From the time I was a little girl I had always planned on getting married in my mid to late twenties and staying home to write while I raised my two children. Of course, life rarely turns out the way you think it will. When I was in my late twenties I was struggling to find a decent job and pay my bills, and there was no special guy around for me to date, much less marry. When I got into my thirties, I had to deal with moving to Atlanta and trying to manage a daunting job working for a very difficult boss, plus my father’s death from cancer. For years, I felt totally shell-shocked emotionally. Finally, I lost weight, got in shape, and started a dogged and relentless pursuit of Mr. Right.
Mr. Right eluded me, despite my mother’s frequent admonishment about “a lid for every pot.” My pot is lidless and likely to remain so, and I’m fine with it. It’s taken me a number of years to say that without any sadness or bitterness, though, I will admit.
At the age of 40, I finally realized that for me, getting married and having a biological baby wasn’t in the cards. I was probably not going to be successful at parenting an infant as a single mom, either. I had a friend who took that route and stayed permanently exhausted for years, struggling to do everything by herself. It seemed a grim, joyless task, single motherhood. I prayed and asked God for a miracle. I remember it distinctly. I also remember feeling pretty foolish about it. I didn’t actually believe in miracles.
Longing for a change of pace and some adventure, in January 2003 I went to Russia to sing Handel's Messiah, in a remote town on the edge of Siberia. There I met a little girl in an orphanage and I knew she was my daughter. I had seen her in a dream the night before. I had never even considered adopting an older Russian child, but from the moment I first saw Alesia, I knew in my heart that Alesia was my daughter, and no matter what it took, I was going to bring her home.
When I returned to the U.S., my adoption dream hit brick wall after brick wall. My employer laid me off. I had to break up with a boyfriend who didn't want children. I found out the orphanage director didn't like Americans and wouldn't even talk to the adoption agency. Alesia also wasn't available to be adopted. The agency told me over and over to choose a different child. I didn't have the money needed to complete the adoption. I started another romance that failed. At times I thought I was going crazy.
Many people told me that I was crazy to adopt. The child I had thought was about 8, because she was so emaciated, turned out to be 11. I persevered. When I finally got Alesia home, she was 13 years old.
Through it all, I read everything I could about adoption, learned to speak Russian, cried a lot, prayed a lot, and wrote in my journal. I later spent many late nights turning that journal into a book.
Adopting Alesia: My Crusade for My Russian Daughter is a book about a dream, a miracle, and two people who were meant to be a family, despite everything. Adopting Alesia is not merely an adoption story. It’s a story for anyone who has ever had to learn to be brave, fought to follow a dream, or found faith in the darkest of times. It’s a story of a little girl who didn’t even know the word “adoption.” It’s a story about love.
When my daughter came home, I was immediately confronted by the practical challenges of trying to raise a child who spent six years in an orphanage. She didn’t know how to use a napkin. She didn’t know it was not OK to walk on the furniture. She had rarely ever eaten meat. She was accustomed to bathing only once a week.
Emotionally, she was about nine years old. That is an aftereffect of institutionalization. The second morning in America I found her playing dolls with some Madame Alexander dolls I had collected as a little girl. We quickly went to Walmart and bought Alesia some Barbies and clothes to play with instead. She was thirteen years old and had never had her own dolls. In the orphanage, all toys were communal, and there were very few.
Communicating was much worse than I had imagined it would be. I had learned a little bit of basic Russian, what I call “mommy words and phrases.” I could say things like Are you OK? Let’s go. Don’t touch that. Eat this, it’s good. Are you hungry? Take your vitamin, etc. For anything complex, I called my friend Kate, who was a Russian translator, or relied on the computer to translate things. Alesia didn’t learn English very quickly. School was a huge challenge. It wasn’t until she had been home about eighteen months that we finally realized she had a learning disability. Once she got therapy for that, her reading and speaking abilities took off.
In 2005, I realized that I wanted Alesia to have a sibling. She missed having all the kids around her. Being an only child was lonely. So I set about trying to find another child to adopt. I wanted to adopt a boy who had some sort of manageable disability. I was looking through photolistings for a while before I came across a scowling little 9 year old boy on a website who was missing his right hand. I had been praying for guidance, and I knew I had the right child once I saw his little freckled face and burr haircut. He looked just like my brother, Bruce. He had also been born in July 1996, the same month my father had died. I took those as omens and started adoption number two.
Michael’s adoption went much more smoothly, but there were still a few challenges, and it wasn’t until March 2007 that I was able to travel to Kazakhstan to adopt him. I had to stay for three weeks, then come home for a month, then go back for a week. While I was gone, Alesia felt abandoned and we had some behavior challenges, but we overcame them. Once Michael came home, she became a doting older sister.
While I was in the process of adopting Michael I decided to try and write a book, to help him to understand what it would be like to live in a family. He had lived in his birth family for eight years, but his birthmom was an alcoholic, and they were often homeless. Life was chaotic and he was often abused or neglected. I wanted the book, Jack’s New Family, to let him know I understood his challenges and how things would be in his new family. It’s a children’s book, told from the perspective of an 8 year old Russian boy adopted by a single mom, and it’s in Russian and English. He was fascinated the first time he heard it read, while still in Kazakhstan.
Michael learned English rapidly and has been a much easier child, but there have been challenges. At first, he didn’t want to eat anything, and it was terribly worrisome because he was so small—about the size of a first grader at age 10. I finally got him to admit that a teacher in Kazakhstan had told him all Americans are fat and if he ate our food he would be fat, too. I pointed out that after almost 3 years, his sister wasn’t fat. He started eating, and has been growing like a weed ever since. He is a high-energy child and loves sports, and his missing hand barely slows him down. He plays tennis and baseball, and soccer. He loves to swim, water-ski [at camp] and go camping with his uncle. He is a good student in school. He is very loving, and very funny. He has loyal friends.
I have become a passionate advocate for the adoption of children who are not babies, whether from abroad or domestically. I know of many happy outcomes with older child adoptions. I started writing The Crab Chronicles to give people an idea of the day-to-day normality of our lives. We have pretty much the same ups and downs of most families I know.
HOW HAS THE ADOPTION EXPERIENCE AFFECTED YOUR POETRY?
I stopped writing poetry for years after finishing graduate school. I was burned out. I turned to screenplays, stories, and finally my books. Once Alesia came home, I had so many intense feelings, I found myself turning once again to poetry. My first effort was a poem called “To The Child of My Heart,” and while it wasn’t really up to my usual standards, it was heartfelt, and I had a copy framed and put into Alesia’s room. I continued to write poetry, but only when the mood struck.
What I find is that sometimes there are emotions I just can’t express any other way except in a poem. That’s how my poem “Weathering” came about [see below]. I have made peace with the fact that I write to satisfy myself, and I am OK if other people don’t think what I do is “poetic.” I feel a compulsion to try and be clear and easily understandable, and what I encountered in graduate school was the notion that if poetry isn’t obscure, then it isn’t good. Also, I always felt impatient with the idea that we must all worship at the altar of the perfect image. I was never seen as a serious academic, and in fact I wasn’t, which was why I laughed when people sometimes asked me if I was going to get a Ph.D.
When my daughter started therapy with a woman skilled at helping Russian adopted children, many sad and traumatic things came to light. I would drive home from the therapist’s office with my brain whirling with what I’d heard, trying to make sense of it. Separating out normal teen angst and behavior from PTSD behavior was a daunting task. Alesia responded well to therapy, but then in the summer of 2010 went through a dangerous period of rebellion that resulted in her moving out for several weeks. When she came home she had learned valuable lessons, but we still face some challenges. What continually amazes me about both my kids, though, is their resilience. Many children who have lived through the terrible trauma and abuse my kids have seen wind up with severe mental health issues that require medication and/or hospitalization. My children are capable of love, they learn life lessons without undue difficulty, and they are by and large very good kids. I am very blessed.
PLEASE SHARE A SAMPLE POEM(S) ADDRESSING (IN PART) ADOPTION:
My old Mazda slices through the wet cold morning world.
Windshield wipers thwock thwock.
I hate driving in rain. Anxiety underlines everything.
The only beauty—tall pines fringing the ashy sky, a fit canopy
to my meditation cave.
Far west, my sister/friend prepares to journey east.
I know her journey.
Years ago, I flew across the world to my children
warehoused in orphan prisons, their faces engraved inside my eyelids.
My only thought was Hold On, Mama’s coming.
Five years past, my daughter awoke to her first day as an American.
I cannot forget her—huge eyes, thick straw hair, white stick limbs,
mute behind her Russian language.
We lived in terror together, Mother and Daughter, bonded only
by paper and mutual longing.
Now we fit together like a pair of old shoes, comfortable from the long wearing, separate, yet working together.
My son says he misses snow.
We live in a place of rain, a place of tiny winters and lush, expansive summers.
As we are studying together for a science test, I explain ice wedging to him by recalling the potholes everywhere in Kazakhstan.
I explain about rivers as he remembers the recent torrent in our backyard that swept away our stone angel.
I explain tributaries by showing how fingers connect to hand.
We talk of weathering, of erosion, of alluvial plains, of steep canyons rising from ancient rivers.
I am not a baby! He says at breakfast. I’m thirteen.
You will always be my baby, even when you have gray hair and a pot belly. My baby.
I labored in planes and fell in snow for you.
Time and water change everything.
ABOUT THE POET:
Dee Thompson was born in Augusta, Georgia and raised primarily in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has been writing for more than twenty-five years and her first published poem appeared in a national magazine at the age of thirteen. Dee holds a degree in Drama from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in Creative Writing from the University of Tennessee. She is a published author of two books: a personal memoir Adopting Alesia, and a children’s book, Jack’s New Family. One of her essays appeared in the award winning book Call Me Okaasan, [Edited by Suzanne Kamata.] She also has an essay in Snowflakes: A Flurry of Adoption Stories [Editor Teresa Kelleher], and her poetry appears regularly on the Vox Poetica website. Additionally, Dee has been a daily blogger for more than six years and her blog [The Crab Chronicles] has a wide readership. She is also a monthly columnist for the website Adoption Under One Roof. Dee lives with her two children and her mother in Atlanta, and enjoys gardening, cooking, knitting, reading, and movies.