Pieces of a puzzle: Adoption journey feels like ‘impossible scavenger hunt’

photo of Lana Rubinstein as a toddler
When she was young: Lana Rubinstein’s peek into her adoption past has been intimidating — but also liberating.
Photo By: Submitted

Aliya knows the exact time she was born. She looks in the mirror and sees our mom’s bone structure reflected. Her determination and organizational skills are cut directly from our mom’s character cloth. I envy that.

I’m sitting on the ground, picking flowers. She calls my name in the distance. But as I turn around, a milky fog obscures her face before I can make out her exact features.

Startled awake, my alarm clock reads 1:30 a.m. It’s a school night and I should get some sleep, but my mind races.

Is that really what she looks like? Am I making her up? Will the fog be thinner next time so I can get a better look?

This recurring dream, simultaneously comforting and confusing, happens unexpectedly. It’s comforting because it’s all I have of my biological mother. It’s confusing because I don’t know if it’s actually her.


For as long as I can remember, the words “adopted,” “choice” and “better life” have been part of my personal vocabulary. But they haven’t always meant the same thing to me as they do now.

My adoptive parents traveled from River Falls, Wis. to Russia to bring home a two-year-old struggling to speak, stay healthy and even smile.

That girl is a stark contrast to the talkative, active and smiley 17-year-old I am today. I credit my adoptive parents with literally saving my life. They’ve given me the opportunity to discover who I am in a safe, comforting and supportive environment.

They’ve been open and honest with the limited details they have on my adoption—my father’s last name is Konstantinovna, my original name is Svetlana and I was born on Dec. 29, 1996 in Kazan, Russia.

But those are just facts.

I can’t deny the persistent desire for the indescribable connection one feels to a biological family member. A connection similar to the ones my friends, who are twins, feel toward each other. And the one that my sister, Aliya, 24, feels to my adoptive mother.

Aliya knows the exact time she was born. She looks in the mirror and sees our mom’s bone structure reflected. Her determination and organizational skills are cut directly from our mom’s character cloth.

I envy that.

Was I born in the early morning or mid-afternoon? I look in the mirror and wonder if my biological mother had the same unusual hazel eyes as me or if I got my nose from my dad. Where did my hyperactivity come from?


I’ve always thought of myself as a puzzle. I have some pieces, but I’m still trying to complete myself.

So is my friend Emily. She and I met at a Jewish event when we were 13. When it was my turn to share an interesting fact during an icebreaker, I proudly announced that I was adopted from Russia.

“You stole mine!” she gasped.

We’ve been friends ever since. It’s a friendship based on mutual history and experiences. She’ll always be the one who fully understands me and knows what I’ve gone through.

In my sophomore Honors English class, I found a few more pieces. Under the watchful eye of the toughest teacher I’ve ever had, we covered literature, essays, poetry and prose. Near the end of the term, we had to write the dreaded—cue dramatic music—research paper.

What topic could be important and interesting enough to hold my attention through this extensive process? Why, adoption, of course!

The information I found during my research was astonishing: Facts and figures that made me angry, adoption stories that made me cry from happiness. But it was the connection I felt to my personal story that had the most significant impact on me.

Searching through my adoption file in the basement, I found the name of the Lutheran Social Services adoption counselor, Beth Opsal, who played a direct role in my case. I was thrilled to find the puzzle piece connected to the woman who made sure my parents would be able to take care of me and love me.

Admittedly, I was terrified when I first started looking her up. But I was proud of myself for taking the initiative to interact with someone linked to my mysterious past.

Our interview was through e-mail. I kept my questions purely professional and related to my research paper. I realized that, while she may have worked with my parents, she couldn’t know everything. And if she didn’t have the answers, who would?

In the end, it was a great experience. Not only did I learn about unfortunate flaws in the child services department, but I also asked questions that gave me insight into some of her past experiences. And that was the most important part.


I’m not the only one missing puzzle pieces. So is Emily. So are countless children who have similar stories and who endure lives polarized by happiness and confusion. While I still don’t have a connection to my biological family, I gained a new one to adopted kids I may never even meet.

Countless times people have asked, “Do you think you will ever go back?” “To Russia, in search of answers?” Every time, I shake my head. No.

Because it’s the truth. It’s a strange kind of wanting. I want information, but I don’t want to know too much, to ruin the idea that I have, that my parents gave me up because they had to, not because they wanted to.

I know my adopted family loves me. I know that they will do anything in their power to make sure I have the best life possible. I don’t want to put my family through the potential hurt of digging into a past that they tried so hard to remove me from. To me, it would be an impossible scavenger hunt. One where even the clues are hidden extremely well, let alone the answers.

I may never know all the details of my lineage, my facial features or if the woman in my dreams is actually my biological mother. But in considering myself a jumble of unknowns, a puzzle that might always be missing at least one piece, there’s comfort in that confusion.