Father Sergius, Artyom, Matvey and Matuska Larisa Nezhbort
Sometimes, people will come up to me and ask me upfront: "Are you happy at last?" I wish I could roll my eyes and respond in a sweet voice: "Yes, I am very happy!" But it seems to me that someone who is happy will be so at any time and in any place, married or single, with or without children. For an unhappy person, there will always be a reason for not being happy. But people tend to think in some strange ways. For most, even a tiny spoon of tar can spoil a whole barrel of honey. But when one’s life is mostly tar and a little honey, or even half tar and half honey, few would be prepared to say that they are fully happy.
Honestly, I have my daily moments of blissful happiness when I put my children to sleep. The faster they go to sleep, the happier I am. On a more serious note, I feel happy when I notice a positive change in my children and see them grow, play, dream and enjoy life; it also gives me the joy to realise that none of this would have been possible if we had not been there for them. Along with the happiness, however, one feels a lot of anxiety at seeing one's children falling behind their peers developmentally, despite all the progress made; there is also bitterness over how you are being treated and a lot of concern for the children's future. There are a lot of mixed feelings.
I also know that our time with the children has been filled with many occasions to show humility. I am humbled when I hear many of my friends and acquaintances exclaim: "They are so hyperactive! How are you managing?" (incidentally, hyperactivity is a clinical condition, not a synonym of being 'lively'). My humility is also taxed when people in some public place are saying the right to my face: "Look at these children! And their mother! So out of control!” A speech therapist told me that my children are twelve to eighteen months behind their peers developmentally: "You'd be lucky if they could go to an integrated school, and not to special education.” Hearing all this makes me feel so lost and helpless. It is not even the remarks from other people and professionals that make me so upset, but the realisation of how powerless I am to find a way to connect to my children, to embrace them with all of their weaknesses and to change my attitude. All parents love their children unconditionally healthy or ill, grateful or ungrateful. Perhaps my predicament is only temporary and will end eventually. Right now, it hardly resembles blissful happiness. But it is good for one's growth, and perhaps for salvation.
There have also been some bright and funny moments. When we had just brought the children home, the older boy ran up to the photograph of Elder Nikilay Gurianov and cried out joyfully: "Santa!" At first, he had very little patience for books. He would open one and close it almost immediately. With time, he took an interest in books and would sit and listen to me reading aloud to them. As I was reading from Chukovsky's Barmaley, they started to kiss a page from the book. "Why are they doing this?" I wondered. It turned out that they were kissing the red crosses of the good doctor's airplane.
The older boy was going to nursery school and learning the alphabet. He was asked to sit down with his mother and father and think of examples of words that start with an "A". So here I was trying to remember the words. Apple, Apricot... "Can you name any?" I asked. He stopped for a moment and said: "Aha! A green parrot!" Like many other boys from religious families, my younger one likes to mimic the priest in a worship service. They become quite excited by this, especially if they do it together. They look so funny kissing each other's hand, pretending to use incense and sprinkling water. One day, as we were waiting for our doctor's appointment at the polyclinic they made quite a show. When they began to give their blessing the patients waiting in the line, I felt that I had to intervene and take them somewhere else. I record their play on video. I am sure they will enjoy watching it when they grow up, even if they stop going to church.
I woke up in the middle of the night because I heard the sobbing of my younger boy. Worried, I sat up and looked at his face wondering what might have upset him. After some time I noticed that he was smiling. He was fast asleep, smiling. Suddenly, he laughed. It was fun watching my little boy laugh. I wondered about what he was dreaming, and what made him laugh.
I also remember the night when both my boys were taken ill. It was dark, and they were both in bed with a fever, breathing hard. What if it gets worse? What if I lose them? I cannot imagine my life without my boys. Both of them. Could it be love that came softly?
Why am I writing this in so much detail? I remember the moment when a parishioner who already had several children brought with him to church his adopted children as well. I was having all sorts of thoughts about his motives. On closer look, one comes to realise the gravity of the situation of the large numbers of abandoned children; their greatest need is not for expensive presents or money, but for a loving heart. The film "Call my bluff - or happy new year” has an episode in which an inmate of a penitential institution for young delinquents is asked the meaning of the tattoo on his arm. "It is an acronym," he explains. It means: remember - a loved one has abandoned you.” I wish with all my heart that families would stay together and no child would ever be separated from his parents. I wish that of all the children who have lost their parents at least some would find a loving home.
Father Sergius Nezhbort with Artyom
I also know that in Belarus their adoption is surrounded by a lot of doubt and suspicion, and is often viewed as something that is destined for failure. To me, this is very reminiscent of the attitude to the Church. As a sister of charity, I met many patients at the Second General Hospital; most were not in Church, and many are deeply suspicious of the clergy. In their view, nearly all of the clergy are alcoholics or businessmen. You can hear this from many different people, including intellectuals. Some are willing to share their own story of 'having a booze' with a cleric. As someone who has been in church for some time, I have also seen some bad examples of church life, including among the clergy. But they do not represent the essence of the Church as a heaven on earth. Likewise, from the perspective of my own experience of adoption, I can see very clearly that it is not about poor inheritance or bad genes.
On the other hand, adoption is not a simple thing and is not for everyone. One of my acquaintances who had a very tragic experience with adoption recommended that I see an American film called "The Boarder" released in 2012. She said she could agree wholeheartedly with the film and said that I should see the whole film, including credits. The film is based on the true story of a pastor who adopted a teenage boy. From my perspective, I cannot imagine any of our boys doing anything of the sort that the adopted teenager did in the film - simply because of their age and because they have not been traumatised so deeply. Yet my experience at times was very similar to that of the pastor in the film. The film also provides insights as to why this might have happened and how cute and lovable child could have brought so much horror on others. He had had a lot of horrible things happen to him in his life. In one episode, the adoptive father takes pleasure in showing the boy a model railway, which brings back some of the brightest memories from his childhood. His father had made the railway for him. But the boy is very disturbed, for no apparent reason. Subconsciously, he remembers the noise of the railway next to the house where he grew up. As an infant, he was left there alone for days by his mother. He was hungry, frightened and betrayed. The trauma of abandonment leaves a deep imprint on the whole life of a person. As I was participating in the training at the National Centre for Adoption, we were asked to do an exercise. The trainer told us to make a paper figure of a person, fold it several times and then try to remove the wrinkles. We tried hard but could not do it. In this exercise, every wrinkle represented a childhood trauma. Even a newborn may be traumatised in the womb, in a hospital, by being left alone in the dark and not having a permanent caregiver. Even adults who have survived a war may not be able to return to normal life afterwards. To the children who have survived separation from their mothers and life in an institution, the trauma must be unimaginable. Outwardly, they are beautiful, loveable children, but their adoptive parents will have to bear with them the consequences of their trauma for the rest of their lives. How could it be humanly possible to muster enough love and patience for this? We need to learn how to place our hopes on the Lord and ask Him for His help. Indeed, we will need to pray a lot on our long journey.
By Larisa Nezhbort
Father Sergius Nezhbort, who is a priest of our Convent and the head of our Icon Painting Studio, is our guest today. We are going to talk with him about how he became an icon painter; how the studio grew and developed.