Polina, my International Daughter

by Steve
(Iowa, USA)

Polina's grave, one year after

Polina's grave, one year after

Late spring of 2002: we were given biographical data and a letter from Polina, a Russian girl preparing for a year of study in America and in need of a home for that year. 15 years old at the time, Polina had applied for and received a scholarship to enroll in an exchange program. We read her letter and her data and we knew that we had found the girl we wanted in our home for the coming school year.

In August, a few weeks before her 16th birthday, Polina arrived in America and we welcomed her into our home. Though somewhat quiet and shy, Polina had a way of showing what she was feeling. It did not take long for her to capture the love of her American family.

Through her year with us, I had the great joy of watching this beautiful young person live and grow. Years later, her mother and then her brother and his wife shared with me some of their observations about that year in Polina’s life. Her sister-in-law said it most memorably. On her way to America, Polina had stopped to visit her brother and his wife. (At the time, they lived at opposite ends of Russia from Polina and their mother.) The following June, on her way home, Polina again stopped to visit her brother and his family. (Her nephew was born while she was in America.) They told me that the Polina who visited them on her way to America was a child; the Polina who visited them on her way home was a young woman. They all appreciated the family that had helped Polina through that transformation.

My job had taken a significant turn a month before Polina came to America, putting great demands on my time and attention. Between that and the fact that Polina and I both tended to be quiet and were cautious in social relationships, we were not able to experience some of the close conversations that I’d had with previous exchange students. But, even though work took much of my time and focus, I still came home every evening and I was able to watch her grow throughout the year. The job demands did not keep me from feeling a great bond with Polina.

That was especially cemented about half way through Polina’s stay with us, when she proclaimed that my kids were her “international siblings.” I had said before that I come to love the exchange students in my home as if they were my own children, but this simple comment touched me deeply. I figured that, if Polina and my kids were international siblings, then Polina was my international daughter.

As the end of the school year drew near, Polina began to separate emotionally from her American family. After the school year ended and Polina returned to her home in Russia, she stopped all communication with us. She didn’t even call or send us a note to tell us that she made it safely home.

Despite the separation and the silence, I found the love that I had for my international daughter did not end. I guessed that the silence was not a rejection of us, but rather a setting aside, as she went through the difficult time of growing into a successful young adult. I continued to hope that one day, after she found her place in the adult world, Polina would again reach across the ocean to touch us in some way.

The silence ended in the fall of 2008. Through the internet, Polina reached out to my oldest daughter with an invitation to be friends with “your Russian sister.” I was thrilled with just that little bit of contact, and I hoped it would broaden so I could learn more about Polina’s life after America.

In February of 2009, my daughter noticed something odd—tributes to Polina had been posted. In questioning one of the people involved in the tributes, she learned that Polina had died. She was hit by a car in December and did not survive the day. (For more about Polina’s life, go to my posting in “Theirspace.”)

Initially stunned by the news, I started crying within a matter of hours. One of my daughters was dead and I had no way to even visit her grave or talk to her mother.

After a couple of weeks, the tears started to subside as my job moved into its busiest season of the year. I guessed that’s how grief went—initially, very intense, but then gradually easing after a few weeks. I learned otherwise on April 11, the day after the critical due date of the season in my job.

On April 11, with the pressure of a major job deadline passed, the tears returned with all the intensity of those first few days. For the next three months, I was constantly depressed, breaking into tears frequently, anywhere and at any time of day. Somehow, I managed to mask them at work, acting as if my eyes were bothered by allergies any time I started to cry while in a meeting.

In my despair, I started grabbing at straws—searching the internet for anything that might give me something more, about Polina’s life or about her death. As I managed to stumble upon people who knew Polina, I eventually found one who knows her family. From that friend, I got an e-mail address and, after much prayer, I composed a message and sent it to Polina’s mother.

After many more tears and communications, sometimes painful for all of us, Polina’s mother agreed that I could visit and her brother offered to help me plan the visit. In December, one day after the first anniversary of Polina’s death, I boarded a plane to go to Russia, where I would visit Polina’s grave and her family. I only had five days in Russia, but that seems to have been the right amount of time for this trip. Between the intense emotions and the jet lag, I got very little sleep while there and I probably could not have endured much longer.

Now back home, I feel as though Polina’s funeral is finally over, a full year after her death. My intense drive to do something (visit her grave and hug her mother) is over, but now I’m left with the awareness that she is gone from this world.

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