As I drive up to Mariechan’s house to do an interview for this story, a charming boy, doing graceful “S” turns with his scooter in the cul-de-sac, waves to me. He politely introduces himself as I walk up to the driveway. “Hello. I’m Aleksey. Are you here to visit my mom? I will tell her that you’re here. This is our house! Follow me! Oh, this is my sister, Valya.” There is a faint echo of Kazakhstan in his voice and nothing but smiles on his younger sister’s beautiful face.
When Alexsey and his younger sister, Valya, were first placed into government care, they were taken to the same orphanage; however, they were soon moved apart. One day, Aleksey was woken up at 5 am and told that he was moving to another orphanage. A decision was made to move seven of the older boys (who were driven daily from the village to a school in Ekibastuz, 200 km away) closer to the school rather than go to the time and expense of driving them. Aleksey had been in the Ekibastuz orphanage, separated from Valya, for two years when we decided to visit with him.
Meeting Aleksey meant another visit application and another social worker, which we arranged the day after we decided to learn more about him. We met with the orphanage director who had arranged for a concert to be performed by Aleksey and the rest of the 15 boys who shared his room and sang together with him in the choir. This way she felt we might observe Aleksey without singling him out, although all of the children in the orphanage know why English-speaking couples come to visit.
The biggest wish
The director asked the choir to sing a Kazak song for us, then asked a boy to sing another Kazak song. Next, Aleksey was asked to sing a funny song about bubbles. When he started to sing, everyone gasped because he started to sing a well-known Russian song that is about mothers. Even though I couldn’t understand Russian, the song touched me deeply. A sadness came over me, and, while I was looking at Aleksey in that moment, I fell in love with him. I had no doubts about my ability to be a mother to him. I wanted it more than anything. I quickly thanked Aleksey for the song and went outside, where I burst into tears. “What’s wrong?! What’s the matter?” Douglas asked. I told him that Aleksey was my son, and that I was determined to be his mother. “How can you know that?” he replied.
We went back to the director’s office and Elana, our social worker translated our meeting. When the director brought Aleksey in to meet us, the social worker asked him what his biggest life wish was. Did he want to be a president? Go to the moon? Aleksey dropped his head and fat tears ran slowly down his cheeks. He quietly said that his biggest wish was to be reunited with his sister. Douglas then turned to me and said, “Yes, this is the right thing to do.”
After the decision was made to adopt the siblings, the government required us to make daily visits with the children for two weeks. Every day, we travelled snow-covered dirt roads back and forth between Aleksey in Ekibastuz and Valya in Kachiry, and then drove back to Pavlodar to sleep. Each day the visit book had to be signed and the visit witnessed by the social worker. One day, we brought a video of Aleksey on Douglas’s laptop to show to Valya. She was so excited to see him that she kept touching the video screen and talking to him as though he were really there.
After two visits to the courts, the adoption was finally approved. By now, Douglas had returned home to his job and I was alone. I went alone with Lena, the translator, and Svetlana to pick up Valya at her children’s home. The translator showed me the cakes to buy for the adults at the home and the small cookies and juice to take for the children. But when we arrived we had the date wrong—it was the next day! The director compromised and said if Svetlana promised to bring the letter the next day, I could take Valya home that day. We went upstairs to the room that Valya shared with 10 other children and gave them all cookies and juice. The other girls lovingly hugged Valya before saying goodbye. Lena came with Valya and I back to the apartment and, when the door closed after she left, I looked at this little girl and thought, “Now what on earth am I going to do?”
The next day we went to get Aleksey with more cakes, candy, cookies and juice. All of the children had been organized to give us a concert. When it was time to say goodbye, the children stood in a circle and they each said something nice about Aleksey, many of them with tears in their eyes. They also asked me to give a little speech, too, and I struggled to explain through the translator, that they were each beautiful people and I knew that they, too, would one day have a family, and be with people who loved them very much. It was so difficult for me – I wanted to give them hope but wasn’t sure if I would create false expectations, too. I just wished that I could give each child a loving family.
Aleksey and Valya sat next to each other in the car and chattered the whole way back to the apartment. In the next few days, they spent every moment playing together and Skyping with Douglas.
To help us begin to understand each other, I made little signs in Russian and English and stuck them on drawers, bathroom mirrors, doors and cupboards. “Brush your teeth,” “Flush the toilet,” “Brush your hair” were written down where they were needed. I used my intuition, a lot of hugs and hand symbols, too. The really important communication like “No jumping on the bed” was entered into a translation computer on the laptop for Aleksey to read and translate to Valya.
The children loved having baths, and, at night, we all shared the one big bed that was in the apartment. One night, Aleksey turned Valya towards him and started to play a game with her where he gently touched her cheeks with his finger, then her eyes, then her nose and then her mouth, and finally he made a loud “beep” when he got to her chin. He explained that it was an old game he played with her when they were small, back when he used to take care of her. I realized that he still saw his role as her caregiver, and that I would have to help him understand that Douglas and I would now be able to support him and care for Valya, too, with all of our love and attention.
A new home
We returned to Canada on the last day of my visa to a home more beautiful, with more food in it than anything Aleksey or Valya had imagined. I was so happy to be home that I almost cried but didn’t want the children to think I was unhappy.
Our Coquitlam home is now definitely a happy home, high in the hills and a short walk from Aleksey and Valya’s elementary school. They have settled into school very well, and we have received excellent support from the school’s administrators and teachers in acclimatizing them to a new culture, a new language and new friends.
In fact, now that both children speak excellent English and we are able to communicate verbally so well, I wonder if I “listen” with all of my senses as deeply as I did in our first several weeks together. Maybe some communication has actually been lost as well as gained.
We speak of Kazakhstan often, and the children are still experiencing a sense of loss. While Valya was in the children’s home, she was waiting for her great-grandmother to come and get her. That never happened, and she only started grieving for her mother and great-grandmother when she came to Canada and really realized it would never happen.
Aleksey, on the other hand, was told in Ekibastus that he did not have a family anymore. So, he started grieving sooner.
The children are also opening up more about their early life, before they went into care. Aleksey remembers more than Valya, and he is more cautious when he perceives “warning” signs in our family. He was very concerned the first time he saw me open a bottle of wine, and we agreed that I will have only one glass of wine at a time.
We enjoy Russian and Kazakh cultural activities in our community, and we’ve also agreed to return to Kazakhstan one day so that Aleksey and Valya can revisit their birth country and visit their birth family. In the meantime, they are also learning to ice-skate, play video games, and roller blade; and we are all learning to be a creative, respectful, beautiful, multicultural and spiritual family.