The Girl Behind the Door (6 page)

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
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God, that was so stupid.

The judge squinted at the translator and asked another question. “Do you understand that this child will have the same rights as if it were your biological child?”

I swallowed and nodded. “Yes, Your Honor.”
Please like me

Another question. I bent down to listen to the translator. “Do you agree that you are undertaking a lifelong commitment to care for and raise this child?”

Of course I do, if you'll just let us adopt her!

“Yes, Your Honor.”

“Dziękuję. Proszę siedzieć.”
The translator said that the judge thanked me and asked that I sit down. I bowed respectfully to the judge and did as I was instructed. Then Erika took the witness stand and breezed through all the questions in Polish.


The judge asked for a twenty-minute recess. Erika and I stepped into the lobby outside the courtroom while Renata stayed inside. We were alone in the cavernous hall, silent except for the echo of occasional footsteps. I was exhausted even though the hearing itself had lasted only minutes. We gave each other a long hug, saying nothing.

I paced back and forth, my hands jammed in my pockets, imagining the worst. There would be a problem. Maybe our paperwork was incomplete. Maybe a directive from a government minister had shut down all foreign adoptions. Joanna would have to be sent back to the orphanage and we'd be sent home.

There was a click of heels behind us on the marble floor bouncing off the high ceiling—Renata. She smiled and waved for us to come back. “It is very good,” she said.

I felt light-headed as we followed her back into the courtroom. More stern faces. The judge asked Erika and me to stand; Renata joined us. I bent down to listen to the translator read the verdict in English as the judge addressed the court.

“In the case submitted by John R. Brooks and Erika Brooks, née Borkowski, both citizens of the USA, to adopt the minor Polish citizen Joanna Dymowska, the court decides to: (1) decree the adoption of the child to the Brookses, (2) give the child the surname “Brooks,” (3) change the first name to “Casey,” and (4) prepare a new Certificate of Birth.”

The judge looked up from the document and smiled warmly at us for the first time.

“Gratulacje, Pan i Pani Brooks!”
Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks! I was in disbelief. Did this just happen? The atmosphere in the courtroom instantly shifted from somber to joyous. Everyone broke into smiles and nods of support. Erika and I grabbed each other and Renata in a bear hug.

Joanna Dymowska was now officially Casey Joanna Brooks, and we were legally her parents in the eyes of the Polish court.


ith the court hearing behind us, we were off with Renata to see a Polish pediatric neurologist for Casey's medical exam. With the neurologist's seal of approval, we could clear the American embassy for Casey's visa and be home free. We'd come so far in such a short time; I could almost see the finish line. But the process turned out to be more than just a formality.

In 1987, the Reagan administration made it illegal for people with AIDS to enter the United States. Further, after the horror stories from Romanian orphanages, the State Department clamped down on health standards for foreigners applying for a U.S. visa. If a qualified Polish physician refused to certify to the U.S. embassy that Casey was healthy, according to broad State Department guidelines that seemed to go far beyond AIDS, we couldn't bring her home with us.

Renata told us that the embassy referred many of its visa applicants to this doctor. She wasn't particularly warm, but the embassy trusted her and Renata had never had an issue with her in other adoption cases. She'd be on our side.

Her office was in an elegant nineteenth-century building—one of the few in Warsaw not leveled in the war—on a tree-lined street in an upscale neighborhood. Erika, Renata, and I sat quietly in the waiting room, Renata fidgeting with a cigarette while Erika pushed Casey back and forth in her stroller. Casey soothed herself by rubbing the tip of her nose until it was red and chapped, apparently a habit she'd taught herself in the orphanage, where the children weren't allowed pacifiers because of concerns about germs.

It had been less than a week since we'd left the orphanage, and Casey had made astounding progress from the quiet, lethargic infant we'd first met. She was more alert, expressive, cheery, and chatty with us, even though her vocabulary consisted of grunts, shrieks, and bursts of

She banged around with the toys we brought and had become fixated on MTV, one of three English-language cable channels in our hotel room. Best of all, with a pillow for support, she could sit up by herself. She was still prone to irritability and screaming fits, especially around bedtime, but that was probably to be expected of a fourteen-month-old.

The door to the doctor's office opened and a woman in a white lab coat stepped out. She appeared to be in her fifties, short and wide in stature, with a stern face. She held up a pair of reading glasses slung around her neck, squinting at a clipboard in her hand. “Brooks?” She looked up at us, unexpressive, and motioned for us to follow her into her office.

For the next twenty minutes I watched, bewildered, as she sat Casey on a stainless-steel examination table. Though her strength and balance had improved, she was still tipsy sitting up without support. The doctor looked into her eyes, ears, and throat, and listened to her lungs with a stethoscope. She tested her for a parachute reflex, holding her up on all fours, but she collapsed on the table. The doctor scowled. She tested for hand-eye coordination and pincer skills, and tapped her elbows and knees with a rubber-tipped reflex-testing hammer.

Everyone spoke in agitated voices. Renata hovered over the doctor and gesticulated, talking excitedly. The doctor, still expressionless, said something to Erika; she shook her head no. Casey began to fuss. The doctor made notes on her clipboard, a hard look on her face. My pulse quickened. This didn't look good. If only the doctor had seen how much Casey had improved since we'd left the orphanage.

Renata scowled, looking irritated. She spoke to the doctor in a stern voice, waving her arms up and down, pointing to Casey. The doctor listened impassively but shook her head. Erika had a worried look on her face. Renata asked us to wait outside the office with Casey while she finished her business with the neurologist. Once out in the hallway, I was desperate for information. “Honey, what the hell is going on?”

Erika let out a long sigh. “The doctor's concerned about Casey's development and motor skills, like the fact that she didn't react to the parachute test and is still tipsy sitting up.”

I grimaced.

“She said that Casey really should be walking right now. She even said something about Casey's head being a bit flat.”

“What? Are you kidding? I thought that was an old wives' tale.” Erika once told me about the Poles' fixation on round-headed babies—anything less than a head the shape of a basketball was considered unattractive.

I shook my head in disbelief. “So she thinks Casey's head is unattractive, as if that means anything.”

Erika rolled her eyes and shrugged. After a few minutes, Renata joined us in the hallway, looking defeated as she lit another cigarette. We waited as she inhaled deeply, blowing the smoke up to the ceiling, shaking her head. My heart sank. Wasn't this supposed to be a formality? Renata coughed and waved the smoke away from her face. “She say she cannot certify to U.S. embassy that Joanna is healthy, so we cannot get visa.”

We stood in the hallway, dazed, absorbing the weight of Renata's bombshell. All three of us were quiet as Casey sat in her stroller chewing on a multicolored cloth starfish. My mind went into free fall.

Though Casey was now legally our child under Polish law, according to international law, Erika and I were American citizens in Poland on a temporary tourist visa. Casey was a Polish citizen with no exit visa. We couldn't take her home until her visa problem was resolved, and we could stay together in Poland for only a limited time, until
visas expired. I had outlandish thoughts of us overstaying, but we could risk deportation, jail time, or, worst of all, losing Casey.

We turned again to Renata.

She put out her cigarette. “Look, this should not be problem if we get second opinion from other doctor.”

Erika and I brightened as Casey used the cloth starfish to rub her nose.

“Really?” I asked tentatively.

“I make appointment for second opinion at children's hospital tomorrow,” Renata said with an air of confidence. “It will be okay. I know director there.”

She never ceased to amaze me.

The next day, Erika, Casey, and I took a taxi to the Warszawski Szpital dla Dzieci, the Warsaw Children's Hospital, where we were to meet with a child psychologist for a second opinion. Renata couldn't be there with us, but she calmed our fears of going alone, assuring us that this exam would go smoothly. We had no choice but to trust her. So far, she'd successfully navigated us through a series of hurdles and setbacks. This was the last one.

We pulled up to an imposing building that was nearly a block long. Built in the 1700s, it hadn't aged gracefully. The forbidding façade looked like it hadn't been cleaned in decades. Black flags hung from the windows. What the hell were they for? Weren't black flags a symbol of mourning? I wished we'd insisted that Renata come with us.

We left the taxi and walked into the main reception area, Erika wheeling Casey in the collapsible stroller. She was dressed in her sunbonnet, a frilly top with matching pants, and white booties, looking every bit like a kewpie doll, her hand clamped on the pink squeaky doll we'd given her at the orphanage. The lights in the reception area were turned off and there was little activity where normally we would've expected to see a traffic jam of people. I turned to Erika. “Did you notice those black flags out front?”

She looked spooked. “How could I miss them? I wonder what they're for?”

We found a young woman sitting behind a desk and approached her for help. I listened helplessly as Erika and the woman exchanged incomprehensible chatter before she pointed us toward the elevator. As we made our way across the reception area, the eerie silence around me became increasingly disconcerting. While waiting for the elevator, I leaned toward Erika. “What were you guys talking about?”

“I asked what the black flags were outside.”


“She said the staff is on strike because the hospital lacks medicine. The state is having trouble paying salaries and they've had to shut down some services.”


We squeezed into a rickety cage about the size of a phone booth that looked like it had gone into service in the nineteenth century. I pushed the black accordion gate shut and hit the button for the fifth floor. The car jolted upward past floors that were dark and lifeless.

My fear of confined spaces gripped me, particularly cramped elevators. Ever since an episode in a lower Manhattan loft in 1985 when I was stuck in a crowded, steamy service elevator for an hour, I had dreaded confinement of any sort. I scanned the top of the car for an escape route—my way of calming my fears. Perspiration ran down my back. “I don't know about you guys, but I think I'll take the stairs down.” Erika put her hand on my arm. “C'mon, honey. Breathe. We're almost there.”

The car came to an abrupt stop on the fifth floor. I jerked the gate open, relieved that it hadn't gotten stuck and trapped us. I didn't want my daughter to freak out watching her claustrophobic dad in the middle of a panic attack.

We stepped into a darkened, dingy hallway. It looked abandoned and had the stale smell so typical of Soviet-era buildings, something akin to the acrid scent of an electrical fire. A cluster of beds, wheelchairs, walkers, and food carts had been pushed to one side of the hallway, leaving the other side open to foot traffic, but there was only us.

We walked down the hallway, peering cautiously into each office, looking for signs of life, but every room we passed was empty. I was disturbed. “I really think we should've waited until Renata could be with us. This place looks like it's out of business.”

At the last door in the hallway, Erika knocked softly and opened it. Looking inside, we found an attractive young woman in a white lab coat writing at a green metal desk. She looked to be barely out of medical school. I whispered to Erika, “Maybe she speaks English.”

Erika approached her.
“Przepraszam, czy Panienka, mowi po angielsku?”
Excuse me, madam, do you speak English?

The woman looked up, annoyed, and answered. “Yes, and you are?”

“John and Erika Brooks. We're looking for the child psychologist. Our lawyer, Renata, said she'd made an appointment with the psychologist to examine our daughter.”

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
10.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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