His Name Is Max Thunder

The story of a downtown social queen with cancer, a gay theater director with mental illness, and the child they're raising together

In 2009, both Carlee Hill and Christopher Johnson could have died.

Carlee was 23, and she thrived at the center of Tucson's downtown life. She was a waitress at the Grill, the funky fixture on Congress Street. She sang in a band. When she was 14, she'd gotten her own show on KXCI FM 91.3. She wasn't exactly wild, but she was ready for almost anything.

In August, Carlee found out she was pregnant. She was single, and on good terms with the father, but she didn't see him as a life partner. She was a little scared, but as usual, she was ready to give something new a whirl.

In September, she developed a lump in her neck that was diagnosed as cancer. The pregnancy complicated getting a complete diagnosis. For weeks, the doctors couldn't tell which variety of cancer she had. Maybe it would be relatively easy to eradicate. Maybe not.

Christopher was 25, and he sat at the center of Tucson's theatrical life. He'd acted for several companies, but his home was Live Theatre Workshop, where he was the artistic director of Etcetera, a provocative late-night series. He'd recently started a side business as a personal trainer. After years of fighting depression and an eating disorder, the antidepressant Celexa had helped him put together the best year of his adult life.

In May, though, he started feeling a little depressed again and went off his medication, which he figured had lost its effectiveness. That led to a summer of misdiagnosis, a new prescription for the disabling Abilify, weight gain, seizures, the cancellation of theater projects, seclusion in his apartment and daydreams about suicide.

Now it is 2010, and Carlee and Christopher have not died. Carlee, a straight woman betrayed by her body chemistry, and Christopher, a gay man betrayed by his brain chemistry, entwined their lives to create a mutual lifeline. Not only did they not die; they escorted a new life into the world.

His name is Max Thunder.

It's been a disastrously enlightening week. I was informed today by my new doctor that I have been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. What I actually am carrying around with me, upstairs, is borderline personality disorder. ... Getting diagnosed with a "new" mental illness was fucking devastating, but it helps me to understand why the medication I was prescribed to treat my misdiagnosed bipolar disorder gave me a seizure, two of the worst and most suicidal months of my life, and 50 pounds of shame I'm still carrying around to this day. She wrote me a prescription for the same antidepressant I was on in 2008. This is the same medication I was on when I became a personal trainer and performed in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the same medication I was on when I lived by myself for the first time in my life, bought my first car and found Luther, my one and only dog-love. This is the same medication I stopped taking halfway through performing Lemon Sky last May when I got diagnosed as manic depressive. The only reason I've been functioning since then is because Carlee gave me a new reason to live last September.

When she told me she was pregnant, I was still coming down off the two months of lithium that had fattened me up and crippled my brain. We had canceled Speech and Debate because I couldn't bring myself to be on stage after the Abilify disaster, and I was sleepwalking my way through rehearsals of Kitty Kitty Kitty and The Housekeeper. Carlee and I moved in together and slowly started laughing our way through her cancer.

—Christopher Johnson, March 25

"I have an addictive personality and can turn anything into heroin—theater, Pokémon, whatever," Christopher says. "I disappeared into her trauma because the only way I could do anything was by working with something outside myself."

Carlee's focus, meanwhile, was necessarily inside herself. As the fetus was growing in her womb, a lump was growing at the base of her neck.

Her mom, Sharon, despite moments of despair, had faith in her daughter's resilience.

"She's warm and extroverted, generous and very confident," Sharon says of her daughter. For some reason, she reverts to calling her by her birth name, Carolyn, on days Carlee is not feeling well. "Carolyn is one of the most well-balanced people I've met. She's very loyal to her friends, and appreciative, and wants to give back to the community that supports her. I think she's pretty darn talented, too. The things that come out of her mouth amaze me, that in her short experience, she's absorbed a lot of good life lessons and spits them out with a twist."

Carlee learned many of those lessons from her father, a colorful character who went by the name Shane Thunder, or sometimes Mr. Bear. "Dad was a musician, a poet and a standup comedian," she says. "We were best friends."

Adds Sharon, "Carolyn was an empty vessel ready to take on his knowledge. He had been a coffeehouse beat poet and drummer and rock 'n' roll musician, and he still had at least partial memories of the late '50s and '60s and '70s, and he gave her a lot of information about those times and his life that piqued her interest."

He was 20 years older than Sharon, and he had done some hard living before they met. It caught up with him. First there was severe prostate cancer, then a series of small strokes that left him disabled for two years until he succumbed to a heart attack at home in 2003. He was 56; Carlee was 17. That, says Sharon, is when Carlee shed her image as a child wise beyond her years and belatedly entered adolescence. The quiet girl gradually became downtown's social queen.

Carlee's obstetrician sent her to the emergency room for an ultrasound—not for the baby, but for the neck lump. Two needle biopsies followed, which suggested that the lump was merely a benign expansion of lymph tissue. Doctors didn't want to extract it, because anesthesia during surgery could endanger her early pregnancy. They said, "Keep an eye on it, and we'll remove it after you give birth."

She watched it. She dropped 20 pounds. She developed night sweats. She was always on the verge of vomiting. She was tired. Her back hurt.

"I thought I was sick because I was really bad at being pregnant," Carlee says.

Carlee and Christopher had met through a mutual friend a few years before, and within 45 minutes of being introduced, they were bickering and slapping at each other like prepubescent siblings. That set the course for the friendship: prickly periods of fun and mutual appreciation alternating with weeks of mutual silence.

It was after a couple of months of not talking to each other that Carlee told Christopher she was pregnant. And that she had this strange lump.

We obviously didn't put a lot of thought into this epic shenanigan beforehand. The decision was made in three minutes based on the following conversation:

Christopher: You're pregnant and single?

Carlee: Yeah.

Christopher: You don't have a car and live in a 500-square-foot house with no doors and a party girl who also has no car, but has a big black cat named Batman?

Carlee: Yeah.

Christopher: That lump on your neck looks like cancer.

Carlee: I know.

Christopher: Let's move in together. I have a car.

Carlee: OK.

And that, as they say, was that. It was just the right thing to do.

—Christopher Johnson, April 20

"It's like we'd gone away and become different people, and then came back together and were perfect for each other," Christopher says. "Carlee used to make me insane. We had this bizarre, violent, juvenile relationship. Now it's been the easiest thing. I know from experience that I can't live with anyone, but I can live with Carlee."

The lump on Carlee's neck got bigger. It began pressing on her windpipe. She was having trouble speaking and breathing and eating. On Dec. 4, she checked into Northwest Medical Center for what was expected to be a stay of two or three days. Carlee had entered her second trimester, so the doctors decided to risk surgery.

It was supposed to take two hours. It took four.

The lump had become a tumor that was wrapping itself around Carlee's trachea and spine, and pressing against her lungs. The surgeon extracted most of it, but the procedure had damaged some nerves; now the left side of her face sagged, and one of her pupils was permanently dilated ("like David Bowie," Carlee says with some pride); she could barely whisper. Singing was out of the question. So, it seemed, was getting out of the hospital before Christmas. The doctors said she had some form of lymphoma, but they didn't yet know which.

Some are readily eradicated. Others are almost certainly fatal.

Carlee moved to the oncology ward, where she could begin chemotherapy. "This chemo is blood-based," Carlee says, "so it doesn't cross the placenta. Max and I had separate blood supplies, so they could put anything into my bloodstream, and he'd be OK."

The staff managed to send Carlee home on Christmas Eve. But what home?

Christopher realized that Carlee needed more help than he could provide, if he was going to continue working at the theater, and helping his sister in a dog-grooming business, for which he had managed to summon the resources after a summer of near-collapse. Carlee, of course, had quit her jobs at the Grill and at the Pima County Public Library, where she shelved books. Somebody needed to work. But somebody also needed to take care of Carlee.

So Carlee moved back in with her mom. And took Christopher with her.

Carlee's mom was not taken aback at all.

"The baby's daddy is a nice boy," Sharon says. "Christopher is a great man, and he has risen again and again to the challenges he gets faced with. I am pleased to have him a part of the household here."

It's now a full house. Carlee's two younger brothers, both out of high school, are still there, and her sister has moved back home, too. (Sharon's second husband dislikes city living, so he's kept his home and job in Willcox; the couple spends weekends together.) Both Carlee and Sharon credit Christopher as a positive influence on the brothers; since he arrived, they're starting to live more like responsible adult roommates instead of kids.

In a way, Christopher's presence is as comforting to Sharon as to Carlee.

"I'm really not completely traditional, and I do accept a lot of avant-garde ideas," Sharon says, "but having children was the toughest thing I've ever done, and I don't know how I could have done it without a partner, the support of an adult who loved me. I worried that Carolyn would embark on that great adventure in a lone ship. But she reminded me that she was terrible at compromising with others and was bossy and knew her own mind, and if she tried to forge a relationship and to experience parenthood at the same time, she wouldn't be successful at either."

So, in Sharon's mind, Christopher serves as Carlee's partner, even though they are not a couple.

And what about the father of Carlee's baby, who declined to comment for this article?

"He's still a good friend of mine," Carlee says, "and he's proud of me and enamored of Max, but he is not a father influence at this point. If we'd tried to force a relationship, that would've worked for two years, and then one of us would be out. This way, he can be involved in whatever way he's comfortable, forever."

I am completely terrified about this delivery. I have never been present for such a thing and have always considered myself a little too fancy for blood and guts, let alone blood and guts and shit and piss and my dearest friend, who can barely shout above a whisper thanks to the three-month-old neck tumor scar that won't heal, screaming her tits off. ...

I know c-sections are sometimes necessary, but I really want (vaginal birth) for him. Vaginal childbirth is a really fucking important trauma to kick-start a child's life. I'm just scared that Carlee is too weak from the cancer and the treatment of it, on top of being primarily bedridden for this entire pregnancy, to push Max out on her own. If she needs some help with that, then that's what she'll get. It's just so hard to watch her fight every day in preparation of this miracle that is going to rip her in half.

—Christopher Johnson, March 24

Carlee spent most of the rest of her pregnancy in her bedroom, which is adorned with Christmas lights and an odd assortment of wall hangings: an Italian Godfather poster, a unicorn tapestry, an illustration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The room is not cluttered, but well stocked with books, CDs and videos. So well stocked, indeed, that an overloaded bookshelf spontaneously crashed to the floor when she was recently entertaining visitors.

Carlee has never been short of visitors, although Christopher is dubious about how helpful they have been.

"I'd come home from work and find her surrounded by 14 people, just staring at her," he recalls. "I felt like I had to cheer everybody up, or else throw them all out."

It was Carlee, typically, who wound up cheering up her friends. As social as she is, though, Carlee refused to join support groups, either for pregnant women or cancer patients.

"I don't like support groups," she declares, her hoarse voice almost rising. "I'm a rock star. I don't want other people to be going through what I go through. It's mine!"

Yet Carlee admits that she doesn't want to seem freakish, either. "I didn't want to go to Lamaze classes and have to talk about chemo, or go to the cancer support group and be the pregnant girl.

"I didn't give up anything to be a mom, but I gave up everything to be sick. I gave up most of my voice, but it's gotten stronger since the surgery."

Her facial muscles, by the way, are back to normal now. Still, there have been entire weeks when she couldn't leave the house, either because she felt terrible—the side-effects of chemo are notoriously worse than many symptoms of cancer itself—or because her immune system is so delicate that she can't afford to expose herself to other people's germs.

To help her pass the time, Christopher gave Carlee a coffee-table-size set of DVDs containing every episode of M*A*S*H. Carlee, not able to go out and do much shopping, responded by giving Christopher a carton of cigarettes.

"He was jealous that he didn't have his own cancer," Carlee maintains, "so I said, 'Here, get to work.'"

I've spent so many months now listening to Carlee vomit. I should be desensitized to it by now, but each time I hear her colossal retching, all I find myself doing is trying harder and harder to close my eyes with an unattainable finality. It woke me at about four this morning, the sound of her scurrying out of bed with her IV wheeling frantically behind her to the bathroom, already gasping violently. What I hate most about it is the sound. It's so desperate a sound, because she can eat so little as it is that hardly anything ever actually comes out. I want the cancer to come out, and from the sound of it, so does her body.

After going back to sleep I dreamt that she puked Max. Every morning I wake up wondering if her water broke, anxious that she might have gone into labor while I was sleeping. Despite the fact that she'll be induced next week, seven days prior to her due date, I'm secretly expecting Max to come at any moment. I feel like I'm having a long-distance relationship with a blind date I haven't gone on yet. I can only imagine what Carlee must be feeling.

—Christopher Johnson, March 27

A long the way came some good news: Carlee was afflicted with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, part of the immune system. Hodgkin's, which typically attacks people between 15 and 35 and those older than 55, responds well to treatment. When it's detected early, the first-year survival rate is better than 90 percent, and it remains very high at the crucial five-year mark.

"If you've got to have cancer, this is the kind to get," Carlee says. "It's the Cadillac of cancer."

Meanwhile, as Carlee's due date approached, Christopher began to worry about his role in the baby's life. He knew and was comfortable with his position as Carlee's best friend and caregiver. But what would he be to Max? He had no blood relation to the Hills, and he and Carlee would not marry, so he would have no legal rights (or responsibilities). Should he quietly step away, and not complicate his life or Max's? Or was he developing responsibilities the law did not cover?

He suspected the latter would be true. He started a blog called "Gabydaddy," the first syllable pronounced "gay," in which he could work through his questions and emotion (gabydaddy.blogspot.com).

Dear Max,

You will never know how utterly and completely loved you are. ... Most of the stories you are going to hear about coming into the world are going to be about everything your mother went through just to bring you into this world, and she'll likely use this against you for as long as she thinks she can get away with it—and if I know her, there is no statute of limitations on such a thing. Don't worry about that, though, it's just her way of reminding you that she loves you more than anything or anyone in the world. ...

I can't wait to see you smile, I can't wait to hear you laugh, I can't wait to wipe your butt and watch you sleep and read to you and read to you and read to you. I promise to never run out of patience for your questions. I promise to take you to the zoo and we'll make faces at the animals and people alike. I promise to give your mom whatever help she needs and, of course, to always be your favorite uncle (Brian's too smart to be cool and Jesse's too cool to be fun). I promise you can always ride my dog, Luther, like a pony (weight permitting) and to get you your first dog when you're ready for one (as long as it's an English bulldog).

I hope you find your reason for being here and promise to help you be strong, confident and resourceful enough to chase it. You have already made us all so happy and thankful and appreciative and aware. You have the coolest mom in the world, she's funny and intelligent and has an abandonment for living that could wake the dead (myself specifically, among others) and are about to join the most amazing family I've ever been a part of—which is saying a lot coming from a foster home-hopping 25-year-old gypsy. ...

Love you, kiddo. Seeya tomorrow.

—Uncle Christopher

Max Thunder Hill arrived via vaginal birth on a surprisingly stress-free April Fool's Day. "Max" was suggested by his father, and that suited Christopher fine, because he'd loved the Max character in Where the Wild Things Are. "Thunder" was in honor of Carlee's father.

Max came out in perfect shape. For Carlee, the usual postpartum emotional turmoil ensued. But the turmoil was less about Max than about Carlee's relationship with the world.

i don't want to need you but i do. i need you and you and you and you. during the last nine months it got to the point where the only thing i could do for myself was hold my hair out of my puke. not keep hair on my head though. of course. i didn't knock i barged in. without luggage without manuals without contracts or even agreements. you let me in you let me in you let me in. you ran marathons. you brought home the bacon. you cut off my crusts. you drove me home. you drove me home. you drove me home. and now i'm budgeting 20 dollar bills left in my purse by my mom. pretending i earned them. buying you cigarettes. i owe you. i owe you. i owe you a million chicken nuggets a large Dr. Pepper and let's not even mention my massive Burger King debt. you boarded planes. you came over everyday. you didn't come over because your tank was empty. so was your wallet. but you asked if i needed anything, i said yes. i said yes a lot because i know what it's like to feel helpless so i asked for your help. i couldn't let you walk in empty handed.

in a few months i won't need you. which will be much better. obviously. right?

in a few months i won't need you. will i?

in a few months i won't need you. i hope.

and i'm terrified of when i won't need you.

—Carlee Hill, April 21

Christopher found himself equally but differently bemused.

I want to be a father. This is confusing. I've always been more sexually attracted to women than to men, and have always been more romantically attracted to men than to women. I have never been able to imagine myself growing old with a man and have always been able to imagine myself growing old with a woman and a child and about 17 dogs. I never thought I would have children because I've always been such a fantastically selfish human being. Going through this pregnancy with Carlee has made me realize that maybe having a baby is a fantastically selfish thing to do, if not certainly an action of vanity.

I am not the father here, and now that Max is actually here with us, the "strangeness," if you will, of this situation has stampeded to the forefront of our lives. My entire stock of close friends and family are unanimously in agreement that I need to get the hell out of there. My even closer friends and family all know that I of all people am always the first person to jump off a ship, sinking or no—but this is a family I can't bring myself to exit. I know everyone is worried that I—with no rights and no blood in common—am going to get hurt in this scenario. I know and fear that, too. I love Max so much, and that is part of the problem. Carlee has more people helping her and loving her and worshipping her and her brilliant son than most of us have pores in our body. This is a monstrously large, living, breathing community of a family that I have been aggressively selfish enough to claw my way into the center of. However, I am not Max's father and I am not Carlee's husband and of course that is exactly what I feel like and exactly what I want to be as a result of spending the past 10 months or so knee-deep in cancer and chemotherapy and obstetricians and sandwiches without crusts.

Helping Carlee has been easy and extremely possible, consisting primarily of driving and buying food and injecting heparin and washing dishes and watching M*A*S*H. You can't "help" a woman raise a child, you can raise that child with her or not. Carlee knows how she wants to do this (alone, and her way) and we both know that her mother costume does not match my father costume. I know that the older Max gets this has the potential to become an explosive conflict between us. I don't ever want Carlee to have to tell me that I'm not Max's father. It wouldn't be right to put her in that situation. ...

Today the right thing to do is to tell Carlee that I'm going to have to move out at some point, which I did while in line at The Tobacco Barn drive-through. In order for me to be the uncle I want to be to Max, I cannot continue living with them. She's got another four months of chemo ahead of her because, of course, the tumors in her chest are still having a dance party, eviction notice be damned. I'll keep taking her to the doctor and keep putting groceries in the fridge when I can. I'll keep clawing my way into her family and will steal Max away for every opportunity the zoos and toy stores and swimming pools and roller derbies of Tucson can afford us, but I can't keep sharing that roof and kidding myself that we're sharing that child.

I want to be a father.

I need to be a father.

I'm going to be a father.

Before I am, though, I'm going to be the best uncle Max has ever seen.

As much as his life just began, in a way—I feel like mine did, too.

I am so grateful for this experience.

Now if we can just get Carlee's cancer in the ground ...

... we'll finally be running on it again.

—Christopher Johnson, April 20

However, Christopher did not move out. He wasn't ready, and neither was Carlee.

it turns out that babies and cancer patients need the same 16 to 20 hours of sleep a day. however very few of those hours are simultaneous. Max closed his eyes, i bathed, i laundered, i took out the trash, i fed myself, i washed bottles, i filled bottles. Max slumbered on but i was too much in love and too nervous to sleep. he grumbles and snorts and huffs and coos and smiles in his sleep. pure gold. but what kills me is when he knits his baby brows together and whines in pain? fear? sorrow? concern?

it turns out that babies and cancer patients NEED to cry. need to sob angrily. need to shake with panic and confusion and turn bright red with indignation while they cry.

it's not called depression if you have something to cry about.

—Carlee Hill, April 27

Carlee shaved her head after Max came home two weeks ago, and it drove me crazy for about a week. I suppose it's better than watching her hair fall out as she struggles through chemo to care for her newborn, but I hate thinking of her as a cancer patient. What's been so amazing about Carlee during this process is her ability to still be a whole person. At no point has she become just a sad girl with cancer, and as much as we all have been rallying around and about her, making her sandwiches and granting her wishes to be ignored when she pukes and driving her to various medical offices and knitting beanies for her cold naked skull, she's really been the one helping all of us. She's the one making me laugh, making me remember that I'm alive, making me love her without abandon or request, more now than ever before. A dirty little patch of lucidity in the back of my brain knows I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of this the same way a twenty-five-year-old orphan jumps at an offer to play house ... oh, wait.


—Christopher Johnson, April 29

Max punched himself in the eye. he has a little cut just under his left eye. he looks real tough.

he gets real angry. it's pretty pitiful. when something has really offended him he cries out and frowns real hard. i've really never felt clumsier. he hates to put on clothes. he hates getting naked. he hates having his head touched. he hates cold baths. he hates hot baths. he barely allows perfect baths. he hates going to sleep. he hates waking up. he hates digesting food. he hates dirty diapers. he hates putting on clean diapers. after any of these activities he won't look at me. but he allows me to feed him. all the while stubbornly avoiding eye contact.

he never says thank you.

he does something better.

he smiles. he coos. he makes this perfect baby Chewbacca sound.

you're welcome Max. thank you.

—Carlee Hill, May 9

Let me tell you what is so spectacularly beautiful about babies. It's all in what they turn other people into before they turn into people themselves. Max has turned Carlee into a much older and a significantly much younger young woman. Somehow wilderness combined with sadness in a woman equals maturity with a big maraschino cherry of happiness on top. Just being able to see someone come in to the world already so deeply, passionately and aggressively loved has been an amazing experience. Max has turned Sharon into a grandmother and Sara into an aunt and me into a huge fucking liar.

Last Wednesday I took Carlee and Max back out to Northwest Hospital so C could get a CT scan prior to a session of chemo the following day (which of course was canceled because she has less white blood cells than I have freckles). I wandered the halls with a sleeping Thunderbolt in my arms looking for a Gatorade machine and passed nurse after nurse after nurse. Every one of them asked, "Oh, is he yours? Is he your first?" All to which I proudly and despicably replied, "Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES!" It may not be honest, but it's a better than saying, "No, I don't know whose fuckin' baby this is. Want it?"

I even lie to myself about it sometimes, when Max and I have our conversations (conversations in which I speak for both of us), he always calls me "Daddy" in a perfectly irritated tone of voice. I know I don't imagine Max calling me "Daddy" because I'm confused or delusional, I'm just trying that out in my head, you know? Seeing how it feels. Maybe that's sad or inappropriate but I'm the only person who is going to be affected by it and I can take care of myself if you can't already tell by this blog I'm writing, justifying my own actions to myself and the three people who read this thing.

Max has turned Luther into a mongoloid older brother with body hair problems and Jesse and Brian into gentle-giant uncle-monkeys. Max has turned all of Carlee's friends into crazy people and their girlfriends and sisters into even fucking crazier people. The bizarre sense of associative ownership that has been afflicting Carlee's social circle and even her anti-social circle since she became pregnant is staggeringly intense. I wonder who and what would be different in this situation if she just had cancer or just got pregnant. Either way, I'm so happy our lives have re-collided. I just wish the circumstances weren't so fucking crushing.

—Christopher Johnson, May 31

As he has helped Carlee through her treatment and pregnancy and now helps with Max (who is placid for a baby and, according to his grandmother, is happiest sitting in somebody's lap in the back yard under the tree, watching the birds; he has a bushy head of dark hair that his stubblyscalped mother must envy), Christopher is returning to something resembling his former self—or perhaps achieving an improved, richer, even more complex version of his former self. He's back on Celexa, the antidepressant that had worked well for him before the plunge. And the most effective treatment for borderline personality disorder, he believes, is behavioral: eating right, getting enough exercise and sleep, avoiding caffeine.

And not sequestering yourself in your little apartment. Maintaining strong human connections.

Carlee goes in for chemo every two weeks. Most of the worst symptoms (of the cancer or the chemo, she's not sure) went away once she gave birth. Because she couldn't keep food down and was malnourished, she actually lost weight during the pregnancy, but now she's getting back to normal.

She still gets very tired, and has bone pain and muscle pain. At some points in her treatment cycle, she just has to turn Max over to her mother or Christopher or one of her siblings for the day. The three- or four-hour chemo treatments can be devastating. And because of the poison pumped into her system every two weeks, she can't breastfeed Max, which is hard on the daughter of a La Leche League counselor. But her body isn't producing milk, anyway.

even when i'm okay i'm not. if i feel a fraction of how i've ever felt before it only reminds me how painfully painfully small my life has become. if i consider that eventually everything will start to fill up the widescreen of dreaming, my breath catches. i am afraid. i can never ignore my health again. i can't trust my youth. i can't trust my body. when i get better i get to look for cancer every year. i am really really afraid.

and sometimes i feel better. and then things that are supposed to happen can. and then they can't. and this has to continue for the rest of the summer that hasn't started yet.

i am counting the days til Christmas because i was confident i'd be well by then. but i will always, always be afraid.

—Carlee Hill, May 28

Afraid or not, Carlee has an excellent prognosis. Max has a loving family to nurture him.

Christopher is part of that family. Sharon, more than anyone, recognizes that.

"I know that Christopher worries about the future and the part he will play in Max's life, and worries about confusion for Max," Sharon says. "He needs to see how things unfold, and that families are made of connections, and the connections are important—what you are, soul-to-soul, to somebody.

"Christopher is a very talented young man; sometimes it's hard for me to imagine he'll be in Tucson years from now. But you have to let go of the future and see how things evolve. I know he's spiritually committed to Carolyn and Max. It won't matter where he is. Carolyn's family is cobbled together from all different shapes and sizes of people."

But it seems that Christopher will be family without legal rights. He's not the father, and he and Carlee would have to be married for him to obtain rights to Max (and the rights of Max's biological father would have to be terminated).

Meanwhile, in the home of Carlee and Max and Carlee's family, Christopher will have to count on the power and endurance of elective affinities.

Took Max to my Mom's house yesterday morning. She freaked out a little bit. She pushed all the dogs into the garage so they wouldn't bother her while she was feeding him and cried when I demonstrated how I'm slowly teaching him how to howl like a wild thing. It was a terrific struggle not saying aloud, "Now say goodbye to Grandma." My sister says Mom called her afterward and told her 100 times, "He's doing such a good job, I'm so proud of him, he's so gentle." I haven't quite made my Mom a Grandmother just yet, but I've brought Max into her life, and this makes me feel good.

It's so funny because when Max was born I totally lost my shit and was convinced I had to step out of this situation. Then after a week or three I thought, OK, I can't step back until Carlee's well again, obviously.

However, as Max gets bigger and brighter and funnier and more full of fight ... as the first signs of giggle bubble up to the surface, rippling out just under his newly intentional smiles, I fall more and more in love with this Thunderbolt of a boy. Carlee and I talk a lot about how much he's grown and changed already every day. She put a shoe on him yesterday and I just about lost it. Too much personhood, too soon. We both love putting him on our shoulder because it's like tricking him into hugging. Someday he'll be asking for them, I can barely fathom that—and yet it's all I want in the whole world.

I know I'm not going anywhere anytime soon because I no longer have the option to. I say that with the confidence of a freely happy man, not a schmuck in an obligatory bear-trap.

And when I fall in love in bed again, someday, that person will just have to accept this brilliant and beautiful life of mine for the outstanding and overwhelming privilege that it is. Something Carlee and I have always had in common is a shared quality of intensity. If you can't handle us at our worst, you don't deserve us at our best.

—Christopher Johnson, June 11


In Arizona, unmarried couples can't adopt; only individuals can

In theory, there's nothing preventing Christopher from someday setting up house with a man he loves and adopting some other child—except that Arizona adoption law can be complicated, confusing and discouraging for potential gay parents.

According to Melissa Griebel, president of Ethica: An Independent Voice for Ethical Adoption, "There is no law in Arizona that bars a gay man or woman from adopting a child. Unfortunately, only one same-sex partner may adopt; there is no second-parent adoption in Arizona for a second parent if the parents are unmarried.

"Gay and lesbian parents are adopting in Arizona every day. The inability for both parents to be legal parents, though, prevents their children from having legal connections to both their parents, which is very sad and dangerous for the family. In my opinion, children of gays and lesbians are being treated as second-class citizens and being denied access to family court to protect their legal rights to stay connected to their parents."

Griebel will be holding a conference in Tucson on Nov. 6 that will address this and other issues related to LGBT adoption in Arizona; information will be available at Ethicanet.org.


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