Single man finds peace by becoming father to boy with severe disabilities
When Micheal Chappell first met Daniel, the child looked more like an infant instead of a 16-month-old toddler.
He was tiny and fragile, lying helplessly in a baby carrier. He couldn’t see or hear or even cry. In fact, he couldn’t move a muscle.
At that time, Chappell was simply accompanying a client who recently bought a home in a housing development owned by his real estate firm. But each time he returned, he would see Danny and his foster mom, who was anxious to find the boy a permanent home.
Sometimes he would sit with the therapist who came to lightly brush Danny’s hands and feet in an effort to stimulate movement. A few times, Chappell was able to hold the child and feed him a bottle.
Chappell was in mourning at the time. He had just lost his younger brother, Raymond, and needed to get away from his daily routine in order to find some peace.
But when he finally went away to the Caribbean, Chappell couldn’t stop thinking about the little boy in Spokane.
Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine Danny – a delicate boy born with severe developmental disabilities – would someday become his son.
Most moms and dads plan on becoming parents. From an early age, they count on getting married someday, having children, buying a house.
Chappell, 44, wasn’t one of those people. While he longed to be a father for as long as he could remember, he didn’t think it was possible for him – a gay man without a partner, living in a society that is generally biased against nontraditional families.
But during his trip, he kept reading old journals that recounted many wonderful memories of Raymond. They also reflected his relationship with his own father, Maynard Chappell, a solid, stoic man who made a living as a highway construction worker while raising his family on a farm near the foothills of Mount Rainier.
Thinking about his brother, his dad and the child who touched his heart, Chappell became profoundly aware of the need to belong. He found himself yearning to have his own family – to be a dad, specifically to the little boy in Spokane who didn’t have a family of his own.
When he came home in May 2004, Chappell contacted Danny’s case manager. Before long, he became responsible for the boy’s well-being. He drove him to doctor’s and therapy appointments. He made sure he was well-fed and happy.
Most of all, he treated him just like any child – despite the fact that doctors didn’t think the boy would ever speak or walk on his own.
Six months later, he was Danny’s foster parent. Less than two years later, Chappell became his legal guardian. He found hope in the little boy’s half-closed eyes. He saw potential when so many others didn’t.
“Danny is the focus of Micheal’s life,” said Jessica Dorn, a child and family social worker with the state Children’s Administration. “He is so committed to him.
“The bond between them – you can see that it’s there. He has helped Danny get to where he is today.”
Danny is now 8 years old and a student at Jefferson Elementary. Although he can’t express himself with words, he can hear and respond to people around him. He constantly giggles and smiles.
He can sit up straight in a chair. He can walk the length of a hallway. And despite the numerous times he’s been hospitalized – for heart surgery, bladder reconstruction and other emergencies – the boy continues to thrive.
“It’s been an incredible journey,” said Chappell. “Danny is the happiest little boy. He has this spirit about him that always looks up and out. … Being a parent to him has been the greatest experience of my life.”
Chappell doesn’t take Father’s Day celebrations for granted – not just because he never expected to be a father, but also because of his relationship with his own dad.
As a young man, he and his father had a falling out, resulting in many years of silence and no contact. But when Chappell, a senior airman, was assigned to Fairchild Air Force Base in 1987, he saw it as some kind of sign.
His parents had left the farm in Enumclaw, Wash., and moved to North Idaho a few years before. Chappell decided to send his father a letter while he was still stationed in Germany.
The late Maynard Chappell was overjoyed to hear from his son. They eventually reunited in June 1998 at Chappell’s uncle’s farm in Ellensburg.
When he approached his father at the doorstep, the two hugged and wept. Then they spent the next three days working out in the fields.
“I wasn’t close to him as a kid and I was a little scared of him,” Chappell recalled. “He worked a lot and he was gruff on the exterior. …
“Now, I realize that my dad was the kind of guy who would get people together to provide for those in need. Looking back, he was a charitable man who worked hard to make sure his family was taken care of. He had the respect of his community.”
Maynard Chappell was a little worried at first when his son first became Daniel’s guardian. He thought it was too much responsibility. But before long, he saw that Micheal was a devoted father and Danny became one of the grandchildren.
Shortly after his father’s death in December 2009, Chappell learned about the 100th anniversary festivities of Father’s Day in Spokane, where the holiday was founded by Sonora Smart Dodd.
After collaborating with the Spokane Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau, he decided to join forces with dads across town to create a Father’s Day Scavenger Hunt in early June.
He also started a website where he shares remembrances and photographs of his dad as well as videos that detail his own experiences with fatherhood. People from all over the world can post their own father’s day stories and images.
“I wanted to celebrate my father and my experience of being a dad,” Chappell said.
Relationships always take great risk. That’s been Chappell’s experience with his own father as well as his son.
It’s daunting to reach out to someone whom you haven’t talked to in years, hoping for forgiveness and a chance to become family again.
There also are no guarantees when you open your heart to someone – especially a child so fragile that he wasn’t even expected to survive the first few years of his life.
“I’ve been scared a lot of days,” Chappell said. “There have been a lot of nights when I keep listening to the monitor and I’m awake even when I’m sleeping.
“But any time you become a parent, any time you love someone, it’s a risk. It may not be forever. All we have is the here and now. … I’m his dad and he’s my son.”