- Jon Waterhouse
Those legs. I couldn’t keep my eyes off them.
I kept looking in the rear-view mirror at three pair of legs so diminutive they were unable to hang over the backseat. Each limb simply jutted forward, shoe bottoms facing me.
I hoped they didn’t notice my gaze. It was the first time I had ever spent substantial time with someone with dwarfism, much less a family of three.
It was 1997 and Joy Campbell McKenzie, her husband Jack and their 6-year-old daughter Jane were in town for the National Conference of the Little People of America, a support organization for folks of short stature. The event typically draws about 2,000 guests, most of whom have dwarfism. The host city changes annually, and this year it was in Atlanta during the first week of a sweltering July. My wife Andrea and I were chauffeuring the McKenzies to dinner.
Just three years into marriage at the time, Andrea and I enjoyed observing the McKenzie family dynamic. We were beginning to talk about starting a family of our own, be it the old fashioned way or by adoption, we weren’t sure. But we never could have imagined back then how this meeting would provide a template for our own family.
In the rear-view mirror, I could see Joy’s short arms flail in animated fashion as she spoke. She had an extroverted demeanor, which served her well as an actress. In the ’60s and ’70s, Joy was cast in several Sid and Marty Krofft TV productions, which brought a kitschy, psychedelic sensibility to children’s Saturday morning television. Among her roles was Orson, the bumbling vulture and sidekick to Witchiepoo, the comical sorceress, on “H.R. Pufnstuf.”
The reason for this meeting was for me to interview Joy about her Krofft days for a piece I was writing for a magazine. I was giddy over the opportunity to meet her, because those shows fueled my childhood imagination, which had blossomed into a geeky, adult obsession with pop culture.
My excitement, however, became overshadowed by my burgeoning interest in dwarfism. It was fascinating to see the world through the eyes of a short-statured family making the most out of life in an average-sized world.
Joy said the airport Marriott was overflowing with scores of LPs, shorthand for “little people.” (“Dwarf” is acceptable, too, but not “midget.”) She explained that the convention served as a place where LPs could network, socialize, compete in sports events and take seminars on a variety of topics.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s a chance to make new friends, rekindle old relationships and potentially spark a love connection. It’s how Joy and Jack got together.
“I’m just tired of being around all those damn little people,” Jack joked.
Throughout the night, as we took them to Mary Mac’s Tea Room and the top of Peachtree Plaza, I noticed the reactions the McKenzie’s elicited from those around us. Heads turned, fingers pointed and mouths whispered. My first response was anger and irritation before I realized that just hours earlier my reaction wasn’t entirely different.
Unfazed by the attention, the McKenzies radiated optimism. While some things were physically out of their reach, a happy life wasn’t. Andrea and I left our new friends inspired and filled with admiration.
Meeting them found us exchanging emails, phone calls and Christmas cards through the years. But inspiring us to travel across the world for a life-changing adventure? That was the last thing on our minds.
2. “Here’s our Max”
Two years later, I was shuffling through my desk at home and came across a batch of pictures Joy had sent me from her Krofft days. She was sharing birthday cake with comedian Martha Raye in one shot, hanging backstage with singer Mama Cass Elliott in another.
I soon found myself clicking around the Little People of America website when I stumbled upon its adoption page.
Children with dwarfism from all over the world were featured on the site, but it was a 4-year-old boy from Russia who drew my gaze. He was wearing a mismatched outfit and had a smile stretched across his cheeks. His name was Max, a moniker Andrea and I had vowed to name our first-born son. And he was born exactly one year to the day after I proposed to my wife.
On a whim, I shot Andrea an email at work with a link to Max, thinking she’d get a kick out of the coincidences. In the subject line I typed: “Here’s our Max.”
I did not expect that Andrea’s reaction would be to burst into tears at the sight of Max’s face.
Later that evening we talked, and the discussion quickly turned serious. We had been talking about adoption for a while. We were able to conceive biologically, so far as we knew, but we were drawn to adoption by the amount of parentless kids in the world.
Relinquishing our freedom as a couple, however, was a big step. From day one our relationship thrived on seat-of-the-pants decisions. Less than three months after our first date, I had placed an engagement ring on Andrea’s finger. Valuing new experiences over the accumulation of possessions, we often risked safety in the name of fun. That might mean getting our belly buttons pierced after surfing a wave of afternoon cocktails or train- hopping through Europe without a thought about where we would stay.
But the time felt right, and we took the next step. Andrea and I contacted the adoption agency, and they sent us a video. It featured an orphanage talent show, culminating in a performance by Max, who was decked out in drag and lip-syncing to the tune of a female Russian pop star.
Now, in addition to being a freelance writer, I am a self-admitted ham. I have a closet full of costumes and no problem taking the stage. I sometimes don a wig and spandex to portray the lead singer in Van Heineken, a cheeky Van Halen tribute band. For four years I portrayed Retch, the ghoulishly goofy sidekick in Professor Morte’s Silver Scream Spookshow at the Plaza Theatre. And I transform into a singing Burt Reynolds in the classic country cover band Burt & The Bandits, in which all the members dress as characters from the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.”
Moments into the video, Andrea and I locked eyes. “He’s a Waterhouse,” we said.
Andrea began filing piles of paperwork, and we underwent background checks and medical exams. We had meetings with a social worker and countless conversations with folks from the adoption agency. One of them was Judy, who had visited the orphanage and also fell for the extra-small boy with the effervescent charm. She shared rave reviews about Max.
The more we heard, the more we were convinced. There was no option other than venturing to the other side of the world and retrieving Max.
After nine months of forms and formalities, progress came to a halt when Russian President Vladimir Putin put a moratorium on U.S. adoptions. For several agonizing months we held onto our vision of family not knowing if it would ever come to be. But finally we got the green light. Despite the moratorium, we were grandfathered in with a few strings attached. After a year of preparation, that missing piece of our family puzzle was closer to being put in place.
With our brood on the verge of sprouting, we wanted to upgrade from our tiny bungalow to a larger house. We sold our house just days before leaving for Russia. After shoveling our stuff into storage on a Saturday, we prepared to head to the land of vodka and sub-zero temperatures the following Tuesday. We cracked our hearts open and set our course for an unforeseen future, all for a child whom we’d never met.
The night before departure, my gut fluttered with anticipation like a tot on Christmas Eve. But it wasn’t visions of sugarplums that danced in my head that night. Instead it was a little boy — a little dwarf boy in drag.
3. To Russia with love
I wasn’t sure which was nuttier: The fact I was a man wearing pantyhose stuffed with $10,000 in U.S. cash or the kid who was using a metal pot as a toilet 15 feet away from me.
Andrea and I were sitting in a small Moscow airport awaiting our flight to Perm, an industrial town near Max’s orphanage. In chairs on either side of me sat our piles of luggage, which would hold our world for weeks to come. Guarding them, I threaded each of my arms through the handles, my legs stretched out in front of me, my ankles crossed. I imagine I looked as if I were being crucified by Samsonite.
Our flight from Moscow to Perm was on a vintage airplane seemingly held together by bubblegum and modeling glue. Perm proved to be a dark, depressing and polluted corner of the world. It’s a place where industrial fumes choked the throat and temperatures nosedived to -40 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter.
We bunked at the Ural Hotel, which looked like an industrial compound. Our room cost $14 a night and resembled a freshman college dorm with a single bed along each wall. Layers of black mildew filled the grout on the bathroom tile floor. Rumors speculated that the Russian mob handled hotel security.
Our first full day in Perm marked the moment we’d imagined on replay for the better part of the past year: It was the day we would meet Max.
Rustic from the outside, the orphanage was remarkably clean and organized inside. We first met with the nurse and a translator, who rattled off Max’s medical history. Andrea and I sat on the edge of a nearby couch soaking up the information.
Abruptly, the office door swung open and the little boy we recognized from photos and videos bounded into the room. There in the flesh was Max, now 5-and-a-half years old.
Following close behind him was the director of the orphanage.
In an instant, Max leaped into Andrea’s lap, threw his arms around her, and buried his face between her neck and shoulder.
“Who’s that?” the director asked in Russian.
“Mama!” Max replied, looking up.
“Who’s that?” the director pointed toward me.
Shocked into silence, we couldn’t do anything but stare at him. Soon it was my turn to hold Max, and I noticed the stark difference between my pale white hand and his toasty, olive-skinned arm. His half-dollar-sized brown eyes looked into mine.
Max didn’t sit for long. A moment later he was up and firing on all cylinders. He darted from one spot to another in the office and zipped around the couch. Soon I found myself on the floor with Max climbing upon my back. As exciting as this whirlwind moment was, I couldn’t help but wonder what we were getting into.
After spending a couple of hours with Max, we returned to the hotel feeling jubilant, but also uncertain. Were we equipped to tame a wild child?
4. Roadblocks and delays
The next couple of days included more playful and less excitable encounters with Max, and bonding began. We spent time with him in the orphanage office, and took a tour of the facility. Then an unexpected roadblock came into view.
I had revealed in an interview back home that as a teen I had sought professional help for anxiety and depression. I didn’t know that Russians rarely consult a psychiatrist except under the most dire circumstances. A judge in Perm put our court date on hold. To continue with the adoption, I had to take a trip to the “nervous hospital” and be tested.
It didn’t seem possible that my struggles as a teenager could cost me my son, but I was facing that reality. That he already was calling us “mama” and “papa” compounded my fear.
I was sent to an imposing building surrounded by stone walls topped with twists of barbed wire. There I took a lengthy, oddball psychiatric test featuring a barrage of questions including, “Are you constipated?” and “Would you like to be a woman?” I answered a resounding “no” to most, but it didn’t seem to matter. Instead of assessing my answers, the doctor simply asked for $100 and I passed. The court date was back on.
We spent the next three weeks spending time with Max at the orphanage and on outings in Perm. But the closer we got to the court date, the higher our anxiety ratcheted.
When we weren’t visiting our soon-to-be son, Andrea and I would mark off calendar days by playing late-night card games at the hotel with fellow adopting parents. Andrea’s nights were often sleepless, because of the stress of uncertainties and the noises coming from the guard shack outside our hotel window. People yelling and dogs barking occurred at all hours of the night.
Due to the moratorium, our facilitators guiding us through the process were helping us illegally. Our meetings with them took place out of sight in shadowy corners of the hotel’s basement bar. In our room, we would receive strange phone calls in Russian. Some nights we slept with a chair blocking our hotel room door.
When our court date finally arrived, things began smoothly as the judge steadily moved through the formalities until he came across a glaring omission. A form hadn’t been notarized by an orphanage official. We were told we had less than 45 minutes to drive to the orphanage, get the notarization and return before court was adjourned.
A round-trip drive to the orphanage typically took an hour, but our driver stomped the accelerator, played chicken with oncoming cars and delivered us back to court in time.
Max was officially a Waterhouse.
5. Long way home
The next hoop was a 10-day waiting period before we could take Max home. Technically he still had to stay in the orphanage until we left town, our visits limited to one or two hours a day.
We celebrated the adoption by inviting the orphanage director and some members of her staff to dinner at Perm’s snazziest restaurant. Andrea and I arrived to find the party had already started and it was larger than expected. Even the driver brought a driver. Although the room was mostly dark, the light bouncing off the sparkling disco ball overhead revealed a table lined with bottles of wine, vodka and an array of appetizers.
As the revelry subsided, the bottles and plates empty, I talked to the director about the 10-day waiting period. I voiced some concern, because Max was starting to cry each time our visits would end.
“You can have him tomorrow,” she said, courtesy of an English-speaking employee.
The next day Max was delivered to our hotel, and we whisked him upstairs.
Upon opening the door, Max blazed into the room, a flurry of movement as he sprang from one spot to another, manically flicking light switches on and off and repeatedly opening and closing the door to our tiny refrigerator. The little TV was next, then the radio. After five years of institutional living, Max was letting loose.
Since he wasn’t allowed to take any of the orphanage clothes with him, we had brought some new duds with us. Slipping on a Batman T-shirt, jeans and petite sunglasses, Max was Americanized in an instant.
Because of his size, the orphanage staff kept Max with 2- and 3-year-old kids, and had refused to send him to school. Holding a crayon was something new. The novelty still fresh, Max spent time sitting on the floor with Andrea and attempted to color in her ankle tattoo with a crayon.
During our last week in Perm, we were moved to a larger room, a much nicer suite with a queen-size bed. At night all three of us would climb in bed together and devour a storybook. Although Max had no idea what we were reading, we’d do it anyway.
After we’d recite a rhyming line from “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” by Dr. Seuss, Max would reply “bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh” in a singsong cadence.
Despite the fun we were having and the love we were fostering among the three of us, Andrea and I both remained intimidated by the fact Max was charged with unrelenting vigor.
After four weeks, we finally bid goodbye to Perm without looking back into its polluted haze.
In Moscow the gloominess of Perm was replaced by the hustle and bustle of a thriving metropolis. At this point, however, both Andrea and I were spent. There we were in the midst of a city rich with art and history, but we had no desire to make the most of it. We took a family photograph in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral, Max sitting on my shoulders, but we skipped the tour of Red Square. Our minds were focused on one purpose: going home.
Because of the court delays, our trip had lasted longer than expected and our visas were on the verge of expiring. We needed to reschedule our flight out of Moscow pronto. Because we were traveling on frequent-flyer miles, the airline wouldn’t release certain seats to us. Andrea made phone call after phone call to the airline pleading to get on the plane. No luck.
Finally a tear-filled conversation with the right airline representative resulted in three seats on a plane out of Moscow.
We spent the better part of our five-day stint in Moscow getting everything in order, which included securing Max’s visa and having him undergo an exit medical evaluation. His kinetic outbursts in our Moscow hotel suite had us bubbling with concern. How could we possibly handle a 24-hour plane flight?
We finally boarded a plane for a marathon jaunt from Moscow to Zurich to New York to Atlanta. A combination of on-board cartoons, coloring books, Lego blocks and food kept Max’s attention for the majority of the flight. He remained awake for 23 hours, with only minimal Tasmanian devil-like outbursts.
It was during the last hour of the final leg of our journey that Max finally shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep. Andrea and I looked at each other and laughed at the irony. As the plane’s tires smacked down on the Atlanta runway, we let out a collective sigh of relief, our new son sleeping peacefully between to us.
The peace of that moment, we soon learned, proved to be short-lived.
How we got the story
I first met Max Waterhouse 12 years ago when my then- 6-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. Look for part two of Max’s story next week. There are some twists and turns you won’t want to miss.
assistant managing editor
About the writer
Jon Waterhouse, an Atlanta native, has been a regular contributor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for the past 10 years. His work has also appeared in national publications including Esquire, BlackBook and MTV.com. He can be heard each week as 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. In his spare time he’s the lead singer for a pair of bands and pursues acting. Jon lives in Decatur with his family. He is currently working on a book about their experience adopting Max.