- By Jon Waterhouse For the AJC
We had arrived in Atlanta on a Wednesday and Max began school the following Monday. Among the family and friends who welcomed us upon our arrival was Felix, my cousin-in-law, who spoke fluent Russian. He assured Max we’d pick him up that afternoon when school let out, but dropping him off that first day was tough for both father and son, as tears ran down his chubby cheeks.
Andrea and I rested easy, however, because Max had a star kindergarten teacher, Donna Fortenberry, who became his first true advocate outside of the family.
The school accommodated for Max’s stature, providing stools for him to reach water fountains and other necessities. And Mrs. Fortenberry fought hard to make sure other children didn’t mistreat him with name calling or bullying.
Andrea and I were immediately enamored with this little boy with the mammoth personality. Both of us were certain Max had come into our lives for a reason, not by chance.
But the stress we were feeling was unlike anything we’d experienced before. It wasn’t as if Max sprang from a box with an instruction manual. Our parental missteps began out of the gate, and the reality of having someone’s life in our hands struck hard.
Max’s energy level continued to be an issue. I’d pick him up after school, and he’d hop into the backseat and cheerfully yell at the top of his lungs as if releasing pent up frustration. Somersaults were often his mode of transportation, and he’d roll from one part of the room to the other. Max typically ran full throttle from morning to night, and naps were nonexistent. At times I’d want to collapse, my own energy drained, feeling helpless.
Meanwhile, an avalanche of change crashed Andrea’s world. The company she worked for was going out of business, and she had to find a new job. She had a new house that wasn’t yet a home and a son who wasn’t bonding with her.
Before going to Russia, Andrea had read several books that said most children raised in orphanages bond with the adoptive mother first because their institutional caretakers typically are women. Max, however, proved to be a man’s man. He gravitated toward guys and relished being one of the boys. When Andrea would reach for him, his reply was often, “I go to papa.” She was crushed, and depression overtook her.
I, on the other hand, dealt with our life changes and the stark reality of fatherhood by diving into the deep end of a pool of alcohol. I became preoccupied with my own issues and didn’t focus on the problems Andrea was facing. At a time when we needed to come together as a team, we didn’t. In the middle of our biggest adventure yet, Andrea and I began drifting apart.
Despair and dysfunction were threatening to disintegrate something we had put our hearts and souls into. Our love for each other was being challenged. The future of our marriage and that of an innocent young boy with dwarfism lay in the balance.
2. Settling in
A couple months after Max arrived, we hosted a Christmas party featuring a long guest list. We allowed Max to stay up late and basically run free during the chaos. Wearing a Batman cowl, he wrestled roughly with visitors, and if someone came to the door with a gift, he would grab it and take off. Through my work as a writer, I had befriended Blondie, the famous stripper at the Clermont Lounge, and she stopped by to see our new addition. At one point during the party, I turned to find Max, still in Batman garb, dancing wildly with Blondie.
A couple days later a call from Mrs. Fortenberry informed us that Max, in an act of defiance and frustration, had given the classroom trashcan a series of swift kicks. I realized that coming off a weekend of minimal sleep and overstimulation was the likely culprit. From then on, if we ever thought a certain situation would be unwise for Max, we would say, “Can’t do it. He’ll be kicking trashcans.”
Eventually, Andrea and Max began strengthening their bond with lots of one-on-one time. But my own demons and personal issues were a work in progress. My dreams and desires often clouded my vision, and I couldn’t help thinking that the next big thing would make my life perfect. “If I get this big career break, we’ll live happily ever after,” I thought. “If I go out and party with my pals, I’ll feel better.” “If I splurge on this coveted collectible, all will be good.” I continued to reach for things to fill the holes.
It took time, even years, for me to realize my grand prize was already in front of me. I had received the winning lottery ticket in the form of an amazing wife who loved me unconditionally and a son whose affection and zest for life far exceeded his excitable nature. I finally realized that I had to clean my own side of the street. The more I lived in the moment and appreciated the now, the stronger we became as a couple and a family.
Meanwhile, Max struggled in school. Because of his size, he was never allowed to attend school in Russia and was kept with toddlers. When we first got him, he only spoke Russian baby talk. Now he not only had to learn English, but he had to learn to read. Hurdles including dyslexia and learning disabilities compounded the situation.
Through elementary school, we paid for a revolving roster of tutors, wrote checks to learning centers and sent him to summer classes to help him keep up. We were told getting him to a fifth-grade reading level was all we could hope for.
While academics were a continuous struggle, his self-confidence and social standing were not. Max became an instant celebrity not only at school, but throughout town. We’d be at a grocery store or the park and people of all ages would recognize him by name. My theory was his dwarfism lured the initial attention, and his infectious personality locked them in. Andrea and I soon became known as “Max’s mom and dad.”
As Max grew older, he began to notice strangers doing double takes. Sometimes folks would stalk us while shopping, attempting to get a better look at him. “How old is he?” became a regular query by store clerks. Although he remained sure of himself, Max’s size led to serious conversations.
“I want to be tall like Big Papa,” Max said, referring to my dad.
“You won’t be that big,” I replied.
“That’s not fair,” he followed with a frown.
“You’ll grow taller, about the size of Trent or Aaron.”
A smile of satisfaction appeared. They were adult men in the local chapter of the Little People of America (LPA) organization who had become role models to Max. The group became our second family, a tight faction of support, love and empathy.
As Max’s ninth birthday approached, he began talking about wanting a “dwarf brother” for his present. Although we wouldn’t be wrapping a bow around a child in time for the festivities, Andrea and I were already thinking about growing team Waterhouse.
Despite our own designs, an unexpected turn of events would expand our brood quicker and larger than we thought.
3. Our family grows
In spring 2004, we began our quest for a 6-year-old Russian girl with dwarfism. But when we contacted LPA’s adoption arm, they directed us to another option: a 6-month-old baby boy living in the Northeast.
We had never imagined adopting an infant, but Andrea requested a photo. A cloudy fax came into view featuring a picture of an adorable, wide-eyed bundle.
“What’s his name?” Andrea asked.
It was Max.
The three of us sat down for a family conference. Andrea and I tried to prepare Max for the worst. We explained that a baby would take away our last-minute jaunts to the movies and other spontaneity. Crying, dirty diapers, the works would be on the way.
Max was unfazed.
“We have to go get him,” he said. “He needs us.”
With that, Project “Max 2,” as we called him, was underway. One Sunday afternoon, the phone shrilled, and a woman from the adoption agency was on the other end. Max 2’s birth family chose to go with us.
We cheered to ourselves and exchanged a flurry of high fives and hugs. Once the revelry subsided, Andrea confessed she had been feeling ill lately. She thought a pregnancy test might be in order.
About an hour later, Andrea emerged from the bathroom with an odd smile on her face, eyebrows raised.
“What’s the verdict?” I said.
“You don’t want to know,” she replied with a nervous giggle.
Now we were faced with a decision. With a birth child on the way, should we still adopt? Could we juggle a pair of infants and still give Max the help and attention he needed? Would Max 2’s form of dwarfism bring with it unexpected medical issues? How could I work from home in the middle of a nursery?
Andrea and I consulted friends and family, many of whom erred on the side of caution. But it was Andrea’s mom who gave us a cut-and-dry answer.
“You have to get him,” she said.
After Memorial Day, the whole family flew north to retrieve the babe. As the plane cut through the clouds, my wife and I were filled with a different brand of nervousness and anticipation this time around. We couldn’t imagine how a baby would react to being plucked from one world and plopped into another. What would it be like caring for an infant with Andrea four months pregnant?
The rush of walking into the small room in the adoption agency was electric. Max 2’s big blue eyes focused upon us as he was placed into Andrea’s arms. Quiet and content, he rested on her chest as she held him.
My turn was next, and I sat him on my lap facing me as I sunk into a cushy chair. “I went to the animal fair,” I sang to him. “The birds and the beasts were there. The big baboon by the light of the moon was combing his auburn hair.” I bounced him lightly on my knees and a smile materialized between two marshmallow cheeks.
Back at the hotel, reality hit us. We had a baby to care for. Moments after entering our room, Andrea sat Max 2 on the bed to change him. As soon as she unfastened the diaper, a fountain of urine shot straight into the air, soaking the bed. Andrea let out a yelp, and I dove in for the assist.
We knew nothing about raising an infant. Luckily, unlike Max 1, Max 2 came with a how-to manual for every hour of every day: What and how much to eat, how to tuck him in, his favorite toy, etc. It was an invaluable life preserver.
Adopting a child in America was a stark contrast to the Russian equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Being able to converse with strangers in our native tongue and enjoy comforts like a hotel pool were things we’d never take for granted again.
The elder Max was attentive and tender toward his new baby brother, with whom he shared dwarfism and adoption. We named the baby Levi after my late grandfather, a devout optimist who lived to be 98. We did, however, keep Maxwell as his middle name in order to retain Max 2 status.
With Andrea back at work and Max spending most days at summer camps, Levi and I quickly became a duo. He typically took two long naps each day, which gave me opportunity to work. If I had to go out and do research or interview someone for an article, I’d often tote him along in his carrier.
One morning while he was sprawled on a table in the middle of a diaper change, the word “papa” sprang from his lips. It was his first.
“You said papa!” I exploded at the top of my lungs, startling Levi and turning him to tears.
I was standing in Levi’s nursery, which included a second crib. In a few months he’d have a roommate — a sister.
As the delivery date neared, Max began raising some questions.
“What if she’s not a dwarf?” Max asked one evening at dinner.
“We’ll have to love her anyway,” I replied.
The pregnancy also stirred questions about Max’s origins.
“I’m not trying to be mean,” Max said one day, “but you’re not my real parents.”
I tenderly explained that we were as real as it gets. He inquired a little more about his birth parents, and I revealed what I knew.
“They didn’t want me,” he said, hanging his head.
“We did,” I told him. “Out of all the kids in the world, your mom and I chose you.”
On the morning of Dec. 5, 2004, we arrived at the hospital where Andrea endured 12 hours of excruciating labor. The pain was so bad, I imagined Andrea would have traded it for another stint in Russia.
But things turned serious when Andrea developed preeclampsia, a condition that threatened the lives of both mother and child. The doctor had to perform an emergency Cesarean section. I stood in the delivery room, my hand clutching Andrea’s as she lay there in a painkiller haze. When the surgery was completed, I looked over to see my newborn daughter glistening under fluorescent lights, legs bucking and lungs full throttle.
With heavy eyes, Andrea looked up at me.
“Is she a dwarf?” she said.
I bet the nurses had never heard that one before.
4. A special visitor
In fall 2005, Levi was nearing his second birthday, Violet her first and Max was more than halfway through his 10th year. We now had a daytime nanny, which helped my work-at-home situation.
As bunk mates, Levi and Violet were practically inseparable, more like twins than older brother, younger sister. But Max was feeling ignored. Balancing our attentions was a challenge, and we admittedly fell short at times. For Max, the idea of being an older brother had lost some luster.
He was, however, excited about something else. Andrea had arranged for us to host a Russian delegate attending the Open World conference, a Library of Congress program designed to develop leadership in Eurasia taking place in Atlanta that year. Our guest was Sergey Gulyaev, an official with the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly in Russia. When he arrived, Max, who was beginning to embrace his heritage, wrapped a Russian flag across his back like Superman’s cape.
Although Sergey knew little English, our friendship with him was instantaneous. During the course of his visit, he got a look at the daily life of our unorthodox family. He walked Max to school and was impressed when Max waltzed him right into the principal’s office for an introduction.
After 10 days together, it was tough for us to say goodbye. The look in Sergey’s eyes when he left told me his visit with us was special. Seven years later, I would find out how much.
5. Our family today
“You guys didn’t do a good job,” Max announced to a group of teenage volunteers as Andrea watched from the sidelines. “You did a GREAT job!”
President of his freshman class at the time, Max had just led a group of students through a homecoming float construction project. He’s been involved in student government ever since.
Now a junior, Max is a state officer for SkillsUSA, a student leadership organization. When the occasion calls for Max to step up to the podium and make a speech, he climbs onto a step stool and often encourages fellow students to follow their dreams. His own includes going to college, with his eyes on Georgia Tech. The boy whom counselors said wouldn’t make it past a fifth-grade reading level has become a voracious consumer of books with a penchant for math and science.
During his sophomore year, he competed on the high school wrestling team, pinning guys twice his size. He’s a worship leader at church and a counselor at summer camps. And he often counsels 9-year-old Levi, helping his younger brother gain confidence, learn to overlook comments and stares, and build a strong sense of self worth.
Both boys are active in Little People of America. They’ve built friendships with little people from all over the country and enjoy participating in sporting events that take place at the national conferences and through the Dwarf Athletic Association of America.
Levi is a budding musician who can hear a melody and pick it out on the piano. Like his father and his brother, Levi also loves a stage. He’s been known to swivel his hips and sing Elvis tunes at the talent show at the national LPA conference.
The conference also gives us a chance to reconnect with Joy McKenzie and her family. We owe the creation of our family to that first meeting with them all those years ago, and they feel like a part of our own family now. Recently Jack and Joy adopted a pair of boys from Ghana, Africa, one of whom is a dwarf.
Growing up going to LPA events has given Violet, 8, a strong sense of compassion and tolerance. Her eyes dance when she talks about the children at her elementary school with special needs. Andrea and I have seen this budding caregiver at work pouring glasses of water for the homeless at our church soup kitchen. And she looks out for Levi sometimes more than a little sister should.
“I’m a dwarf!” Violet once declared.
“You wish,” Max replied.
We’ve been asked if it feels different raising adopted children versus a biological one. The answer is no. These kids have come into our lives in different ways, yet they each occupy equal square footage in our hearts. No matter if they’re adopted or biological, you never really know what you’re going to get, and both come equipped with their own brand of challenges. They are simply our children.
Being advocates for adoption, Andrea and I were saddened last December when Russian President Vladimir Putin slammed the door shut on Americans adopting Russian children.
A couple of days later, Andrea came across a post on Facebook. It was a link to an article by Sergey, our former house guest, on a Russian blog called Rosbalt. It said that Sergey had taken the podium at a patriotism conference in St. Petersburg to speak out against Putin’s adoption ban.
Sergey told the audience about his experience visiting our family. He asked the audience to think of the fate that would’ve awaited Max had he remained in the orphanage. He then asked the members of the audience if they would’ve adopted a child with the same condition. Out of the 500 in attendance, Sergey said no one raised a hand.
Imagining Sergey speaking to an audience in St. Petersburg about my family made me step back and take an objective look at my life. I can’t help wondering, how did an overgrown kid like myself, as flawed and fragile as I am, win this big?
How we got the story
I first met Max Waterhouse 12 years ago when my then- 5-year-old son, Liam, started kindergarten. They were classmates. I can still remember Max bounding up to me and tugging on my hand, “Hey, Liam’s Dad!” I knew Max had been adopted from Russia by his parents, Jon and Andrea. But I never knew the extraordinary story of how they became a family, of the chance circumstances that led to them finding Max and the harrowing trip to Russia to bring him home. Features editor Suzanne Van Atten, who has known Jon Waterhouse for over a decade, knew the story and urged Jon to write about it for Personal Journeys.
Ken Foskett, assistant managing editor
About the writer
Jon Waterhouse, an Atlanta native, is a native Atlantan and graduate of Georgia State University who has been working in journalism for more than 20 years. He’s has been a regular contributor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the past 10 years. His work has also appeared in Esquire, BlackBook and MTV.com. He is the host of “The Pop Culture King Show,” a program he also writes and produces, on AM 1690 The Voice of the Arts in Atlanta. Waterhouse currently lives in Decatur with his wife Andrea, their children Max, Levi and Violet, and their dog Winnie. He’s currently working on a book about the creation of his family.
About the photographer
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Among the variety of assignments he’s shot for the AJC was the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.