March 1, 2012 in Europe, Travelogue, Ukraine

I cannot say Khmelnitsky.

Rustic (roo-stick) spent several hours of the car ride last night trying to help me. It’s the guttural phlem thing that is the initial syllable that’s killing me. However you say it, getting to Khmelnitsky is an adventure. What would be about a four hour drive if the roads were otherwise than post-communist, takes about six. The first hour spent back to back in Kiev traffic inhaling diesel fumes and listening to world-techno music. I forgot how much Eastern Europeans love their techno. The remainder spent dodging potholes, keeping an eye peeled for “police bandits” and trying to add “Khmelnitsky” to my other two Ukranian phrases: Do-bro-ho-dyna (good afternoon) and Mene-zvatih… (my name is…)

 Jen was waiting in her funky apartment, all packed and ready (with her whole heart) to take her boys home. We talked late and then slept fast. 

Waking late on Gotcha Day is not part of the plan, fortunately hurrying up to wait is part of the plan so we ended up waiting, a ball full of nerves for the better part of an hour for Rustic to arrive. Then waiting outside the orphanage for “the lady” to arrive to take us to the bank for one more round of paperwork, where we waited some more. 

 The orphanage is much larger than I expected.

It’s just a baby house, so the children who live there are between birth and age five. The two elder Deml boys are still there by special dispensation because they are siblings and someone took pity on them. They are three of three hundred children who call “The Birch House” home. 

I’ve never been in an orphanage before. From stories I’ve heard I expected stark walls, metal cribs, stern nannies, a sterile environment and hollow eyes. Instead I found clean floors, a room of cheerful wooden toddler beds, a beautifully decorated playroom and nannies who smiled and hugged their little boys good bye. 

The moment we opened the front door the boys were wild for their Mama.

They couldn’t hug her enough, or kiss her fast enough. Max held his arms out wide by his sides like an airplane, “Yes, Mama?” He asked, over and over, eyes bright with excitement. Jen laughed, “Yes, Max, but not for a few days.” Rustic explained to Max that it would be four days until they got on the airplane, four days before they saw Papa. Max relayed the message to his brothers. All the while, Jeremiah was suiting up, pulling on his jacket and hat, looking for his boots, ready to hit the door. In and out, over and around, Benjamin bounced.

The Nannies shooed us into the playroom and Jen dragged her massive duffle of clothing. In order to be allowed to leave the orphanage with the children Jen had to show that she could be trusted to keep them warm, evidently. The nannies laid out little green blankets and the boys stripped to the skin. Following the instructions she’d been given, to a T, we suited the boys up:

  • Underwear
  • Winter tights (like a girl wears under her winter church dress)
  • Socks
  • T-shirt
  • Long sleeve T-shirt
  • Another long sleeve T-shirt
  • Sweater
  • Jeans
  • Snowpants
  • Winter boots
  • Jacket with hood
  • Scarf
  • Mittens
  • Hat with ear flaps

Jen and I laughed in English as we stuffed the boys into layer after layer. Since today it is slightly above freezing outside we were allowed to leave off one long sleeve shirt and the snow pants and mittens.

While we dressed the kids the room buzzed around us. The nannies watched and laughed. Rustic stood to the side and mentioned that when we got the kids home we’d need to get them out of half of those clothes before he drove us to Kiev. A little boy shouted, “Now you boys just be GOOD for your Mama!” Another child wished them well with sincere, bright eyes.

All wrapped up like snowmen the lads made their rounds, hugging each of their childhood friends and kissing their cheeks. Hugging their nannies and hearing last little lectures from every one. All the while keeping one eye on their new Mama, lest she evaporate before their very eyes, too good to be true.

One little girl, dressed all in purple with cotton candy blonde hair sat quietly and cried. She’s the one that has been hoping hard that Jen would be her Mama too. She’s not adoptable, and her watery blue eyes broke my heart. Hers were the only tears.

The boys lit out of that building like convicts on the lam.

Jen and I laughed and hurried to keep up. The only thing that stopped them was an old man who they love with all their heart. He posed for pictures with them, a little damp around the wrinkles of his eyes and said strong words to them that we couldn’t understand.

I spent the day with a lump in my throat.

It’s an incredible thing to see heroic love in action. To see the world for the first time through eyes of little people who haven’t been allowed to live in it. The sheer delight of a strawberry yogurt cup. The complete magic of  a light switch, never mind EIGHT light switches, all within reach. A bed so big you can jump on it. Toothpaste and a tooth brush. Books; Jeremiah dragged me to the couch to insist that I look at the pictures in a 6th grade Ukrainian Geography book with eyes wide with wonder. Juice boxes, FIFTEEN of them! 

The first hour in the car was the exact definition of a goat rodeo.

I sat in the back with the boys to give Jen a moment to collect herself and plan her attack. Boys bounced like ping-pong balls in a tile bathroom in the back seat. Excited yelling about things outside the car. Tickle fests. Climbing inside the double layer sheet to play hide and seek in the foot wells. WWF wrestling moves that compelled me to explain to Max that he was NOT going to put Jeremiah in a full nelson in the back seat going 80 kmph down the obstacle course that is a Ukrainian country road. Needless to say, carseats were not in attendance.

Max’s tone changed and he asked Rustic a question. Rustic replied. “What did he say?” Jen asked Rustic. “He says, ‘Do we have to go back to our groupa today?’ I told him no, he goes with his Mama now, to America, forever.” The boys smiled from ear to shining ear.

Thankfully, the boys settled down.

Jen moved to the backseat just in time for us to learn our first Ukrainian word: Toss-nysh: sick. Benjamin was sick. Over and over, for the entire six hours. Poor baby. Jen held him the entire way and I handed ziploc bags and baby wipes back and forth. Rustic tried not too be to demonstrative of his worry over the state of his well kept car interior. He only raised his voice a little, once, after about the third puke to say, slightly panicky, “I don’t know what to do!!” “Don’t worry Rustic, Jen and I have a lot of kids, this happens, we know what to do. You just drive.” I tried to reassure him. He checked the rearview mirror a lot. Jen and I chatted about the countryside. The boys took a nap. Benjamin barfed. Rustic successfully delivered roadside male peeing lessons (Jen and I are just not equipped for some things).The time passed.

Kiev gives me a headache.

It’s the diesel fumes, which were exacerbated by the long lines of rush hour traffic that were inescapable. It was with thankful hearts that we climbed five flights of stairs, hauling boys and bags to find our new apartment. Complete with the same funky washing machine I struggled with when we were living in Marseille. I have a the bottom of a plastic water bottle that I cut off wedged under the water hose right now collecting the run off. The little men employed themselves testing light switches and blowing on the gas flame under the rice, while I shooed them out of the kitchen repeatedly and Jen struggled to get people with barfy clothes into jammies and try to get the internet running so she could call the rest of her family; to no avail.

Miracle of miracles, the boys ate two plates of my chicken and rice dinner, a big bowl of salad and half an apple each before gleefully brushing their teeth and diving for the bedcovers. They were asleep before eight. Jen and I celebrated her accomplishment over tea.

Gotcha Day was a raging success.