Silence. That's what struck me as I beheld my new son in a Ukrainian orphanage a year ago. Five years old, Anton was a slight little boy with big brown eyes that darted about in a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. But I did all the talking; he said barely a word. When I said "Come," he'd come, and when I asked him to sit, he'd sit. This, I remember thinking, will be a piece of cake. A dream child. Still, it would be nice if he'd say something.
How things change! No sooner did Anton arrive in America than he paused only momentarily to take stock of his situation - and life has never been the same.
There he stands, my boy, just outside the kitchen window, chattering to himself as he sits at the picnic table in our backyard, painting his extensive collection of Matchbox cars blue. I watch as he paints and chatters, nonstop. I turn to my own work, but five minutes later am struck by the sudden silence. I go outside and call to him. No answer. I quicken my step, still calling. And then I find him - standing next to his brother's new car, painting it blue.
"Anton!" I exclaim.
His face glows with deep satisfaction. "I make it beautiful," he says in his stilted English.
Anton is my second adopted son. The first, Alyosha, came to me from Russia. That was nine years ago, when he was almost 8. One can, most of the time, talk to an 8-year-old and have a fair chance of getting one's meaning across. But younger children are, of course, a different story.
"A 5-year-old!" one of my close friends exclaimed when I broke the news to her about a second adoption. "Do you know what you're in for?"
I thought I did. But I soon learned that I was out of practice when it came to lassoing hurricanes. Anton is a veritable wind-up toy of activity. A firecracker. A whirlwind. Just this morning I went out to my Cortland tree to pick some apples for a pie. I had watched the red globes swell and mature over the summer, and now the dew was dripping off them on these crisp autumn mornings in Maine. But when I approached the tree I found it had been stripped. Squirrels? I turned toward the house and there, in the window, was Anton's puckish face, his mouth forming a perfectly round O.
"Where are all the apples?" I asked him as he rocked on his heels with his hands behind his back. "Well?"
Anton shrugged. "I think I throw them in the river," he said.
How does my son test me? Let me count the ways.
I find him hopping about the house one evening with only one sock on. "Where is your other sock?" I inquire. Anton shrugs. Later, I attempt to practice my clarinet but can't get a sound out of it.
Ah, the missing sock.
I hang out the wash on the clothesline on a bright, warm morning. By noon they are not dry. By four, they are dripping. It seems impossible. At six I go out to check on them again, and there stands my boy, soaking them with the garden hose. "I help you wash!" he tells me, and I sigh.
I am sitting at the kitchen table while Anton is in the tub upstairs. His older brother is supposed to be watching him. As I hover over my work, thick drops of water begin to plop onto my head. I go upstairs to a flooded bathroom floor. In the tub, Anton is attempting a frantic breaststroke. "Swimming!" he announces with glee as the water surges over the sides.
From attempts to make his own breakfast by putting an egg in the toaster, to washing my car with water from a mud puddle, to liberating the parakeets from their cage just as we are headed out the door for a day trip, Anton always seems to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet, despite his hands-on approach to life, despite his seeming indestructibility as he leaps from monkey bars and makes no bones about trying to tackle his 17-year-old brother, a delicate flower lies beneath the armor, a spirit punctuated by a raucous laugh and a love of making paper flowers. I find myself in an ongoing conversation with him, trying to coax him ever so gently into heeding the better angels of his truly good nature. Sometimes this diplomatic approach works, but sometimes Anton only digs in, circling the wagons with a cry of: "I go back to Ukraine!"
Such was the situation one chilly morning when I tried in vain to get a coat on his back as he headed out the door for school. "I don't want a coat!" he resisted. To which I countered, "Well, take it just in case you do."
Apparently this was the last straw for him. The school bus stopped and opened its doors. As Anton ascended the steps he reluctantly took the coat from me. And yet he needed to save face. "I go to Ukraine!" he announced.
"But this bus doesn't go to Ukraine," I told him.
"Yes, it go to Ukraine!"
"I love you!" I shouted as the door closed and the bus pulled away. A moment later a pair of hands began to wave at me from a window. It was Anton. I ran to catch up.
"I not go to Ukraine!" he shouted, full of contrition. "I come home after school."
"We'll have cookies," I assured him as I smiled, looked on in weary affection, and wondered what on earth the bus driver made of all that.