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Girl Meets Family: Arrival Day

In the summer of 2002, I had two babies on the way, growing within the womb of an old friend who had offered her body to serve my children in ways mine couldn't. Facing the double-threat of infertility and a looming open-heart surgery (both mine), my husband and I had come to understand that pregnancy wasn't in my future. But we couldn't stop wondering what a child with our genes would be like: who he'd resemble, what talents she'd possess, what our combined genetics might contribute to the world. So we gave gestational surrogacy our best shot and wound up winning the baby boy jackpot.

This startled me. Not only was I getting the bio child I'd prayed for, I was getting two. Both sons. The perplexing bit was, I'd spent the first three-plus decades of my life dreaming of daughters. I didn't want to trade the boys for girl babies. But it was clear to me that my husband's and my plan to add a child to our life was becoming complicated. While awaiting the boys' birth, I worried that I might not find a way to give them a sister. What if after my seemingly inevitable heart surgery, Russian authorities decided I was too big a risk to adopt one of its kids, as was our plan?

After weighing the risks and responsibilities, my husband and I decided to adopt a little girl while I was still relatively healthy, while we were still likely to receive a green light from Moscow. Soon we had two perfect baby boys and a saucy, full-of-life preschool age girl. A quiver-full, perhaps not by biblical standards, but certainly by modern ones.

Yet I couldn't wipe away the memory the other children's faces and, until the photo listings largely disappeared from the internet, I continued to visit those websites regularly: drawn by the longing I saw in the children's eyes, returning again and again despite the helplessness I felt in knowing I couldn't take any more as my own. We didn't have the money or the room; with small children at home, I didn't have the energy for more. I was still getting to know the kids I had.

Still, I imagined our family Christmas card photo with this child standing behind "his" baby brothers, or a girls' outing in which a previously unknown daughter joined me and Eugenia at the spa for a pedi. The configurations of our family were endless, with this boy or that girl taking a role as a new brother or sister. I found the possibilities positively dizzying. Despite our unreadiness to adopt again, I looked at the orphans' photos almost compulsively. I couldn't help it. I believed that, even though I couldn't adopt them, someone should be looking at their pictures, remembering that they were there in the orphanages, wishing for families. It felt important.

It felt to me like prayer.

* * *

Occasionally, I asked my husband to look at one of the photos that particularly tugged at my heart. If he felt a similar tug, I reasoned, then that child might be "the One."

I can't imagine where this idea originated. After nine years of marriage I'm still in a crazy kind of love with my husband and find it almost shocking that, out of all the possibilities, I wound up with a man so right for me. Yet I've never believed that each person has just one possible love. The pressure I would have felt in searching for the right "One" partner would have been too much. I would have agonized over every date, questioned every interaction, constantly doubted my heart's ability to identify my mate. The pressure would have crippled me to the point where I couldn't commit to a relationship at all. There is "right" and there is right. An obsession with the former would have prevented me from opening my heart to the latter.

I'd deconstructed this myth in the romantic realm, but it skulked around other corners of my psyche. My husband dutifully looked at the photos of orphans I presented once or twice a year, while I raised an eyebrow and awaited his reaction.

"She's adorable," he'd admit, looking at a toddler's dark curls. Or: "I can see why you feel drawn to her" when confronted with a nine-year-old's bright eyes. But he never said the words that would propel us forward, that would lead us to the next step. Our three children kept me so busy, I was sometimes as relieved by his inaction as I was disappointed. But my longing to expand our family still persisted.

"I just keep thinking that when it's the right child, you'll feel the same as I do," I told my husband one day.

He appeared startled. "I don't think I'm going to," he said. "It's not about finding the right child. It's about finding the right time.

"When we're ready," he said, "we'll know."

* * * *

When I looked at her photograph, I felt like I'd been struck by lightening. A river of dark hair, eyes the same blue as my husband's and my sons'. But I'd been struck by lightening before.

I looked at her photo, I wrote a noncommittal email to the organization that was arranging for this girl and her group to come to the U.S. for five weeks. "She's one of our favorites," the director wrote back. The girl was reportedly good with small children. Check! A little shy at first, but with a good sense of humor. Double-check! She was beautiful. Perfect. I couldn't believe a family hadn't already snatched her up. I showed her photo to my husband that evening.

He looked at the picture and nodded, just once. "Maybe," he said.

* * * *

Two months past "Maybe," I stand in an airport many miles east of my home: the only pink-clad person in a sea of adults and children wearing red, white, and blue, waving tiny American flags. It is 5:30 in the evening; I flew the red-eye from Portland the night before and now feel as if I could drop, but it's the only way I could get to this airport in time for our host daughter's arrival. She's coming to the U.S. for a vacation only; those are the rules of the program. But if we decide we want to pursue adoption through an agency, we can. The stakes are alarmingly high.

I arrived at the airport earlier in the day bearing a cardboard sign I made back in Portland. "Welcome, Olga!" it is supposed to say in Russian. There are purple Magic Marker flowers and a picture of our family as stick figures holding hands, each of us drawn in our favorite colors: blue, green, red, pink, and orange. I have included an extra stick figure—Olga as brown line arms, legs, head and skirt. Should I portray her as part of the family, or not? I don't know. I put her just to the right of my son Macky in the picture. Close, but not connected—the meaning ambiguous, even (especially) to me.

I spy some Russian-speaking boys from another group, sitting nearby in the airport's rotunda. They are mumbling to one another, surreptitiously pointing at my sign. I hurry over, stop, lose my courage and casually walk away before trying again. "Did I do it right?" I ask, shoving my homemade sign at them. They shrug at my anxiety. I can see the answer is no. They speak to each other using words I don't understand; I gather that some of my Cyrillic letters are misplaced or missing. "No. But she will understand," one boy tells me. They are friendly enough but don't tell me how to fix it; it's not their problem. I hurry into a children's gift shop, buy some markers, try to correct the sign and smear the ink letters in the attempt.

As the host families gather, we compare signs, flowers, balloon bouquets for the kids. One family has what appears to be about a hundred dollars' worth of helium balloons in patriotic colors, skewing the curve for the rest of us. A fellow mother smiles and gives me a single red rose for Olga, pulling it from one of the bouquets she brought as gifts for the Russian chaperones.

There is a lot of "hurry up and wait." And then, without warning, a tremendous cheer erupts in the terminal. All around our crowd, people stare. Children are disentangled from their group, matched up with families, folded into the arms of waiting moms and dads, eyed curiously by their host siblings.

At first I can't find her. I think maybe she didn't make it onto the plane. There is such chaos, I'm feeling such anxiety, I don't know whether to be heartbroken or relieved. Then my name is called and she is passed from another woman's arms to mine.

"Olga?" I say stupidly. She looks so much older than her photograph, I'm startled. In her picture, she looked more like 12 than the 14 she is. Standing before me isn't a child, though, but a young woman.

She wraps her arms around my waist and I put mine around her shoulders. We hug under the director's watchful eye. She takes a photograph of Olga and me so there is a record of the girl's safe arrival. Then we're free to go. At first I don't know what to do. I feel almost exactly as I did when the hospital told us it was time to take our babies home. But they're so small! And we don't know what we're doing. Shouldn't someone be . . . you know? Watching us to make sure we don't hurt them?

No one seems to think this is necessary, so I lead Olga away, trying to communicate in broken Russian.

"Are you hungry?" I say, pointing at the restaurants in the rotunda.

She stares at my blankly.

"You know. Food? Do you want to eat?" I pantomime eating motions. She's been traveling for more than 12 hours, but for some reason shakes her head.

I throw the pizza stand one last look. I'm famished; I'd been waiting to eat dinner with her. But she seems to want to go, and I can't bring myself to impose my agenda. We have one night to rest before catching an early flight to Portland in the morning: back to real life with a new twist, on to the adventure that awaits us both.

My bag is at the hotel; she has no luggage. We walk through the airport with our arms dangling at our sides. I wish I had a suitcase, a carry-on, something to hold on to. I don't know whether to put my arm around her shoulders or simply to give her space. I don't know her, don't know which she would prefer, and she doesn't know me. She's been entrusted to my care as if she was my child, and for the next few weeks she will be.

But for now, we're simply a woman and a girl walking out into the night, not knowing what to expect. A mama dog and an orphan pup, circling and sniffing the air, trying to catch whatever scent is on the wind.

column added on 2006-09-24 :: ::

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Shari MacDonald Strong
COLUMNIST PHOTO

Shari MacDonald Strong is a senior editor and "Zen and the Art of Child Maintenance" columnist for Literary Mama. Her essay, "On Wanting a Girl," appears in the anthology It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters and she has been published in a number of publications, including Geez magazine. She is the editor of the anthology The Maternal Is Political: Women Writers on the Intersection of Motherhood and Politics (Seal Press, May 2008). She writes a blog from her home in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with her husband, photojournalist Craig Strong, and their children: grade-schooler Eugenia, born in Russia, and preschool sons Will and Mac, born via gestational surrogacy.

Read more of Shari's Girl Meets Family column.

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