In 2010, Linda Rahal’s life included 40-mile bike rides and Ironman training sessions. It included travels around the world, dinners out with friends and occasionally long hours as managing partner at the immigration law firm she had helped start.
It did not include a husband or children — or any real regrets about that.
“Because I had a good life,” she says. “I was working. I was making money. I could do almost whatever I wanted.”
Then one night in 2011, Linda, in her late 40s at the time, got a surprising phone call from a former client. The woman, Ljiljana, was living in her native Serbia with a toddler she had adopted the previous year. But the woman was sick — with Stage 4 breast cancer — and wanted to know whether Linda would care for the child after she died.
“I immediately said yes. Right away,” Linda says. “I’m a person who lives by my gut, and I just said yes.”
Then she got off the phone and wondered what exactly she’d committed herself to. Linda had represented Ljiljana a decade earlier and had bailed her out from time to time ever since — even letting Ljiljana stay with her for months at a time when she was out of work.
“She sort of befriended me,” Linda says. “And whenever she got into trouble, she would call me.”
Ljiljana was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was still living in the United States. Once she was declared cancer free, she became intent on having a child. Fertility treatments didn’t work, so she moved home to Serbia to pursue adoption.
But even as her adoption of a young Roma orphan progressed, her cancer returned. Ljiljana occasionally e-mailed Linda with updates and photos of the child. “And she was cute, but I didn’t focus on that. It was just, ‘Oh, my God, what are they doing? Why did they give her this little girl? Poor girl,’ ” she recalls. “I always thought it was very selfish of her — you know you’re dying and you take a kid.”
Then came the call. And Linda’s answer, which she told almost no one about. But a few months later, she traveled to Serbia to meet the child, Mariana, who was then an active, happy 2-year-old.
Ljiljana looked healthy and said that she expected to survive at least another year, maybe two. But within nine months, Linda learned that she had died.
Ljiljana had left a will but hadn’t secured U.S. citizenship for the child or cleared the way for an international adoption. Mariana was technically, once again, a ward of the state, though she was allowed to remain with Ljiljana’s elderly parents.
Linda soon began to feel as though she’d been thrown into a race through a complicated legal maze. She needed to gain custody of Mariana before the social service agency took her back or her grandparents became too frail to care for a lively toddler. She also needed clearance from both U.S. and Serbian immigration officials to do it.
Her years of immigration work and her network of contacts proved invaluable. She found a Serbian woman living in Washington who could interpret during her monthly Skype calls with the child. She met with the Serbian ambassador and prepared for a home study to determine whether she would be a fit parent. The Serbian government denied her initial request to adopt Mariana, so she hired a lawyer in that country to help her navigate a legal system that didn’t look favorably on international adoptions — never mind one by a single woman who had never had children.
“I didn’t know quite how I was going to make it work,” she says. “At some point, I thought, ‘Well, maybe it just won’t work.’ But I don’t think I ever thought, ‘This is too much and I should just give up.’ ” She still had trouble picturing herself as a mother or her life with a young child, but by that point, she had begun to fall in love with Mariana.
In February 2013, Linda traveled to Belgrade, the Serbian capital, for a month, visiting the U.S. Embassy and staying in a tiny room at the grandparents’ house, where social service workers came to observe her interacting with the little girl, by then 4 years old.
Linda and Mariana communicated in broken Serbian and English but found that they could play with dolls and run around in the yard without sharing a language. And after Linda appeared before a panel of Serbian immigration officials who scrutinized her motives for wanting the child, they approved the adoption. The decision made headlines in Serbian newspapers.
Soon Linda and Mariana were on a 10-hour flight back to the District. When they missed a connection, Linda, exhausted and depleted, found herself standing in an airport with tears streaming down her face. At that moment, she became a parent.
“I see Mariana look up at me — horrified — wondering why I’m crying,” she recalls. “So I had to stop.”
When the pair got home to Northwest Washington, Linda’s long solo bike rides stopped, too. So did the spontaneous drinks after work and the unpredictable hours at the office. Life became about nannies and kindergarten enrollment and easels full of Mariana’s art projects.
“I always say I’ve lived life kind of backward,” says Linda, now 51. “I was the empty nester in my 30s and 40s and could go out and play and travel, where other friends of mine, their kids are going off to college now. My whole life has changed.”
At first, Mariana needed “the same attention as an infant,” Linda recalls. She was confused about where she was, and she couldn’t communicate her needs to her new mother. But her English quickly improved, and she settled into a new routine with Linda, walking their dog, Mabel, after breakfast and heading to the playground on weekends.
“I kind of think about, ‘What did I do beforehand? What kept me so busy back then?’ Because now I’m really busy,” Linda says. “I had a great life, but after two years, I don’t miss it.”
She finds it amazing how much Mariana’s personality reflects her own. Mariana, now 6, has grown into a spirited, affectionate, outgoing girl who makes friends easily. “She’s a lot like me. It’s weird,” Linda says. “She’s high energy. She’s stubborn. She’s athletic but can be a girly-girl at the same time. This is more than mere coincidence.”
When she thinks about it now, she feels certain that Mariana always was meant to be with her — and that fate just took her on a circuitous route to arrive here.
Looking back, Linda thinks that’s the real reason Ljiljana came into her life. “That was my purpose in knowing her,” she says. “It was to bring Mariana to me. It wasn’t so that she could have a kid. It was so I could.”
This Life is an ongoing series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.