Our Chosen Adventure: Adoption
Gerald T. Keep, 8/23/2018
It wasn’t hard for me to come to terms with the idea of never leaving a copy of my genes behind as my legacy to the world.
I mean, I am not some prize bull or pedigree dog whose claim to fame is their genetic profile. I am a scientist, and I have dedicated my life to rolling back the frontiers of human knowledge and passing on a cultural legacy through teaching and writing. Who I am is what I have in my head, not this fleshy wagon that carries me — software, not hardware, if you think in computer terms. Besides, my genetic profile is nothing to speak of (so I won’t).
So, when my wife, Linda Pearl told me, after several months of trying to conceive a child, that it was going to take a lot of intrusive (and expensive, and humiliating) medical help to conceive the traditional way, but that she had always thought that she’d like to adopt – well, I got on board that idea pretty quick, after very little further soul searching.
Linda Pearl was really into the idea and researched all the different programs and how our particular profile of age, race, religion, and so forth would mesh with the programs offered, and what we wanted from them. And so she picked a program for us, and ironically enough, it was 9 months after that that we finished our paperwork, like yet unlike the traditional process. We had been evaluated for financial stability, mental and physical health, fingerprinted and researched by the local police and Interpol, and all these documents notarized, certified by the county that those were really notaries, then the same at the state level, and finally the whole mess was authenticated at the Peruvian embassy.
“Peru?” you say. “Why Peru?” Well, my wife was actually a college professor of Early Childhood Development / Special Education and was very focused on the initial time after birth, including the bonding process and social skills development of the children. She knew very well that the longer the child was outside a loving family environment, the more needy the child would be. There was a tough ethical choice between adopting the easiest or the most needy children. For me, she wanted my first experience as a father to be the most like a traditional birth possible. Therefore, she really wanted to adopt as young a baby as possible, which led us to Peru. The rules there were such that you actually took custody of the child upon arrival and then stayed in Peru, caring for the child yourself, until the adoption was finalized. This suited her desires perfectly.
I felt a trace of indignance at the notion that I might not treat an adopted child as my own – but then it was a legitimate concern, and she was the expert, so I zipped my lip and let her take the lead. I secretly thought she had some guilty feelings about dragging us down the adoption road, which was coloring her choices.
Naturally we worried, “What if it doesn’t work out? What if something is wrong? What if it isn’t a good fit?”
We made every preparation we could think of as we waited tensely for The Call to come. It was hard to balance my head between the ideas of visiting a “third-world-country” and visiting a cosmopolitan capital of six million people. Were we sophisticates or country cousins by the local standards? I swallowed my fears and leaned on Linda Pearl for courage; she seemed to be excited by the prospect of an adventure.
A friend of ours gifted our future son with an old coin containing about $60 worth of gold, a Peruvian twenty “Sol” (sun) piece – though this was no longer the local currency it was a nice collector’s piece. Of course it was left safely at home and money for travel and expenses had to be set aside. Then there was the matter of the lawyer and legal fees to be paid. Wire transfers from the USA to Peru had a 30% tariff so we opted for cash and stealth for safety. There no longer existed such a thing as a $1000 bill in circulation, so I made a packet of 70 hundred-dollar bills to strap around my waist for the flight down. A bit melodramatic perhaps – I did feel silly at times.
Finally The Call came, with another surprise. We were being given an unheard-of choice, between a 3-month old girl and a 4-week old boy. That is all they could tell us. I leaned toward a girl, but Linda pushed us firmly to the younger child. We had less than a week to travel.
As promised, the preliminaries moved quickly. We arrived on a Wednesday, took custody of our 4-week old son on Thursday, and received our luggage from the airline on Friday. Yes, we found ourselves in a foreign country with an infant and none of the usual baby paraphernalia. This could have been a disaster if it were not for the wonderful people at Suite Service (pronounced “sweet sair-veese”).
Suite Service was a hotel, built and run by a former engineer who couldn’t get work in engineering any more, but had found a niche catering to the adoption crowd. It was so typical of the energy and spirit of the Peruvian people. A dozen or more families were housed there, at various stages of adoption, so all had kids going through the adoption process and plenty of formula and diapers to loan, along with advice to offer. Everyone was friendly, staff and guests, and this place felt like home base.
Going into the lawyer’s office to take custody of a baby was, of course, a very tense thing. A young lady from his office escorted us from Suite Service. His office was in a poorly lit, dirty section of town. We were told about a recent explosion near there – not terrorists but an accident at a fireworks market – that had killed an entire block of people. But I had to have faith in the adoption agency’s referral to this fellow that I had never met before, so I gritted my teeth and we plunged ahead. He spoke no English, using our guide as translators. His eyes popped when I pulled out $7000 in cash, but then he made an elaborate ceremony of writing out an ornate receipt we could have framed.
We then got to meet the birth mother. She was a young college student who grew up in the countryside. She had a beautiful smile. She actually got good nutrition growing up on a farm, and was nearly as tall as I was (most Peruvians averaged 5 foot nothing). As a consequence, the boy was very healthy. She had gotten pregnant by one man, but was now involved with another who did not want to raise some other man’s child, so she was letting the baby go. Their loss, our wonderful gain. But she had gotten good medical care, and taken very good care of the baby.
Then we got to see the baby. He was tiny but with huge brown eyes. He fished for eye contact with each new person in the room and when he had them, he reeled them in with a huge smile. I’m not really a people person but I can recognize the skills – and this kid, at 1 month old, had me in awe.
The birth mother handed the baby to Linda Pearl first. I felt like I was witnessing a deeply symbolic act. As she held the baby I watched the steel tiger that I knew melt into a pile of marshmallow cream as the baby smiled up at her.
Then it was my turn. Everyone seemed to be watching as I got to hold the tiny little guy for the first time and lock gazes with him. You may worry, as I had, about how you might feel towards an adopted child when you first meet. Let me tell you, the moment someone put a baby in my arms and told me he was mine, something magical happened. I felt new responsibilities and fell instantly and madly in love. All the old worries just melted away and became “What if someone wants to take my baby away? What if they want him back?”
We had all the challenges of first parents. It turns out I had better nerves than my formidable wife with her impressive credentials, and calmly introduced our boy to the joys of bathing in a washtub in the sink as she fretted and tried not to upset the baby. We dealt with diapers and rashes and even an embarrassing sunburn on just one side of his face (because he favored one position in the snuggly sack we carried him in, on my chest). This made him look like a harlequin – and we had to go before the judge for some matter just 3 days later – GULP!
Worse, our boy was very colicky, and I spent many a night at Suite Service dancing with him on my shoulder, singing songs from my youth and lecturing him on quantum mechanics from my college days. It turned out he was lactose intolerant and we had a much better time of it when we got him switched over to a soy-based formula.
There were lots of children at Suite Service going through adoption. So many children were displaced by the open revolution of the Sendanero Luminosa (communist Shining Path guerrillas). I still think back to one little boy we met while in Peru. Roberto was 7 years old, and had been picked up by the police, sleeping in a cardboard box in an alley. He had no parents, except the well-off couple from California that was there to adopt him. He solemnly told his new mother that he knew a recipe for strawberry jam and she could stay home with him and make jam and the father could go out and sell it in the street and everything would be okay from now on. This dear sweet boy had no idea how much his life was going to change. It still brings tears to my eyes.
From time to time we went out as a group to see local tourist attractions, museums filled with Inca gold, market places, and old ruins.
The first order of business was to get local money, called intis, because we were not allowed to spend dollars directly. This was not a problem as there seemed to be an adult male on every street corner with a calculator and the latest exchange rates, eager to give us intis for dollars. An inti was paper money worth one thousand sols. They used 1000-inti bills, stapled together in packets of 10 bills, since a dollar was worth 5,000 intis — when we arrived. By time the time we were all home, two months later, it was 12,000 intis to the dollar. That $60 gold coin (the 20 sol piece) was now worth less than half a thousandth of a penny, face value.
We were guided to a nearby church to change our money. They had a little window set up to conduct this business, as if it were a routine thing for a church to do. I was told later that they had to do it to preserve the value of their collection plates.
Once when we went to eat out, I asked our guide what would be a traditional Peruvian dinner. To my surprise, he pointed out a fish dinner, then got a wistful look in his eye. When I asked what was the matter, he explained that there was as law that all fishermen had to put half of their profits in the bank, in initis. Because inflation was so bad, this money simply evaporated. The result was the decimation of the once-proud Peruvian fishing fleet. And yet, the energy and spirit of the Peruvian people was everywhere we looked; you could not keep them down. Our son would have a heritage to be proud of.
I had studied a lot of French in school, then took a Berlitz Spanish course just before coming on this trip. The two Romance languages were quite similar, and using a phrase book, I could read signs and make myself understood. Unfortunately my ear was not up to speed, and I could not for the life of me understand the answers to my questions. Fortunately, Linda Pearl had taught public school in Texas, and while she could not speak it with any confidence, she could hear and understand spoken Spanish. Together we could get by using teamwork; I would ask a question, she would listen to the answer, then translate for me.
There were guards with machine guns in front of all the important government buildings, banks, and walled upper-class residential compounds. I asked my guides how they felt living under the watchful eye of people with machine guns. They replied that the biggest danger there was to the guards themselves, as they were sometimes killed to take their guns.
As a 6’1” bearded blond guy, a head taller than the locals, I attracted every little budding entrepreneur running in the streets. After school hours, the streets were swarming with little girls trying to sell me pretty rocks, and little boys trying to shine my shoes for me, even though I was wearing sneakers. I was torn. Of course my heart bled for these kids but I was afraid that if I showed it, I would be swarmed by them, like piranhas.
Linda Pearl was dark haired with a Mediterranean complexion, so she blended in and had a very different experience. Once, as a group of us visited a marketplace, she was sitting with our new baby on a bench and some local Peruvian mothers joined her. They fussed with the cute baby of course, then pointed out to her the group of Americans who were here adopting Peruvian babies. Later, we laughed together.
One time, we drove as a group to the local archeological ruins and a gentleman on the sidewalk reached into the taxi window and ripped a digital watch right off my arm. Linda Pearl freaked out, and said that she was just relieved that the baby, that I had been holding at the time, was unharmed. I was bemused that this fellow thought it was a reasonable way to make a buck, and maybe support his own kids. I never felt that the baby had been in danger. We didn’t laugh much about that one.
Another time I was driven to an appointment uptown. The freeways ran between skyscrapers and were designed for 4 lanes of traffic each way through the city, but when all the little VW’s came to a red light, they crowded forward, seven across. On the way back, we passed a Native American farmer pulling a handcart filled with vegetables. My guide stopped, got me to produce my smallest bill, a 100-inti note, and used it to buy some fruit. That’s $0.01 for a couple of apples, and both parties seemed satisfied with the deal. It really sank in then, that I was seeing two different worlds side by side.
After two weeks, all the court petitions were filed and I had to return to my job in the States, leaving Linda Pearl to care for our new son until they could get home to me. We didn’t know how long this would take, and of course I was a hot mess at work. At one point Linda Pearl told me that the local judge had insulted the chief of police by accusing him of taking bribes, and he was miffed and would not sign critical papers to move forward, so the adoption was stalled out. As this blew over, and the proper amount of squeeze was identified, the process moved forward again slowly. It was the lawyer’s job to keep the parade of paying clients moving through the system, and he did it well. He was also supposed to make sure the baby was adoptable under the more strict US laws and could enter the US, becoming a citizen a year later. That actually did happen to some couples who adopted a child under Peruvian law, but then could not bring the child into the USA because the US laws had not been met – what a nightmare!
When I left, an old school chum of my wife, Danielle Houser, joined her for the duration. Dannie became our boy’s godmother. They spent six more weeks there, in company with the other families of Suite Service. I was proud but unsurprised to hear that Linda Pearl became a veteran, offering advice to the newcomers on the adoption process, the local restaurants and merchants, and why not to drink the water.
Ah, the water! I remember falling into the same trap as everybody else. I drank only bottled or boiled water, tried to avoid ice cubes made from local water, ate no salad washed in local water, and so forth. Nevertheless, “Erupto!” as the Peruvians say. Every one of us had to rush to the bathroom in the middle of the night exactly once. Then it was all okay, our guts were adjusted.
Linda Pearl’s biggest excitement was the day the guerillas dynamited a power pylon not far from the market she was in. She told me that she had huddled with a bunch of other women in a doorway until the all-clear was given. I felt so far away and unable to help. What could I say to reassure her? At another time, she visited the family of the owner of Suite Service, in their luxurious residential compound, and enjoyed the pool.
As the day approached, my wife excitedly informed me that they had an airline reservation that changed once in Panama. Sadly, I had to inform her that this would not work as Panama had just been invaded by the good old US of A.
Eventually we got our baby home on Christmas Eve, reinforcing the name we had chosen for our son, Nicolas Andrew. Nicolas (Spanish spelling) for Saint Nick the gift giver, and Andrew in honor of the Andes Mountains from which his heritage had sprung. I had everything ready for their return, including our family’s first ever Christmas tree. This was the first year we did not spend the holidays with our parents, who were 1500 miles away.
Nic, as we called him, thrived in our home. He played competitive soccer, earned the rank of Eagle Scout, marched with a brass band in both the Macy’s and the Rose parade, graduated from college, and became a successful businessman. He has definitely made us proud.
Adopting our Nicolas was the best thing we ever did. We adopted again, a more challenging boy of different circumstances, who was offered to us by the adoption agency that did our home follow-up visits. And so life went on, getting ever more complex with each passing year.
As I sit here in an empty nest, and think about our overcrowded planet, and the children like Roberto who desperately need homes, I never regretted going the route of adoption. Maybe a little girl next time…