The Birth of a Family

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock What’s a single white guy doing with three Mexican kids? Making a loving family — and showing how

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock

What’s a single white guy doing with three Mexican kids? Making a loving family — and showing how foster adoption can work.

from This Is Us: The New All-American Family

David Marin was in his early 40s, longing to be a dad.”I’d led an interesting life,” he writes in his new book, “traveled to 11 countries, jumped out of airplanes, graduated from law school, and I’d had three holes in one.” But as a divorced single man, his dream of raising kids eluded him. “At night, I imagined the worst: sitting alone and retired … watching families drive by.” Marin decided to adopt from foster care. Although more than 500,000 kids are in the foster system in the United States — one quarter of them available for adoption — the process of winning approval proved arduous. Marin, who was vice president of advertising at Pulitzer Newspapers in Santa Maria, California, endured miles of bureaucratic red tape, vetting by two counties, three rounds of fingerprinting, and frustrating delays (a required home-safety class, for instance, was postponed twice). In September 2003, 14 months after he’d first made inquiries about adoption, Social Services called him about three siblings (from the same mother, different fathers — all felons). In December, Marin met the kids. Then came a month of “Family Practice” — weekend and evening visits, with follow-up calls to a social worker.

Finally, on February 27, 2004, Marin brought home Craig, two; Adriana, four; and Javier, six, for good. The new family was often met with stares and suspicion (one woman at a restaurant where they were eating called the police, worried that Marin was doing something inappropriate). But the hurdles of this adoption were nothing compared with its joys, says Marin. In this excerpt, he writes about the challenges with his youngest child, Craig, and how, together, he and the kids overcame them.

Craig’s life was a cartoon. He was the prey, like Jerry the mouse running away from Tom the cat, or the Road Runner chased by Wile E. Coyote. But two-year-old Craig was neither clever like Jerry nor fast like the Road Runner, so in real life, he probably only whimpered when the predators, his mother and her boyfriends, laid into him. When I first held Craig to smell his baby hair — my dumbbells weighed more than he did — he just held on, waiting for the drop or the throw.

Craig didn’t speak; he pointed and grunted. When I told people he didn’t talk, they would ask me his age. After I said he was almost two and a half, they’d turn away. That’s not good, the turning away.

He put his clothes on backward and had a hard time keeping up on walks to the Santa Maria river levee, so he rode in the stroller. If we walked for long and his little legs grew tired, I’d hoist him onto my shoulders. He liked heights and a breeze in his face, and when I pushed him in the swing, he wanted to go higher than the clouds, away from it all. He fearlessly climbed the jungle gym, but if a dog came near, he ran toward me until he saw it was a squirrel the dog chased, not him.

Nothing was smaller than Craig. He was always looking around; there was danger ahead and behind and, with hawks, above. He could not communicate the truths of his early life, and I had no records or files for him — Social Services didn’t even know his name was Craig; they’d been calling him Chris. He just came along with Javier and Adriana.

I worried because he was so frail. During Family Practice, a social worker called me.

“Hi, David. Has anyone told you that you have to wake Chris up every night?”

“No. His name is Craig.”

“Craig? Well, anyway, you have to wake him up every two hours to see if his nose is bleeding. He has bad nosebleeds.”

I was game but ill-prepared. One morning I found Craig lying in a pool of blood in his bed. I rushed him to a doctor, who said Craig’s fingernails could be shorter and maybe he was picking his nose. I felt ashamed: It was my job to notice that.

The day after I brought the children home for good, Craig had a fever. I didn’t know what to do and neither did Joy, my childless sister. So I called my new boss.

“He’s really hot.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m touching him.”

“Do you have a thermometer?”

“No.”

“Buy a digital one. And get some Pedialyte.”

“Pedialyte?”

“It’s a medicine that prevents dehydration. Then take him to the doctor.”

I took Craig to the emergency room. He was so weak, his head bobbed like a toy doll. The admitting nurse said,

“What have you given him?”

“What do you mean?” I wasn’t sick. Whatever he got, it wasn’t from me.

“Medicine, what medicines have you given him?” A few nurses drew closer.

“Nothing. I don’t have any medicine.”

“You’re supposed to give sick kids medicine,” she announced through a 45-watt ThunderPower 1000 bullhorn.

The circle drew in. Should we call Social Services? Who is this idiot?

“I just got him yesterday. I didn’t think he’d be sick.”

I took Craig to the doctor many times over the next months. He was constantly feverish. When he was ill, he slept with me so I could make sure he was still living. His body was no larger than a snow crab and half as strong. I worried that if I put my arm around him, I’d make it hard for him to breathe, so I moved his crib into my bedroom. We’d wait it out in there until he was sturdier.

In the meantime, people at work told me that their two-year-olds could calculate the square root of 169 or design relay stations for the electric company. Craig was behind, let’s say. I decided to teach him numbers and letters. How hard could that be? I drew a 2.

“Draw this.”

He drew a crooked dash.

Oh, no.

I drew a C, the first letter of his name.

He drew two crooked dashes. His brain was scattered. Special ed. He communicated in Morse code like a seaman on the Lusitania, unaware of the torpedoes society shoots at children like him. I worried about his future. Should I work harder to go higher in the corporate world and make more money to get Craig lifelong help?

Social Services told me I didn’t have to keep Craig. They said they could find a place for him if three kids were too many, but I never considered returning him. I could not imagine seeing him watch us through the window of a white county van, his plump cheeks trembling with fear, hauled away into another nightmare. He was one of us, and that’s how it would be.

Over time, he grew to trust me. He learned that if he was thirsty, I’d get him water, and if he was hurt, I’d be there to hold him.

In my arms, he’d stare at me. What was he thinking? — What’s with the white guy? And then he’d lunge at me, wrapping his arms around my neck, giving me a hug or a kiss, or trying to lick my face like a puppy.

And then, a breakthrough. At the grocery store — all three kids in the cart so I wouldn’t lose one — Craig made a noise and pointed to something he wanted.

I said, “Not now.”

Good news! He said his very first two words!

Bad news! They were curse words. I felt like someone punched me in the jaw. I said, “You’re welcome,” as if he had said, “Thank you,” and kept pushing the cart. It worked. That was the last of the cursing. A few weeks later, at Disneyland, overlooking a pond, Craig pointed to the water and said, “Two ducks.”

He’d be OK.

He hadn’t spoken before because he’d been beaten into silence or trained by his siblings to be quiet and not draw attention. He actually knew a lot of words. Within weeks, he was talking more, and once, too much. Denied a snack before dinner, he ran away crying, found Adriana and Javier, and said, “Daddy hit me.” A social worker had told me that foster children were clever that way, but she didn’t say toddlers would try it. I followed him, and the four of us discussed what he said. I knew that “he/she/they are hitting me” was likely the best way for foster kids to get an audience, and that’s why they did it. I told Craig and his siblings it was wrong to lie, especially like that, and it never happened again.

I knew that Craig emerging from his shell had something to do with me, a safe house, and his siblings not hiding him in cabinets. But the figure who inspired the left-behind to become a boy was a green swamp-dwelling ogre turned movie star named Shrek. He became Craig’s hero. Shrek’s loneliness, his leave-me-alone attitude, and his inclination to defend himself were powerful images. Craig’s favorite part was Shrek taking great leaps, belly flopping onto the knights, the police, the robbers, wrestling them into submission. Craig asked us to call him Shrek — and why not? When I ordered aquarium membership cards, the young man on the phone found his name puzzling.

“Shrek?”

“Well, we call him that.”

“What the heck, you’re right, who cares?”

Shrek Marin remains on Craig’s card today.

In my brain’s recess, playing kickball with plans to save more money, I wondered how to potty train Craig. I consulted Google, my coparent and digital spouse, and found videos and books. You got your timelines, and you got your theories. Instead, I called Craig into my room and asked him if he wanted to wear chonies, the kids’ Spanish slang for underwear. He was thrilled.

“I’m going to wear chonies! I’m going to wear chonies!”

He ran around showing them to his siblings. It had never occurred to me to try earlier. He did great with a few exceptions, like the puddle in between his feet that a lady at the haircutting salon noticed as he was about to climb into the chair.

I often arrived early to pick him up from preschool and watched him outside playing with children, trying to figure out if he’d become a Republican — “That’s my toy!” — or a Democrat — “Here, Billy, you can have Tom’s toy.” Craig loved to sing. On the drive to school, we took turns picking songs. Adriana’s favorite was “She’ll Be Coming Around the Mountain.” At the end, she added, “We’ll be eating chicken nuggets when she comes.” Javier’s favorite was “This Land Is Your Land.” Craig had two favorites. The first was “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” His other one, learned at school or made up — who knew? — he called “Our Thankful Song.” We sang it before dinner. “We are thankful, we are thankful, for our food, for our food …”

After spending time with Craig, I discovered that his intellectual challenges were temporary. He learned to sing, count, and write his name. Like every new parent, I imagined if I exposed him to music, he’d be a prodigy, and we’d have recitals for a select group of people, but nothing too exploitive, of course, because he was just a child. I began Craig’s music training in the Land Rover, driving from preschool to pick up Adriana and Javier at the YMCA after-school program. We started with the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” As an example of beat, I moved my right hand up and down and left and right. It was a compact lesson on an important topic. As we drove, I complimented myself. This was what separated me from the other men out there adopting three siblings. How many parents taught music while driving to the YMCA? The next song, “She’s a Rainbow,” was a symphony for piano. My hand moved like a wand. Craig was mesmerized. We finished with “Wild Horses”:

Childhood living it’s easy to do.
The things you wanted
I bought them for you.

“Daddy,” he said. Did he want a piano? I’d buy a little one with a mushroom stool. Maybe he wanted a violin. “Daddy,” he said again.

“Yes, love.”

“Does Tarzan live in the jungle?”

I took a deep breath and made a note to not share any of my ingenious child-raising strategies without peer review in a respected journal or at least an indication that my children were listening.

“Yes,” I said. “He lives in the jungle. He lives with apes. He’s in foster.”

Because Craig was the baby, his main chore was turning off the TV at dinnertime. One night he ran full bore to the TV and tripped over a two-foot-long inflatable sword he’d gotten at Burger King. I heard a loud bang as his head slammed against the (real) wooden pirate chest in the living room, and then he was crying, holding his head. It was a gusher, a Panhandle bleeder, a three-quarter-inch gash above his left ear. I turned off the stove, wrapped Craig’s head in a towel, and told the older kids to get in the car. I drove to the emergency room with one hand, holding the towel with gentle pressure against Craig’s head with the other.

“Sit down,” the lady in the ER said. “It will be two hours.”

“Can I have a phone book?”

I called Domino’s and ordered a pizza with pepperoni and pineapple. “We’ll need lots of napkins.”

Javier commented, “This is just like a restaurant.”

The ER doctor had a big needle. I held Craig tight as the doctor stuck his head to numb him. Then the doctor took a staple gun, remarkably similar to one at, well, Staples, and put four half-inch-wide staples in his head. We got home tired at 10:30 p.m.

At 1 a.m., I heard Craig crying in his room. The painkiller had worn off. I brought him to my bed, but he couldn’t sleep, because he liked to sleep on the side of his head with the staples. At 2 a.m., he said, “Daddy, I’m hungry.” Before our snack, tired, stapled, and with dried blood on his ear, he said, “I want to sing my thankful song.” We sang “We Are Thankful,” ate applesauce, and went back to bed.

The human shadow, the boy without momentum, has his own forward motion now. Craig is easily the most curious child of the three. He wants to know why the moon doesn’t fall and how ropes hold the Golden Gate Bridge. He’s the one who makes me want a nondigital spouse the most. Other than seeing me with a girlfriend, my children had no idea what a normal male-female relationship looked like. To Craig, I was the mom and the dad, and there was nothing wrong with that. When he was five, he told me that he wanted to be an unmarried astronaut and adopt kids.

Today he makes friends easily. He loves the attention good grades bring, and he wants to learn more. Other than a sniffle now and then, he has not been ill in many years, and he’s never missed a day of school.

I learned from Craig, about him and about myself. I could have done much better had I known more about parenting. Watching him grow up makes me want to have another baby, but for now, I look at pictures. I’m amazed that we did it. Craig emerged from his chamber and became a boy. I emerged from mine and became a father.

FROM THE BOOK THIS IS US: THE NEW ALL-AMERICAN FAMILY. COPYRIGHT © 2011 BY DAVID MARIN. PUBLISHED AT $16.95 BY EXTERMINATING ANGEL PRESS, 1892 COLESTIN ROAD, ASHLAND, OREGON 97520.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest