As she prepared for the biggest journey of her life, a 5-year-old Russian girl named Polina asked visitors, "Are you coming to America with me?"
She had only the slightest idea that her adoption by an American couple from Arkansas barely survived Russia's ban on adoptions to the United States. Yet her question, tinged with the hesitancy of an orphan who had longed for a family to call her own, seemed to betray an understanding that her life had come close to taking a very different path.
Polina's is one of the final adoptions allowed to proceed. Russia banned adoptions to the United States starting Jan. 1, but allowed about 50 adoptions that had already received court approval to proceed. Polina's case received court approval on Dec. 24, sneaking in just under the wire.
Hundreds of other cases, even ones where the parents had met the child, remain frozen. Some of those prospective parents have decided to challenge the ban in the European Court of Human Rights.
But whether Polina would be allowed to travel only became clear only in recent weeks. After the ban was announced, various Russian officials issued contradictory statements about how the ban would be enforced. Some officials suggested she might be still be allowed to travel. Others said definitively not.
Finally, Kendra and Jason Skaggs traveled to Moscow in late January, nearly certain they would be able to bring their adopted daughter home, but girding themselves for the possibility that after the ups and downs of the previous month something could come up at the last minute.
After a long, snowy drive to the orphanage, they were able to see Polina for the first time in over a month.
"Momma, do I get to go with you?" the girl asked immediately. A giant smile burst on her face when she was told yes.
"It's a dream come true," Kendra said later. "There is still an unreal element to it. It hasn't quite hit us yet that we have her and she's ours."
"It's really a sense of relief. We had been waiting for so long," Jason agreed.
The prospect of never seeing their adopted daughter again was agonizing, but Kendra said imagining that Polina would think they had abandoned her was worse.
"To know that she might be worrying and wondering why didn't my mommy and daddy come back and that she might be in an orphanage for the rest of her childhood and not knowing how she would do as an adult here, that was really the torture," she said.
Indeed, some of the caretakers at the orphanage had already told Polina her parents were no longer coming for her.
Polina suffers from spina bifida, a birth defect that left her numb below the knees and unable to walk. Had she remained in Russia, she would have faced an uncertain future in a country that often lacks ramps or infrastructure for the disabled.
In the United States she'll receive several hours of physical therapy a week to strengthen her legs, something she only rarely received in Russia.
But her disability barely slows her down. She prefers scooting along the floor, often wearing Kendra's shoes on her hands, to riding in a wheel chair. Eager to reach Kendra's cell phone, which had been deliberately placed out of reach on a window sill, Polina pulled herself along the floor, dragging a chair behind her. She quickly pulled herself up on to the chair, retrieved the phone, and contently played with the device.
Kendra documented her adoption journey on a blog. Her emotional post after the adoption ban passed was translated into Russian and published in newspapers here, proving a strong reaction from readers. Many of them offered to help.
One woman gave them $1,000 to help cover expenses. Another man gave them warm boots and a blanket for Polina. Still others offered to lend them a car and take off time from work to bring them to appointments.
Polina is learning some English words, but may not yet understand why she needs them.
"She's 5 years old, she doesn't really have the concept what America is," Kendra said. "She knows it's a family and a home and she's learning that it's forever and we'll be there when she goes to sleep and we'll be there when she wakes up and we're not going to have to leave her behind again."
Polina vowed to spend the entire 12 hour flight looking out the window. The next day, as the plane landed in Houston, she enthusiastically joined in the round of applause that often marks the end of a flight from Russia. Smiling, she exclaimed: "America!"