A Father's Love Tested Amid Gunfire

The below originally appeared in WELD for Birmingham on Father's Day. 

Little did I know that in the most unlikely place, in an unthinkable way, I would learn the true meaning of fatherhood.  Amid the clashing and clanking of panic and gunfire, in what should have been one of the safest of locations, the US Capitol, I came face to face with my fatherhood in a way I never could have imagined.

There I was, with my wife and my special needs son, on March 28 visiting Washington from our hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. We were having a late lunch in the visitors’ restaurant when chaos erupted. Capitol police were forced to fire on a gunman, who had entered the area with a loaded weapon and had pointed it at an officer.  Disorder prevailed as people, confused and fearing for their safety, scrambled for a safe place. "What is going on here?" I thought to myself. "Are there gunmen loose? Is it ISIS? Will we all die? Where is my son?"

In that split second, I could not find him -- a boy of 19, adopted at birth, with the vocabulary of a seven year old; a child in a man's body beset with a convergence of syndromes, and an inability to function on his own. "Where is my son?" I screamed silently to myself. I was ready to die to protect him.  

I could not find my wife either in this stampede of confusion. My instinct told me she would be safe, perhaps huddled with the others who had come to our Nation's Capital from all over the country to enjoy the magnificence of Washington in the spring-time. Finally, I spotted my son a few yards away.

I didn’t have time to communicate with him. I jerked his arm and his eyes widened as I yanked him toward me. He didn’t say much as I held him tightly against me. Even though he was confused, when our eyes met a look of serenity spread across his face.  He knew something was happening because when he and I entered the designated safe room a few minutes later he told other people there, including my wife, that I had protected him.

Thinking about this later, I realized that ever since his diagnosis, which came when he was a small boy amid signs that something wasn't right, I've been protecting him; preparing, if you will, for the test that came on March 28. I stood brave; yes, brave. I was calm, composed and rational. I was the father that I promised God that I would be.

As Father's Day approaches this year, I find myself thinking about the Capitol shooting last March. As his Father's Day gift to me, my son typically draws a picture of how he sees me. Usually, right after he gives it to me, he takes the picture back -- to give to me again. He is incapable of articulating why, but I can tell that he does this because, in his elemental sweetness, he is a giver of joy. 

My adopted son was given to us at birth; my wife and I joyous, standing outside the delivery room. I was the first to hold him, knowing immediately that I would never let go. The dreams I had for my son -- throwing the football in the yard, taking him on college tours, straightening his bowtie on prom night, and maybe even answering his questions about life and love as he grew into manhood – were dreams that never came to be. 

What came to be was a son who would need me in ways I could never have imagined -- and never more so than that day on Capitol Hill. The ways in which he's needed me have defined my fatherhood, and have defined me, and I expect will continue to do so as long as I live.  These gifts of definition and deeper purpose can't be taken back, yet he gives them to me over and over. HE is my Father's Day present.