Like most fathers and sons, Greg Swader and his 15-year-old son, Jay, have a lot in common.
They have the same favorite color (blue), enjoy the same Chinese dish (General Tso’s Chicken) and even tend to get the same hangnail on the same finger.
“They’re like clones,” said Kathy, Swader’s wife.
What sets Swader and Jay* apart is the fact that they met face to face for the first time less than a month ago, when Jay moved to Virginia from Florida to leave an abusive household.
“Six years ago is the first time I found out about [Jay],” Swader said on a recent morning in his Chester home; he was living in Ohio at the time, and had just been released from the hospital after neck surgery. A paternity test soon proved that Jay was his son.
When his mother took him to take the blood test, Jay said, she sat him down and told him for the first time that his step-father, who is black, wasn’t his real father.
Learning of Jay was “pretty nice, because I’m the last one to carry on the family name,” Swader said.
“It was a good feeling knowing that I had a son out there,” he said. But, Jay’s step-father had been there since birth, Swader said, and, based on what he was told about Jay’s home and situation, he didn’t feel that there needed to be a disruption in his son’s life.
Years later, Jay’s mother showed him Swader’s page on a social networking website, but told her son she didn’t want him to talk to his father. Jay “snuck around her” so he could talk to Swader, he said.
When his mother and step-father caught him talking to his father, Jay was thrown out of the house. He went to a park and borrowed someone’s cell phone to call Swader.
“I just called,” Jay said. “It was like going into a battle with a blindfold on. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Jay told his father what had been going on, and when Swader talked to Jay’s mother and step-father “they pretty much confirmed what he’d told me,” Swader said. Jay was living in an abusive household, Kathy Swader said.
“It’s just a bad situation, and hopefully he can have the opportunity to have a better life here,” Swader said.
“I think that’s why he called,” his wife added. Within days of the call, Jay was on a plane to Virginia.
Jay met his father at the airport. Swader and his wife reached the top of an escalator and Kathy started walking at a quick pace, leaving her husband behind and unknowingly passing Jay.
But Jay and Swader saw each other, and immediately began to hug, Swader said.
“I knew, he knew,” he said.
In the weeks he’s been in Virginia, Jay has met a lot of his family, Swader said, including his paternal grandfather and uncles.
“It was cool,” Jay said of meeting his grandfather. “He’s funny, like everybody else.”
“We all like to have fun,” Swader added.
But, there’s still a learning process involved, said Kathy Swader, who has three daughters. “We don’t know anything about each other,” she said. Questions will come up and lead to long conversations, Jay said.
“It’s a whole new world. It’s a whole new thing,” Swader said. “It was kind of neat, because [this year’s] was my first true Father’s Day.”
He said his goal is to get his son “out of his old lifestyle.”
“I want him to be who he wants to be, but not someone who he isn’t,” he said.
“[Jay] was in survival mode most of his life,” Kathy Swader added. “We want him to be a kid.”
Jay, who will be in the 10th grade next year, is already enrolled in school. He’s considering what sports he’ll try – track, wrestling, volleyball, basketball and football are all possibilities. He says he feels like he can focus on school and do what he needs to get done here, where he doesn’t have the distractions he had living in Florida.
Jay said children should “have the right to know that there’s somebody out there,” and it should be up to them whether to talk to biological parents they don’t know.
“The children should always have a choice,” Kathy Swader said. “They have a right to know where they came from,” and it’s never too late for them to learn their origins.
Swader said, in this situation, “you can throw blame around everywhere.” But, “I’m glad he’s here.”
“I want him to take the opportunity he’s been given and do the right thing with it,” he said. Swader said he’d advise other families in such situations to “definitely get into counseling.”
“That’s what we’ve done,” he said. “You don’t want to think you know it all. It’s a whole change of life.”
Since he’s connected with his father and family, Jay has a more positive outlook on his own future, he said, and a little better understanding of himself. Jay has expressed interest in changing his last name to “Swader,” his father said.
Kathy Swader, who Jay calls “Mom,” said it’s nice to have a son around, and she’s glad Jay has come to Virginia.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “Anytime you get an opportunity to change a child’s life, it’s a good thing.”
*The family asked that Swader’s son be referred to as “Jay” rather than by his real name.