Father and Son: Love After Challenges and Grief

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Previously published on Gays With Kids.

A story about a little boy's challenges, a grown man's grief, and the infinite healing power of love.

There's a little boy running around the interviewer's apartment, swinging a tiny stuffed tiger around as he makes laps around the dinner table. His dad sips a glass of wine at the table, carrying on two conversations: one with me, one with his son.

The 12-year-old shakes his toy at the spaniel trailing after him, delighted by the dog's attention.

Daniel is more like other kids than he is different, his dad, Micheal Chappell, is fond of saying. Daniel slides out of his seat at the dinner table as quickly as he's asked to take a seat - just like any other kid would.

You can tell he's listening to the conversation: his ears perk up when he hears "balloon" or the name of his stuffed toy.

But Daniel doesn't speak. Until he was nine, he didn't walk. When Micheal met him at 16 months old, Daniel couldn't see, hear or move his muscles - he just lay frozen in his crib.

A few days before Micheal went on a vacation to St. Thomas, he was introduced to Daniel by a client of his, who was Daniel's foster parent at the time and eager to find him a permanent home. Although Micheal was enthralled by Daniel, he wasn't thinking of becoming a parent.

"I traveled and worked a lot," says the former Mr. Washington State Leather. "My life was spontaneous."

A year earlier, Micheal had lost his younger brother, Raymond, to suicide. He was plagued by the loss even on his Caribbean vacation.

"I was in St. Thomas staying at a nice resort, and that's where I was when I started reading this journal that I had been writing for a year since I lost my brother." It was then, re-processing the loss, that Micheal made up his mind: he wanted to be Daniel's father.

Micheal didn't know how a future with Daniel would look. "I just saw a spark in his eyes. I guess I didn't have any expectation. I didn't know where that road was going."

Though Micheal was hopeful, doctors were not. They weren't sure how to diagnose him, but he would need heart surgery when - or if - he made it to four years old.

And even though Micheal was qualified to adopt and Daniel desperately needed a committed caretaker, the caseworker delayed the process.

"She came to my house three times to talk about one subject, and that was me being gay."

On one such occasion, she asked simply, "How is this going to affect him when he's an adolescent?"

Micheal wasn't quite sure what she meant. Was she referring to his physical limitations? No, she said. She wondered how he would feel walking through the mall with two men.

Micheal had been upfront about being gay, knew his rights (discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is illegal in the state of Washington), and told her so. She picked up her purse and left his house without a word.

The adoption was eventually granted. Then came the work of getting Daniel the medical care he needed. At two, he had 16 doctors. He took steroids and received breathing treatments.

The pediatrician warned he might only live to be ten years old.

The cardiologist asked Micheal to bring Daniel back to his office in two years when he would be old enough to undergo heart surgery.

"So I took him back to that heart doctor when he was 4 years old," Micheal says. The doctor was surprised to see them. "'When I told you to bring this little boy back, he was not a candidate for heart surgery. He had no life expectancy.'"

Michael's breath was sucked out of him. He wasn't sure if he was ecstatic or furious that the doctor hadn't said that two years ago.

"It was just so heavy. For three or four nights I couldn't sleep. And on that third or fourth night, finally, I thought, 'I'm glad he didn't tell me. Because there wasn't one day that I let Daniel think he was going to die."

Daniel is 12 now. He goes to public school - he's in a DI (Differentiated Instruction) classroom where he receives physical, occupational and speech therapy.

Micheal can't resist pulling up one, then another video of his son doing something no one thought he would ever be able to do: Daniel pounding away at a street piano, riding his favorite horse on the carousel downtown or up to bat at Bambinos Baseball.

The pair sat side by side at a wedding this weekend. Daniel sat quietly, mostly, fidgeting and looking around. Amid the readings and the vows, every so often, you could hear his father lean in and whisper, "I love you, I love you" to his boy.

Kids and adults alike struggle to find the best way to interact with Daniel. People want to be around him, says Micheal, but they just don't know what to do. That, along with the extra planning it takes to arrange a caretaker for Daniel, can be isolating for Micheal.

Social life takes more planning than before - a challenge he thinks any single parent faces. He's taken business certification courses, runs weekly with a local running club and hires a caretaker for Daniel two evenings a week.

Those who do connect with Micheal and Daniel find themselves deeply impacted. Daniel, for his limited ability to communicate, shares plenty.

Micheal took Daniel along with him to show a house to a prospective buyer last summer. On their way in, they saw an SUV slow to the curb across the street.

Twenty minutes later, when they emerged, the vehicle was still there. Daniel's cardiologist - the one who didn't believe he'd see that two-year-old boy in his office again - emerged from the car. He had waited just for the chance to say hi.

"I'm just in the audience of this little boy's life sometimes," says Micheal. "His life is different. It's beautiful, and people see it. He's touched a lot of people."