Gave Ashlee an "eye pad" for Christmas last year

I have a daughter and her name is Ashlee Sparks

She didn’t want me in her life.

Not at first, anyway.  I was mommy’s new boyfriend and I was a nuisance because I kept getting in the way of how things were supposed to be.  Sure, she liked me.  I was funny, considerate, and I actually talked to her and was interested in who she was.  But she was a strong-willed 10-year-old little girl who had very definite ideas about what a normal life constituted, and I was not really a part of that consideration.

Monster Jam 2008

Monster Jam 2008

Her mom had told her how much she liked me and wanted me to meet her.  Our first “family” outing was Monster Jam at the Citrus Bowl.  She was introduced to two boys; one was the same age as herself.  She was shy and stuck to mommy the entire time, but she did have the good managed to smile for the camera once.

It was an awkward family date, but as the lure of monster trucks crashing into each other grew on all of us, we started enjoying ourselves.  Ashlee chatted with the boys and Carey and I had a chance to exchange a few affectionate glances at each other.  I don’t think we actually held hand that night; we were the book ends holding the children together so they would actually interact with one another.

We left early because it started to rain and Ashlee decided she had had enough of the evening and wanted to go home.  I was concerned that she didn’t like the boys, or me.

This was a valid concern; Carey and I had discussed what we would do if Ashlee didn’t like me, if my boys didn’t like her, and if the children couldn’t get along together.  And really, there was really only one thing to do if any of those scenarios occurred; our relationship would have to end.

Pushing Ashlee on the swing.

Pushing Ashlee on the swing.

So we took it slow, but not too slow.  The thing to remember is that Ashlee was (is) a strong-willed girl.  She was resistant, but she had to learn that resisting just for the sake of getting her way was not fair to herself or her mother.  So we had more family outings and get togethers.

We had dinners.  We went to movies.  We stayed in and watched TV.  We went to Disney.

We never forced ourselves on each other’s kids, but we didn’t shy away from being parental adults around them either. If I saw Ashlee about to throw a tantrum, I would gently remind her that young ladies were supposed to act better than she was acting in public.  Similarly, Carey would talk to the boys in such a fashion.

As I fell in love with Carey, I fell in love with Ashlee.

One day, we decided, Carey and I, that I would stay over at her place one night while Ashlee was there.  I was there when Ashlee went to sleep and I would be there when she woke up.  Carey was nervous, because young Ashlee had a habit of coming to sleep with mommy a couple of night a week.  Ashlee was surprised to see me there the next morning, but took it in stride.

From there, the pace accelerated.  I was already headlong in love with both Ashlee and Carey.  I sat down with Carey and told her these exact words, “If you won’t let me be a father, completely, to that little girl in there,” I pointed to the living room where a sleepy Ashlee was eating cereal and watching cartoons, “our relationship won’t last.  You need to tell me soon if you can handle that, because when I say I want to be a father to her; I mean it.  I want to love her, hold her, treat her like my own child.  That includes discipline and intimacy.”

The kids together early in our relationship

The kids together early in our relationship

It was a big leap.  The kids had already started bonding, and this “ultimatum” of mine could have ended all of our relationships if Carey was not agreeable.

Carey agreed, thankfully.  She wanted me to be the father-figure for her daughter.  Ashlee’s grandfather had been the primary male influence in her life until I arrived and what I was asking for was a complete changing of not only my relationship with Ashlee, but also with her grandparents as well.  I was proposing we actually become a full-family and we all assume the roles of mother, father, grandparent, children, etc.  No blurring of the lines; we focus on what we were supposed to be, not what circumstance had forced us to be.

As you can imagine, it was easily agreed to, but difficult to actually implement.  But not impossible.  The biggest challenge was to get Ashlee to respect my position as an authoritative father figure.  My parenting style was unlike anything she had ever seen before.  I approach child-rearing as a great obligation, responsibility, and opportunity.  I am, as a father, supposed to teach and lead (by example) key lessons in my children’s life.  Honesty, integrity, selflessness, accountability, critical thinking, compassion, and strength among others.

Some lessons were easier learned than others.  Not just for Ashlee, but for the boys as well.  I also believe  as a parent, in consistency.  That means, even if it breaks my heart, I need to enforce discipline when a rule is broken or when a privilege is abused.  Multiple infractions, always, increase the severity of the discipline.  Ashlee responded with mixed emotions to consistent boundaries, and consequences that were well-defined but never negotiable.  But she soon realized that, even though she hated the boundaries imposed on her, they were always the same.  She knew what was allowed, what was right, and what was wrong.  She had a solid framework around her for decision-making, growth, and learning.

And so she learned, quickly, the value of critical thinking.  And she embraced it.  She blossomed almost immediately as she stopped trying to rule to roost and started to engage in just being a child.  She had safe, if sometimes frustrating, boundaries around her and she could leverage that foundation to build her character and personality upon.

Ashlee and I at Lake Eola as I battled Cancer

Ashlee and I at Lake Eola as I battled Cancer

And then I got cancer and saw the one thing I could never, ever, teach her.  Something that she had inside her that was there well before I ever entered her life.   Love and compassion, so powerful and so deep that it staggers the imagination.  She had a hard time showing it to me back then.  But she had fallen in love with me as much as I had with her.  when I got cancer, she, like her mom, stayed by my side.  She was scared and confused, but she stayed with me.

She helped me walk down the hallway when I was too weak to move.  She plugged in my feeding machine to feed my through my PEG tube.  She came home from school every day while I was on disability and rushed back to the living room to make sure I was ok.

I saw.  I noticed.  And I wept for joy that she was returning the love that I felt so strongly for her.

Ashlee cuts my hair before chemo takes it away

Ashlee cuts my hair before chemo takes it away

With her help, and the help of my boys and Carey, I healed.  I beat my cancer and stopped dying and started living again.  Thanks to Ashlee, and the boys, I never battled a deep depression through my cancer.  They were always there for me.  They always loved me and they always showed me.

And so life went on.  We came together as a family, truly.  Ashlee was integrated into the rest of the family and was one of three children.  That was a hard adjustment for her, but she gained two brothers and all the good and bad that came along with it.

In Matthew and Christopher she suddenly had someone to blame things on, she had two protectors, she had two friends.  She learned to love them, embrace them, and of course she learned how aggravating having siblings can be.  She learned that a brother is always there, even when friends come and go.  She also learned that they’re just as likely to pass gas on you than commiserate with you when you are sad.

Playing at the beach with her brother

Playing at the beach with her brother

She suddenly had two brothers who were excellent students and challenged her to be her best.  And she rose to the challenge.  Struggling with certain classes before, she showed a fire and determination to excel that amazed us all.  She learned that she was not slow.  Anyone who can quip with her uber-witty and sarcastic brother Christopher and hold hour-long philosophical conversations with Matthew is not slow at all.   In fact, it’s all come to fruition lately; her teachers have recommended her for honors classes next year when she enters tenth grade.

In the middle of my cancer treatments I proposed to Carey, and she said yes.  Wedding plans commenced and we quickly decided that the kids were essential to the wedding party.  They were part of the planning process, they were engaged every step of the way.  They helped pick cake, dinner, colors, dress styles, and even helped scope out the venue.  This was not just Carey and I getting married, it was ALL of us.

Ashlee next to me for a wedding shot

Ashlee next to me for a wedding shot

The kids had all grown up so much in the few short years since we had all met.  They were so beautiful at the wedding.  All of them.  Ashlee was stunning and I think I cried as much looking at her as I did at Carey.  In her heels, Ashlee towered over me; she had grown so much.

After the wedding, and after the honeymoon, life resumed as normal.  One day, though, Ashlee made a comment that she wasn’t a Sparks, like the rest of us.  She was joking as she said it, but I heard a note of real emotion in the statement.

It hit me right then and there that Ashlee had never had a father but me.  I was the only father she had ever known.  Sure, her grandfather dual-filled the role for years, but he was grandpa.  I was dad.  And she felt disconnected from me at some fundamental level because she wasn’t a Sparks, but still a Dobson.

From there it was a no brainer.  I needed to adopt Ashlee.  I had no idea where to begin, and I had no idea how much it would cost, but it needed to be done.  She deserved it.  She should never, even for a second, feel like she wasn’t a part of our family because she didn’t share a name with us.

So Carey and I started the process.  It took forever.  It cost a fortune.  But after a year of lawyers, legal proceedings, subpoenas, and stress over it all, we made it happen.

Last Thursday, Ashlee and I stood in front of a judge and I was asked, “why do you want to adopt Ashlee?”  And there was only one answer I could give, “Because she’s my daughter.”  In every way that matters, Ashlee is my daughter.  I want to yell it from the mountaintops.  I will acknowledge her to the world and woe betide anyone who tries to come between us.

I have a daughter.  I love her so very much.  And her name is Ashlee Sparks.

Gave Ashlee an "eye pad" for Christmas last year

Gave Ashlee an “eye pad” for Christmas last year

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