Over-achiever. Class President. Valedictorian. With awards on the local, state, and national levels, Daniel epitomized what it meant to be a scholar-athlete. When Daniel graduated from high school adorned with various accolades and a list of accomplishments, no one could have imagined the emotional abuse and abandonment he’d endured. Class president? Valedictorian? Scholar-athlete? Surely this is the not the profile of an abused adolescent boy who feels lost, alone, and worthless. And yet that is exactly how he felt.
When Daniel graduated from high school adorned with various accolades and a list of accomplishments, no one could have imagined the emotional abuse and abandonment he’d endured.
Soon after Daniel was born his father left. Years later, his mother met Tom and they were married. All of a sudden Daniel had a step-father and new brothers living under the same roof. What could have been a dream—brothers to play, wrestle, and goof off with, and a father to teach, lead, and set an example of what a real man looks and acts like—became traumatic, and the natural struggle of blending a family was intensified by emotional abuse. Slowly the boys were broken down and left the house as soon as they could, not taking a moment to look back. Daniel was left at home to endure ridicule and constant criticism as he grew into a young man, but he was never given the option to leave.
Between the summer of his freshman and sophomore years of high school, and shortly after his stepbrother was killed in a motorcycle accident, his mother and stepfather informed Daniel they were leaving. His brother was gone, and now his parents were leaving. It was not expected that as their son, or even as a dependent minor, would go with them. He was not invited or given the choice. Rather, he was left a checkbook so he could figure out how to eat and was told to take care of himself. They left Daniel in the empty house. A son easily discarded. A cypher to figure out life on his own. His mother visited infrequently; he never saw Tom.
For three years Daniel hid his secret of familial isolation. Friends, teachers, and wrestling coaches were completely unaware. After all, he was constantly on top.
For three years Daniel hid his secret of familial isolation. Friends, teachers, and wrestling coaches were completely unaware. After all, he was constantly on top. If there were problems, wouldn’t he be struggling with grades? Wouldn’t he be have anger issues, be getting into fights, even coping by using drugs and alcohol? To fight his feelings of worthlessness, Daniel coped by throwing himself into hyper-drive and found a temporary sense of worth in accomplishments. So alone with weak self-esteem, he built a strong protective emotional fortress by achieving and proving to people he was worth something. Each achievement added a thick, large brick on his fortress walls that sustained him during that confusing period. It seemed to him that by achieving greatness on the mat and in the classroom, he was okay, and boy did he shine! Daniel refers to this time in high school as his “fortress of solitude.”
But his method of coping was emotionally unsustainable. Though he was naturally talented and intelligent, when you push yourself in order to cover up pain, the burdens will never be buried forever.
But his method of coping was emotionally unsustainable. Though he was naturally talented and intelligent, when you push yourself in order to cover up pain, the burdens will never be buried forever. They eventually rise up and need to be faced. Upon graduation, when amazing opportunities were presented (a full ride scholarship to Ohio State University and wrestling as a walk-on), the events of his past came to the surface. The emotional abuse, the abandonment, the constant fight to prove himself to others had all just seemed a part of his life; they now crushed him. His fortress shattered, and he realized his life was worse than he had led himself to believe. His freshman year of college, he turned down opportunities that would seem to lead onto a very “successful” path. He wanted more. Daniel wanted control of his life. “I only attended the week of freshman orientation at Ohio State. I transferred to Oregon State thinking being closer to home would be more tolerable. It didn’t help.”
Now nineteen years old, Daniel moved to California. Tom had a landscaping company and Daniel began to work for him. Though Tom recognized Daniel’s hard work and the fact that he brought in a lot of money for the company, he still never truly accepted Daniel’s worth as a human being and certainly never valued the potential relationship that was available for them to develop as a father and son.
Life was monotonous, with no fulfillment. “I realized life sucked. I remember one night praying, begging God to kill me because I didn’t want to live anymore. I woke up the next morning and realized, ‘He’s not going to do it. So I have to fix it.’” There was a large pool at his apartment complex; Daniel decided to swim every night until he could swim no more. At least he’d be developing his body and endurance—that was something worthwhile. Unknowingly, there was a man, Robert, who also lived in the same complex who swam in the mornings. Robert felt he should begin swimming at night, and he followed that prompting. Over the course of a couple of weeks, Daniel and Robert silently passed each other as they swam laps. And then, one night, after they both swam their set, they talked.
Life was monotonous, with no fulfillment. “I realized life sucked. I remember one night praying, begging God to kill me because I didn’t want to live anymore. I woke up the next morning and realized, ‘He’s not going to do it. So I have to fix it.’”
They began to spend quite a bit of time together. They’d talk, swim, go to movies, dinner, etc. A relationship based on common respect began to develop, and for the first time Daniel realized that someone really liked and appreciated him for who he was as a man, not because of anything he did. That realization was not only foreign, it was liberating and . . . good. “For the first time, there was someone in my life who was interested in me because I was a human being … And I just enjoyed having a friend, having someone there. And I just thought he was a really great guy.”
Back at work, Tom made a decision that changed his relationship with Daniel forever. He complimented Daniel on his hard work, but told him since he was inexperienced and young, as his employer he would no longer to pay Daniel—his employee and stepson—any overtime. His own mother would be responsible for removing money from his paycheck. Daniel made a decision that night to remove himself from the fabric of his abusive family. He was done. No more trying; no more do-overs. He didn’t need this type of dysfunction in his life.
Not long after, Daniel and Robert were out for dinner; they were laughing and having a good time. Daniel thought, If there is anyone in this world I would love to be my dad, it would be this guy. Then “a minute later, he told me, ‘You know, Daniel, I feel like your father.’ And we began the conversation [about adoption].” From there, Daniel met Robert’s wife and kids, they discussed logistics, and “it just felt like the right thing.” Within a few months’ time, he moved into the Haws’ home and in March 1992, the adoption was finalized. At 21, Daniel legally had a new family who embraced and loved him.
Within a few months’ time, he moved into the Haws’ home and in March 1992, the adoption was finalized. At 21, Daniel legally had a new family who embraced and loved him.
“There was never that plan that I’d move from one family to another. I never had that sense that I needed to do that growing up. I never really felt like I needed new parents. Until I graduated from high school, it was just my normal. It wasn’t until I got out of the house and was embarking college that I was looking at the world from a different place. I felt alone. I felt very small and that I didn’t have anybody. And it was the first time I felt like I needed family. That was a trigger for me that, wow, something’s not right here.”
Daniel not only had a new family, but a new faith that entered his life. It wasn’t expected or forced upon him, but he found that this faith filled a gap that gave him a much greater and deeper understanding of who God is, and his faith has since become a focal point in his life.
“I’m glad it [the adoption] happened. I never would have thought that it would happen. Certainly at almost 21, in order to exist as a human being, I didn’t need it. But there was something fulfilling emotionally that made me feel more whole and complete.”
I could end here, and Daniel’s experience would still be a profound one. His is a story of transformation, shifting into a new and happier life. His story is one that makes us all stop and think about how blessed we are and also of the real need to offer more compassion to everyone, how so many we interact with daily are silently suffering trials we are completely unaware of.
But there is more to this story that needs to be shared. His transformation goes another step beyond. And this step is what truly transforms any of us.
Daniel was a hurt young man and he was angry. He had spent nights lying in bed thinking of ways to hurt Tom because he had brought Daniel so much inner turmoil. “I thought of very specific ways to cause him pain and even thought of ways I could kill him. It was bad. I had a lot of anger and animosity about how he treated me and the other kids.” One day, Daniel’s dad told his (now adopted) son that he needed to forgive Tom. Appalled, Daniel didn’t believe it was possible, and yet deep within he knew he needed to let go of this hatred. After much thought and prayer, he made a conscious decision to forgive his stepfather.
One day, Daniel’s dad told his (now adopted) son that he needed to forgive Tom. Appalled, Daniel didn’t believe it was possible, and yet deep within he knew he needed to let go of this hatred.
But had he really? Daniel worried about this. How do you really know if you have forgiven someone? How would he react if he saw Tom again?
While Daniel was working in a scuba shop and teaching private lessons, Tom walked into the store looking for a mask. After the initial shock, Daniel says, “When I saw him at the dive store, it was all gone. I kept thinking I should be bugged. I’m having a conversation with this guy who I hated, but I have no hurtful feelings. It was a gift the Lord gave” to truly know that he had forgiven the man who had caused some of Daniel’s deepest wounds. That hatred he had decided to let go three years prior to that moment was replaced with relief, excitement, and happiness – the anger was gone. I submit that’s when Daniel’s heart began to truly heal. There was no need to repair the relationship, but now he could officially and finally move on from Tom’s damaging grasp . . . and be happy.
When you talk to Daniel about what family means, his perspective is one based on wisdom gained by painful experience. To him, family can be broken down in three ways: Biological – basic blood relationship. Ecclesiastical – relationships bound by together by faith. Experiential – individuals unified into family based on shared experience. He has learned that you can have blood between individuals, but there is a great lack of “family.” Outside of the relationship with his wife, Xenia, some of his closest family members are friends who have been with him through thick and thin. Kyle, whom Daniel describes as feeling closer to than even a blood sibling, is now a brother. A partner from his days as a police officer in San Jose has also jumped the rank from friend to family in Daniel’s eyes. Twenty years ago, he claims his definition of family would have been restricted to blood. Oh, how experience—and love unabashed—changes our hearts.
Daniel’s story is unique and one worth knowing. As I have come to know Daniel over the years, I see a man who is successful in every aspect of the word. Yes, he provides for his family well, but he is also one of the most humble and charitable souls around. I see a man who is solid, secure, firmly planted by roots that painstakingly traveled deep in order to gain understanding and grasp onto truth. His wife and five children are his priority, and his faith makes him unshakable in his desire to do what is not just good, but what is best.
As I have come to know Daniel over the years, I see a man who is successful in every aspect of the word. Yes, he provides for his family well, but he is also one of the most humble and charitable souls around.
How many children are like Daniel? How many children are we overlooking because we assume all is well? When we ask “how are you?”, do we really want to know? Do we ask with the intent of finding out how someone really is, or is it a polite icebreaker? Do we listen? Do we pay attention to small impressions to follow up with someone? Perhaps it is not in your future, or mine, to adopt a 21-year-old young man. But it certainly is in my future to interact with other children and young adults. Do I look for opportunities to serve and uplift . . . or do I just go about my business?
It is my opinion that as we slow down, pay attention, and listen, we will be put in situations where we are an answer to someone’s prayer.
It is my opinion that as we slow down, pay attention, and listen, we will be put in situations where we are an answer to someone’s prayer. Perhaps it won’t lead to being a foster parent or adoptive parent, but it will certainly lead to spreading forgiving, transforming, and pure love.
And that will change a life.