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The Williams Family
In 2005, Steven Williams was 45. He’d retired from the theater, was living in New York City and had a nonprofit job he loved raising money for AIDS programs across the country.
"By all rights my life was great," Steven said. "But something seemed missing."
A friend suggested he visualize where he wanted to be, and what he wanted to be doing, when he neared the end of his life.
He saw himself alone, in a hospital bed, and he realized what was missing.
"I didn't have a family," he said. "It was always important to me, but I had written it off for me, a gay man in theater. It was never going to happen."
He started looking into adoption. At first he thought being single, and living in a bustling metropolis — the Metropolis — might pose difficulties.
What he found was New York City offered an environment rich in opportunities for his future adoptive son.
Meanwhile, Francis — then known as Franky — was living with a foster family upstate. He was 10 years old, born to a young mother who herself had lived in foster homes and began having children at age 13.
"His birth mother loves him very much, she just isn't stable enough to parent him," Williams said.
By the end of summer 2006, they would be together on the island of Manhattan.
It's been four years now, but the first six months were hard.
"Emotionally it was far more intense than I expected," Williams said of their first months together, when Francis was learning to trust his adoptive father.
"I was a new parent and I didn't think I knew what I was doing. He was a frightened 10-year-old."
But those first months of outbursts helped build the bond as they settled in to being a family.
"It helped our attachment in the end," Williams said.
And during the outbursts, the disrupted sleep when Francis awoke from nightmares and needed comforting, Williams learned to be a father.
"Being a father means learning on the job, because the moment you think you have your son figured out, he develops into an even more complex young man," Williams said. "The best you can do is strive to keep up and love him unconditionally no matter what he throws at you."
Francis said he has learned a lot from his father as well.
"Never give up on each other," he said.
Since then, Williams has collected what he calls "little milestones," moments when he can feel his family settle into itself.
One of these milestones was centered on the complicated question: Do you have any siblings? Francis has several half brothers and sisters, Williams said. When asked, he would launch into an explanation.
Then, one day during a meeting with a therapist, Francis simply answered "no."
Francis has an ongoing relationship with his birth mother and other family members, but to Williams, the answer meant Francis had recognized his family was Williams, and they lived alone together.
"That was, to me, a tiny little milestone," Williams said. "He decided that this is the family they are talking about. I just had that feeling inside. There's another step, he's settled in."
There have been other moments. Such as when Williams heard Francis say, "I have a great dad," or when he performed a magic trick at an afterschool theater program and then credited Williams.
"It shows he's counting on you, he's learning from you, he's growing, he's listening," Williams said.
A photo in dad's wallet
When Williams first started the process to adopt, he knew a young child, an infant or toddler, would pose too great of a challenge for somebody single, living in the city. He initially looked into adopting from overseas.
As he researched more and took training courses, he found adoption agencies allowed him to feel he was in control of the process, and he started bumping the age upward.
He also began considering adopting from foster care.
That's when he found Franky's profile on the New York State Adoption Service photolisting website. He made arrangements and traveled to meet the boy who would become his son, but he still wasn’t sure.
"I think I can be his father," Williams said at the time.
At one of the meetings with the caseworkers, Williams showed the photograph of Francis he kept in his wallet, printed from the website.
That, the caseworker told him, was the sign.
"We knew you were his father," they told Williams. "We were just waiting for you to figure it out."
The transition to the bustle and lifestyle of the city was also part of the learning process. At 10 years old, Francis couldn't handle the amount of walking New Yorkers are accustomed to and sometimes needed to be carried.
"Mercifully, he was small back then," Williams said.
Now 14, a freshman in high school, Francis chalks it up to having the best of both worlds.
"I'll always have my country legs," Francis said. "I had to get my city legs."
From the start, Francis was excited about living in the big city.
"I think it's good for him," Williams said, noting the virtually infinite diversity of New York. From cultural events, exposure to different religious practices, to the rich tradition of New York sports — Francis is a Yankees fan.
"He's had a lot of experiences I never had growing up in Oklahoma City," Williams said.
Chief among those experiences is a recent encounter with comedian Whoopi Goldberg, who Francis struck up a conversation with.
"I love your kid," Goldberg told Williams after Francis had his photo taken with her.
He's currently enrolled in a high school that emphasizes environmental studies with a heavy concentration in math and science, Francis' favorite subjects.
Living in the city also helps the family dodge the subject of driving. Like many New Yorkers, they don't own a car.
"I think I have a lot less worries in some ways than my mother had," Williams said. "I was out on my own, I had a job, I had a car and she didn't know where I was."
"There’s a lot of people here," Williams added. "But there are a lot of people looking out for him."