exposing the dark side of adoption
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The best gift under the tree


Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)

Author: Gene Sapakoff; The Post and Courier

Surely, there are better Christmas mornings ahead for Jeffrey Terrell Cruz Sapakoff, mostly because as an energetic 1-year-old crawling through a pile of presents he doesn't know whether to observe the Christmas tree or take a bite.

But for his mother and me and for his older sister and brother, it's the most blessed Christmas ever. The kids get to appreciate Christmas through the bright eyes of a curious new convert to Santa.

The parents know its the last chance to witness a "first" Christmas.

And for Jeffrey, it has to be better than a year ago when he was just days old and the new resident at an orphanage tucked into a Mexican rain forest on the outskirts of Xalapa, a foothills town within a half-hour of Veracruz and the Gulf of Mexico.

"This is Connecali - I believe it means `home of the kids,' in the Aztec language," said

Jose Luis

, the friendly man from Xalapa who serves as a facilitator for Daniel Island-based

Christian World Adoption

, as he steered a Volkswagen up a steep, stone path.

As the car came to a stop in the parking lot, I saw the playgrounds and cafeteria and made the mistake of saying "This looks like a pretty nice place."

Jose Luis glared directly into my face.

"Let me tell you something," he said, "No orphanage is a nice place."

Hugs and heartbreaks

The children stirred as the American couple walked into the playroom on a warm summer afternoon. They rushed forward, some of them dropping toys on the way. They speak only en Espanol except for the few words passed down from the boys and girls wise in a way no child should have to learn.

"Mommy! Daddy!" they scream.

Four of them, then seven. Finally, at least 10.

"Mommy! Daddy!"

A little girl, probably four or five and wearing a foot brace, hugged my leg and wouldn't leg go.

Jose Luis led us to the baby and toddler wing and introduced us to the little guy we'd seen only in pictures and on videotape. Jeffrey was in a crib in the corner of a room full of cribs. We'll never forget that first touch, that first smile.

Issac, a delightful 8-year-old, acted as tour guide and introduced all the residents, except for the tiny, motionless figure attached to a bag of fluids across the room.

"What's wrong with her?" I asked.

"Oh, very, very sad," Jose Luis said, shaking his head. "She has a brain tumor. How do you say in English? Not operable?"

The language of baseball

Mexican law says adopted children must be six months old before they can be transferred to their new families. We were there to take custody of Jeffrey on June 20, six months after his birth, and remained in Xalapa - five of us in a conventional two-bed hotel room - for 22 days sprinkled with court appearances and history lessons from Jose Luis.

"The good guys at the Alamo?" he said. "Let me tell you something: The Texans wanted the right to maintain slavery. Mexico didn't want to let them."

We spent two days in Mexico City for the required visits to the U.S. Embassy. Jeffrey was allowed to enter his new country only at El Paso, Texas.

His flight route home was Veracruz-Mexico City-Juarez-El Paso-Dallas-Atlanta-Charleston.

Jeffrey is a name we chose because we like it. Terrell is my father-in- law. Cruz is a little piece of Veracruz, "The True Cross," probably the first European settlement in North America, very near the spot where Cortez and his invaders landed on their way to the horrific clash with Montezuma in Mexico City. Jeffrey already loves "Barney."

At Connecali, it's customary for adopting parents to donate something to the kids. Jose Luis suggested baseball equipment. Issac picked out the Louisville Slugger from the pile of stuff from a North Charleston sporting goods store.

"Vinny Castilla!" he said, attempting to imitate the hard swing of the Colorado Rockies' All-Star third baseman. Again and again.



"Ah, Vinny Castilla," Jose Luis said. "He is Mexican. Let me tell you something: We are very proud of Vinny Castilla."

Let me tell you something: We did not adopt Jeffrey to save the world. We did so for selfish reasons. We wanted a baby.

And if he doesn't become the next Vinny Castilla, that's OK. Because little Jeffrey, bless his heart, just doesn't get it as he crawls among the Christmas presents: He's the greatest gift of all.

1998 Dec 25