What you may not see, at least until you've read this, is that I am trying to look into the eyes of this child and will them to tell me the answer to the question "Are you okay?"
Now you might see the fear in my eyes as I know this question essentially can't be answered. Not by him, not by the Russian medical records, not by the doctors at NEMC who specialize in international adoption and the associated medical concerns.
In this photo, Pumpkin is about two weeks shy of his third birthday. He is tiny, except for his head. His eyes are two different sizes, and the bridge of his nose and philtrum seem flatter than normal. These could be signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, or they could be nothing. I've been stressing about the possibilities for months; concerned about his health, concerned about my ability to handle whatever his issues are. I'm terrified of accepting him and I'm terrified of turning him down.
Later that afternoon, when I express my concerns to our facilitator and the orphanage director, the room suddenly fills with people. I've probably offended some of them, but that's not the point. They assure me that I'm wrong, that the mother was not a drinker (the director apparently met her to get her to relinquish rights), he is small, but his development has been consistent (a good sign).
On the ride home, our facilitator is frustrated, not so much with me, but with the FAS stigma, at the drawing he says that has been published in America to represent FAS children, he says that reports of FAS are much greater than the reality. Viktor is characteristically blunt and honest, but I have no way of knowing if what he is saying is only opinion.
That night at the hotel involves a lot of crying. Piper thinks the child will be fine, I am not sure. I go down to the hotel's business center to contact the doctor at NEMC, but I look at the facts of Pumpkin's medical exams and I realize they are not going to be able to tell me much more than I already know. A part of me is worried that they will discourage us from adopting him, and that I wouldn't be able to handle that either.
There is a certain amount of fatalism in the adoption process. You grow to believe, rightly or wrongly, that a child is meant for you; that the long and meddling fingers of the Universe (or God) put you together and you do what you have to. I tell myself that night, that if my plans for the future had to change because this little boy's needs turned out to be greater than we expected, then so be it. I mentally cross my fingers, and we move forward.
We return to the baby home the next morning and tell Viktor that we would like to proceed with accepting the referral. Members of the staff come out and smile at us; indicating approval across the language barrier.
Not until we are home, awaiting an adoption court date, do I see it. We have video tape that we are playing for Piper's parents, and on it Pumpkin is stacking blocks. They are new blocks for him, nesting cardboard boxes really; but he knows, without hesitation, to stack them biggest to smallest. When his tower is four or five blocks tall, he is left with the biggest block of all. He knows exactly where it goes and picks up the entire tower to place up on its new foundation. In that moment, I realize there is something special going on in his brain, and that it is good.
Pumpkin has been with us four years this month. In his first year with us, he grew 5.5 inches, and the texture of his hair changed. The shape of his face has changed, and his eyes are no longer markedly different sizes (I've read this sometimes happens to babies who spend too much time lying on their backs - consistent with orphange life). This year gave us a huge growth in his communication skills, though we still struggle to get what's going on in his brain out in the open where he can use it.
draws produces entire studies on things, designs cars, and car parts, and bridges. He can tell you that 4+4+4+5=17 without thinking much about it; facts are easy, as are things he can see and touch. Concepts are harder, and his social skills and adaptability to new situations are far behind his age group.
I've had more parents than I can count ask me if I was sure he was not autistic, and there are some days I wish I could say yes. At least then there would be more understanding on their part, as if the label was explanation enough. Instead we wade through a world of non-diagnosis and unexplainably quirky behavior, not always sure what he really knows.
Pumpkin's first drawing for the cover of the church bulletin was printed for the Mother's Day service this year. Although I explained to him that what he drew would be reprinted for everyone to see, he didn't really understand what I meant until he saw it for himself. At the end of the service, our priest held him back from the children's recessional to introduce him to the adults in the congregation as a new artistic contributor. As he stood there waiting, he reached out to trace and retrace the cross carved into the side of the pew with his finger in a perfect illustration of how he interacts with the world.
I lost it then; sat in my own pew and cried for him. It hit me how hard it was going to be for Pumpkin in the coming years. I'm reasonably sure he'll come out okay on the other end, he's incredibly smart, but the road ahead will be rocky and full of potholes.
I've been where he is in my own way - different from the other kids, socially immature but still wiser than my years. It's a lonely place. One thing I know though, that my mother didn't, is how important the emotional support will be - for him, and maybe even for me.
The meaning of that promise I made in a St. Petersburg hotel room four years ago is becoming clearer. It extends, of course, to both boys, and I am relieved to find myself increasingly at peace with it.