Friday, November 07, 2008

Pasha & Nikita

If you looked at a picture of Pasha and Nikita with their mom and dad, you wouldn't notice anything remarkable. Two boys in tee shirts, both with the mischief of little kids in their eyes, posing with their parents by a waterfall. Pasha, who's five, loves baseball and plays soccer. He's fascinated by the planets and the solar system, and likes to ride his bike. Nikita, a year younger, also likes baseball, but is bigger on ice skating than soccer. He likes to help out his dad in the yard and loves dogs. Alas, the family pet is a cat named Jack.

What you don't see in the picture is the boys' background. Less than three years ago the two of them were in an orphanage, a "baby house" in Achinsk, Russia. To get there, you took a 10 hour flight to Moscow, then a 5 hour flight to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia, followed by a 2 hour drive. In the wintertime, the temperature hits 40 degrees below zero, and that's without the windchill. Needless to say, it's not your typical tourist destination: you have to want to go there. But Scott and Christina did, and in a big way.

They had tried without success to have kids of their own. Finally they woke up one day, said enough was enough, and made the decision to adopt. They signed on with an agency, did all the requisite paperwork and waited. And waited. And waited. Eight months went by without a referral. After looking at their options, they broadened their net, and decided to look internationally. And because Christina was half Russian, they decided they would head in that direction.

A whole new round of paperwork was required. And since they wanted more than one child, they decided to try for a "twofer." While they knew it would be harder in the beginning, they didn't want to go through the whole process twice, and experts told them they could save some money if they adopted two at the same time. In short order, they got a hit. The initial paperwork indicated just the bare facts, with no pictures to tug at their heartstrings. Still, it was a match with their hopes: two young sibling boys. They talked it over, made the decision, and went for it.

Pictures followed shortly, which they sent to a doctor who specialized in photographic evaluations. Just as they were checking out the kids, the Russian government did the same to them. They had to build a dossier proving they would meet certain standards for parents, which included not just economic profiles but also police reports, home visits and psychiatric assessments. It was "papers, more papers, and more papers" according to Christina, with every signature making them dip further into their bank account.

The process itself required two trips to Russia. The first was a meet and greet with the kids. After an exhausting journey, they got to play with the boys for 90 minutes or so over two days. They did some rudimentary tests that the doctor taught them to see if there were any serious developmental issues... for instance, if they reacted to a loud noise behind them. It all went well, and only increased their determination.

They returned home to even more papers, more money and more phone calls. They got the kids' rooms ready, all the while hearing that the Russian government was considering shutting down the program worldwide. (It was shut down several months later, but has since resumed.) They closed their ears, crossed their fingers and waited for the call telling them they could proceed. It finally came, just 2 days shy of Christmas.

This time the trip was all business, as they passed final papers and made their petition for adoption in a court in Krasnoyarsk. Relying entirely on facilitators working in Russian, they were ushered through the process, hoping that all the i's were dotted and the t's were crossed. Even though they spoke no Russian, Christina said their hearts froze when the tone abruptly changed at the final session. It turned out the signature of a distant relative of the boys was missing on a key form. They had to dispatch someone to drive 5 hours to obtain it, then return to court before the judge would grant them official custody.

Finally, they were given the go ahead. They picked up the boys and spent a few more days with their driver and his wife getting their footing. Then they made their way back to Moscow and the US Embassy to get travel papers. After a 10 hour flight home, their plane touched down in New York with two new US citizens aboard. Over the same nine months that Christina might have been pregnant they signed countless forms, spent about $50,000 not covered by anybody's health insurance, and emerged with not one baby, but two toddlers.

These days, according to Christina, they're "just busy being a family. They make you laugh and cry, they hit you and they hug you." The kids know they are adopted, but are probably too young to fully understand. They do celebrate their Adoption Day with cake and stories of how they became a family. "I don't want to say I forget they're adopted, but I do," Christina says. "They're not our adopted sons, they're our sons."

Only once in telling me the story did Christina cry. That was when she told me about their first visit to see the kids in Russia. As they left, they walked down a hall filled with photos of other children in the home. "It was so sweet, but also so incredibly sad. Because some of those kids would never have the chance we were giving to our boys." But it was actually a chance for both sides. Christina and Scott wanted a family; Pasha and Nikita needed one. As Christina said, "I think we are all very lucky."


Marc Wollin of Bedford is happy to know others who have adopted, especially since November is National Adoption Month. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Dear Dave

As a regular reader of this space, you may have noticed that I try and write each week for the broadest possible audience. I pick topics and use references which I think will be understood not only by people who know me and my sensibilities, but by those with whom I only have a passing acquaintance. That means I try and avoid jargon, in-jokes and personal references that would only be understood by a few, be they select or not.

But this week is different. On the day this is published, you will graduate from high school and look towards college. As one of the great rites of passage, it's an occasion filled with many traditions, from caps and gowns worn proudly to Pomp & Circumstance played endlessly. Almost without exception, there is also a commencement speaker. He or she will offer words of wisdom, exhorting you and your fellow classmates to honor your past and prepare for the future, to do what you can to make this a better world, and to have fun along the way.

Good advice, to be sure. But just as I aim to connect with as many as possible, the speaker will of necessity do the same. With a diverse audience composed of graduates, parents, family and guests, specifics have to go by the wayside. That doesn't make the comments any less pertinent, just less personal.

In this space and on this day, however, I feel no such limitations. Just this once, my audience is not broad, but rather exceedingly narrow. Others may read this, and if perchance they find something of value or interest, that's a bonus. But truth be told, it isn't meant for them. Today I will exercise some personal privilege, and speak to an audience of only one: you.

Where to start? It would be easy to fill the space with the platitudes that every parent wants to pass on as instructions for their children's lives. We utter them constantly, well aware they may not be heeded. Since you're a history buff, you should appreciate Lincoln's famous phrase, which is just as applicable in this venue: "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Unlike that address at Gettysburg, much of our comments seem trite. Yet they are valid none the less. Always keep your eye on the horizon. Treat everyone with respect. Take time out to smell the roses. Eat more bran. Just as Lincoln was wrong, I hope you will recall at least some of these guiding principles.

But knowing you as I do, I can be a bit more specific. You've already learned the most important lessons, about keeping your eyes and your ears and your heart open, and doing the best you can with what you have. Indeed, you've never let your hearing issues be a crutch, and have conquered that challenge with grace and courage. In a way, that's a guide to use wherever you go, whatever you do: understand your limitations rather than curse them, and build from there.

Likewise, you've already learned that any day is a good day if you learn something new. Your inquisitiveness knows no bounds. Never let that stop. The topic doesn't matter: it can an arcane piece of history about World War II or a new move in a video game, a jazz classic you've never heard before or a piece of satire from Futurama. Each enriches your life in some way. And in doing so, it lets you enrich those around you and the world as a whole.

And you've taken to heart the concept of giving more than you get. Your work with the Fire Department has crystallized this. Sure, there's a rush from racing to the scene with lights and sirens blaring, but I'm willing to bet it's nothing compared to the rush you get when you realize that you have helped someone. I hope that regardless of the venue, you will continue to be one that helps others however he can.

Two recent events have also driven home two other messages I want... indeed need... to pass on to you. Without trying to put a damper on this happy occasion, both involve sad events. As I wrote to my sister after the passing of my father, if there was any silver lining to that dark cloud, it was the time I got to spend with her. Through it all, nary a cross word or outburst passed between us; not many families can say that. We both did what we could to support your grandmother as well as each other. There were no egos, no preconditions and no expectations. Try and have that same kind of relationship with your own brother. It can be a big and sometimes frightening world: know that you will be there for each other in it.

The second event was the recent passing of journalist Tim Russert. As a man in seemingly good health, he was here one minute and gone the next. It's a cliché to say live every moment as if it were your last, but this is one example where that couldn't have been truer. Yes, it's a tough balance between planning for the future and living for today. But it's a tightrope worth walking.

There is so much more to say that neither space nor time will allow. But in truth, your mom and I have been saying these and similar things to you for much of your 18 years. We are humbled that you have heard and absorbed so much, and more importantly, adapted it to your own particular personality. We often look at each other and wonder how we got so lucky for that to have happened.

And so I'll close with the same words I related to your brother when he graduated. Know that as you start the next step on your journey, we will be there wherever you go and whatever you do. We'll be the ones with the heartfelt applause whenever you earn it, the shoulder to lean on whenever you need it, and the love whenever you want it.

Love, Dad.


Dave Wollin will attend Colby College in Maine in the fall. You can send him graduation greetings at His father's column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Leave Footsteps, Take Memories

My father has died and I couldn't be happier.

I know what that must sound like: that I'm cold and cruel and heartless. The truth is that I'm heartbroken. His passing has robbed my mother of a companion, one with whom she would have celebrated 55 years of marriage this June. It takes from my sister and me and our families a parent and grandparent, one of whom we were proud and who was proud of us. And it takes from the world a kind and generous soul, a commodity of which there is too small a supply.

But since he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 10 years ago, and especially over the last 3 years as he has spiraled ever downward, it has been tough to watch the man I called Dad disappear before my eyes. My mom did more than any person could ever be expected to do to make him whole, tending to his every need even as he withdrew further and further from her and from the rest of us. Each time that we gathered as a group to laugh and talk and catch up, it was obvious that he was moving more and more into his own private world.

One emergency led to another, with only one eventual end in sight. And so hard as it was, we took this latest crisis was a sign that the time had come to admit that no one… not him, not her, not us… was being served by the best efforts that she and modern medicine could offer. There's an old proverb that if you love something you set it free. If it's yours, it will come back. If not, it was never yours to begin with. With my dad I respectfully disagree: we set him free precisely because he was ours and we loved him, and he left for the very same reasons.

I have tried to think of one single event, one seminal moment that defined him and who he was. But all that comes to me is a random series of images and stories. There was the time as little kids when we lived on a big hill and we sledded to the bottom laying on his back. The time he came home from work carrying a small stray dog who we quickly adopted and named "Pomy" after the name of the store in which he worked. The time when we visited the cliffs of New Mexico, and watched him sweat bullets from the hair raising drive up to the top, so much so that we had to have a park ranger drive us back down. And the time that my mother came home with a streak of blond frosted into her hair.  My father walked in from work and growled. "What is that? How would you like it if I did that?" My sister replied without missing a beat, as only a 9 year-old smart-aleck can: "Dad, they would have to paint your forehead."

Rather, his life personified that old admonition when camping, "Leave only footsteps, take only memories." He touched the lives of many in a gentle way, from his years in Boy Scouts to his time with colleagues to his embracement of family and friends. He was always there to support and encourage my sister and me, or buy a small gift for my mother "just because."  I can't think of anyone who met him and who didn't come away to say to me later, "Your dad? Salt of the earth." I finally looked up the textbook definition of that phrase: it's "humble, lacking pretension." My mom said it best: he was one of the good guys.

If there was anything I wanted to be when I grew up, it was a musician. I had a taste of it as a kid, playing saxophone in a jazz band thru high school. But as I progressed to the next level, I learned that enthusiasm did not trump talent. So I tried a different avenue, and exchanged my instrument for a pen. And while my dad had the chance to hear me play when I was young, he also had a chance to read my stuff when I was older. And at some level, that was better.

That's because instead of doing other people's material, I was able to do my own, albeit on a small stage of my own making. It also enabled me to pay tribute to him on his 60th and 70th birthdays, in words that hopefully conveyed a least a small part of what he meant to me. I would gladly have done another on his 80th. Instead, here I am, just shy of his 79th, writing a different type of piece.

Still, there was a common theme in those past attempts, one that hopefully echoes in this present one as well. They tell you that you can't say "I love you" enough to a child. I've come to realize that neither could I say it too much to him. I tried in print, I tried in speech, I tried in actions. But this is when you realize that no matter the method or the frequency, it is never enough.

So on this day there will be no parades in London. Congress will pass no resolution. No radio station will devote an hour of its programming to singing his praises. There will not be a national day of mourning, schools will not close and traffic will not cease. For my dad wasn't a remarkable historical figure, or a man of great wealth and power, or an individual whose influence transcended his times.

But in the final analysis, none of that matters. For he accomplished what all of us strive for. I can only hope that my kids remember me the way I will remember him: as a gentle soul who loved and supported those around him, who always gave someone the benefit of the doubt and who tried to do the best he could with the what he had. He left footsteps. I will take memories. And when you think about, that's a pretty good legacy to leave behind.


Marc Wollin lives in Bedford, NY. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.