In October, the Associated Press detailed the process by which Felix Del Valle, a single father facing death from Lou Gehrig’s disease, found a new home for his four children. Before and after his death in June, special correspondent Helen O’Neill spent time with the children and their new family for this follow-up report.
HAMDEN, Conn. -- The funeral took place on a warm rainy day, just before Father’s Day. The hymns were thunderous and joyful, the eulogies heartbreaking.
They recalled an ordinary man who possessed an extraordinary ability to make the most of the little he had, of his courage and determination, against all the odds, to plan a future for his children.
People wept as they saw how far Felix Del Valle’s children had come: Kyia, 11, poised and smart in a navy blue suit, her new father’s arms around her; little Felix, 9, watched over by his new big brother, and Crystal, 7, angelic in a long purple velvet dress, clinging to her new mother. Ten-year-old Janet, the child the father had worried about the most, stayed close to her new mother too.
Kyia and Janet placed roses in their father’s coffin. Felix put in a Yankees baseball cap, and Crystal added a worn teddy-bear. One by one they kissed him goodbye.
“I feel sad,” Kyia said. “But I can’t feel too sad because I know my daddy’s suffering is over.”
The father, just 46, tried to prepare his children, assuring them that he wasn’t afraid to die, that he was going to a better place.
But there was only so much a single, penniless father could do, especially one with an incurable illness that was devouring his body with a speed not even doctors had anticipated.
And so last fall, 11 months after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, Felix Del Valle, wheelchair-bound and unable to move, reluctantly agreed when the state took custody of his children.
The state didn’t place them in foster care in the normal way. Instead, social workers simply drove Kyia, Felix and Crystal the few miles from Del Valle’s small apartment in New Haven to the rambling three-story home in Hamden they had spent the summer visiting -- the home of Lori and David Burgess. Janet had previously been placed in a home for troubled children.
Until a year before, the Burgesses and Del Valles had been strangers. Lori, an administrator with the Visiting Nurse Assn., had known Felix simply as the sandwich maker in her office cafeteria -- the guy who brightened lunch hour with his smile.
When she told her family of Felix’s plight, her husband, David, a Baptist minister, didn’t hesitate. Nor did their three children, David Jr., then 14; Jelisa, 11, and Zachary, 5.
They would adopt the Del Valle children and rear them as their own.
“What if it was us?” David Jr. asked. It was as simple as that.
The first few weeks were the hardest -- filled with confusion and change. There were tensions and tantrums as the Del Valle children tried to figure out their place in the new order of things, and the Burgess children tried to grasp the reality of sharing their parents, their home, their lives.
“That’s my Mommy, not yours,” Zachary once blurted out when Crystal clambered on Lori’s lap.
The older ones didn’t say anything, but sometimes they felt the same way.
Kyia, whose life had revolved around her father -- feeding him, wheeling him to the store, signing his welfare checks -- initially felt lost in a home where the most that was expected of her was good grades and helping with the dishes.
Be a child, she was told. But how?
She chafed at chores, at the Burgess form of discipline in which a family “court” decides the punishment when a child misbehaves, at not being able to call her father whenever she wanted.
Though Kyia clearly adored her new parents, she worried about her father, growing weaker and lonelier in his wheelchair without her. Sometimes she thought, I’ll just kill myself after Daddy dies and then I’ll be with him.
She jokes about it now.
“It wouldn’t work,” she says, giggling. “Because he would be in heaven and I’d be in hell.”
The troubled days are recorded in her diary, but the happy ones are too.
“I had a good day today,” she wrote one day in January.
Earlier that day, she had crept into the basement office of David Burgess and poured out her fears. What would happen when her daddy died? What would the coffin be made of? What would become of his body -- of his spirit?
Praying silently for inspiration, David Burgess wrapped his arms around his new daughter. He told Kyia that there will be many tears, but that the sadness will be for the people left behind, not for her daddy.
“Your father’s spirit will live on,” Burgess said. “He will always be there for you.”
Kyia held him tight.
“I love you, Daddy,” she said.
The adjustment was easier for the younger children. Crystal, a sweet-natured girl, played happily with Zachary, turned to Lori for hugs and instantly charmed her two new grandmothers, who stop by almost daily to help.
Little Felix, with his huge eyes and gentle manner, charmed them too. He discovered his voice and began to sing lustily with the choir at the Union Baptist Church.
Even more, he discovered the joy of an older brother, someone to look up to, someone to coach him in sports and drums and math, someone to confide in on the bad days when he missed his dad so much the tears wouldn’t stop.
The bond was instant. David Jr., tall, handsome and immensely serious about his responsibility as eldest sibling, felt hugely protective of the vulnerable little boy about to lose his father.
“I’ll always be there for you,” he told the younger child.
And then there was Janet -- troubled, rebellious Janet. She had no idea how to handle her father’s illness, or where to put all her confusion and hurt. She cursed the world, threw things and sometimes screamed that she wished her father would die right then.
Even Felix, desperate to keep his family together, recognized that Janet needed help. Last fall, he agreed to let the state place her in a home for troubled children.
Still, when he moved to the hospice in March, Felix clung to his hope that one day Janet would be reunited with her siblings.
“They are all learning from each other,” Lori Burgess said one day last spring, months after what they jokingly referred to as “the big merge.”
The Del Valle children were learning to plan for life without their father. The Burgess children were learning to appreciate their parents in a way they never had before.
They were horrified by the stories their new siblings told them -- how, years earlier, their drug-addicted mother had abandoned them and ended up in jail, how their father once had to collect cans to make ends meet.
“It made me realize how lucky we were,” Jelisa said.
Early on, it seemed clear that the bustling Burgess household was not the right environment for Janet. She acted up when she came to visit. She screamed. She ran away.
In the hospice, her father despaired: If the Burgesses couldn’t take her, what would happen to her?
Then Janet experienced her own miracle of sorts -- a woman named Andrea Gay.
The 42-year-old single mother, a surgical technician, heard about the Del Valle family through a friend. She went to meet them. And, just like that, she and Janet fell in love.
“Janet is like me,” said Andrea, who lives in the same town as the Burgesses and has a 14-year-old son. “She seems so tough on the outside, and yet she is so emotional and vulnerable and loving underneath.”
Before he died, Andrea went to Felix.
She asked if she could adopt Janet. She promised to always “be in her corner no matter what.”
And she promised to make sure that Janet stayed in close contact with her siblings.
Lying in bed, Felix listened, too emotional to talk.
“It wasn’t part of my plan,” he said later. “But maybe it was God’s plan.”
The last time the children saw their father was in early June when they gathered at the hospice to celebrate Crystal’s seventh birthday.
The father’s limbs were withered, his cheeks hollow and he could no longer speak.
Still, he showed dashes of his old spirit, pretending to bite the hand of the nurse feeding him cake.
“It was the best way to see him,” Kyia said later.
A week later, her new father broke the news, gathering the Del Valle children in the living room.
“You know how we talked about the fact that everyone has to pass away sometime,” David Burgess said as gently as he could. “Well, it’s happened.”
The children fell into his arms, sobbing.
“Your father went peacefully,” David reassured them. “He had a good death.”
It was late afternoon and Felix’s friend, Fred Hartman, godfather to the two youngest children, had been to visit. Felix had seemed quieter than usual, more lethargic. Hartman sensed that it was the end.
He leaned close to the dying man and told him how special he was -- as a friend and as a father. He told Felix that he was honored to have known him.
And he promised that he would remain a part of the children’s lives forever.
Felix Del Valle closed his eyes and didn’t open them again.