Category Archives: Thoughts

We did it!

The three of us are absolutely exhausted after being awake for the past 36+ hours.  So until I gather the energy to sum up the events of the past couple of days, I’ll let this one picture say it all.  As you can imagine, we’re happier than words can express.  Thanks for all of your support over the past couple of months.  We are very happy to be home!

Day -8: Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day here, and Julie and I decided to spend a quiet day at home. Since we’ve been married (now going on 8 years), we’ve spent almost of our holidays as just the two of us. Part of the reason for this has been my job: being on-service or on-call has made it historically difficult for me to leave town during residency or fellowship. Part of the reason, though, has also been our preferences. We’ve both found something nice in having the city empty itself of people around a holiday. Fewer crowds, less traffic, less noise, and no pressure – all of these qualities make the cities we’ve lived in change character almost overnight. Chicago would turn from a big city to a small city, and Boston somehow turns from a small city into a reasonable-sized town on the holiday day itself.

In addition, given our busy weeks, an entire weekday at home to ourselves seems almost decadent. Since today is really the last holiday that we’ll ever have as “just the two of us” (which is now absolutely fine with us), we figured that it was occasion to stay home with the cats, cook up a big turkey, relax, and take time to be consciously and deeply thankful for all that we have.

Had someone told me a year ago that my life would change this profoundly, and this suddenly, and in such a positive direction in one year’s time, I would’ve raised my one raisable eyebrow to cast a semi-cynical glance. So much for my being able to predict outcomes. Today Julie and I are both extremely thankful for so many rewards: an astonishingly beautiful, healthy, and amazing new daughter, wonderful new friends on the other side of the world, new friends from here who we met on the other side of the world, an entirely new set of experiences and a new perspective on the world, a renewed sense of purpose, and a new avenue into which to channel our efforts on behalf of children and children’s health. Ultimately all of these add up to a new and exciting direction for our lives, but as individuals and as a couple.

Today we’ll be enjoying a fine bottle of (non-Moldovan) red wine, a turkey that was actually labeled “turkey” at the time of its purchase, a full array of spices in our food (as opposed to only salt, lemon and dill), and American jazz (as opposed to Russian pop). We’ll actually mash/grind some of today’s dinner up and store it in the freezer for Anika so that she can enjoy some leftover turkey (a Blackman/McNeill family favorite) when she returns. But fresh in our minds will be the fact that we were just as happy in our tiny 5th floor Kostanai walkup with too much heat and not enough cold water, drinking 200 tenge Moldovan wine, eating a chicken from the East Side market seasoned with butter, lemon and dill, and cooked in bottled water, while Russian pop music videos ran on the TV – since all that really mattered to us there, and all that really matters to us now, is that we are together and that we have Anika in our lives.

So here’s what we ended up with for dinner. We did the best that we could to make it feel as if Anika was here with us.

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Satchel attempted to make us feel better by offering to pull up a chair to help us with dinner. Milo was more interested in dessert (that’s a pumpkin cheesecake in case you were wondering).

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A couple of little items: for those who, like me, are a little nervous about the responsibility of carving a turkey that your spouse spent hours preparing, the New York Times has come to the rescue. There was a wonderful article on the art of turkey carving, with accompanying video featuring Ray Venezia, the meat director of Fairway Markets in NYC. I watched the video once, and then followed the method and ended up with pretty much every last bit of turkey on the serving plate. The secret, it seems, is being like a surgeon and cutting with the tip of the knife along the natural tissue planes, while retracting with your free hand (without an instrument). It worked like a charm!

There’s also this nice video from the Washington Post. Who knew that these two wonderful liberal-leaning papers would have these great how-to-be-good-carnivore guides!

We are also thankful for Tam and Sal, who spent their Thanksgiving Day in a very cold Kostanai. They supplied us with a couple of new pictures of Anika. They also took a very cute one of Anika with their soon-to-be-daughter, Ailya, who we remember very fondly from our visits to the Delphin House.

I’m also grateful to NPR’s Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation for a ’shout-out’ to (an innocently mispronounced) Anika that went out over the airwaves.

I’ll close with a ‘found items’ relating to the subject of being thankful. I recently came across a remarkable story about a professor of computer-science at Carnegie Mellon University named Randy Pausch, a 46-year-old man and father to three children who recently gave what he called his “last lecture”, having been recently diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer. This remarkable lecture can be seen in its entirety by clicking here (via Carnegie-Mellon) or here (via Google). You can read some of the pieces written about this story here, here, here, and here. You may want to pull up a comfortable chair and a leftover turkey sandwich to watch the lecture – it’s almost two hours long.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sam, Julie and Anika

Day 28: Court Today. And the verdict is …

We had our adoption court hearing today at noon.

The fact that our court date came so quickly after our pre-court meeting came as something of a surprise to us.  We both heard a great deal about the fact that international adoption proceedings here in Kazakhstan are lengthening, including word that the courts are moving towards a process where they will begin to expect 30 days to pass between the day that the adoption petition is filed (day +15, or the day after the 14-day bonding period) and the court date.  Zhanat feels that we were very lucky, and that perhaps due to the fact that they’re re-arranging the office space of the different court divisions, we were given a court date in advance of the move.  Whatever the case, we were very, very pleased.

Yesterday we learned that all of our paperwork had been finalized and that everything appeared to be in order.  With that, Zhanat felt secure in our purchasing our return tickets to Almaty.  Lucky us – another flight on SCAT Airlines.  With that, we realized that our time here in Kostanai was rapidly drawing to a close, meaning that we all of a sudden had a large number of things to wrap up.

We spent part of the afternoon at the “west side” market shopping for some additional gifts for friends and family, as well as some mementos that we’ll give to Anika over the years as she grows up.  We took a break in the mid-afternoon to go bowling (of all things) with two other American couples that we’ve met here.  Both are adopting children from Anika’s group at the DBH, and so we’ve all shared similar experiences.  We certainly hope that they will share our good fortune when it comes to their legal proceedings.

We opted for dinner at the coffee shop across the street from Dolce Vita.  It turns out that this cafe has a full dinner menu including some very tasty pizzas.  I had a pizza with some type of mystery fish, egg and cheese.  It was much, much better than it sounds – trust me.  Julie had a more traditional pizza with tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms.  I also enjoyed a bowl of some type of goulash with potatoes, carrots, and beef that was excellent.  We ended up not drinking because yesterday turned out to be a national “Do Not Drink” day.  Kind of like “The Great American Smokeout”, which, by the way, wouldn’t be a half-bad idea here either.  It was also Halloween here – we saw a couple of people in costume including one grim reaper outside and a woman dressed head-to-toe in leopard print clothing inside of the cafe.  However, we think that this may not have actually been a costume but rather a bold fashion statement, since she was with her child who was not dressed up at all.

The rest of the night was spent in contemplating our court date and making lists of things that we need to do prior to leaving.  I was absolutely exhausted by 10p and went straight to bed.  Both of us were awakened at 3am by a wrong-number phone call, and as a result I was up from 3a – 5a thinking about  court and thinking about our return to the US, but most of all thinking about how in the world we were going to cope with leaving Anika here for a month.  Truth be told, we required a hell of a lot less than 14 days to bond with Anika, and now we’re simply head-over-heels in love with her.  I mentioned to Julie the other night that if someone had brought up the idea of having children to me two or three years ago, my first thoughts would have been, “How in the world am I going to fit a child into my work schedule.”  After my experience over the past month, my thoughts are more along the lines of, “How in the world am I going to fit work into all of the time that I want to spend with Anika?”  While I’m certain that this is not exactly a revelation to those reading this who already have kids, for me, the immediacy of this profound and seemingly involuntary rearrangement of life priorities took my rational half a bit by surprise.  That being said, the readjustment of perspective feels entirely natural and welcome, as if this is one of the answers to life’s important questions that I’ve been seeking for years.

Thursday morning brought a beautiful blue dawn.  Sunrise here is much later than we’re used to: the sun isn’t up until 8:40am.  We, however, were both up and ready for coffee.  Sadly, Julie fell off the wagon after only 3 days and ordered up a cup of full-strength joe while only half-awake.  Thursday also brought us a third day without cold water.  We discovered yesterday that it is not only the building that is affected, but parts of the city.  One of the couples that we know from the DBH told us yesterday that they too are lacking hot water.  We took the morning to finalize our list of things to do for the day, and gather everything that we need for court.  Zhanat told us that we should wear the exact same clothes for luck, so that we’ll have the exact same good outcome that we had at pre-court on Tuesday.  Little does she realize that with a limited wardrobe and no ability to do laundry, we’d be wearing the exact same clothes regardless of her instructions!

We were picked up at 11:40a and taken back to the court building where Dr. Irina and Jana were waiting for us.  At noon we were called back into the judge’s office where he was now dressed in a maroon robe.  The prosecutor was also there, dressed in a uniform, and the judge’s secretary was present to record the proceedings.  The court hearing was much more formal.  Once again, the judge introduced the parties who were present.  This time, the main difference was that Jana, the Ministry of Education representative, read the report of the findings of the MOE with regard to our petition for adoption.  Afterwards, we each had to stand and state specifically what we were asking the court for: to grant us our request to adopt this child, and to change her name officially to Anika Irina Blackman.  The entire hearing was, for both of us, very emotional, rivaling our wedding ceremony for the sense of importance that we experienced.  Maybe even a little more intense because unlike our wedding, we were not 100% certain of the outcome.  In addition, while our wedding was pure celebration, this proceeding had a very serious and almost bittersweet air to it.  While we’re both thrilled that Anika will be our child and come to live with us in the United States, we were also acutely aware of how deeply important children are to the people of Kazakhstan, and how much it pains them that they are unable to care for all of their orphaned children at this time.  Kazakhstan is a country still in recovery from decades of Soviet oppression and need their children now more than ever.  We hope that we left the judge with the impression that we do not take the generosity of the people of Kazakhstan for granted in any way, shape or form, and how much we both are in awe of the dedication they show for these children.

Towards the end of the proceeding, we were very pleased to hear Dr. Irina, Jana, and the state prosecutor all state that they felt that the adoption was solely in Anika’s best interest and that there were no objections to any aspect of our petition.  We were told by the judge that the final decision would come at 3pm and that we were to return at that time.

Zhanat hurried us home to change clothes and we quickly made our way over to the DBH to visit Anika, feed her lunch, and then bundle her up to take her to get photos taken for all of her immigration documents, her passport, and her visa.  We had no idea how she’d react to leaving the baby house by car and going out in the world.  From what we understand, she’s only been out of the baby house once – and that was to go for a medical exam a couple of weeks ago.  Well, it took about 30 seconds for us to find out.  She was scared, plain and simple.  Every aspect of the car trip was very upsetting to her and we were only partly able to console and distract her.  Once we arrived in the city center and exited the car, she settled down because we were outside, but once inside the photo studio, she was once again very upset.  Of course the photographer wanted her photos to be of her with her mouth closed – a nearly impossible feat given that she was either crying or sticking out her tongue!  It took about 20 attempts, but we finally got a picture of her with her mouth closed.  I feel bad that this will be her passport photo for the next 10 years, but what are you going to do?

After the photos were done, we bundled her up, ran back to the DBH and dropped her off, and then headed home again to get changed back into our dress clothes in order to be at court for the 3pm decision.

We were escorted back into the judge’s office where it was just me, Julie and Zhanat.  The judge had excused Jana and Dr. Irina so that they could return to work.  The decision was a 3 page document that the judge read aloud and in its entirety.  He reviewed our petition, the findings of the court, the relevant Kazakhstani law, and at the end stated that the court found in favor of our petition and that this child’s birth certificate will be change to indicate that her mother is Julie Denise McNeill and her father is Samuel Charles Blackman, and that the child’s name will become Anika Irina Blackman.  We were given copies of the judge’s decision and told that it will become finalized 15 days from tomorrow (November 17th).

Afterwards, in personal comments to us, the judge stated that he also felt that Anika would also be much better off with a family and parents than left in the orphanage, and that the adoption was truly in her best interest, but that he felt the weight of this process and knew that her future was on his shoulders.  We reassured him that he would not be disappointed.  Afterwards, he congratulated us and we said farewell.  Zhanat recommended that a picture of Anika happy, thriving and back in the United States would be a fitting token of appreciation for the judge, and I can’t agree more.

So there you have it.  Nine months to the day that we filed our initial application to start the adoption process, we are now parents of a beautiful, healthy, and wonderful little girl.  Despite the thousands of words written on this blog, it is not possible to fully express the full weight of this process or it’s full emotional impact on Julie and me.  We truly thought that we had our fill of truly incredible, life-altering events.  Little did we realize that at our ages, not only would we have the chance to experience one of the best events life has to offer, but also that we both will have subscribed to an entirely new series of such events as we embark on this new journey as a family.  We feel, today, at this very moment in time, as alive as we have ever felt.  In fact, we feel truly reborn as an entirely new people, with every aspect of ourselves recast in an entirely new light.  We suppose that it is this feeling that is part of the true essence of being human – that there is rejuvenation and renewal in children, and a sense of hope and possibility that makes the seemingly impossible, possible.

Finally, it is also not possible to describe the hundreds of acts, and hundreds of people who all played role in this process over the past 9 months.  We have been supported by so many wonderful people: the Boston- and Portland-based staff of MAPS International, to their staff in Almaty, Astana and Kostanai; our friends and families; those who have cared for our home and pets (Pam, Scott, Lara and Grayson), and our patients (Jessica and Christy); our co-workers at Faulkner Hospital, New England Baptist Hospital, the Dana-Farber, and Children’s Hospital Boston; our employers who have been so wonderfully flexible and generous to us (especially the people at AAM, OPRS, DFCI, and CMR); the innumerable US agencies (state and federal); the innumerable Kazakhstani agencies (city, state and national).  Most importantly, we are forever indebted to Zhanat who has guided us every step of the way for the past 5 weeks and who has been a remarkably strong shoulder for both of us to lean on, and finally everyone at the Delphin Baby House who loved, cared for, raised, and nurtured Anika until we had the remarkable fortune to find her and make her ours.  Julie and I are both incredibly humbled by all of this, and are grateful to everyone who played a role.  No matter how big or small, every part was essential to making this remarkable day possible for us, and for this we are both so very thankful.

For tonight, we will go to a restaurant called ‘444′ to celebrate.  I have bent to Zhanat’s will and will partake in the ceremonial “lizard vodka”.  We were also told that the camel’s milk that we keep seeing in the grocery store is a good hangover cure, so who knows, I may be partaking in that as well tomorrow.  We will post something tomorrow after our final visit with Anika, and then probably something from Almaty and from Amsterdam as we make our way back to Boston.

Vodka: An Emotional Epidural

About six months ago, Julie and I went to the annual meeting of the Adoption Coalition of New England (ACONE).  We were fairly early in the process, and to suddenly be surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of couples involved in international adoption was a surreal experience.  We attended a number of seminars and perused the different “vendors” (mostly adoption agencies).  In a far-off corner we came across a table with a bunch of T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “pregnant on paper”.  Apparently this is how people in the adoption world refer to themselves during the waiting period once your paperwork is in process.
Well, if the pre-travel/paperwork phase is the equivalent of being pregnant on paper, then being here in-country is definitely being in labor.  Last I checked, there are no anesthesiologist-recommended emotional epidurals (or so Julie tells me).  However, we’ve recently found that  an occasional Kazakhstani vodka (for Julie) and/or Moldovan Grand Muscat (for Sam) is a pretty good substitute.

We’re (halfway) kidding here.  Today is day 21 following our first official visit with Anika, and day 29 since we left home.  We were hoping for some word on things before today’s Republic Day holiday, but we’re still on hold.  Right now it looks like Sunday will be the earliest that we’ll get some word on our legal proceedings.  We, of course, don’t know what that word is, but at least it will be something.  The worst case scenario that we’re imagining is that there will be a delay until our court date, and we will have to weigh the cost of returning home against the cost of staying here and waiting.  No matter what, we are still very confident that in the end, we will return home with Anika (at some point).

jigsaw-puzzle

We opted to stay in today – the weather was really gloomy and wet.  Julie found a 1500-piece jigsaw puzzle that will either be a good way for her to pass time, or the thing that precipitates a small stroke.  She swears that pieces are missing as part of some bizarre Southern Siberian torture methodology being perfected here.  The Delphin House dog (which we had previously thought to be male), has herself found two new ways to pass the time here.  We only wish that she and her new friends had gotten a room.  Fortunately, we were able to shield Anika from this object lesson in the birds and the bees and hid out in the downstairs lounge.  She seems to be restless and bored with the same surroundings, and truth be told, so are we.  Clearly, what would be best for her would be a change in venue, and we look forward to providing this for her in the coming months.

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We’re starting to develop some patterns, or at least we’re beginning to learn hers.  She clearly wants to be held more during our visits, and there are some things that Julie does that are absolutely fascinating for me to watch.  To see how she settles down as Julie sings to her, or how she looks out the window as Julie makes up stories about what’s going on outside, and how from time to time she’ll stare into Julie’s eyes is nothing short of beautiful.  I seem to play the role of clown and chief acrobat, best able to raise a smile or get a laugh by throwing her into the air, or rolling her up in my arms and tickling her neck with my nose.  For the first time today we saw her fuss when we took something out of her hands: it was the end of our visit and as we were packing up, Anika had a firm grip on a packet of tissues that she had been happily gnawing on.  When we took it from her to put into the backpack, she began to fuss.  It’s the first time that we’ve seen her do that, and I doubt it’ll be the last.  It’s not the cutest developmental milestone, but we’ll take it.  Today was also the first time that she really fussed when we left – we had sat her down in the crib and waved goodbye, and I swear that she understood that we were leaving and started to cry.  Fortunately, we were able to distract her with a toy long enough to sneak out.  It’s nice to think that she likes us enough to care if we’re not there, but it also makes my heart heavy to think about the possible impact on her when we’re gone for a number of weeks during the “appeal period”.

It was chicken night again tonight, and as usual, Julie did a fine job.  We saved a bunch of scraps for the DBH dog, who is clearly going to need them (and probably a cigarette or two) after her rendezvous today.  We’ll probably start a movie tonight – after all, somebody once said that television is the opiate of the masses, and for labor, opiates are likely to be a good thing.

[Authors note: Julie wants me to let you know that she didn’t write this, and approved only after much eye-rolling.  She also wants to tell Kyle that she will do everything possible to make her appointment to get her roots touched up.]

Four Weeks Away From Home

Today it has officially been FOUR full weeks since Sam and I departed from Boston.  As I am sure those of you who have been here before are aware, the excitement of being in a different country is starting to wear off.  There are a lot of things about simply “being at home” we miss.  This makes our 90 minutes a day with Anika even more important for us.  It is the one thing that enables us to remain focused on why we are here. dsc-0245-3-tm

One week ago we completed the 14-day bonding period that is required by law here in Kazakhstan.  Last Friday (October 19th), our coordinator filed our papers – our request to adopt Anika – and by that afternoon we were randomly assigned a judge to preside over our case.  This assignment process is now done by computer a change that was instituted just three days before we filed our adoption request.  From our understanding, the judge has three days to review the case and assign a “pre-court” date where we are to appear to hear when our “official” court date is.  Today is Thursday and the only information we have received so far within the last week is that the judge has not been available and our coordinator is to arrive on this coming Sunday (8 days after he was assigned to our case)  with all of our documents to meet with him.  We also learned that the judge we have been randomly assigned has not presided over an international adoption case before.  Sam and I are unsure of how we should look at this, but both of us cannot help but feel absolutely frightened by this information.  We have been here for almost four weeks and have heard first-hand from a few other adoptive parents about some of the roadblocks that have been encountered with the legal system here.  Our hopes are that these recent obstacles do not forecast a long, drawn-out process ahead.  We are putting whatever confidence we have into our coordinator and adoption agency to get us through this process as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Each day we wake up and try to focus on Anika along with gathering the patience we need to understand that the adoption is going to take longer than predicted.

We know that our family members, friends, and colleagues have gone above and beyond to enable Sam and I to undertake this process.  From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you and hope that you can understand that we are doing whatever we can to complete this.  While we did as much as we thought we could to prepare logistically and emotionally for this process in Kazakhstan,we are encountering aspects of the process that we were never aware of before arriving.

On a less stressful note:

We arrived home after our daily visit with Anika and headed to the GROS supermarket to stock up on the basics.  Last week we kept a running tally of how many 5 liter bottles of water we go through and it turned out to be 8 bottles in one week.  Now, that water does not include the smaller bottles of water we use for drinking.  This is just the water we use for: coffee, tea, brushing teeth, cooking, rinsing vegetables, and washing fruit.  Sam was busy perusing the aisles for “new” snacks so I went over to get the boring items: toilet paper and tissues.  I pulled a pack of toilet paper off of the shelf and was trying to decide what type of tissues I wanted when a woman struck up a conversation with me in Russian about the toilet paper I had in my hand.  I just smiled and nodded and she started pointing to another brand.  I again, smiled and tried to act as if I was considering the information she was offering.  As if to make it seem like I understood her, I suddenly found myself returning the package of toilet paper I had to the shelf and reaching for the one she was pointing to.  She exclaimed “nyet-nyet” and motioned to me to keep the package I had.  I thanked her and scurried off as quickly as I could.  I really wish I would have spent more time in actual conversational Russian than just reading it from a book!  My brain just doesn’t have the capacity to process Russian when it is spoken that casually.  Sam and I have taken to watching the local news each night on television to see if we can understand any of it.  We can usually grasp one or two words pretty quickly and then with pictures thrown in, almost know what is going on around here!

To take our minds off of our frustration we decided to go out for dinner tonight at the Baron Munchausen restaurant.  Besides the fact that the name refers to an axis-2 disorder, it was actually one of the better restaurants we have been to so far.  To our surprise, the wine selection on the menu offered more than the usual Moldovan and Georgian fare.  I have given the Moldovan wines several opportunities, but have not gotten past the fact that they taste just like a glass of liquid grape Jolly Ranchers.

When we arrived at the restaurant, it was completely empty.  In Russian, we indicated that we would like to have dinner.  There was this beautiful moment in time – about 5 seconds – where the hostess assumed we were actually locals.  That was completely ruined when she answered us in Russian and my eyes widened and I just said…”ummmmm, excuse me?”  She immediately rummaged through the stack of menus and pulled out the “anGLIYski” menu.  Oh well, it was nice to think we blended in for those few seconds.

We loved looking at the menu.  Most of the items appeared to be as literal as a translation as possible.  My favorite item was a salad called “the food that comes from the most honest person on earth”.  I was tempted to order it just for good karma.  The first page was devoted entirely to explaining why the service at the restaurant takes longer than an English-speaking diner would expect.  This is the third restaurant we have been to that has made this notation somewhere on the menu.  Obviously, the slower than expected service was an issue that was addressed enough times to warrant an explanation on the menu!  It is a bit unfortunate that, in America, our mealtimes are reduced to fractions of time that sometimes require us to just stand or continue driving the car while we eat.  Sam and I have enjoyed the fact that when we go out to dinner here, we pretty much anticipate spending a few hours at the restaurant.

The food was great!  I had a salad of cucumbers, cabbage, celery, walnuts, olive oil, dill, and garlic followed by a roasted salmon filet with lemon and vegetables (the first green beans I’ve seen).  Sam  had a salad composed of smoked salmon, cheese, olive oil, tomatoes, and cucumber followed by mushroom soup, then bacon wrapped chicken livers, and finally a beef dish with mushrooms and potatoes.  I am really hoping that there is some special anti-oxidant property to cucumbers because I think I have eaten at least one a day here!

So far, this experience in Kazakhstan has touched on every emotional aspect of ourselves.  While our experience has unfortunately encountered this very frustrating standstill along the way, we are doing what we can to remain focused on the most important aspect of this – Anika!  I know that Sam had indicated in a previous posting that we were going to go to every other day postings to prevent ourselves from rambling on and on about nothing.  We will save you from knowing just how bored we can get at times.  However, it means more than you realize to know that our friends and family are thinking of us!  Even if it is just to say “hi” we appreciate any e-mail you send!

Oh, we’re also upset that we couldn’t watch the Sox whomp Colorado 13-1 last night.  Oh, the sacrifices that we make on behalf of our children (she’s worth it, though)!