Back in October, I traveled to Ukraine to find a son to adopt. That's a peculiar way to phrase it, but also accurate, because Ukraine is perhaps unique in not giving prospective parents foreknowledge of available children until one arrives there.
So it was that I took this leap of faith, traveling first to Warsaw, and then boarding a night train for the 18-hour ride to Kiev, Ukraine. Only then was I presented with profiles of waiting children.
I agreed to meet a 5-year-old boy named Anton, who was in an orphanage in a small village on the shores of the Black Sea. This entailed yet another train ride through the night - 12 hours' worth - and then being driven by car to the end of the line, a weatherworn place called Ochakiv.
Ukraine itself had impressed me as gray, tired, worn to the very nub, a place rich in resources and creative minds, but still stranded tentatively between its life as a Soviet republic and that of a free, thriving, independent state. The Ochakiv orphanage, however, was an island of light, a clean, bright, spacious place with wholesome food, warm beds, and dedicated women caretakers.
When my son-to-be was finally brought out to me, I did not feel that he was being led out of a cave, but rather delivered from one set of loving arms to another.
After I'd played with Anton for 30 minutes or so, the director of the orphanage said I could take a couple of days to decide. Anton crawled into my lap and stroked his dark hair as he handled the toy car I had brought him.
"I don't need a couple of days," I said. "I can think of no reason in the world not to adopt this child."
The judge, although consenting to the adoption, stood by a 30-day waiting period. I had to return home, placing an ocean between me and my new son, wondering if 30 days had any meaning to a child for whom life is a series of movements from one moment to the next.
Back home in Maine, I felt overwhelmed with conflicting emotions. If not for Anton, I would not choose to return to Ukraine. I had found little there to lift my spirits, and I did not look forward to traveling in these politically troubling times. But the 30 days passed quickly, and I soon found myself doing what had to be done.
When I returned to Kiev, the place had fallen into a deep freeze. I come from a cold place, but in Maine the cold comes at you from outside. In Ukraine it seemed to arise from my bones, and I found it almost impossible to get warm. This only aggravated my last remaining preoccupation: What would it be like to separate Anton from his orphanage? He had been loved there. He had friends there. He had a reassuring schedule that was repeated day in and day out. And he had warmth.
What if he wouldn't come with me? What if he threw a tantrum? Would the director intervene on his behalf and send me back to Kiev to start over?
I needn't have worried. All these fears evaporated when I approached the orphanage and Lydia (the director) ran out to me, the prodigal son returned to do good.
Lydia took me inside to Anton's group. The playroom was empty, eerily quiet. Then, a peep. And another. A door slowly swung open and seven small children emerged like a flock of chicks. Giggling and jostling, they moved Anton to the front of their little group.
I got to my knees and signaled to him. With his chin plastered to his chest, he shuffled over to me. In halting, almost explosive syllables, he imparted his rehearsed, English phrase to me: "I - love - you - Papa."
It had been all right then, those 30 days. In fact, it was suddenly as if they had never existed. We set up a little party for the children, with grapes, apples, and bananas I had bought at an open-air market. Then the children presented me with a cassette tape they had made of songs and poetry.
After the cleanup, they took turns saying goodbye to Anton: The girls kissed him on the cheek, and the boys shook his hand. Then they gave him a group farewell before being herded off to their afternoon naps, in a room which now had one empty bed.
To my surprise, Anton didn't shed a tear. He was aglow with the task of trading his orphanage clothing for the new duds I had brought.
As his caretakers embraced him and wished him well, the director turned to me and said, "You are family now." I took this in two ways: Anton and I were now father and son, and I was a member of the orphanage family. I considered both relationships to be distinct honors.
From Ochakiv to Mykolayiv to Kiev to Warsaw to Frankfurt to Boston to Maine we traveled, Anton and I. He slept, and I pondered. At that moment, the real difference between us was that his eyes were forward, alight with anticipation, while my mind kept wandering back to the people who, despite their poverty and struggles, had given me a boy capable of giving and receiving love.
I could think of no better foundation upon which to commence building his - and our - new life.