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The One Who Got Away

The last thing we'd do was sever existing bonds between siblings

Technically their older brother was, according to American law, too old to be adopted. Back in 1999, an "orphan" had to be younger than 15 years, 364 days for that. At 16 years, 166 days, their half-brother was months beyond the cutoff.

I'd promised myself that if we went all the way to Russia to find children whose parental rights were terminated, the last thing we'd do was sever existing bonds between siblings. I'd met families who had and decided there was something completely, permanently, upside-down about it, no matter how hard the parents tried to right it with phone calls, explanations, gifts and apologies. Before we adopted I'd looked down on those parents. How could they put their kids in such a predicament?! I wanted to believe that adopting a child who had an older, unadoptable brother or sister should be avoided for these exact reasons.

Big lesson: Don't judge.

Once in Russia we met the skinny brother with the shaved head and sprig of bangs. He watched from afar as we greeted his sisters then joined the circle of our new family. A few days later, he watched the four of us leave.

One week later, then-President Clinton signed H.R 2886 into law so the Immigration and Nationality Act was officially amended. Any child less than 18 could be adopted with, or after, a younger sibling, even a half-sibling, as was technically (thought not emotionally) the case here. We not only had the younger sibling, we had two of them.

We decided to have their brother visit; our adoption attorney arranged it. But with the visas the attorney offered this caveat: we should understand this young man may not want parents.

I didn't believe it. Everything was better here in the States. Plus his sisters were here.

But early into his visit his sisters told me-because their brother spoke no English-that their tall, lanky and very quiet sibling wanted to return to Russia. There he could do what he wanted, which included no less that joining the army, a prerequisite for his dream job: to become a police officer. Their brother nodded solemnly as if to tell me: please believe what they are telling you.
"He's afraid you wouldn't let him live his life," one daughter said with a little shrug.

Was this typical 17-year-old independence or something deeper, what the attorney was talking about?

In Russia, there was a compulsory military draft of all 18-year old Russian boys. The government had begun a recruitment campaign toward underage orphans after ruling that wards of the state at least 14 years old could enlist. While thousands of their conscripts did anything possible to escape military service, too many Russian orphans were intrigued by the possibility of military service. It connoted power, something these kids didn't feel they had.

An article in The New York Times titled Mothers Help Sons Outwit Draft Board In Wartime Russia drove the issue home. Some of these moms shipped their boys abroad. Others paid bribes. These Russian mamas were good mothers, I thought. Stoic, loving, protective.

Which made me--what?

Their brother had no medical problems, no dacha, no shot at a university degree, no cash for a teensy bribe. Should I have been furiously waving my hands, as if to back him and his sisters up to the very beginning and telling them, no, no, no? Somehow, that would have felt wrong, too.

Maybe their brother didn't want parents, or at least this parent. Or maybe it had nothing to do with me. And even if it did there were plenty of young men who enlisted in the army against their parents' desires, and did plenty of other things against the will of the family--or maybe not against the family's creed, but for the sake of carving out their own place. The only way out of military service for their brother would have been if we forced him to be adopted, as if that were even possible. Suddenly, as a mother, I saw my place. I saw my powerlessness. Or, more accurately, I saw there was no place, or rather, not the place, or the influence I dreamed I was supposed to have.

I asked--Are you certain? Are you sure? Our girls relayed the answer, proudly, sadly: He was.

Their brother didn't move here, we didn't adopt him and all these years I've worried he'd become a soldier.

I worried he might land in Chechnya or some place like it, and his sisters would learn about such conflict in history class. That he would have his body cloaked in camouflage and military-issued boots, his shorn head nicked from a dull razor, his skinny frame heavy with guns and they would be writing theoretical papers about war for humanities. That between their jobs and dates they'd think about how odd it is, what different turns their lives took. I've worried, though, that to them none of it would seem real until they picked up the newspaper and read the headline about corruption among the ranks. Then they'd look for his young face, the fair skin, the dark eyes and crooked smile smudged in newsprint. They'll see the cigarette dangling from a soldier's lips, the gun dangling from his hand. And then it might be real.

Before I could not comprehend that all mothers do things--or don't do things--that other mothers use to judge or condemn them for. It hurts, no matter which side you think you're on.

[Big Gratitude: For today--10 years later--their brother has stayed out of the army. He married and has a young son whom we met on trip to St. Petersburg a few years back. I wonder though, what their brother's feelings about his son's potential military service will be. What he will experience; what his son's mother will do.]

This essay first appeared in slightly different formats in mamazine, OC Family and Adoption Today.