Gabrielle Shimkus was driving home when her husband Frank called with the good news. They have a son for us, he told her.
Later that September day in 2008, a picture of the boy--a tiny, 2½-month-old orphan in Kyrgyzstan with a severe cleft lip and palate--arrived by e-mail from the adoption agency. "It was scary at first, he was so small, so fragile," Gabrielle says of those first photos. But the couple, who had been trying to adopt for four months, felt an immediate connection with the child. "That's it," Gabrielle remembers feeling. "He's ours. That's my son."
They decided they would call the boy Aidan and readied their Throop, Pa., home for his arrival, turning an upstairs bedroom into a nursery with pale green walls and a crib decorated with baby zoo animals. The adoption process required them to spend 10 days in Kyrgyzstan bonding with Aidan, followed by a court appearance, which could be scheduled as soon as 30 days later, to approve their custody. If all went according to plan--admittedly a rarity in international adoptions--Aidan would fly back with them after the hearing and be in his new home for Christmas. A stocking with his name stitched in red letters and a choo-choo train inside was waiting above the family's living-room fireplace.
Not long after, Gabrielle, 32, and Frank, 61, headed off to meet Aidan at his orphanage in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek. Before leaving, Gabrielle wrote a letter in a journal she was keeping for Aidan to read when he was older. "You, my boy, are a gift from God, the answer to many prayers, and the realization of many dreams," she wrote. "I won't be whole until you are in my arms. Hold on, Aidan, we are coming for you."
The boy the Shimkuses met at the Bishkek Baby House looked more like a newborn than a child halfway into his first year of life. His facial disfigurement made it hard for him to eat, so he was underweight and malnourished. "We didn't even know if he would make it," Gabrielle says. They arranged to supply him with protein-rich formula and expected to bring home a healthier boy after their court date a month later. When Gabrielle told other American families who were adopting from Kyrgyzstan about her plans to celebrate Christmas at home with Aidan--his name had already been added to the family holiday card--she says they were dubious. "They were like, 'Yeah, that's what we thought too.'"
The doubters were right. In February 2009, three months after that visit to the orphanage, Kyrgyzstan suspended all international adoptions after widespread allegations of corruption. The Shimkuses' court date had never been scheduled. They and 64 other families with pending adoptions in the country--they call themselves the Kyrgyz 65--were put in an anguishing limbo, committed to children they had come to love with no idea when or even if they would get to take them home. "Our whole world collapsed," Gabrielle says. "I don't think any of us knew what it meant, but we knew it was bad and that we weren't going to get our kids anytime soon. It crushed us."
Babies Going Nowhere