It's a boy!

signingToday I gained a son!

If you’ve been playing along at home, the past year has been in large part about jumping the hurdles and hoops and red tape of local, state and federal gummint in the hopes of making my stepson my legal son.

Finally all the parts came together, and we had our day in family court. There was no question of what might happen, really… all the papers have been signed, fees paid, interviews had.

We had to wait our turn in the hallway, while another family finalized their adoption. They had about a dozen friends and family in with them, balloons, cake, the whole works. We seemed so reserved by comparison. It was simply myself, my wife Cheryl and our son Max in the courtroom with our lawyer, the judge, the bailiff and two court reporters (secretarys? stenographers? legal assistants? I don’t know… but they looked busy). We had no cake, no friends and family, no balloons.

hugsBut it didn’t matter. This was about making it official, and we wanted it intimate (We had plans to have my older kids over to celebrate later in the evening anyway). The judge was awesome… very sweet. She spent some time chatting with Max about himself, his favorite activities, what he likes to do with me, and so on. She had him sign the paperwork (usually only kids older than 12 sign, but she felt he was “old enough and smart enough” to get to sign), then she took me by surprise. She had me raise my right hand, and take an oath:

I, William, solemnly swear

To treat Max

In all respects as my natural child

I am prepared to accept

This gift of a child to raise

I will share my life with him

Help to mold his mind

Nurture his body

And enrich his spirit

I will never betray his trust

Dampen his hopes or

Discourage his dreams

I will be patient and kind

I make this commitment willingly

I will cherish Max

All the days of my life.*

Now, any of you who know me well know I’m a bit of a crybaby, so I only got through one or two lines before falling apart and blubbering like a little girl (she took me by surprise!). But it was all okay, everyone laughed kindly and passed me tissues. I will say that although as birth father to my three older kids I never had to take such an oath (but wouldn’t it be cool if they had you do that?), I hope they know that I did so in my heart when they came into my life 20, 24 and 27 years ago, and I hope I’ve lived up to it.

familyWe’ll be framing and hanging said oath on the wall (they gave us a copy, nicely printed on parchment).

The bailiff was likewise a really nice guy, obviously loves this part of his job, and volunteered to take the pics for us.

Something I did not know is that there will be a new birth certificate generated, with my name on it. It’s all new, baby, just as it should be.

Ironically, to finalize that new birth certificate, our last stop was in another office to stand in line and turn in the signed papers… on which we discovered a mistake in Max’s birthdate (previously called out and fixed but never communicated to the court). Luckily, a little white out and hopefully that’s all done. We’ll see when the certificate arrives.

We left the courthouse newly galvanized, shared a happy lunch together, and headed home.

And that’s when the other shoe dropped.

*Based upon prayer in “Guide My Feet” by Marian Wright Edelman (c) 1995 Marian Wright Edelman

Note: All this happened back on May 22nd, so I’ve dated this post thusly. But there’s been a lot going on and I haven’t been able to write about it till today – June 2. ūüėõ

It's (almost) a boy!

Just paid the last of the endless fees and paperwork associated with the adoption of my step-son!

Max on the Bees
Max on the Bees

We’ve already gone through all the associated paperwork and legal investigations, gotten a waiver of parental rights from the birth father, and been visited at home by a social worker (we had to hide the kids who sew our designer knock-offs in the basement — but that’s where they sleep anyway).

Today I gave a $700 check to the Superior Court and now all they have to do is set the court date for us to see the judge, have him/her smack a gavel, sign the papers, and it’s done! I have a brand spankin’ new 8 year old son to add to the collection. That makes three awesome boys (8, 19, 23) and one amazing girl (27). The three older ones I made the old fashioned way. This newest one came as a matched set with my lovely wife (she’s the one in green).

What a hellish process this has been… an absurd series of ineptitudes on the part of the County. They were all very nice, of course, and even apologetic, but ultimately couldn’t come to a consesus on how the whole thing works.

  • I was required to have my finger prints taken — but the State had initiated a new digital scanning system for fingerprinting, which the County hadn’t gotten completely installed yet. It was working for people who wanted to be cops or child-care workers, but not for adoptive parents… no option for adoption in the drop down menu of the software (I kid you not). Had to wait nearly a month for that to be fixed.
  • Then they lost the waiver of parental rights that the birth father had signed… yes, lost it. After months of our tracking the guy down, chasing him from one temporary address or job to another, and finally paying for the notary so he couldn’t claim lack of funds. Another week or two lost while they tracked that down (they finally realized it was in the file all along).
  • Then we had to wait for the case worker to come visit our house. That took some doing, but she finally came by and gave us the green light. At that meeting, she’s supposed to ask us for a $700 filing fee for the Family Services Department (a fee we learned, during this whole process, is not required by any State or Local Government, but was created by the Family Services Division).
  • She neglected to ask for the check, and we figured they’d decided to waive it given all the hassle we’d had, or they’d at least contact us for payment. Several weeks later, we got a phone call saying “Why haven’t you paid the $700? We’re waiting for it.” I pointed out that she was supposed to collect it at the home visit, to which they replied “No, you’re supposed to pay it separately.” To which I pointed out “The paperwork we got from your department says otherwise.” To which they replied “Really? Let me see. (rustle rustle) Oh, look at that. You’re right. Well, go pay it directly at room 110 of the County Building.”
  • Which took on a life of its own, as I tried four times over the next couple weeks to go in and pay… Once I discovered they were only open till 4 pm (I got there at 4:10, as every other office in the building was open till 5). Once they were closed early (for no apparent reason). Once I realized it was a Holiday (Cesar Chavez Day — who knew?) and once they were closed because the phone system was downed by a guy with pruning shears (big news story here). Of course, all the other offices found a way to stay open, just the one office I needed decided to close. (I also locked my keys in the car that day, it started raining, and with all the phones down [including my cell service] I had to borrow a Sheriff’s working phone to call AAA. But that’s my personal sob story.)
  • And when I finally got there today, I waited in line for 35 minutes, got to the window, told the woman I needed to pay my adoption filing fee, and she got this blank “I’ve never heard of that before” look on her face and said “Here? Really? Oh. I’ll have to ask.” My heart leapt into my temples, and I prepared for a showdown. She took off for 10 minutes, but when she came back she apologized, kindly took my money and gave me a receipt.

So all that’s over with now. All the papers are filed, fees are paid, and we simply await the final courtroom meeting, which we understand is a private affair, generally attended by many family members, and may even include cake and balloons.

And the coolest part is, Max (who has called me “Dad” for the past four years) is very excited, and can’t wait.

Yay us!

Never Done

This essay was originally written and performed on KSCO 1080am on the second anniversary of 9/11. 

My father told me once that he was glad my mother had died first. He loved her too much to wish he had gone in her place, he said. The harder thing was to be the one left behind. He wouldn’t wish the pain and guilt and insecurity and loneliness and self-loathing on an enemy, much less on the woman he loved. Best for her to have gone first, he said. He alone would bear the crushing weight of the following empty years for them both.¬†

This staying behind and suffering stuff is heroic. Being the one who has to continue, guilty that we’ve survived, forcing ourselves to go out and see the latest Jim Carrey movie, buy a new washer and dryer, take a long evening walk and watch a beautiful sunset in an eerily empty sky that we know is being enjoyed by one less person than it ought to be. And as if that weren’t enough, we’re burdened by the responsibility of representing the deceased to the future, the responsibility of ensuring that the rest of the world understands how unfair it was, how unnecessary it was, how tragic it was, what a saint they were. We are all thrust into selfless heroism, for fifteen minutes, by virtue of our survival.

It’s funny how families only reunite at funerals. Well, weddings and funerals, but it does always seem to take some kind of tragedy to get people to hop on a plane or a bus and take a weekend out of their lives to stand around uncomfortably with people they spend the balance of the year badmouthing to their spouses, eating miniature spinach quiche and questionably warm shrimp.

When my mother died, my father and brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles gathered together for the first time in years. The tragic event is spent bonding. Oh, how we bond. We recall how much we miss one another, we re-tell those hilarious stories about Uncle Milo’s embarrassing toupee mishap, we reminisce about the years we spent as the best of friends, and make heartfelt apologies for our lack of communication‚Ķ we promise to stay in touch. We were so close once‚Ķ I miss you so‚Ķ blood is thicker than water, family is everything, how did we let so much time get away, I promised your mother I’d raise you as my own, where’s that waiter with the Seven and Seven.

I went to another funeral, more recently… Not somebody I know, just a guy. The funeral of a guy who knew a guy I knew. Died of liver failure. Drank too much.

It was funny the way everybody completely ignored the way this guy died.
The guy had died a long and painful and unnecessary death of cirrhosis. A self-inflicted death brought on by years of drunken debauchery, parties and drugs and alcohol and general short-sighted irresponsibility.

Not funny. Just true.

What was funny was that those that spoke for him at the service stood up and told tales of a fun-loving, hard-living good old boy. Oh Yes, his old friends from the Program said, and they shifted their beers from one hand to another. They talked about his wayward youth, his motorcycle, the time he made his wife walk three miles to the store on a dark country road at 1am because he’d run out of Jack, he was such a card, what a wacky guy. Boy Howdy, his first wife, his kids, his brother agreed, and they laughed and they clinked their coolers and martinis in agreement. He was a misunderstood man, a dynamic and creative soul who couldn’t be shoehorned into a single relationship, a regular job, a responsible lifestyle. He couldn’t be expected to be something so mundane as a dependable parent or a reliable spouse. They were going to miss him, why did this happen, why hadn’t they seen it coming, they lamented the unfairness of it all, he was so young, it was so unnecessary, and his counselor and his priest and his third wife raised their glasses in unison and toasted the memory of a guy who had no faults.

Not funny ha-ha. Just funny sad.

This veneration, combined with the warm fuzzy feeling we get from our reunion with all the other surviving loved ones is a happy thing, because for a little while all the family drama is gone; we are galvanized anew in our rekindled familial dedication. We are all brothers‚Ķ we’re filled with unconditional love for one another‚Ķ the arrogance and dysfunction and the abuse and the misogyny and the hate and the intolerance and the inequity are gone, and we all put stickers on our cars, and play country music, and wave to each other knowingly with secret signals, hand over heart as we pass on the freeway, and we pinkie swear to become blood brothers and we’ll beat the crap out of anyone who questions our god-given virtue. We fool ourselves into believing that the arrogance, dysfunction and abuse and misogyny and hate and intolerance and inequity truly are gone, and that the stickers on our cars are the proof of it. That productizing our grief and pride with t-shirts and country songs and ‘very special episodes’ of Law & Order will make it so.

Clearly the loss is tragic. And it is always unfair. I would rather that no one had to pass, and if they do, it should be in their sleep, after a good meal and a fine sunset and the love of a soul mate.

And the surviving is hard. I would rather none of us had to be survivors, to suffer the going on, the persevering, the slow but inevitable normalizing of our lives and the guilt we feel over the eventual waning of grief.

Or the strange dereliction we feel in remembering with any fondness the closeness and intimacy and vulnerability we will always share with the soul who sat next to us on the couch while we silently watched the images repeat before our eyes in slow motion.

But unlike my father, I’m not happy that my mother died first. I don’t think that being the survivor is the harder role to play. As survivors, we’re given the bitter-sweet opportunity to pursue many things.
To avenge.
To remember.
To deify.
To correct.
To grow.
To learn.
To introspect.

My mother has been gone six years, and in the intervening time I’ve punished myself for not being a better son, for not appreciating the sacrifice she made, for not seeing the person she was beneath the mother. And in so doing I’ve set aside the petty differences I had with my father, forged a friendship that is stronger than our disagreements, and bridged our estrangement. I’ve allowed myself the latitude to be wrong, I’ve allowed my father the latitude to be wrong, and I’ve allowed her passing to help me become just a little bit better person, a little bit better father, a little bit better son.

Parents are just people, trying their best. It was a great revelation for me to realize that… and interestingly, being one didn’t do it. Losing one did. That it took my mother’s death to manifest that is a cruel irony, because she is probably the one person who would have taken more joy in this than me.

The real tragedy in my experience is in how we often don’t do those things. The real tragedy is the way we lie to ourselves.

We lie to ourselves when we think that tragedy offers no lessons, that we needn’t question our virtue. We do ourselves a disservice by insisting that we needn’t entertain introspection ‚Ķ by inferring that there are no lessons left to learn, and that we are the best that we can hope to be. We hurt ourselves when we learn nothing from tragedy but defensiveness and separatism, anger and mistrust, fear and hatred. We are all just people trying our best. It was a great revelation to realize that. Ironically, being one didn’t do it. Losing some did.

I miss you, mom. I’m sorry you suffered, guy who knew a guy I knew. I promise to not simply tell your story, to do more than defend and avenge, to do more than grieve, to be more than merely angry. I promise to try to be a different and better person, to be willing to introspect, to call, to visit, and to acknowledge that I am not, and may never be, done.

Our world is a much more complicated place than that. And we are, I hope, much more complicated beings.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got.