Room for Another Son of Russia

For the past four years I had been itching to take in a foreign exchange student through a nationally recognized program. Every time I asked my son about it, though, he seemed unsure if the idea was a good one. "Maybe next year," was his stock reply, and so the time went.

I think I understood his sentiment. My 12-year-old is the perfect only child. He has never lamented the absence of a sibling, is independent yet trustworthy, and has an aptitude for making use of quiet time. He has grown accustomed to his space, his personal doodads, and his position in the household as the one and only son.

A few months ago, I received a call from the local representative of the exchange program. She was looking for a home, for one semester only, for a 16-year-old Russian boy. He would attend the local high school, and all his necessary costs would be paid. We would need to provide a bed, meals, and the warmth of family life.

I ran it past my son while tucking him into bed one night. He passed his hand over his forehead, pensively, as if contemplating some deep philosophical question.

"It would be for only a semester," I told him. "And he'd be in high school, so he'd have a life of his own."

Alyosha looked at me. "But he'll be lonely," he worried.

"No," I reassured him, "he'll make friends."

"But what if he eats a lot?"

"He's a teenager."

"What if I don't like him?"

There is no devil's advocate like a 12-year-old. I kissed my son good night.

THE next morning, the program representative came over with the boy's folder, replete with photographs. "Just in case you're interested," she prodded, ever so diplomatically.

After she left, I sat down at the kitchen table and went over the material. Pavel. His name was Pavel. He came from a small city not far from Moscow. I turned to his pictures and smiled. A good-looking boy, tall and lanky, peeking out bashfully from behind a curtain of light-brown bangs. In one picture he was sitting in a tree. The caption read, "I like nature." In the next he was standing shirtless in his garden, his arms flexed, displaying his modest build.

Alyosha drifted down to breakfast and draped himself over my shoulder. "What's this?" he asked.

"Pavel," I said, "the Russian boy I told you about."

My son became interested in the pictures, smiling when he saw Pavel and his dog, taking great interest in the photo of him with his karate team.

"He looks like a good kid," I said, raising my eyes to Alyosha.

He rocked his head from side to side. "You really think we should do this?" he asked, his voice tinged with doubt.

"You'll have to share the house," I told him, biting my lip. I knew that my son would really have to want this experience enough to make it work. I caught my breath as my son hovered between yea and nay. Then, unexpectedly, he said, "OK." Having made his decision, he went to fetch his cereal.

The weeks and days preceding Pavel's arrival had a familiar feeling to them: the sense of hectic dread one associates with a long trip, worrying that one will forget something or is unprepared for every eventuality.

And then it struck me: This is how I felt before I adopted Alyosha in Russia. The adoption agency had mined every doubt and inhibition before I realized an earnest truth: I would never feel completely ready, and that was OK.

And so my son and I readied the house - and our lives - for the advent of our new family member from Russia. We prepared a room for him, mailed family photographs, and accepted neighbors' generous donations of winter clothing and a pair of soccer cleats. Before long, we had written Pavel into the book of our lives and couldn't imagine his not coming.

On the night of his arrival, we were called together with other host families to a local college to pick up our kids. Welcome signs and balloons were in profusion.

As 60 or so of us sat in the cafeteria, kneading our hands, the program director gave us one last briefing on what the students had already been told and what was expected of them during their sojourn in the United States.

The more he spoke, the more anxious I became, because I realized that Pavel was already somewhere in the building with his cohorts from around the world. "My goodness," I thought, "this is like childbirth."

And then the speaker fell silent. He turned to the doorway and smiled. There appeared a bevy of young, curious, anxious faces, craning their necks to peek in at us. Indeed, this was like childbirth, for it was new life come to us, full of aspirations and ideals and a willingness to attempt happiness in what for many of them would be a very different world.

Suddenly, the students began to stream in. I don't think I noticed another face in the group, for Pavel's smile caught and held both me and my son. I can't explain it, but although he had come to us from a family thousands of miles away, I felt as if he were my own son returned home. In other words, it suddenly felt natural.

And so, for the moment at least, I am the father of two sons. Alyosha spends much of his time simply staring at his new big brother, wondering, perhaps, how life will change now that a teenager has come to live with us. After a month, Pavel has integrated himself well into our lives and shown himself to be warm, generous, and considerate. We have gotten off to a good start, and though I don't know how this adventure will turn out, it really doesn't matter, for there is a subtle joy in simply feeling forward for what can be hoped.

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