A dying man's race to adopt, and a small miracle
SHARON, S.C. (AP) — With everything she had to do that morning, Marshall McClain could not believe his wife was wasting time making the bed.
"What are you doing?" he gasped from the brown recliner where he spent his nights.
Tracey McClain was killing time, waiting for the lawyer's call, waiting to hear whether the adoption was a go and 11-month-old Alyssa would finally be theirs.
Alyssa's mother had long since given her consent, but attorney Dale Dove hadn't been in a particular hurry to locate the biological father. In the case of absentee fathers, he told the McClains, the longer the child can bond with the prospective parents before an adoption notice is filed, the better.
"Time is your friend," Dove had said.
But time had suddenly become the enemy.
An infection raged through the 61-year-old Army veteran's withered, 115-pound frame, and the intravenous antibiotics couldn't keep up. Doctors said he had just a couple of days.
But the man who'd survived 60 combat missions in Vietnam had one more task to complete. He wanted to give his name to the little girl who'd been the light of his life these past six months. More importantly, he wanted Alyssa to have the right to collect his benefits after he died.
During the past few days, Dove and others moved heaven and earth to make the adoption happen. An opening had suddenly occurred in the judge's docket, and Tracey was scrambling to get herself and Alyssa ready and over to Rock Hill, about 40 minutes away.
By the time Tracey returned to the bedroom to say goodbye, the hospice nurse had arrived.
Even with the oxygen tube at his nose, Marshall's breathing was labored. He was unable to speak, but his eyes were open, and Tracey knew he could understand her as she leaned down to kiss him.
"I love you," she said. "I'll be back."
Tracey and Marshall McClain's life wasn't perfect — but it was pretty darned close.
They'd met on the job. He was a long-haul truck driver, and she — 17 years his junior — was his dispatcher.
Married on New Year's Day 1994, they started their own trucking company a year later. Over the next 16 years, they'd built their Charlotte, N.C., business from five tractor-trailers to a fleet of 32 owner-operators.
The couple constructed a spacious three-story house on 33 wooded, northwest South Carolina acres that they shared with three racking horses — Rudy, Hunter and Little Girl — and a pair of goats named Thelma and Louise.
Each had a grown child from a previous marriage. Marshall's daughter, Amy Lane, lived about three hours away in Summerton; Danielle, Tracey's girl, lived with them. If there was any diaper changing in their future, they figured it would be for their first grandchild, who was on the way.
But all that changed one Sunday morning last fall, when an 18-year-old stranger walked through the doors at Sanctuary Hills Church of God of Prophecy.
The 2-month-old girl in her arms was pale and spitting up. The young mother appeared distraught.
"I'm not sleeping," she said. "She's not sleeping."
One of the women in the nursery offered to take the baby home for a while. The mother agreed without hesitation.
The McClains added mother and baby to their prayer list, but that was the extent of their involvement — until early January.
The church friend told Tracey that Alyssa had been hospitalized for breathing trouble and dehydration. When Alyssa was ready to be released, the friend asked if the McClains could keep her for the night.
After they got her home, a winter storm hit. By the time the snow had melted off, the McClains were in love.
The mother already had a 3-year-old son. She wasn't ready to be a mother of two.
"Alyssa ... has been passed around to several families that mom did not know much about," a social worker wrote. The mother "has not bonded with Alyssa."
On Jan. 28, social services granted the McClains temporary custody. Less than a week later, the mother signed away her parental rights.
About two years ago, during a family vacation, Marshall became violently ill. His skin turned a sickly yellow, and the already painfully lean trucker began dropping weight.
Over time, Marshall underwent numerous surgeries to clear blockages or take biopsies. He would bounce back after each operation, only to relapse later.
The business was doing well enough that Marshall decided to retire. When Alyssa came along, he was able to devote full time to raising her.
He was the one who, when she awoke crying, declared that she'd just have to cry herself back to sleep. Five minutes later, he was up to comfort her.
He would sit in his recliner and bounce Alli on his leg, singing "Ride the Horsey" or "Jesus Loves Me." He worked hard to make sure her first word was "Daddy" — and it was.
When Marshall first became ill, doctors feared it was pancreatic cancer, but tests came back negative. In late March, that initial suspicion was confirmed.
He had just started radiation and chemotherapy when physicians discovered abscesses in his liver. They ordered intravenous antibiotics.
Danielle and her fiance, Kevin Susigan, moved their wedding up a year to May 14 so Marshall could walk her down the aisle.
The first week in July, Marshall went to Carolinas Medical Center near Charlotte for some tests to see how the abscesses were responding to the treatment. While he was there, one of them ruptured.
When doctors said there was nothing they could do to halt the spreading infection, Marshall decided to spend his last few days at home, with family. Tracey asked him if he was frightened.
"The only thing I'm scared of is leaving you here with all this responsibility," he told her. "But, other than that, I'm ready."
Dove, the lawyer, was on vacation at the beach with his wife. They weren't scheduled to come home for several days, but something told them to cut their trip short.
He was in his office Friday, July 8, when Tracey called with the news about Marshall.
"Holy cow," he said. "We need to get this thing DONE."
Dove's staff had located Alyssa's biological father just days earlier. He was at the Moss Justice Center in York, awaiting transfer to prison to begin serving a five-year sentence for drug distribution.
The lawyer had two options.
He could file a notice of adoption proceeding, which would give the father 30 days to respond — days he knew Marshall McClain did not have. Or he could go to the jail and get the man's consent.
At 8 a.m. the next day, Dove was ushered into a closet-like room with a thick glass partition and a telephone receiver on the wall. On the other side sat a slight young man in an orange jumpsuit.
Dove explained how the McClains had been taking care of Alyssa. He told him of adopting his own daughter 26 years earlier, and what a blessing it had been. Finally, he explained the situation with Marshall McClain, and the need for urgency.
The father — a baby-faced 19-year-old with blond hair like Alyssa's — was visibly moved. He was leaning toward signing the consent, but demurred: "I don't know these people."
"Well," Dove said. "I can help with that."
Dove stepped outside and called Tracey McClain. He told her to write a letter introducing herself and Marshall to Alyssa's father, and to get it there as quickly as possible.
By 1 p.m., Dove was slipping the hastily typed page through the slot at the bottom of the window.
Tracey told the man about Marshall's service in Vietnam, and about the successful trucking business they had built together. She wrote of their supportive church family, and of the older sisters and cousins who would love and help care for Alyssa.
Tracey promised to send him reports on his daughter's progress, and to "uphold you in a positive way" to her.
"You would be giving us the greatest gift by allowing us to make Alyssa part of our family," she wrote.
Tracey had also sent several photos.
"They look like good people," the young man behind the glass said.
He told Dove he wanted the weekend to think it over. But he didn't need to wait that long.
Later that day, he sat down with a pen and a piece of yellow legal paper.
He said that he had never known his own father, and was grateful for the McClains' offer to let him be part of Alyssa's life. He wanted her — and them — to know that, "Just because I'm locked up doesn't make me a bad person."
"The last thing I ever wanted to do was give my daughter away ... ," he wrote. "But you are the parents now and truely have been since the beginning and I have faith in God whatever decisions you make for her will be the best ones."
Dove was gassing up his truck around 9:30 a.m. Monday, July 11, when his assistant called from the jail with news that the father had signed. He immediately called Family Court Judge David Guyton's office and explained Marshall's condition to the judge's assistant, Sandy Neely.
"Is there ANY possibility for the judge to hear the case?" he pleaded.
She put him on hold. After a short time, she came back and asked if they could be there by 1:45.
"Sure," he replied.
He immediately called Tracey McClain. He was still on the phone with her when he got a beep.
It was Guyton's office.
"We JUST had a cancellation," Neely said. "Can you be here by 11?"
Dove looked at his watch. It was nearing 10, and he was still in his jeans. He would have to get home and change into his suit while his staff drafted the paperwork.
"I'll probably be a few minutes late," he warned Neely.
As Dove raced home, it dawned on him that he'd have to make sure Alyssa's court-appointed guardian would be there. And since Marshall would be unable to attend, he wanted the woman who'd done the home study present to attest to the loving atmosphere in the McClain household.
Miraculously, both were available.
Back in Sharon, Tracey McClain hastily pulled on some slacks and a dress shirt. When Danielle came downstairs with Alli still in her pajamas, she told her to go back and change her into a dress.
Dove reached the court building at 11:09. The hearing did not get under way until 11:31.
With his close-cropped flattop haircut, chiseled features and ramrod straight posture, Guyton looks every inch the Marine captain he once was — and Army National Guard lieutenant colonel he still is. But he has a special place in his heart for adoptions.
Taped to the inside rim of his bench is a photo of his 7-year-old daughter, Hannah Grace. Dove represented the Guytons in the adoption.
For the record, Dove noted that Marshall McClain was not present in the courtroom.
"This adoption, though, is something that he wanted," he said. "Is that correct?"
"Yes," Tracey replied as Alyssa let out a yelp. "I believe that's what he's holding on for."
The guardian and other witnesses were quickly called, heard and dismissed. Squirming in a cousin's lap, Alyssa cooed as the small pendulum clock over the judge's left shoulder ticked away the minutes.
Toward the end of the hearing, Dove noticed a serious error in the adoption decree. The couple's name was misspelled "McCalin" throughout.
Breaking with protocol, Guyton allowed Dove to make the corrections by hand.
The hearing ended at 12:05 p.m. Dove wanted to snap a photo of judge and family, but Tracey said she couldn't wait, and hurried to her car.
A couple of miles out of town, she dialed home. Danielle answered.
"Tell your dad we've got her," the mother said. "I'll be there in a few minutes."
Danielle repeated the news to the room. Her sister Amy leaned close to her father's ear and whispered, "She's ours."
McClain's breathing eased. The muscles in his face relaxed.
The clerk's stamp on the final decree reads 12:09 p.m. Marshall McClain's official time of death was 12:17.
Allen G. Breed is a Raleigh, N.C.-based national writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at features(at)ap.