Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Most Horrible First U.S. Experience--but the Most Wonderful Homecoming

When in the taxicab pre-paid by Toni from the hotel to the airport in Sofia, the look in Stephen's eyes was eloquent enough to show that he was trying to absorb every single bit of his country so as to keep it fresh in his memories. I wish I could have told him how very proud of him I was, and that he would have some opportunity to visit his wodnerful homeland some time in the future. (I don't really know when I'll be able to afford that, though.) During the flights from Sofia to Vienna and from Vienna to D.C., Stephen kept awake all the time. He was not scared of planes at all, but his mind was full of thoughts and emotions. Our fellow passenger on our second flight, a major in the U.S. Army, was surprised that he was "not shy at all." Everything went fine, and we had pleasant flights with pleasant aircraft personnel. I will clarify that we were flying with Austrian Airlines.
In the taxicab, before going down at the Sofia airport. Stephen looks much younger than he really is, doesn't he?

That thoughtful, already nostalgic face at the Sofia airport
The plane was about to take off--and he was not scared at all.

At the airport in Vienna

During all the flight from Vienna to Washington Dulles, Stephen surpirsed our fellow passenger regarding how sociable and self-confident he was, and watched movies and played games without ever closing his eyes at all.

Stilll smiling (that was before landing in U.S.)
When Stephen and I landed on U.S. soil at Washingon Dulles Interantional Airport, located in Chantilly, VA, a real nightmare was waiting for us. To start with, the immigration officer who cleared Stephen's papers was the very first person who did not congratulate me on the wondrous event of having a new son. That was not the important issue, though. When I asked that immigration officer when we'd get Stephen's proof of U.S. citizenship, his answer was that they did not give U.S. citizenship, and that I'd have to take care of that on my own. He made it very clear that Stephen was being admitted as a permanent resident. I tried to remember and apply what I myself say in my etiquette book when you have to deal with people like that, and very politely pointed out to him that, unless I was mistaken, my understanding as an immigration attorney was that Stephen was arriving with an R-3 visa, which means immediate U.S. citizenship. The officer told me to talk to a supervisor, who happened to be right there. Well, the supervisor had a little larger dosage of goodwill, but still did not know the answer. He made a call, and after waiting for several minutes on the phone for a third person, who obviously didn't know either, to check that matter, told me that we would not get any proof of citizenship on the spot, but Stephen's naturalization certificate would arrive in the mail, retroactive to the day of arrival. That was all right--but had meant wasting some precious time when you have connecting flights.

Then, as the very kind special services lady from India asked a gate operator whether or not she was taking us the right way, his best answer was, "Get in, get in," as if meaning "don't bother me with questions." She tried to tell him that it was a transfer, but still all the man would say was, "Get in, get in."

And, as we went in, we ended up in the final destination terminal as opposed to the transfer one--where our luggage had been sent. The special services lady made a call, and tried to make the person on the other end understand that we risked missing our flight to San Diego. Nothing to do: unless we cleared customs with all our luggage and checked it in again, we would not fly at all.

Well, it was a matter of waiting, and worrying, for some longer time, but finally our two suitcases and Stephen's wheelchair showed up on the conveyor belt at the terminal where we were. Time was tight, but it stilll looked like if we rushed, we'd be able to make it. The special services lady started a full-speed trip towards the departure gate. I never had asthma, but at that moment I was panting out of breath.

Finally we arrived to the gate. There the TSA officer looked at our boarding passes--and both were in my name!!! I will never forget the evil, disgusting, offensive smurk on that man's face. He would have been an excellent candidate to play the part of a Nazi officer in a WWII movie. That's exactly how he looked. I tried to explain to him that Stephen had not closed his eyes one single minute during the two international flights--that he was eagerly waiting to meet his new family, and his new family was eagerly waiting to meet him. It was to no avail. He would not board us. Period. All we could do was to go downstairs to the United ticket counter and get Stephen's boarding pass re-issued.

We rushed again--only to meet a woman with long blonde hair at the ticket counter who was as nasty as the TSA man upstairs had been. She could have re-issued Stephen's boarding pass in no time--but refused to do it. It looked like she enjoyed saying, "It's too late. You're not flying." As I tried to reason with her, she just told me, "I'm done talking with you." Stephen was upset--and yet able to hold his tears. He did not want to cry. And he succeeded--but I did not. Tears were coming to my eyes, as I feared that all the discomfort, stress, and tension of the moment could somehow damage the strong bonding we had already built. It was perfectly understandable how he might have felt: It's really distressing for a little boy to arrive to a whole new country and find so many horrible people--knowing that such place would be his new country from then on!
I was really terrified that those horrible people we had met at the first U.S. airport might have adversely affected Stephen's trust in me.

A brave little boy trying to look O.K.--but not feeling O.K. at all

I tried to speak to other members of the United staff--but none seemed willing to help. They would not even call a supervisor for me. One employee finally did call for a supervisor--without saying how extremely urgent the matter was. Finally, another ticket counter employee showed me who a supervisor was. He was standing right there. The supervisor had a little better disposition, and agreed to go upstairs back to the gate with us in order to tell the TSA people that it was all right with him and with United to board us because Stephen's passport clearly showed that he had cleared immigration.

Again the awful TSA man. Again the same repugnant smurk on his face. I asked him what he had found laughable, and he replied I was shouting at him--which was not true. He kept on refusing to let us board our plane. Finally, a second TSA decided to call their supervisor, and see what she said. The TSA supervisor decided to let us board--but by the time we cleared through the metal detectors and arrived to the gate, it was too late. The gate was already closed. Was the plane still there? I approached the nearest United desk, and asked the lady there if she could please make a call to see if by any chance the plane was still there and the gate could be open. Unbelievably, she also refused to help. Stephen was desperately trying not to cry. I could not control myself, and did cry.

At that moment, God sent two people without whom it would have been sheer disaster. First a family we had met two days before at the U.S. Consulate in Sofia happened to be there. They bought a bottle of water and M&M's for Stephen. Then, miraculously, another United employee started speaking with Stephen in Bulgarian. Yes, she was from Bulgaria. She helped very, very much, and even purchased something for Stephen from one of the shops as a present for him. The only way to make it to San Diego that same night would be by connecting flights in Denver. Instead of arriivng at 8:25, we'd be arriving at 11:10--but at least we'd have our first supper all together--a very late supper, though, in the early morning hours.

Catherine met us at the airport--and Catherine's magic way immediately won Stephen over. As we were going to the elevator, Catherine whispered in my ear, "I love him soooooooo much already!!!" Actually, she had already loved him with all her heart from that very first day when she had seen his picture in the RR photlisting.

I was so exhausted that when given the information about where to claim our luggage the following day if they did not call us before, I checked with the employee where the telephone number was. She told me, "Here is our phone number--and you'd be able to see it better if you turned the paper around." I was trying to read the paper upside down and had not even noticed it!!!

The homecoming Catherine, Gerard, and Warren had prepared for Stephen was amazing, awesome--super, as they'd say in Bulgarian, with ballons pouring down on him as he entered his new and forever home. Well, the actual home won't be forever, as we're moving very soon--but what rreally makes a home will be forever and ever.

Stephen is extremely playful, and in just a few moments, it seemed he had been with us all our lives. The only thing that remind us it was not since ages ago is the language barrier. Stephen is a very fast learner, though--and the twins learned A LOT of Bulgarian already.

Catherine, Gerard, and Warren are always ready and willing to do whatever it takes to help with their younger siblings and around the house. Whether it is helping with hygene needs, preparing supper, scanning some paperwork for me on the computer, or cleaning up a mess, they're always there.

One very nice little incident was this. Stephen got fascinated by a toy car with lights and sounds that Thomas had always liked very much. My mom tried to tell Thomas that Stephen had never had those toys before--and Thomas gave Stephen his car. Then, he came to me and asked me, "Mom, can you buy another car for me for Christmas?" And tears started rolling down Thomas' cheeks. As soon as Stephen saw the tears, he gave the car back to Thomas. A moment after, they were both on the floor, sharing that toy car, and making it go from one to the other.

The bonding with Stephen cannot be stronger--and that goes for all of us, and for him with all of us. Like when Thomas and Nicholas arrived home back in mid 2008, I want to thank Catherine, Warren, and Gerard for having been the instruments of a new miracle of love.

Stephen is so very bright, has such a shining, radiant personality, is so self-confident and so boyish and yet so very loving, so very playful, and so very cuddly that you simply fail to even notice his wheelchair--and BTW, he has a really noble and self-assured attitude in the face of his physical challenge.

There is only one problem, though--not for us, but for all those who know us: I do brag a lot about my kids--and now can be even more insufferable than before, with one more child to brag about!!!
When Catherine met Stephen for the first time at the San Diego Airport. After only a moment, she'd whisper in my ear, "I love him already!!!" Actually, she already loved him with all her heart since many months before--they all did!

Both my mom and Thomas claiming their time with Stephen--as we had just entered the house

Catherine, Gerard, and Warren had prepared a wonderful homecoming, including a bunch of balloons--and all the love in the world!!!

Our first family picture as a family of eight. That was in the early morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 18, 2010.

Our very first "dinner" all together--if it can be called dinner at about 2:00 a.m. in the morning (on 12/18/10)


eliz said...

Oh, Lillian, God Bless the Bulgarian woman at the airport for her kindness.
I'm so sorry to hear of your travel problems here in the US. It makes me ashamed.

Christine said...

I am sorry you had to run into so many jerks on the way home. Denver is a terrible airport to have a connection in. I was once stuck there trying to find my way around. I am lucky to have made it on my next flight.
I wish you all the best of luck with moving, a Merry Christmas today, and happy new year.

artfulwhimsies said...

Sorry you had such a bad experience when back in the USA. But you brought home with you a wonderful gift! Bless your family this holiday season~

schoolmother said...

Sorry for the mess at the airport but so glad you made it safely home and that things are going well so far.

JennyH said...

Congrats on Stephan's homecoming. Too bad it wasn't a better one! Your family looks amazing. Praying the other 2 adopts go fast and smoothly.

Blessedmom said...

Eliz, thank you so much for your comment, and I do apologize for my belated reply. How are the adoptions of your three precious boys going? With God in charge above, and About A Child and Toni in charge on this earth, I'm sure everything is moving forward all right. God bless, Lillian

Blessedmom said...

Thank you for posting a comment, and I wish I had been able to reply sooner.
God bless,

Blessedmom said...

Thank you, Artfulwhimsies (sorry I don't have your real name)for your comment, and my apologies for my late reply. God bless, Lillian

Blessedmom said...

Joy (you are Schoolmother, aren't you?),
Thank you for your comment, and sorry for taking so very long to reply. Things can go well and hectic at the same time, can't they?
God bless,

Blessedmom said...

From all of us, thank you for your prayers for the adoptions of Maximilian and Philip.
God bless,
Lillian / The Godone-Maresca Family


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