Rebecca in the Swing
Dr. Dan, a Romanian specialist assigned by our adoption foundation and an emblematic midwife, transported us in an ancient Mercedes Benz over potholed roads that no tourist would travel. We arrived at a small farm hidden in the back woods of Oradea, near the Hungarian border. Here my son lived with his foster family.
As we approached the farmstead, the scent of wild grape blossoms and hay drifted through the car window accented by a touch of cow manure. A primitive barn, a pasture surrounded by rickety wooden fencing, and a cottage with rose vines climbing up the clay walls stood before us like a fairy tale. It reminded me of Jack’s home before the beanstalk took over. In the yard rested scattered toys, a cow and a child’s swing.
A couple in their late fifties, Cristian’s foster parents, greeted us at their gate. I recognized the leather-skinned woman, Adelina, from the only photo I had of Cristian. Her husband, Victor, shook our hands, his calloused palm scratching ours. A cow followed them to greet us, its bell tinkling in the September breeze.
“This is Sara, the new mom, and Diane, her friend.” Dr. Dan held Adelina’s hand as her pale eyes twinkled in the afternoon sunlight. Moisture collected around them from the extreme heat. My legs shook as we stood awkwardly in the yard. I was dressed more for a job interview than a walk across a farm: a cotton skirt soaked in sweat and black heels now digging into the mud.
I scanned the property, hoping to see signs of baby Cristian—instead, a scowling girl emerged from behind Victor’s faded overalls, glared at me and then thrust herself onto the ground. Victor picked her up and tried to place her in a tree swing, but she wriggled away and began to kick the trunk. It wasn’t clear if she was in the throes of a temper tantrum or mild seizures. Her father tried again to hold her up, but she hurled her four-year-old body onto the spongy ground and startled the cow, which bolted for a distant pasture.
Diane, who is gifted with children, tried to approach her, but the girl banged her head against the dirt in rebellion of an invading stranger’s motions.
“Grrrrrr,” Rebecca growled at Diane, who lurched away in fear.
“Dear Rebecca.” Dr. Dan called.
The girl looked up, jumped into his arms, and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“Yah,” she cried. Dr. Dan swung her over his head—Rebecca’s angry face transforming into that of a calm child. His warmth, in stark contrast to the harshness of Foundation bureaucrats, restored my faith in the Romanian adoption system.
“This is Rebecca. Like Cristian, she’s their foster child.” The bewildered girl stared at us with familiar deep-set black eyes. I noted her hair, the thick black texture of Cristian’s. Was
Rebecca his biological sister? If so, why hadn’t the Foundation told us about her?
Dr. Dan sensed my confusion. “She is not related to Cristian. She’s one of the many Romanian children who may never get adopted. Children with special needs are harder to find homes for. Her future is uncertain. Hopefully she will remain here as a long-term foster child. Or she may go back into an orphanage.”
As we watched, Rebecca ran around the yard, banged the side of a tree with a stick, and did numerous somersaults. How these older parents could care for Rebecca’s constant needs bewildered me as I stood in the sunshine, a river of sweat still pouring down my bare legs. An ache stabbed my heart for Rebecca. I took a deep breath and looked at Diane, who stood by, stone-faced.
Adelina then led us past an overflowing woodpile toward their rustic home. We did not speak each other’s languages, yet connected we were in the most integral way possible—as caretakers of an infant. Dr. Dan, the orchestrator of this twisted emotional transaction, signaled us to enter the house.
“Cristian is sleeping, but his mother wants us to have some refreshments while we wait for him to wake up.”
Suppressing the intense urge to rush into Cristian’s room, I handed her a package of Vermont syrup and chocolates, the simple gifts I was allowed to bring in recognition of their hospitality. Anything more expensive could be perceived as a form of bribery.
Turkish-style rugs and red tapestries adorned the floors and walls. The scent of baby lotion drifted through the house. Books, religious icons, and Russian-style painted dolls crowded a shelf while family photos plastered the kitchen walls.
Adelina took down a snapshot of her three children, now grown with their own lives.
“They love Cristian like family,” Dr. Dan explained. “She wants him to have a copy of this picture.” Dr. Dan handed me the photo. My fears of a harsh foster home evaporated as I took the picture.
Adelina motioned for us to sit down at her lace-covered table. Oreo cookies and an orange mystery drink awaited us. In a country whose average salary is less than $200 a month, this was a feast; to refuse it would insult our host.
“Cristian will wake soon.”
Adelina’s smile faded as we strangers ate her snacks and waited to take a baby from her home. She scrubbed the stone counters and made sure we had napkins. Curtained windows blocked the sun’s heat, yet the temperature inside stood well over ninety degrees. No air conditioning filled the house—I wasn’t even sure if they had electricity, as numerous candles decorated the tables and shelves.
“Cristian drinks fresh milk.” Dr. Dan pointed out the kitchen door to the grazing cow. “From that cow.”
Shocked, I imagined the danger of parasites. The family cow looked healthy—perhaps I should have thanked her for providing Cristian sustenance, instead of imagining the worms she harbored.
“This is very hard for the mother. She’s very attached to Cristian.” As if on cue, Adelina came over and hugged me while Rebecca hopped toward Cristian’s room like an eager rabbit. At his door, she shot us a mischievous look, and then knocked it open with the force of a lumberjack. Adelina rushed into the nursery and suddenly reappeared with a chortling baby, his eyes still sleepy.
Rushes of endorphins calmed my anxiety. I tried to get Cristian’s attention as Adelina cradled him, but he stared at Rebecca whose face beamed with big-sister pride. As she entertained him by rolling across the floor, he rocked and then stretched his arms toward her.
“Cristiiaan,” Rebecca gurgled.
“She can’t speak yet. Just says ‘Cristian.’” Dr. Dan reached over and tickled Rebecca. Her feral sounds dissipated into soft coos, echoing Cristian’s chortles. The two children swayed back and forth, laughing in synchrony.
Adelina then handed me Cristian who perspired from the wool jumper she had dressed him in that morning. Despite the European heat wave, he could have survived a Siberian winter in these clothes—a sign of caring mother, I was later told. Romanian women who fear their babies will get colds swathe them in wool, as their own mothers have done for generations. I couldn’t wait to change him into a cotton suit once we were out of Adelina’s sight.
“Make sure you take his clothes,” Dr. Dan pointed to a pile of woolens on the table.
A game of maternal charades began, Adelina showing me little things she did to calm him—rocking him with lullabies, wiping his milk-sticky face with a warm cloth, and rubbing his back when he cried. Tears filled her eyes as she pantomimed these matters—critical devices to soothe the sleepless nights ahead once he left her care.
“She rocks him at bedtime,” Dr. Dan translated. “A nap right after lunch is needed. Throws his toys often.” Dr. Dan laughed. “He has bowel movements five times each day. Good luck with that.”
As I held Cristian, a feeling of elation filled my being, arms, his head nestled against my shoulder. A soothing cocktail of endorphins swept through my brain while a surreal atmosphere took over Adelina’s kitchen—similar to that I experienced after I gave birth to my premature daughter in a high-tech birthing room.
With the concern of biological parents, Adelina and Victor observed how I handled Cristian as we packed him up. I couldn’t stand to imagine the depth of Adelina’s loss at that moment. Diane sensed this, stepped in and hugged her goodbye.
“After we leave, she will cry in the corner and then take a nap. A very long nap.” Dr. Dan’s said as his wet eyes met mine. As the adults broke down, Cristian basked in this attention like a Transylvanian prince.
I felt a tug on my dress that startled me—Rebecca had wrapped her arms around my legs and now stared up at me. A fog of confusion raced over me. How could I leave this sister who loved her baby brother. She stroked Cristian’s skin— her yearning eyes seemed to ask, Whereare you taking my brother? And are you taking me too?
Victor swept Rebecca up into his arms—a ripping of flesh from a wound, which caused my heart to sink deep into the earthen floor.
“Please tell Victor it’s ok,” I told Dr. Dan who translated. Victor nodded and released Rebecca who again stretched out her tiny hands toward Cristian.
How could I take my son out of this remote Transylvanian farm, without his soul sister, whose future was uncertain? Would she remain with this family, or spend years in Romania’s orphanages?
I took a deep breath, knowing that I had to focus on the daunting task of caring for Cristian. I wanted to ask Dr. Dan more questions, but would wait until we were far away, long after our goodbyes.
As we packed to leave, I held up Cristian’s empty bottle, hoping for some fresh well water. Dr. Dan reached over and picked up the pitcher of the orange soda. “Here,” he instructed Adelina. She filled the bottle and gave it to Cristian, who sucked it down, savoring the artificial orange taste.
I felt a pinch in my side. Diane, obviously horrified, whispered, “Don’t you dare let him drink that.” Yet, I couldn’t insult Adelina as she performed one last maternal act.
“Thank you.” I stuffed the bottle into one of the baby bags alongside the woolen clothing. Cristian now giggled, drunk in sugary delight.
We stood by the door. Adelina kissed Cristian’s face one last time, and then shifted to the privacy of her kitchen corner. Her sobs, like a lonesome whale song, followed us as we marched down the driveway, past the woodpile. Cristian responded to her sobs by turning his head to look for Adelina—I wanted to rush back to her. Instead, I looked to Dr. Dan for direction.
“Just go.” He guided us toward the tree swing where Victor pushed Rebecca and sang her a lullaby. Rebecca’s focus was neither on Victor’s song nor the swing, but rather on the baby brother I was carrying out of her life. She flailed her arms and screeched like a devastated owl until Cristian’s black eyes caught hers. She stopped crying, and she reached out for him—their hands connecting like two cocoons. A part of me died that moment in the sweltering Romanian countryside watching them connect one last time.
As we walked away from the swing, Cristian placed his hand over his chest, as did Rebecca. I wondered if they understood each other’s loss. We then headed to the car. As Dr. Dan started the engine, Rebecca wave goodbye.
“Cristian,” she yelled as the Mercedes pulled out of the driveway.
Sara Dunham has a BA in English Literature from George Washington University and a MAT from the School for International Training. She has participated in many writing workshops, including Castle Hill Summer Workshops with Ann Hood and Robert Pinsky; writing seminars in Croatia and Bulgaria with Josip Novakovich; and the Cuba Writers Program with Ann Hood and Tim Weed. She enjoys international travel and publishes her photographs and adventures on two travel blogs: https://medium.com/@saracristian4 and magicoftravel.wordpress.com.