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Loving Alina, Forever Ours

Posted Apr 16 2011 12:00am
Since court was scheduled for Friday afternoon, we spent our last day at the orphanage with just one (shortened) morning visit, which included a small amount of play time and snack for Alina, and a trip to the market (with Alina and one of her nannies) to purchase a gift to leave with the groupa.

Morning snack:  Warm apple cider, biscuit cookies (tasted like graham crackers) and a piece of candy
(An aside...we have no idea why there was a piece of candy on the tray, or if that was common practice.  It was a hard and somewhat chewy chocolate, which I immediately took from her plate for fear she would pop it in her mouth and choke.  The funny not-so-funny thing, is that the woman who came out when Alina was finishing her crackers decided that Alina had not eaten as quickly or as much as she should have, and proceeded to shove 3 whole crackers in Alina's mouth at once, while scolding Alina and giving her orders to swallow her food.  She kept looking at me as if to say, This is what you do when she doesn't finish her food.  Chris and I were both in shock.  I tried a few times to reach out and help Alina spit out the food she was trying to gag down, only to have my hand swatted away.  Alina's eyes were big, and she was really trying to comply.  We believe that she followed directions closely while in the orphanage.  The whole episode was an eye opening and jaw dropping experience--the only one of its kind the whole time we were there, but it served as a good reminder for us, as we began to transition Alina into family life, that we'd need to step back and consider the environment and expectations of the only life our little girl had ever known. 
We believe that she was very well cared-for overall, and that the majority of the workers in Alina's orphanage did the best they could under the circumstances.  Many seemed to really care about the children.  But the reality of the situation is that money and resources are limited, and the children far outnumber the staff.  There is not much leisure.  Everything about orphanage life is functional in nature.)
"Yes, I'd like to book a flight out, please."

Rather than bring something with us from the States to leave with Alina's groupa, we decided to wait until we we'd visited the orphanage to select a gift for them.  And rather than guess what they might like or need, we decided to ask.  A new stroller, table or rug for the room?  A nice supply of a particular type of toy or other item?  
We had no idea what they might want, so we were very surprised after the caregivers all met to discuss and came to us with this answer:  new shoes for the remaining children for the spring and summer--not a luxury item, but a necessity.  
It really puts things in perspective, and we were glad to be able to help with such a basic need.  Many of the children in Alina's groupa had orthopedic issues and the nannies wanted safe, reasonable quality sandals and close-toed shoes with good support for them.  They knew exactly what they wanted and who to send with us to get it ;).
One of Alina's favorite caregivers who accompanied us on our shopping adventure  
Alina's orphan shoes
At the market


Alina's shoes (the pair pictured above) were well worn and actually fell apart as we were walking into a shop that morning. The sole came completely unglued from the upper portion on one of the shoes and fell off, and the other sole was beginning to pull off as well. We were about to toss the shoes when Alina's nanny grabbed them and motioned that they would re-glue and reuse the shoes.
Court

We were scheduled to appear in court at 2 p.m. that afternoon, so we left the orphanage as soon as we returned from the market. We ate a quick lunch and got dressed in our "nice" outfits. Our facilitator, Marina, was waiting for us in the lobby of our hotel by about 1:15. She wanted us to leave well in advance, even though the courthouse was only about ten minutes from the hotel, to make sure we were not late for our hearing.  
Happy & ExcitedSelf portrait in the cab on the way to court
The courtroom, a video Chris began taking before I realized it.Please excuse me fixing the front of my dress :)
I never had the chance to write about our experience that day.  Looking back, it was as much of a marathon as our first day in Alina's region, though we hadn't really anticipated that.  
After our hurried morning orphanage visit and market excursion, and then making a mad dash back to the hotel for lunch and to freshen up, we headed into the courtroom without having the chance to take a moment to gather ourselves and to take a few deep breaths.
Before we knew it, Marina began to give us the "court run-down":  Stand unless you are given permission to sit.  Don't cross your legs while sitting or put your hands in your pockets at any point (both are considered rude, for men or for women).  When a question is asked, look at the judge and respond directly to the judge no matter who asked the question.  Speak slowly and clearly.  Try not to be too emotional.
Our court date had crept up very quickly on us.  We were not concerned about it, but began to remember that we were in a foreign country--where we didn't know the language or the nuances of the culture--where we really didn't know what to expect.  
We did know that we had a judge who was sympathetic to Special Needs adoptions.  It was basically a foregone conclusion that our adoption would be approved.
We knew that there would be a handful of people at the front of the courtroom along with the judge:  two members of the community acting as "witnesses" (who sat on either side of the judge at the head table) and the social worker we'd already met twice, plus a few other officals (who sat at a table perpendicular to the judge's desk).  All but the judge were women.  
We'd been told that our court experience would be brief, that we'd hear the adoption papers read aloud, and then would be asked about our hobbies and why we wanted to adopt a child with special needs.  We'd then be pronounced Alina's parents, would exit stage left and be on our way to finish the paperwork that needed to be wrapped up by the end of the work day in order for us to leave over the weekend.  
But the judge had other plans.  He came in smiling, and apparently in a mood to talk.
He greeted us warmly, talked a little bit about what the proceeding would entail and then began to read the official adoption documents.  
Marina translated while the judge spoke, talking quietly at the same time.  She was situated to my right, which made it very difficult for me to follow either of them.   (I lost hearing in my right ear with the surgery to remove my brain tumor in 2004.  I do fine unless someone is speaking quietly and on my right side, or unless there are multiple sounds competing for my attention from different directions, both of which were occurring in the courtroom that day.)  I was picking up bits and pieces, but really straining to do it, which was exhausting and made me feel even more "off balance".
I caught the part which mentioned Alina's parent's names and her given name (spoken in the order of last name, first name, middle name). I wish I could write her full name here--it was gorgeous, and sounded to me like a supermodel or an actress--very Eastern European, ending in -ovna.
The judge then read some detailed information about Alina's parents and how they came to place her for adoption.  He showed us the official document they signed to release their parental rights that would become part of the official adoption decree.  
He explained that no one had visited her or inquired about Alina since she was placed in the orphanage.  We thought that might have been the case, but to hear it announced in the austere, quiet and cold courtroom setting that day made it seem so real, so weighty and so incredibly sad.
He then began the second portion of our adoption hearing: questions directed to us.
Chris was first. The judge asked him to state his full name and date of birth, and to explain why he was there that day.  He did ask Chris about his hobbies, and about his work.  But it became quickly evident that he was interested in knowing much more.  He wanted to know where Chris went pheasant hunting, and what month.  He asked about our relatives, where they live and what type of relationship we share with them.  He asked what Chris thought about Obama's healthcare plan, among many other things that had little to do with our adoption.
I could see Marina becoming concerned that our court date was going to last too long for us to get Alina's new birth certificate and passport by the end of the day.  (She explained to us afterward that the judge liked us very much, and was enjoying having a couple from the United States in his courtroom to converse with and to get our perspective.)  I made a mental note to be brief in my responses.
The judge was wrapping up his questions to Chris.  He shuffled some papers, paused, and with a serious expression and tone, asked (through our translator):  When you first met this child...did you know right away that you wanted her for your own?  
Chris paused, and I heard myself inhale, feeling completely caught off guard by both the question and my sudden emotional response.  My eyes were stinging from the huge tears which appeared without warning, and which I was trying my best to draw back in. 
Chris was facing the judge, and I was sitting behind him, but I knew he was teary-eyed, too.  I began to sob.  Loudly.  I wanted to stop, but couldn't.  Chris looked back at me and was wiping tears from his face as his voice cracked, Yes, he said.  We knew right away that we wanted to make Alina part of our family.  We love her.
I believe that everyone in the courtroom understood that for us, the emotions of that day--of the whole journey, really--all culminated in that exact moment.  We wanted this child so very much, wanted to love her and parent her and celebrate her, this little girl no one else wanted.  We'd crossed the ocean for her, had left the comfort of a life we know well for a set of circumstances entirely unfamiliar to us.  We were standing in a court room in the middle of Ukraine expressing our hope and our faith, and our desire to make this little girl part of our family forever.  It was an overwhelming feeling--still is--one which is difficult to put into words.
It was my turn to speak directly after that moment, and I completely froze.  I'd stood and wiped away my tears as I faced the judge.  He asked if I needed a minute to compose myself.  I'd have needed much more than a minute.  I brushed away more tears, clasped my hands together and tried my best to listen carefully to his questions without looking away to read Marina's lips.  I could not hear either of them fully since they were talking at the same time.  
I tried to remember the order in which the judge posed questions to Chris, assuming his questions for me would be similar.  Honestly, I thought my part would be very brief and would focus on how I planned to care for Alina and the rest of the kids.
I was asked to state my name and date of birth.  I was asked about my education, employment before having children, and about my interests.  I was praying for a quick end to the questions, and was fully prepared to answer anything about raising a child with Down syndrome, or being a stay-at-home mom to a large brood.  
It was chilly in the courtroom, but my knees were knocking out of adrenaline, emotion and fear.  The judge wanted to know what I did outside of taking care of the children.  I said, I'm a writer.  He wanted to know, What do you write?  (A reasonable question, only I was completely unprepared to talk about me, outside of the adoption.)  My answer:  Poems.  
Poems?  That is all I could think of?  I wrote a chapter for a book about our experience with Bridget, I write and manage an advocacy blog, etc.  There were lots of other, better answers I could have given, and I am not often at a loss for words.  But I froze, I'm telling you.  I just wanted court to be over. 
He wanted to know my favorite poet, favorite story, and all about the town where I was born (I was an infant when I lived there, and we moved before my second birthday).
He wanted to know the meaning and significance of my name (maybe better answered by my parents?).  He told an odd little story about Alice in Wonderland that had something to do with a pub and beer drinking...which I couldn't follow or assign a place of importance within the discussion.  I am not sure if he thought me being a "writer" meant I wanted to talk literature, or why he threw that in...but it was interesting and a bit confusing.
He then asked a few very serious questions, including one about what would happen in the US legal system to the woman who returned her adopted son to Russia. (This had just happened, and we had seen very little of the news.  We didn't even know the whole story.)  I had no idea how to answer that.  I believe I said that it was "heartbreaking and wrong" but that I wasn't sure what would happen to her.  He seemed satisfied to let it go, and turned the questions over to the witnesses and other members of the panel.  The social worker took pity on me.  She smiled very sweetly and said, I have no questions for Mrs. Peele.  God love her.  
With that, the judge read the adoption decree and proclaimed Alina ours.  With tears, we expressed our gratitude to the judge and the others in the room and told them how excited we were to begin our life with our new daughter, that we would love and cherish her forever and offer her every opportunity to live a long and full life.
The judge smiled and came to shake our hands.  He said that he was very happy for us and wished us well.  
As soon as he left the room, we took off behind Marina, who was already on her phone sprinting toward the cab in the pouring rain.
For the next two hours, we ran (I was still wearing 5 inch heels from court) in and out of office buildings and government agencies trying to wrap up our paperwork and obtain Alina's new birth certificate (with our names listed as her parents) and her passport.
Marina must have either used all of her charms, called in some favors, or have done a very effective strong-arm job on the gentleman at the passport agency and the woman at the bureau of vital statistics.  She asked them to wait for us, well after they should have been gone for the day, to process our paperwork so that we could leave Alina's hometown over the weekend and be back in Kiev for our embassy appointments at the beginning of the week.
Long story short, we made it by the slimmest of margins, and were able to get Marina to the train station as her train was in final boarding mode.  
What a day!  From our adoption blog on April 16, 2010:
New Life
When we arrived in Zaporozhye this past Monday, it looked like late winter. In less than a week's time, the trees have started sprouting leaves.  There are cherry blossom trees all over this town, and they are in full bloom right now. They are gorgeous and have become our symbol of this new life--for Alina and for us.There is a new blossom on our family tree...
Alina Caroline
Adopted into our Family
April 16, 2010
Zaporozhye, Ukraine
 Next up:  Images from Zaporozhye and Gotcha Day
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