Court Day

On Friday, January 9th, we woke up early.  We had managed to trick Elliott into going to bed an hour early so he would wake up naturally in time for us to leave.  It was Court Day!

In some ways, it felt like just yesterday that my phone rang with the news that January 9th would be the day of our hearing in a Polish courtroom.  In other ways, it felt like a lifetime ago.  How could it be that it has been less than a month since this munchkin entered our universe?  Hasn’t he been with us forever?

We had spent the day before packing up our Wroclaw apartment.  Anna, our attorney, was picking us up and driving us to court, and the we would return afterwards to collect our luggage and leave for the drive to our new home in Warsaw.  I was both exhilarated and exhausted at the thought of the day ahead.

I had always expected to feel nervous about court.  These were the people that made the final decision.  The last word didn’t come down to our agency representatives or attorney who have gotten to know us well over the last sixteen months.  It wasn’t even up to the social worker or the child psychologist who had visited us during our bonding period.  This entire experience, this journey that has turned us into new people, the solidification of our new family … all of it would come down to a single judge in a single moment, who knew nothing about us except for the stack of paperwork placed on his/her desk.

Yet when I woke up before the dim, winter sun on January 9th, I felt entirely calm about the ordeal to come.  Elliott was clearly our son.  A judge would only need to take one look at us together to know that.  In my mind, the day’s procedure was merely a formality to put down on paper what we all already knew as fact.

We dressed in the fancy clothes we packed for the occasion (Elliott could not be trusted to stay clean and thus stayed in his pjs until the last possible moment) and met Anna outside our building.  Court proceedings for an adoption are done in the district of the child’s current legal guardian, which meant we were heading back out into the country near the foster family’s home.  It was a treat to see that familiar countryside again, with its rolling hills, my favorite birch trees, and the huge balls of mistletoe dotting the treetops like an illustration from a Dr. Seuss book.

The courthouse was in a town much smaller than Wroclaw, but larger than the foster family’s village.  We climbed the stairs to the second floor, Anna balancing her stacks of files in front of her, Alex lugging the stroller, and me with Elliott plastered against me.  I was just thinking that we might be able to get him to take his nap through the entire ordeal, when I looked up the stairs to see Baba waiting for us, arms outstretched towards Elliott.

Instantly, I was hit with several conflicting emotions.  I was happy to see her again, hesitant about how our new role-reversal would impact our interactions, and terrified at what the coming moments might do to Elliott in terms of his attachment to us.  As much as I wanted to protect Elliott from the potential confusion of seeing his former caregiver again, I couldn’t bring myself to turn away.  Hesitantly, I allowed Baba to take him from my arms.

It took him a few moments to register her face.  It had been many days since he stopped looking for her around every corner, or watching to see if she was the one to walk through every door.  But when he did finally recognize her, his face broke into a grin and he giggled out loud.  For a brief, agonizing second, I felt a pang of jealousy.  Elliott recognizes me, looks for me when I am not in the room, seeks me out for comfort, and is now always excited to see me.  But even so, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what it would be like and how long it would take before seeing me elicits that much joy.

I chided myself instantly, remembering that Baba has been his primary caregiver and only mother-figure for nineteen months, whereas I have only been in his life for barely nineteen days.  I may have spent the last seven months dreaming of him all day every day, but he spent that time unaware that I would ever be a part of his life, or that I even existed.  I reframed my thoughts to instead look forward to the day when he sees me in the same way he sees Baba, and be grateful that he has been so lovingly cared for as to have such a strong connection with a caregiver.  Most orphans are far from that fortunate.

Before long, we were ushered into the courtroom.  In the flurry of hugs and welcomes outside the room, I hadn’t noticed that Anna had changed into long, flowing black robes accented in deep green.  Being the daughter of a lawyer, the detail stuck in my mind.  Best as I could recall, he had never donned fancy robes for court.

As we entered the room, I saw the judge was also wearing the same black robes, these accented in purple.  The judge was a woman, and I smiled to myself.  From day one, I have always told Alex that I envisioned our judge to be a woman.  She sat perched on a regal gold chair covered in red velvet, and in addition to her robes, had a massive gold chain draped around her shoulders like a shawl.  In smaller, but no less impressive chairs, two women sat on either side of her, their robes accented in maroon.

On the far side of the room, Baba and Elliott sat on a bench.  Parallel to them, we sat on an opposite bench with the wooden, microphoned stand in the middle.  I squeezed into the uncomfortable bench between Anna and Alex, with our translated sitting next to him.

For the first five or so minutes, we had no idea what was going on.  The judge and the robed women next to her spoke authoritatively in Polish, and Anna and Baba responded when questions were directed at them.  Our translator said they were just going over formal, legal aspects that begin the hearing, and that it wasn’t important.  Every so often I would catch the judge or one of the side-judges eyeing me, sizing me up.  I tried to sit up straight and not squirm on the wooden bench, wondering what was being said and feeling like a schoolchild forcing best behavior when the principal walks by.

I saw the judge pull out a huge stack of paperwork.  I recognized it by the Iowa Secretary of State seal on the top page – our dossier.  Slowly and methodically, the judge began turning the pages, out loud describing them for the court reporter’s rapid typing.  I felt like I was standing in the room buck naked.  That stack of paperwork described every minute detail of our lives – financial, personal, familial, historical, medical, everything.  It is easy to collect your entire life in paperwork sitting in your living room, but having it put on display for strangers around a courtroom in a language I couldn’t follow was enough to force me to remind myself again not to squirm.

Deciding that my attention obviously was not required at this point, I instead just turned to watch Elliott across the room.  He was playing with Baba and every minute or so would look up and grin when his searching eyes found mine.  I smiled back.  What a perfect representation of his love for the now two women in his life.

Suddenly, Alex was nudging me.  I jerked my eyes to the judges, who were all looking at me expectantly.  I heard the translator whisper that I was to go to the stand now.  Gulp.

Shakily, I made my way to the stand.  Just feet in front of me, the three robed judges stared me down.  The center judge began speaking, and I struggled to know who to focus on.  I know that in the case of an ASL interpreter, it is considered rude to focus on the interpreter instead of the person you are speaking with.  But I quickly realized that the translator’s style was to speak very softly in English to me while the judge spoke in Polish, not waiting for her to finish her sentence before begin his translation.  He spoke so softly as to not speak over the judge, that I found I couldn’t understand him without looking directly at him.

It turned out that this was the most challenging part of the whole process.  Focus on the judge while listening to the translator, speak in short, simple phrases for the benefit of the translator, all while staying focused and calm enough to answer coherently.  Even though we were all saying the same thing, it felt like multiple conversations were going on around me, and I was supposed to stay focused on all of them.

The questions came rapid fire.  The social worker from the adoption center said the questions would all be ones that we would already know the answer to, which was true.  But the pace and the language barrier made the situation feel even more pressure-packed.

What is your name?  Who are you married to?  For how long?  Is it a happy marriage?  Do you love him?  Did you talk him into adopting or was it his idea too?  Why adoption?  Why Poland?  Why have you not tried to have biological children?  Do you have any other children in this marriage?  In past marriages?  In past relationships?  What do you know about this child’s medical situation?  In what specific ways will you provide for his medical needs?  His educational needs?  His emotional needs?  Financially?  Is your family supportive?  What is your relationship with your extended family members?

On and on and on.  Eyes darting between the judges and the translator, still reminding myself to stand up straight and not squirm.  All of the questions came from the center judge, except the very last one, which was my favorite.  The small, older judge leaned forward into the microphone and said (via the translator):

“It appears you will give this child a happy home and a happy life.  But what children really need to be happy are grandparents.  Do you have the type of relationship with this child’s new grandparents that will allow him to be happy in this way?”

This was my favorite question.

At the very end, they asked me if I would like to make a closing statement.  I wasn’t prepared for this, but it seemed wrong to say nothing.  Honestly, I don’t even remember what I babbled in my short, simple phrases.  Something about our week at the foster family’s house and how it prepared us for the transition, blah, blah, blah.  Hopefully it made sense, whatever it was.

Just like that, I was excused.  I returned to my place on the bench and Alex was asked to come forward.  Sitting down caught Elliott’s attention, and from across the room he started shrieking his happy shrieks, smiling, and reaching out to me.  I smiled back, but tried to motion for him to stay quiet.  This didn’t work, of course, and after a few moments the judge asked me to take him out into the hall to play.  I gathered him up and off we went, settling down on a bench outside the courtroom.  Although I was glad for a break, I was also a bit disappointed to miss Alex’s questioning.

Just as I was pulling out a couple of toys for Elliott, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and heard a soft-spoken man greet me with a Polish accent.  It was Jaja!  I had been curious why he hadn’t been at the courthouse so far, but hadn’t gotten the chance to ask.  As with Baba, Elliott paused for a moment, looking at Jaja like a memory from a distant dream.  Then his face lit up with recognition, and Elliott reached out and place his hands on either side of Jaja’s face.  I passed him over to Jaja, who tossed him to the air, much to Elliott’s delight.

It seemed like no time had passed before Alex, Anna, Baba, and the translator came out into the hall.  Alex said that his questioning was easy and much shorter than mine, as we expected.  As the mother, I am assumed to be the primary caregiver and thus require the most scrutiny.  Anna said that now we wait for the judges to deliberate and make their decision, and that it would take only a few minutes.

Yet, the minutes ticked by.  Five minutes … ten minutes … fifteen.  It was time for Elliott’s nap, and Jaja offered to take him for a walk outside in the stroller to help him fall asleep.  One of the judges poked her head out the door and motioned for Anna to come in.  Even though the judges had been extremely positive, I felt a touch of nervousness that their decision seemed to be taking so long.  What was there to deliberate?

Every few minutes, Anna would scurry back out into the hall and ask some obscure question before disappearing back inside.

“Alex.  Your mother.  What is her maiden name?”

“In what city were your married?  Please write it down for me.”

“Are your parents still married?”

We had no idea why any of these seemingly random details mattered until we were finally called back into the courtroom.  The translator told us that now the judge would read us her decision.  The “decision” was actually a fairly lengthy document that seemed like a summary of our dossier – our history, our family, our residence, Elliott’s history, etc.

I think I held my breath through the reading of the document until the very end, when the judge smiled at us as she announced that yes, Elliott would be placed with us as a part of our family.  She ordered a new birth certificate to be issued with his new name and us listed as his parents.  She declared that he would have the full rights and privileges as if he were our biological child, and that these rights would also be true for his children and his children’s children, and so on.

The weight of the moment filled the room, and I think for the first time in this long, difficult process, I realized the eternal impact of adoption.  His children and his children’s children.  We aren’t just adopting a child.  We are adopting an entire legacy.  Our legacy.  His legacy.

There would be a mandatory two-week waiting period before the decision went into legal effect, but all of us in the room knew what this meant.  After these past sixteen months of paperwork, waiting, stress, tears, and sleepless nights, we were a family.  Now and forever, to our children and our children’s children.

“O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders.”

Psalm 78:1-4


Us with Baba & Jaja after the hearing




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  • Keenan Gehman

    Great news!

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