in an hour by the time we set off. There were only 20 minutes left to the work day when we finally reached the Director’s Office.

He was a friendly man who spoke English well, but he also began by lecturing us. He made it very clear that he did not see any real emergency here – Ethiopia has excellent doctors. But then he added that he thought we were doing a very good thing in adopting a baby and so he was happy to help us. He asked Mr. T for the letter and began to read it. His face changed. He was obviously irritated and he began berating the Weasel. It seemed Mr.T still had one last screw up in him – of course he had! – and now this wasn’t going to work either. I felt panic rising inside me. I asked Mrs. Herewego what was going on and she said quietly, “The letter doesn’t have the proper signature.” Then she stepped into the fray.

Somehow, they worked out a plan. Mrs. H. and my husband rushed off to get the necessary signature and I was taken back to the Mission with Mitzi and, unfortunately, the Weasel. We sat there for two hours as he chatted away happily. I could barely look at him. Finally, I saw the front door open and my husband walk through. He had a strange look in his eyes. He walked over and stopped next to me. An Ethiopian passport plopped into my lap. Mr. T happily congratulated us and then himself on his work well done.

passport

 

The passport gave off an energy that kept me going through the whirlwind of the next 36 hours. We started packing and preparing to leave – last minute shopping, paying bills, delivering donations, etc. Of course the first thing on the list was racing to the Austrian Embassy to get an entry visa and extra letter for emergency’s sake. From there it was off to the travel agency where we begged our way onto a flight for the next day. Here we experienced our last little pitfall.

“I can get you all on a flight to Milan,” the agent said, “but from there to Vienna, there is only one seat available. I will put you on the priority waiting list for the second seat.”

We took it. I couldn’t be bothered to think about this minor hitch at the moment. I knew the only thing that mattered was feeling our plane take off from the ground in Addis. At that moment, no one would be coming to take Mitzi away from me anymore. I barely remember anything else from our last day in Ethiopia, but I do remember the lift off. The three of us had made it. Kidnapping accomplished.

At least to Italy.

“I’m sorry, but only one of you can board this plane with the baby. The other will have to take the next flight (12 hours later).”

We were stunned. There we were, just a one-hour puddle jump from our homecoming, and we couldn’t get there together. The plane was boarding any minute and we had to make a decision. My husband’s family was probably already on the way to the airport in Vienna with their stork signs and presents and champagne. It was his family, so I told him to go. I would follow on the next flight. He refused, deciding we would all wait, but I put my foot down. I wanted Mitzi on Austrian soil. He gave in, then checked in, and we took seats in the waiting area.

And then I burst out crying.

The airline employees at the check-in looked over at us with sympathy and nervous concern in their eyes.

A few minutes later a flight attendant walked up to us and said “We have found you a second seat on this flight. Here let me help you.”  She escorted us all the way into the plane, carrying my bag for me. Once inside, she went to some passengers in the emergency row seats (with extra legroom) and asked them – or more accurately, told them –  to move. She helped us get settled, asked us what we needed, chatted with us and generally stayed close by. I loved her. I watched Mitzi sleep in the basket at our feet as the plane picked up speed on the runway and then lifted off the ground. We were going home.