A Simple -- Wonderful -- Twist of Fate

"And I think he was stunned," said Cohen. "He started to cry. And then he got on the phone, and he spilled tears. And the thing was, he couldn't remember the language, to speak to them."

"I was shocked," said Lansana of the conversation with his father. "I couldn't understand him. So, I couldn't really say anything back. I just kept saying, 'Yes.'"

Lansana wants to stay in the United States; and his father in Sierra Leone offered his blessings for Lansana's adoption in America, happy that the child would be the first in his family to be educated. In an extraordinary ceremony on May 17, 2005 -- with Ian's grown son and Wendy's grown daughter in attendance -- the two people who couldn't stay together as a couple legally became Lansana's mother and father.

"He took special pride in that day," said Zlotolow. "He knew that he belonged. He had a family. And that family is for life. And you could just see it in his eyes and in his heart."

When their relationship with Lansana was described by an interviewer as "joint custody without a marriage or divorce," Cohen said, "The good news is, there is no ax to grind. There is no animosity. There is no fighting. There is a conscious commitment that this is a very special human being that's come into our lives, and we love him very, very much. And we want to do this. So legally, this poor child's name is 'Lansana Cohen Zlotolow Lapia,' which is really a mouthful. So it's 'Lansana Lapia,' for everyday stuff. But for the legal stuff, he has got us there, forever."

Zlotolow and Cohen keep photos of Lansana's father displayed in their houses. Zlotolow sends money to the family in Sierra Leone (siblings also have been located); and someday, Lansana will go back and see them. He says his memories of what happened there are vague.

"I'm not sure if it's a dream or not," said Lansana. "But I remember running off or something like that, like a war going on -- my parents getting apart. I'm not sure if it's a dream or not. But I remember that, and it always stays in my head," he said.

Today, said Lansana, "I don't have any more dreams of that kind. I just have American dreams."

Ian Zlotolow still plans to travel to places where he is needed, through the foundation he started, the International Society of Maxillofacial Rehabilitation. He's holding down two jobs, and still volunteering his time to help those in need at San Francisco's Laguna Honda Hospital.

Wendy works in magazine publishing. Lansana isn't sure yet what he wants to do as an adult. Through his father, he finally found out how old he is. The boy with the magical smile who has lived in through so many crises -- and who has changed a few lives -- will turn 13 in May.

"He has something to offer the world," said Zlotolow. "If everyone had his outlook on life, we wouldn't have wars. And I have been given this opportunity. And we have all just gone with it. And maybe I didn't give up anything. Maybe I just gained."

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