The Wright family’s house is filled with the joyous, often loud sounds of two precocious young boys and their fathers. Talking and the noise of the television echo in the living room as their two sons bound into the dining room to make some proclamation or embrace their parents. John and Stephen Wright, life partners for 11 years and parents of 8-year-old Eli and 7-year-old Simon, patiently explained why they chose adoption and how they came to build their family while their two sons occupied themselves with video games in the next room.
“I think parenting is a very selfish decision. People come up to us to say how noble we are. I say, ‘I didn’t adopt children to save them—I did it to save me,’” said Stephen. “Every character flaw I own flies up in my face when I’m raising children. They’re the best button pushers in the whole world; you have an imperative to evolve when you have children.”
When they initially considered adoption a year and a half after they met, the Wrights were unsure if they could parent African-American children in terms of providing the right cultural context. They also weren’t sure that they could parent a child with preexisting medical conditions. Those concerns, however, fell by the wayside. Watching their interaction with the boys, it’s clear that unconditional love is the driving force in this family.
Eli, the more extroverted of their two sons, proudly sports dreadlocks, wears his heart on his sleeve, and is very curious about his own history. The more introverted Simon has a Mohawk and questions of his own, but he tends to hold it inside. John and Stephen are intentional parents: Their dialog with Eli and Simon is always ongoing and very open. They’ve raised the boys to feel comfortable enough to take ownership of their own life stories—and their sons have asked questions earlier than anticipated.
“Eli asked us by the time he was three, ‘How come I’m brown and you’re pink?’” said Stephen. “We think all the time about what we need to do and what we need to get ready for.”
Nowadays, the family is getting ready for something completely unexpected. In late December, Stephen was diagnosed with a form of stage-four lung cancer. Afflicted with a rare genetic mutation of the disease that typically hits people who have not smoked, he was initially given only four to six months to live. Although it wasn’t in their plan, they’ve adapted to it in a remarkable way, thanks to the diligent help of friends, relatives, community nonprofits and colleagues—with poise and compassion.
“When this cancer came, we knew that we had to start working with our kids immediately to help them weather the storm. We’ve sought out every resource we could to try to help our kids,” said Stephen. “But really, I would prefer to stay alive.”
John was studying for his Ph.D at the University of Texas in Austin and had just ended a relationship, telling himself he wasn’t ready for another. Two months later, while chatting online, he met Stephen, who was in New York City on business at the time. They talked for three hours that first day and kept up a rigorous, old-fashioned courtship via email and phone. They exchanged poetry, and Stephen sent flowers to John’s mother, who was sick at the time.
“Somewhere in there, between the time he got back from New York and when I left for Florida, he gave me a ring— having known me a few days face-to-face only—and he said, ‘This is just a promise, that you won’t date anyone else or do anything until we figure out if this is going to work,’” said John, who decided to get his MBA instead of his doctorate and worked briefly in business during the dot-com. “I said ‘yes.’ A year later, we had a commitment ceremony at Metropolitan Community Church in Austin.”
John left for Florida for about a month to help his mom recover from her illness. Shortly after he returned, Stephen left for a month-long trip to Tibet. The way they tell it, John was housesitting for him during the Tibet trip and he simply never left. Not long after, they started thinking about a family together.
John was accepted into an alternative certification program at Huston Tillotson University in East Austin. Since he was in a teaching certification program, and he already had a math degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he began teaching in high school and later taught elementary school for many years as well. Currently an assistant principal at Perez Elementary, a dual-language pilot school in the AISD, John said that those 10 years working as an educator inspire his everyday life as a parent.
Stephen was in the hotel restaurant industry for years, beginning in the late 1970s at Alana’s Texas Café on Sixth Street; this was before the street became the college partying mecca that it is today. In the 1980s, he moved to California for three years to be with a close friend who was HIV positive and sick. After working as a maître d’ at the Disneyland Hotel, he ended up at the Four Seasons in Newport Beach, which brought him back to Austin in 1989. Stephen was the fine dining manager and director of food and beverage at the Four Seasons on Town Lake until 1995. He later worked for Schlotzsky’s Inc. during its IPO years, but becoming a father influenced his change to a profession that would give him more time for parenting. In 2006, Stephen joined Zooven.com, an Austin real estate search engine website. He became a broker in 2008 and purchased Zooven.com with his business partner, Lisa Webre.
The couple had been together about 18 months when they started an international adoption search with a group that matched them with a child in Guatemala. They flew there to meet him, but unfortunately, the process fell through. Not long after that, an adoption agency in Illinois informed Stephen and John that they had a child who would be perfect for them. They received the call in May 2004 (Eli was born in September 2003), spent 10 days with him in the hospital, and then brought him back to Texas. “They told us, he’s going to be sick for the rest of his life,” said John.
“He had the most amazing eyes and smile and he was just wide open, looking for somebody to love him and take care of him,” said Stephen, adding that the primary health issue for Eli was gastrointestinal. “But about three weeks after we got back here, working with the doctors at Dell Children’s, we figured things out. The previous hospital had done more [to help improve his condition] than they thought they had. A month later, it was over and he started getting bigger. He’s never been sick since.”
For the second adoption, they were looking exclusively for a child of color. Right after completing all the foster-to-home studies, they received the call about 1 ½-year-old Simon—who was part of Child Protective Services’ legal risk foster care program, meaning that parents can foster a child for six months and then after that, assuming everything is going well, they can adopt the child. That’s exactly what Stephen and John did.
Even though Simon also had some medical challenges that the doctors weren’t initially aware of, he too has thrived and grown into a healthy, strong boy.
“I see a lot of us in both kids, in their mannerisms and their hearts,” said Stephen. “Eli wants to belong and is hard-wired to figure that out. Simon skips through life and is very joyful. Eli contemplates.”
“What we decided [when we met] was, no matter what happens, we’re not going to leave,” said Stephen. “We know that human beings make mistakes and one person hurts the other, but you don’t leave.” That certainty and stability has carried them through the family’s most recent challenge: Stephen’s cancer diagnosis.
On December 28, Stephen’s oncologist told him that the form of lung cancer he has is basically incurable; he was given six months to live. This form of cancer is rarely discovered until after it has already spread to other areas. In his case, the initial treatments of chemotherapy did not work but instead caused allergic reactions that wiped out his immune system, leading to hospitalizations. After being tested for a specific genetic mutation in this type of cancer and finding that he has it, Stephen is taking a new medication that was just approved by the Food and Drug Administration in November 2011. As of early April, when this story was going to press, he was feeling much better about his overall prognosis. “My outlook is much brighter now than even last week because of this new medicine.”
“We know that our family situation demands that we’re covered legally and in other ways. In the midst of the crisis of cancer, the first thought is: How do we keep the kids are safe? We’re taking care of Stephen’s health, but also calling our lawyer and financial planner and updating everything.”
At Texas Oncology, he’s one of only three people they’ve ever seen with this particular genetic mutation. In the case of major medical issues, it typically does take a village to get a family through the challenges. And both men emphasized that the community’s outpouring of love and compassion has been stunning. “It’s amazing how informed people are about how to help: One friend of ours said, you need to do this, it’s a care calendar and it organizes people’s support of you. It’s been people from every aspect of our lives.”
“We’re trying to baby step our way into seeing if we can be self-sufficient again now, but I’m in awe of how this city has taken care of us,” said Stephen.
The resources the couple received from Livestrong, which connected them with an oncology nurse practitioner, nutritional counseling, drug trial information, fitness options and a support group for the partners of people fighting cancer, have been tremendous. Early on, the organization also suggested that they investigate any potential genetic mutations of the lung cancer.
Spirituality has been a comfort for. They are currently members of Metropolitan Community Church, describing their overall philosophy as “Episco-Buddhist.” It’s the philosophy of leaving the Earth better than you found it—environmentally and psychically. “Yes, I have a religion. My religion is kindness,” added Stephen, quoting the Dalai Lama.
Eli and Simon like to play and they like to play with their dads—whether it’s running around outside, enjoying one of several nearby parks, or playing on the Wii. During our conversation, Stephen and John were demonstrating a high level of nurturing and unrelenting love. When Stephen was sick on one of his worst days after his chemotherapy, Simon sat in bed with him for the entire day, only leaving his side to eat. “It’s a true expression of affection,” said Stephen. “The ability to be tactile and show your love in ways that are real.”
Even so, as in any other family, there are moments of disagreement and stress. The boys may be unable to go to sleep or afraid of something in the dark, and their dads can either get angry because it’s cutting into their private time as a couple or they can simply deal with the issue head-on. “Sometimes you have to choose between your own needs and their needs—at those points when you are spent,” said Stephen. “There’s something about how the universe makes this work: When they go to sleep and you go upstairs to check on them, all of the struggles wash away. You wake up the next day and you don’t remember all of the struggles. They wake up and they’ve let it go. Every day is a new start and that’s the lesson in all of this.”
As parents, they’re working hard to build a sense of empathy, self-awareness and awareness of others for Eli and Simon. The pros (the boys are outgoing and like to talk a lot) and the cons (“They’re not equal voting members,” added John, laughing) seem to balance out. Having two fathers might become an issue as the boys get older and enter their teenage years, but the issue of racial identity is an ongoing dialogue. The educational component, especially with people who don’t know their family dynamic at all, is key.
“Eli has dreadlocks. I’m sort of offended that people think they can just come up and touch his hair—people will just start doing that and I want to say, that’s curious, why are you doing that?” asked John. “Why don’t you ask the 8-year-old if you can touch his hair instead of just doing it? But you have to say it in a different way.”
Stepping back and watching how other people interact with the boys has been revelatory as well. The couple has a number of strong friendships with people of color and have taken their advice to heart. “We know what it’s like for people to tell you that because of who you are, you’re less than. We have not let that message drive and ruin our lives,” said Stephen. “The truth of the world is that it’s inherently racist and it’s inherently xenophobic. Even people who think that they don’t want to be that way are that way.”
Their children are seeing closely to see how Stephen and John react in all of these complex situations. If they react with fear or anger, then that’s what the boys pick up. If they react in a way that is loving or respectful to the other person, while educating them, then it’s a totally different reaction. Both men agreed that those are the most teachable moments.
“We say, ‘look, the world is full of all kinds of families; we’re who you got’,” said Stephen. The couple has left open all possible avenues so that when the boys are older, they can seek out the answers to any biological questions they might have.
“Their story is their own. When people ask questions that go too in depth, we say that’s Eli’s story to tell when he is ready,” said John. “If they want to know medically what’s going on or where he came from.”
The Wrights are very aware of consciously creating as many memories as possible for Eli and Simon in the near-term. They’re planning a big family vacation for this summer, their first in five years, to the beach in California. They’re also creating things visually for their sons: things like letters for high school graduation. The full gravity of everything that they’ve been discussing—and living—hit home at the end of our long conversation. “It could be months or a couple of years,” said John. “I never intended on raising children by myself, but chances are he’s not going to be around for their graduation.”
“Our journey has been quite extraordinary: to trust 100 percent that the other person is not going to leave. That is what sets this relationship apart from all the others. But it took the loss of previous relationships and those failures to get to this point,” said Stephen.
Observing their easy give-and-take throughout the afternoon and the many ways in which these two men have supported each other unequivocally, through good times and bad, drove home the gravity of the situation they’re facing. It’s the type of connection that we all yearn for, and yet, seeing its breadth and depth, while being aware of the journey in front of this family, was eye-opening and inspiring.
Faced with his own mortality, Stephen was good-natured, grateful and optimistic in the face of his cancer. “I’ve had an amazing life so far,” Stephen said, his voice low. “Maybe we’ll do better with this than they say.”
“Don’t get all weepy now,” cautioned John.
“I’m very lucky that I’ve got him,” said Stephen, his eyes welling up with emotion. “This article will be an important piece for the boys one day.”