By Brooke Edwards Staggs
The Orange County Register
Pages are starting to tug from the binding of the little red book.
Zaleeya Pratima Dhalla turns them slowly, narrating photos that document her life at a Calcutta children’s home in India.
“That’s me,” the 5-year-old says, pointing at a smiling infant dressed in pink and nestled in blankets.
As she continues turning pages, pictures show her pulling herself up on thin legs, clutching bars of a crib shared with several other babies. Her cheeks lose their fullness, eyes wide and face increasingly serious as she looks straight into the camera.
Then comes the goodbye shot. After 13 months in that same crib, Zaleeya’s fear of leaving is evident beneath her dark curls.
“I was going to miss my ayahs,” she narrates, using the Hindi word for her caregivers at the orphanage.
In the last photo, Zaleeya is in Orange County, Calif., with her adoptive parents, Azeem and Zeena Dhalla — plus the first dog she’d seen in her short life.
“That’s Ziggy!” Zaleeya exclaims, singing out the name of her family’s Italian greyhound and Chihuahua mix. “That’s my favorite picture.”
While that last photo marks the end of her journey from an orphanage in India to her home in Ladera Ranch, Calif., it also marks the beginning of the Dhallas’ difficult journey toward becoming a family.
“It is not for the faint of heart,” Zeena says. “It has been way, way, way more challenging than I ever anticipated.”
She looks over at her daughter, dancing around the dining room table with Ziggy in her arms.
“But look at the joy she’s brought us.”
After struggling with fertility issues, the Dhallas agreed they wanted to adopt an international child.
“It just felt like the right choice for us,” Zeena says.
As they looked at countries to adopt from, India rose to the top of the list thanks to its long-established and structured process. Plus, both Azeem and Zeena are of East African descent with Indian ancestry, so they hoped they might end up with a child who bore some resemblance to them.
“We clearly didn’t expect to have a child who looks exactly like us,” Zeena says, with her curly hair and her husband’s features allowing Zaleeya to easily pass as their biological daughter.
They started the adoption process in January of 2007, filling out reams of paperwork and completing an application essay so they could get on a waiting list.
The organization Dillon International matched the Dhallas with Zaleeya when she was 5 months old. More than seven months later, the couple took their first trip to India to pick up their daughter.
After traveling in India for three weeks, getting to know their future child’s native county, the Dhallas met Zaleeya for the first time.
She clung to her ayahs in the beginning. Azeem and Zeena spent time with the 19 other babies sharing space the size of their current living room, taking photos for other adoptive parents waiting to meet their children. Zaleeya was sleeping peacefully as they drove from the orphanage.
On Oct. 20, 2008, the Dhallas took Zaleeya home.
“We call that our ‘gotcha day,’” Zeena says, with a celebration to mark the anniversary each year since.
Despite moments of giggles and fun, Zaleeya’s early days at home were tough.
She had frequent meltdowns, clutching to her adoptive parents for dear life while avoiding eye contact. She had trouble sleeping and would easily get overwhelmed leaving the house.
The Dhallas recognized their daughter was having sensory overload, with trouble processing her new world’s sights and sounds.
Before leaving the orphanage in Calcutta, she had never been outside. She was rarely held. And she’d grown accustomed to screaming until her needs were met, fighting for attention among the needy children.
Azeem and Zeena thought they were responding in the right ways, following parenting books and trying everything to comfort their traumatized daughter. Then things got tougher.
“The defiance got more extreme,” Zeena says, with Zaleeya pushing them away and falling into seemingly random tantrums.
Friends with biological children would say they had to let her cry it out. But Zaleeya would cry for up to two hours straight, Zeena says, sometimes having three meltdowns a day.
“I was expecting to go back to work,” says Zeena, a Pilates instructor who once contributed a fitness column to the newspaper. “I was definitely not meant to stay at home.”
Despite lots of help from family and friends, she didn’t have a choice but to be home for the first several years, as she struggled to bond with her only child.
A year ago on Father’s Day, the Dhallas had a breakthrough.
The family went to an Angel’s baseball game, and things started out smoothly. Then Zeena went to get a beer for Azeem as he stayed behind with Zaleeya.
“Her heart was racing,” Azeem says, recalling the panic that washed over Zaleeya when she realized her mom was no longer sitting next to her. “She says, ‘She’s not coming back.’”
Azeem did everything he could to reassure her that Zeena would return. But he couldn’t get Zaleeya to calm down until the two of them found his wife in the concession line.
“We just didn’t realize that at the root of every problem was her fear of leaving us,” Zeena says.
The Dhallas found a few helpful books that dealt with separation anxiety and attachment issues. Then they found Connie Hornyak, an attachment therapist in Santa Ana, Calif., who has adopted children of her own.
“Sometimes they will tell you something you don’t want to hear,” Azeem says — including that, in some cases, they needed to react the exact opposite of how they had been.
After working with Hornyak, things began to gradually improve.
With help from a “school fairy” they’d invented, Zaleeya started attending Mission Montessori and Art Steps in Mission Viejo, Calif. Zeena has been able to return to her Pilates studio, while Zaleeya now reads better than many children two years her senior and throws herself into her drawings.
Like her mother, Zaleeya likes to always be on the move. They have funneled that energy into gymnastics, and they stay away from sugar.
“It makes me silly,” Zaleeya acknowledged.
Since she had so little as a baby, Hornyak explained Zaleeya had developed a bit of “object obsession.” Now the Dhallas are teaching her to donate something old when she gets something new.
The restless nights and meltdowns are much less common now, Zeena says. And when they do come, she says, “We feel like we can pull ourselves on the other side of it.”
A big test is coming soon, as Zaleeya nears her sixth birthday Aug. 27 and enrolls in kindergarten.
Azeem and Zeena are a bit nervous about how she’ll react to being uprooted and left somewhere new once again. But they know they’ve done what they can to prepare her, and that they have to let her go.
For now, Zaleeya has dedicated part of her summer to raising caterpillars.
She keeps them in a tidy container, with a stick to climb on and plenty of food.
One day soon, she knows they’ll retreat into chrysalises. But that’s just for a little while, she explains, until they emerge as monarchs, spread their vibrant wings and soar.
RESOURCES FOR PARENTS
After reading volumes of books, Zeena Dhalla found these three the most helpful for parents of internationally adopted children — and for all struggling parents:
— “Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors” by Heather T. Forbes and B. Bryan Post
— “Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child: From Your First Hours Together Through the Teen Years” by Patty Cogen
— “Dare to Love: The Art of Merging Science and Love Into Parenting Children with Difficult Behaviors” by Heather T. Forbes