DIKHASHKHO, Georgia -- It took almost 20 years, plus several twists of fate, but after an emotional reunion in the mountains of Georgia, two families' lives have come full circle.
For Elizabeth Stone, a medal-winning U.S. Paralympic athlete who was given up for adoption as a child, returning to the sleepy village of Dikhashkho meant reclaiming an identity she never knew. For the Khurtsidze family, who wondered about the fate of the disabled girl they had given up at birth, shame and regret were replaced by tears of joy.
"I actually met my brother and sister, Lasha and Teona, a little bit outside the village," Stone told RFE/RL after the poignant encounter. "They directed us in. They wanted me to go in their car. Obviously, I don't speak the same language as them, but Teona held my hand the whole ride. Then, as we came up the road, I started seeing people, kids -- everybody from the village. Then we drove into the gates [of the yard] and I saw [my birth mother,] Liana, just sitting over here. Right away she started to cry."
The story behind the improbable family reunion began last summer, when Stone returned to another place she has come to call home -- the Paralympic swimming pool.
Born in 1990 with a rare condition that left her right leg half the length of her left, Stone's athletic talent had long outshone her disability. Her adoptive mother, a physiotherapist from the U.S. state of Michigan, was determined to help cultivate that talent. She introduced her child to the water shortly after she arrived from Georgia at the age of four. In 2008, Stone won a silver medal at the Beijing Paralympics. She added to her haul in London last year, capturing two bronze medals in the 100-meter butterfly and backstroke.
Her success caught the attention of RFE/RL reporters, who wrote a profile
of the spirited young woman. The thought of finding her biological family and learning the story of her birth, she said at the time, was a far-fetched dream.
But it wasn't long until RFE/RL's Tbilisi bureau received a call from a man claiming to be a relative of the birth family. That would lead to a visit by our correspondent to Dikhashkho, a poor, mountainous village of about 1,000 people in western Georgia.
'Pride In Her Heritage'
There, the reporter found Liana Khurtsidze
, a 73-year-old woman with sunken cheeks and fearful eyes, who shivered at the mention of "Ketevan" -- the girl now known as Elizabeth Stone.
One year later, happiness radiates from her face. Some had told Liana that her daughter, whose fate she knew nothing of, had likely died.
"I [finally] saw Ketino, thanks to her adoptive mother, who showed me my daughter," she says.
The reunion, which was attended by many in the tight-knit village, included a supra, the traditional Georgian feast. Stone and her adoptive mother, Linda, presented the Khurtsidzes with a photo album of Elizabeth through the years.
Linda, who had saved up for the expensive flight from the United States, told RFE/RL that coming to Georgia was also the culmination of one of her goals as a parent -- to instill pride in both of her daughter's countries.
"Elizabeth, ever since I adopted her, has always known that she's from Georgia," she said. "Trying to build that pride in her heritage was really important to me. When she would swim at international competitions I had two small flags -- an American flag and a Georgian flag -- and I'd always wave both of them while she was swimming."
Making Peace With The Past
The occasion also allowed the Khurtsidzes, communicating through a translator, to confirm what the Stones had long suspected -- and made peace with.
Liana and her husband Amberki already had two mouths to feed when Elizabeth was born and the couple feared they would not be able to properly care for a disabled child. The upheaval ushered in with the fall of the Soviet Union made finding the resources for the child an even more daunting prospect. The agonizing decision they made was to give her to an orphanage in the city of Kutaisi.
But for Liana, as well as for Elizabeth's siblings, the facts of the matter had done little through the years to ease their sense of regret. Brother Lasha, who bears a clear resemblance to Elizabeth, previously told RFE/RL that he had carried the pain of losing his sister with him his whole life.
His sister Teona was also overcome by the reunion.
"I'm really happy about this day and about everything that's happening right now," she said as tears streamed down her face. "My sister has set foot in my home. We are really happy to have met her and we will stand by her. The rest depends on her now. It's up to her to decide."
Elizabeth, who said she was "overwhelmed, but in a good way" by the experience, indicated that she wanted to visit her biological family sooner rather than later for their sake as much as her own.
"That's actually one reason why I wanted to come here -- because I wanted them just to know that I don't have any harsh feelings against them," she said. "I just wanted them to be at peace in their heart, knowing that everything's OK."
Stone also met with former teachers at her orphanage in Kutaisi, which is now closed. During her trip she also toured the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where she met with the country's Paralympic Committee and others working to improve accessibility for the city's disabled people.
The families have vowed to stay in touch. Language lessons may be in both their futures. Elizabeth and Linda have also started saving up for a return, perhaps in two or three years, to a country that they can now almost call their own.