The day I first met Cam, he was barely 4 years old and unsure of what to say to me. I wasn’t sure what to say to him, either. Being what I now know is uncharacteristically shy, it’s the only time in my life when I truly wondered what he was thinking. With his eyes wide open, he watched my every move. He had in his hand a little plastic bee, not much bigger than a dime. We simultaneously looked at the bee, then back at each other, as if we both expected it to say something to break the tension.
Finally I asked “is that a bee?”
“What’s his name?”
“His name is… Max. Max the bee.”
From that point on, Cam, me, and Max the bee have been together nearly every day, although Max usually skips our excursions and keeps to himself with my collection of special stuff.
It was early on in our relationship when Cam, out of nowhere, volunteered the crux of the story. “My dad died.”
“I know, buddy. I’m so sorry.”
I decided it would be best to let him bring it up whenever it felt right. The year before, his dad, Shawn, passed away unexpectedly, leaving an irreplaceable hole in the world. Though I never met him, I know from stories, memories, and the occasional Instagram video that he was loving, hilarious, and an all around good dad. And boy, did Cam miss him.
We would talk about him almost every day. I was confused at first, because Cam would refer to his dad as “Uncle Shawn”. Brittany helped untangle that one for me. During his toddler days, Cam heard all of his cousins call him by that name, so he joined in the Uncle Shawn chorus. He still bounces between “my Daddy in heaven” and Uncle Shawn, and I respect it greatly.
Cam would say “Adam, I remember when Uncle Shawn would wrestle with me in the living room.” Lots of memories would come back to him from time to time. One memory we hope he doesn’t hold on to is watching Britt do CPR while Cam watched from across the room, asking “mom, what’s wrong with Daddy?”
I was 31 when my mom died. I watched the whole thing slowly unfold as she fought cancer until her last morphine-drenched breath. Though it was traumatic for me, I can’t imagine what a sudden crisis like theirs would look through the eyes of a 3 year old.
Supported by family and numerous friends, Brittany and her boys did their best to move on without Shawn, though life would never be the same. My boys, Lexi, and I had a slightly similar loss to deal with in our lives, having slowly lost a wife and mom over several years. When our families merged, it was with full recognition that all of us were dealing with some level of trauma and loss — a perfect place for God’s healing grace to work intensely with our deep hunger for his grace.
Cam gets angry sometimes. “Adam, I’m mad that Uncle Shawn is in heaven — I want to go there with him NOW!” We talk about seeing him again someday, though the concept of eternity and salvation is difficult to grasp for an adult, let alone a child. Throw in some PTSD, and it’s expected that this will be something he’ll wrestle through for the rest of his days. I know the feeling in part because now, 11 years later, I still think about my mom every day.
When it was gloriously apparent to Britt and I that we would get married and merge our hurting families for a new season of rebuilding after the ashes, we started talking about how I would adopt Cam. Just as Shawn had two names, I had two as well: Adam and Daddy. Sometimes I was Adam, sometimes Dad. Uncle Shawn/Daddy was still remembered and talked about with regularity.
Yesterday Cam and I spent most of the day together. We started at a park we’ve never explored before and found the tallest, fastest slide in the county. At first Cam was nervous. “I know you’ll catch me, daddy, but I’m scared!” After a few rounds, my magic-dad powers were no longer needed at the bottom of the slide. It’s amazing how kids can quickly transition from crushing fear to nonchalance.
We then went on a hike to talk about what we could see in nature. Our conversation was interrupted by a significant discovery. Looking at the picture, you’d think that it was the rock that caught his attention, but no: it was the spider on the rock that brought him to a stop. A daddy long-legs. “Dad, is it a daddy long legs or mommy long legs, because if it’s a girl it’s a mommy long legs.” So true, son. Even when we’re not talking about dad stuff, we’re talking about dad stuff.
From there, Cam and I headed to the movie theater to watch a crocodile sing show tunes. He was ready to go about 3/4 of the way through, as we had also talked about going to the beach on one of the last nice days of the year.
We padded out of the theater and worked our way to the Family Dollar to pick up a few beach toys, marked down 80% because it’s pumpkin season now, and hit the sand. Squirt guns filled with frigid Lake Michigan water, pool noodles that made for nifty fighting sticks, and a flimsy frisbee. While waking the beach together, Cam noticed a dime in the sand. He picked it up and put it in my pocket, saying “There, dad, now you can buy a real frisbee.” I love the way he thinks. I love Cameron.
Tomorrow (Thursday) is a special day, as Brittany and our kids will stand in a courtroom for Cam’s adoption hearing. Months of paperwork, attorney fees, and hoop jumping leads to this moment. More importantly, it’s the journey of healing and entering into a new and unexpected life stage for everyone involved. I will officially become Cam’s dad, thanks to Shawn and the mysterious glory of Jesus. Of course, this isn’t the way it was supposed to go. We’re all in a giant plan B. But I would want the same for my kids. I’m told — and I am sure — that Shawn would want me to take this responsibility on, given the circumstance. I am humbled to be in this role.
I now have the unexpected privilege of raising a 5 year old with my wife, Brittany. Suddenly, this 42 year old finds himself again cramming behind couches for a game of hide and seek, climbing to the top of playground equipment, and going on long bike rides at a leisurely pace because of training wheels and kid bike gear ratios. I’ve done this before, and I’m thankful to do this again for a boy who was not born to me, but will certainly be my own.
Cameron has been excited about “‘doption” (as he calls it) for months. Sure, a fair amount of his excitement is over the cake his mom ordered, but he gets what’s happening to the best of his ability. Though I’ll become Dad on paper tomorrow, I’ve been Dad for a while. Treat him like he is my own? Of course, because he is my own.
The moment he shifted from calling me “Adam” to “Daddy” was when he and I spent hours trying to get him to learn to swallow a pill. Some of us still can’t do it to this day, but it’s a skill he’ll eventually have to master. Countless negotiations through tears of frustration — it was no easy task. Yet, our struggle together through that experience bonded us, as suffering tends to do. From then on, I’ve been Dad.
I don’t know how much those who have gone before us know about life on earth. Does mom know? Does Shawn? I’m no theologian (just a sheep-less Pastor right now) but I’ll do my best to be the dad that Cameron needs — today and forevermore. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: of all my ministry roles through the years, the church I pastor now is a family of 5 kids and an incredible wife/mom/stepmom. We get to do this as a newly formed team. Of course, I’m in over my head. But those nights where I put Cam to bed and he asks me to snuggle him after reading a book or two, I feel my dad heart beating for him just as I do for Lexi, Mac, and Zac.
Cameron, I’m going to do my best to pick up where your Uncle Shawn left off. I will never replace him, but I will always be ready to talk about him and be excited with you for the day you get to see your daddy in heaven again. I know God loves you, I know Shawn loves you, and I know I love you. Your mommy and I love you just as we love Lexi, Mac, Carter, and Zac. Yes, and Reggie the cat, whom you never forget in our bedtime prayers. I’ll play with you in the yard, help you know right from wrong, get you ready for your first date and your drivers ed test. I’ll be there for you after school, I’ll build a fort with you, and I’ll keep pointing you to Jesus, the one who pulls us all together in a new and uncharted adventure. You never have to wonder — I choose you, I take the responsibility and privilege of being your dad, and I will always love you.
“You are my son, and today I have become your father” (Psalm 2:7).