Father reclaims his life to care for son with disabilities
(Thankfully, not 2 a.m. like the morning before.)
In the periwinkle early morning of summer’s coming, a sleepy rustle under the Toy Story blanket. Blue eyes pop open and rosy lips part in a slow-spreading grin.
With his tilted-up nose and strawberry cheeks, his ears that angle out just enough, he is an elf on the edge of a laugh.
He’s 13 now, and wow, the teenage mood swings! Smiles, then thunderous scowls, then smiles again. Dad Gary reels between them, wondering if every parent feels this confused, sad that baby boy doesn’t want to cuddle as much as he used to, feeling like his head’s on backward sometimes.
But for now, in the rising gold of dawn, in the stuffed-animal-and-Disney-poster of his new bedroom, Donovan Williams succumbs to cackles. He wakes up happy.
Down the wide hallway, with its smooth tile floor that helpfully carries the mirth, Gary Williams slowly opens his eyes. Who needs an alarm clock? Pattering out of his own new bedroom, following the laughter and squeals, Gary sticks his head around the doorway of Donovan’s room.
“Good morning, honey!”
Donovan rolls his eyes toward Gary. He waves his arms with frantic energy and kicks his legs, the corners of his mouth lifting even higher up his cheeks.
As far as good-mornings go, that one’s pretty nice. The day is waiting and this father-and-son, this pair, this team is ready.
ALWAYS HIS BABY
Gary calls Donovan honey and sweetheart, because he can’t help it. He calls Donovan partner and buddy, because that’s what the boy is to his dad. He calls Donovan baby. Always his baby. Barely more than three pounds at birth, three months early, born with cerebral palsy.
He will never walk. He will never talk. Gary will feed him and change him and kiss his forehead, all their lives.
It’s hard for Gary not to dwell on the portion of Donovan’s life that he missed — the drug haze of the early years, the night Donovan’s mom kicked Gary out, the three years he didn’t see his son at all, the legal fight, the witnesses, the day Donovan’s mom forfeited her parental rights.
The day the papers were signed, the day Gary became a single father to a child with significant disabilities.
“I think about all the stupid stuff I did,” he says, “and when I didn’t see my boy for three years. I know he went through stuff during that time and it kills me. I can’t stand it, I’m so ashamed.”
But look where you are now, Gary.
“I just want him to have a good life.”
So, at the prompting of one of Donovan’s teachers last year at Orchard Avenue Elementary School, Gary sat down at the kitchen table in his 14-foot by 55-foot trailer in Orchard Mesa’s Elm Park and applied for a Habitat for Humanity home. Why not, he figured. The worst that could happen is being told no.
But the Williams family got a yes: Ground-breaking was two weeks before Thanksgiving last year, and on April 13, Gary and Donovan moved into their beautiful, brand-new home off D Road.
There’s a small patch of grass and butterfly bushes behind Donovan’s screened-in porch, which Gary waters by hand. There’s a hummingbird feeder. There are five loads of gravel spread a shovelful at a time around the front and side of the house. There are framed baby pictures of Donovan on the walls and knickknacks arranged with HGTV artfulness atop the kitchen cupboards. There’s the taxidermy, mounted fish Gary and Donovan caught at Corn Lake, and its place is high on the wall of their Man Cave, and they love it.
Gary did it all. And when the praise comes, the effusive gushing, he shrugs and smiles and says simply, “I’m proud of it.”
ROUGH ROADS OF EXPERIENCE
A few words about this man: He’s solid like a bale of hay and, with a goatee that stretches 6 inches down from his chin and a wardrobe consisting of jeans and T-shirts, he looks like a roadie. A butt-kicking one. His square hands and thick fingers suggest hard work.
On May 9 he turned 36, though the bloom of gray through his light brown hair and goatee suggest longer, rougher roads of experience.
A Grand Junction native, born in St. Mary’s Hospital like his son, his parents divorced when he was 4 or 5 and he moved with his mother to Rock Springs, Wyo., when he was 11. It was OK, though he laughingly rues the bowl haircut and plastic, red-framed glasses that he conveniently lost — and the photographic evidence thereof.
He made friends, and at 15 they introduced him to methamphetamine. At first, it was awesome. In fact, why finish high school? He was invincible! He had everything figured out! Half a year short of graduating, passing all his classes, he dropped out.
“What was I thinking?” he asks now. “That was so dumb.”
When he was 18 and serving 30 days in a Rock Springs jail for a DUI, his friend Joe picked up two 15-year-old hitchhikers in Daisy Dukes and later told Gary, “I got you a girlfriend for when you get out.”
They came together like it was inevitable, and the girl’s mother let him move into their Grand Junction trailer, into the girl’s bedroom. In retrospect, those were strange days, but at 18, when his other option was living at home where he thinks his stepfather beat his mother, it seemed ... not OK, really, but acceptable. Better than nothing. The drugs, the drinking, the constant parade of strangers drifting through — somehow it was better than nothing.
More than three years into their relationship, he and his girlfriend decided to have a baby. Why not, right?
“It sounded cool to have a baby,” he remembers. “I wanted a son, and we had other friends who had kids…”
And like he often does when talking about the past, he has to pause to shake his head and blow out a sigh.
“I don’t think we had no right having a kid.”
But have a kid they did. He delivered newspapers in the early mornings while she threw up from morning sickness out the passenger door. The pregnancy seemed on track, he’d gone clean, but at six months her water broke.
A frantic rush to St. Mary’s Hospital and the immediate decision to induce labor. Prepare for the worst, Gary remembers doctors telling him. Also, the baby has cerebral palsy. Gary braced against the storm that seemed to be rising, not certain about anything at all.
Donovan was born via C-section and “when they pulled him out he was black,” Gary recalls. “I think we came real close to losing him. His first cry, it was this little e-e-e-e-e. So sweet.”
Three pounds, 3 ounces. Fifteen and a half inches long. Donovan Jay Williams, born Sept. 30, 1999.
PULLING IT TOGETHER
Gary didn’t hold his son for a month. Donovan was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit, where he stayed for three months. First, it was touches through rubber gloves into the incubator. Then, gentle encouragement from the nurses: It’s OK, you can hold him.
He was so tiny, with legs thin as reeds and fingers like blades of grass, as fragile as spun sugar. He had Gary’s clear eyes and an obstinate, pointed chin. He was the son Gary wanted but he came trailing an entirely different map.
He went home at three months, with a heart monitor and an oxygen monitor and clueless young parents. He didn’t crawl and never would. He would never not wear diapers. He’d never walk, never talk, never crash a bike, never run around with the wrong girls.
But he smiled. In fact, he beamed. He threw his head back and scrunched his eyes and cackled. He cuddled. He learned the mysteries of the sippy cup and did it himself. He sighed with contentment. He drifted to sleep with the peacefulness of an ocean breeze.
There was the fantasy and the reality, the dream of a basketball hoop that now would see no use, the admonishments to be home by midnight that would not be uttered. Gary loved his son with a fierceness that enveloped his heart, but he struggled to orient himself on this new road.
“And maybe that’s why I started using again,” he wonders, “Maybe I was a bit depressed about not being able to go out and ride bikes (with my son). It’s not what I was expecting at all. But I don’t want to make excuses for what I did. I had a son who needed me.”
But the lure of meth was strong against the perennial need of a child with disabilities. The stairs only seemed to go down, until the evening of Dec. 6, 2006, when Donovan’s mom kicked Gary out of their apartment at 10th and Teller. He had one more hit of meth, which he smoked, and that was the last time he touched it.
Then, the bucket of frigid water in his face: His son. He had a son who needed him, who he needed, who he’d die for, who gave his life meaning and gave him a reason to put one foot in front of the other every single day. But that shock stretched into three years in which Gary didn’t see Donovan.
There was the restraining order, the accusations that Gary was crazy “and I might have been,” he admits. Donovan’s mom moved with him to Lamar, and $330 was taken out of Gary’s Bonner Supply paycheck each month, but the deteriorated relationship between parents meant Donovan was always far away.
In the meantime, Gary pulled it together. After a lifetime of drifting through dozens of jobs, he got the one that he stayed with for five years as a laborer at Bonner Supply “and I credit them a lot with where I am today,” Gary says. “I was going off drugs, I was worried about Donovan and I got my (butt) chewed by Scott (Bonner) all the time to shape up.
“But I got a couple of paychecks, I got me a trailer. They even gave me $200 so I could go see my mom in Salt Lake when she was dying of cancer (five years ago).”
After three years, Donovan was back in Grand Junction and Gary was desperate for his son. He’d heard things, been told things, and there was a lot of drama, law enforcement involvement, journeys through the court system until this: More than four years ago, Gary legally got his son. For good. Forever.
PACKED AND READY
On a mellow afternoon in late February, at the back corner of Elm Park in No. 65, Gary and Donovan are chilling — Gary puttering and Donovan lying on a wrought iron-framed day bed, swiping at a Little Tikes keyboard. “Madagascar” is playing on the big TV.
They’ve lived in this single-wide for several years, their third place in the eight years Gary’s lived in Elm Park. The first one had a stand-up shower, no good for Donovan, and in the second place, the previous tenant had kept many ferrets. So, they moved one more time, to the dark wood paneling and soft spot in the kitchen tile and the dribble of water from the faucet and the hallway so narrow that Gary almost always chose to just carry Donovan to the bathtub or to bed.
Make no mistake, it was a good home for them, but Donovan’s only getting bigger and his equipment — the wheelchair, the shower chair, the machine that lets him stand — is bulky. The trailer is 14 feet wide.
“We’re excited for our new place, huh, honey,” Gary says, bending to stroke Donovan’s brown hair, which is lamby and newly shorn.
When Gary found out last summer that they would receive a Habitat for Humanity home, he barely dared to believe it. What had convinced the selection panel? The fact that Gary is a single father and faces the world as a united team with his son? That he spent the past three years rebuilding his credit?
That he overcame his fears about not having a high school diploma and applied for a grant through the Mesa County Workforce Center to earn a Certified Nursing Assistant license at Hilltop in March 2010? That he swallowed his pride while he was in school and applied for food stamps, even though he really hated it, because nothing could trump Donovan’s well-being? That he got a job with Volunteers of America as Donovan’s full-time caretaker, which was strange — “I’m his dad, that’s my job regardless” — but again, he did it for Donovan?
It could have been any or all of those reasons that by the middle of April they’d be in their brand-new home. So, on that day in February, as penguins did sneaky things on the TV and Donovan poked the musical keys on his toy, it is easy to understand why big, already-packed boxes are pushed against the living room walls.
BUILDING A HOUSE
But onward to the house! On a weekday in early March, one that had been threatening then spitting rain, Gary beamed and offered the tour. The floor still was concrete but soon would be big, square tiles in the huge kitchen, the specially widened hall and all the way back to Donovan’s room, which is the entire back of the house.
“We made some special changes on this house,” says Gregg Chaffee, Habitat’s Mesa County construction manager.
To illustrate, Gary points to the track running the length of the ceiling in Donovan’s room, which is used for the lift that takes Donovan from the bed to his enormous shower, a shower big enough for dad to maneuver a wide shower chair. The halls and doorways are wider than normal, and at the very back of the house, off Donovan’s room, is a screened-in porch, the perfect spot for daydreaming.
In anticipation of moving in, Gary volunteered more than 800 hours on his own and other Habitat homes. While Donovan spent the school day as a sixth-grader at Grand Mesa Middle School, Gary hung gutters and painted and planned.
The night before the April 13 home dedication, in the little trailer on Orchard Mesa, Gary is wound tight and Donovan is fidgety. He can sense something is happening, that things are changing, and he rattles his beloved, broken toy flashlight hooked over his thumb.
“I can’t believe we’re moving in tomorrow,” Gary says. “It almost doesn’t seem real. We’ve been thinking about it for so long. And I’m real nervous. I have to say a few words and I’m not good at that sort of thing around people. I wonder how many’ll come?”
A lot, Gary. Cars lined D Road, people milling in the blustery wind on the wide driveway, admiring the “Welcome Home Williams Family!” sign hung out front. There must be 75 people there, some touring the new home, some congratulating Gary.
Donovan sits in his wheelchair in the center of the kitchen, and it gets to be overwhelming. He starts crying.
Gary crouches beside him, stroking his head and crooning, “Hey, honey. Heyyyy. What’s wrong? It’s a lot, huh? I know.” And he wipes Donovan’s tears with the pad of his thumb.
During the ceremony, in the blustery wind, the facts: 2,260 volunteer hours on the Williams home. More than 40 hours on Donovan’s shower alone. Almost 30 business donors. A check for $200, money raised by students at Grand Mesa Middle School. And immeasurable joy in the work.
“We acquired new volunteers on this house because Gary’s such a special guy,” Chaffee says. “He’s a bigger man than most people I know. So, we’re all very thankful and Gary, I think you got a great house. I love you, man.”
Gary quickly dashes away his own tears and clears his throat.
“I want to say thanks to everybody who helped us build our house so we can have a better life.”
FINALLY AT HOME
That better life, and certainly a new one, begins immediately after the dedication, when Gary, Chaffee and two other Habitat volunteers drive a ReStore truck up to Elm Park No. 65 and move everything out: the tables and Kid Rock CDs, Donovan’s bed, the washer and dryer, the pristine aquarium that houses a single creepy catfish.
The next morning, Gary’s eyes are circled by dark smudges of fatigue.
“I was up ‘til 1 unpacking,” he explains. “It’s weird. Now that we’re here, I want to make it home but it still doesn’t seem real. I can’t believe it’s ours. It’s the nicest place I’ve ever lived.”
He’d gone around scrutinizing all the walls, searching for any scuffs or chips in the paint he might need to touch up. It takes him a week to muster the willingness to put a hole in the wall, a nail on which to hang the taxidermy fish.
He unwraps photos and mementos, which had been packed for months, and arranges them on shelves, on the ledge high above the couch, atop the kitchen cupboards. He decorates Donovan’s room in bright colors and the familiar faces of Buzz Lightyear and Woody the cowboy. And after he picks Donovan up from school every day, they go about releasing the deep breath that it feels like they’d been holding for months.
“We need to get out and meet people, huh, honey,” Gary tells Donovan at dinner in early May, feeding him spoonsful of baked potato and barbecued chicken and macaroni. “We can’t keep being hermits.”
Loneliness does creep in sometimes, and isolation. Gary recognizes it, and that solutions are elusive. He can go days without talking to another adult. But then he settles Donovan into their red Chevy Tahoe and drives to the Riverfront Trail, where they walk for a mile or two. Or they head to Challenger Baseball, where at the April 19 game Donovan laughed so hard at third base that his joy was audible across the whole baseball field.
There’s often something to do, somewhere to be, but Gary recognizes that Donovan needs time to do his own thing, too. He resists the urge to show up for adaptive P.E. at school, when a rousing game of ball tag sends Donovan into further gales of laughter, and where Donovan practiced for the May 7 District 51 Special Olympics at Stocker Stadium. Gary attends that, of course.
HIS PRECIOUS SON
So much has changed these past few months, but most of all Donovan, this little boy not so little anymore. Gary spots three little hairs under Donovan’s arms and isn’t quite sure what to make of this discovery, so he gives Donovan a little swipe of deodorant every morning.
And the mood swings!
“I had him in the shower yesterday and he wanted the shower head, so I give it to him and he sprays himself in the face, and then he’s mad at me,” Gary says with a rueful laugh. “I’ll pick him up sometimes and feel his hot breath on my neck, hhhhhhhuuuu, and I know he’s about to bite me. And his little teeth are sharp!”
But he’s such a good boy! Gary is swift to point this out. He’s just ... confusing. Teenagers, you know? Which is evident at breakfast that morning of the happy awakening. After dressing Donovan in cargo shorts and a JUCO T-shirt, Gary crushed a Flinstones vitamin into Donovan’s bowl of oatmeal and sat down to feed it to him.
“Eeeenh,” says Donovan.
“Come on, baby, you love oatmeal,” Gary coaxes, nudging the spoon at Donovan’s lips. Reluctantly, Donovan opens them. Every bite is like this. As for the tooth brushing that follows, “you’d think I was trying to choke him,” Gary says. “Maybe he’s growing?”
Or maybe, Gary suggests, he’s feeling a twinge from his June 2011 surgery at Shriner’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, which removed the joint in his left hip and lengthened his right femur. Gary lists that among his accomplishments as a father, being able to get that done for his boy.
Anyway, back to that morning, Donovan scowls like thunder on the way to school, but his mood noticeably lifts the closer they got.
“So, forget lame ol’ dad, he’s excited to see his friends, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do about a teenager,” Gary says, smiling at the boy who used to want to cuddle for hours.
“But we’ll figure it out.”
What they’ll do, most likely, is sit out on the porch as the evening winds down, watching the hummingbirds fly and the sun set pink on Grand Mesa, listening to the night come. Gary says he sometimes wonders what it would be like to hear Donovan say “I love you” and how nice it would be, “but I know he loves me. I know he does.”
It’s a love that shines when the sun has set, and it’s bedtime, and Gary lays Donovan in his jammies onto his bed. He gives his boy kisses and tells him he loves him, and as he turns out the light he tells his son good night.
And his son, his buddy, his precious boy, smiles good night.