Most fathers have to wait years before hearing their children say, “I love you." Bryon Denton, however, heard those magic words from his son, Jason, the very first day they met.
At the time, Bryon was working as a contract nurse at a home for children with developmental disabilities in Champaign, Illinois. His first day on the job, he was told that one of the kids, Jason, a 12-year-old boy with cerebral palsy, had very limited speech, and that he shouldn't expect much in the way of communication.
“They said he basically didn't speak, and when he does it's very hard to understand, so he doesn't talk to many people," Bryon recounted when we spoke by phone recently. So when Bryon walked in the room that first day and Jason looked up and said, “I love you," as clear as can be, his heart melted.
“I'm a big softie," he said. “I'm not sure why he picked me to talk to, but I of course fell in love with him right from the very beginning." His connection to Jason grew the more the two got to know one another. “His personality is always fun, happy and loving — he's the most loving child I've ever met. Every time I leave the room and come back in, I get a huge hug like he's just seeing me again for the first time in a long time."
Of course, that first day Bryon didn't know that Jason would become his son within a few short years; but his mother had a hunch. “When I was driving home from work that night, I excitedly called my mother and told her all about Jason. She told me, 'Just you wait,'" Bryon said, laughing, “'you're going to be bringing one of these kids home one day.'"
This prediction would prove correct, but it was far from preordained; Bryon would face a lengthy fight before he was able to claim the legal right to call Jason his son.
The trouble all started, oddly enough, because of a spare ticket to Suessical the Musical. “I had tickets to see the show," Bryon explained, “and I knew Jason loved music, so I thought, this will be perfect." One day, when Jason's mother was visiting him in the children's facility, Bryon asked her permission to take him to the show, which she granted. Soon after, Jason was sitting in the audience of his first Broadway show, delighted by a singing and dancing Cat in the Hat.
Jason enjoyed the experience so much that Bryon began taking him on additional outings, always with the consent of his mother. “She had a hard life," Bryon said, explaining Jason's mother was in and out of prison for much of her life and thus unavailable to provide for her son. Jason's mother was nothing but thankful, then, for the connection that was forming between Bryon and Jason.
Bryon's employer at the children's home, however, was less excited about this new relationship. “The administrator of the facility decided I could not possibly like a teenage child with developmental disabilities in the way that I did," he explained. “So she fired me."
Bryon's boss never directly alleged that he was maintaining an improper relationship with Jason — the official reason for letting him go was that he was “unable to follow directions" — but it was certainly implied. After Bryon was terminated, Bryon's boss even convinced Jason's aunt, who had taken over custody of Jason while his mother was in prison, to rescind his visitation rights.
Jason's mother was not happy with this turn of events. “She really liked me," Bryon said. “So she actually filed to give me custody of him." Originally, Bryon's case did not look promising; he was only 21 years old at the time, an age when many young men would be unprepared to take on the responsibilities of caring for a teenager with special needs.
Complicating matters further was Jason's aunt, who retained custody rights, and fought Bryon's custody claim, even though he had his mother's blessing. After about a year and a half of arguing over the matter in court, however, Jason's aunt stopped contesting the matter. “She just walked into court one day and said, 'I didn't want him to begin with,' and walked out."
With Jason's mother incarcerated, and no other relative stepping forward to claim him, Bryon's case for custody suddenly looked much more promising. “The judge was like, okay, now we have a problem, because mom is in prison and there's nobody to make decisions for a child with special needs."
Any concern the judge had about Bryon's ability, as a single 21-year-old, to care for a special needs child was offset by his knowledge and skills as a nurse. “It made a big difference. This is a child with medical needs — he doesn't eat by mouth at all, he feeds through a gastro tube in his stomach." To complicate matters further, Jason was experiencing some serious health issues during his prolonged custody battle. “The children's home couldn't figure out what was going on with him, and someone needed to make decisions, so I filed for emergency custody of him, and the judge granted it."
Bryon's medical training would prove useful right away; once he got involved in his care, Jason was diagnosed, treated and discharged within three weeks. “It was just pancreatitis," Bryon said, frustrated. “It's something that's very fixable. We didn't know the cause, but it's still fixable. It seemed like the children's home was just going to let him die from this. He had just turned 14 and weighed 42 pounds."
Bryon still remembers the date when he was granted full custody of his son. “My court hearing was December 21st," he said. “It was an eight-hour hearing." The length of the hearing was partly his own fault, however; he and his lawyer were leaving nothing to chance and had subpoenaed over 25 people, including doctors and nurses, who were able to vouch for Bryon's ability to care for Jason.
Nonetheless, the children's facility continued hinting that the relationship between Bryon and Jason might be improper. Tired of the innuendo, the judge finally confronted the issue head-on, to Bryon's great relief. “He said, 'Are you alleging there is sexual assault or abuse involved here? Because if you are, you need to bring evidence. If you don't have any, you need to stop talking about it. You're making assumptions.'" With nothing else standing in the way, Bryon was granted full custody rights of Jason, and the two became father and son, legally.
Bryon and Jason's family creation story, therefore, has a happy ending. And though Bryon was never directly compensated for the homophobic accusations his former employer baselessly lobbed against him, he did see some justice served. During Jason's custody battle, Bryon sent a letter to his former employer's corporate office on the advice of his lawyer. “We just hoped it might scare them away and get them to back off the custody battle," Bryon said. “But instead, they wrote back saying they terminated the administrator right away. They said, 'That's not how we operate.'"
When he became a single father to a 14-year-old boy with special needs, Bryon had just turned 22, an age most young men reserve for acting impulsively and making poor life decisions. Bryon, however, was better prepared than most.
“I'm really familiar with adoption," Bryon said. “I have adopted siblings, and my mom is adopted. I have about 18 adopted cousins." Adoption was so familiar to him, in fact, that when he was a young boy, he proudly told his mother, “I'm going to adopt kids one day."
Bryon had also been caring for others for much of his young life. His father was diagnosed with hemochromatosis (abnormal accumulation of iron in organs, leading to organ toxicity) in high school, and later developed liver cancer as a result. His mother, meanwhile, was in an inpatient psychiatric facility for much of Bryon's high school years. “This meant I had to grow up really quick," he said, noting there was no one else but him to raise his younger siblings, and care for his father.
When Bryon adopted Jason, however, they saw an opportunity to return the favor; for the first six months after Jason came home, he had no permanent caregiver in place while Bryon worked. “So my mom and my dad and sisters and everybody would take turns staying at my house while I worked and cared for him."
At first, there was a bit of a learning curve. “My mom was concerned. She wasn't used to taking care of anybody with special needs, and this was her first grandchild. She was afraid she'd break him. My family had no foundation for caring for someone with special needs, but they learned and all pitched in."
Bryon is eternally grateful to his family for stepping up to the challenge. “It would have been nearly impossible to do without my family and a strong support network," he said, before removing the qualification: “Actually, totally impossible."
Soon after adopting Jason, Bryon came out of the closet, and began to seek out dates with other men online. He made sure to mention Jason very early on in these exchanges. “The first thing I said when I started dating was that I have a child and he has special needs. If that's an issue, then there's no need to talk any further, because he's not going anywhere."
This wasn't a problem for Jason Jeffries, a man Bryon started dating several months after his custody battle was finished. “When I first started talking to Jason, his response was, I don't care, that's great; it actually makes me want to talk to you more, because you're responsible and you obviously have something caring about you."
At first, however, Bryon was nervous to introduce Jason to his son. “For the first two to three months that we dated, I wouldn't let them meet. I wanted to make sure it was okay." When Bryon did finally introduce them, the two Jasons (known as “Big Jason" and “Little Jason" around the house) hit it off just fine. “Little man thought it was great that they shared a name."
Big Jason, too, quickly grew fond of Little Jason, despite an initial apprehension of helping with his care. “Little Jason can't stand on his own, and is a little cautious when someone else picks him up that's not Dad," Bryon said. “But today, it's no big deal. Half the time, he wants Big Jason to pick him up instead."
Interestingly, Big Jason is 29 years old, while Little Jason is 26. (Bryon himself is only 34.) Was it odd at all for Big Jason to be dating someone with a son so close to his age? “Usually when people ask how old [Little Jason] is, my response is, 'You would never believe me anyway.' He doesn't look his age. He's just now starting to look like an adult and he's 26 years old. He functions at an intellectual level around 3 to 5 years of age. I asked [Big Jason] if it bothered him, but it didn't. It hasn't been an issue. It hasn't come up since."
Today, the Jasons and Bryon all live together in a home they recently bought, and are making plans for their future. “We've talked about adopting another child, but our original plan was to wait until we bought a house and got married," Bryon said. “Well, we bought a house this year ..." He let his voice trail off for effect. “So now I'm just pestering him," he laughed. “All my friends pester him too, saying, 'Come on when you going to propose?' So we'll see."
Bryon holding "Little Jason" with "Big Jason" (right)