My First Day as a Father
My “dad” instincts started when I was very young. My earliest memories are from age three. I believe a significant event kick-started the memory-recall part of my brain. It was the news that my mother was pregnant and I was going to become a big brother. I was going to have someone to care about—start my fatherly training, if you will—and I better remember it.
One of my earliest memories is of my mother was in the hospital awaiting delivery. My father had taken me to the gift shop to get a present for my new little sister. I remember the glass shelf it was on. It was an angel holding a red heart. I could think of nothing better to give this new little life than an angel who would watch over it, protect it, and love it.
That ceramic angel became cherished and has topped my sister’s birthday cakes for five decades now. I loved being her big brother,
When I was in college, something else started taking over my consciousness. I was coming to the realization that this “gay thing” within me was not going away. It was not a “phase,” as I had tried to tell myself hundreds of times. It was me. In my belief system, that meant I would never become what I wanted to be . . . a dad.
That thought took me to a dark place, and I considered ending it all right then and there. I prayed about it, and as I laid out my threat and my plan to God—fix me now, or I am going to do it for you—I was overwhelmed with a message and the sense that I was to carry on. I was not to limit who I was, and I was to find my destiny as the best gay person I could be. I put down the blades.
Years passed and the fathering instinct in me made me anxious to be more than someone’s big brother. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to be a dad. The drive to be my best kicked in. My then partner and I trained for foster care and a more advanced level of care which would enable us to care for drug-exposed newborns. It felt like my true north, on my way to being fully me.
We had a number of placements. These were infants whose mothers endangered them through short-term lapses in judgment. These women were offered reunification services that would train them on how to live and protect their children, and once they achieved the plan, their children were returned to them. It was good practice for us, and it was gratifying to help families work on problems and move toward healthy lives.
We knew at some point we would get a child whose birth parent was unwilling or unable to adapt to sobriety or a non-abusive life, and that child might become ours permanently.
One day, late July 2002, we got the call. A baby had been born. He was premature, six weeks early, and born after his birth mother ingested heroin. He weighed four pounds and had heroin in his system. Reunification services were going to be offered to his birth parents, a young married Catholic couple, but as they were both heroin addicts, it was likely that they would have trouble staying clean and taking responsibility for their child. As it was, their actions while he was still in the womb could have killed him. We would be his foster parents for now, and, potentially, his permanent adoptive parents.
I was told that I could meet my new son that evening. The birth parents would be told the time of our arrival so they could be out of the care unit and we would see him alone. As I drove to the hospital, I felt I was in a dream state. That morning I had been just a gay guy with a partner, and now, that evening, I was finally becoming a dad.
The birth parents were not much into the rules. In spite of the request to give us a private moment with the baby, they were there and met us at the door on our arrival. It was shocking to meet them, not only because they were the birth parents of the child we would be taking home the next day, but because they in no way looked like the people they had seemed to be on paper. I knew that the nineteen-year-old birth mom had been addicted to heroin since she was sixteen, and it was her now husband, two years older, who had enticed her into using the drug. They both had circulated on the street and with gangs.
The people we saw before us did not project that history. They looked like sweet-faced teens. She was in a fluffy pink bathrobe, her beautiful hair pulled back into a pony tail. He was kind and attentive.
They did not have my focus for long. My attention was on the baby who lay in the clear plastic incubator bed, with IVs in his tiny extremities. Despite all the medical apparatus, he was beautiful. He had gotten most of the heroin out of his system, and would only need painkillers for another day. I marveled at the being I saw before me. I wondered what natural survival mode could have propelled him to leave his mother’s body so early to be free of the foreign narcotics within him.
We chatted with his birth parents for a long while. They were amazingly traditional and “ordinary.” There were only a few telltale signs that they came from a different world from ours. One was their litany of friends who had lost their children into the protective care system. The couple quizzed us as to whether we knew this child or that. Quietly I shook my head and wondered what it was like to be in a social environment where those separations were commonplace.
The nurse brought my new son over in a blanket and I held him softly on my chest. I look into his eyes and we connected. He was home, I was home. This was right. Deep in my heart, I knew this child was, and would be, my son forever. He would be named Jason. Loving, protecting, and defending him would be my life’s calling. While I dutifully listened and took down instructions such as an evening babysitter might receive, I knew I was embarking on the love of my life. I knew that this was my first day of being who I was meant to be. I was a father. My son had fought his battle getting into this world, this far. It would be up to me to help him the rest of the way. He would never have to fight alone again.
As I have shared stories of my family since that time, some people have claimed that I have done my son a disservice by being his father and a gay dad. They have asserted that depriving him of his birth parents was an act of violence against him. I understand that the Million Moms are petitioning advertisers to get The Fosters, a program that depicts a family like mine, off the air. They think we are dangerous.
But the birth parents were given over a year of chances to get themselves together to be ready to raise a baby, particularly one with special needs. They never actually spent much of the time they were given with Jason to bond with him, and he never knew them as parents. The birth mother went on in the next few years to bear several more drug-exposed babies, each one more severely exposed than the last. The birth father ended up in prison. Neither kicked their heroin addiction, and there were numerous rumors around that both had died of overdose.
That night, after saying goodbye, my thoughts went to all the arrangements we had to make to prepare for Jason’s homecoming. He was going to need very specific care and handling. We were prepared and mobilized. I was about to embark on the most significant journey I could imagine. I was a dad. I was on the brink of my destiny. I stopped doubting why I was here. I had to get a move on.
When I hit the lobby, however, I paused. There was something I had to do first. I walked across the marble floor to the gift shop and scoured the glass shelves.
I needed to buy a ceramic angel.