Sujatha Herne - Envelopes

Envelopes
 
Sujatha Herne
 
August 1988 – April 1989
Kigali, Rwanda, Africa
 
The man and woman had always wanted a child.  On weekends, they willingly babysat for friends.  At family gatherings, they found themselves spending more time at the “kid’s table” than with the grown-ups. And out in public, a crying baby, or young child throwing a temper tantrum, never seemed to bother them. Although they could not have a child in the “conventional” way, they were never discouraged.  The man had spent his early 20’s in the Peace Corps and dedicated his life and career to helping people in third world countries.  He knew, all too well, that there were thousands of children that needed homes; it was not unexpected to the man and woman’s families when the couple began the process of an international adoption in December of 1987.  
The process was daunting and living overseas added another layer of paper to an already growing pile that did not seem to end.  
Even still, they were determined to complete their family.  
The man and woman thought long and hard about where to focus their adoption efforts and settled on India.  With a rich culture and beautiful land, they also knew that many of its citizens lived in abject poverty and too great a number of children would never set foot inside of a school. 
They filled out and signed request after request.  They had the right papers notarized and the right papers photo-copied.  The house was inspected not once, but twice.  Character references were contacted and happily obliged with letters of encouragement and confidence in the man and woman.  The cook, gardener, and housekeeper were interviewed.  The doctor was seen and a marriage counselor too.  
The man and woman waited daily to hear any updates.  They were optimistic, but the waiting was hard.  It was not until one hot day in August that they got what they had been waiting for.  
The letter came express DHL and required a signature.  The envelope was thick.  At first, the woman thought it might be more paperwork to fill out - she was certain the lawyer said that part was over with.  
As she inspected it, she noticed a return address she had never seen before.  
She called out for her husband and he met her in the living room.  When he saw what was in her hands, he seemed to understand why she had pulled him away from his book.  
Together they read over the paperwork.  It was finally happening.  There was a four-month-old baby girl in India that was waiting for them.  A small black and white photograph was the last thing pulled from the envelope.  
 
The baby looked tired, as if the photograph was taken just as she woke up.  They did not get much in the way of details, only a name, a story of a young mother, and not much else.  
The black and white photo was immediately photocopied and then framed.  The couple took turns sitting down and typing out letters to their parents that night.  Each envelope they stuffed included the black and white photocopy.  There was so much more to do and they knew they would not be united with their baby for some time. 
But their happiness could not be contained.
The months that followed seemed to focus on the prospect of the baby’s arrival.  The room that was once a den was going to be turned into a baby’s room.  Slowly, stuffed animals, blankets, and clothes started to line the floor.  Next came furniture and a big padded fixture for the wall in the shape of a red heart flanked by a colorful rainbow.  The walls were painted yellow and a changing table was set up next to the crib.  Gifts from friends started to fill the closet while books the woman ordered specially started to fill the shelves.
Months went by with more paperwork, envelopes, and anxiousness.  To alleviate some stress, communication between the couple and the orphanage started.  The woman wrote letters to Mrs. Kumar, the head of the orphanage, asking questions and expressing gratitude.
  The man sent a disposable camera and it was sent back full of photos.  
The second picture the man and woman saw of their daughter, she looked happy.  Smiling in the arms of caregivers, the man and woman got a better idea of what the orphanage was like.  It was not the worse thing they had seen but it was certainly nowhere they could have imagined growing up.  
No matter how fast they wanted to have the baby with them, they knew that these things took time.  It was still hard.  They spent the days learning more about India and talking about things they would do as a family.  The morals and values they would want to instill in their daughter were discussed along with just how much they couldn’t wait until they were all together.
It took eight months.  
Before they knew it, the man and woman were on a plane from Africa to India. 
They were finally going to meet their baby.  
The plane ride was sleepless and the ride from the airport to the hotel was silent.  Both realized that they were in such close proximity to their child; all of the days waiting were finally paying off.
They went to the hotel to wash up and sleep for a few hours then walked around finding somewhere to have dinner.  Their food was good but neither of them could focus too much on their surroundings. They would not be meeting the child until the next morning.
But the man and woman were both so excited.
 
 
 
23 April 1989
Tandur, Andhra Pradesh, India
Kokila Orphanage
 
The couple walked in and, even though their joy could be sensed by the smiles on their faces and tone of their voices, you could see anxiousness outlined on their brow.  The man was average height.  He wore jeans, sneakers, and a short-sleeved button down shirt.  His face was adorned with big glasses and a Nikon camera hung at his chest.  The woman was shorter than him, wearing khakis, sandals, and a similar style shirt.  Before they had walked into the front door, the man had asked an employee of the orphanage to take a photograph of him and his wife. 
 
Mrs. Kumar greeted them and the woman hugged her immediately while the man stood back, smiled, and shook her hand. Something that had been in the works for so long was now coming to fruition.  
The child they had only read about for all those months, whose face was familiar to them only through photographs, was in the next room.  
Mrs. Kumar explained that the baby girl was a happy one and that she was well liked and would be missed very much by the caretakers.  She also explained that she was shy at first and to not be too worried if she cried or reached out for someone else’s arms.  The couple looked at each other and walked in to the next room holding hands.  They had waited for this moment for so long and could hardly believe it was upon them.  
The baby was wearing a yellow dress with frilly white socks and a string of plastic pearls.  Her headband was the same yellow.  A young woman who worked with Mrs. Kumar was holding her.  As the man and woman looked at her, with smiles on their faces, the baby looked up and into the eyes of the young girl holding her.  The young girl smiled at the man and woman and held the baby out to them.  The woman took her in her arms while the man stood next to her.  
Most of the communicating was done through smiles, nods, and gestures.  The language barrier was obvious but the baby’s frown and sudden apprehension as she was plucked out of familiar arms and placed in between two pale strangers was obvious.  
The woman tried to sooth her.  She explained (in a language not understood by most in the room) that everything was okay. In between quiet assurances and rocking back and forth, up and down, the woman explained that they were her new parents.  
The woman had expected this, she knew that the likelihood of the baby acclimating to them immediately was a silly notion, but she still hoped the baby would not cry this much.  The man stood with the camera now in his hands taking pictures of his wife and daughter, together for the first time. 
 
The woman smiled and tried to direct the baby’s attention to the man.    
The crying went on for about 15 more minutes before Mrs. Kumar announced that lunch was to be served and the baby would need to rest during that time.  The woman looked at her husband and he nodded as she reluctantly passed the baby into the arms of a waiting caretaker.  
The crying stopped almost instantly. 
The man and woman were escorted into a room with concrete floors and a long table made up with mismatched plates, cups, and silverware. 
It was a happy day and was to be treated as such; the new mother and father were seated in the middle of the table and made small talk with those around them.  Mrs. Kumar had invited members of her family to the lunch along with staff members of the orphanage.  Everyone remarked at how pleasant the baby was while filling the new parents in on her eating and sleeping habits.  
The man seemed to ask the more technical questions while the woman kept looking around.  She kept wondering what room her new daughter was in and how long it would take her to stop crying at her sight, sound, and touch. She looked off into the distance while she contemplated all of this and then focused her gaze straight on Mrs. Kumar and asked how to make the baby stop crying.  Mrs. Kumar smiled and said that she just needed to make the baby feel how much she loved her.  The woman thought about this for a moment and the meal went on. 
The man and woman went into the room where the baby was still asleep and just watched her.  Without words they both knew how happy the other was and how amazing it was to finally be in this moment.  
Eventually the baby woke.  She was still groggy when the caretakers picked her up and put her into the arms of the woman but this time she didn’t cry.  The baby looked up and then the woman closed her eyes and hugged the baby in her arms, following Mrs. Kumar’s advice.
The man took a photograph.  
 
The baby fell asleep shortly after that and when she woke up there were no more tears.
The rest of the day flew by.  The man and woman watched the baby interact with children.  Most were older but they all seemed to take a liking to her.  They looked on as she walked along with the help of a bouncing support system on wheels.  The teenage girls who worked the orphanage seemed to be paying the most attention; constantly scooping up the baby for more hugs and kisses than normal.  The rest of the time she was in the woman’s arms, resting on her hip.  
Occasionally, the man would take the camera from his neck and the woman would hold one hand out for the camera as she used the other to pass the baby into his arms.  They made it look easy, as if they hadn’t been doing this for only three hours.  When he held the baby, he made silly faces at her to make her smile and laugh.  He walked over to other children who were busy playing games of kickball and cricket; he would put his head closer to the baby’s face and whisper questions about the game. 
When it was time to say goodbye, every single man, woman, and child followed the new family to the gates of the orphanage.  Everyone hugged and said goodbye with smiles on their faces.  The children held onto the baby’s feet as they said goodbye in a language the man and woman did not understand.  The shouts could still be heard in the distance as they walked away down the bumpy road and into a waiting car.
The couple could hardly believe that they were leaving with their new daughter.  All they could do was smile.
 
24 April 1989 – 7 May 1989
Tandur, Andhra Pradesh, India/Westport, Connecticut, USA
 
 
The new family quickly fell into a comfortable routine.  The man comforted the baby in the early mornings and early evenings while the rest of the time, the woman was favored.  One day the woman took the camera from the dresser and took a photo of the man feeding the baby.  
 
Meals were spent in her lap and naps often followed on her shoulder.  The days getting to know each other were spent walking through the Taj Mahal with slippers on their feet, sitting by the pool at their hotel, or exploring.  A notable adventure around town included a monkey jumping on the woman’s head while the baby looked on, not sure what to think, and the man snapped a picture for their scrapbook.  
 
The baby grew more and more accustomed to them and them to her.  They learned the baby could walk when holding on to furniture or their guiding hands and that she seemed to wake up twice every night - both times for a drink.  
As they explored this new country and got to know this new child, they also discovered things about themselves: the woman was quick to soothe the baby and was confident that she would always be able to stop tears; the man learned how to change a diaper and warm a bottle and wondered why it was ever something he feared.  
There were moments the man and woman looked at each other and time seemed to stop.  Sounds from the baby would bring them back into the present and all they could do was smile.  
After some time, the family had to part.  It was only temporary and was always part of the plan, but neither the man nor the woman could have anticipated how it would feel to break apart their little triangle after such a short amount of time.  The man was headed back to the family home in Kigali, Rwanda with work to attend to and lots of photos to show the cook, gardener, and woman who would soon transition from housekeeper to nanny.  The woman and baby were heading to the United States to visit with anxiously awaiting relatives.
On the day the family had to go separate ways, the man held the baby in his arms as long as he could.  The tears from the goodbye lasted on to the plane and up in to the air.  The baby eventually quieted down and slept but the woman could not.  She looked out the window and was both exhausted and elated.  She was sad to have left her husband at such a wonderful time but knew that the family waiting at the other end deserved an iota of the happiness they had been feeling.  
The plane landed in New York City just as the sun was rising.  The woman waited for everyone else to exit the aircraft and then gently woke the baby who seemed disoriented and more interested in sleeping on her shoulder. 
Customs was a lot easier with a sleeping baby and the exhaustion seemed to stay at bay.  It wasn’t until the woman walked away from baggage claim that she realized how tired she was and just how much she wanted real sleep.  The walk to the arrivals area seemed to take forever and, in the final stretch, she started to walk faster and faster until she saw her mother and father, her baby’s new grandparents, waiting.  
The new grandparents were looking around with smiles on their faces.  The grandfather held a camera in one hand and brochures in the other.  When he saw the woman and the baby, he held his camera up to his left eye and she started to walk faster.  The grandmother saw this and looked in the direction of the lens.  She opened her arms and walked towards the woman.  The embrace was soft and secure.  The baby did not know what to do so she just looked around.  The grandfather put down his camera and stooped down so he was at eye-level with the baby.  They took each other in and the baby smiled which prompted him to chuckle. 
The grandfather directed the walk from the arrivals gate to the car.  He carried the luggage and mentioned some of the brochures he had found in the airport.  The glossy papers described baby classes, baby concerts, baby seminars, and baby playgroups.  He was throwing himself into the world of all things baby - Nothing was unexpected.  
Long before this day, he had written his daughter to let her know that he had been doing research about India and that the baby would have been used to eating basmati rice.
He had gone to the grocery store and bought some.  
He was surprised when he found it on the shelf not too far from Uncle Ben’s.  At checkout he couldn’t help himself but to tell the cashier about the impending arrival of his granddaughter.  
The grandmother walked coolly on the edge of her party, smoking a cigarette, making sure to blow the smoke away from the baby.  She just watched and was happy that her daughter had found the piece of the puzzle she had been looking for.  
When they got to the car, the woman let her mother and father situate the luggage and show her how to place the baby securely in the car seat.  It took five minutes and six hands, but finally the baby was strapped in and ready for the car ride home.  
The grandfather, who usually had no patience for other drivers, drove cautiously in the right lane and didn’t even honk when a car cut him off.  The baby and the woman fell asleep in the back seat while the new grandparents spoke softly in the front about how happy they were to be a part of this.
Pulling into the gravel driveway woke the baby.  She opened her eyes and was once again in a new place.  The driveway curved and made way to a little blue cape.  Holly bushes lined the walkway and potted flowers flanked the front steps.  Other cars were in the driveway and the second the grandfather put his car into park the front door of the house swung open. 
A man in his early 30’s walked out and down the steps opening his arms to his sister while greeting his mother and father.  The man looked into the window at the baby then back at his sister.  Following close behind was the woman’s little sister.  She looked into the window and then went one step further opening the door and insisting on getting the baby out as soon as possible.  The grandfather and new uncle went into the house with the suitcases and baby bag, while the women got the baby out of the car seat and slowly walked to the house.  
The women stopped as they walked up to the house and pointed out the pretty flowers and plants to the baby.  As they got closer to the house, the woman noticed a plaque to the left of the door.  It read: “Grandma and Grandpa’s House”.  She smiled knowing that the joy of this occasion was not limited to just her and her husband.
The woman and baby were last to enter the house while the new aunt, uncle, and grandparents stood in a semi-circle around the living room.  Pink balloons dancing around the room and a banner that read “WELCOME HOME!” were the first things the baby fixed her eyes on.  Cameras flashed and the baby put her hands in front of her eyes and turned her head into her mother’s neck.  The woman soothed the baby and walked around letting her touch the balloons and various other things in the grandparent’s living room. 
After the grand tour of the living room, kitchen, and sitting room were over the woman sat down on a sofa and placed the baby at her feet.  Everyone followed but no one joined the woman on the couch.  Instead they sat on their knees smiling and talking to the baby.  
The rest of the night was spent much of the same way.  The woman was able to rest a little bit, knowing that four other sets of eyes were constantly on the baby.  They slept that night in a guest room and the baby hardly made a sound except for waking up twice for a drink – A habit the baby had always displayed to them and one she was prepared for.  
 
8 May – 17 May 1989
Westport, Connecticut, USA
 
The next morning, the woman walked into the kitchen with the baby and her father motioned for her to hand the child to him.  She obliged and the baby seemed happy to be near him.  Soon after, he left for work and the woman and her mother planned out their day.  
First they gave the baby a bath in the kitchen sink.  The two women worked as a team, much like the man and woman had.  The baby was content in the warm water, being doted on with gentle hands.  
After bath time, the baby was dressed and the three of them headed out to the grocery store and then the baby store.  Baby food, diapers, wipes, pacifiers, and formula were purchased.  
They could not go more than five minutes without a stranger commenting on how happy the baby looked.  
When they returned home they ate lunch and then played.  The woman and her mother took turns crawling on the floor next to the baby while she explored, or holding her hands and walking from room to room.  When the woman’s father got home, he promptly scooped up the baby and spent the night with her in his lap, even through dinner.
The next day the grandfather stayed home from work and relatives came to visit.  Everyone fawned over the baby’s features – dark hair and big eyes, so unlike their family.  Visitors came from Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York.  Each person brought food and some sort of gift for the baby.  Everyone wanted to hold her but she preferred being held by her mother and grandparents so she watched the people around her from the safety of their arms.  
 
 
17 May 1989
Westport, Connecticut, USA/Kigali, Rwanda, Africa
 
The day had come for the woman and baby to head back to their home in Kigali, Rwanda, where the man waited for them.  The woman’s mother and father had known this day would come.  They were pleasantly shocked at how close they had grown to the baby in such a short amount of time.  They knew the family would be moving back to the states in the next year or so and that there would be a visit or two in the interim.  It just seemed like such a long time until then.  
On the morning of May 17, 1989, everyone woke up early.  The bags had been packed, reluctantly by the grandmother, and somewhat excitedly by the woman, and waited by the door.  The grandfather brought them out to the car and the grandmother held the baby while the woman walked around the house one last time to make sure everything was accounted for.  She was leaving some simple things at their home, things she had plenty of.  
This way there would already be stuff in place for their next visit. 
The car pulled up to JFK international airport and the grandparents got out of the car first.  The grandfather arranged all the suitcases on a cart and the grandmother held the diaper bag and her daughter’s purse.  The woman got the baby out of the car seat and all three walked into the airport.  The grandfather put the baggage up on the counter at check in and the grandmother held the baby while the woman arranged their passports and boarding tickets.  
  All too soon it was time to say goodbye.  The grandparents took turns hugging the baby close to them and telling her how much they loved her.  The woman looked on and although it was sad it was also happy because she knew the man must have been missing her and the baby terribly.  The woman hugged both goodbye and promised letters and photos as often and she could.  The woman and the baby made their way toward their gate.  
The flight home was tiring.  The woman slept when the baby allowed her to, although it was not much.  The woman did not know if it was the altitude or the absence of the grandparents that was upsetting the baby.  She expected it was more the latter.  The baby had gotten used to them and their constant love and affection over the past few weeks.  
When they finally landed the woman felt the same relief wash over her just as she had when she landed in New York.  The woman and baby once again made their way through customs and into arrivals where the man was standing.  Ever so predictable his camera was around his neck while his hands held a stuffed animal for the baby and flowers for his wife.  The woman walked in his direction and the baby seemed to recognize him and, as they got closer, began to smile.