Blind Dad, Blind Son, New World
Born blind in Bangalore, India, and left at a hospital gate, Pandu was an outcast even among orphans. Unschooled, undisciplined, unloved, he might have grown up to be a beggar. Then one day in November 2008 Jason and his wife, Laleña, took a 26-hour trip across the globe and brought Pandu home to their working-class neighborhood—where he now goes to school, swings in the park and gets a nightly bedtime story. His disability, which made him virtually unadoptable in India, is what drew Jason to him: Like his chosen son, Jason is blind, and he knows that he is the perfect dad for this little boy. "For us, blindness isn't a big deal," says Jason, 35, who teaches technology to the blind. "I understand what he needs to learn. And I want to give him as full a life as I can."
Jason wasn't always sure he was meant to be a father. He and Laleña, who married in 1999, couldn't have biological kids. But when Laleña, 38, a job recruiter, pushed for international adoption, Jason agreed on one condition: The child had to be blind. "My thought was," says Jason, in his clear, strong voice, "'Why not give somebody a chance who might have very little of one?'" Paging through a booklet of blind orphans in 2006, Laleña fell in love with Pandu, then 3, who was born with extremely small and sunken eyes. "You would not predict a very happy outcome for a child like that," says Dr. Dana E. Johnson, an international adoption specialist at the University of Minnesota.
Instead, Pandu is being raised with the same high expectations Jason had for himself. Abandoned by his father before he was born, he entered the world two months early in Winnipeg, Man., after his mother, Ellana Ronald, was in a car accident. Jason was given too much oxygen in an incubator, and his eyes were damaged beyond repair. "The doctor said, 'Well, he's blind and he'll never do this and that,'" recalls Ellana, 68. Instead of despairing, she resolved to make her son self-sufficient. Attending mainstream public schools and regular summer camps, Jason relied on his keen hearing and smarts to navigate the world. "I don't remember ever feeling afraid," says Jason, who discovered a talent for computers at age 8 and eventually went to work for a high-tech firm in San Francisco. There, through a chat line, he met Laleña Shea; during their first talk, he revealed his condition. "I was like, 'Okay, whatever,'" she says. "He was interesting and intelligent."
When it came time to adopt, Laleña felt their chances would be better with an older child. "We've always had a good life, but we're not rich, Jason is blind and I'm fat," she says in her matter-of-fact way. By the time the Fayres left for India in 2008—a death in Laleña's family had delayed the process—Pandu was 5. Walking into an orphanage that was lined with cribs and smelled of urine, the Fayres were told Pandu would likely never speak. "They had pretty much written him off," Jason recalls. When they brought him back to their hotel, the panicked boy jumped on the bed and laughed hysterically for hours, rebuffing any contact. "We wondered," says Jason, "was this the worst mistake of our lives?"
Back in Colorado, where the Fayres had moved in 2004, Pandu threw daily tantrums and woke up screaming with night terrors. Having attended adoption classes, the couple patiently heaped on the love. "We were holding him, hugging him, responding to every need," Laleña says. Two months later Pandu said his first word—"eilk" for "milk." Now, after 11 months with the Fayres, he has a toddler's vocabulary, feeds himself, is learning to use a toilet and, most importantly, Laleña says, "He's attached. Now when he cries, one of us picks him up and he calms down in a matter of minutes."
Once Pandu was settled at home, the Fayres began to show him the world. They took him to the Denver Zoo, where he felt the rough skin of an Australian lizard; hiked around a lake, where he scooped up handfuls of sand; and camped, where he sang songs by a roaring fire. In August he started in a mainstream preschool; there, an aide is teaching him to get around the hallways and, at circle time, he bounces a ball and announces his name. "To see the changes in him," says Jason, "has been wonderful, rewarding, unbelievable."
At night Jason tucks Pandu into bed and reads him a story from the braille books on his bedroom shelves. Listening to Aggie and Ben, Pandu is restless, moving his head from side to side until Jason reaches out and stills him. With nursery songs playing, the father kisses his son on the forehead and gently urges him to sleep. Tomorrow will bring another adventure. "Good night, Pandu," he says.
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