By David Bundy
The rain was intense, the heaviest I had seen in a long while.
The windshield wipers smacked back and forth creating a rhythm line on which the sound of the rain hitting the roof of my car could soar.
The long line of cars in which I sat snaked for many blocks away from Vestavia Hills High School. The bell to release the students, along with Nastia and Karina, would sound in a few minutes, but I would not be able to hear it. There has been no real pattern to how the traffic stacks up at the school before the afternoon bell rings. It is unpredictable. A few minutes earlier, and perhaps I could’ve been parked closer to the school or even near the head of the line in the school parking lot. A few minutes later, and I could’ve been five blocks further away … or driven straight to the front door with hardly no traffic.
All the kids started school more than a month ago now, and every day the school traffic remains a mystery. On days when Lisa works, I have to pick up Max and Alla first at the elementary school, where the traffic line is a little more predictable, but no less occupied. The distance between the two schools is a fifteen minute drive filled with many potential delays: traffic lights, stop signs, the interstate, neighborhoods, school crossings, two fire stations, and other school zones.
So far, I’ve never been the first in line, but also never the last. I’m usually in the middle but nearer to the front. Perhaps this is a measuring stick of our success as parents. We are not perfect, overly prepared or fanatically planned. Just the same, we are not derelict, lazy, or consumed by other things. It’s a comfortable position to be in for all of us after becoming an instant family seven months ago. We’ve all done a lot of work and made a lot of sacrifices to be in our place in line, and some days we are nearer to the front than we are on others.
On this day, I listened to U2’s new album as I waited, listening to the stories in the songs and following my train of thought wherever it took me. This peaceful meditation, and nearly a nap, was shattered by the abrupt ringing of my phone through the car’s audio system.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello, Papa. Where are you?” said Karina, exercising the new cellphone she got before starting school. The call comes every day a minute or two after the bell rings to verify that I have not forgotten about her and Nastia.
“I’m in the street,” I said, meaning that I’m not close enough to be in the “parking lot,” but not as far as “way down the street.” I was right where I usually am when the call comes.
“We are in front of the building of the school,” she said, the place where she is every day waiting for me with Nastia.
“Ok. I love you. See you soon.”
The calls like this from Karina, and sometimes Nastia, drive Max and Alla crazy when they are with me. “Why does she have to call every day?”
“To check and make sure I am here,” I say.
“Arghhh! Oh, my goodness,” Max would say with the same annoyance as the last time. “Papa, can I have a phone?”
“No, not until you’re 15. Why do you need a phone?”
“So I can call you if you are late to pick us up.”
Sometimes our discussions move like the slow turning plate in the microwave oven, slow, heated circles that end up right where we started, but with agitated molecules.
As the traffic begins to move slowly, the rain has eased up a bit and some kids are starting to walk out to their parents’ cars or to their own cars. Some walk home if they live nearby. The rain only makes them happy though. Kids seem to love being wet. Girls smile and their makeup runs and their hair probably becomes a non-concern for the first time all day. Boys walk slow and deliberate to show that the rain does not affect their machismo. There are no umbrellas. None.
As I finally reach the door of the school where Karina and Nastia are waiting under the eave of the building, Nastia is always the first one to bolt to the car. She doesn’t like to wait on anything ever, the very reason a drivers license is nowhere in her near future. Karina is weighed down by her backpack filled with every school book she has because she can’t get the feel of how to open the combination on her locker. They climb in and slam the door.
Max and Alla always fire off a few sentences in Ukrainian at this point, usually a complaint or an observation directed at Karina. Karina returns fire with a barrage of her own Ukrainian words. This goes on as we weave our way out of the school parking lot. Nastia is usually complaining about the slow moving traffic by now.
“Papa, Papa look how wet we are,” Karina says, demanding that I turn around while driving to see how well she did getting soaked.
“Can we have candy now?” said Alla. “I want the one candy I like,” which narrows the choices not at all.
“Do you want candy or ice cream today?” I ask the crowd. Karina can’t hear me because she has turned on the Ukrainian pop music on her iPad.
“I don’t know,” said Max, which basically translates as “whatever we decide will be wrong.”
“I want to go home,” said Nastia.
“I want candy,” said Alla. “You know the one kind of candy I like, but you never buy for me.”
I’m now a bit aggravated because I wanted to listen to my new album and Karina is trying to out-volume my music with her iPad. I turn the car stereo up to try and give her the hint. She ups hers again, and I do likewise. This continues until the car stereo is so loud that I don’t even want to hear it now. I never say anything, but when I pull into the convenience store for candy I purchase everyone in the car $5 earbuds, because you can’t buy for just one of them.
I’ve bought earbuds on a regular basis for the last seven months, but they all seem to vanish almost as quickly as they are purchased. The problem with $5 earbuds is that they don’t keep the music in very well. Listening to my new music was a battle I was going to lose this day.
I look into my rearview mirror to see lollipop sticks hanging out of the three mouths in the backseat, obviously paying no heed to the no-eating-in-the-car rule that is typically used only to waste my breath. This rule was installed after I found a box of M&Ms dumped out in one of the door pockets, fortunately for all mankind, before they were melted.
There was another recent day where Max and Alla were waiting with me in the line to pick up Nastia and Karina from the high school. I had started becoming aware that Max was not buckling his seatbelt in the backseat. After repeatedly telling him to fasten it, followed by argument, followed by flat out lying that he had done it, I pulled the car up next to the police officer directing traffic and rolled down the window.
“Excuse me, sir. Could you please tell my young son to fasten his seatbelt?” I said.
“You have to fasten your seatbelt,” the officer said. “It’s the law.”
Max began screaming in Ukrainian, crying openly, and fastened his seatbelt.Then, the criticism of my actions started from Alla. As Karina and Nastia got into the car, more crying from Max, more of Alla’s unneeded input, and now questioning of my motives from Karina. I looked at Nastia who was in the front passenger’s seat. She looked back at me and smiled. She understood my predicament. She had seen it before, again and again. I felt sorry for her, though. It seemed like every day there had to be intense drama about the simplest of things, and I know it wears on her, as it does me. As I think about it, now, I didn’t even mention this incident to Lisa, well, because it’s just a typical occurrence.
“They’re testing you,” I hear a lot. To which I often return an equally as well though out response, “You think?”
Now, I expected some testing, but not every day, every minute, and about everything. How do these situations begin? Well, I open my mouth and say words of meaning and purpose, such as “the sky is blue,” and usually that seems to open the floor for debate.
It is tiresome X4. People say “They’re just being kids now.” To a point that is true, but where our case is different than a normal family situation is that these children were not raised very well. They were taught little about respect, less about love. They were taught to get attention, they have to create a situation to get attention. They had very few possessions, so they don’t particularly value possessions or the work it took for someone to get them. They’ve had to earn very little. What they had was given to them. Perhaps, the biggest difference is that we didn’t start with them as our children at birth and raise them gradually into appropriate behavior for their ages. We’ve had just seven months to get this right. It will take much more time to undo more than the decade they’ve experienced previously of “adult guidance.”
“They’re just being kids,” is another phrase I constantly hear. While there is truth to that, it’s not that simple. They are kids with a cultural difference and a language barrier. They were kids who were accustomed to getting nothing they wanted, and now, since they have an American family, expect to get everything they want and not having to be bothered with anything they don’t want or want to do. We are frequently told how parents SHOULD behave by the siblings. When pushing for more specifics about this, Lisa and I were told that parents were expected to cook, clean, follow all of their kids’ wishes, and buy them things they wanted, seriously. I am criticized unmercifully when I spend a few hours one night a week taking a class in something I enjoy. Lisa is criticized for sleeping in the afternoons even though she had worked overnight the night before. “You don’t love your children,” the siblings say. After a trip to the bathroom, frequently I hear from one of them in all seriousness, “Did you miss me?”
Karina talks regularly about how she wants to go to be sick and go to the hospital. She wants to know if we will come to her and cry for her and tell her we love her. In her mind, the love she could see in such an event would be worth more than any ailment. These children have so many needs beyond food, shelter, and clothing that it is a constant struggle to understand them, predict them, and address them while not losing your own identity.
The language barrier becomes a problem, not so much in daily interaction, but usually when we need to be understood the most. During times when I need to express my feelings or explain the complexities of life, or use delicate phrases to handle a situation as I normally would with native English speakers, it becomes frustrating. This can change the way I may handle something, and I may not do it well. Fundamentally, it changes the person I am and am perceived to be. Ultimately, I don’t know at this point, if my kids know the real person that I am. I believe they will one day, but only after examining many life experiences to find an accurate average.
An argument is never going to work with the children because usually the logic is one-sided. If logic is the only tool you have, and they adamantly believe you are wrong in your logic, you have lost. They understand emotion and feeling much more than they understand logic, debate, or even outright evidence that what you’re saying is true. They understand love, and they understand emotional hurt. They understand disappointment and sadness. They also understand praise, genuine joy, and feeling their importance in your life.
I say all of this to illustrate to others considering adoption, specifically Ukrainian adoption, that the love and desire to help these kids that may be experienced in the beginning of the process is only the honeymoon. One must possess the love and desire to be a family, to sacrifice immeasurably and constantly. If being a parent, especially a parent of children who come with different needs, is a new lifestyle, as it was for us, it will absolutely be difficult for years to come. No one told us it would be easy, but no one told us it would be this hard, or maybe they did, and we were just glamoured with nearsightedness.
I often hear others say that God will give you no problem that you can’t handle through Him. It is a thought that comforts me when I finally get to the point of remembering it. Another idea that Lisa reminds me of often is that I am “the bigger,” more emotionally and spiritually experienced person. In other words, it is often going to be up to me to find the way out of bad situations.
I am getting another lesson in my life, but one that I have had many times before. To find the solution to the biggest problems, look inward, not outward. A solution can always be found in the quietness of your soul. It is the place from where God’s instructions can be found.
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may have discovered that it has been awhile since my last post. This was because I have fought off writing because of a reluctance to take the time to listen to this inner message. Writing about our lives puts me in a spiritual place, an inner place, where I can truthfully think about things and find the answers to problems. Most of the time when I sit down to write a blog, I have a few ideas about how I want to begin but after the first four or five paragraphs, I go where I am led. I go with what comes out. I find the true nature of what I want to say.
We’ve had so many firsts in the last month or so, it has been difficult to find the starting point for writing. As one idea would come along, something else important would happen, and so on. There are so many directions I thought this writing might go, but it did not. Things like the first day of school, an Oath of Allegiance to the U.S. ceremony, the Fourth of July, Nastia’s first trip to the beach, the grocery bill, life in a new city, homework, Max’s undeniable talent for art, Alla and all of her damn candy, Ukrainian Independence Day, boys (yes, boys) or Nastia and Karina’s experience playing club soccer (Where Karina says, “Am I falling down like Beckham?).
Every time I see these kids doing something well, I am the proud father. Every time I see them doing something difficult, but trying their best, they just become heroic to me. What amazing people they will grow to be one day because of the spirit they possess, and I definitely think that I will have had little to do with it.
This is the 29th report on our adoption adventure.