As love stories go, this one is a bit unusual, but yet, has many of the significant elements of any love story ever told. Mine begins on September 10th, 2001, in Orphanage #16 in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was love at first sight. As I approached the crib of this small orphan, he was facing away, towards the big set of windows in his room. He seemed to be dozing while in a sitting position. His young pliant spine allowed him to lean all the way over to the right so his head was almost touching the mattress of his crib. As he heard the sounds of our approach, he sat up straight, and began to take notice of the activity around him.
The room was the home of six children, all with various disabilities. As I entered this room, I recalled the words of a friend who had visited the orphanage a few months prior to my visit. She told me; "there are places in this orphanage that are not very nice to see". I knew, at once, that this was one of those places. To contemplate the pathetic existence of these poor handicapped orphans, restricted to the less than a ten square foot area of their cribs, simply breaks your heart.
For some reason, both my wife and I were attracted to this one little boy who somehow had been granted the best location in the room. He was the first to benefit from the air circulation of an open window, and needless to say, he had the best view of the outdoors, better than all the other children in that room, being positioned in front of those windows. The irony of having the best view, became painfully apparent as we were told by his caretakers, that this little child is blind. He had, in fact, never seen the view from that window, or anything else for that matter. His was a world confined to sound, touch, smell, and taste.
As I reflect on those first moments when we met this little boy, there is a strictly logical reason why we would be attracted to this child out of all those other children in that room. It has to do with body language. To see him sitting there, this small child in oversize pajamas, leaning over to one side, was a picture of sadness. You might find any child in such a pose after loosing a puppy, or some such childhood trauma. Logic aside, both my wife and I believe our attraction to this little boy is much deeper than that. God, we feel, has introduced us to him.
To think that a split second decision could have resulted in never having had this encounter at all is remarkable. We were ready to leave the orphanage after our tour, which was guided by the director of the orphanage, and accompanied by our interpreter. Just seconds from walking out the door of the orphanage, probably never to return, we were curious about a room that we passed by with the door standing ajar. When we asked; "what was in there", the response was, just a room with some handicapped kids. If we hadnít pressed the issue, and asked to have a look inside, there would be no love story to tell. That is one of the reasons that we cannot escape the belief that we were being led by Godís hand directly to this child.
During that first encounter, Audrey, my wife, picked up and held this little blind boy. She was amazed at his light weight for a three year old child, only 18 pounds we later learned. After holding him a while, she wanted to stand him up in his crib. She was again shocked to find out that he doesnít even know how to stand up, much less walk. Having sat him down again she resumed the interaction with a verse of "patty cake" while clapping his tiny hands together. This resulted in a surprising, yet delightful, outburst of laughter from our little friend. There is something about a childís uninhibited laughter that is contagious. While I had a video camera with me, and was able to capture most of the encounter, I did miss that scene with his laughter. Yet, that laughter is one of the things that was most memorable about the whole encounter.
I knew in the ten or fifteen minutes that we spent with this child that it was something more than a chance encounter that we would soon forget. As Audrey and I left the orphanage and resumed the day to day activities of our lives, we both had a profound feeling about that encounter with the little blind boy.
The following day, September 11, 2001, we are ready to leave Russia around noon. That morning I sent a quick email to my grown children, Allison and Aaron, back at home in the U.S. "Russia was an experience I will never forget. All is well. We leave for Germany in a couple of hours. See you later". All was well during our flight from Russia to Frankfort, however, I can only imagine the terror and chaos on the four hijacked planes in the eastern U.S. moments before their flights ended. When we set foot on the ground in Germany, we had no idea that we landed in a changed world. To say that the events of September 11th, put a damper on our vacation sounds incredibly selfish and petty in light of the monumental suffering which many experienced that day. We were no less than captives in Germany for those next ten days, as all flights had been canceled into the U.S. There were two overriding emotions we experienced during those ten days touring Germany. Of course, the horrendous events of Sept. 11th were foremost on our mind. Every German person who found out we were Americans quickly offered their condolences to us. Every city and hamlet had a memorial in their town square dedicated to the victims of the attack. We were quite engaged in those events even though we were half a world away from our countrymen. The second emotion was that meeting which took place in a small orphanage room just days before.
When we returned home from our travels, we requested, via email, information on the little blind boy who we had met that day. We learned that his name was Pavel. He was premature at birth, only about 2 pounds. The administration of oxygen for lung congestion when he was born was the cause of his blindness, which we were told, is not operable. Pavel was on our minds in a most profound way. We both had thoughts of adopting him but were afraid to verbalize the idea to each other. After all, what kind of crazy idea is that for two highly mobile, busy, middle aged people to be contemplating?
If, "God is Love", and "love conquers all", and "with God all things are possible", then why not give this child a home? As I am reluctant to devalue the prayerful thought and decision process that went into this momentous choice by using such clichťs, I canít think of a better summation to our final decision to adopt Pavel without writing another page of text.
Seven months later, we have completed numerous forms and interviews to establish ourselves as worthy candidates to adopt a child. We are ready to see Pavel for the second time. As we sit in the office of the director of orphanage #16, waiting for the child to be dressed and presented to us, I have mixed feelings. I have no doubt that I want to go through with this adoption, but the reality of having this child here with us in a moment is a little unsettling. This child that has been the subject of innumerable discussions, hours of interviews, and hard work is going to be here in person. What if he doesnít like us? What if we find out things that we donít like about him? What if, what if, it makes me crazy with anticipation. After all, we have only been with him literally minutes prior to this visit. Yet the time we have spent during the last seven months concentrating on adopting him is akin to having a part time job.
As Pavel enters the room, our hearts are instantly melted. The attraction to this child has not diminished, but increased over the past months. Again, for lack of a better term, all I can say is that it is "love at first sight". The four or five days that we get to spend with Pavel that Spring really only amounted to about 15 hours due to his schedule of naps and feeding, and our schedule of official appointments, to facilitate the adoption. Those hours served to strengthen our relationship. I donít know how he perceived them but for us the experience was delightful yet bittersweet, as after such a short visit we have to bid Pavel a tearful goodbye for a short time.
After the two required months waiting period, we are ready to take off for Russia at a moments notice to retrieve our new son. We are crestfallen to find out that our court date has been pushed back to September 10th, some 5 months from our last visit.
Ironically, we are in a Russian courtroom on that very date, September 10th, 2002, the one year anniversary of our first meeting with Pavel. The judge pronounced Pavel Panfilov Vitalieivich to be forever known as Pavel Ivan Kostuch. We easily decided to keep his first name, which we think is delightful and unique. But during this final trip to Russia, we are pressed to give him a middle name which has not crossed our mind until now. We settle on Ivan, which is a nice Russian name, which we are amazed to later find out means, "Godís gift".
I am getting ahead of the love story just a bit. The third meeting with Pavel produced a little of the same anxiety that the second did. My thoughts at that time were something like the following: "This is the real thing. Are you sure this is what you want? There is no turning back after this meeting. Your life is forever going to be changed". Again, the appearance of Pavel lit up the room and opened our hearts to make that final decision to adopt Pavel without the slightest hesitation.
This love story, even though it has spanned a long, long year, has essentially just begun. Pavelís laughter delights me every time I hear it. He melts my heart every time we are together. And, I am sure that there are many more blessings in store for us as a family, and for all who come to know Pavel.
We live in a broken world. The stronger I grow in my Christian life, the more apparent that fact becomes to me. Yet, there are traces of heaven here on earth if you care to recognize them as such. A sunset, a rainbow, and a childís laughter all qualify as small bits of heaven on earth. The greatest evidence of heaven, and the existence of God, our heavenly father, is love. In a very special way, through this inexplicable love story, Godís love is made real for me. In a small way it is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us, His adopted children.
Kim Kostuch: Here I am some years later reading your Love Story, which was the only way to describe it. And I too thought Pavel was a uniquely beautiful name. How is he today? I know you all have grown deeper in love. May the Lord continue to bless your family.