Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Loving the little girl I met in a Romanian orphanage, a kid who changed my life, as she graduates from high school 16 years after becoming a Ghianni
“Man, your daughter’s beautiful,” someone said, looking at the pictures of the recent high school graduate.
“Yep,” she is, I respond. “I wish I knew who her mother was.”
Well, that’s just a joke. It works better when my wife says “Thanks. I have no idea who her father was.”
I know my Emily’s birth mother’s name and I know that she gave birth to my precious daughter on Aug. 21, 1993 in a hospital in Arad, Romania. A few days later the mom left the hospital, leaving the infant behind. It’s an all-too-common fate in Romania, and the baby was turned over to the local orphanage, a massive, gated, almost ominous complex, something worthy of a movie about national hero Vlad the Impaler, aka “Dracula.”
Emily’s biological father was a farmer or some sort of agrarian in that country that defines poverty between the long rows of sunflowers and hops and below the soil in the salt mines.
At least it defined poverty back in 1995 when we traveled over there to bring Emily home.
I thought about her humble beginnings (and relative humble upbringing, I should add), the other day when she graduated from Nashville’s John Overton High School. My gut rolled and my heart ached with alternate pride and melancholy.
Proud because she truly is my daughter, has been since the day the caretaker brought the sweaty 23-month-old kid in from the playground where she’d been playing soccer.
The caretaker paraded Emily and Nita, Cara and Lexi – the other three girls who came out that day with parents who have become part of our lives – and up to the dormitory room where they dressed the kids in their “Sunday” best for their new moms and pops.
My little girl was a chubby child, so the dress, woven of pink yarn, had to virtually be cut off her, as all clothes the children wore had to be left behind for other kids to wear in the orphanage.
Her lower body was swaddled in plastic, thick as a shower curtain, that was wrapped around her. No Pampers in the orphanage.
We cut that plastic off and chose fresh items from our overnight bag to dress her. This was before the internet age. Adoptive parents got little more than a name and an age and “healthy” on the back of a snapshot from the adoption agency. So we had to guess at her size, and any clothing that was either too large or small we left behind for the kids who weren’t getting out that day.
I’ve written the story before and perhaps I will again in detail.
But, cutting to the chase, within an hour we were on the Orient Express, bound the breadth of Romania in an all-night ride through the Carpathians and deep forests of Transylvania. The toilets were inoperable, so men, at least, trekked out between the cars to relieve themselves as the cold mountain darkness rushed past. Women, I believe, just elected to hold it for 10 or 11 hours.
It was a full-speed, almost all downhill run from Arad to Bucharest, where we were greeted by children who had climbed from the sewers beneath the depot – that’s where they live as bait for pedophiles – to swarm around our legs.
They wanted to rob us, of course. But one of the boys said he wished he could go with us. And the young cop who shooed them away said he wished he’d been adopted by Americans.
I replayed a part of that scene in my head as I sat in the stands at the Curb Center at Belmont University a week ago, where the Class of 2011 was taking its bows and salutes and diplomas.
A lot of family had come in for the celebration, but I took Emily to the arena early. Grads had to be there 45 minutes early. Emily was there an hour early. She may not be particularly punctual but her dad -- a 59-year-old journalist who apparently was judged a misfit by vile Korporate Amerikan standards -- is always on time. Course, lots of times nowadays, I’ve really got no place to go, so why be late? Another story sometime.
The ability to be on time had been tested 16 years ago when we were told a daughter had been selected for us … if we could be in Romania in 10 days or so.
They’d told us we’d get two months or so notice. But they had found a girl who matched my curly and unkempt hair (mine was brown at the time) and handed us the picture asking if we wanted them to proceed -- very quickly -- in the Romanian courts to finalize our adoption. We dropped everything to get there, to retrieve our baby.
My son, Joe – we adopted him three years later in Giurgiu, Romania – and I took Emily over to the Curb Center and we staked out a long row of seats for the expected family of spectators. They all love Emily.
I don’t know if anybody could love her more than I do. So as I stood there, 50 or 60 feet from Joe – who was at the other end of our reserved seat aisle – I looked around the arena.
I saw the stack of diploma covers on the stage. Some of the kids – those who are less punctual or at least who have less-anal-punctual parents – arrived later.
I had time to think about my daughter. No, she’s not perfect. A smart enough kid, perhaps needs a bit more motivation sometimes. A nice girl who seldom shows the scars of abandonment.
Emily, your birth mother did the right thing. She loved you enough to give you a future, we tell her.
But I know it aches and I ache for her.
And now I ache because she’s almost grown up.
It’s been a long time since she jumped up and down on her bed singing “Love, Love Me Do” or “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” – some of her early English lessons involved, for some reason, singing along with the music of The Beatles.
There was the occasional nod to The Stones – “Jumpin' Jack Flash” – and even Dylan.
You ever hear a 2-year-old Romanian take a crack at "Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream"? I have, of course. I taught her the lyrics. “I asked him what his name was and why he didn’t drive a truck…”
There was Emily with me, riding around town, eating McDonald’s french fries or M&Ms, after I picked her up from day care.
And the little girl who dressed as a black cat for her first Halloween with us -- trick-or-treating at my mother’s house, back when her Nonna was still alive -- and who posed with our huge dog, Buddy, in our first Christmas picture. Mom’s been gone almost a dozen years now. Buddy’s been gone seven.
There were the piano lessons and the recitals. The good grades and bad grades. The fine teachers and the horrid.
The eyes which drifted eerily when we first got her long have healed. She doesn’t have to wear glasses any more. Her teeth, weak from baby malnutrition have been fixed and filled. Like most kids, and like her dad, she doesn’t particularly enjoy flossing.
One of the strongest memories is the aroma she filled my car with on the first afternoon after she’d spent the day with Suzanne’s parents in Cookeville. I met them after work – I was a 4 a.m.-2 p.m. Nashville Banner editor and columnist back then – and picked her up at a gas station in Lebanon. They said she’d not gone “No. 2” all day and she’d been a delight.
“Daddeee … Daddeee … Daddee…” Emily shrieked in joy when I lifted her from one car seat and put her in another.
We were about one mile down the interstate back to Nashville, The Traveling Wilburys singing “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” on my tape player, when she apparently felt relaxed enough to, well, be herself. I thought I’d have to burn the car.
I can’t say her whole life flashed before me as I watched her and the other kids eventually file into the arena.
Maybe mine did, though.
Earlier in the day, I had learned that one of my life’s friends had been placed in a hospice and was not expected to wake up. He didn’t. He was gone the next morning. A part of a tribute I wrote to him was read at his funeral.
That was a reminder of just how special each bit of life is … and how so much of mine has been counted down by watching and enjoying and mostly just loving my children.
Sure, they are a pain in the ass. I now can tell them that, as they are old enough to deal with it and to them, well, it’s not news. But I love them and their mother more deeply than I thought I could love anything back during my rambling and painful days when I waged war with the storms of life.
I remembered dancing with her when she cried. I remembered crying with her when I was too tired to do otherwise. She was a comfort to me when my mother died, as she was an example of the circle of life.
And when my favorite newspaper, the old Nashville Banner, folded and left me in professional limbo, her hugs helped.
Later, when suffering through the torture of mean-spirited bosses and their corporate ass-kissing, I knew that when I got home, the kids – both Emily and Joe by then – would help me put it in perspective.
Some people tell me Suzanne and I’ll be lucky when the proverbial “empty nest” becomes a reality. Fortunately, Joe’s here for three more years.
And Emily is going to college an hour or two away. She says she’ll come home to visit often. And I hope she does.
When I was in college, my parents lived 823 miles from my dorm, so I only went home at Christmas and during the summer.
That was OK with me, as I went through the rigorous, red-eyed life of a baby boomer who would walk to class singing “I’m Free” from The Who’s Tommy, who hung out with Howling poets and Howlin’ Wolf and who embraced that most special part of life on a razor’s edge. And the wonder is, I lived through it.
My family, Suzanne and our children, are really my inspiration. I lived a hard and too-often reckless life until I was almost 40. I don’t regret that, but I am proud of the fact I was able to give up that lifestyle for the love of a family.
Having kids isn’t for everybody. But it was and is right for me. If my daughter hadn’t pleaded with me “stop using those fire sticks” I may not have quit smoking out in the back yard when I watched Buddy.
I hope Emily keeps her promise and comes home to see me.
These thoughts and memories danced beneath my long, gray hair as the relatives arrived and took their seats, as the ceremony began.
There were short speeches by the principal, the class president the valedictorian and a couple others. I really didn’t pay much attention. I kept watching the pretty “little girl” on the aisle seat near the back of the sea of red and black caps and gowns.
When it was her time to walk across the stage my heart pounded.
It did bother me a little, not much, when her name was mispronounced, when it was given a soft “jee” rather than a hard “ghee” (as in “ghost”).
Still I sat there and smiled as the kids tried their version of the wave, as my little girl threw her cap in the air.
Quickly it was all over, as the graduates filed out and I went to meet her in the conservatory area outside the arena.
At first I didn’t see her and she didn’t see me. But she is small and I am tall. I called her on the cell phone and told her I’d hold my arm up in the air.
Soon, she emerged from the sea of people, a bright smile, brighter eyes.
“Dad,” she said. “They mispronounced my name.”
I told her it didn’t matter. That we know how to pronounce Ghianni, that name she was given back in the courthouse in Arad 16 years ago.
“Emily Mariana Ghianni,” I said, pronouncing her name correctly while hugging her and returning her quick kiss. “I love you.”