David and Nastia one year ago when he and Lisa arrived in Ukraine to bring her into the family and to the US.
By David Bundy
“Life is what happens while we are making other plans,” John Lennon sang in his 1980 song Beautiful Boy.
It is a statement I have come to understand as being profoundly true.
This week is the one-year anniversary of our departure for Ukraine to be reunited with our kids after our initial time together and to complete their adoptions. I remember thinking the night before we left as I sat on the couch watching TV, “My life as I know it is over. It will never be the same again. “Tomorrow,” I thought, “my life will be changed forever.” My life with my wife Lisa will be different. We will be giving the rest of our lives over to four children. There will never be another day that does not begin or end without consideration of them at some point in between.”
In some ways, it was an anxious realization. In some ways, the fear of change was overwhelmed by thoughts of love, happiness, and good deeds. I realized we were unselfishly making a difference in the lives of the children. I realized their thoughts, as they were spending their final days as orphans, were probably going along the same lines. Even though they lived in institutions, it was the life they had known. These were the places they had most of their memories and understanding. These were the places their friends lived. Living in orphanages may not have been the best life for the kids, but it was a certainty, a security from the unknown.
We worried that when really faced with leaving this life forever that some of them may not choose the unknowns of life in a family in America. At the point we left for Ukraine, we had not made Nastia aware of our plans to adopt the three siblings. We worried that she may decide that she didn’t want any of that after having spent her life surrounded by other kids in her orphanage. We worried. They worried. We worried about them worrying. The last night of our mostly carefree life was filled with thoughts of the times Lisa and I had spent alone, trips we had made, restaurants we enjoyed, television shows we had followed together for years, and the shopping we had done together for everything from clothes to MINI Coopers, even the furniture we had bought for our kids’ rooms. We were comfortable. We were in good shape financially, and we were comfortable with our work. We had good health. We had time and money to donate to those who needed it. Our little boat was sailing along nicely. The only thing missing was children. At one point, we could have chosen to keep on sailing together into the sunset, but after we met them and quickly fell in love with them, and with their their potential for self-development with our guidance, we had to make room for them in our boat. The last choice we had in the matter was in deciding to visit Bridges of Faith the first time.
Immediately, we had to start chucking overboard things we didn’t need to accommodate them: Things like time, sleeping late, money, peace and quiet. It was all good. We were genuinely saviors to these children, but this didn’t enter our minds. Although many people commended us, and still do, we were really not doing the adoptions for self-recognition. We were doing it because we had no choice. Both Lisa and I were raised as loving, caring, responsible people and, after meeting these kids, we could not say to ourselves that we could just ignore them and let them face whatever happens to them alone. We knew we could take care of them, and we knew we should take care of them. God had put us in this. He had prepared us to be able to do this, and He gave us the ability to recognize these facts.The ability to recognize our opportunity was God’s push.
A year on, now, our boat is still moving along. The wind is still in our sails, perhaps stronger than before, but we have gone in a different direction. The water is now filled with sharks, and there are strong currents that sometimes overpower the flow of the wind. If I’m honest, their are even some holes in the boat, too. So far, the necessary bailing of water has been sufficient.
Here is our situation.
Any extra money we had is virtually gone. The extra month we spent in Ukraine to get Nastia’s adoption finalized cost not only the extra money of food and rent, but also lost time away from work for Lisa, the one who provides most of the bread. Although, we had sufficient finances to cover the adoptions without asking for donations, the same donations we directed to other families doing adoptions, we went well beyond that because of the arrogance and uncaring attitude of a single judge and his whim. We have only managed to survive due to the help of family and some friends, a situation we have not been in for a number of years. It’s okay, I’m not asking for any money, so keep reading. God has provided.
Additionally, I have parted with some of my prized camera equipment to help. Again, this is okay because the time I once had to use it has been filled with things like picking up kids from school and cooking. This is also okay with me. I pared down the gear, but I am still able to make the images I really want to make. Likewise, I have pared down my shooting to the same level, just what I want to do. My role in the family is more important now than juggling the inconsistencies of freelance work.
After looking into schools in Montgomery, there were none that could provide the educational needs of our kids. Those that could, wouldn’t. So we picked up all of our toys and went to another sandbox. Lisa found another job, and we moved to a suburb of Birmingham where the school system, Vestavia Hills, is one of the best in the country. The schools have really gone out of the way to accommodate the kids. They are being provided extra help, peer support (even a Russian speaking student), amended testing and homework, counseling, ESL classes, special courses just to help them with reading, and special study kits. The school seems to offer them, and therefore us, what they need. School is still very difficult for them. It’s far different from the schools that they were used to in Ukraine. For example, your teachers are not allowed to beat you and you are not allowed to beat them. Also, cheating and the use of bad language is heavily frowned upon, based on our experience. The homework has been relentless and requires several hours of additional work at home which forces much gnashing of teeth, frequent arguing, and sometimes tears. Here, I’d like to say everyone is passing all of their subjects, but I cannot … yet. I am confident we will get there. They do seem to be making friends. Text messages from boys at night have begun for the older girls.
Yes, we moved, and all the nice renovations we did just a few months ago in the rooms for the kids, new paint, and new flooring, we left that behind. We are currently renting a home which we hope to buy when we close on our Montgomery home, hopefully in a week or so. We’ve already done thousands of dollars of repair and renovations for the new buyer (who already tried to break our contract once).
We involved Karina and Nastia in a local soccer club after they missed the deadline for trying out for their school team. The club team was co-ed and comprised over kids under 17 and over 14. Their competitors in the other clubs never got these rules, however. Nastia and Karina’s team was made up of primarily girls, with a few undersized boys, who were mostly on the lower end of the age requirements. The competing teams were mostly comprised of 17-18 year old boys who were usually killing time while away from their school teams or were awaiting their soccer scholarships to arrive from colleges. One team the girls faced was made up of entirely Spanish-speaking players. They were pretty brutish and not speaking well of our team, when they thought no one could understand them. At another game, our team was three players short of the number required for 7 on 7, so the other team, all boys again, loaned our team three of their players. Not surprisingly, our team lost. In fact, our team lost every single game except for the last one where our coach, fielded some of her own ringers. “We” won that one 7-6. Karina, who proclaimed herself “team dancer,” and Nastia felt like the baddest asses soccer had ever seen, and acted like they had won the World Cup.
We enrolled Max in an after school art program for one semester. The boy really has some talent in drawing and painting. He said he wants to sell his artwork to make money for our family. “Put it on Facebook he says, so the people will know and buy it,” he said. “I will be famous.” He can be a really, really sweet kid. Then he says something like “You are not my Papa” when he’s mad, perhaps because I won’t buy him something. Statements such as that used to bother me a lot, but I’ve heard it so often now it gets only a heartfelt “Whatever.”
Alla is another piece of work, similar to Max in that she will also use the “You’re not my real parents” approach to ending a problem. The two of them together, when they are pissed usually turns into a dramatic expression. They always defend each other, so when one is in trouble, usually they both are. We are also used to other comments such as “I want to go to another family,” or the classic, “I don’t want this what you bought me. You can take my iPod, my clothes, my bed. I will go live by myself.” Our proof of love to them (adoption, guidance, food, clothing, shelter, etc.) does not always equate with their ideas of proof of love (candy, crying for them, more candy, buying everything they want, cooking something exclusively for one of them, and having more photos of one of them than the other kids, etc.). It’s a constant test every day, all day, every night, every meal, or trip to the store. It’s hard because you want to give into their massive feelings of entitlement, but you have to stay true to your course and your course for them … in our meandering boat.
Nastia and Karina are the role models for the younger kids, when there is no candy to compete over, or an unequal amount of photos around the house.
Nastia changed so much from the time we met her at Bridges of Faith until we arrived in Ukraine for the adoptions. In those few months, she went from child to a young woman. It’s a little sad that I feel like we missed her blossoming, but she is a help to us. She takes care of the others and cooks when Lisa and I have to both be away. She is very, very low key. She never asks for anything, but when she does, she usually gets it. She still struggles with English, but is always getting better. I understand her, perhaps better than Lisa, because I am around her more. That said, she spends a huge amount of time alone in her room. I would too if I could. I chalk that up to being a teenager, but it doesn’t help her English. She is also not very patient with anything. She hasn’t been getting any more driving lessons from me yet because she keeps trying to blow the horn at other motorists while I am driving, and I know she would blow through every red light that she came upon. Her impatience makes learning really hard for her, but she is a hard worker and will do more than is expected when I ask her to do something. She never intends to call me and Lisa “papa” or “mama” but sometimes it slips. I believe in her mind, she has fond memories of her mother, whether they are accurate or not. I don’t know. As for calling me “papa,” I don’t know why she doesn’t. She knew her birth father in Ukraine and had contact with him until we came back to America. She has said that she has only one mama and papa, that we are only people who adopted her. She keeps a picture of her mother, who is deceased, in her room. All of this is okay, as long as she is happy. I have to remember that I am dealing with a young person’s reasoning. One day, maybe she’ll call us mama and papa. It would be huge compliment for us. Maybe in her mind, we have not earned the titles yet.
Karina is one of a kind. She has a very bold personality unless she doesn’t like you then she can border on being mean. She has the sweetest phone voice I’ve ever heard. And, she keeps me laughing as she learns new American phrases and English words. “Shin pads” and a “sheet of paper” are pronounced like you would expect them to if I am telling you about it. Her latest phrase is “goodness gracious!” which is pronounced something like “hgoodness hgracious!” I call her my “dalmatino” referencing the time she referred to the movie 101 Dalmatians as “101 Dalmatinos.” She constantly wants to see, hear, and know that she is loved, and the worst thing you can say to her is “You’re not acting like you love me?” She mostly understands the sacrifices Lisa and I have made. She respects us well, and thanks us often. I am surprised with how well she can read and write English and, although English is not one of her best subjects in school, she requires less accommodation at school than the others. She wants to learn to play the guitar since finding out her future would not be in becoming the female David Beckham. She thinks she would make a good psychologist, pronounced “peesicologist.” She says she is an angel at night when she goes to bed, but she says, correctly, that she is a devil when someone tries to wake her up.
Waking the kids up for school each day has it’s own routine. Nastia used to be the first one up every day, getting up before 6 am. Lately, that’s no longer the case. My first stop each morning, is the coffee pot. I try and have a cup before I have to get the kids up. At about 6:45 am, I go up the stairs to Max’s room first. Usually I start by calling out his name, then pulling him with blankets and all out of the bed onto the floor. There’s moaning and anger. If this doesn’t work, I say something he doesn’t expect, sometimes a lie, to illicit an argument or immediate reaction such as, “Is that blood on your leg?” If that still doesn’t get him up. I simply turn on the light switch. That works every time, although he gets quite angry. So, for him, I try love, physical contact, surprise/shock, and finally meanness, in that order, but it has a 100 percent success rate. I walk by Alla’s door next, and she is always up and standing just inside the door where I cuddle her and kiss her a little. Next, if Nastia’s light isn’t on, I open the door and shout “Nastia!” Her head always immediately pops up, “Ok!” Then, for the finale, I open Karina’s door. She is usually sleeping on top of her phone with it’s alarm blaring, but she is peacefully ignoring it.
“KAAH-rrrrreeena!” I say.
“It’s time to get up!”
“I know,” she says angrily, still not budging.
“Kareeeena, sweet angel, Kareeeeena, you have to go to school.”
“Uggghh, Papa, no!”
Finally, I put my arms around her and kiss her ear or neck which aggravates her. Then, I pull on her foot or bounce the mattress up and down. When I feel that I’ve done enough, and there is a fine line here, I turn and leave, flipping the light on as I go and giving the door a little slam.
We don’t eat out much anymore. We order the occasional delivery pizza when lack of time or tiredness wins, but generally I cook. Lisa will cook sometimes when she’s off. Our regular meals include either steak, chicken, lasagna, fish, beef and broccoli, potatoes, soup, corn, peas and carrots. Lisa can add spaghetti, gumbo, or jambalya. Sometimes I make tortellini which closely resembles Ukrainian varenyky. Whatever we are having, at least one will not like the decision. At least one will adamantly declare they don’t like something now that they loved a week ago. At least one will eat something else as I am preparing it, like a sandwich or ramen noodles. One or two, will take enough food for two and then not eat it all. One or two will say how “yummy” it was and “thank you.” At least one will find a video on Youtube of some obscure food I have never heard of to request for the next meal. They will all have to be told to speak English at the table. One will then leave the table and go sit at the bar, and another will quit speaking all together. Two will take their dishes back to the kitchen, and one is likely to poor salt all over the table while another one routinely spills her drink. One needs help cutting her food while at least two others are just eating with their hands. One will put mayonnaise on whatever I make. All are fine until I say, “Do this…” or “Don’t do this …” How they react to that determines a path of happiness or hatefulness for the rest of the evening. I had to have to say it because it’s my job.
During our move from Montgomery, much of our furniture was damaged or broken by the most affordable movers I could find. Much of what wasn’t damaged by the movers, though, was damaged previously by the kids. The furniture for the kids’ rooms that was brand new a year ago has been subjected to paint, makeup, stickers, condensation from drinks, fingernail polish and remover. Their bedspreads are spotted with ink. While I was busy unpacking and arranging the rest of the house, the kids were basically left to put their own rooms in order. This resulted in beds pushed against the walls, photos tacked or taped to the walls, indiscriminate use of hammers and nails, and decorating tastes very much off key from my own. Each has their own room now, which they didn’t have in Montgomery. This helps identify the source of problems, such as bringing food upstairs, hiding candy, and who needs to cleanup, but that hasn’t solved the problems yet.
My standards for what constitutes a clean house have been reluctantly lowered for my own health. I’m not kidding. I’m not OCD for sure, but I like things to be within an hour of being straight if the need arises. Say, for example, there’s a house fire. We have called the fire department and there are pets and photos to be saved, but we would/should still have time to pick up all the underwear, sweep under the table, change out the empty toilet paper roll, wash the dishes in the sink, and put the laundry away before the first truck arrives. Nowadays, in order for these things to be in order before the fire department would arrive, we would have to start picking up before the fire ever started, which goes to my point. It’s not that I have come to care less, but I have learned to act like I care less. Otherwise, I would just be angry all of the time.
Being angry all of the time, being loud and forceful, these were not the ways I would’ve described myself a year ago. I routinely question my ability to be a parent. I wonder if I was cut out for it sometimes. I thought I was, but, remember, we went from zero children to four with a wide variety of ages and experiences and all in the blink of an eye. These kids, being orphans, not only had to learn to adjust to life in a new country and learn to be prepared for the world, they have also been learning how to be son and daughters. They are learning the difference between a director and a parent. They are learning to trust, to be responsible, and that actions can have consequences. They are learning what it feels like to be in a home with a family and not just a bunch of other kids. They are learning to know what it feels like to sit next to a puppy whenever you want, and to know what it feels like to make someone who loves them proud. As much as I want us to be a “normal family,” I am realizing more and more that this IS our normal family. It is different from your “normal family.”
The past year has been an amazing journey for all of us. Eighteen months ago, we didn’t even know each other. I have learned so much about myself, the world, human nature, good and evil during this adventure. I thought I understood life pretty well before this all began. But, all of those wise sayings and quotes about love, life, and hardship that people may “like” on their Facebook news feeds are only pretty ideas to the soul that did not write them from their own experience. From a soul that has lived beyond comfort and has thought about their predicament, these ideas are not sign posts about finding a new awareness, they are only memories of where the experienced soul has been.
I have learned a lot about myself. I’ve discovered where my breaking points are and also my weaknesses and strengths. I have learned to breathe, what to ask for in prayer, and to find time for myself to continue to grow personally. I’ve had challenges to my beliefs, and I have seen Lisa in a different light. now as a caring and compassionate mother. It is truly a strength she has.
When I tell myself sometimes that we are not winning as parents, I try to remember to think back about how far we have come. It has been only a year, but first and foremost, we made a family. All of us have brought value to this family by something in ourselves. Their English is improving, and understanding each other through communication is vital in expressing our feelings. We are taking advantage of being in one of the best school districts in the country, and the grades are improving. The fear the kids had of a new life is gone. All of them sleep with the lights off, now. They know their dreams can be a reality, even though it can be hard work to reach them. Their personalities are becoming brighter, richer, and independent. We are familiar with each other.
To hear God speak, one must listen rather than preach. As I was thinking about our difficulties recently and whether it has been worth it so far for us and the kids, both Nastia and Karina spoke the answers in simple everyday phrases that might have been overlooked if I had not been listening for something else.
As I wait in line at the high school to pick up Nastia and Karina, Karina always calls on the phone to ask if I am there to pick them up and where I am. Am I still in the street or in the school parking lot? The girls can’t see my car until I reach the front of the school.
“Hello, Papa. Where are you?” she says.
“I’m in the parking lot. Did you have a good day?”
“Yes. Come quickly.”
“I love you. Bye,” she says and hangs up the phone. These last words are the ones that got me. After we had hung up, the sound of her voice lingered in my head. “I love you. Bye.” It had a tone of comfort and familiarity, like she had said it to me a million times before. It reminded me that we had covered more ground as a family than I had realized at times.
As I pulled up to the school, Karina and Nastia piled into the car, Nastia in the front and Karina in the back.
“I miss you, today,” Nastia said as she got into the seat. That was the second phrase. Coming from her, it is always an honest sentiment. She’s not giddy with her emotions. Secondly, she said it in English, something she could not have done a year ago. Yes, she could have said the words but to really understand them and communicate a genuine feeling the way she did … it was different now. She would not say it just as a courtesy. She meant it.
Surprised at how something so common sounding and can be so dimensional? It was not about what was said, but what I was able to hear. Sometimes that’s how God works for me. I just be quiet, look, and listen. It’s a lot harder than it sounds.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably arrived here for a reason.
The past year has easily been the most difficult in my life. It has also been the most rewarding year I have ever had. It has not always been happy, nor has it been completely miserable. It has not been an easy year. In fact, at times, it’s been downright desperate and frustrating. No one ever said it would be easy to adopt and raise four kids, but no one ever said it would be this hard. It could have been even harder, though. Lisa and I feel we are honored and fortunate to have THESE kids.
Would I choose to adopt again if I could go back to the beginning?
Well, I never understood it as a choice to begin with. I believe theses kids were meant to be with us from the day they were born. There were many things in our lives that could have kept us from ever meeting but nothing did. There were many things, going back decades, where pathways were decided or decided for me that brought me to be a father to these kids. As hard as it can be at times, I believe it is mostly that I have more to learn about being a parent. My parents and grandparents were the best teachers ever to grace the earth. Without the lessons I got from them about love and life, I could never cope with the gravity of the tasks at hand. Lisa would probably say the same about her family. So we have been groomed for this for a long, long time.
We may have talked with friends and family about what we had “decided” to do 18 months ago, but I don’t recall ever really making the choice. When we sat down with the kids visiting at Bridges of Faith that first night, we were not thinking “which one are we gonna pick?” It was more like “which one is gonna pick us?” Honestly, in the beginning when we talked of adoption, we were talking about babies or younger kids. We certainly had no thoughts of adopting a teenager. Nastia came to us on our first visit. In a roomful of kids, she’s the one who sat next to us and showed us her drawings. When we left that night, Lisa and I both knew she was our child. We felt it. When we returned to Bridges of Faith to volunteer in support of another group of orphans a few months later, no thought had entered our minds of adopting another child after Nastia. However, within a short time, we had found three more of our kids. There were no excuses we could have tried to make, if we had wanted to, that would have seemed reasonable reasons not to adopt them all. There was really never any “should we or shouldn’t we?” I had about as much of choice in deciding to adopt as I did in choosing my eye color.
Am I happy after all that has been said and done?
I have no choice about my right arm. I am happy that I have it, and I would not wish to cut it off. It, like my children, is part of me and always has been, even before I was even aware of it or its importance in my life.
What advice would I give others about adopting children?
Every adoption and every child is different. The kids all have different ideas and expectations, but every child deserves an opportunity to live their lives on their terms. Be prepared for the worst and hope and pray for the best in every aspect of the adoption and the children. Adoption is serious business, and it is life-changing for everyone. Having parenting experience is probably a plus, but it also means that many of your pre-conceived plans or expectations will be unrealistic. Be adaptable and practice patience.
For now, I see this 1-year mark as an appropriate time to do less evaluation of the details of our journey, publicly anyway. I may revisit the blog from time to time as we continue to sail our boat along. We have not reached the end of the journey we began and never will. Writing has been a great opportunity for self-healing and evaluation for me, as well as an opportunity to connect so many people to our family. I am finding it more and more difficult to write these days because we are normalizing. It is harder to find exceptional details in our lives because “life is what happens” every day.
As we approach our first Thanksgiving as a family, I am thankful for every hardship we’ve conquered to reach this anniversary. I am thankful that I have an opportunity to teach a child that turkey is not another form of ham. It is a bird, but it is not chicken. I am thankful to understand that if it were a form of ham, it would be better because it is not a bird, that reminds some of a chicken, which is not “yummy” this week.
If you’ve followed us in our adoption adventure, thank you. If you’ve prayed for us, please continue. If you want to buy Nastia and Karina a car, we would love to hear from you.
This is the 30th post on our adoption adventure … and probably the last. :)
A video shot when we were reuntited with Nastia in Ukraine last November to bring her into our family.
What we have become? Halloween 2014.