Bear Sighting – A Father’s Journey to Latvia
I play Ice Hockey almost every day of the week, I wished for a son who shared my love of the sport and Latvia ended up delivering more than I could ever imagine.
I remember waking up at 4am to meet the in-country social worker in the lobby of my hotel. It was her that was going to take me on the long 5 hour drive from Riga to meet Maksims in an orphanage directly east, only 10 miles off the Russian boarder. I remember the icy road narrowing as we left the city toward the countryside into a small two-lane highway lined with trees so covered in snow they were about to snap. It was the middle of January in the coldest place I had ever been on a journey of a lifetime. I was speechless but filled with excitement of finding my son.
Photos: On the way to the orphanage, the views, the road!
I had read about Boy #23 on the ministry of children’s waiting list and inquired about him, asked for a photo which ultimately lead to me asking to be matched to him. A match that allowed me to be invited to the country to meet Boy #23, Maksims. This orphanage was so remote that I later learned that they do very few adoptions per year, sometimes only one. In fact the day we showed up at our scheduled time to meet Maksims they didn’t actually think we’d show up so they didn’t prepare Maksims or keep him out of school that day. We waited while the director of the orphanage checked my paperwork, my passport and called for Maksims to return from school to meet a visitor. Latvian’s are very formal, very proud and very direct.
The time had come for me to actually meet Maksims, a Russian speaking 7 year old boy that had no idea why I was there. I quickly learned that the orphanage children know, are taught or find out that America is the “golden ticket”. This close to the border it’s common for children and adults to speak Russian and Latvian however they speak very little English. I was always with my attorney or social worker assigned to me by CAN while in Latvia and both speak English as act as translator. We sat in the orphanage director’s office looking out at the snow covered fields that led to snow covered forests waiting for Maksims to arrive. The orphanage was only a few years old and the facility was welcoming, painted a happy color of yellow on the outside and arcitectually a great design where modern meets traditional. I remember thinking, “This looks like an ivy league dorm”. For some reason it gave me great comfort to know that the children were in a place of warmth, love and security.
Photos: The orpahage
The door opened slowly and he came in, head down but smiling, timid and shy, he just found out that someone from America was here to meet him. It was his day! I have to stop to tell you that whenever a car pulls up at the orphanage and strangers get out their is a frenzied excitment that follows. Children from all over the inside of the orphanage press their faces in the windows to see who it is, and wonder, “are they here for me?” To experience this sight is one of the most sad, humbeling and moving moments of my journey as they are “the waiting children”. It made me proud that I had gotten to this point, confirming my choice to adopt a waiting child with special needs. I wanted to change the life course of a child, forever. I had found out on the ride that they wanted me to be very careful if I should decide to select Maksims. My attorney who did not make the long 5 hour ride had seen Maksims in a hospital once near Latvia and said he may have more issues than I would want to deal with. It sounds harsh but it’s their job to make sure it’s a good fit for both sides. Since she had witnessed Maksims first hand I was even more causious than normal. During our visit he seemed fine. Since my attorney was not there I had no idea what she was speaking about, this kid was fantastic.
Photos: On the left was taken the day I met my son in the orpahnage on January 23rd 2012. The photo on the right is what he looked like in July of 2012 just six months later, as an American.
I was asked to bring a present for the boy as an “ice breaker” and I had decided based on his age that a small $7 Lego car would fit into my suitcase, I even brough a gift bag all the way from the USA to wrap it in. He loved it and we sat there building it and playing with it together for over an hour. He was so determined to put that car together thorough the visual directions to show me he could do it. The pride he had when he finished was a smile ear to ear. We made a game of rolling it back and forth, came up with rules like if you hit an extra piece (not used in the car) while rolling it to one another then the other person got the piece. Remember we could only communicate with smiles, made up sign language which we really laugh about today. It’s hard to describe but we connected in such a way, making rules for a game, totally understanding each other, we had nothing to worry about. I knew without a doubt, this was my son, he called me Papa from that day on. Even the orphan director was impressed with our skills to communicate. My in-country social worker the attorney had sent me with became nervous since the attorney was certain I would not select Maksims based off what she knew. I was sure. I did not see anything even close to what she saw and had heard about of this boy.
An few hours later we arrived at the Orphan Judge chambers with Maksims, my social worker and the orphan director to plead our case that I wanted to take the boy into my custody for the next 3 weeks while the courts checked in on us in Riga. We made great progress with the judge, she agreed to “think about it” overnight and asked us to come back in 2 days. I was the first single male to adopt from the country and they needed time to process the thought, ask their team opinions and deliberate on the case. Lucky for me I had taken a small photo album to Latvia to show extra photos of me, grand-papa, my sister, the house, the children’s bedroom, the dog, my friends, basically my life in 30 or so photos. I highly suggest doing this to anyone on this journey, Maksims could not stop looking at the photos the entire 3 weeks we were there. In fact we added photos of him and I to the book so he became part of the photo story and part of the family.
It was a long 2 day break, several hundred miles back and forth from Riga to the orphange but our day in Orphan court was here. We arrived at the orphanage, sat in the same office as before, delivered cookies and sweets to the director (a custom of courtesy) and chatted before going to see the orphan judge over the region. This time my attorney came with me since she had not “officially” met the boy I wanted to adopt, the boy that was a troubled soul and perhaps more than I could deal with. She was stunned, regretful and saddened that she had given me so much information. It was not the same boy she had seen and since Maksims is not a common name in Latvia, she was mistaken. We each learned 2 different lessons that day, for me it was follow your heart. I know she was just trying to protect me but I can’t tell you how many times on that long ride to the orphanage I that I thought, “should we stop”, or “what do I know, she’s a smart attorney.” I felt bad for the attorney, she felt even worse but I did feel protected and that I had someone watching out for me. His real profile from the Latvian website on waiting children was not very good so it was very possible that he could have been a poor choice. Below is the profile that lead me to want to meet what eventually became my son, a professional would also have the same opinion as my attorney. It’s a profile of what many consider much more extreme than “mild delays”. Ironically the high F scores would have scared most off just reading the profile however at the time I had no idea what they meant. After the inquiry I received a photo and asked to be matched and the country agreed to match us.
#23. Boy born on February 7, 2004:
- boy has brown eyes and light brown hair. Child is friendly, open, hardworking, helpful, responsible, responsive, is not aggressive, but sometimes has a lack of self control, is emotionally labile, can be rude, but in general he doesn’t engage in arguments, conflicts, but sometimes can be stubborn. In September 2010 he started to study in the 1st grade of the local elementary school, school results are good, he can read, write, count, but still he has learning problems and it is possible that he will need to be educated following the special program. Boy has difficulties to concentrate for very long time, he is hardworking and loves taking part in different activities, but because of his unstable attention and low capacity to concentrate quickly looses the interest and starts to disturb others. Boy loves singing, watching TV (cartoons) and enjoys playing with others. Boy often is ailing (cold, rhinitis, etc.). His development, as well as his weight and height, doesn’t correspond to the normal of the age, at the moment it corresponds to the 4 years old child;
- there is no information about pregnancy and prenatal development of the child;
- medical diagnosis – delay of physical development, behavior troubles in the early childhood;
- diagnosis of psychiatrist – light cognitive troubles without somatic troubles (F 06.70), mixed specific learning troubles (F 81.3), troubles of activity and attention (F 90.0), hyperkinetic troubles (F 90.1);
- further treatment – anemia treatment;
- by a court judgment, the mother has been deprived from custody rights in January 2009, mother is alcohol abused, she did not provide the appropriate living conditions for their children. Mother has never visited child, she has never shown interest in his current well being and in his future, the oldest sister has visited him once;
- child has one adult sister, the decision of the orphan’s court on separation of the children in case of adoption has been made.
The orphan judge agreed and even commented that we look alike, we had won them over. The man that physically removed Maksims from his home was on the panel. I’ll never forget him, Maksims was the first child he had to remove from a home and he held a special place in his heart since he saw what the journey the child had been through. Maksims was 3 at that time of removal, left alone in a home to fend for himself for several days repeatedly. His mother, an alcoholic and unable to care for her children, had become a common story you may hear over and over. This man saved my son’s life, he saw our connection over the course of my stay and advocated for the pairing and several months later showed up in court to make sure the final verdict was granted in the major court. I’m still in contact with the office of the orphan judge that first gave me custody, sending them photos and updates. Now and then I’ll receive a message back in broken typed English that they love the photos, they love that he’s happy and can see it in his eyes.
We went back to Riga for our 2 weeks of living as a family with the Latvian courts checking in on us, making reports and meeting with the attorney. It all sounds complicated but the attorney and in-country social worker arranged everything. I just had to be ready to have company that was scheduled or be picked up in the lobby of our hotel when asked. He began calling me Papa immediately and felt totally comfortable with me as his dad. The time passed quickly and Riga is a wonderful city to be “lost” in. We stayed in Old Town Riga and you can walk easily everywhere and enjoy sight seeing through the 750 year old city with cobble stone streets. It did take me some time to get used to the cold, seemingly unfriendly nature of the Latvian people however I was happier than ever before and in one of the most visually beautiful cities in the world. During this bonding time we went to the grocery store, clothing store, museum, circus, parks and doctors getting check ups. Looking back at the time its a wonderful memory and a perfect process for the bonding period. Ultimately I was granted the approval to take Maksims back to the USA.
Photos: My father took me to the circus every year so I wanted to do the same for Bear, our first outing in Riga. We did lots of shopping at the local stores and sometimes we just had “kid” fun blowing bubbles.
During the stay in Riga I had changed his name to Bear and moved the Maksims to the middle name. I wanted him to have a name I picked to celebrate his American life and honor his Latvian/Russian name as the middle. It was easier since he didn’t speak English and worked out just fine, he embraced his new name and for the first week or so I called him Bear Maksims, later dropping the Maksims. I picked Bear after hearing the story of what he went through, his lineage is Russian, his birth parents are suspected to be Russian and the Bear is a sign of Russia’s pride, strength, power and endurance. The Russian national hockey team often uses the skating bear as a symbol for their team, it was a perfect fit and he was starting to blossom as a kid.
Photos: The name Bear, A new dog “Finn” and learning to swim.
Once in America we spent the next several weeks visiting doctors, trying to find out what the profile said were the issues. Doctor after doctor we visited, nothing seemed to be out of the normal. Bear’s pediatrician has 2 boys near the same age, both on the small side and similar behaviors. It was comforting to know that he was checking out to not have anything severely wrong or what had been implied. Even non verbal IQ test was given to provide a baseline of where he was in the learning process and his capabilities. I finally stopped going to the doctors offices when my pediatrician said, there is nothing wrong with this boy, he’s on the small side of normal, no learning disabilities and everything seems fine, stop coming! I had hired a private tutor for him to study and catch up on the basics, we arrived in America on Valentines day so the school year would be out shortly in June and this time would allow us to play “catch up” on his education and socialization. He was tutored a few times a week for school. His love of sports was soon uncovered as he watched Papa play Ice Hockey and shortly after several games asked if he could play hockey too. Of course I said yes and hired him a private hockey coach to start. Today he has 4 private hockey coaches, loves the game as much as I do and we share the love of the sport, it’s in his blood.
Photos: The Latvian took to the ice like his Papa, hockey is in his blood.
With summer coming to an end, school looming in the near future and a boy who could now carry a conversation in English, we were all set. Since Bear turned 8 in February he was supposed to go into third grade a battle was beginning with the public school system. He needed to be in 2nd grade from all accounts from the experts but the system said due to his age he should be in 3rd, a battle I eventually won. I had desperately wanted him to attend my private church school however the more I researched the situation the more I had to accept that the public school system was more equipped to handle “English as a second language” and I decided to put him into the local public school. I was devastated but realized that it was the best decision I could have made. This was about what would be best for him vs. what I thought about the public schools, which ended up to be wrong. Even today I’m thankful I made that decision, he thrived, got attention and experts with adopted children and his growth excelled. Don’t get me wrong, there were challenges at first. He didn’t know how to behave in a classroom situation but shortly learned. I was strict and didn’t tolerate bad reports, bad behavior but wanted him to know what the expectations were in school. I think you could say that we both learned a lot early on in our school days of the 2nd grade. He entered the 2nd grade in August of 2012 and he started to blossom as a young boy, the speed at which he was learning was amazing, even to the teacher. I always believed that to be a teacher you have to love the art of teaching, love children and boy-o-boy did we get lucky! Ms. H was the perfect choice for Bear’s first teacher, a young 2nd grade teacher who loved exactly what she wanted to do, which was teach. There were rough patches, several daily reports of “yellow faces” which meant, not so good but early on in the process the “green smily faces” were praised with great joy. A few months later we were getting green smiley faces every day. His test scores were on par with his grade, for the most part he was a normal 2nd grader, and happy. This is a boy who just a few months ago could not speak the language, not write and had not been taught how to act in a classroom. In December we celebrated him being awarded student of the month for his grade. And yes, I’m one of those parents who proudly put the bumper sticker on their car that says, My Kid Is Student Of The Month!
Photos: Halloween at school as Huckleberry Finn then at night a Power Ranger with Papa. Later Bear told me I had my mask upside down! We can’t forget about soccer in the summertime.
There are highs and lows of the process, you will need to be strong. I honestly could write a book, I never get tired of telling the story. There are so many facets of the story I have not gone into but I think the basics are covered. If you’ve read this far you must be ready to start your journey. You will have so much to talk about. When I arrived in Latvia for the first time I created “Bear Sightings:” for the start of my Facebook entries that always were attached to a photo for my family and closest of friends to follow and support us. Everyone close to me knew what we were doing all along the way. Even today I still start all my Facebook posts as “Bear Sightings:” so everyone knows what to expect, a story about an amazing kid that changed my life. There are times you will remember forever, like at Christmas when he received a letter from Santa confirming that Santa knew where his house was located and he received his request for toys and game plus something for Papa. Bear said, “he finally found me for the first time”, we celebrated what Bear considers his first Christmas. Seeing an under weight, neglected boy become a confident, athletic, well mannered playful boy who can’t sit still in church … well there are no words that can give you the emotions you will have during the journey. We live today as a happy family and I recently entered back into the Latvian “waiting children” program to find 2 more “special needs” brothers for Bear to be the eldest sibling in our family. We play more ice hockey than I’d like to admit to and cherish the moments each day brings us. If you are lucky, you will get assigned to an amazing domestic social worker like I did. They are the unsung heroes that fight for these children everyday. She made the difference in my decision to get back into the Latvian program with CAN and find more sons. For us, the journey continues.
Photos Top Row: First floor of the house lit up at Christmas time so Santa could find us, it’s referred to as
THE HOUSE OF HUCKLEBERRY. A King in the Church pageant.
Photos Bottom Row: A letter from Santa and Christmas morning with Papa.
Adopting families always ask me for any advice or words of wisdom. I would have to say the following: 1) Don’t wait until you have all the money completely saved 2) Follow your heart but make sure you are listening to what it is really saying 3) It’s okay to say “no” to a match, even if you’ve met the child and it just doesn’t feel right 4) Take tons of photos, especially together 5) Share and write about your story
Photos Top Row: On the porch after church & a long day at practice
Photos Bottom Row: Father and son on a “set”, 3 generations of hockey players (myself, Bear and Grand-Papa)