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Between Us by Michael Kearns

'Tia's father' says it all

The hues of a family's fabric are about more than color, deeper than differences.

March 18, 2004|Michael Kearns | Special to The Times

"Tia, TIME TO GET UP," I SAY, immediately after switching on the coffee maker.

The morning ritual replays, Monday through Friday, with few variations.

"Five more minutes, please," she pleads.

What do I accomplish in these five minutes -- wash last night's dinner dishes or check my e-mail?

The inbox wins.

There's one from a childless friend who naively asks if I want to "hang out" any time soon. Yeah, sure, about nine years from now, when my kid turns 18. "Tia," I say, with a determined singsong lilt in my voice, trying not to sound too cranky this early. "You've got two minutes."

I make her lunch: leftover pizza and fresh fruit.

"Tia, honey, it's been five minutes," I say, a bit louder.

The cat is meowing and nuzzling my feet, demanding to be fed. I hear the television in her room go on. Now I'm shouting: "Turn that television off!"

"Sorry," she says, with a bit of an edge, as she stumbles out of her room. Seeing her for the first time each morning is always a bit of a jolt; could she have grown during the night? She opens her arms, inviting a morning hug, an embrace that reminds me how blissful it is to be a parent. We're out the door at 8:33, giving us 27 minutes to travel from where we live in Los Feliz to the school Tia attends in Sherman Oaks.

The morning activities of a typical family? Yes and no.

Tia is black. I am white. Tia is adopted. I am her single, gay, 54-year-old dad. Miu Miu, the hungry cat, shares our spacious two-bedroom apartment.

What differentiates us from other families, while certainly dramatic, is eclipsed by the similarities that connect us. What makes my daughter and me a family is not based on who we are individually, but on what we've become as a team. Our deep bond is not based on race or gender or sexual identity. Our family unit may not be cemented by bloodlines but we are, without question, bound by intangible things that define family values: commitment, respect, compassion, understanding, playfulness and love.

After a decade of unfathomable loss, enduring innumerable AIDS deaths of friends and peers, I made the life-changing decision to adopt a kid. Instead of witnessing a person at the conclusion of life, marking off each day until the last, I yearned to experience the scenario in reverse. I felt the urgent need to usher in life's beginnings through the eyes of a child.

After the requisite training, I began my quest by becoming a foster parent through the L.A. County Department of Children's Services, or DCS.

Although she was the size and the weight of a baby several months younger, Tia was 5 months old when I first held her in my arms. Born at seven months' gestation with no prenatal care, Tia weighed less than 2 pounds at birth and spent her first month in an incubator fighting to survive the life-threatening manifestations of her mother's drug use.

After four months in an inferior foster care situation in which Tia received little more than basic care, a social worker, who determined that I could provide her with "more stimulation," placed the infant in my care. When it was confirmed that her blood relatives refused to assume guardianship, I was asked by DCS if I wanted to make the transition from foster parent to adoptive parent.

Not until it became apparent that I would likely be given custody of the child I was raising did the blood family become involved. After more than a year without contact, they began to arrange visits with Tia, signaling that the battle lines were about to be drawn.

Because I'm gay? Old? Single? No, because I am white.

While a controversy rages on about a black child being raised in a white culture, one fact is indisputable: There are a disproportionate number of black children who need to be adopted in relation to the number of black families who are able to adopt. Simple. Do the math.

First, I was accused of neglect, accusations proved by county professionals to be unfounded. Then my accusers upped the stakes by suggesting that Tia had been molested. After Tia was put through more than one vaginal exam and I endured exhaustive psychological testing, I was again exonerated.

After two years and seven months of unbearable uncertainty as to my parental status, the court determined that, because I had devoted myself to her care with visibly successful results, I would legally become her father.

Coinciding with her third birthday, we officially became the Kearns family. With no resultant damage from her precarious beginnings, my daughter had blossomed into a feisty, strong-willed, funny, artistic and intelligent little girl.

Over the ensuing years, as our father-daughter bond strengthened, we gained acceptance everywhere we went. Whether buying stamps at the local post office or making friends with an Asian lady who frequently walks her dogs by our building, we are simply part of the neighborhood's fabric.

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