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Dying Father Struggles to Say Goodbye

October 27, 2002|Helen O'Neill | Associated Press Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Editor's Note: A reporter chronicled the lives of a dying single father and his four children for six months as he prepared them for how life would be when he is gone.

*

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- The children tumble in from school, all breathless excitement and questions.

"Daddy, can we go to the store?" "Daddy, can I call my friend?" "Daddy, can we go to the park?"

It's late spring, and for a moment, Felix Del Valle forgets his disease, his tormented body, his impending death.

Slumped in his wheelchair, he beams, shaking his head at the blessing of being home another day.

He knows what the world sees: a 46-year-old man with Lou Gehrig's disease, a man whose legs and arms don't work anymore, a man with no money and no means of support, a man who will not witness the future of the four children he has raised alone.

His kids don't understand the shadow of death like adults do, not even his oldest, 11-year-old Kyia, who feeds him and wheels him and shaves him and fakes his signature to cash his welfare checks.

Sometimes Felix wonders: Will she learn to be a child again when I am gone?

But what no one understands, not his children nor his friends, not the stream of well-intentioned social workers and volunteers, is that it's not dying that is breaking Felix's heart.

It is the decision he must make by summer's end, to hand over Kyia and Janet, 10, and Felix Jr., 8, and Crystal, 6, to the kindhearted family that has offered to adopt them.

Felix is grateful beyond words that his children will be raised together after he dies.

But he dreads the day they can no longer live as a family in their little apartment on Day Street, when his children move on to their new life and he moves into a nursing home to die.

*

In a life that hasn't been marked by much luck, the happy moments shine: The day in January 2000 when Felix won sole custody of his children from their abusive, drug-addicted mother.

The day Lori Burgess offered to become a mother to his children when he succumbs.

It was October 2001, the day after Felix had been told he had an incurable disease that would eat away at his muscles and nerves and kill him within two years.

He stumbled back to work in a daze of disbelief, his mind frozen by one thought: What will happen to my children?

Like everyone in the Long Wharf office complex, Burgess, an administrator with the Visiting Nurse Assn., knew Felix as the ever-smiling sandwich man, whose cries of, "Hello, gorgeous!" made all the ladies blush.

And so when Lori saw Felix's face contorted in sadness and fear, she sat right down and asked him what was wrong.

Through tears, Felix told her about his death sentence, about his biggest fear -- that his children would be sent to foster homes, that the family he had struggled to keep together would be torn apart.

But where would he find someone to take on four children?

That night, Lori talked to her husband, David, a minister, and their children, David Jr., 14, Jelisa, 11, and Zachary, 5.

What if we opened our home to these children? they asked. What if they become part of our family forever?

*

"Daddy is so happy," Kyia says, beaming, as she feeds Felix mouthfuls of hamburger in his wheelchair at home. "Because he knows that when he is in heaven, we will be with a good family, with our very own mommy and daddy."

Their father turns away so she won't see his tears.

It is early June, eight months after his conversation with Lori, and he is still overwhelmed with gratitude. But the transition is proving harder than he imagined.

At first he and Lori were feted like heroes.

Churches and schools and businesses threw fund-raisers, setting up a fund for his children and another for the Burgesses to buy a bigger home. A Yale law professor took on Felix's legal case, working out an agreement for the long-term guardianship of the children. There was even a weeklong trip to Walt Disney World in December.

"I'd never seen my children so happy," Felix said.

But it's a cruel kind of happiness for a father to witness his children's delight and know it is connected to his death.

Felix does the best he can, talking to them while he still has his voice, telling them about his life -- growing up in a home for abandoned children in New York City, the basketball exploits that won him a college scholarship, the times he collected cans to make ends meet.

"You must love each other," he tells them. "And you must always stay together."

Sometimes they don't want to hear about his dying. Sometimes they taunt him. Sometimes they cry. Mostly they just adore him.

Kyia is the little mother-figure who wheedles her father to eat more, scolds him when he gets depressed, and coaxes laughs from him with her crazy dancing and silly smiles.

Felix Jr. is a gentle son, always hugging his dad, and sometimes begging him to live for another 1,000 years. Little Crystal just beams at the world with her lopsided grin.

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