I think this story begins in the shower. (It begins earlier, but we’ll pick it up in the shower.) I was taking a shower. In the middle of my shower, My wife yelled that I had a phone call and came in and handed me the phone. Must be important. She later said she had a strange feeling about that call. I turn off the shower and took the phone to speak to this person who tells me that he sent me a check for $20,000 to help us with our wish to adopt a baby. I almost dropped the phone.
The journey began. That was in June 2002, and it would be another year and a half of paperwork and red tape. And waiting. Always waiting. Waiting is so difficult, it’s impossible to know unless you’ve been there. It was June 2003 when we saw the picture. A swaddled, chubby-cheeked, 1-month-old Kazakh baby described as being healthy and happy. We could meet him, they said, in September—no, October—no—November.
It didn’t seem that possible in November. One thing after another seemed to cause a delay. Everything seemed so uncertain. I said over and over again that I won’t believe we were going until I step on a plane. Even there in Memphis, when we got on the plane, we knew that the weather was closing airport after airport; when our plane stopped on the taxiway to wait for clearance to take-off, I was holding my breath.
It took off.
On a Sunday afternoon, before Thanksgiving in 2003, we took off to Detroit, then to Amsterdam, and finally, in the wee hours of the morning on Tuesday, we arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Stepping off the plane, we knew we left it all behind. Nothing was the same. It all seemed like something out of a 1960s spy movie. I remember the surreal feeling we had as an early 90’s model Volga sped us through the streets of Almaty and to the hotel.
The next day we went sightseeing, and the day after was time for another flight. This time on Air Kazakhstan to the frozen north of Pavlodar. We landed on a sheet of ice, and getting off that plane I learned what cold is. The winds of Siberia cut right through me. We could hardly breathe. Then came another crazy ride to a hotel, but on the way, our lawyer pointed to a building and said, “your baby is there.” What?! After a year and a half. After all the prayers and tears and all the “I won’t believe it until…” After this surreal journey around the world, you are telling me that we casually drove by the building where he is?
The next day was Thanksgiving, but there were important tasks at hand. There were interviews with government officials. We had to be approved by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Orphan Care and Guardianship. The next day would be one to remember forever.
On the day after Thanksgiving, we met little Danat. They took us to the music room of the orphanage and brought this nine-month-old, baby boy to us. He smiled at my wife right away. My low voice (he had probably never heard a man speak before) startled him, but he looked at me in his curious way and opened his eyes wide, and poked me in the nose with his finger. I think we got to see him for five minutes. I don’t mind admitting that we both cried. Once back to the hotel, I made my way down the street to the internet cafe where I crashed the server trying to email pictures. I didn’t care. There were waiting family and friends who had to see these pictures. Yes, it is true, we wanted to say, “See, we are actually holding him!”
This began the two weeks of orphanage visits. Sometimes 20 minutes, sometimes 2 hours. Always interesting. He was usually in good spirits, except for the one day when he was a little sick, but I’ll spare you the details of how we learned that. We even got to see him pull himself up to stand for the first time during one of those visits. We lived for those visits. We spent the rest of the day talking about them or trying to pass the time by exploring the area.
Exploring was fun. With two other adopting couples, we found cafes, shops, parks, the ice village, and much more. We tried out the American food place. We even tried horse milk. We learned that it was more than OK to eat the chicken sold on the street corner, it was great! We learned that Kazakh police do not give directions. We learned that people were always making fun of us, but what did we care? We bought leather coats at ridiculously low prices and we talked non-stop about the children we would take home.
On December 12, 2003, we had our day court. We were ushered into a small room. My wife and I, our attorney, her interpreter, a representative from the orphanage, the prosecutor, and the judge. We each had to stand and be questioned by our lawyer and the prosecutor. The prosecutor was a little rough on my wife, but it turned out to be a small problem with the translation of our home study. After we answered questions, we sat down and listened as people spoke Russian all around the room. If you’ve ever listened to people speaking Russian, you know it sounds angry. Our attorney’s interpreter could hardly keep up to tell us everything, so we waited nervously, then the judge looked at us and said something in Russian which Lena translated, “Congratulations, you are parents.” At that moment, little Danat’s name changed to Caleb, and all legal documents were changed to list us as his parents. It was official. As we tell Caleb, December 12 is gotcha day because that’s when we “got ya!”
Yes, there was more waiting. Another week to actually take him out of the orphanage, and due to a mix-up with the good ‘ol US of A, it would be another month before we returned home with Caleb.
And we remember all of it as the best trip we ever took with Caleb. It was one of the happiest times of our lives. Among the vivid memories, I remember walking down the concourse of the Memphis airport on January 13. We were tired but beside ourselves. My wife, although she had been traveling for 24 hours and had just spent 3 hours in immigration, looked radiant as she proudly carried Caleb. Way down at the end, I could see our family anxiously waiting. I choked back tears and jumped up and down to wave at them. We were home…and we are a family.
People always say that Caleb must be so fortunate to come from such a bleak world of the Kazakhstan orphanage into our family. I always think, are you kidding? We are the fortunate ones!