The Girl Behind the Door (7 page)

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
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The young woman perked up and stood to greet us. “Of course. I'm the psychologist.” She extended Casey her finger. “And who is this?” Casey grabbed it and the woman shook it. Casey smiled.

“This is our daughter, Casey,” Erika said. “You may know that the embassy doctor wanted a second opinion before she was willing to sign off on Casey's medical certificate for her visa.”

“Yes, certainly.” The psychologist pointed us toward the examination room. “Please. I'll be there in just a moment.”

We stepped into a small, dark room. A sour smell permeated the air from a puddle of yellow liquid on the metal examination table. I tapped Erika on the shoulder. “Honey, look at this. Is this what I think it is?”

Erika put her nose up to it and jerked back. “It's urine!”

The psychologist walked in, noticing our reaction to the mess. “I'm so sorry. We had another patient here with a bladder problem. It hasn't been cleaned up yet. We are short on help because of the strike.” We turned our backs on the examination table while the young woman unbuckled Casey from the stroller and picked her up.

We spent about a half hour together. Erika told the psychologist Casey's story, with particular emphasis on the encouraging opinion we'd received in April from the Polish neurologist and Casey's dramatic progress in just a week. The psychologist nodded as she listened to Erika.

We watched anxiously as the psychologist put Casey through the same series of tests that the other doctor had performed the day before—sitting up, parachute reflex, tweezer skills, cognitive abilities. She was still weak and couldn't complete a number of tasks. After a while Casey became cranky and started to cry. The psychologist purred at her as she handed her back to Erika.

We were quiet as we watched the young woman, her back to us, jotting down notes in a spiral binder. She turned around in her chair to face us. “She doesn't seem to be able to perform all of the tasks that a child this age should perform.” Erika and I stared at her, nodding vacantly. “So I can understand the other doctor's concerns, but I think she is just weak from inactivity.” We broke into smiles. I felt a weight lifting.

“And it's a good sign that she's improved so quickly in the past few days.” Erika and I nodded excitedly at her like a couple of bobbleheads.

Thank you! Thank you!

Wrapping up the examination, the psychologist said, “I will give the neurologist my observations. That should be sufficient for your daughter's U.S. visa requirement. Good luck.”

I wanted to kiss this woman.
“Dziękuję! Dziękuję!”

“Nie ma za co.”
You're welcome. She smiled. “Your Polish is very good.”

Hallelujah. Home free.

Having exhausted my vacation days from work, I returned home to Connecticut. Erika remained with Casey for another two weeks as guests of her aunt Nusia and uncle Marian in Wrocław until Casey's U.S. visa was issued.


ver the next few years, Erika and I eased into traditional parenting roles. With the adoption ordeal behind us, we wanted to settle down to a normal family life, and for the most part it was. I went to work at a small investment firm, while Erika gave up her jewelry business to stay home with Casey. We agreed that she needed a full-time parent after everything she'd been through.

From the very beginning, we told Casey about her adoption, but since we knew almost nothing about her birth family, we resorted to a scripted fantasy story.

Your mother loved you very much but she was poor and couldn't care for you. She wanted you to have a better life than she could provide. Mommy and I went all the way to Poland to find you because God meant for us to be together as a family.

Casey never showed much curiosity during these conversations. She never asked about her birth mother, whether she had siblings or who her birth father could have been. Much to Erika's dismay, she had little interest in Polish culture, never watched the hours of video I'd shot during our trip, and when asked if she wanted to meet her birth mother someday waved us off, annoyed. So we took her at her word, leaving the door open to talk and hoping someday she'd come around.

As time passed, the orphanage became a distant memory. I'd hoped it had been completely erased from Casey's consciousness. She was a member of our family now—no different from a biological child in our minds—so we taught her our ancestral narratives. I even tried to convince her that she looked just like my mother as a young girl. After all, they both had round faces, fair complexions, and light hair cut pageboy style; they looked the same to me. But in truth, I had no idea how our words resonated in her sharp little mind.

By the time she was two, Casey had caught up to her age group. She was no longer the quiet, withdrawn child we'd met at the orphanage, but a happy, affectionate, bright little girl. She'd sprouted a pearly white head of hair, so fine and silky that it tangled easily. We took great care to comb out the knots without pulling out chunks of hair. Her almond-shaped eyes turned from blue to a greenish hazel brown, and every time she smiled her dimples lit up.

She tottered around the house like a penguin and developed a surprisingly sophisticated vocabulary, skipping over much of the baby talk for more or less complete sentences. She had a high voice with a hint of a lisp from being born with a high palate; it made her sound like Elmer Fudd.
was “wook,”
was “cwying,”
was “buwfday,” and
was “Thanta.” She had the kind of laugh you wanted to store away in your memory forever—mouth-wide-open, full-throated, pure joy, straight from the belly:
Ha ha ha!
It was delicious to hear.

We stocked her early years with as much happiness as we could, enrolling her in preschool, making playdates, and spending nearly every weekend on some kind of adventure. On blistering summer days we cooled off at the local swimming hole. In the fall we trudged up Talcott Mountain to show her the display of color in the valley below. Winter was for sledding, snow forts, and trips to see Santa at the mall.

In 1995, we moved from Simsbury to San Francisco so that I could take a job as chief financial officer of a radio group. Our new neighborhood in Marin County, just over the Golden Gate Bridge, teemed with kids, and before long Casey had a gaggle of new friends. They started kindergarten and stuck together through grade school. We joined a church, St. Stephen's Episcopal in Belvedere, and put Casey in Sunday school. Everyone was welcoming and friendly and it didn't take long for us to fall in love with the place.

Our early years in California were a time of discovery for her. Casey was a natural ham who loved the theater. When she was six, she was onstage at the Playhouse in San Anselmo singing “Give My Regards to Broadway” with her musical theater group. She was a devoted foodie, chowing down on barbecued oysters in Bodega Bay, mussels in Santa Cruz, sushi at Pier 39, and dim sum in Chinatown. As she made her way through grade school, she racked up an impressive collection of accolades from her teachers:

A joy to have in class!

So thoughtful and well behaved!

Spunky and spirited!

Casey's teachers told us that she was the one who'd seek out and welcome the new kid in class. She was the one who'd sit with the girl who was alone. She was the one to make peace amid a feud.

By the time she was eight, like most girls her age, Casey had one foot planted firmly in childhood innocence while the other ventured into preteen pursuits. Her room was home to a massive collection of Beanie Babies, Lego pieces, an unfinished dollhouse, piles of dirty clothes, and a pet rat named Banjo. Her comfort pillow from Poland was never far away. It was all so normal.

She devoured the books that all the kids loved—
Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia
. But video games usually won out for her attention—Super Mario, Yoshi, and SimCity. She and her friends sat mesmerized in front of the TV, their hands and fingers twisting, turning and jabbing at their remotes. Her musical tastes ran from Britney Spears and the Spice Girls to the Backstreet Boys, the pop stars of the time. She was obsessed with her appearance, her outfits displaying a unique and eclectic style. A typical morning would have found her running out the door in a school sweatshirt over jeans, purple socks, and blue Converse sneakers with multicolored laces, just another kid trying to carve out an identity without alienating the pack.

She lugged around a purple JanSport backpack jangling with colorful adornments like a Christmas tree. There was a pink pig, a soccer ball, a tiny blue-on-white New York license plate inscribed CASEY, and a whistle that Erika had insisted on, just in case of emergency. Most important were her Pokémon cards—Charmander, Squirtle, Jigglypuff, and everyone's favorite—the cute, yellow, mousy Pikachu. She traded them with her friend Rebecca during lunch.

Still, Casey had her unsettling moments. In one of her first letters to me from Poland, after I'd returned to the States ahead of her, Erika reported that Casey had recoiled at the feel of grass. During their stay in Wrocław waiting for Casey's visa, they relaxed in Uncle Marian's small but beautifully manicured backyard, soft and lush like a pint-size golf course with a flower and vegetable garden. But when Erika set Casey down on the grass she'd cried hysterically to be picked up. I'd read that preemies like Casey had very sensitive skin. Some could only tolerate ultrasoft fabrics because wools and polyesters were too scratchy. Perhaps that was it.

There were more episodes of tantrums and meltdowns like the one we'd seen during our first night together in the Hotel Forum in Warsaw. Something trivial, like waiting an extra minute for ice cream or leaving Toys “R” Us just a moment too soon, could send Casey into a fit of screaming, thrashing, and flailing about. Just getting her to calm down for bedtime often left us feeling as we did that first night in Warsaw—like bomb disposal experts.

She refused to yield to authority at home without a fight, and had to be in control. Simple requests to clean up her room, put her dishes in the dishwasher, turn off the TV, or do her homework often triggered howls of protest. We had flare-ups at the mall, flares-ups in restaurants, flare-ups in front of the grandparents. Sometimes I couldn't stop myself from spanking her, feeling horribly ashamed of myself later.

It wasn't so much the frequency of these flare-ups—a week could pass with Casey on her best behavior—it was their intensity. Her rages seemed to stem from an almost bottomless well of anguish for which there seemed no comfort other than to cry it out.

We felt powerless to soothe her or protect her from herself. It was as if she deliberately pushed us away. And when we complied, she panicked at the prospect of being left behind. Still, she'd shove everything and everyone aside so that she could deal with her emotions and process her setbacks on her own. That was her coping system.

I'd never seen such a toxic mixture of anger and despair in a three-year-old girl and I felt helpless to repair it.

Years later, around Christmastime, when Casey was eight, she begged us to take her ice-skating with her friend Tessa at the Yerba Buena skating rink in San Francisco. She was in a festive mood, sporting a red stocking cap with a fuzzy pom-pom that made her look like a merry elf.

After Erika and I got the girls into their skates, they stepped gingerly onto the ice, holding hands. Casey had been on skates only once before.

Unsteady on her feet, she clung to Tessa for support like Bambi trying to stand on all four legs on the icy pond. Erika and I cringed as we watched her.

Within minutes, Casey's skates flew out from under her. She fell backward and hit her head on the ice—not hard, but she yanked off her stocking cap and grabbed her head, crying inconsolably while she lay in the middle of the rink, skaters twirling around her. Tessa extended her hand but Casey swatted it away and curled into a ball, shielding herself so the crowd wouldn't see that her face was beet red. Erika rushed to her side and tried to pick her up.

BOOK: The Girl Behind the Door
12.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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