Needless to say, life would be awfully boring if you knew what was going to happen all the time.
A single father. A break-up. A death. When Clifton Clarke found his way onto Chris Stewart’s radar six months ago, the hurdles were ready and waiting.
“But I just saw a really, really amazing man,” an undaunted Clifton continues. “And he was very honest about his situation.”
He needed to be. You know that analogy of life being a novel, with clearly defined chapters and the occasional lush illustration? With Chris, it’s more of a flipbook scribbled in using those pens whose ink make you dizzy.
After an admitted best-little-boy-in-the-world childhood (“straight A’s!”), he burst into gay single-dom in Arizona and almost right away met his future partner, Paul, whereupon they burst into gay DINK-dom — double income, no kids. When the idea of children came up, it was something Chris admits he thought very little about. In fact, the subject first came up as a joke. But it got the ball rolling: what started out as flip became a discussion, which became a commitment, which became fact. Fast.
Working with an adoption agency for over a year, the two prospective parents were expecting the usual “grace period” of around four months to make ready for the coming of their baby once they clicked with the birthmother. They were not ready for a very ungraceful nine days. Together since 2002, the two became instant dads to little newborn Quinn in 2006.
“We were told you shouldn’t prepare,” he recalls with not a little incredulity at how their lives were turned nearly upside-down within two weeks, yet the logic is sound: one should not get hopes up in the adoption world, a world fraught with last-minute changes of heart.
Reassuringly, Quinn’s mother proved to be entirely supportive of the adoption throughout her pregnancy. In fact, aside from starting off like a rocket out of Cape Canaveral, the new family found the next eight years quickly settling into the predictable rhythms that ensue from raising a child — first steps, first words, pre-school.
But that tranquility was not to last. As any couple will tell, couplehood is an annoyingly organic and fluid state. If there is a high point, there will be a low point. Chris and Paul found themselves in a period of reassessment in 2014 profound enough that Paul moved out.
“Obviously it was devastating,” Chris tells us, remembering how badly Quinn reacted to the split. “He had had two parents, and he was devastated when we told him that we were going to be living apart.”
And then the kicker: “Within 60 days, Paul passed away of a massive heart attack.” He was 53. Quinn was 8.
In one fell swoop, Chris, then 36, had gone from a single parent to a sole one and was as ill-prepared for the reality he faced as he was aware he had precious little room for wallowing. As the weight of the world descended upon his shoulders, Chris had to ensure that none it fell on Quinn.
“Quinn is in a ‘grief group’ with 20 other little kids his age that have all lost a mom or dad in the last couple years,” Chris says, and his experience highlights that death and dying are taboo to the point that such support tends to exist in that liminal realm of things you find only when you need them; he had no idea the tragedy of losing a parent was so common until it happened. But talking it out worked wonders.
“It absolutely still hits my son,” he continues. “But Quinn has definitely learned how to cope with grief and loss, and that it is OK to talk about ‘stuff.’ He’s doing amazing at school, doing great socially, and has a bunch of friends.”
It was into this steady-but-delicate situation that Clifton stepped a year later. A wardrobe stylist, the Sacramento native had his own baggage — an upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, a faith as insular as it is homophobic, prompting him to leave home at 17 — so perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that the two met online. Rather than having eros-killing bombshells lying in wait, both parties knew what they were getting into before meeting face to face. It helped that both were honest in their profiles.
“I just saw a really, really amazing man,” Clifton remembers. “And he was very honest about his situation, being a single dad and the importance of his son was on there. He was honest and upfront and that meant a lot to me, coupled with having a really beautiful soul. It was refreshing, and I felt like having a child is not a foreign concept.”
“Once I started dealing with my grief and got Quinn to a good spot, it was time to start looking for companionship,” says Chris, who found Clifton fitting into the “Goldilocks zone” between men who were overly gung-ho about creating a family unit and those with a DILF fetish (“I had a dozen really horrible first dates”).
Introducing Quinn was a deliberate process, once Chris and Clifton became closer. Paul is a living component of Quinn’s identity, and even with therapy, his loss is never too far away from anyone’s mind, not least of all his child’s. The two were painstakingly vigilant to the boy’s sensibilities — and it paid off. The kid is their biggest cheerleader.
“Clifton has a fun personality and he's really funny,” says the 9-year-old. “He does funny things and makes jokes and voices.”
Chris and Paul never married, a state automatically guaranteeing a great number of legal protections, and whose lack can lead to great number of legal complexities. By taking a few alternative approaches — updated wills and power of attorney — the stability Chris needed following Paul’s death was assured. They are necessary steps to include, even with marriage, and especially when children enter the picture.
It was that kind of foundation that Clifton finds so appealing, and he adds: “Knowing who Chris is, and now knowing Quinn for a few months, when you have a good base with somebody and there is love and support and communication, you can take on the world.”
And send a well-adjusted little boy into it.