To her clients Jenny appeared to lead a perfect life. At her annual Christmas party they marveled at her changeless glossy dark hair, trim figure, and vigorous stride. Each looked around and compared her to those of themselves of the same age with less hair, increased girths, and gaits beset by limps and minor tremors. Some even imagined how good her life appeared and that Christmas had surely showered her with gifts. Although she did feel blessed her story was more complex than they could have imagined. It proved the adage that it is not what life throws at you that is important, but what you do with it.
At forty-five, Jenny had met the man of her life and came to believe that the years ahead were to be effortlessly full of joy. A year later, right before Christmas, while he was on a business trip to Chicago, he had a sudden, fatal heart attack as he ran through O’Hare airport to catch a plane back home. Jenny was shattered; although her innate courage enabled her to conceal the hurt within and to maintain a cheery façade. The truth was that she had lost all faith in the purpose and meaning of life. The only things, which kept her from taking her own, were her concern for her pack of rescue dogs, and the knowledge that, if she died, she would leave no legacy, nothing good that she had contributed to the world. Due to her thinness and years of marathon running she had already passed menopause but for some reason hormones kicked in and she began to long for a child.
At first she tried to staunch her longing through the adoption of more dogs. Her pack grew from three to six. She walked them twice a day and slept with them at night. They gave her unconditional love, and wagged their tails in her presence. To her surprise her longing for a child seemed to increase with each new dog; so when she saw a Compassion commercial, she called and sponsored two children. Their photographs arrived in the mail and she put them on her refrigerator. Their images also only served to intensify her longing. She searched everywhere and wrote numerous letters and confirmed, what she suspected, that the only way for a forty-six year-old spinster to adopt a child is through foreign adoption. She collected brochures and submitted application forms and money, lots of money, and waited.
Over six thousand miles away, in a Varna Bulgaria orphanage on the west shore of the Black Sea a small, silent boy sat, abandoned, in his crib. The white walls of the room were bare and the floor concrete, so that if he had made a noise, it would have echoed loud off the reflective surfaces. The only sounds were distant children’s voices and a fly buzzing at the high window panes. His skin was mahogany colored and his hair black which had earned him, the probably accurate, but spurned label, of “gypsy”. No-body knew for sure where he came from as he had been dropped off on the orphanage steps, a one day-old infant in a make-shift swaddling blanket.
The orphanage staff was not cruel, but they were short-handed and so, while they were able to keep all the children fed, clothed and clean, they had to be selective on those with whom they played. They preferred the light skinned Arian children who responded with smiles, while they disliked Boris’s dour features.
As time went on Jenny’s longing increased and she started to become desperate as nothing seemed to be happening. She maintained her search through reams of forms, and numerous “fees” and “tariffs”. She was excited when, at last she found an agency that was willing to take up her quest. They identified struggling Bulgaria as a country which needed, and were willing to accept, assistance in caring for their orphans. They narrowed the search down to the Varna orphanage, but she still didn’t have a name. As time passed she saw that her hope of having a child was slipping away into the money-hungry bureaucratic mire surrounding foreign adoptions, so, in the spring, she decided to go to Bulgaria.
Her long trip was rewarded, and after thirty six hours in transit she saw the gypsy-child, Boris, the child that no one would adopt, for the first time. He was almost four and she was forty –six. He had been spruced up and readied for her visit. She took him to the seashore but he merely sat, stiff in the sand, as though his clothes prevented him from movement. He showed no interest in the roaring waves, the hopping sea birds, the damp sour smelling seaweed, or the sideling crabs on the sand. When she offered him food he took it, smelled it carefully, and ate. He showed no emotion. His emptiness and need inspired Jenny. She recognized her own desperation mirrored in this child’s withdrawal from human contact. She went home with a mission and a new photograph for her refrigerator. Now she knew that he needed her more than she needed him, and she determined to continue to battle through the paperwork until she was able to go back to Bulgaria to bring him home, to a new life.
Months passed and, in early December, Jenny knew that the time had come for her last important, life-changing, trip to Bulgaria. The agency undertook to transport Boris to Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, where the final adoption paperwork was to be executed. They volunteered to arrange accommodation and to meet her at the airport; but when she emerged into the cold afternoon sun outside the airport, no-one was waiting for her. She nervously pulled out her agency documentation and waited. Half an hour later, just as she was becoming desperate, an elegantly dressed young woman approached her and, introduced herself as Rosa, her agency contact. She escorted Jenny to an old van with sullen-looking driver and they whirled off into the heart of Sofia.
Jenny was now in post-communist Bulgaria which hadn’t seemed oppressive during her previous whirlwind trip to Varna but now was stifling in its dour negativism and almost hopeless stagnancy. Her accommodation was a converted room in private row-house residence with a shared bathroom down the hall. It faced onto a street lined with parallel-parked, broken-down cars. When Boris was delivered to her the following morning, the four year-old boy, in diapers, showed no emotion and no interest in his surroundings. Rosa was business-like in her review of the necessary paperwork and left as quickly as possible.
Jenny was abandoned to launch, alone, with only Boris at her side, into the seas of bureaucracy between her and Boris’s final adoption, the papers which would legalize his status and allow her to take him back to America. She had to have official photographs taken, official forms signed, have his health certified, and she even had to register herself with the police in this country, newly emerging from the mantle of the USSR.
She decided that her first appointment should be a visit to a lawyer who was to assist with the paperwork. His address seemed prestigious, a few hundred feet from the main governmental buildings. She walked there carrying Boris when he became too tired to walk. When she arrived she found that addresses can be deceptive. The lawyer’s office was a one small shared furnished with two enormous desks which faced each other, leaving just enough room between them for a couple of visitor chairs. It was on the second floor accessed by sparse stairs without heating. Ivan Dimitrov, their lawyer, a tall lanky individual, stood up to shake hands stretching his long arms across his huge desk. He was friendly enough and quickly undertook Jenny’s business before launching into a long monologue about his son who played basketball with an aspiration to be noticed by an American scout, and to be drafted onto a professional American NBA team. For his fees he asked for dollars and a pair of studded size 17 basketball shoes to be mailed to his office.
Jenny had been on the trail over two weeks when she made it to the government clinic to get Boris’s immunization and other medical documents. She waited three hours in a tiny waiting room watching patients come and go. Her assigned doctor must have known that she was the last obstacle between Boris, and his adoption and emigration to America. When Jenny was ushered into her office she gave a sullen scowl indicating with her body language that she did not approve of Boris’s planned future. In a begrudging, business-like manner, she made it through his records.
When Jenny stood to shake hands and say ‘thank-you,” the doctor remained seated and looking Jenny in the face as she spoke in English, “You realize, of course, that Boris is still in diapers and without speech because he is severely retarded!” The words seemed to give her pleasure as she riveted her eyes on Jenny’s face to evaluate her reaction.
If Jenny was horrified or upset she didn’t show it, her face maintained its smile and she responded, “That means that he needs me even more!” At this response the doctor slumped back in her chair and reluctantly reached up her hand for that all-telling good-bye hand shake.
Rosa visited them a last time on the evening of their departure. As always her expensive fur coat and elegant clothing were in stark contrast to everything else that Jenny had encountered during her stay. Then she offhandedly asked Jenny whether she would be so kind as to transport a bag of “video equipment’ to the States for her. Jenny drew back adamant that she could not carry anything other than her own bags and the boy.
The following day saw Jenny and Boris on the long flight west. They stopped in London where they had a long enough lay-over to spend the night in a hotel. Here Jenny luxuriated in hot water, showers and a comfortable bed with clean white sheets. The boy, Boris, showed no emotion letting himself be bathed and fed. In the morning as they prepared to leave Jenny placed him on the floor with his socks before him and an instruction to put them on. He sat and stared at them without movement. Every time that Jenny walked past she indicated the socks to him and pointed at his bare feet. Suddenly he moved, and with a rapid motion faster than Jenny had ever seen him move, he picked up both socks and hurled them across the room. Jenny stopped and smiled, her joy was great for this one action indicated that there was hope for this boy.
Years later when Boris was grown up Jenny still gave her annual ‘thank-you’ Christmas party. Its meaning was tied to Boris’s arrival as well as her business successes. Her clients continued to admire her changeless demeanor as they listened to Boris flawlessly playing the Moonlight Sonata accompanied by Christmas carols on her piano. At moments like this they marveled at her luck and even questioned her about her son. She answered with an enigmatic smile while, egging them on to talk about themselves, even as she silently reminisced back to a Bulgarian doctor and a pair of socks sailing across a London hotel room.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, December 2013