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Becomming John Lahutsky

October 25, 2011, 7:00 6405 Author: Vera Shengelia, photo Ethan Hill, translated by Yevheniya Devyatkova snob.ru People tend to die before the actual death. Childhood dreams are hit by unforseen difficulties and break, adolescence plans face unexpected obstacles until the man runs out of desires, imagination and mere will to live

Only few can keep the forecited qualities in the face of the rough and tumble of life. Very few manage to change really tough circumstances. And only one in a thousand succeeds in doing incredible: reclaim oneself from the hostile world, stay alive when others have burried you, preserve the ability to hear, see, dream — and live.

John Lahutsky is twenty one. He lives in Pennsylvania, in the town of Bethelem with his mother Pola in a one story white ranch house. John goes to Freedom High School, supports the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Eagles, laughs at his chihuahua Jambo. In short, he is an average cheery young man. Except that he gets about on crunches. But tell me who calls attention to crunches today? I mean, of course, in America.

What makes the difference is that not every 21-year-old has a book written about him, republished several times and translated into several languages. English journalist Allan Phillips had wrote such book about John Lahutsky, with direct participation of John himself — on the cover he is mentioned as a co-author.

The book about John, which is in fact his biography, is called The Boy From Baby House 10.

One of the things that make the book extraudinary is that its several hundred pages have a dozen of climaxes and the same number of denouements. At least ten times the reader thinks “that must be the end” or “nothing more terrible, exciting or important could ever happen to the character”. One of such moments is in the very beginning of the book. Four-year-old John Lahutsky lies on the floor in the room with ten more children. Not a sound is heard.

Medical history sheets of these children say: cerebral palsy, oligophrenia, moronism, learning disability. They are not supposed to develop, they are supposed to be looked after. That's why they have clean clothes on, and they have just been fed liquid puree out of the bottles. Now some of them are standing in babywalkers with wheels taken off them, some are liyng in special baby chairs. No one is rolling toy cars on the floor, playing with blocks, beating with toy hammer — because that would be developing. So the room is very quiet.

As the book tells us, Sarah, Allan Phillips' wife, enters the room. It is clear how she feels when she sees several silent unmoving children, she turns around and takes a step to the door when she hears someone saying from the farthest corner of the room “Will you come again?”

The whole picture makes it clear to the reader that John Lahutsky, who had just spoken those words and who was then still Vanya Pastukhov, will surely leave that room and even that baby house 10, it becomes clear that Sarah will surely come again and again, come for him, and the happy ending will follow. John will stop crawling on the floor and eating disgusting liquid puree out of the bottle.

In one word, it becomes clear how important it is to give voice in the right time, to call for help. But the thing is that this is no fiction, and John Lahutsky is no fictional character. Here he is sitting in his American house at the big window with the view of the road, in the chair before the coffee table, his chihuahua playing at his feet. It is April, but the temperature outside is 30 degrees and the room is filled with sunshine. At first John speaks very slowly, apparently feeling shy, but as the conversation progresses his speech grows lowder and more fluent. Since John had moved to America, he has absolutely forgotten Russian, so he speaks English. It is in English also that he will write in the introduction to his and Allan's book:

“My friends who knew me in Russia are often asking, how I managed to save myself when many of the kids like me died before the age of seven. And I cannot answer that question”.

In one word, the thing is that even though John is sitting now in a nice chair in his American house and he really does not have to eat distusting puree out of the bottle, that question - “Will you come again?” - was not enough. The thing is that John knows from his own experience, that calling for help is not the main thing for saving yourself, though it is very important.

Almost ten years have passed since I wrote my first article about orphans, held in my hands those medical histories with dreadful diagnoses, talked to all the high-up officials and all the big-hearted volunteers I could find. All day long I spent browsing some website on orphans, orphans were everything I could talk of, so when I heard that our local orphanage was calling for volunteers to help cleaning up its grounds, I went there at once.

I was raking the thick layer of wet leaves covering the ground between a sandpit with metal mushroom-shaped umbrella and a wooden gazebo when suddenly I heard someone calling to me in a quiet odd drawn-out voice: “Will you come?”.

A girl of about five was standing in the gazebo holding on to the rainling with her deformed hands. She was wearing glasses, one lens covered with a white patch, looking at the same time at me and past me and calling, articulating very poorely.

I wanted so much then to be a volunteer and in my wildest dreams even to adopt a child.

I carefuly put the rake on the wet leaves, turned around and quickly went towards the exit.

That is why I so want to know how this nice young Pennsylvanian with strong well-tendered hands managed to save himself. What else did he do except called for help? What is his story and his book really about? Luck, fortune? Or the most extraordinary boy on Earth? What did John Lahutsky do if just calling for help is not enough?

Here is my favourite moment in the book. Once, before the New Year, one caregiver in Vanya's group, Valentyna, brings Vanya a present. She really loves the boy very much, and he loves her too because she is the only one who talks to him, who gives him toys and lets him eat out of a plate, not a bottle, and even gives him small pieces of bread, so that by the age of six Vanya can chew, not only suck — something undreamed of for a child in his group. Besides, Valentyna puts Vanya on his legs during her shifts, and very soon it turns out that Vanya can walk step by step. Not without support, of course, and terribly slowly, but still.

Valentyna, an elderly woman, wife of the retired colonel, gives Vanya a gift — her husband's reupholstered shirt with a star sewn on to each shoulder. She playfully calls him “her little major”, and they go to see the festive concert in the auditorium where no one from Vanya's group is ever taken.Valentyna is not carrying him, she wants them to walk into the auditorium together.

When they almost reach the room and can already hear the music, Vanya asks Valentyna if he could crawl, because that would be faster and they wouldn't miss the concert. Valentyna supports his hand so that he can hold on to the wall with another hand, and answers: don't you know, Vanya, majors don't crawl”.

Was Vanya an extraordinary boy? He was. He was pretty, with a mop of blond curls, he was the only one who ever learned to speak. “I started speaking Russian while listening to others — doctors and caregivers”, — John is saying in his house in Bethelem. “My childhood Russian was a lot like adults' language, — he adds. — At the age of four I could easily keep up a conversation. I had a friend Andrew, who couldn't speak at all at first. He sitted across the table from me, and I started speaking to him a little, teaching him. It was the way to keep myself busy”.

Of course he was unusual — he had to keep himself busy, while for other children just sitting in the chair and rocking back and forth was enough. And he taught Andrew to speak. And when Sarah Phillips talked to him for the first time and gave him a toy car, he asked if she had another car for Andrew. “This was the first time I saw a four-year-old who cared for his friend so much”, - Sarah writes in her book.

Of course, he was unusual — because the thing he dreamt of most of all was not a toy or a cookie, but a new experience. It was this — the desire to see the stage he has never seen before, to hear the sound he has never heard, to meet a new person — at the end brought Vanya where he is now.

It is this — the desire for something extraordinary — that we adults call lust for life, the will to live.

It is this desire that Allan Phillips, the journalist from the Daily Telegraph, intentionally or unintentionally has made the main motivation of his book. Every time when the storyline of the book — and Vanya's life — slithers towards a dark pit, Vanya makes a little effort towards something new and digs himself out.

This is how he mets Vika — an amazing girl who volunteered in the baby house 10. Phillips tells us how Vika comes to the group next door to a year-and-a-half old girl Masha to carry her in her arms and sing songs to her. At her age Masha still can neither sit nor stand, and she can't speak. Than once a caregiver from Vanya's group forgets to close the door and Vanya hears Vika singing. So he crawls to the door to listen to the sounds. He memorizes her name when someone from the staff says it in order to call Vika by her name later. This ability of his — ability to memorize names and call people by their names, very unusual for an orphan, — will help him a lot in his life. Each time when he will call a person he had only seen once before by his or her name, it will draw attention to him.

This is how a special boy from the baby house 10 begins his way out of the silence. Valentyna teaches him to walk, he makes friends witn the Englishwoman Sarah, and Vika comes now not only to Masha, but to him also. She teaches him simple things — colours, names of the trees, — and even takes him outside once, and Vanya sees for the first time in his life the sun, the linden, the rain.

One would think this is the end of the story, but the committee comes to the baby house 10. Committee is the worst thing that can happen to a child in an orphanage in Russia. Committee can declare him learning-disabled and forever deprive him of any chance to progress, committe can separate two friends or even relatives, can, finally, just send him straight to hell, as was in Vanya's case.

In the book this scene is described from the words of the head of the baby house at that time, who was at the committee's hearing. Now, in Bethelem, it is told by Pola. John does not remember what had happened.

“He was asked questions which he, a boy without family, who had not seen the world outside, could not possibly answer. “What signal of the traffic light allows one to cross the road?” He had never seen a traffic light in his life! They showed him a pineapple. He could barely eat at all, because at the baby house they all were poorly fed with some purees. That was how they measured his mental abilities, declared him mentally deficient and sent him to the mental assylum for adults”.

In the book he was asked “what day of the week is it?” And Vanya answeres “Valentyna's”. He means, of course, that Valentyna is on duty today. “And tomorrow is Nastya's day, and then — Tatyana's, and then — Valentyna's again” ,- he lists all the seven days. The committee, however, is not impressed. And Vanya is sent to psychoneurological house nomber 5 in Philimoniky.

Do you know what has happened to Vanya Pastukhov, everyone's favourite light-haired and well-natured boy, in Philimoniky? He did not die there, as one could assume, he just stopped being different.

In that institution for adults there was a children's flank. Vanya was placed in one of the rooms — no development, just looking after. With one slight difference: there was no looking after. Vanya was undressed and put down into a metal bed with high barred bumpers, which looked more like a cage. There were several more cages like his in the room, in all of them on bare mats lay children. They were dressed only in sleveless undershirts, some of them — in small straight jackets. At first he tried to call someone when he wanted to go to the toilet. Valentyna taught him to do so, even though children wore diapers in the baby house ten. In Philimoniky they had no diapers, so children were supposed to relieve themselfes as they lay on drawsheet-covered mattresses. At first Vanya always asked for a potty, no one gave him one, but he still asked — before peeing or pooping right there in his bed. And then he stopped asking.

“For some time I was an extraurdinary boy, after that I just became one of them”.

He really almost forgot all the words, forgot how to use his voice and could only whisper, sedating drugs made his hands tremble, and then he began to sit and stare straight before him.

At some point, as it always happens in this book and in Vanya's life, you could no longer see a way out, you only saw the end. Even when Vika found him, even when she decided that the only thing that could help was adoption by a foreign family, even when she started visiting him again, even when she managed to bring into that hell some experts who would help her transfer Vanya into another institution, - it became clear that he would not make it. Because there is almost nothing left of him that could convince the experts — he barely talks and cannot even hold a pencil.

It becames not only quiet, it becames dark. And in this darkness and stillness Vanya Pastukhov suddenly does what he usually does — gives voice. “Communication with people from the outside was forbidden, one could only speak to those who helped to take care after the patients. For example, there was one boy, who ran away from his orphanage, and as a punishment he was put to the mental assylum to clean up after the pationts. He became my friend, he is thirteen years old now, and he is still there. He is healthy, they only keep him there as a punishment” - tells John.

Once, when Vanya was barely alive in Philimoniky, into the room where he was lying in his cage-like bed came Illya. The book tells that he was neither a man nor a boy. That's because Vanya has never seen a teenager, and Illya was one. Illya picked Vanya up and carried him to the bathroom. He started speaking to him. He told him about America he knew of from the TV-show Santa Barbara. Of course, this teenager never had a hope of saving Vanya all by himself, after all, what could he do, if he is still in the orphanage himself.

But it turned out, that the simple rule that having many friends is always good for you worked even in that micro-hell. Illya talks to Vanya, Vika and Sarah's husband Allan Phillips, who will later write a book about him, are trying to get him out of Philimoniki, the head of the baby house ten agrees to take him back. In the epilogue to his book Vanya will write that, when he prayed to his guardian angel, as Vika taught him, he always asked not for something specific, he asked to give him a chance.

Actually, Pola Lahutsky wasn't going to adopt a child. Pola had Russian origins, she was a parisioner of the Russion Orthodox St. Nicholas church in Bethelem. One Sunday Pola saw a report at the church in which an American couple who had adopted a child from Russia was telling about a boy named Vanya.

How did Pola make up her mind, what did her friends say when Pola told them she was going to adopt a disabled child from Russia she never knew? Pola keeps saying one thing: she knew that she could do it, that it was the right thing to do, she just knew that. “Before John I lived with my father. He had no legs, so my house was ready and fully equiped for a wheelchair invalid. I am a school psychologist and I know how to work with children with disabilities. And when I read the report I knew I could do it. I had no doubts, I just knew”.

From the moment when Sarah and Vika find Vanya untill the moment when Pola takes him to America five years pass. During this time Vanya lives in Philimoniki, goes to a hospital for a leg surgery, goes to a foster family, gets his hope up when an English couple promises to adopt him and becomes disillusioned when the hope of adoption falls apart. During this time Andrew, the boy whom Vanya taught to speak, is adopted and taken to Florida by his new parents. During this time Masha, the girl whom Vika came to visit, dies.

Neither Pola nor John can answer the question how did everything work out to bring them together. What did happen to make John enter his home in Bethelem? How do such things happen? Why do you spend five years just living and waiting, and than out of thin air comes Pola who “just knew”?

I am writing a letter to Marina Trubitskaya who I have known via the Internet for many years now. Marina runs a LiveJournal community “usynovlen” (Russian for “adopted”) - for people who were adopted as children. Marina was herself adopted in childhood, and one of her three kids, Stepan, is adopted too. Stepan had ICP and learned to walk only when he was two. Marina heard the story of John Lahutsky, she helped many children to find a family, and I want to ask her what she thinks about how these things happen.

We exchange letters about her adopting Stepan, about the imperfection of the Russian adoption system, about her LJ community and her herself. She will write about her personal adoption story: “Mother told me that she and dad were then not young anymore, they have lived alone for a long period of time and began to doubt whether they needed a child anymore. But at that time a woman worked as a guardianship official, a very active and caring woman, who helped many children to find their families, and she told them: “Do as you like, but I have already told the girl you are comming for her”.”

Later on Marina would send me a link. The link leads to a page with a really monstrous picture showing a girl of about eighteen months with an unbelievable face deformity. The picture was signed “Little Tanya, orofacial cleft”. A little further down the page a web site member Leshka wrote: “Tanya is at home!!!! I spent so much time telling others how great she was, that I decided to take her home myself....”

Then this woman writes about how for the first time she saw Tanya's photo and it scared her, and then she started calling everywhere just to find out whether the girl is still alive. After that — countless hardships associated with bringing Tanya to Moscow, review of the girl's diagnoses (HIV was confirmed, but cardiac anomaly and Patau syndrome were not), finding the doctors who performed a very complicated surgery, literally creating a new face for the girl. After that, writes a woman named Leshka, after about a year of bureaucratic red-tape, she managed to adopt Tanya. She ends her story with a phrase “Hail for the Year of Equal Opportunities!”

These two stories — about an active woman from the guardianship office and another woman, just as active, with the nick-name Leshka — at some point will make the most significant moment of John and Pola's life clear and understandable. The most important someone will surely appear in your life out of thin air, only if there is room for him in it. Only if this room is already cleared out for him, and the whole mechanism is already set in motion.

Vanya has already called for help, he has already been heard, people have already been doing their best to help him. Pola has already been living in a country where people are not afraid to adopt children on crutches, and everything in her life was ready for such a child to appear in it.

Near the entrance to John's room there is an icon of St. Nicholas on the wall. Several more Orthodox icons are hanging to the right of the bed. The room is very cozy, filled with soft light. Opposite the bed, where a dresser with a mirror stands, there are some slightly deflated baloons. John had a birthday on the 15th of May. Since he has the opportunity to celebrate his birthday in his own home, he always calls a lot of friends. On John's bed there is a bedspread with the Eagles emblem. On the walls of the room a lot of baseball caps are hanging — he has been collecting them for a while. Some of them he buys himself, others are brought by other people as gifts. On the shelf there is another present from Russia — a plush bull that sings in Russian: “No one has ever, ever, ever seen a bull in a cloak because I live in a warm new barn”. Pola does not know what those words mean in Russian, she confesses that she has tried to learn Russian and promises to try again too, but she just doesn't have a talent for foreign languages. John does, however, he has learned English in just six months.

I think, it is clear how he managed it. At school where he went after coming to the USA and where Pola worked, he met a boy Danny and spoke to him. Danny started teaching him English, just like he was teaching Andrew long ago. They became friends, even though when they met John, being the same age as Danny, was studying in a class with kids three years younger.

In the epilogue to the book written by John there is a line: “ My christening certificate given to me by a priest who came to the baby house ten every Tuesday is the only thing I brought from Russia which became useful”. He means that thanks to the certificate he was accepted to the local church, and he even serves as an altar boy during the Sunday services.

But John is actually mistaken. His American Miracle is that in his new life he managed to make use of everything he owned in his old life.

Both in real life and in literature there are a lot of stories about how real fighters, strong-willed people survive the most tough conditions, but fail to find themselves in ordinary life. They stop still just when all the hardships are left behind, when there is nothing to fight with one's life for, when one just has to stop and live a life.

John has changed school, language, family, country, lifestyle — everyone could have gotten depression or nervous breakdown. But he continued in his new life to do the same things he used to do in his old life. To speak to people first, to smile, to forgive, to take interest in life.

“I sometimes receive letters from people who have read the book, with a question if John had any troubles when adapting to new life, but he hadn't, - tells Pola. - I still think that it was incredibly brave of him — to go to some America with a woman he barely knew. When our friends met us at the airport, we were mortally tired, of course, but the first thing that John wanted was to go to McDonald's. He knew the place, he had sometimes gone there with Sarah and Allan. So the first thing we did when we came to America was going to McDonald's. He really adjusts very easily. If you look at his past, you can see that he adjusts to everything”.

He learned the names of all his Pennsylvanian relatives, of which he speaks so proudly in the epilogue of the book. He made friends with everyone in his boyscout group. He spent the night alone in a forest to pass a hard boyscout test. He understood complicated baseball rules. He became Harry Potter fan. He became a favourite child of the church. He grew to like old American movies. Now he dreams of becomming a film director, and Pola mutters that this is a hobby, not a profession.

She also says: “I thought I would have a common child, but it turned out that I have an extraordinary son”.

I think that she isn't exaggerating, because can a common child in his prayers ask not for a mother, not for a house, not for cookies or a bicycle, but for a chance? How can a common child know that chance is the most important thing. How, after all, a common child from the baby house ten with paralysed legs can know that he will be strong enough to use this chance.

The text was arranged with the help of Kseniya Semenova.

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