Ten years later the subtle odor remained. It hit right as the door opened.
The door, in this case, in 2007, led inside a Russian orphanage. It is officially called Orphanage No. 2, located just far enough off of the main road so as to be nearly secluded. But that depends entirely on perspective.
Everyone in the little town (a crossroads called Balakhna) likely knows it’s there. To the rest of the world it does not exist.
If my memory is correct, there are two unconnected buildings and a “playground” comprising the orphanage, which is near the Volga River that runs through central Russia. A local driver can you get you there, frayed but alive, in about an hour from the nearest city, Nizhny Novgorod, a former industrial stronghold about 260 miles east of Moscow.
That hour was spent holding on for dear life. Then we walked into a world where every hour is spent that way, where abandoned children await their destinies. But, first, we noticed the pungent odor – sour milk, stale air, and medicinal fumes, all vying for attention.
It is tricky describing an orphanage. Anyone could tick off a list of problems, but that misses the point. We visited this one for the first time in 1997, during what might be remembered as a golden era for American couples seeking to become adoptive parents of Russian orphans. Authorities on both sides of the equation were in accord, the systems hummed like a well-oiled machine save for an occasional hiccup, and some remarkable people fully dedicated to this cause were matching prospective parents with mostly healthy, beautiful children.
Describing orphans is as tricky as explaining what a rural orphan’s dwelling is like. It’s like nothing we’d generally stand for in the United States.
A first-rate Russian orphanage has nothing to do with the obvious, jarring shortcomings that any American visitor might notice. Carpets are worn. Towels and clothing are faded. Glass bottles with thick rubber nipples dispense formula. What makes an orphanage like No. 2 unforgettable is its people, these warm, sweet unsung heroes who fill their days caring for children who are not their own.
There are no normal days. Some of the children arrive damaged, physically and mentally. When you walk into an orphanage you are juggling multiple emotions. The odors. The time-warped décor. But that’s trivial compared to the haunting images, children on their backs, staring into space. Head sores. Crossed eyes. Malnourishment (not from neglect but from tormented digestive systems and other competing maladies).
An adoptive parent’s greatest sorrow is not that he must leave an orphanage to wait another day (or week, or month, or year) to be re-united with his chosen daughter or son. The greatest sorrow is that he cannot take all of them home. And the greater sorrow is in knowing that some of those kids will never leave that place. The years will pass. The scenery will never change. There will always be love but it might not suffice. Minds will be left dormant. Physical defects will linger, unrepaired.
There was no ignoring that guilt in 1997 when my wife and I said our farewells to caretakers at Orphanage No. 2. We poured champagne and toasted our new family member, a girl, one year old. We bundled her up under their intimidating gaze, stepped outside on a gray November morning and drove way in a waiting car. The caretakers wept, not with sadness that this delicate flower was going but with joy that, in this case, their nurturing would not be in vain.
We returned a decade later. Our 10-year-old, dressed for the occasion and keen for adventure, did not need coaxing at the door to Orphanage No. 2. She led. Mom and Dad followed. We spent part of a day there, reminiscing with the orphanage director who was still toiling away in the same capacity, under the same conditions, undaunted.
As 2012 draws to a close, we are thinking about Orphanage No. 2, about the gallant director and those heroic caretakers, dispensing their unconditional love but unable to dispense needed medications and modern conveniences.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed a bill effectively banning the adoption of his country’s orphans by Americans. He’s doing it, in violation of international law, to insert a stick deep into the eye of the U.S. government and Barack Obama’s administration, and for reasons that have nothing to do with children or adoption.
The official narrative out of Moscow is that Americans can’t be trusted to adopt Russian children. This claim is based on 19 alleged cases in which neglect or abuse resulted in the death of an adopted Russian child. In the 15 years since we adopted our daughter, more than 60,000 children have been adopted and raised in American homes. Many of them are, today, defiant, healthy, blossoming teenagers.
It is all too easy to counter this absurd accusation that Americans are killing Russian orphans by simply reciting the chronology of my daughter’s life since 1997. Trips to DisneyWorld. Birthday parties. Pretty dresses. American Girl stuff. Electronic gadgets. A particular taste for Caesar salads. Pony rides that led to lessons that evolved into full-blown competition in the hunter-jumper class of the sport. Making the J.V. golf team as high school freshman and sophomore. Justin Bieber concerts. Her driver’s license, issued 48 hours ago.
But as much as I love my Sweet 16 daughter, I can’t stop thinking about that pungent odor inside Orphanage No. 2. I can’t stop thinking about the children we left behind in 1997, and again in 2007 when we went back.
Everyone in Balakhna knows they are wasting away in that humble compound. The rest of the world, and Russia’s president, doesn’t or doesn’t care.