Times-Union_Dec_25_2005

Times-Union Article, front page, Dec. 25, 2005

Times-Union website       The Kazakstan letters


The Long Wait

One couple's journey to parenthood ends with a priceless gift, and a church welcomes a family home.

By JENNIFER GISH, Staff writer
First published: Sunday, December 25, 2005

Dave Crates clutches his camera and tiptoes through the young children seated at the base of the homemade nativity scene, where bumpy, papier- ache donkeys watch over the Christ child, and shepherds tend to their flocks with Popsicle-stick staves.

When 6-year-old Andrei Crates steps to the microphone, he'll say the very last one-word line in this nativity designed and narrated by the children at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

And his father has to get a photo.

While 2-year-old Vera Crates plays in the Schenectady church's nursery, Denise Crates watches the nativity from a pew toward the back. This is where she and her husband, Dave, sit now, in the section where parents listen to the sermon while their children kneel on the floor and use the pews as desks for coloring.

The Crateses no longer worship from the middle rows with the other adults, like they did when they were simply those sweet people who married at St. Stephen's seven years ago. 

People there often wondered why the couple -- Dave is 50, Denise, 45 -- spent so much time working with the youth group when they didn't have kids of their own. But it wasn't the sort of question you asked.

That was before the more than a year of waiting and paperwork, dreams  and prayers.

Before members of the congregation rushed to St. 's to read e-mail updates and to coo over photos of the couple visiting their soon-to-be children in a Kazakhstan orphanage.

It was all before a seven-week stay in the Central Asian nation ended with  Denise and Dave's return in early June.

And a church welcomed a family home.

At one point, Denise Crates had given up hope.

She and Dave tried to have children for the first five years of their marriage, but trips to the fertility clinic never resulted in a happy announcement.

Denise sat quietly at scrapbook parties, listening to women talk about their kids, the only one without something to contribute. She didn't want to hear about the joys and trials of pregnancy when it seemed as if she'd never  know them.

She could talk about her frustration in Bible study with her minister and another woman. The stress of each failed trip to the clinic put stress on her marriage. And often, she'd think of Moses, wandering the desert trying to find the promised land, a journey that appeared to have no end.

It was depressing, Denise says, to have no reason to rush home from her job with the state each night. And Dave had no reason to leave his home  office, working on real estate appraisals well after dinner.

They shared everyone else's children when they could, going on weeklong summer work camps with the youth group, showing up to church kids' school events.

Denise would slip on her white gloves to play with the bell choir on Sundays and help count the proceeds from the offering plate. Dave let the youth group kids who studied martial arts practice on their leader, and he'd laugh when the kids teased him about snoring during lock-ins.

It was wonderful. But it wasn't enough for the Clifton Park couple, who talked about how they wanted to be parents during pre-marital counseling with their minister.

"For a while, I thought there's a lot of ways to have kids in your life," Denise says. "But something was missing."

Eventually, a woman at Denise's office talked about adoption. It seemed so overwhelming at that point. Dave was eager while Denise had many questions: Were they too old to adopt? Would they be able to adopt if they put the kids in day care?

So she wrapped the questions in prayers and waited for an answer. Eventually, it became clear.

In January 2004, they went to Mechanicville and met with the director of Children at Heart Adoption Services, which specializes in international adoptions. There, they saw a picture of a little boy named Andrei. Left on the doorstep of an Kazakhstan apartment building, he came to the orphanage at 2 months old. His caretakers assigned him a birthday and gave him a last name, the same as the street he was found on. 

Soon, his picture would hang on the Crateses' refrigerator. Shortly before they left for Kazakhstan, another picture, of a 2-year-old named Vera whose mother died of alcohol poisoning, joined it.

If they were going to go all the way to Kazakhstan, they wanted to do it only once, returning with an instant family of four.

But first, a journey.

The church webmaster posted each update from Kazakhstan, printing pages and keeping them in a notebook that was passed around every Sunday among those who didn't have Internet access.

People who were always late to church started coming early to beat the crowd to the notebook.

The first time Denise and Dave stepped into the orphanage, the church stepped in with them, through Denise's letters home.

We met Andrei first. They told him about a week before we came that his parents were coming to get him. When they brought him in he seemed very scared. He wouldn't look at us, and I was afraid he would cry. We got out a box of Legos and set them in front of him hoping to help him relax. He started building with them and you could tell he was tense the way he gripped the Legos. Dave and I kept handing him pieces to put together and he would take little side glances at us. This went on for what seemed like an eternity. I kept trying to think of something to really break the ice with him and finally I decided I'd hide the Lego pieces behind my back and then ask him to choose which hand they were in. He finally broke into a huge smile and we played our little game for quite awhile.

Beside the letter is a picture of Denise with Andrei. She is smiling wide, glowing like a new mother. Andrei is on her lap, his eyes dim and fixed straight ahead. His mouth in a tight straight line.

For two hours, twice a day, six days a week, the Crateses visited the children in the orphanage, where the staff cared for about 110 kids and kept their small beds lined up in neat rows.

Back at St. Stephen's, the Rev. James Brooks-McDonald would think about the adoption blessing he'd perform when the family returned. Church members would discuss how the couple should handle behavior problems they were experiencing with Andrei in week three and e-mail their advice.

And they would pray. Faithfully pray for months during a process that worked in what Sunday school teacher Allison deKanel calls "gruesome slow motion."

From mid-April until the Crateses came to church that second Sunday in June, they would read news from Kazakhstan.

About how the couple would see Andrei waiting at the window for them as they drove up to the orphanage each day.

About how Vera would toddle across the room into Dave's arms.

The church would come to understand why the Crateses had to be there for seven weeks. There was a visitation period with the children, then a court appearance, then a two-week wait for the judge's decision, then an appeal period that required them to stay. And in the end, it would cost the couple nearly $50,000.

On Sunday mornings, the congregation read about how the children would spend those last three weeks in a hotel room with their new parents because the apartment they were supposed to have for that time fell through.

While the Crateses snapped a close-up photo of the small growth on Vera's upper lip to send back to a doctor in the United States (it may just fade away as she grows), the church kept tabs.

They would learn that Vera snuggled between her parents in the hotel bed, and Andrei slept beside Dave in his own small bed, insisting his papa's arm stay on his belly all night.

The church would read about first kisses and hugs. About what it felt like to be needed as parents.

And not long before the family would return home, they'd read:

Andrei has been asking us a hundred times a day when we will be leaving -- he doesn't exactly ask, he puts his arms out like a plane's wings and says 'America?' We keep telling him one week, but I'm not sure he understands. Andrei has been learning English pretty quickly. He can now count to ten and he says several phrases. His first full sentence was 'don't do that' -- I'm sure you can understand why. He and I have been doing a lot of shopping which he pronounces 'schloping.' He likes to ask: 'Mama, Andrei schloping?' ... The children have both changed some in the two weeks since they left the orphanage. They seem more relaxed now. They both had this franticness about them the first week. It was as though the fun would end at any minute and they were trying desperately to do everything. Maybe this comes from living on a very strict schedule for their whole lives ... Please understand how grateful we are for keeping our family in your prayers while God answered ours.

See you soon!

Dave, Denise, Andrei & Vera Crates

 

Tears flowed from every pew the day Father James dangled the Crateses' children above the baptismal font.

That was when fatherhood seemed real to Dave, who stunned the youth group when he showed up to church that day in a coat and tie.

Andrei and Vera, these children who were being dedicated to God, were also his gift.

Months later, Andrei swings from open arms to open arms at St. Stephen's until the Crateses lose track of him. Vera's stuffed with pastries at coffee hour and kissed by almost every passing adult. What a gift, the church members say, that the Crateses should bring these kids "to us."

The Crates home is full of toys they didn't buy. The two couples who serve as the children's godparents and the rest of the worshippers at St. Stephen's vow they've been restrained with their gift-giving.

They talk about the kids as lessons in faithfulness, patience and hope.

Gratitude strikes Dave every weekday afternoon when his son comes bounding off the school bus.

Denise carts both her children to the grocery store, even though Dave insists it would be easier if she left them at home with him. But she's waited years for this, to be one of those mothers herding her kids to the grocery cart, to be one of those women she used to envy when she stood alone in the checkout line.

They show family photographs, laugh when Andrei says "Andrei cute pictures?" and grab Vera as she crashes into their legs.

Their children play in the snow as the family chops down their first Christmas tree. Every night they settle onto their parents' laps for stories.

On the Sunday before Christmas, the parents watch Andrei walk to the nativity and stand in front of the microphone.

Denise smiles from the pews at the back of the church. Dave kneels with his camera.

A church member who fetched Vera from the nursery holds her in the corner, so she can watch her big brother's big moment.

A congregation smiles as Andrei speaks.

The word comes out softly at first, deep as if it couldn't possibly come from a tiny kindergartener.

Then once more, louder and stronger, as the faithful wait.

"Amen."

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Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or by e-mail.