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The Nation

Dying Father Wills a New Life for His Four Children

Afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease, Felix Del Valle finds a loving home for his children. But adjusting is difficult, especially for one girl.

August 31, 2003|Helen O'Neill | Associated Press Writer

In October, the Associated Press detailed the process by which Felix Del Valle, a single father facing death from Lou Gehrig's disease, found a new home for his four children. Before and after his death in June, special correspondent Helen O'Neill spent time with the children and their new family for this follow-up report.

*

HAMDEN, Conn. -- The funeral took place on a warm rainy day, just before Father's Day. The hymns were thunderous and joyful, the eulogies heartbreaking.

They recalled an ordinary man who possessed an extraordinary ability to make the most of the little he had, of his courage and determination, against all the odds, to plan a future for his children.

People wept as they saw how far Felix Del Valle's children had come: Kyia, 11, poised and smart in a navy blue suit, her new father's arms around her; little Felix, 9, watched over by his new big brother, and Crystal, 7, angelic in a long purple velvet dress, clinging to her new mother. Ten-year-old Janet, the child the father had worried about the most, stayed close to her new mother too.

Kyia and Janet placed roses in their father's coffin. Felix put in a Yankees baseball cap, and Crystal added a worn teddy-bear. One by one they kissed him goodbye.

"I feel sad," Kyia said. "But I can't feel too sad because I know my daddy's suffering is over."

*

The father, just 46, tried to prepare his children, assuring them that he wasn't afraid to die, that he was going to a better place.

But there was only so much a single, penniless father could do, especially one with an incurable illness that was devouring his body with a speed not even doctors had anticipated.

And so last fall, 11 months after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, Felix Del Valle, wheelchair-bound and unable to move, reluctantly agreed when the state took custody of his children.

The state didn't place them in foster care in the normal way. Instead, social workers simply drove Kyia, Felix and Crystal the few miles from Del Valle's small apartment in New Haven to the rambling three-story home in Hamden they had spent the summer visiting -- the home of Lori and David Burgess. Janet had previously been placed in a home for troubled children.

Until a year before, the Burgesses and Del Valles had been strangers. Lori, an administrator with the Visiting Nurse Assn., had known Felix simply as the sandwich maker in her office cafeteria -- the guy who brightened lunch hour with his smile.

When she told her family of Felix's plight, her husband, David, a Baptist minister, didn't hesitate. Nor did their three children, David Jr., then 14; Jelisa, 11, and Zachary, 5.

They would adopt the Del Valle children and rear them as their own.

"What if it was us?" David Jr. asked. It was as simple as that.

*

The first few weeks were the hardest -- filled with confusion and change. There were tensions and tantrums as the Del Valle children tried to figure out their place in the new order of things, and the Burgess children tried to grasp the reality of sharing their parents, their home, their lives.

"That's my Mommy, not yours," Zachary once blurted out when Crystal clambered on Lori's lap.

The older ones didn't say anything, but sometimes they felt the same way.

Kyia, whose life had revolved around her father -- feeding him, wheeling him to the store, signing his welfare checks -- initially felt lost in a home where the most that was expected of her was good grades and helping with the dishes.

Be a child, she was told. But how?

She chafed at chores, at the Burgess form of discipline in which a family "court" decides the punishment when a child misbehaves, at not being able to call her father whenever she wanted.

Though Kyia clearly adored her new parents, she worried about her father, growing weaker and lonelier in his wheelchair without her. Sometimes she thought, I'll just kill myself after Daddy dies and then I'll be with him.

She jokes about it now.

"It wouldn't work," she says, giggling. "Because he would be in heaven and I'd be in hell."

The troubled days are recorded in her diary, but the happy ones are too.

"I had a good day today," she wrote one day in January.

Earlier that day, she had crept into the basement office of David Burgess and poured out her fears. What would happen when her daddy died? What would the coffin be made of? What would become of his body -- of his spirit?

Praying silently for inspiration, David Burgess wrapped his arms around his new daughter. He told Kyia that there will be many tears, but that the sadness will be for the people left behind, not for her daddy.

"Your father's spirit will live on," Burgess said. "He will always be there for you."

Kyia held him tight.

"I love you, Daddy," she said.

*

The adjustment was easier for the younger children. Crystal, a sweet-natured girl, played happily with Zachary, turned to Lori for hugs and instantly charmed her two new grandmothers, who stop by almost daily to help.

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