14 January (New York):
Catherine sits, watching the sun set over Kennedy Airport. Twenty minutes to takeoff.
“I told them I’d call home one more time,” she says. Tim, her husband, dials and hands over his blackberry. After a few rings, a voice says the answering machine is full. She says a prayer into the receiver, and tucks the phone back into her bag.
By the time they board and sit down, she’s stowed everything but a marble notebook, marked Journal in black ink. This was an afterthought, something that the kids might read through in a few years, for all the minor details that would slip away from her in time. Over the next 17 days, it’ll be more a comfort to her than anything else.
She flips the cover and starts to write. “I can’t believe where I am: in the air on my way to Paris, then off to Kiev to meet my daughter.”
16 January (Kiev):
Winter in Ukraine. The sky is all dust and clouds, slung over the gold-topped cathedrals like a thick, tattered blanket. For two days, they’ve been shuffled around the city, from counselors and lawyers to workers from the agency, all bent on shipping kids across the ocean.
There’s an air of uncertainty to it all, like the ground could go from under their feet at any moment. One lawyer runs through the worst case scenarios: parents who filed all the paperwork to find a child missing, dead, unfit to leave the country. Horror stories, they called them around the office. That night in Independence Square a street vendor offers Catherine a fur coat, then a thick bushel of scarves. They’re a deep blue, almost black, with fine lines of white stitching in the shape of stars and wild trees, tied off at the tops by hand.
When the riots start, it’s the scarves the rebels burn first. They light up in seconds and float for hours, softly through the dirty air, like stray bits of tissue paper.
18 January (Donetsk):
Catherine finds her daughter in a corner, rocking back and forth. You could almost hear the click, she writes that night, of everything falling into place.
Olga Alexandrovna. That’s her name, for now. Tim gives her a stuffed animal, and she picks cheerios from a Ziploc bag he brought her from home. She’s careful to keep one in her left hand, and eats the rest with her right. When the bag is empty, she holds the last one in both hands and nibbles at it like a chipmunk. “She looks just like you,” one of the older workers says from over their shoulders.
It’s true. Catherine runs a hand over the hard curve of her daughter’s lips and finds her own face in the girl’s, hidden somewhere behind two big red blotches on either cheek. These are the marks that’ll get her out.
“There needs to be a … condition or something,” they’d told her. “Something they treat better in America.”
The staff had shown them other children too, always the oldest first. The ones who had been there for years, passed over every day by couples like Tim and Catherine. Some are too old, others too sick. One boy looks so much like Catherine’s son back home that her eyes sting at the sight of him. Years later, when coverage of the rebellion comes up on the news, she’ll look for him in the rioting crowds. She’ll see a red baseball hat like the one he’s wearing and wonder if he made it out before the bullets started flying, hoping against all reason that he did. The next morning, she writes her favorite line: “We found her, and she’s perfect.”
22 January (Donetsk):
The judge comes late to court and sits at the bench, flanked on the left by lawyers and three women from the orphanage. Often during her daily visits, Catherine can hear them singing the children to sleep.
He questions them both, Tim for two minutes and Catherine for 47. He asks about her maiden name and her relatives, her job, how she’d handle so many children, why she wanted another one, what the other kids were like.
After a stutter on the last question a lawyer starts to speak, lifting his pen to the room. The women from the orphanage shout him down at once before he gets a word out. They’d been ready to pounce. “Baby looks like the mama,” they tell him. “You have to give her to her now.”
29 January (Poland):
“She’s ours! I can’t believe it.”
They board a 707 bound for JFK. Their daughter, named Elaine now, is quiet from Poland to the coast, but shrieks over the whole length of the Atlantic.
Just before they land, she gets to sleep, rolling her body back and forth across the seat in slow, self-soothing arcs. It’s an odd habit of babies who don’t get rocked to sleep.
She’ll keep it for years.
2015 (New York):
Catherine keeps in contact with the agency for a while. Sends a monthly write-up with six or seven polaroids, contributes a piece to their newsletter. Despite a ban on Russian adoption in 2012, she hears the program is strong as ever.
Then the calls stop coming.
Elaine grows into Laney, and thoughts of where she came from slip away, like they were never there at all.
Ukraine’s economy continues the nosedive it started in ’91, and international adoption rates fall with it. Kids who age out of care at 16 turn to revolutionary groups rather than street gangs. Bigger guns, better media coverage.
One of them gets shot down defending the airport at Donetsk, and a CNN photographer gets a picture. When they broadcast it on the evening news, Laney’s doing a paper in front of the television. She looks up for a moment and sees an interview from the ground. It’s a correspondent on a smoldering sidewalk, about 50 miles from Shakhtersk, where she was born.
“… and the Obama administration remains hesitant to pass a foreign aid package for Ukraine,” he says into the microphone.
She looks back down and changes the channel.
Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic