A GIFT CALLED MARGARET

Date: 1998-12-26

Charlotte Observer, The (NC)
Author: SCOTT DODD, Staff Writer
Dateline: CHERRYVILLE

For 18 years, Greg and Robin Cox have hung two stockings over their fireplace at Christmas: one for daughter Betsy, the other for son Patrick.

Robin would have liked a third, but Greg always argued against it. Two children were enough, he said.

But when it came time for the children to head to college - Betsy, 20, attends UNC Chapel Hill, and 18-year-old Patrick will follow next year - Robin brought up the idea of adoption.

The family talked about it for a long time. ``I figured if there was a child already in this world that we could help, that was all right with me,'' Greg said.

It took more than a year of heartbreak, paperwork and second-guessing, but this month Greg and Robin adopted a daughter, 19-month-old Margaret Elena Cox, from a Romanian orphanage.

She arrived Monday, just in time for Christmas.

Finding her

The search started more than a year ago with Robin combing the Internet for advice and agencies to help. She decided she wanted a child from Romania, because of the longer waiting period for U.S. children and because so many orphans in that country need families.

She isn't alone in that decision. Immigration records show that Americans will adopt more children from abroad this year than ever before.

Robin found Children's House International, which specializes in Romanian adoptions. Debbie Price, its director, adopted a daughter there in 1991, so she knew the issues the Cox family would face over the coming months.

Despite the reams of paperwork required, the hardest part of the process was choosing their new child. The agency sent Robin photographs of children over the Internet and videotapes of them in Romanian orphanages.

Robin knew what she was looking for - a young girl who had brown hair and eyes, like her husband - but seeing so many children who needed help was tough.

``Every one that Robin saw, she thought this might be the one,'' Greg said. He was glad she headed up the process. ``How do you say no to taking a kid out of an orphanage? I'd have had a durned household in here.''

They looked at about a dozen children, expressing interest in some, but none of them worked out. During the summer, the number of referrals slowed, and Robin became discouraged, doubting that this was really the right thing for her and her family.

Price said that's common for people dealing with the long adoption process. ``It's like a never-ending feeling that we're not going to get out of this dark pit and find our child,'' she said.

Robin had nearly given up when Price contacted her in September about a little girl. Robin told her she was rethinking her decision, but Price e-mailed the picture anyway.

Unlike the other times, Robin didn't check her computer right away. ``I thought, She's not getting this. I've changed my mind,' `` Robin said.

When she finally downloaded the photo and saw little Bogdona Elena's brown eyes on her computer screen, her doubts disappeared. She couldn't reach Price until the next day and worried through the night that someone else would see the child and want her.

Meeting her

Once Robin expressed interest in the girl, it took several months to complete all the paperwork. The Coxes had hoped to have their new daughter home for Thanksgiving but kept facing delays.

When the time finally came, Robin, who had never left the country before, went to Romania with a friend to bring back the little girl, whom they renamed Margaret Elena.

Robin arrived in Bucharest on Dec. 14. She finished the paperwork at the U.S. Embassy, and a guide from the adoption agency delivered her new daughter to the hotel the next day.

When she first saw her, Margaret was crying. The three-hour trip from the orphanage had made the child carsick, and Robin spent their first four hours together relearning what it means to care for a baby. All the rocking, holding, feeding and washing couldn't soothe her cries.

Whenever Robin put her down, Margaret would back up against the side of her crib and rock herself as she cried.

``That was kind of scary for me,'' Robin said. She thought of all the things she had been told about children who grow up in orphanages: They develop more slowly, they're used to being alone, they might have trouble with human contact.

Robin couldn't even clean her up for several hours.

``The only clothes she had were the clothes on her back, and they wanted those back,'' she said. They were rags, but the orphanage needed them for other children.

The first day was not what Robin had hoped for, but Price had warned her it would be hard. Margaret slept through the night, though, and woke about 7 a.m. Things were different almost immediately.

She had stopped rocking. She didn't shy away from Robin. Fewer tears fell.

``That day it was like I saw a whole new side of her,'' Robin said. She spent the rest of the week getting to know her new daughter before the long plane trip back.

At home, Greg, Betsy and Patrick received constant updates. Betsy came home from college and went broke buying presents for her new sister.

Still, the whole experience hardly seemed real. They knew their lives would soon change completely, but it was impossible to really know how until Margaret arrived.

``All of it was almost surreal until she got off the plane,'' Greg said. ``That's when it hit everyone, I think.''

Robin and Margaret made the trip home on Monday, arriving at the airport about 5 p.m. Family and friends - including a big group of Patrick's high school buddies - were waiting.

Margaret had been good on the nearly daylong plane trip, until the last 10 minutes, when she wouldn't stop crying no matter what. Passengers around her told her to let the girl cry - she had been so good until then.

Robin had to go through customs before she could join her family. Their first glimpse of Margaret was through a window in the airport.

Betsy was the first one at the glass, crying as she saw her new sister. Greg stood behind her, chuckling a little at Betsy's reaction. Patrick, low-key as always, just smiled.

Raising her

About all the Coxes know of Margaret's early life is that she was born in a Romanian hospital to a 16-year-old girl who ran away after giving birth. The authorities tracked the mother down, and she signed abandonment papers, making her daughter an orphan.

Margaret grew to 19 months in one of the country's crowded orphanages on a diet of powdered milk and limited human contact.

Two weeks ago, she couldn't walk and had never had baby formula. She rocked in her crib, ground her teeth and crossed her fingers to entertain herself.

Such traits are common in a child adopted from Romania and many foreign countries, adoption experts said. Parents are warned of the possibility that their children might suffer from several problems, including attachment disorder, which limits their ability to enjoy human contact.

``Love doesn't conquer all for some of these children,'' said James Woodward of Christian Adoption Services in Matthews. ``They come with some real baggage.''

So far Margaret hasn't shown any signs that her early life will limit her development. She's not shy or afraid of people, even visitors. She laughs and plays with her new brother and sister and reaches out for things she wants to see.

On Tuesday, one week after Robin met her, Margaret took her first steps. By the next day, she was wobbling across the living room holding Betsy's hands.

She has stopped grinding her teeth and rocking in her crib, although she still crosses her fingers and stares at them. Her new family has turned it into a game, crossing their fingers and touching hers.

As she grows, there might be other issues. The Coxes plan to let her know she was adopted and teach her about her Romanian heritage. Robin brought back several reference books on the country's history and culture for the family to read.

Woodward said parents need to prepare for dealing with those issues before they arise, as the Coxes are doing.

``The parents set the stage of how the child's going to deal with being different,'' he said.

For now, the family is just enjoying their newest member and showing her off to everyone. Cox, a Gaston County commissioner, plans to introduce his new daughter at a future board meeting. Scores of family and friends have dropped by the house to meet her.

The morning after Margaret arrived, her new big sister showed her all the Christmas decorations.

She doesn't understand their words yet, but she makes sounds and eagerly reaches for objects that catch her attention, like the glittering balls on the 10-foot tree and the cracked bell she can stick her finger in.

She might not realize it yet, but the best decoration of all dangles from the fireplace mantle, between the two old stockings that have hung there for years.

It's a new white stocking adorned with colorful snowflakes. Stitched across the top is the name of the Cox family's greatest gift: Margaret.

Reach Scott Dodd at (704) 868-7742 or sdodd at charlotte.com .

Caption:
1. & 2. Staff Photos by ROBERT LAHSER: 4 on the floor Margaret, 19 months, crawls along her new living room's floor in Cherryville. Gaston County commissioner Greg Cox and his wife Robin recently adopted the toddler from Romania.

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