For the Cook family, life has returned to normal in the 10 months since a crippled Romanian boy they had hoped to adopt was abruptly taken from their home.
Debbie Cook has dismantled the bedroom at the top of the stairs that she had decorated especially for 7-year-old Alexandru Ivanescu, who now lives with a Romanian couple in Reseda.
She has removed the photo of the frail, blond boy posing with her own two young children that had been placed prominently on top of the living room TV set.
And, Cook said, her children, Lara, 6, and Bob, 4, have stopped asking about Alex quite as often as before.
But the Simi Valley mother said she still has one piece of unfinished business with the Romanian child whom she treated as her own for three months last year.
She wants to say goodby. "The main thing I want him to know," she said, is "when he gets older and decides where he wants to go and be in life, my door will always be open."
Alex spent his first three months with the Cook family after he was plucked from a Romanian orphanage a year ago to come to the United States for surgery on his severely deformed feet.
Then, volunteers for the nonprofit agency sponsoring the boy suddenly removed Alex from the Cooks' home after a series of disagreements over the boy's education and other matters regarding his care.
Now living at the Reseda home of Nicolina Markou and her husband, Alex faces an uncertain future. He may need a second and final surgery to correct his deformed feet and, because he is in the United States on a medical visa, he may be sent back after his treatment is over to his native country, possibly to the state orphanage where he grew up.
"Things are very uncertain," Markou said. "We still don't know if he is going to have surgery."
Markou said Alex is "doing well, he's playing well, and he's learning." He is speaking English, attending public-school special-education classes, and seeing a psychologist once a week. In 13 months, he has grown 15 inches.
But citing the demands that caring for the boy make on her time, Markou declined to discuss his progress in detail. "I am a person who barely has time to sleep at night," she said.
It was two-and-a-half years ago that Debbie and Steven Cook began exploring ways to adopt a Romanian child after they saw TV reports on the thousands of crippled and unwanted children warehoused in institutions around the eastern European country.
The Cooks' search for a Romanian child eventually led them to Fullerton resident Christine Nelson, the Los Angeles representative for the Boston-based Free Romania Foundation. Free Romania volunteers were raising money for medical treatment for Romanian children.
Nelson, who has guardianship over Alex while he is in the United States, arranged for his treatment, raised money for his trip out of Romania and arranged for the Cooks to be his host family.
When Alex arrived last year, doctors said the boy had one of the most severe deformities ever seen at the 81-year-old Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital. Each of Alex's feet was "literally like a Z," one surgeon said.
But the treatment has not gone according to plan. The first surgery was less successful than hoped and hospital staff have tried to straighten the boy's crooked bones with a series of casts.
Los Angeles Orthopaedic officials say Alex is walking much better than when he arrived, but Markou said she is reluctant to take him back to the hospital for further surgery.
"I am not happy with the first surgery," she said. "It didn't do any good to him." She added that she was hoping to have a specialist at a second hospital examine Alex and give a second opinion.
Alex's accommodations also didn't work out as expected. Nelson and Markou had continuing arguments with the Cooks over what was best for him, including a dispute over whether he should attend first grade, as the Cooks wanted, or kindergarten.
One weekend in late September, Markou picked Alex up from the Cook home for what was supposed to be a two- or three-day visit to her home. She never brought him back. Alex was told that the Cooks--the first family he had known since his mother took him to the Romanian orphanage when he was 2 years old--had moved away.
"Nicolina told him they had to move away, they had no choice," Nelson said. "We told him they loved him very much and the kids loved him very much and they're going to miss him as much as he's going to miss them."
As for Debbie Cook's unfinished business, Nelson and Markou are continuing to put off her requests to visit Alex. Nelson explained that she's worried the boy may become upset if he sees the Cooks again. "He missed them for a long time" after being taken from the family, she said.
Even with the various setbacks that Alex has suffered during his U. S. visit, Nelson said he has kept his buoyant, cheerful spirit.
"Alex is a happy child," she said. "He will be happy anywhere."