Mike and Victor: A family story

June 29, 2012

Alex Kotlowitz and Amy Drozdowska

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I suppose there are many ways to describe this story – of differences that bind...what happens when roles become reversed --- but in the end it’s really rather simple. It’s a story about how one family is made and then remade.

It begins in 1993. Mike Checuga was 24 years old and single, making fistfuls of money selling real estate. Cocky. Brash. Driven. Mike was working such long hours – and thinking only about making money – that one day his boss tells him, demands, really,  that he take a day off each week. That maybe he volunteer somewhere. For his own health. For his own good. Maybe at that orphanage that Mike knew about through his church.

MIKE: I thought he was nuts, and I figured I would just do it one day and not like it at all, and be done with it...I did it really...to prove him wrong, just to shut him up, say, “I did it, it was stupid, it was a complete waste of time, I’m done with this now.”

So every Thursday Mike would hang out with these kids – and much to his surprise ended up having a good time. Certainly more than he anticipated. And he became angry, really enraged, by the conditions there. The staff did things like call the kids ‘retards’ and they hijacked the TV for their own use.  One kid in particular, a nine-year-old boy, Victor, was drawn to Mike – and Mike to him. Victor couldn’t have been more different. Where Mike came from a big, boisterous extended family – Victor had been abandoned when he was five – and had run away from numerous foster homes. But Mike saw something of himself in Victor. Hot tempered and stubborn.

MIKE: He was a handful... but as long as you would talk to him like a human being, he would listen. He just wanted to be treated fair, like any kid would, and the staff, just, that wasn’t their way.

Well, Mike and Victor became extremely close. Then one day, the staff told the kids that they were going to treat them like convicts – and make them march around with their hands on each other’s shoulders. It was degrading – and Victor lost it, and trashed the cafeteria. As punishment, they took away for three months the most important thing to Victor: his visits with Mike. But they let Mike see him one last time.

MIKE: I just remember this fun loving energetic kid was so cold and distant. And I said, don’t worry I’ll be back in 3 months. And he’s like, no you won’t. And his response was so cold, it was like, they can do whatever they want to me here.

VICTOR: I had so many people coming in and out of my life that I really didn’t think he was going to come back at all.

MIKE: And then on the drive home, I used to smoke then, I think I smoke a pack of cigarettes in 10 minutes.

VICTOR: And on the way home, I just decided yeah...

MIKE: I don’t know how good a parent I can be, but I can be better than the environment he’s in right now. And that’s when I made the decision to make some phone calls to see what I needed to do.

MIKE: And I must have called like 20 or 30 different agencies. And only 1 called back. And it was Maryville.  And I talked with a guy at the time who became head of the program but at the time was a caseworker named Jerry Harris.

JERRY: It was one of the most unusual phone calls that I’ve received from someone wanting to be a foster parent in my history there. He introduced himself, he told me that he was interested in getting a boy from uh, a program, into his home.... He went on to say, that he’s black. And I said, ok. And he said, I’m white. And I said ok. Is that a problem? I said no, unless you think it’s one.

MIKE: And he said, “Will you care for this kid?” And I said, “Absolutely.” He’s like, “Color is nothing then, don't worry about it.” And that was great, because everybody else was making a bigger issue out of it than us.
 
MIKE: And they did a background check and the whole shebang ...Victor was 10 years old when this took place. I was so excited because I got the approval and we were good to go, and I couldn’t find him, and he was in a time-out. And the way they used to do the time-outs at this organization is they would make the kids stand against, it was a concrete wall, an old-school concrete wall, and they had to have the hands behind their back, and literally the staff would come up... just push the kids’ heads against the wall. Because usually they were about 3 or 4 inches away from the wall, so they’d bump the head against the wall as they would walk by. They were just asses. And I just remember seeing him there against the wall, just ready to snap. And I just put my arm around him. And I’m like, “This is your last ten minutes here. You’re done.” And he gives me this look, and I was like, “You’re moving in after this. We’re going to get your stuff and you’re coming home.” And he, just this anger turned into this great grin, just ear to ear, it was great, I can picture it now.

VICTOR: He came back and touched my shoulder and told me that would be the last 10 minutes... I went from anger to happiness in 10 seconds. Once I found out… I did that last 10 minutes with ease it felt like.

MIKE: He didn’t want to take anything, none of his toys, none of his clothes, none of his nothing.

VICTOR: I just wanted to get out of there. I mean, it wasn’t fair. At all....  I just didn’t want anything there. Most of the toys and all that, I just figured they could have it, and my clothes, I didn’t have a lot of clothes in the first place.

MIKE: [I mean,  he was so excited,  we were both,]  just leaving that place, it…. it felt surreal…. It just didn’t…. it didn’t hit us for a long time, but...we were building a life together.

MIKE: At the time, I’d moved to a two-bedroom place....and when we came home it had his favorite Power Ranger on the wall as a poster, Michael Jordan stuff. Then he knew it was his.

VICTOR: X-Men toys everywhere. Everywhere.

MIKE: Yeah, he loved the X-Men toys...

VICTOR: I was just happy to have something that was actually mine, so.... honestly when I moved in, I didn’t want to go nowhere... I wanted to make this last, so I wasn’t going anywhere.

MIKE: It was the two of us against the world for a while.

MIKE: One co-worker came over to me one time when I was at the computer at the office telling me that puppies belong with puppies and kittens belong with kittens. And it just, came out of nowhere, and she was dead serious. I didn’t know the woman that well at work, we were just casual acquaintances. And Victor used to come over to the office after school all the time to do his homework, and she decided that was appropriate for her to say to me.

MIKE: The response from my family was not good at all.

CATHY: Hey Mike, you’re not responsible enough to raise a child.

MIKE: They did not support it in any way shape or form in the beginning.

CATHY: When I found out he was going to adopt Victor I was totally against it. I wasn’t worried about Mike at the time, I was worried about Victor.

MIKE: My mom was concerned because here I am a 25 year old trying to take care of another human life. So she did not think that was good. I was a bit of a screw-up back in my past. So, I wasn’t the most responsible, or, level-headed person.

CATHY: You’ve had no experience, and now you’ve got to start teaching a child, and now you’ve got to teach yourself how to cook and how to, just do everything else, you know, it was scary, it scared the heck out of me.

MIKE: And that’s sadly what the family would always focus on, that I was sort of the village idiot and who would let me take care of this kid.

MIKE: The majority of my family and I stopped talking. My one uncle Mike, who was my favorite uncle growing up made it really clear, I'm done. I'm not family any more because Victor was black.

CATHY: When my brother learned about it, he said, he better not bring that, N...  I can’t say the word because it upsets me, around here, I’ll kill him. Or Mike, I’ll kill Mike too. And since then, he never talked to Mike. It was awful, it was just awful.

MIKE: There was phone calls at the beginning, and there was a conversation I had with a particular member of my family and they're like, you're always introducing him as your son, why do you have to introduce him as your son, why can't you just make it clear he's your foster son? And that used to drive me nuts, I was like, it’s not your vote and we realized we were starting a family and Victor and I were our core family, the rest of them were just on the outskirts.

MIKE: I brought Victor home as a foster parent, but from day one I was planning on doing a full-blown adoption. I don’t know how it works, but for us, we were assigned the same judge, and we dealt with the same guy for 4 years. Originally, the judge wanted Victor to be with a black family, versus a single white guy. And I said, that would be great, but that’s not an option for him... Nobody was there for Victor. Not his blood relatives or anything like that...Nobody wants this kid, and I do, and I don’t know what else to say. So what’s the problem here? Well let’s wait, and there went four freaking years of “Let’s wait.”

VICTOR: Having to dress up and go to court as a kid, I hated that. I remember….  dressing up a lot just to go to court, for sometimes in there for just for like 10, 15 min, sometimes for hours. And nothing would be done.

MIKE: I would get into it with the judge in court, which isn't smart to do.

JERRY: I mean, bail money was ready… I had it…

MIKE: Jerry from Maryville was there, and he would calm me down all the time. Because it was bad.

JERRY: I would always coach him before we went up because we would go in together, and we would sit together, and I would tell him, now, Mike, when we go up, let me do the talking.... and, once we’re done, we’re going to turn around, we’re going to walk out… we’re going to go and get some lunch and everything’s going to be fine.

MIKE: And it wasn’t until we had a substitute judge. This guy was sick, who we were assigned to, um, and we had a female judge... that sat in on the case. And she told me, you have two minutes to plead your case. And I said, no, that’s okay, this is a waste of time. And she looked at her watch and she said, you have a minute-and-a-half. And I spilled, spewed my guts out....about, ‘This is a joke, it's been 4 years, the kid was on medication when he first moved in, he's off medication, he was flunking all of his classes, he's an A student.’ The kid is phenomenal, what else are we supposed to do? He's comfortable. This is his home. He has a dog at this point, what else am I supposed to do?! And he wanted it, more importantly. It was all about him. So, I kept getting more and more ramped. And that’s why she smacked the gavel, just to shut me up. I thought I was going to get locked up. I wasn’t looking forward to it. And uh, she goes, that’s ridiculous, and... And I was like, I’m thinking, uhh, I’m going to get contempt of court again..... And she goes, come back in two weeks, adoption will be finalized.

MIKE: Then we had to meet with another lawyer the next day… to go over the legal aspects of everything….And that’s when the lawyer, not knowing Victor, made the mistake of telling Victor that he had the right to change his name. And I told Vitctor that he could either pick Checuga or keep his other name.

JERRY: I could see the wheels turning in this kid’s head, literally.

MIKE: And the caseworker, Jerry, again, at this point he was family to us, and he knew Vic.

JERRY: He was trying to think of this cool name that he could come up with.

MIKE: And at the time, Zorro just came out, and he wanted to be Antonio Banderas...

JERRY: And Mike and I looked at each other and almost at the same time we said, “No, that’s not happening.”

MIKE: And the lawyer said, well, whatever name he tells the judge is the name he’s going to get.... And Victor and I had a huge argument over that. It was hilarious.

VICTOR: Antonio Banderas: I really wanted that name!... And she told me I could pick any name I want, so I’m like, alright!

MIKE: And we didn’t know until the day of court until the judge asked him, what name do you want to go by? And when the judge asked that, Victor got quiet, and he had a huge grin on his face.

JERRY: He had his chest poked out. He spoke very, very clearly, looked the judge right in the eye...

MIKE: And he said...

VICTOR: I want my name to be Victor Lee Checuga.

MIKE: I always looked at Victor as my son, and I always treated him as my son and would introduce him that way, but now it was a hundred percent. He was a Checuga.

MIKE: Victor is more of a Checuga than anybody else, I’m sorry… He’s got the personality, the attitude, the smart-mouth, the stubbornness.

MIKE: He went to a public school.

VICTOR: Straight A's

MIKE: Straight A's, at the time. He was told that he would never survive in a public school, which is one reason he got straight As. Because if you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to do it to the extreme, it’s another family trait. I mean, my friends at work were, the ones that knew us and would associate with us were 100 percent, he was my kid. Because the attitude, the mouth, the temper, the sarcasm. That’s you! And they did tell us that in the beginning, which was 6 months, 9 months is what they call the honeymoon stage where nobody can do anything wrong. And then after that you let your hair down. And that was probably about right.

VICTOR: That’s about right.
MIKE: That was about right. We would get into stupid little arguments. And he kept his room perfectly clean all the time because he was very proud to have his own room, but it was stupid stuff. The TV was too loud or he didn’t put the dishes away…

VICTOR: Fingerprints…

MIKE: Yeah, he touches every thing, so there were fingerprints, on the windows, the mirrors, the walls, and I hate that crap…. But it was stuff like that that wasn’t a big deal.

MIKE: My mom was very supportive in junior high, high school. And my mom and I had this conversation, I remember when... when her opinion switched. Because somebody at work was volunteering as a Big Brother... And she was so impressed... what a great thing he’s investing his time one day a week. 

CATHY: And I said, “Isn’t that great?” And he goes, Mom! What do you think I’m doing?

MIKE: And I’m like, your son’s doing this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and I get nothing from you. But this idiot at work does it for one day and you’re going to build a little statue to him.

CATHY: It hit me like a rock, like I’m not giving my son credit for what he’s done or what he’s accomplished.

MIKE: And she, I could hear the switch, it just clicked in her. And she was like, you’re right. And then she started getting more involved. And she would babysit for Victor. And they became extremely close after that.

CATHY: When Mike adopted him and I said, you’re, I’m your grandma, and from day one he called me grandma.

VICTOR: She kind of reminds me of me because she’s so quiet but so blunt. I love her so much

CATHY: That kid would do anything for me.

VICTOR: I like being around her, I like talking with her, I mean, it’s Grandma.

CATHY: There was a connection there.... and it’s like, something that interacted between all of us without saying a word.

VICTOR: Between her and my dad that’s all I really had...

MIKE: Together we were, it was great… 6th, 7th, 8th grade he was a typical kid, he would stay out late, he would get grounded. You know, be home at 10, he would be home at 10:15, he would get grounded.

VICTOR: …for weeks couldn’t go out for 15 minutes late.
MIKE: And I was probably overly strict because I was a single parent and I did not want to make any mistakes. There was that over-the-shoulder doom that I was going to get from my family saying, see, we told you! And I didn’t want that crap. So I was overly strict. There was a time I had to come sit next to him in class because he was being the class clown. 

VICTOR: My dad came in and he sat there the whole day. I mean, I was embarrassed and upset, I mean, I looked at my dad, like, ‘Why are you being so strict?’ But he wanted me to do well...

MIKE: I ended up buying a house in Schaumburg because of the schools. The school district was ranked very high in the state....and that was really important because I wanted Victor to get a good education.

MIKE: It was a very frustrating time because you know, he was…different. I mean, school was, it still is a very small percentage of black people unless it’s boomed in the last 10 years since we’ve been out. A lot of the kids thought that he was the guy to go to for drugs or trouble because he was black.

VICTOR: They thought I could get drugs of whatever else they wanted... and at the time, I played into that role… just started to play into it and that was my downfall.

MIKE: When victor was between 15 and 16 was when he started pushing the envelope a little bit as far as what he could get away with.... The lying started a lot, over where he was at, who he was with. Violence started a little bit, he would get involved in some fights...At the time, Victor was making a lot of bad choices. He was hanging out with the wrong people, a bunch of punks. The police were coming over to the house a lot, there were some drugs involved, there was some gangs involved. It was like a light switch went off in him, because he was on this really big self-destructive mode.

JERRY: When Victor fell, he fell fast. It wasn’t a slow fall.

VICTOR: I really wanted to like make friends and have friends... I really wanted to belong but I chose a bad crowd to belong to... I guess I just didn’t care, it was mixed with the drugs, and then the friends...I chose them over my dad....  He didn't understand why and honestly I don't understand why.

MIKE: It was scary because I was afraid he was going to die.

CATHY: Those were rough years. Mike would call for guidance.

JERRY: He would call me and say, “What should I do?” He would try different things, and it just seemed like those things wouldn’t work.

MIKE: I got the school involved, we went thru different therapists, got him involved in drug rehab... My mom talked to him, Jerry talked to him, teachers he respected...but it just kept getting worse and worse...

MIKE: Once he turned 18, I was like, “Aste spumante, you’re on your own. You want to live this lifestyle, I don’t want to deal with you anymore.” And he took off.

JERRY: There was a lot of praying, counseling, every positive vibe that we could find in our bodies...

CATHY: Oh my god, he was a nervous wreck, you couldn’t even talk to him….

MIKE: There was a lot of anger. And it was coming through at work. It was coming through with family, it was coming through in every aspect of my life.

CATHY: He thought maybe he was dead, he used to say he was going to get a phone call in the middle of the night saying, I’ve identified a body, it was...it was just horrible...Victor was his whole life.

MIKE: My mom was very sympathetic and she was very supportive but for my family they were in hog heaven, man. They were so happy that he failed, that I failed, as a father. Because I was too young, and he was a black kid, and this is how those people are. And they were just ecstatic... I got a couple of phone calls where a family member said, “See, I told you how those people are. Why did you have to adopt him? Why did you have to ruin our family name?” And I made it clear, we’re not Rockefellers. For god sakes, we’re Checugas.

MIKE: For 4 years we had... almost practically nothing to do with each other. I would regret when he would call or leave a message, I did not want to talk to him...There was a lot of different changes going on in my life. I started a new career. I moved to Chicago to completely start my life over. At one instance when I was starting my new life in the city..... a neighbor came up to me and said that the cops were knocking on the door, looking for your son, and they were showing his picture all over place... and it was embarrassing. And that just, I didn’t want to deal with this crap again. So I met with Victor and I said, here’s the deal, I’m going to give you a 1000 bucks. Which at the time was like a million dollars to him. And I go, I’ll give a thousand dollars and I want you to change your name. I don’t want you to be Checuga anymore. I don’t want to know you, I don’t want to see you, I’m done with this. Now my other friends that were close thought that was really cold-hearted, but I was just so betrayed and sick and tired of this…

MIKE: I couldn't believe I was doing what my family wanted me to do. That's how low a point in my life it was. For me it was total rock bottom.

VICTOR: When that came, I thought I was going to be living in the streets for good. Because if I would’ve went through with that, it would’ve been pretty much over because if I lost you, I wouldn’t have no one

MIKE: He got up and walked away. Wouldn’t talk to me. Just got up and left. Wouldn’t take the money. And I knew he was dirt broke at the time, living on somebody’s couch someplace.… Just got up and left.

VICTOR: It was like I got kicked out of the family and it was kinda my fault.  So I was pretty pissed, I was hurt… but deep down I did know it was me, so I just had to leave, I just left.

MIKE: It was not an intelligent decision, it was strictly emotional. I couldn’t deal with the hurt anymore.

MIKE: Financially, I was going through a very hard time, personally, I was going through a hard time, there was some drinking that was involved, um, heavily. Alcoholism runs rampant on both sides of the family, so I was drinking quite a bit. And relationships weren't going well for me... It was a very confusing time. I was just kind of pulling myself in different directions...what I should be...what I wanted to be and what I was.... I felt really alone...I had no one to go to.

MIKE: Victor didn't talk to me for 6 months, at all, and I didn’t where he was, alive or dead. And then he came over showing me a paycheck. And he said that I know if I told you that you wouldn’t believe me.  But here’s a paycheck, and I’ve got my own bank account, and I’ve got my own apt and I’m not hanging out with these people any more. And I know you’re not going to believe me.

VICTOR: At the time I was lying to him about damn near everything...I guess to prove to him,  I just came to the house to show him a paycheck. I really wanted my dad back in my life but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy at all.

MIKE: That’s how we started talking again. But I didn’t want to get overly excited because I’d been down this road before.

MIKE: There were a lot of different issues that were going on with me...  a lot things in my life changed. And one of the big things that changed is just, I finally realized I can be comfortable with being gay.  Nobody knew at the time, at all. I started talking to certain friends about it, but it was something I kept hidden, which could’ve been why I drank so much. So, I needed to tell people. And regardless of how our relationship was, Victor was still the most important person in my family to me. So I decided to talk to him about it first. I was tired of being a coward, I was tired of living a lie…but I figured it was my time, and if I can’t come out to my son, what’s the point.

MIKE: I didn't want him to hear it from anybody else....I always told Vic that you have to be responsible for yourself, and you have to man up in certain situations, and I felt like, I wasn't manning up in this particular situation, this was something that I was lying to him about,... I didn't want him to see me with a guy and that would be the first time he would know.  Or I didn't want somebody that I knew to tell him, he needed to hear it from me and that's what was really important. I assumed he was going to walk away. I totally thought that it was going to be the nail in the coffin, where he was like, I'm done. You know? This is why I'm screwed up... because you're gay.

MIKE: So I remember getting in touch with him... saying that we needed to get together for coffee, I had something really imp to talk to him about.

VICTOR: I was like, tell me what it is right now, and he wouldn’t tell me… so I was like, man, he’s got cancer, what’s going on…so I rush over to the Starbucks...
MIKE: I smoked a lot. I quit smoking... But that day I was smoking up a storm, I was bumming cigarettes off of anybody, then I bought a pack and went through that. I was a nervous wreck.... and I almost chickened out of telling him, a couple different times. Like, I was just going to talk about something else, brush over it.…So we met for coffee at the Starbucks over on Leavitt....
...We’re sitting and talking and I go, well here’s the thing, I gotta tell you. I’m gay. I feel this is the right choice for me, and this is the way I am. Victor’s like, ok. So what are we here to talk about, what’s the problem?

MIKE: He thought I had cancer....

VICTOR: I thought something was completely deathly wrong…. I was spooked… I really was scared for a little bit. And then he told me that, and I’m like, so there’s no problem., I mean… You had me all scared for no reason.

MIKE: And it felt so good that he didn’t think twice, didn’t care. Didn’t bother him at all. And at that moment, I’m like, I raised a good damn kid. I really did.

VICTOR: I just really wanted to be there for my Dad.... I just was happy that he even told me because honestly, it was a new start, you know, in a way, like. I felt that he kind of trusted me more, to tell me something like that...

MIKE: It felt like everything washed away.….All of the crap that he that he did in the past, all of the stupid things about me saying get your name changed, the minute he said, ok, what’s the problem, it was like I had my son back.

MIKE: Now, 10 minutes later, he asked me to buy him a pack of cigarettes because it was such a traumatic thing to find out that his dad was gay.

VICTOR: Well, I was surprised...I was surprised at first but he’s my dad but I’m going to back him up 100 percent no matter what....I’ll be with him whoever he is.

MIKE: Then he started checking in on me. Making sure I was ok. It’s embarrassing at times because here I am 43 asking my son relationship advice. Because I have never had a serious relationship and I’m in a serious relationship now, and that’s uncomfortable. Do you remember one of the first times I was asking you about that? I was uncomfortable as hell….

VICTOR: Yeah… .why are you guys fighting so much?

MIKE: We were arguing about every little small stuff.

VICTOR: That’s a normal relationship, you’re going to argue, you’re going to love each other, you’re going to hate each other, you’re going to fight.

MIKE: So here I am as an adult, I have to go to my kid to say, is this normal? Or am I dating an idiot? And he’s like, it’s totally normal.... He’s a good guy, dad, don’t worry about it. And it was great to hear. It was funny.
VICTOR: I feel very protective of my dad because I think he’s a lot more vulnerable than he used to be. I mean, I’m always thinking about him, I’m always calling him to make sure he’s okay... I’ll get upset if he doesn’t call me within a day or two to make sure he’s that he’s alright. I mean, it’s a real big change of roles

MIKE: As a dad, I can’t stop bragging about him. I mean, he’s doing phenomenal at work.... He’s got a girlfriend he really cares about, he has his own place, he does not ask for money. He takes his job real serious, which is hilarious. He just got a shirt for the job, a manager shirt, or something like that, and he's so proud of that. ... He brought it up to show me, but then he called his grandmother... to show her. I's pretty cool.

MIKE:  I still think if you were dressed a little differently and had short hair. Which would be a great Father’s Day present…

VICTOR: I’ll cut it.

MIKE: You’ve been saying that since you were 15.

VICTOR: I know I know I know. Well, I cut it, then I got it back... I’ll cut it. I just like my hair!

MIKE: It looks stupid....
 

 

 

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