I missed my daughter’s first laugh. Missed her first step, her first words.
I had no idea what games she liked to play or her favorite book. I knew nothing about her except for what the files we had been sent said and the pictures showed.
That’s because she was 2-1/2 years old when we met her. I thought I had missed all the firsts, but that cold day in Siberia, “the firsts” with our second daughter, whom I dubbed Princess Two, were just beginning.
My husband and I adopted a little girl from Russia back when Americans could do such a thing. A few months after bringing our daughter home, Russia banned adoptions from the United States. This month marks the 19th annual Adoption Month, as well as the anniversary of the first time we met our daughter.
That cold November four years ago, a Russian judge pronounced us fit parents, but we had to wait a few weeks before we could bring her home, per the Russian rules on international adoptions.
After the celebratory shot of Russian vodka, we headed out into the Siberian winter to tell our daughter she was coming home. She entered the room rubbing her eyes from sleep, saw the Goldfish crackers in my hand, and smiled.
I had been practicing my Russian and carefully asked her if she was hungry. It was the first time she understood me, and she smiled. She came and sat next to me, quickly taking the crackers. Lifting her up, I put her in my lap and told her, for the first time, “I love you.” She looked up into my eyes, and for the first time she hugged me.
A month later, when it was time to bring her home, I traveled to Siberia alone. The Husband would meet us in Moscow the following week so we could handle the paperwork together at the embassy.
I was terrified, not because she was finally coming home, but because I knew what the next 10-15 hours had in store — a lot of firsts.
Given the way the flights worked during the winter months, I spent nearly a week in Chita, a little town in Siberia about an hour north of the Mongolian border. Each day, Princess Two and I spent time playing and eating Goldfish crackers at the orphanage. She knew who I was, and liked me for the most part, especially if I had those crackers.
But she didn’t really know me. She didn’t trust me. She couldn’t understand everything I was saying. I was just a nice lady who played with her and brought her treats.
Yet the morning I arrived to pick her up at 6 a.m. she was thrilled to see me, and was even more excited to see the new clothes I brought for her to wear. I was terrified, not because she was finally coming home, but because I knew what the next 10-15 hours had in store — a lot of firsts. Given that she had never been out of the orphanage, everything was a first.
We said our tearful goodbyes to her caretakers and stepped outside into the dark, 34 below zero Siberian morning. That’s when she saw a car for the first time. And that’s when the crying started, and didn’t stop until we reached the airport.
There was no question she was now terrified. And we still had to go into the airport, and go through security.
Though Princess Two was visibly upset, she bravely held her tears when it was our turn to go through the screening process. She let the armed security guard sit down with her while I went though. Her tears and fears were finally at ease when we sat down in the one-room waiting area and I gave her yet more Goldfish. Then, we went to the bathroom.
Suddenly blood-curdling screams came from what was a sweet, giggling little girl just a millisecond before.
A stern, robust Russian woman entered the bathroom and began speaking in Russian. I smiled. “Sorry, I don’t speak Russian,” I frantically responded in my bad, broken Russian.
She stared blankly back at me as I reapplied the four layers of clothing to a wiggling, screaming, terrified child. Thankfully, no guards entered.
A large, gruff man started yelling in Russian. Everyone turned to look at me. I froze.
When it came time to board our flight into Moscow, we followed the crowd outside to the plane, which meant walking the length of a football field in 34 below zero weather. Not only was I carrying a 2-year-old who looked like she was suited up to go skiing — in slick coats that slide right through your arms — but I also had on a 20-pound backpack. I was the last person in line to board the plane, which suited me just fine.
As I shifted Princess Two back and forth to help offset the weight, a large, gruff man smoking a cigarette grabbed my arm as he blew smoke into my face. He started yelling in Russian and everyone turned to look at me. I froze.
We had been told not to talk about our “business” in Russia since international adoptions were a political hot button. When the man started yelling, all those things we had been warned about raced through my head. Were they going to let me board? Would we be able to leave? Were they going to take her away? Where were her adoption papers in case I had to verify she was in fact my daughter? Did I have my translator’s phone number programmed in my phone? Where was my phone?
My panic turned to relief, then to embarrassment.
The next thing I knew he was gently leading me forward and the crowd parted ways to let us board first. My panic turned to relief, then embarrassment. People in line made silly faces, others waved to my daughter as we walked up the stairs to board the plane. She giggled and waved back as I said in my best Russian, “Thank you,” to everyone we passed.
Once we got settled into our seats, we started the seven-hour flight into Moscow on a tiny, turbulent plane. She sat in my lap the entire flight eating her crackers, cheese, and all the sweets the flight attendants could bring.
We didn’t watch a movie. We didn’t color. We didn’t read books or play any games. We sat together and spoke in our broken Russian and English. We just were. For the first time.
I may have missed her first laugh, her first two birthdays, her first words — but as I carried her up the escalator in the airport to begin our new life, I knew the firsts were just getting started.
And I was blessed to be a part of them.
Elaine N. Schoch is based in Denver and shares adventures, travel advice and tips on CarpeTravel.com.