As if my inept interpreting of the ticket agent’s Italian isn’t frustrating enough, an impatient Italian man, intent on getting to the same curt ticket agent, is jostling me from behind. “Non lo so…,” I respond to the agent, “I don’t understand,” my slang crutch for not learning to speak the language. Again, I get the shoulder from behind. “You have excess baggage Sir, you must pay Lire Duecento Millione fee.”
It is 4:00 A.M., my wife is waiting at the gate to our airplane and I’m trying to check our luggage at the Naples, Italy International Airport. The merciless fluorescent lights are scorching my sleep-deprived eyes, the ticket agent is maliciously enjoying my lack of language skills, the guy behind me needs a standing-in-line lesson, and indecipherable Italian phrases issue from a nearby loudspeaker, harshly refracting off the starkly tiled white walls and floor – airport chaos. While this sensory assault is underway, my head is spinning with the Lire to dollars conversion of the baggage fee, “duecento millione is 200,000 Lire converted to dollars is…?” and I’m beginning to wonder, what are we doing?
“Children,” I slowly remind myself, this is about getting children into our lives. We are flying to Kiev, Ukraine to adopt our children. This is part of the journey, enjoy it, these will all be good memories one day – just not today.
Eighteen months earlier, and a continent away, my wife, Leslie, told me there was something wrong, she didn’t feel well. We hurried to the emergency room at the Naval Hospital in Newport, Rhode Island. We were both staff members at the hospital, so the E.R. nurse examined her immediately. We were pregnant and Leslie’s description of how she felt was a foreboding sign. While always a miracle – new life – our pregnancy was particularly miraculous, and fragile, as we had trudged through countless fertility clinics, specialty appointments and degrading medical exams and procedures just to attain this gift. As the staff conducted the ultrasound and physical examination, the studious, professional look on the physician’s face telegraphed that we had lost the baby. The medical staffs I’ve worked around my entire adult life are all stand-up “did you hear the one about the…” comedians when things are going well. When the outcome is bad, well, nobody is doing stand-up comedy; it is icy-professional business.
For the second time in our attempt to have children, the news was that Leslie had suffered a miscarriage, or in clinical terms, a “spontaneous termination of pregnancy.” We then experienced that moment I believe is common to us all. After they have delivered the news, after the hugs, mumbled condolences, and the friends have left, comes that moment of complete loneliness and crushing desolation. The content of the news differs from couple to couple, but that flash of hopelessness across my wife’s face, and my utter inability to “fix it;” I must believe that every couple has shared this vertiginous moment with us, in their own fashion. The thought that there may be others was then our only consolation, that we were not completely alone. I have the capacity to be lonely in a crowd though, as I rediscovered standing in the Naples airport.
That was our last miscarriage, 1998, and I am lonely right now, in this crowded airport, October 21, 2000, as the guy behind me makes one final attempt to shove past me to the ticket counter. He’s head-to-the-middle-of-my-chest short, easily a septuagenarian, insistent and comfortably oblivious to anyone else’s “space,” so characteristically Italian! And me, I’m trying to fence this guy off from my position at the counter and divide 200,000 Lire by the conversion rate of 2268 Lire to the dollar – it’s becoming a calculus equation. I’m completely lost – beat. My wife and I can’t have kids, I can’t speak Italian, I can’t do simple division in my head, the guy behind me is crawling into my back pocket, and I have excess baggage. I’m also starting to worry about how I’m going to dig the $89.00 (the solution to the Lire/dollars problem) out of the $20,000 cash, I have strapped in various money belts around my body. I consider telling the guy behind me my entire life story and that I have wads of cash strapped under my clothes, hoping to get him to back off, but then I remember, I don’t speak his language.
I had no concept of language barriers in 1998. A huge benefit to being active duty Sailors in the United States Navy is the international travel. We accepted orders to Naples, Italy that difficult year, 1998. An unexpected gift: go to Europe, travel, see the Trevi Fountain, the Pieta, and lay on the beach on the Amalfi Coast. We desperately needed a break from the emotional spin-cycle of trying to have children, and the subsequent losses. So, we held hands and flew off to Italy, leaving our multi-children friends, and our own quest for children, behind. We committed ourselves to a little hedonistic living. We toured Ireland, cruised to Greece, spent numerous weekends in Rome and Milan, Florence and Monte Carlo. We immersed ourselves in spiritual retreats to local monasteries, as well as in the warm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. We took care of ourselves, and lived lavishly in an 8,000 square-foot, marble-bedecked Italian villa overlooking hectares of orange tree groves. It was Roman Holiday idyllic.
Then we met Emma and Evan, adopted from the Ukraine. It seemed purely coincidental, a chance meeting in a hallway of the Naval Hospital, Naples, Italy during an ordinary day at work. Emma and Evan, and their parents Billy and Lisa, were at the pharmacy window getting a prescription for an ear infection. A friend called out, “Leslie, you have to see these two little angels,” two little kids in their strollers, squired by their parents. Lisa, the mom, and Leslie, once again desperately wanting to be a mom, became fast friends at first sight. This chance meeting, the smallest of coincidences (if such a thing as a coincidence actually exists), eventually set a life altering chain of events into motion for us. Back at the airport though, I wasn’t concerned with life altering events, rather, I was drawing on my final reserves to complete the otherwise simple task of paying a luggage fee.
She will not take U.S. dollars for the excess luggage fee, but insists on Lire only. Is anything going to go right this morning? Fear, the undiluted paralyzing type, is a constant companion in the adoption process. Fear insidiously wraps its tentacles around every waking moment, choking out rational thought and creating a hypersensitivity to the most ordinary obstacles. That is certainly the case this morning. In my fevered mind, this minor glitch, “she won’t take dollars,” equals “we can’t adopt children.” Our flight time is approaching and I’m still trying to get our luggage checked. I have a new mission though: find a money-changing booth in the airport. The ticket agent lets me leave our luggage at the counter (pre-9/11 policies) and I step away from the line, happy to be free of the little linebacker who has been hacking at my back for the past twenty minutes.
As I scramble around the concourse looking for an open money kiosk at 4:30 A.M., I run across my wife, as she is admiring the strange neo-renaissance art hanging on the walls. An interesting dynamic occurs between couples, couples that have been together for a while, and it’s really a toss of the coin as to which direction it moves. I’m at the height of emotional frenzy, on the verge of losing my remaining fragile faith – denouncing God – because the ticket agent won’t take U.S. dollars, and for the million other self-perceived deficiencies in my pathetic life. Leslie asks, “What’s wrong?” I just don’t have time to fully explain to her what a loser I am as I frantically search for an open money-changer. “Just settle down, there’s an open kiosk right over there, we have time to make our flight, and everything is going to be just fine,” she consoles me.
The chaotic noise of travelers, squeaky baggage wheels, amplified Italian announcements, the ticket counter frustration and my sense of impending doom all evaporate. The coin lands on the side of my wife NOT joining me in my insanity today, rather she is enjoying the journey, and this morning she isn’t sucked into the black hole of my fear. I fumble through the pouches of $50.00 and $100.00 bills, and get the $89.00 converted to Lire. A quick word on this money; under the direction of our adoption agency, I have all this cash strapped in money pouches around my waist and chest. I am to give $10,000 of it to our Ukrainian facilitator upon landing in Kiev, and periodically hand over smaller amounts, when asked, during our month-long stay in the Ukraine. As an aside, credit unions accept international adoption as a legitimate basis for low-interest loans, fortunately for us, as we didn’t have a spare 20-grand lying around. Eleven months earlier, at Billy and Lisa’s home, we asked them the question that troubled us the most about this money, “Isn’t this like buying children?”
“They’re beautiful.” My wife is gazing at Emma and Evan, precocious 3-year olds with big dark eyes, disheveled brown locks and goofy innocent grins, stumbling around the living room of their home. I hear the dial click over to “spin-cycle.” Billy and Lisa, our new friends, are all smiles as Lisa explains to Leslie, “It was so easy, and inexpensive.” Clearly, God has favored this family. Me? I’m feeling a little light headed as the cycle picks up speed. Billy, a young Air Force pilot with a million-watt smile, shares their entire adoption experience with us. His response to our concern about “buying children” is reassuring. “First, the money actually pays the international country-fee for adoption, not for the children themselves.” This seems slightly disingenuous to me, but he confidently follows with, “Let’s say, for example, that you have to save 20 Sailors trapped in a compartment, flooding with water, aboard ship.” (I’m thinking, he’s in the Air Force, and what does he know about flooded compartments. As it turns out, a lot, and a great deal about lessening fear as well.) “So, you start by trying to just open the door, the hatch, but it’s jammed by the water pressure. The water level is rising, what to do? You get the biggest wrench you can find that fits the bolts holding the hatch to the frame, and you begin to loosen the bolts one by one, until the seal breaks and the water begins to pour out from around the door and the loosened bolts. After a short period, the pressure has lessened such that you can open the door, freeing the Sailors from their imminent death.” Billy ends with the clincher, “Scott, that money is just a wrench, loosening the bureaucratic bolts that hold the door closed on the children.” I now know that the Air Force has more poets on active duty than the Navy does. By the time Billy is done, and Lisa has shared her memories of being at the orphanage and seeing their two children for the first time, they have rejuvenated us. The next day we set to work compiling our adoption dossier and making the necessary phone calls. Billy didn’t mention anything about luggage fees and airports though.
Eleven months later, I’m standing in this airport. While I’m paying the ticket agent for our excess baggage, with time to spare for our flight and the pushy old guy gone, I have a sense of well-being, the first of the entire morning. Decorative carpet covers the wall behind the agent, blue, for boys. The airline logo is a light red, pink, for girls. The fluorescent lights suddenly aren’t so painful. The nerve-plucking noise is now less antagonizing, and now more the sound of families enjoying themselves.
I generally don’t think metaphorically, I’m much more concerned about being shoved in the back than any deeper meaning to the moment. It occurs to me though, as Leslie and I find our seats on the jet and settle in for the flight taking us to our children, that an airport is an elegant metaphor for life. As we lift off from the runway, the engines rumbling and the flaps retracting, I see the old linebacker sitting a few seats ahead of us, on the opposite side of the aisle. He’s patting some frightened kid on the top of his head, silently consoling him; everything is going to be just fine. The metaphor: we all show up with our excess baggage, are shoved around a little, don’t speak the other’s language, and periodically wonder what it is that we think we’re doing.
Eventually though, we do get to our final destinations, unknowingly helped along by fellow travelers’ nudges from behind, gently consoled and relieved of our fears. On this particular journey, Tyler and Yana, our own little 6-year old wonders, were our final destination.
If you are considering adopting a child with Down Syndrome, do not be afraid of the what ifs.
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South Afica Adoption Program
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