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the heart-rending true story of an American family
As featured in the San Francisco Chronicle
"Sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes humorous,
this memoir of building a family will inspire social change..."
"Engaging and witty... heart-warming insights..."
Janet Mason in Huffington Post
What makes a family? And what are the real "family values" that help keep parents and children whole and healthy? In A Song for Lost Angels, San Francisco writer Kevin Fisher-Paulson answers these questions by telling the intimate history of a family of two men plus triplets that came together suddenly one day, and thrived for a year before being torn apart by groundless prejudice. And he tells this riveting story with grace, dignity, and a surprisingly generous dose of humor.
"After a week of not sleeping, Papa and I got into the routine of baby care: feed the baby, burp the baby, change the baby, put the baby to bed, wash baby’s clothes, rinse out baby’s bottle, and make more formula, just about in time to start feeding the baby. Oh, and that process was in duplicate. In fact it was in duplicate with a third kid in the hospital, across the bay. I often found that I was still in my bathrobe at three o’clock in the afternoon. The witty gay couple with lots of time for canapés and cocktails had quickly turned into two sleep-deprived, middle-aged men."
The Second Edition of this compelling memoir is a joint presentation of Fearless Books and the new publisher, Two Penny Press. Read the first chapter below and check out Kevin's blog on Gays with Kids. He also writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle.
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A SONG FOR LOST ANGELS"A man does not have to be an angel in order to be a saint."
Feast of Saint Serafina
"I commend your heartfelt story of what makes a family and your commitment to making a safe and loving home for your children.... Through your words, you help to provide a voice for all families. Congratulations and thank you! — California State Senator Mark Leno, February 6 2014
July 19, 1999
"To your birthday tomorrow?"
Tomorrow would be the Feast of Saint Uncumber, patron saint of bearded women, and my 41st Earth anniversary. "Not yet. I'm having my mid-life crisis."
Brian is thin with dark hair. Fine lines have descended on his cheekbones, which only make him more handsome than when I met him in 1985. He rolled his dark brown eyes. "You mean your annual mid-life crisis. For your fortieth, you went skydiving with Tim and then you got a tattoo. How are you going to top that?"
I shrugged, picked up my glass and clinked it against his. "To us. And whatever middle age brings us." The blush had lost nothing of its sweet yet sour flavor. I picked up the chopsticks, tapped out a drumbeat on the tablecloth.
"No Tim?" Irene asked. No, we had the night off. Tim was our oldest friend in the world. He had moved onto our couch when he was going cold turkey from heroin, and never quite got around to moving out. Tim was a schizophrenic, recovering addict living with AIDS. Brian met him in Maine and I had known him since our New York days. He was the first of my friends to be diagnosed, and yet the one who had lived longest through the plague. Together he and I had been founding members of the first chapter of ACTUP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) back in New York. When Brian and I moved out to San Francisco Tim came along, establishing himself as the third member of our couple. But having recently formed a coven, he was not there for our weekly family dinner.
Irene did not hand us menus; that hadn't been necessary for quite a while. A few minutes later, she brought us pot stickers with spicy mustard to start, followed by Brian's order of General Kung Pao Chicken and Pork-Fried Rice, and my Garlic String Beans. I struggled to pinch a pot sticker with the white plastic chopsticks, and bit down, the mustard tickling my tongue. Irene had given the two of us lessons in chopsticks a few years ago. Brian picked it up in two seconds, as he does any new dance routine. I still struggled to pinch the food, but believed I was virtuous
As always, I flicked away at his chicken and rice with the chopsticks, until I gave up and dove in with a fork. This explains why he is so thin, and why I must compensate for my thickness with charm. A half hour later, every plate empty, as well as the carafe, Irene brought the check over with two fortune cookies. I picked the one pointing at me. Brian awaited his fate. On cue, he asked, "Well, what does it say?"
"Help! I'm a prisoner in a Chinese Bakery!"
He groaned, as he always does. "Now, what does it really say?"
"Your children respect your wisdom."
And that was the moment when everything changed. Oh, yes, a lot of thinking had gone into it: about how I was in my forties, how I didn't know what my life meant, how I didn't want to get old without... what?
Maybe such questions are more difficult for a gay man, maybe not. I had led many lives: activist, poet, handbag salesman, sheriff's deputy, and all-around bon vivant. I had made many friends. Sadly, many of those friends who had constituted a kind of family were either dead or dying, and slowly rising in me was the realization that what meant most to me was family. I wanted another family, a "forever" one.
"Brian, I want to have children," I blurted. "I think I'm meant to."
Brian put his fork down, picked up his glass, narrowed his eyes and looked off in the distance as if he had known for a long time that this challenge would come up, but had still not figured out how to answer. What I later comprehended was that for me, fatherhood would be simply a new option; for Brian it would mean a choice between continuing his life as a dancer or starting something else entirely. For me, it would still mean coming home every night. But Brian spent most of the year on tour to such exotic dance locations as Iowa and Wisconsin. And he did not see family as a traveling concept.
We are an unlikely couple. He is a creative, nurturing artist; I am a pragmatic and blunt cop. We'd been in love for fourteen years, having met over my cousin Rita's lasagna dinner in Jersey City. It was the only successful blind date I had with anybody. A month later we moved into together, in a coldwater flat above a funeral home that we shared with a bunch of starving dancers, actors, and singers, kind of like La Bohème with a Jersey accent.
In 1991, both of our careers came to a full stop. He quit dancing for a while and I managed to get fired from yet another retail chain. The year that our Christmas tree committed suicide, we moved out west to San Francisco for a fresh new start. He joined a modern dance company, ODC/San Francisco, and despite all of my unsuitability for the role, I joined the San Francisco Sheriff's Department. We moved into a one-bedroom condominium with three dogs, and eventually Tim joined us.
And here I was asking Brian to be the father of my children. He smiled his stage smile, and for a second I thought he would just say no. He hesitated a little, and then looked me straight in the eye. "As long as I'm with ODC, they expect me to tour. But you're right. I can't ask you to wait until I finally retire in five years or so."
"Which is close to a hundred in gay years," I retorted, crunching on the fragments of cookie. I picked up a crumb with my abandoned chopsticks.
"Okay, we start. Right away," he lifted his wine glass, clinked it toward me and said, "To family."
THE NEXT MORNING, I called a senior deputy, a lesbian I knew who had just adopted. "Who did you use for an agency?" I asked, sipping my morning latté.
"The Black Adoption Network."
"Do we qualify? Not being black and all? Even though I'm shanty Irish, Brian is distantly related to the Mayflower."
"They don't care, so long as you give the kids a good home. You sure this is the route you want to go?"
"Yes," I said, "we're not going to do surrogacy, as neither of us feel that our contribution to the gene pool is all that important." We had already decided against foreign adoption when we learned that America was importing white, Latino and Asian children for adoption but was still exporting many black children to Germany, the Netherlands, Canada, and other countries simply because the average adopting American still focused on race.
"Then you're in the right place."
I called the agency and got a receptionist. We received the first of hundreds of pages of applications.
The process was long. We knew that our one-room condo in Diamond Heights was too small, so we searched and searched until we found a bungalow in the Crocker Amazon, the neighborhood San Francisco forgot. It is an arts and craft style home, built in 1916, with a real chimney and wooden floors. The real estate agent explained that the word bungalow is originally Hindi and means "low house with thatched roof." But to me bungalow meant cozy. And the minute we stepped into the living room with the gumwood and fireplace, with two little milk glass windows on either side, Brian said, "This is the kind of home in which you can raise a family." The cove ceilings were perfect; the stucco was perfect; the lilacs in the backyard were perfect. The only things we didn't like were the size of the mortgage and the fact that exterior of the house had been painted mustard and brown.
A week after purchasing it, we painted the bungalow Batman blue. Growing up in a gray and brick row house in South Ozone Park, I had promised myself that someday I would paint my own home the color of my favorite super-hero. The neighbors were still aghast. Our fur babies, Miss Grrrl, Wolfcub, and Diva, were all delighted by having their very own yard, full of lilacs, calla lilies and overgrown grass. The inside of the house with its huge kitchen and tiny office was equally unkempt, but it was the kind of house where you always felt at home.
In the meantime, we filled out all those foster/adoption forms. A social worker walked into our house, and examined everything from the contents of our medicine cabinet to the pedigree of our dogs. Turning up her nose, she asked, "Have they had their rabies shots? Have any of them ever attacked anyone?"
"They've had their shots, but it's hard to say about attacking someone," I answered. "They're Pekingese. Their idea of an attack is licking your hand 'til you give them cheese."
She frowned, and then asked about Tim as if he weren't right there in the room. "Wouldn't he be dangerous? Your form indicated he was manic depressive."
Tim smiled. "I've had my shots."
I added, "And he's in a Twelve Step program, and seeing a psychiatrist, and on medication. Otherwise he's as normal as you or me."
"It's just a little unusual. Three gay men living in a house, one of them not really stable." She fretted her brows, wrote something in her little black notebook, and left.
And then we waited.
TWO YEARS PASSED without the agency coming up with a single child for us. During that time, my mother, Nurse Vivian, passed away from ovarian cancer. I went to Florida for her final days . Even while dying, she remained Nurse Vivian: "Kevin, bury me in the mint chiffon dress. You know, the one I wore to Donald's wedding? It seemed like such a shame that I never got to wear it again." She told me to go back to the apartment, that she wanted me to get some sleep, and at five in the morning, the phone rang. I answered, and a doctor said, "I am sorry to tell you that your mother passed away in her sleep."
Pop and I brought her home to Yaphank to be laid to rest. For a time my grief occupied me, but then I went back to California and the issue of the adoption to no avail. I called the agency once or twice a month, but they never had a prospective placement for us. I gave up several times, but Brian never did.
"All in good time," he said about ten times a week. Brian had crossed the Rubicon that night in Yet Wah's. Like his gymnastics, like his dancing on Broadway, whatever he pursued he believed in completely, and he had no doubt that we were on the road to parenthood.
Me, I got more and more OCD, which is to say that I imagined the worst possible outcomes. In the meantime, I organized the spices. I alphabetized the cheese. I collated the thirteen cartons of comic books into numerical order. Tim stayed busy, fighting the disease, fellow coven members, the doctors, and his inner demons. His health went downhill. He couldn't eat because of intestinal complications, and he had shingles, and he began to feel that he was a burden on us. So one night, in the tiny bedroom with a draft, he attempted suicide with what he thought was a bottle of chlonodine and a bottle of lithium. Turned out he actually downed a bottle-full of Viagra (yes, yes, I know: that would have made one stiff corpse). We got him to San Francisco General Hospital, and a charcoal milkshake later, he survived. Afterward he knew that he needed to change direction so he went into rehab again. In a lockup ward in Los Angeles he met the love of his life. When he returned, he moved out to an apartment in the Mission District, leaving the blue bungalow to us, the three dogs, and whatever children might come into our future.
I'm Irish. That translates to superstitious. We started going back to church, because even if our own faith was shaky, we wanted our kids to have some starting point in discussions of theology and ethics. I suggested to Brian, "Let's go to a different church every Sunday until we find one that we feel comfortable in."
"Where shall we start? he asked.
"With the Catholics, of course. Then we can try the Metropolitan Community Church and the Unitarians. If all else fails, we can always join Tim's coven." On the first Sunday of our experiment, the Feast of the Epiphany, we walked into Most Holy Redeemer Church, in the Castro District. It had a big banner over the entrance that read "God's INCLUSIVE Love," and pictures of the parish serving meals to the homeless, and working with persons with AIDS, and even marching in the Gay Pride Parade.
We sat in the back, and the sunlight burned brightly through the stained glass. Before the mass started, the priest asked any newcomers to stand up, and we did, and about ten people shook our hands. Soon after the opening hymn, the choir launched into the Gloria. As we came to the chorus (where in my youth the altar boys rang the bells) the parishioners pulled their keys out of their pockets and started jangling them. It sounded like a crazy carillon. I leaned over to Brian. He nodded and I whispered, "We're home."
We got knee-deep in the parish, baking pies for the Wednesday night supper for the homeless and singing with the choir on Sundays. The great thing about Most Holy Redeemer was that no one put much emphasis on faith. It was all about work. And that work kept us busy as we waited on the adoption agency.
One Sunday at church, I lit a candle and asked, "Is this really going to happen? Is there a better way to approach this?"
We walked out of the church and over to the Castro Street Fair. While shopping for knick-knacks, I saw a sign that read "A Better Way: Foster/Adoption Agency." The coincidence bell dinged in my head. If they advertised in the Castro, this agency had to like gay people. Brian and I signed our name to a list, and got a phone call the next day. They sent us a very nice social worker, a heavyset red-headed woman with brilliant green eyes named Meredith St. Jacques, who gave us even more paperwork to fill out, and who also examined our house, but a little more gently. Meredith ignored the dust bunnies, saying, "How cute your dogs are!" She even affirmed the unmowed lawn: "What fun that would be for the kids!" She smiled, wrote something in a little pink notebook, gathered up her overstuffed purse and left.
And then on March 31st, 2003 we got the call from her: "Congratulations! You are officially eligible to foster children."
"Starting now?" I asked.
"Yes, but it usually takes a few months to match. Don't worry. There are plenty of children who need homes."
THE NEXT DAY, April 1, I was standing in a hallway, talking to a program coordinator, when the telephone in my office rang. I sprinted across the hall. "County Jail #7. This is Sergeant Paulson."
"It's me," said Brian. "Are you sitting down? Meredith called."
I sat down.
"She wants us to take in triplets."
"Okay… April Fool's?"
"No," he continued, "she's serious. The kids are hard to place because of health issues. The babies were born at thirty-two weeks. None of them weighed more than five pounds."
"Okay, and the good news is…?"
"One of the babies, a boy, has a punctured intestine with a colostomy bag, and is undergoing surgery for repair of a heart valve. All three are hypertonic and medically at risk."
Admittedly, all that might have given the most enthusiastic of prospective parents a moment's pause. But we'd been waiting two years, and worst-case scenarios never fazed us.
"How old?" I asked.
"Almost three weeks. Born on March 12."
As a Catholic nerd, I knew that March 12 was the feast of Saint Serafina, the little angel, and I thought it an omen. Little angels in our lives. This time, I was the one who paused, but just for a moment.
"When does she want an answer?"
"Meredith gave us three hours to decide," Brian answered calmly.
This was stunning. I had seen Brian spend half an hour in a Safeway aisle debating which paper towel was a better buy, and here he was telling me that by mid-afternoon we had to decide on whether to up-end our entire lives, in triplicate no less. Part of me knew that Brian had already decided.
We conference-called Marie, Brian's mother. Marie is a nurse in Maine, not just any nurse, but a colonel in the Air Force Reserve who's on the Maine State Board of Nursing. In her matter-of-fact Nor'easter voice she said, "Premature children exposed to drugs in utero will struggle for years, and, given a schizophrenic mother, they have a strong probability of mental illness. The boy with necrotizing enterocolitis might not live until the end of the week."
"You got anything encouraging to follow that up with?" I asked as I lined up all the pencils on the desk in size order, then faced all the paperclips the same way.
"Only that you two will always provide the very best for them. You're probably the best chance they've got." Then, with just the barest hint of humor, "It's exactly what the two of you need: more stray puppies."
When people talk about Brian and me as a couple, they say that we collect strays: rescue dogs and people with issues. We'd been at it for about fifteen years at that point, rescuing dogs with heart murmurs and kidney failures, persons dying from AIDS, actors who just needed a big break, crystal meth addicts detoxing on our couch and, once, a runaway clown. When we packed up a rental truck and moved to California, the cab was filled with the two of us, two adult dogs, and six puppies. We found a home for every puppy. Call us Johnny Pekingeses.
If we had a working philosophy behind all this, it would be to help those in need. Brian was always helping someone else at an audition get the part that he wanted. And I make a lousy cop because I always feel sorry for both the victim and the perp. Hence the available triplets seemed perfectly suited for our brand of compassion. Not that we're saints. On the contrary, we're scandalous sinners. He drinks too much. I eat too much. He smokes too much and if I lived in Vegas I would probably lose the house. But we do damage only to ourselves, never others. So it came down to the fact that while triplets would be an immense challenge, and we did not want a baby to die on our watch, we weren't doing this for ourselves. We were doing it for the children.
I called Meredith back at one minute before three. "Yes."
"Yes, you'll do it? I need to be completely honest about the boy with the heart surgery and the NEC. No one knows if he will make it."
"We'll do it."
"This is foster parenting with an adoption track, meaning that if no member of the birth mother's family comes forward, you can adopt the triplets."
"What about the birth mother?" I asked.
"I would rule her out completely. She walked out on them in the hospital. Severe schizophrenic, ineligible to parent. She already had one kid removed from her care."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"That's what foster care is about. You better think up some names. Listen," she continued, "go to Alta Bates Hospital tonight to pick up two of the three triplets."
"And the third?"
"Intensive care at Children's Hospital. We don't know what's going to happen."
Brian was teaching that afternoon. I said to my boss, Captain Amada, "I'm taking the rest of the week off. I'm having a baby tonight. Make that three."
Captain Amada looked up from an incident report. "You might want to consider a leave. But if anyone can do this, it's you."
When I left work, I drove to Target, grabbed a shopping cart, and threw in three of whatever had the word "Baby" on it. Our little compact car was stuffed. I picked Brian up at the Odd Fellows Building in downtown San Francisco, and we started rolling toward I-80....
COPYRIGHT 2013 BY KEVIN FISHER-PAULSON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Kevin Thaddeus Fisher-Paulson lives with his husband Brian, their two sons, and their four rescue dogs in San Francisco. When not writing, he serves as Captain of the Honor Guard for the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. He earned a degree in American Studies from the University of Notre Dame in 1980 and subsequently studied writing with Dorothy Allison, Jessica Hagedorn and Steve Abbott and has attended courses at the University of Iowa and the University of Oregon. Kevin contributed regularly as a writer to The Sentinel, and his stories and poems have been seen in The James White Literary Review, Amethyst, Oberon, RFD and Suburban Wilderness. His essay, “Virtue Enough for Miss Grrrl” was published as part of an anthology, When Love Lasts Forever, by Pilgrim Press. His plays and monologues have been produced in the ODC Summerfest, Theater Rhinoceros, and the National AIDS Theater Festival. Kevin contributes irregularly to the National Public Radio Perspective Series, blogs for Gays with Kids, and writes a weekly column for the San Francisco Chronicle.
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