A young unmarried mother in Vietnam gave Bob Page and Dale Frederiksen a chance to be fathers. Nine years later they gave her a new life in return. This Fathers Day, we ponder the generosity of the human heart.
I could write three separate novels about the two dads I want to tell you about this Fathers Day. The first would be a classic Horatio Alger story. Bob Page, son of a tobacco farmer, was the first in his family to attend college. He was working as an auditor for the State of North Carolina in 1981 when he had an idea for a mail order business, selling hard to find replacement pieces for fine china. Bob scraped together enough money to open Replacements Ltd. http://tinyurl.com/7hwnkdu which according to the New York Times, now has annual sales of $80 million and employs 450 people in North Carolina. Bob is the classic story of American entrepreneurship, and Conservatives would be telling their sons “The Legend of Bob Page” around the campfire – except, of course, for the gay part coming up.
The second story I could tell about my two Fathers Day dads is a love story. After eight years focused on growing Replacements Ltd, Bob realized he had everything but someone to share his success with. It had taken him a long time to come to terms with being gay, and he had slipped into his forties spending his nights in the office, not frequenting the social scene in search of a yin to his yang. All his life he had pictured his future with a family. What good was success without someone to share it with? So with the same determination he had tackled his business plan, Bob sent up a smoke signal. He wanted someone to love.
On the receiving end of that smoke signal was Dale Frederiksen from suburban Michigan, who was teaching high school math in Chattanooga Tennessee. Over months of a long distance romance, Dale and Bob found themselves compatible in every important way but geographically. Someone had to move and Bob couldn’t pack up his showroom in a U-Haul. Dale was in love, but you don’t become a teacher for the money, you become a teacher because you love the job. Was he ready to leave teaching and join Bob in the china business he knew nothing about? In the end, love conquered all. Dale made the leap of both faith and state. Had they been allowed to marry in North Carolina, the partners would be coming up on their silver anniversary. The family values crowd would embrace this story of sacrifice and commitment too – except, you know, for the gay part.
But today being Fathers Day, it’s not Bob’s rags to riches story, and it’s not Dale’s selfless sacrifice story I want to tell you. Today’s story is about Bob and Dale’s adventures in fatherhood. And it’s about how they never forgot the debt they owed to the woman who made them (interchangeably) Dad and Other Dad.
Over the years of their union, Bob and Dale talked about kids of their own in a “maybe, someday, wouldn’t it be great” kind of way. But it was learning about the unwelcome pregnancy of the friend of a Replacements employee that, after a decade together, put the idea in focus. For a moment in time, there was the tantalizing possibility they might be able to adopt this baby. And then there wasn’t. But the spark had been lit. Parenthood was no longer a “someday” dream. If not now, when?
Anyone who has gone through the adoption process will tell you the hardest aspect is the emotional Cirque du Soleil of walking tiptoe on a tightrope of soaring hopes knowing it is stretched over a pit of crushing disappointment. Dale kept his hopes in check telling himself they would never find an agency who would accept a gay couple. Bob made parenthood his new cause. His research convinced him foreign adoption was the way to go. And that knowledge led them to Adoption Center of Washington. http://www.adoptioncenter.com/
Bob and Dale applied. They passed every requirement with flying colors, and stepped out onto the adoption tightrope of hope and worry, waiting for the phone call that finally came in December of 1999. A desperately poor young woman from rural Vietnam had given up custody of twin boys who were now four months old. Were they interested? Silly question. Next stop Saigon. Hold on to your heart.
The trip took forty hours. The men were exhausted, and jet lagged, but sleep was not on the agenda. In an unfamiliar country, among people speaking a language they didn’t understand, Bob and Dale checked into a hotel room and awaited the strangers who would bring them the infants who could be their sons. I can only imagine their internal battle with that “something can go wrong” feeling that must have grown with every passing minute. Finally the representative from the agency arrived with the foster-mother who had been caring for the boys. They cross the threshold with baby Hien and baby Hau in their arms and transformed four lives forever.
Bob and Dale spent a week in Vietnam filling out paperwork and falling in love with the twins. Since the adoption was not final they were required to stay inside the hotel room with the babies, so they went out to eat in shifts or brought food back to the room. Both dads remember a lot of crying, but that was not the hard part. The hard part came at the end of the week, when they had to leave the boys behind until the adoption was final. Bob and Dale returned to North Carolina hoping it would be a month or two. It turned out to be three, all of it spent on an emotional bed of nails, preparing for a dream coming true while fearing it would all fall apart.
Finally it was time. Bob and Dale again made the two-day journey to Vietnam, this time to bring home their sons. As they waited in the Saigon airport, each with a baby in his arms, the joy must have been overwhelming. Dale went through customs without a hitch. Then it was Bob’s turn, and once again fear reached out and grabbed the couple by the heart. The armed guard wouldn’t let Bob proceed. Neither man had any idea what the official was asking them in Vietnamese. Could they be this close only to be stopped inches away from leaving? Finally, after many anxiety-filled minutes, Bob and the second baby were allowed through. The dads held their breath until the plane lifted off, then let out a collective sigh of relief. The fact that the babies squalled most of the way home is but a footnote in family history to be retold someday to their grandchildren. In the skies between the rice fields of Vietnam and the skyscrapers of New York, a new family was born.
Life started anew in Greensboro North Carolina for Bob and Dale. They named the boys Ryan and Owen but kept their Vietnamese names as the boys’ middle names. They designated a room at Replacements as a nursery and hired a daytime nanny, but as they grew into toddlers, able to reach escape velocity, the twins were as likely to be found in one of the dads’ offices as in the nursery.
At night, at home, the dads were on their own. The living room grew a plastic mesh pen of toys. Their kitchen sprouted high chairs and sippy cups. The partners shared bottles and diapers and teething and potty training. The worry that it would all crumble and blow away finally faded. Bob and Dale were dads. It was a happily ever after fairy tale ending – except if you are hung up on the gay part.
For the better part of a decade the family lived the American dream. Ryan and Owen grew into typical boys, into sports and music and sleepovers with their school friends. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to forget all about the young woman half a world away, who had given them this incomparable gift of family. Certainly she had no expectation of seeing the children she gave birth to ever again. She would have to be content knowing she had done her best to give them a future, and hope it had worked out. Go on with her life. Try to forget. But Bob and Dale never forgot her. There was nothing they could ever do to adequately thank her, but that didn’t mean they shouldn’t try. So they bought her a house, the best house in her village. And because that still didn’t approach the gift she had given them, they bought her parents a house too.
Nine years after they left with the babies she gave birth to in their arms, Bob and Dale decided the right thing to do was to return once again to Vietnam, to bring the boys for a visit with their birth mother. Ryan and Owen were not thrilled by the trip, their active imaginations conjuring up all their nine-year-old transgressions and concluding they might be left behind. But sometimes fatherhood means having vision; it’s about doing those hard things that set an example and build character in young men. The dads knew sooner or later the boys would wonder about their roots. They were sure to have questions about their birth mother, and the village they came from. There were now two half-sisters to meet. The dads wanted to be sure their sons appreciated the sacrifice their mother had made to give them the best future she could provide. And they wanted the twins’ mother to know her sons were thriving. She had made the right choice.
Bob and Dale feted the boys’ birth family with furniture and furnishings for the new house and toys for the twins’ half-sisters. The gifts they showered on the birth family of their sons were undeniably an act of generosity. But the visit was an even greater gift. Allowing their birth mother to see her sons were well-loved and happy was a selfless exercise in human kindness – except for…
Actually, except for nothing. If you can read the story of Bob and Dale and feel anything but admiration, the problem lies not in their “gayness,” it lies in your heart.
And so this Father’s Day, we take notice of the grace and empathy and generosity of spirit, shown by Bob Page and Dale Frederiksen. We wish them continued happiness and good fortune, and of course, a very happy Fathers Day. We are better people for having heard their amazing story.