Father figure: Adopting Ukrainian boys an emotional journey for local poet


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Raising a child successfully is not easy; raising adopted children is even more difficult.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/09/2014 (2898 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Raising a child successfully is not easy; raising adopted children is even more difficult.

Raising two adopted brothers, abandoned by their parents at a very young age in an impoverished foreign country (Ukraine) and warehoused in separate, inadequate orphanages, seems like an impossible task.

Doing it after a failed marriage that produced a sulky, distant son, in a wobbly new marriage, with a perennially distant and restless father as a role model, on a poet’s (non) salary, is what Maurice Mierau writes about in his new book. Detachment: An Adoption Memoir is a frank, tense and fully engaging story of the processes and consequences of adoption. And it’s more than this.

Merrell-Ann Phare photo Maurice Mierau

Why did he and his wife Betsy adopt boys from Ukraine? Because his Mennonite family roots go back there, allowing him to do so.

And that’s the other striking part of this ambitious memoir — an investigation into his family history. It’s a fascinating and tragic story, and it impacts directly on him.

Mierau is an experienced editor (of the online Winnipeg Review) and an award-winning poet with two books to his credit — Fear Not and Ending With Music. These serve him well — he knows how to pare things down to the bare essentials and find salient, evocative details to advance his narrative.

He’s also a published author of the non-fiction book Memoir of a Living Disease. Commissioned by the Manitoba Lung Association, it tells the story of tuberculosis, and, while it’s not a personal account, it clearly taught him how to structure a narrative for maximum dramatic effect.

Detachment begins in a psychologist’s office. Mierau drags himself there three times at the insistence of his discontented wife Betsy. In this chapter, punningly entitled Shrinkage, he provides a glimpse into his background and reluctantly confesses his anxieties and his shortcomings, his anger and frustration.

It’s a shrewd tactic, setting up the suspense that percolates throughout the memoir. It also enlists the sympathies and amateur psychoanalytic tendencies of the reader.

Can a shrink actually help him? Or will he miss out on “the last chance to be a father”? Can he overcome his family’s proclivity to stifling emotions and his own writerly sense of detachment? Will he be able to bond with his sons and help them deal with their own traumatic pasts?

As might be expected, the adoption process in Ukraine does not go well. Clotted with needless bureaucracy and corruption, it is complicated further by the fact that the two brothers, Peter, 5, and Bohdan, 3, live in separate orphanages 140 kilometres apart. Traipsing back and forth between the two places is exhausting.

After all the trials and forms, there is a 30-day waiting period during which Maurice and Betsy must travel back to Canada and await a positive or negative outcome.

Once the would-be parents are successful, an immediate trip with the boys to the small town of Mierau’s ancestors provides the first bridge in the memoir. It’s where his grandfather was executed for his Mennonite beliefs and where his father as a young boy began his traumatic trek to Germany and eventually Canada.

There are many journeys in this book, both physical and emotional.

They are subtle structuring devices, the major one obviously being Mierau’s journey from damaged, inadequate parent to an emotionally healthy father.

But it’s the story of the two boys that engages the emotions. They must overcome what amounts to childhood PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) to successfully integrate into the family and the school system.

This is really their story, and it’s a powerful one, well told.

Gene Walz is the father of two daughters and grandfather of two healthy boys.


Updated on Saturday, September 6, 2014 7:55 AM CDT: Formatting.

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