In June 2002, I did the most significant thing of my entire life up to that point: I brought home the cutest little 26-month old Russian girl who became my daughter. Born Maria Sergeevna Buntilova, she got a new name (Morgan), a family, and more love than she knew what to do with. The entire experience was so amazing that I knew I had to do it again.
This is a photo of Morgan about 18 months after I brought her home. She was tiny. At 26-months old, she weighed just 19 pounds. In this photo, she's about three and a half years old and weighed less than 27 pounds. She was my best friend-- we've been through so much together.
The summer before I met Rob, I started the process to adopt another Russian daughter. Things had drastically changed in the Russian adoption world by then and it wasn't nearly as fast or simple. Never cheap, the cost had also risen dramatically. Adopting Morgan had included one trip to Russia for a week, about four months of work prior to leaving for Russia, and about $26,000. (By the time we got Siena home, it was three trips and over $60,000!) By the time I met Rob, I had only completed my home study and gotten INS approval to bring a child into the United States. Up to that point, I had spent about $5,000 towards the adoption and had set aside another $40,000 to finish the adoption. About a week prior to meeting Rob, I had the opportunity to adopt a little boy in Murmansk but I declined it-- I really wanted to hold out for a girl. When Rob and I decided to marry, we also decided that we would take a "wait & see" approach with the adoption. If we got a referral for a child, we'd review it together and decide if it made sense or not. And we both sort of forgot about it.
About a month prior to our wedding and after we had already moved into our home, I got a phone call from Brent of Adoption Options, my coordinator. They had a little girl for me to look at! We got photos and a medical record. Her name was Victoria Gedanayeva Pokisheva, she was turning two in September, and had been abandoned by her birth mother on a street corner in Yekaterinburg. She had been in the Russian orphanage system since about four months old. The tricky part with this adoption is that she was living in the toughest region in all of Russia to adopt from and it would take three trips. Rob and I decided that we would take our honeymoon in Russia and go meet this little girl. We would know right away if she was "ours" or not. I mentioned this to Brent.
"Wait a minute, Liz," said Brent. "If you're getting married, you can't adopt this child. Russia law requires that couples be married for two years before starting the adoption process."
Uh oh. So we decided that the wedding was moving forward but we wouldn't legally file our marriage certificate in order to keep the option of adopting this child open. No one knew about this decision but Rob, me, the woman who married us, and our adoption agency.
Our honeymoon in Russia was really fun, significant and amazing. This photo was taken at Red Square.
Yekaterinburg is on the border of Europe and Asia. Rob and I went to the border and put one foot on both continents. I love exploring new places and how many people can say they've done that?
And so it was that two weeks after our wedding, Rob and I flew to Moscow and spent a few days exploring that city. It was my third trip to Russia and my second to Moscow, and it was Rob's first. I have to say that I love Russia. Everything about it enthralls me. I must have been a Bolshevik in a prior life because even back in sixth grade, I would pick up books about Russian history and read them for fun. I think it was Winston Churchill who said that Russia is an enigma wrapped up in a mystery. So true. It's exotic and beautiful and different. A few days later, we boarded another two hour flight for Yekaterinburg. The sun basically never set when we were there and flying at 2:30AM and watching the sun set and rise just a few minutes later was trippy. We landed, were met by our driver/translator Lydia, and went to our hotel. Later that day, we were driven to the orphanage to meet "Vika."
Walking into the orphanage for the first time to meet the little girl that would become our daughter.
Our first meeting was "interesting." She froze up when she was brought into a big room filled with toys and had two strangers staring at her. Rob hung back while Vika sat on the carpet in front of me, started sucking her thumb, covering her eyes, and rocking herself back and forth while she cried. I gave her space and started playing with building blocks. After maybe 15 minutes of this, the crying stopped and she started watching me, then playing with the building blocks.
This is our first meeting with Vika. She had just stopped crying and interacting with me.
After she was a bit more comfortable, Rob and I took her outside to the playground area. On our way out, she allowed Rob and I to hold one hand each and swing her back and forth.
Rob took this photo of Vika and I walking out to the playground for the first time.
Rob was amazing with Siena. He didn't "force" her to like him. He played with her, stood back, gave her plenty of space, and just the right amount of attention. I will forever be grateful to him for supporting and encouraging this adoption and for being her dad. Seeing these photos and writing this blog post is incredibly difficult and emotional for me. It is tragic that we couldn't make our relationship work and that alcohol was far more important than anything else. It's a crying shame that alcohol was far more important than two families, two wives and four children. I hate the effects of alcohol. It is a dark, evil and horrible thing and the consequence of alcohol abuse are horrendous.
The playground equipment at the orphanage was so old and unsafe!
Once out at the playground, she started playing on a slide-- a wooden slide with nails sticking up. It was so dangerous. And soon, two little boys started walking towards us. Vika showed an amazingly spunky personality by jumping off the slide and walking right up to these two bigger boys, speaking rapidly in Russian and pushing them away. It worked-- the boys sauntered off. Rob and I couldn't stop laughing. Another time, she grabbed both of our hands and walked us over to another part of the playground. There was a little boy whose eyes followed us, and they narrowed at us as we got closer. When we were nearby, the boy ran over to Vika and started hitting her. Of course, Rob and I pulled him off. It was Vika's way of testing us-- to see how much we could protect her-- and showing this boy that she, Vika, had her own protection squad.
This is the photo of Siena pushing off the older boys who tried encroaching on her new territory (aka her soon-to-be mom and dad).
When we got back to our hotel, I looked at Rob and asked the big question: "So, what do you think? Because she's adorable but I could go either way. You make the decision because I can never have this come back to haunt me." And I meant it. I was going to do everything to make my marriage and new family work and however that played out, so be it.
"Let's do it," Rob said.
My heart stopped. "Are you sure? Do not do this for me."
"Yes, I'm sure. She needs a home and we are going to give it to her. You and I will be great parents," he said.
And I started crying right there at the lunch table. It hit me how lucky I was to have Rob. Everything would be OK between us. It had to be. I didn't deserve this guy who I didn't love. He was good, kind, honest and selfless. Come hell nor high water, I was going to make this marriage work and I was going to be happy. Rob looked at me with such love and adoration in his eyes and I felt so very, very small yet optimistic.
"I don't deserve you," I said. Of course, Rob had no idea what I really meant by that statement. How could he? "You are such a great person and please be patient with me, ok?"
"What do you mean?" he asked.
And I just cried. "I love you," I said. I didn't love him but as long as I said I did and I acted like I did, then that would have to suffice. At that moment, though, I adored him. I respected him and was so hopeful that, together, we would have a great relationship-- we would be each other's best friend, advocate, and companion. And that would be good enough. We would parent our children together, we would enjoy lots of grandchildren some day, and we would be happy and this was a good decision. I knew that, together, we could craft an amazing family, home and future together. We could be happy. We would be happy, dangit!
And so it was that we flew home a week later after spending several hours each day with Vika. One day after we got home, I was at work and sitting in my office with my employee, Aida. She was telling me about one of her favorite cities in Italy-- Siena. We got online and looked at pictures. "I love that name for a girl," Aida said.
Me too! I emailed Rob. "How about the name Siena?" I asked.
"Love it!" he replied. And so it was that Rob and I moved forward with adopting a beautiful and spunky little Russian. Her name would be changed to Siena Smith Nielsen temporarily. When we got back to the US with Siena, Rob and I would re-adopt with both of us on the certificate and her name would become Siena Syomara S#@)berg.
Over the next nine months, we embarked on an annoying, long, expensive and frustrating paper chase in order to complete the adoption. I will write about that experience in another blog post.