How a 12-year-old Peruvian Deaf Boy Helped me Face my Biggest Barrier
My grandpa used to hold his arm off to his side and flex.
My 13-year-old hands would wrap themselves around his big biceps and I’d lift my feet. He wouldn’t budge. In my mind, he was Hercules.
It’s strange the way young men interact with the male role models in their lives. I used to lovingly beat up on Grandpa — I’d hang off him, punch him, arm wrestle with him, yank his arm hairs off and pull on his beard.
I always looked for male role models in strange places after my father shut the door behind him and never came back. Grandpa, camp counselors, professors, family friends — I always found someone whose arm I could hang from.
Lacking a father was a huge barrier for me for a long, long time. It was a source of depression and angst. And as I entered the dating world I had convinced myself that I’d never have kids — I was terrified of repeating history and putting a young boy or girl through what I went through.
But that decision became a barrier in and of itself. It forced me away from a young woman who I thought was my one and only since I was 16. And for several years it prevented me from seeking healthy relationships. I was alone, in my early 20s, and had plenty of fish to catch and stars to count. Perfect, right?
When I took my job with No Barriers I started to see this aspect of my life differently, but I wasn’t in a place to address it.
When my job took me to Peru to photograph an expedition with deaf and hard of hearing students, everyone told me that it would change my life. With 27 years of experiences under my belt, I was skeptical.
Change my life?
Well, turns out they were right, but not in a way that I could have foreseen.
Soon after arriving in Lima, our group was joined by Holly and her soon-to-be adopted Quechuan son Dante. Dante is deaf and relies on sign language. His mother passed away when he was young and he was not allowed to be raised by his father, per Quechuan culture.
Holly saw that Dante – who didn’t walk until he was six – needed a proper environment to be raised in, one where he could find language and self-expression. So with Dante’s family’s permission and blessing, she is raising him and helping him through his studies at a deaf school run by Catholic nuns and school teachers.
Since Dante was under-stimulated for most of his life, he could be quite the bundle of energy. Holly describes him as “A 5-year-old, 12-year-old” with a huge heart. As a young boy who spends most of his time around women, he also sought quite a bit of attention from the males in our group — particularly myself and No Barriers board member Bill Barkeley.
Most days included five or 10 minutes of Dante hugging me, pulling on my beard, or the two of us acting out a scene from his current favorite, and my former favorite, television show: Dragon Ball Z.
And then one day as we waited for our group to assemble, I held my arm out to my side and motioned for Dante to climb on. As soon as he lifted his feet and started to try to topple me, I remembered how it felt when I did the same at his age.
A few hours later, our expedition leader Katie said something that stopped me in my tracks — “I’m convinced you are going to leave Peru with an adopted deaf child.”
I realized in that moment that I really enjoyed interacting with Dante, and his peers at the San Francisco de Asis school for the deaf.
As we toured the ruins of Saqsaywaman, Dante reached up and grabbed my hand as we walked around. I only realized when he let go that he had been doing so.
On the plane ride home I reflected on how much the thought of having kids had once terrified me, but how natural and warming it felt to interact with Dante and others. I thought about how good it felt to have someone hang from my arm for once.
And I remembered what a friend said once when I described my fear of being a father. She said, “Maybe that darkness is a gift. Maybe you can use that and turn it into a blessing for someone else.”
We always say at No Barriers to do the thing that scares you. But for so long the thing that really deeply scared me – fatherhood – was off limits. The idea of it no longer terrifies me. It’s becoming something I think I want. A challenge I’m no longer running from.
It took a 12-year-old Peruvian boy pulling at my beard and hanging off my arm for me to change my perspective, to make me see that side of me as an unhealthy barrier, a defense mechanism to the biggest struggle I’ve faced in my life so far.