Death and Loss

A Family’s Journey From Joy to Loss and Back Again

Wayne Franklin is a gay dad. He’s also a widower, a cancer survivor and a pediatric electrophysiologist. His life has been packed with joys and sadnesses, and he’s about to embark on another chapter this summer as he accompanies his son Daniel on a service trip to Guatemala. That’s where Daniel was born and where his relatives live.

For a modest man who lives in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., all of these experiences might seem overwhelming. But Franklin is matter-of-fact. He has shouldered tremendous responsibility and kept moving – for both his son and himself.

The Adoption

Wayne and his husband, Jay Boeldt, decided to adopt back in 1999. At the time it was a relatively unusual move, but the two found a facilitator in the state of Washington who had worked with Guatemalan attorneys placing children from that country.

The couple was at a conference in Arizona when they heard from Guatemala. There was an infant in foster care, and they had 24 hours to decide whether to move forward. They decided to go for it, but there was a complication.

They couldn’t say that they were a gay couple, at least not overtly. They were told that if they went down waving rainbow flags, they wouldn’t get their child.

So the couple flew to Miami, Jay got off the plane, and Wayne’s stepmother got on. They then went on to Guatemala, and an extended legal proceeding.

"We had to go through the whole legal process in Guatemala," Wayne says. "There were lots of bumps in that road."

Wayne met the foster mother, and got the green card and visa for his new son to return. They flew back to Miami, the stepmom got off the plane, and Jay got on. The entire process took about eight months.

They named their son Daniel Boeldt Franklin. He was formally adopted in May 2000 (and will turn 16 in September).

"It was an incredibly exciting time," Wayne says today.

Jay and Wayne with their friends Dawn and Scott in 2009

His memories of the time are understandably positive. He and Jay received “unbelievable support” from friends and family. For his part, Daniel was “just an absolutely great kid,” who slept right away and immediately enriched their lives.

Not that there weren’t challenging. Becoming parents took some adjustment, Wayne says. It was difficult to live the way the couple had before. And at the time, they didn’t really have role models. Remember, this was 2000. Bill Clinton was still president, and folks searched the web using AltaVista.

"We didn't really know any other gay dads at that point," Wayne says. "It was a little bit lonely."

The couple and their son were fully integrated into all the playdates with straight friends, though. And Wayne’s current home, in Oak Park, has a diverse population and other same-sex couples with children around Daniel’s age.

But such challenges were small compared to what the family was about to face.

The Illness

A couple of years after adopting Daniel, Jay faced a series of health challenges.

According to Wayne, his husband dealt with chronic hepatitis B, contracted before a vaccine was available, and was HIV positive. His liver was also a concern. But a rebalancing of his medications, along with regular liver checks, allowed him to remain in good health for most of a decade.

But Jay began to feel ill toward the end of 2009. Tests were performed, and on New Year’s Eve of 2009 they received the diagnosis: inoperable liver cancer.

He lost about 80 pounds, and despite trying medications for short periods of time, Jay started hospice care in June of 2010.

Jay set a goal to make it to his son’s 11th birthday, which is on September 11. He made that date. The next goal was Halloween, one of his favorite holidays.

But late in the month he told Wayne, “I just can’t do it anymore."

He died on Sept. 30, 2010. He was 48 years old.

"At that point it was just Daniel and I," Wayne says.

And as hard as Jay’s passing was for the family, some five months before they had made a decision that brought them closer together than ever before.

Wayne and Daniel at a Justin Timberlake concert at the United Center in Chicago

The Wedding

While Jay and Wayne had talked about formally marrying, it took a question from their friend Cliff across the street to make up their minds.

"Are you guys going to get married?" he asked them.

Given Jay’s cancer diagnosis, they couldn’t wait until Illinois legalized same-sex marriage. Their only option at the time was tying the knot across the border in Iowa. They decided to go the following week, with Cliff helping out.

Daniel “was just so ecstatic,” Wayne says. He wanted to know if he could wear a white tuxedo to the ceremony. They said yes and tracked one down.

The couple ended up marrying in Davenport, Iowa, on April 26, 2010. They rode in Cliff’s minivan. They went to the county registrar's office, signed paperwork, and were married by a magistrate. Cliff was one of the witnesses, and Daniel stood next to the couple the entire time. (Below is a video of their wedding day.)

"It was so powerful for us,” Wayne says today. "The validation of our commitment to us was incredibly powerful."

When Jay died in September, Wayne made sure to list that he was married on the death certificate. The couple had been together for 15 years.

Daniel and his father then had to figure out their way ahead.

“I told Daniel, ‘Poppy was always the strict one. I was the easygoing one,’ ” Wayne says. Now, he was going to have to be strict about some things as well.

Members of Jay’s family helped them out, and continue to be in touch. But that didn’t make it any less difficult, ultimately. Wayne had already lost a partner of 10 years, Michael, before his relationship with Jay.

"I never thought that I'd be in my 50s and twice a widower," Wayne says.

Wayne and Jay with son Daniel on their wedding day, April 26, 2010

Another Illness

These losses and challenges would be enough for the lifetime of any one person. But there was more in store for Wayne.

In May 2011 he began to have some hearing problems after a flight. While specialists said it was probably nothing, they suggested that he receive an MRI to make sure nothing was out of the ordinary.

At 8 in morning, while Wayne was in the operating room with a patient, he received his MRI results. There was no visible reason for his hearing loss, but the scan showed a large brain tumor on the other side of his head.

Thankfully, he said, some of the equipment in the operating room broke, and that meant he didn’t have to keep working on the patient after receiving the news.

In a massive understatement, he says the news of the malignant tumor was "very concerning." He ended up having surgery to remove the tumor, a relatively quick procedure that required him to stay awake. The tumor was close the speech area of his brain, Wayne says, and the surgeons wanted to make sure they weren’t interfering with it.

The results were positive. Apart from some mild brain swelling, Wayne says, he had a rapid recovery. Daniel, yet again, coped admirably.

"When I say that he's resilient, he's incredibly resilient," Wayne says.

But the news didn’t stay good. In October, the tumor came back. Wayne had surgery once again and then started on a course of chemotherapy. He will be taking the drugs for two years. It’s a five-day course of oral treatment, followed by 23 days off.

And Wayne pushes forward, too. "If my son wasn't here, I wouldn't be so resilient," he says. He’s focused on staying healthy, being in as good a shape as possible for his son.

The Quest

All of which brings us, in a roundabout way, back to Guatemala.

Over the past year, Daniel had started asking questions about his birth mother. He was interested in tracking her down. While Wayne had always said that was a journey that could wait until his son turned 18, he ended up having a change of heart.

"He really was at a point where I saw his maturity was there," Wayne says.

He found a woman who lives in Guatemala who specializes in reuniting those who have adopted children from the country internationally with their birth families. Wayne sent her documents and information about Daniel, and she began a search.

Daniel in Laguna Beach, 2013

Two weeks later, they received an email from her, containing both terrible and wonderful news. Daniel’s mom had passed away 10 years ago. But he still had a warm and welcoming family, including half-siblings who were very much interested in meeting him.

"Daniel's mother had previously given birth to another child, who'll be 17 in the summer,” Wayne says. He also has an 11-year-old sister. Both have been raised by their mother’s sister, their and Daniel’s aunt. She has twin boys of her own, who are 13.

The family has sent wonderful pictures, Wayne says, and has been in touch by phone as well. After Daniel wrote them a letter in Spanish (learned at school), they thought he was fluent and called him up.

"They're talking Spanish, really really fast," Daniel told his father.

“Tell her to slow down!” Wayne responded. "It was very, very cool."

But the two aren’t content with a long-distance relationship with Daniel’s birth country. They’re going to be returning there this summer, with the help of another gay dad. Which takes us to the conclusion of this story – for now.

Daniel's brother and sister in Guatemala

The Trip

Daniel and Wayne are going to head to Guatemala from June 27 through July 5 as part of a service trip. It’s for families who want to give back to the country that gave them so much.

The trip is organized by Lee Walzer, who put together a service team called Team Rainbow Families. He has worked with Our Guatemala, a Guatemala-based service team facilitator that works with those interested in making a difference in communities in the country. Wayne ran across the group online after his son had started talking seriously about the country and his birth family.

According to an email from Lee, the group will visit “various projects and community organizations, bringing donations to help these organizations, learn and listen, and also doing some touring. We’ll be based in Antigua, Guatemala and working with an orphanage, a community project that gets beds to families that do not have them, a school, and a feminist-inspired community center (their motto is Social Justice Through Education and Art) that runs a preschool, empowers women and provides sex-positive sex ed, as well as a community organization up in Lake Atitlán.”

Lee and his husband, Kevin, live in Arlington, Va. Their son is Joshua, who is almost 12. The whole concept of these regular service trips to the country came from a road trip, of all things.

Driving home from Chicago, Lee and Joshua stopped to visit another gay dad family that they knew in Indiana. This family had adopted two children from Guatemala.

“I was chatting with the dads and they said that it would be fun if we all went to Guatemala together sometime, along with my husband and some other dad families that we know,” Lee writes. “Somewhere in the corn fields of eastern Indiana and western Ohio, I suddenly had the idea of putting together a team of gay dad families to visit Guatemala with our kids and make a small difference through work on various community projects. My husband, son, and I have visited Guatemala four times already and we are always looking to learn more about the country.”

The family first went when their son was 5 years old, did it again when he was 6, and according to Lee have gone back every two years since then. The group this time includes "four dad families and three mom families going on this trip (two moms – sisters – are going without their respective children). We’ll be eight adults and five kids,” he writes.

Wayne and Daniel are looking forward to the trip. And that might be putting it mildly.

"He's really excited,” Wayne says. “He's ecstatic about it."

And while the two have faced unthinkable challenges in the past, they have thrived. The love of family, both near at hand and far from home, endures and nourishes. That has kept them moving, and it’s part of what impels them toward Guatemala now.

Love has brought them to a new, exciting chapter.

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