A Small Boy From a Russian Orphanage

I AM standing on the seventh-floor balcony of an apartment building overlooking the heart of Moscow. It is a dark city, some might say grim. It looks and feels as if it has been worn down to its bare bones: broken sidewalks, cracked facades, weeds rooted in the very mortar. This city is not easy to look at. So I avert my eyes, and they settle on a little boy sleeping inside the apartment. His name is Alexei. He is 7. With every rise and fall of his chest, Moscow, the used, broken city, is renewed for me a thousand times. A dark place has given me light in the form of my adoptive son.

Alexei has been my son for only two days, but I have been waiting three years for him. That's when I began the adoption process, three years ago, before I even knew of Alexei's existence. Never in my imaginings did I think that I would one day be so far from home, counting my son's breaths, counting the hours until we would board a plane for America, a place that he had no conception of. ``Alexei,'' I had said through a translator as I knelt before him at the orphanage and helped him with his socks. ``What do you know about America?'' His reply was immediate: ``I will have all the gum I want.''

Most people adopt infants or very little children so that as much of their history as possible will be given to them by their parents. But Alexei carries an effulgence of native culture: his memories of orphanage life in the once-closed city of Tula; the large, gracious, doting Russian women who have cared for him all his life; the aromatic Russian foods he loves; and the language, that impossible, expressive, explosive Russian language that sometimes separates me from him like a wall, but also summons us to heroic lengths as we attempt to communicate.

I have been in Russia for two weeks. But it wasn't until the fourth day that I was brought to see Alexei. My Russian contact drove me through 100 miles of a country struggling to get back on its feet after years of internal neglect: pitted roadways, crumbling bridges, warped roofs. It made me recall what someone had once said about Russia, that she is a third-world country with a first-world army. We finally came to an orphanage overgrown with weeds, its play areas knee-high in goldenrod and other opportunists. Once inside, I stood in a near-empty room, hovering precipitously, reminding myself that this was the culmination of three years of scrutiny, disappointment, and dead-ends.

There were moments when I had told myself, ``It's so much easier to have a kid the natural way. Nobody asks any questions.'' But as a single man, a biological child was not a ready option. I now recognized these as idle thoughts, for I realized that Alexei, even sight unseen, would be as much mine as if he were my natural son.

A door opened on the other side of the room, and I rose up on my toes in anticipation. No one appeared. Then the door closed, and I backed down. I looked to my liaison, who nodded reassuringly. The door opened again. This time a woman came out, her hand on the shoulder of a little boy just awakened from sound sleep. Rubbing his eyes, he shuffled over to me. ``Do you know who this is?'' asked his caretaker. Alexei raised his head and squinted. ``Papa,'' he said matter-of-factly, but with the barest hint of, ``What took you so long?''

I gave Alexei a Pez candy dispenser, something as alien to him as life in America. After a few moments of scrutiny, he filled it with candy, a sure sign of intelligence, for Pez dispensers are notoriously difficult to load. Then he took my hand and showed me the bedroom he shared with seven other boys. We walked out of the building and visited his playground, then the refectory, where he showed me the particular place where he sat and ate his meals. We covered his whole world in 20 minutes. Everything he knew, all the people who were familiar to him, were within touching distance. I wondered at that moment how profound the grief of his parting would be.

At the end of our first meeting I knelt before Alexei and told him I would be back to get him in a week. ``Will you miss me?'' I asked. He raised his eyes to meet mine. ``I won't miss you,'' he said. ``But I'll wait for you.''

I had thought that my meeting Alexei had put the imprimatur on the adoption. But it had been only a speculative viewing: I was informed that I could still decline to adopt him. Were there people who actually traveled to Russia, met their adoptive son or daughter, and then begged off? It had happened more than once, I was told; but for me it was beyond imagining. I am disarmed by any child who can load a Pez dispenser with such dexterity.

I had thought that the worst of the paperwork was behind me, but it was just the opposite. The limited time frame of my stay in Russia filled the ensuing week with apprehension. So many papers had yet to be signed and sealed. The task was to track down the various ministers and other signatories. Thus began a maddening round of visits and delays and attempts to reach authorities over troubled phone lines. In Russia, authority follows a person wherever he or she goes. It is so coveted that it is never delegated, so if a person is not in the office one has no choice but to retreat, wait, and come back another day. By midweek, with the passport and signatures still to be gotten, I began to despair of ever seeing Alexei again. ``It is not yet time to panic,'' my liaison counseled. I gave that confidence a desperate embrace.

At the 11th hour, just before all the government offices in Tula closed, the clouds broke, and one by one the requisite documents came rolling in. In fact, they fluttered into my hands as if heaven-sent. It led me to suspect that the whole tense scheme had been concocted to see how much I could take. If it had been a test of some sort, I seemed to have passed. The news that Alexei was my son was almost incidental; it was certainly anticlimactic. A man in a military uniform handed me Alexei's passport. ``Take care of your son,'' he said as he shook my hand and smiled.

One week after I had first met Alexei, I returned to the orphanage to pick him up. It was a wet, dismal afternoon, the branches of the silver maples sweeping the ground. I entered Alexei's building and found 40 or so boys running around, making the best of a rainy day. When they saw me they froze, knowing why I had come. And then he appeared, running at me. Alexei leaped into my arms and gave me a bone-crushing hug. ``Get dressed,'' I said. ``Home?'' he asked. I nodded.

There was a group photo and the passing out of much-prized bubble gum. I handed Alexei a teddy bear, the only thing, next to the Pez dispenser, that he had ever owned. He placed his free hand in mine and turned once to his friends to wave goodbye. We left the building, and he never looked back.

I want to sleep, but I cannot take my eyes from my son. I am not sure I am yet convinced that he is really mine. I sense, with the faith of a dreamer, that the best days, for both Alexei and me, lie ahead, in a land brimming with bubble gum and other good things. I turn my eyes to Moscow again. It is 11 p.m., and the sun is still shining brilliantly, reflected here and there by golden onion domes. It is as if Russia is providing all the light and time I need to discover the beauty beyond the shadows. But when I consider what it has given me, I realize that I already have.

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