They stood at the entrance to the room where floor was covered in a red-toned, worn, Oriental rug and light through windows was filtered by white sheer fabric sprinkled with red roses. She held the hand of the orphanage director and he held the hand of his caregiver. And they looked straight at us, sitting on a red couch on the opposite side of the room. My heart nearly burst, beating wild.
She wore a red patterned sweater too big for her tiny frame and a red knit skirt. White opaque tights covered her spindly legs and black strapped shoes completed. I knew they had dressed her in the best attire available. Her badly chopped hair was pulled up in a big white bow, customary for all little Russian girls on special occasions. And this was special. Her teeth were stained black, probably from well water and lack of dental care. She was two months shy of six.
He was dressed in a pink sweat suit. On the front was a picture of Simba and Nala from The Lion King, obviously an American donation. The irony smacked. Surely, he had never seen a movie or been to a theatre or even knew who Simba and Nala were. He looked pale and too thin with noticeable dark circles under his eyes. And those eyes jumped around the room from person to person and toy to toy, not knowing where to go first. He would turn four the next week.
There they were, our children we traveled half way round the world to claim, standing on the threshold of a whole new life and we with them. And as they entered the room, the orphanage director pointed to me, leaned over and whispered in her ear . . .
“There’s your Mama.”
And her eyes looked straight into mine and a smile spread big across her face. She let go of the director’s hand and she ran. She ran straight to me, not breaking her gaze, with arms spread wide like a bird in full flight. And she chirped with delight . . .
My arms opened and she fell in. And there, in that moment, it happened. I became a mother and our daughter was no longer an orphan. We became parents to the child we named Anna Christine Johnson, easing into the change of name because her Russian name is Alla Nazarova. But just as Jesus often gave new names because of meaning, we did the same with our children.
Anna comes from the Hebrew Hannah which means “God has favored me.” He did. He still does. God has truly favored His Anna who He put in our care that September day in 1997, half way round the world.
Christine was my mother’s middle name. Grandma cried grateful when we told her we were passing her name on to her only granddaughter. Later, Anna loved having Grandma’s name because even a name gives grounding, grants identity, shows you forever belong and are claimed by those who will never leave you or forsake you. And when one has no family—when one starts out life as an orphan—such claiming means everything and everything else means next to nothing.
Years later, after Anna had been adopted again by God Himself when she accepted His free gift of eternal life through faith in Jesus, she explored the meaning of her Russian surname, Nazarova. To Christians, it’s easy to see the familiar. Nazarova means “of Nazareth”. Could it be, she thought? Could it be that she was a Russian Jew whose descendant, somewhere down the line, actually came from Nazareth, the town of Jesus? She loves to think so because it makes her feel even closer to Jesus. But as one said in Scripture, “Does anything good come from Nazareth?” I smile, knowing full well . . .
Anna sat on my lap in the orphanage great room, looking through my purse for items of interest. First thing she found was my lunch—an apple and a banana. I helped her with the banana peel and she gobbled the banana fast. Next came the apple. To my amazement, she ate the entire piece of fruit—core, seeds, stem—the whole thing! Had she never had an apple before? Was this how all kids in Russia ate apples? Was she starving? No matter. Obviously, she savored every bite and I couldn’t have been happier to go without lunch that day.
Next came the sunglasses. She put them on her face as I opened my pressed powder compact so she could see herself in the mirror. She smiled. With glasses still on, she found several fabric ponytail holders in the bottom of my bag. Out she pulled each one and put them in her hair. How silly she looked with one ponytail sticking straight out to the left of her head, one straight out to the right, and one straight up on the top! She assessed her handiwork in the mirror and approved, grinning.
Then another purse dig and out came the packet of tissues. Had she ever seen a tissue? She took out every single one, fascinated by how they were stacked in the package and how they came out, one right after the other. She touched them to her cheek and closed her eyes, delighted by the softness. And then she just leaned back into my chest, head to one side, with sunglasses on, hair in scrunchies, Kleenex in both hands, and she stared into my eyes. And I gazed back. Mother and daughter. Both who had waited so long. Bliss . . .
He came over to Todd first as I held Anna. Kneeling beside, Todd placed tender hand on back, showing him toys we brought. He liked the small cars and enjoyed sitting on Todd’s lap as he looked at details of each car, lilting in Russian, “machina”, the word for car.
We named our son Zachary Charles Johnson because Zachary was the closest sounding name we could think of to his Russian name, Sergei. And Zachary comes from the Hebrew Zechariah which means, “The Lord remembers.” Our God who knit this child together in his mother’s womb remembered him. When he was born too early because his mother couldn’t cope and didn’t want, his first breath didn’t come right away. God remembered him then and had a purpose and a plan for him on this earth because He breathed His own breath into those dangerously premature lungs and blue became pink and breath gave way to a cry. The child who should not have survived, came forth against all odds and lived. His first few months were spent in an antiquated neonatal intensive care unit while birth mom was stripped of her parental rights for trying to rid her womb by her own hand.
Now here he was, our Zachary, sitting on my husband’s lap, alive and about to depart the only life he had ever known—institutional, not familial. While we readied to go, Zachary bounced on a handled ball across the room until it was time to change clothes.
Both kids had to strip naked. They were not allowed to take even their underwear because even the underwear was community property. The children owned nothing. Not one thing were they allowed to take as a keepsake, as a memory, as a tie to their beginning. They came with nothing and left with nothing. And this is how we all enter and leave our world, isn’t it?
So we pulled out the clothes we had brought and helped them change. It was like Christmas in September to see their faces as they dressed and looked at themselves in the mirrors lining both long walls of the room. We brought a pink cotton turtleneck for Anna and a blue denim jumper with ruffles and buttons down the front. We helped her pull on the pink tights to match and the bright white, Velcro strapped tennis shoes with pink flowers. And of course, we didn’t forget to pack a puffy pink hair bow because all Russian girls love hair bows.
Zachary pulled on his Lion King underwear (who would have known he would greet us in Lion King sweats?!) and his navy blue sweatpants. A navy and white-striped thermal cotton top completed his outfit and he really liked his white, light-up sneakers.
Ready to go, we walked out of the great room, hand-in-hand, and through the halls of the orphanage toward the front door. It would be their last trip down that hall . . .
Join me tomorrow for Part 2?