Masha and Linda Goodspeed
Masha and Linda Goodspeed

From Russia with Love

by Linda Goodspeed

 

From the Editor: Linda Goodspeed is a member of the Cambridge Chapter of the NFB of Massachusetts and a 1988 NFB scholarship winner. Like the rest of us she struggles in all kinds of ways to demonstrate to the world in general that blindness does not necessarily diminish one's ability to live a full and productive life. The following story of her fight to adopt her Russian daughter Masha first appeared in the June, 1999, issue of Vermont Magazine and the September, 1999, issue of Boston Phoenix.

When I told my fifteen-year-old nephew several years ago that I was going to adopt a baby, he replied, "That's so cool."

Yeah, it really is cool, I thought. I didn't know just how cool it would be until I landed in Moscow last March and was hit by minus-twenty-degree (centigrade) winds and blowing snow off the great central plains of Russia. It was bitter, bleak, and intimidating, but compared to what I'd been through already, it was practically a relief.

Russia was not my first choice for finding a child to love. I knew there were plenty of abandoned children right here in this country--in Boston for Pete's sake--in need of a home and a little love. What I didn't know was that adopting a child domestically is almost impossible. Foster care, not adoption, is promoted by the child welfare and court system in this country. I spent nine months looking through the registry of children in state custody finally eligible for adoption: page after page of twelve-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old boys who had spent a decade or more bouncing from one foster family to another. There were girls, too. Thirteen, fourteen, sixteen. Sibling groups whom bureaucrats would not break up; minorities whom bureaucrats would not place in families of a different color--childhoods lost forever.

If state-sponsored adoption is difficult, trying to adopt a child independently is even worse. Too many nightly newscasts and based-on-a true-story TV movies of custody battles between adoptive and birth parents were more than enough to discourage me from this route. On television the courts always seem to side with the birth parents--fathers who didn't know they were fathers and never signed away their parental rights; mothers unaware or traumatized when they signed away theirs.

Going through a reputable private adoption agency is safer but hardly more accessible. For $30,000 I could write an autobiography and send a picture of myself to put in a book for pregnant women who have agreed to give away their babies. Actually, it wouldn't have cost me $30,000 because I knew I wouldn't be picked. I am single, and I have a disability. You don't get picked if you have even one strike against you.

So I am on a plane bound for Russia. It has taken me years and thousands of dollars and millions of emotions to wade through the bureaucratic quagmire of adoption to get here. I was two years into the adoption process before my daughter was born; by the time I finally got her, she was already two years old.

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"Don't use the words `legally blind' to describe your handicap," my adoption case worker advised me. "The words don't translate well. Say `visually impaired.'"

"OK," I said.

Actually, even though I have only a very small amount of central vision remaining in one eye--less than ten degrees--it is highly usable vision, and I identify much more readily with the words "visually impaired" than the word "blind," which for most people conjures up images of total darkness. (Actually, this is one of the myths about blindness: Very few people are totally blind. Most blind people have some degree of light perception, visual acuity, or other residual sight.) I myself need to use a white cane to get around because the peripheral vision in my one seeing eye is so restricted. On the other hand, its central acuity is good enough that with proper lighting I can read a newspaper.

Reading children's books was my bigger concern. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, however, which must approve every overseas adoption applicant, was more interested in what kinds of gadgets and devices I was going to use to take care of a baby. The INS wanted bells and whistles.

I thought hard. "Well," I said. "I know a lot of blind parents have told me they put little bells on their children's shoes when they start walking." They loved it. "And, of course, it's very important to be extremely well-organized." They seemed disappointed. Too simple.

"It's hard to anticipate everything I'm going to need," I finally said. "But I have a lot of resources, both blind and sighted. As problems come up, you just solve them."

When I was getting Masha's clothes ready to take to Russia to pick her up, I realized I needed some sort of system to keep outfits together since I couldn't put the clothes together visually if they became separated. I talked to my mom, and we came up with plastic clothes pins and different drawers. As problems come up you solve them. That's life. Visually impaired. Unimpaired. It doesn't matter.

**********

You know you can't save the world, but you can't help thinking about the baby the U.S. adoption agency searching Russian orphanages on your behalf was going to offer you but then didn't because her head measurements were too small to make her a candidate for adoption. An overly small head can be associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. You soon learn all about this condition: How to plot head measurements on a graph; to look for Cupid's bows, ears that stick out or are set too low. You learn how to convert grams into pounds and centimeters into inches. You learn to overlook a diagnosis of "perinatal encephalopathy" on a child's medical history unless it's missing.

"In this country we use the diagnosis to mean brain damage at the time of birth," the doctor doing my medical consult told me. "Obviously, Russian doctors mean something quite different by this diagnosis because it's on every medical record from Russia and eastern Europe.

You memorize medical histories, visit medical libraries, search Medline for explanations and prognoses of every word. And what's not there can make the decision as hard as what is there. Other than the ubiquitous perinatal encephalopathy, Masha's only other diagnosis was congenital myopia in her left eye. Is that all? Nearsighted in one eye? I read the report over and over.

"Well, it could just be that she's healthy," a friend pointed out.

You try to hold back a little, just in case. But your heart expands every time you look at the pictures, watch the videos. Wait for the medical consult, you tell yourself. Wait for the answers from the orphanage to your questions about her gestational age; her birth parents' histories, if known; her language and social skills; comprehension. Wait, wait, wait.

But you know this is the one. You begin to feel as if you might take off at any moment. And then it happens--the naysayer. "She's awfully cute," said a social worker involved in my adoption. She had been sent the same packet of information about Masha that I had. "But I have some real concerns about her Apgar scores. I think they could mean mental retardation."

Of all the words to say to a prospective parent! I was devastated when I got off the phone with her. Four years, I thought. I'll never be able to adopt. I felt sick. I had to talk to someone else. I called every neonatal care unit in Boston searching for a doctor, a resident, an intern, anyone to come to the phone right now to tell me a 6/7 Apgar score was normal, unremarkably normal, no problem, no predictor of anything whatsoever except an incredibly normal healthy infant, breathing on her own at birth.

Because of this woman and her label, I now have a drawer full of studies about the use and misuse of Apgar scores; of researchers who have tried unsuccessfully to correlate the scores with later neurological development; about the test's utter and complete lack of predictive value.

I became a walking encyclopedia on anything even remotely related to Apgar. I can tell you who developed the test (Dr. Virginia Apgar), when (1952), why (as a quick and easy measurement of an infant's condition at birth), what the test measures (heart rate, respiration, muscle tone, reflex, color), how the test is scored (0, 1 or 2 for each of the five measurements), at what intervals (one minute, five minutes, and longer, as necessary). Bottom line: The Apgar score is a quick, convenient shorthand for physicians to assess how a baby has come through the trauma of birth. Period. I can't understand how anyone, especially someone working in the child-welfare field, could say the words, "mental retardation" when she obviously knew absolutely nothing about what she was talking about.

Slowly my relief turned to anger at this worker's ignorance and insensitivity--for about six or seven minutes. You don't have time or room for anger. There are too many other things to do, too many other emotions.

**********

There are so many hurdles. After each one you think the finish line is in sight. Then somebody moves it again, sets up another hurdle. Three years of finger printing, interviews, background checks, financial statements, references, home visits, paperwork, more paperwork, more interviews, faxes, FedExes, phone calls, notaries, apostilles.

I strongly urge anyone who wants to adopt a child overseas to have a personal notary public, someone you can call on to witness your signature at any hour, day or night. I'm not kidding. Russia is eight hours ahead of us. They work while we sleep and sleep while we work. You should also live no farther than a day's drive from the Statehouse. Not only does every signature on every scrap of paper have to be notarized, but every notary's signature has to be notarized. Only the Secretary of State can do this. It's called an "apostille": just one of many new words you will learn. Others include I-600-A, I-171H, I-864. You'll get used to speaking in numbers and in triplicate.

About two years ago we started overnighting everything. Hurry up, hurry up. Each hurdle has to be gotten over immediately because we're getting so close...to another hurdle. At one point we had to ask Senator Kennedy's office to try to locate my application at the INS. (He actually has a staff person designated for this job because so many international adoption applications get lost in that agency.) You think you've done everything, gotten every bit of paper, every reference, every notary, every apostille; and then there's a new request: a new power of attorney, another letter, another person to meet, a new document request, another hurdle.

The day the Russian judge was supposed to set my court date for the adoption, she instead asked me to furnish proof that I was not receiving a government pension. Never mind the financial statements, employer letters, tax returns I had already supplied. I couldn't decide if her request was because of my disability or my employer. Health Care For All, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, where I write and produce all of the agency's publications, does have a socialist ring to it. The judge probably thought I worked for some kind of government agency instead of a group trying to hold the government accountable. Having been so failed and betrayed by their own government, no wonder the Russians were suspicious.

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A couple of weeks after I accepted Masha, I had the good timing and privilege of meeting in Boston the Minister of Education for Masha's region of Russia, a small republic named Mordovia. Vasily Vasilyovich was a very sad man, sad for his country, sad for the children who have so little future there. Mordovia is an autonomous republic about the size of Massachusetts located 650 kilometers southeast of Moscow. It has a population of one million people, including 2,000 orphaned children in sixteen orphanages. Another 2,000 children are in a kind of temporary foster care. Those are the lucky kids. There are an untold number of homeless street children. In Russian, through an interpreter, Vasily Vasilyovich spoke movingly of his native land, the people, the school system ("not so democratic as here; we have more strict discipline"), and, most movingly of all, about the children. Even children in intact families who make it all the way through the country's excellent school system and free universities have few opportunities or jobs when they finish.

"It is a very difficult situation," Vasily told us. "Very hard on the teachers who are no longer being paid." With so many Russians unable to feed their own children, let alone adopt an abandoned child, Vasily had finally, reluctantly agreed to allow Mordovian children to be adopted internationally. (Nations and independent republics establish their own procedures and requirements for adoption.) But first Vasily wanted to assure himself that Mordovian children adopted by U.S. families would be getting good homes. Last fall he traveled to Boston and Florida to visit schools, hospitals, museums, and Disney World and to meet American families who had already adopted Russian children and others waiting to adopt. I made a point of going up to him to show him pictures of Masha and to talk to him about my disability.

"I hope I can impress upon you," I told him through an interpreter, "that even with a handicap, if you have a strong family and friends, access to medical care and opportunity, you can live a very full and active and productive life." Little did I know those words would come back to haunt me.

**********

Saransk, Russia, where Masha was born, is a tired, rundown, hopelessly depressed settlement of 300,000. Despite its size and stature as the capital of Mordovia, it's hard to call Saransk a city. There's no center, no downtown, no stores, no supermarkets, no theaters, no nothing, no there there--just three-, four-, and five-story cinder block apartment buildings, factories, and government office buildings strewn along a mishmash of crumbling, unplowed roads.

The morning my brother David and I arrived by overnight train from Moscow, Olga asked me what I was going to wear to court. I told her I had brought a pair of slacks and some winter boots. (No way was I going to bring a skirt and high heels to the Russian interior in the middle of March.) Olga was appalled.

"You must make a good appearance in court," she said. "Russians put a lot of emphasis on clothes. It's not like America. Haven't you noticed how many people wear fur coats?"

I nodded. We had.

Olga quickly went through my wardrobe.

"No, no, no," she said, shaking her head at everything I pulled out. "None of these will do. You must buy something."

"Are the stores open on Sunday?" I asked, having just arrived and not yet knowing there are no stores in Saransk.

"We'll go to the market. It's not far from here."

We shuffled over an icy, snow-covered path to an outdoor market. Olga went from stand to stand, stopping at the ones selling skirts and shoes. It was freezing. I tried on a couple of pairs of shoes, holding onto Olga as I stood on one foot on an icy incline in front of a small stand. Olga said I could try on the skirts too, but I was too cold to go behind the booth. I held one up to my waist. It was a long black silk skirt with a slit up the back and two long, hideous silk tie things in the front.

"I'll take it," I said.

""Don't you want to try it on?" Olga asked.

I shook my head. "It'll fit. How much?"

Olga bartered with the shopkeeper and then selected some rubles from my hand.

The skirt was so small I couldn't zip it up in the back. Luckily it had those tie things, and I wrapped them around my waist to cover up the zipper. With nylons on (Olga refused to let me wear knee socks) the shoes were so big they flapped when I walked.

"You look very elegant," Olga whispered in court the next day.

"Thank you," I said, hardly daring to breathe lest something slip.

Later in the week Olga took David souvenir shopping, and they visited more outdoor markets, including an open-air meat market. Fresh-slaughtered meats were spread across tables set up in the snow. No refrigeration, no ice, no packaging, no signs--just the butchered animal's head to advertise the table's contents.

Had we gone shopping earlier in the week, we might have eaten a little more cautiously. Russia is not noted for its cuisine, haute or cold. There were only two restaurants in Saransk, and every item on both menus contained cabbage. There was only one hotel (the Gulag, as David called it; we couldn't pronounce the Russian name). We were the only guests in the whole place. "I feel like I'm in a Steven King movie," David said as we checked in.

It was eerie. The hotel was a sort of nice (the nicest building in Saransk) thirty-year-old concrete structure surrounded by a high barbed wire fence with a linoleum tiled lobby, two walk-up floors of rooms, and a large empty bar and game room with a scruffed-up pool table. We had a two-room suite with a three-channel TV on the second floor. It had a balcony and thirty-year-old plumbing---modern by Russian standards--that smelled so bad of mold every time we turned on the water we gave up trying to shower. There wasn't a shower curtain anyway. Later we learned the hotel was a government hotel built to house visiting Soviet officials from Moscow.

With the government in chaos and the city's once bustling factories at about 10 percent capacity, no one comes to Saransk anymore: no one, that is, except American families wanting to adopt abandoned Russian children. There were eighteen American families, counting us, on the flight over to Russia to pick up children. There were at least ten babies, counting ours, on the flight back. It's even nicknamed the "baby flight."

Living in Saransk must be what living in the old American West was like--rough, free-wheeling, and incredibly bumpy. The orphanage where Masha spent the first two years of her life was located about sixty kilometers outside Saransk, accessible (barely) by a narrow two-lane washed-out road lined on both sides by six-foot snowbanks and vast expanses of empty snow-filled fields. The road is so bad it couldn't be traveled at night, so the first time we visited Masha--Russian law requires all adoptive parents to see their prospective children beforehand--we had to time our trip for after her nap and before the sun set.

The orphanage was a two-story, wood-frame building in a small hamlet. Entering it, I was struck by how quiet it was. Four staff members, all dressed in white coats, greeted Olga and me and led me upstairs to a large empty room. I recognized the room from the videos of Masha I had received. I sat on a low bench along one side of the room. The women sat unsmiling. I felt I had dressed all wrong again. I asked the director, a woman in her late thirties, how many children lived at the orphanage. She replied, "Fifty-five, all under the age of three."

I was stunned. After a few minutes of strained chitchat in which I described Masha's new family and her room at home, the director asked if I would like to see her. "Yes." I could hardly breathe.

My back was turned toward the door as I talked to one of the doctors at the orphanage (a woman, of course--the country has the most highly educated and professionally employed women in the world). Behind me, I could faintly hear a steady, slow, thump, thump coming up the stairs. The thump, thump drew nearer. I turned.

"Eta oo Mama," the orphanage director said. Holding the director's hand, Masha steadily made her way toward me. I knew she was small from the videos the adoption agency had sent me, but I caught my breath at just how tiny she really was. "Eta oo Mama," the director said again. From the thirty-word list of phonetic Russian I had memorized before leaving Boston, I knew the director was telling Masha, "This is your Mama."

Masha stopped in front of me and raised her arms. I gathered her into my lap. "Mama's here," I whispered, crying. "Mama's here."

**********

Normally a Russian court hearing on a foreign adoption lasts from one to three hours. It's not a rubber stamp, but pretty close, thanks to the intense screening of adoptive parents done ahead of time. My court hearing in Saransk, the capital of Mordovia, lasted eight and a half hours.

At lunch the five of us sat subdued and depressed. Igor and Ilya, my two Russian adoption advocates, scowled as only Russian men can. "I cannot say what the judge will do," Ilya said, shaking his head.

Igor was equally pessimistic. "It did not go well this morning," he said.

Olga just sat limp, too tired from all of the testimony of the morning even to eat. My brother David put his arm around me and asked how I was holding up. Despite having had nothing to eat or drink since we got up that morning, not even a glass of water (can't drink the tap water), I had no appetite. I ordered a cup of black coffee and listened as the others critiqued the morning session.

"It's fine that you have an active and productive life," Igor told me. I winced, thinking about how hard I had tried to impress Vasily Vasilyovich back in Boston with my productive life. "But this isn't about you," Igor continued. "This is about how you're going to take care of a child. That's what the court wants to hear. They are not convinced this adoption is in the child's best interest."

"He's right," David said. "You have to tell them how you're going to take care of Masha."

Ilya nodded. "It's all up to you, Linda."

We had been in court since ten that morning. It was now 2:30, and we were due back in court at 3. The restaurant had stopped serving lunch, and all we could get was a half a slice of thick toasted bread topped with some orange-colored tomatoes, ham, and cheese. By the time it came, it was time to leave. But we had our strategy.

Yes, I was adopting Masha alone, but no way was I in this by myself. My brother's presence was testament to that. I had spent the morning talking about myself. In the afternoon I would tell the court about my family--all of them: biological, work, church, friends, neighbors, community.

We arrived back at the courthouse feeling considerably more confident and optimistic, only to be greeted by a surprise witness. When the man was introduced as an eye specialist, I thought he was there to talk about Masha's nearsightedness. A good part of the morning's testimony had focused on her health and my willingness to adopt a child with a defect, known and unknown.

God, these people are thorough, I thought.

But when the mystery witness was further identified as the chief of the glaucoma department at the local hospital, my heart sank. These people really are thorough, I thought. My underlying eye condition is glaucoma. This wasn't about Masha; this was about me.

For the next hour I described to the court the history and prognosis of my eye condition and what I can and can't see. The glaucoma specialist listened and then offered his opinions and impressions of everything I said. I felt it was not going well. How can you make ten glaucoma operations, one cataract surgery, three laser procedures, no sight in one eye, and tunnel vision in the other eye sound like no problem?

Forget the past, I wanted to shout. For thirteen years my eyes have been stable: no drugs, no surgery, no change. Nyet, nada, nothing.

Finally, the prosecutor in the case, who was there to represent Masha's interests, asked me to walk over and open the door to the courtroom without using my white cane. "When Linda opened the door, I knew everything was going to be all right," Igor said later.

Not quite. I had convinced the court my disability did not prevent me from opening and closing doors. I still had to convince a skeptical judge and hostile prosecutor that my disability would not prevent me from raising a two-year-old. After the glaucoma specialist left, I again stood up and, in two-sentence intervals so Olga could more easily translate, told the court about my family--Masha's family. I told about my work family, how my coworkers had raised more than $200 to give to Masha's orphanage. I described my friends, their generosity and interest, my neighbors, my plans to hire a Russian nanny to take care of Masha during the day when I was working so that she could keep her language and I could learn it. Finally I sat down. Ilya asked if my brother David could also address the court. The judge, a woman of about sixty, nodded, and David got up and told her that initially our family had had the same concerns as the court about my adopting a child. "But we talked about it, and we're behind her 100 percent," he said.

When the judge called for another recess, our side milled together, not quite high-fiving, but close. "We're a second half team," David said.

"More like ninth inning," Igor said.

"Fourth quarter in basketball," Ilya added.

Actually, overtime was more like it. When the judge at last ruled the adoption final at 6:30 p.m., it was dark and the courthouse long since deserted. We hugged each other and posed for pictures under the court seal. At dinner that night we celebrated with vodka, Russian-style: straight up.

**********

The day after our marathon court hearing we again made the wild ride over the stage coach road to the orphanage to pick up Masha forever. About halfway there we narrowly averted a head-on collision with an oncoming double bus. Russians are notorious drivers. Fortunately our driver was also skillful, and we nearly squeaked past the bus. But we got caught in the ruts, and the second bus slid into our lane, smashing into the side of our car. By the time the military came to investigate and write up a report on the accident, we had held up traffic in both directions for more than two hours. The sun was low in the sky; reluctantly we turned around and headed back to Saransk. "Don't worry, Masha," I thought. "We're going to get you. It's just taking a little longer than usual."

Halfway back to Saransk we met another car sent by Igor and Ilya, who had heard about our accident over their cell phones. We clambered out of the first car and into the second and again took off for the orphanage. It was nearly 4 p.m. when we arrived. We had several documents that needed to be signed and exchanged, so David went to get Masha while I stayed with the director and Olga to complete the paperwork.

Masha had no clothes of her own in which to leave the orphanage. I had been warned this would likely be the case and had brought everything she needed. She couldn't even take her doll. With fifty-four other kids all under the age of three, many of them handicapped, the staff obviously did not want to part with anything.

We presented our gifts, clothes and toys, and treats for the kids, some personal items for the staff, and the $200 in cash my coworkers had donated to the orphanage; took down the address of the orphanage to send pictures and letters and all the other clothes for the kids we couldn't bring with us; and then posed for a quick picture. The three staff who were there came down to say good-bye to Masha, taking turns holding her and talking softly to her in Russian. She was quiet. The only tears were in the eyes of the adults. We then took her and left.

Our entire stay had lasted less than fifteen minutes. We got back into the car and headed home to America.

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