When I adopted my son Alyosha in Russia eight years ago, the going was anything but easy. As a single man, I found myself in a very conservative, traditional culture where I sometimes sensed myself to be the object of deep suspicion. I succeeded in bringing my beautiful 7-year-old boy home, but the process had taken its emotional toll, and I forswore any future adoption gambits.
So why am I here, in Ukraine of all places, in a weatherworn village at the edge of the Black Sea, doing it again?
I'm not sure I can exactly say, except that, in the intervening years since adopting Alyosha, the negative memories associated with that enterprise have ebbed, leaving a flotsam of vibrant, poignant impressions that only warm me now: Meeting my son for the first time; taking him by the hand and walking with him through an illuminated Red Square on a summer night; bringing him home on his first plane trip ever; and introducing him to life in Maine.
Alyosha is now 16, and this new boy, Anton Alexandrovich Kornilov, this small gift from the Ukrainian backwaters, is only 5. How will my energetic, willful teenager react to a child who is as pliant as cotton candy?
One thing I know: My older son longs for this little brother with all his heart. This, I think, is as good a place as any for a new relationship to start.
I sit here on the carpeted floor of this immaculate orphanage in the village of Ochakov. Anton sits not three feet away from me, running his hand over the ball I bought for him at the outdoor market.
If I do not disturb his meditation, he will go on like this indefinitely. Such rhythmic activity is, I suppose, the way a child comforts himself when the present, much less the future, seems uncertain.
"Antoshka," I sing as I reach out and stroke his dark, close-cropped orphanage haircut. He raises his enormous brown eyes to me and smiles a curious, self-effacing smile that curls his lip over his upper teeth.
Anton's adoption had gone swimmingly until the final step: the hearing before a judge who seemed nothing less than hostile to my plans.
"Why do you want another child?" she demanded in Russian, as I stood before her with my hands folded in front of me. "You already have one."
I replied, without hesitation, through my translator, that there are only two reasons why families grow: by accident or desire. I was fortunate in belonging to the latter category: I wanted Anton in my family, and so did my teenage son.
"Do you love him?" she asked in a voice tinged with suspicion.
The question caught me off guard. I felt that I knew what the judge was getting at. She wanted to know how one person can possibly love another after such brief acquaintance.
I took a breath and gave her my measured response. "Love is a process of growth," I said. "We begin with a sense that there is another person we have a good chance of growing to love. We aim for that mark and set sail for it, through rough waters and calm."
The judge did not seem impressed by my maritime allusions, despite her holding court in a town that harbors part of the Ukrainian fleet. She settled back in her chair and riffled through my papers.
At this point, the witnesses were heard. All were women: the head of the orphanage, the director of child welfare, Anton's caretaker. One after the other they stood, drumming their hearts with their fists, pleading with the judge to let this adoption go through.
"I would adopt him myself," lamented the head of the orphanage, "but I am too poor."
In the end, the judge seemed overwhelmed. She relented, giving her approval to my adopting Anton. However, she imposed a 30-day waiting period, "in case you change your mind."
I told her I would not change my mind, but she was unsympathetic. I would have to return to the States for the long wait.
I am back at the orphanage, flush with my victory. I play with Anton. We throw his ball. We put a puzzle together. He sits on my lap and kneads his fingers. I try to explain to him that I must leave for a while, but I will be back.
His eyes widen and he looks up at me, frightened. Of course. He understands better than the judge that abandonment is what orphaning is all about, and I find myself in the unlikely role of culprit.
I take Anton by the hand, bring him to his bed, and tuck him in. As I sit there stroking his hair, he remains wide-eyed, unbelieving. Using my primitive Russian, I keep reminding him that I will return, and I leave pictures of me, of Alyosha, of our house, to reinforce this point with clarity.
Then I get up to leave, looking back only once.
As I take the long, long train ride back to Kiev, through the deep, unbroken darkness of the rural Ukrainian night, I comfort myself with the realization that I will be back for Anton in a few hours less than 30 days, and that when I awake in the morning it will be only 29 days.
And I am mindful of something that is so true and self-evident that somebody must have written it down somewhere: When you travel well, you leave something of yourself behind.
Yes, Anton is mine now. He is part of me. I have left him behind only temporarily, and it behooves me not to grieve our brief separation, but to look forward, with joy, to our reunion.