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The gift

Christmas 2005 has special meaning for Bob and Darcel Schouler. This year, they will be sharing it with Daniel.

By LANE DeGREGORY
Published December 22, 2005


photo
[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
Five-year-old Daniel Jevon Schouler gives Santa Claus a hug after opening his present at the annual family Christmas party Saturday in Land O’Lakes. Bob and Darcel Schouler tried for more than two years to find a son.

  photo
The Schoulers play pingpong Saturday with Daniel during the family’s annual Christmas Party.
Related story:
Families found & lost
A promise of summer visits from 50 Russian orphans began deeply personal dramas for would-be parents. As they waited, plans kept changing.
(August 17, 2003)

This story started a decade ago, with a wish. We followed it through three Christmases - and wound up at a party last weekend. Sometimes Santa takes his time.

CHRISTMAS 2003

They dreaded the drive home. Every year after the huge family Christmas party, after playing with all of their cousins' kids, bringing them presents, taking their pictures, after watching Santa grant everyone else's wishes, Bob and Darcel Schouler rode home alone, together in their silence.

Their truck was too quiet, the back seat too big.

For 10 years, they had wanted a child. They had suffered a debilitating miscarriage, found a Russian orphan they wanted to adopt, lost him to bureaucracy. They had passed home studies to parent children from Florida, Ohio, Kansas, Idaho, New York. . . . Every night, bent over their computer, they scanned Web sites full of scared little faces they longed to love, to protect, to bring home.

They spent thousands of dollars fencing the yard of their Tampa house so the child they didn't have would have a place to throw footballs. They took out a second mortgage to remodel their guest room, to rescreen their porch so their son could play outside in the rain. They bought Scooby Doo toothbrushes and towels and stuffed toys.

They asked relatives and friends about schools and churches. What were the best ways to discipline? How do you give a toddler a bath?

Still, their spare room was empty. There was no one to cuddle, no reason to go to Disney World or reread Charlotte's Web. They were getting worried. They were getting old. Bob, who built custom computers, was 56; his goatee was going gray. Darcel was 42; she traveled the country pitching marketing campaigns for Buick. She wanted, more than anything, for someone to call her Mommy.

Christmas was always the hardest. What was Christmas without children? "Another year," Darcel remembers telling Bob during the long, dark drive, "and Santa doesn't have any reason to come to our house."

They hired a lawyer who had adopted three children herself. "I just want a little boy, 3 to 5 years old, who will sit in my lap and watch football with me and let me hug him," Bob told her.

Darcel did the only thing she could think of, the thing she does best: She designed a marketing campaign. In a 16-page, full-color package of 8- by 10-inch photos and graphics, she sold herself, her husband, her pets and home as the perfect place for a little boy to find a family.

"Once upon a time, in a state far, far away," her story started, "a Mommy and Daddy gazed up at the stars, hoping for kids to hug and hold . . ."

The booklet showed Bob and Darcel's smiling, hopeful faces framed by a rainbow. The caption said, "We've been waiting for you all our lives!" There were photos of their front porch, their side yard, the rubber duck on their would-be child's dresser, a Harry Potter collection stacked on the empty laundry hamper. "Santa & your cousins welcome you to the family!" read red letters above a photo of Santa with 14 happy children. "Your forever family has been waiting for you - and we can't wait to see you soon!"

Their attorney shipped those packages across the country. "I promise," she kept saying. "One will find you." But their phone didn't ring.

CHRISTMAS 2004

Just after Thanksgiving, their lawyer called. She had found a 4-year-old boy right there in Tampa, only a few miles from their home. He had never known his dad, had been taken away from his mom before he turned 2. He had been in foster homes ever since and had just become eligible for adoption. He had brown eyes, the lawyer said, and brown hair. He was small for his age but otherwise healthy. His name was Daniel.

Of course Bob and Darcel wanted to meet him right away. But weeks crawled on, and the social worker assigned to their case didn't set up anything. Finally Bob called the attorney, got the foster family's phone number, and arranged to meet them at an Applebee's.

They would tell Daniel they were friends of his foster parents. They didn't want to scare him. Plus, they wanted to be sure.

The little boy bounded into the restaurant, bouncing in his tiny sneakers, all smiles. Darcel grabbed Bob's arm and squeezed hard. "Our son!" she gasped, her voice sticking in her throat. "That's our son!"

They saw him again a week later, this time alone. They took him to an ice cream parlor where they found out that Daniel's eyes are really hazel, like Bob's, and his favorite flavor is strawberry - the same as Bob's.

They wanted to bring him to their family Christmas party that weekend, to introduce him to his cousins and grandparents, to have him home in time for Santa to visit. But the foster family that had kept Daniel for almost two years wanted one last holiday with him. So Bob and Darcel had to wait.

On the drive home from the party, they decided: They wouldn't get a tree this year. They wouldn't hang their stockings or put up lights or build the ceramic village in their dining room.

Not without Daniel.

A couple of days before Christmas, they asked to see him again. Please? Just for a few hours. They took him to WestShore Plaza to see Santa.

Afterward, while Darcel was buckling Daniel into his new car seat, he looked up at her and said, "What do you want Santa to bring you?"

She couldn't believe it. Most kids are so caught up with themselves and their presents at Christmas, and here this child was asking what she wanted. She had known for so long. "Well," she said, touching her finger to Daniel's button nose. "What I really, really, really want, is a little boy with brown hair and hazel eyes who loves to run and jump and play and eat strawberry ice cream. I want my own little boy that I can love and hug and have forever and ever."

Daniel grinned. "You know what?" he said. "I could be that little boy."

CHRISTMAS 2005

"Daddy, are we there yet? Are we there? How much longer?" Daniel squealed from his car seat.

"Not yet, honey. We're getting there," Bob said, smiling at his son in the rearview mirror.

They were heading to the family Christmas party, an hour's drive away. Daniel was wearing a new forest green flannel shirt, soft gray slacks, big boy shoes. Darcel and Bob kept reaching over the seat behind them, taking turns holding their son's hand.

"Daddy, are we almost there? Are we?"

"No, we still got a ways to go, son."

"But I'm so excited! I want to get there right now. I can't wait to see Santa . . . and all my cousins!"

He had met most of his relatives already. He had been living with Bob and Darcel since Jan. 1, for almost a year.

At first, Bob thought they had made a mistake. Daniel was almost 5 when they got him, but he acted like a toddler. He ate with his hands; he didn't know how to brush his teeth; he was afraid of the dark. But as the weeks went by, and Daniel grew more comfortable, and Bob and Darcel dipped into reserves of patience they never knew they had, they fell in love with the little boy - and wrapped their lives around him.

Darcel, 44, started eating lunch at her desk so she could leave work an hour earlier. She wanted to be home to tickle Daniel before dinner. Bob started waking up early to make oatmeal for Daniel. Now 58, he rejoined the gym so he wouldn't get winded throwing footballs. He and Darcel started going to bed at 10 p.m. instead of midnight - they were exhausted. They taught Daniel how to use a fork and spoon, how to brush his teeth, how to say grace and write his name and fall asleep without the lights on. They took him to Disney World, put him in swimming lessons and gymnastics. They bought a third season ticket to USF football games, built a tent in his room with sheets and rope, so he could go camping without being scared. Eventually, he stopped crying when they left him at pre-K. He knew now that they would come back.

On Dec. 9, the adoption became final. Outside the courthouse, Bob bought hot dogs to celebrate. Darcel cried the whole way home.

"What's wrong with Mommy?" Daniel had asked. They told him about happy tears.

Now it was a week before Christmas and they were going to his granddad's big party way far away in Land O'Lakes, and everyone was going to hug him like they always did every time they saw him: 46 relatives were waiting to welcome the little boy who never had a family.

"Grandmom!" he cried, running down the sidewalk into a dark-haired woman's open arms. She scooped him up and peppered his cheeks with kisses.

Bob whipped out his new video camera; Darcel raised her new digital camera. They followed their son through the doors, recording every move, every expression. This year, they would have more than photos of their cousins' kids.

* * *

"Santa's coming! Santa's coming! Mommy, Daddy, Santa's coming!" Daniel wove through aunts and uncles, pushed past his bigger cousins, calling over his shoulder. He wanted to be up front, right by the big chair under the Christmas tree.

He couldn't believe Santa would leave the mall to come to his granddad's party!

"Ho! Ho! Ho!"

Since Daniel was the newest member of the family, he was the first one Santa pulled onto his knee. "Merry Christmas! And have you been good this year, little boy?"

Daniel nodded, his face serious. "Oh, yes, sir. I have. Really."

"Well, well," Santa laughed. "Your name wasn't on my bad list. So you must have been good. Now go ahead and tell Santa what you want."

"Well, I want a truck. A truck I can drive. Just like Daddy's."

"A truck? You know, that's a good idea. But you might have to wait until Christmas morning for a truck. For now, old Santa brought you this."

He reached out and grabbed a box, almost as big as Daniel. Daniel ripped off the paper and his eyes got wide. "Holy cow!" he screamed. "A tent! My very own tent! And look, there's walkie-talkies and stuff too! Mommy, Daddy, look! Look what I got!"

Bob walked over and knelt beside his son. "That's great! But you'll have to wait to play with those," Bob said. "They need batteries."

Darcel smiled smugly. In the 11 months she has been a mother, she has learned a few things. She always has Kleenex in her sleeve and back-up batteries in the glove box. "Here, Daddy," she said, handing Bob her camera. "You take the pictures while I run out to the car."

Daniel dropped the box and ran to her, hugged her knees. He didn't want her to go, even if it was to get batteries.

"Hey," he said, looking up. "What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas, Mommy?"

Darcel smiled and stroked her son's soft hair. Then she lifted her glasses to wipe her eyes. What did she want?

There was nothing left to wish for.

- Lane DeGregory can be reached at 727 893-8825 or degregory@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 21, 2005, 14:39:03]


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