Saskatchewan·BEAUTIFUL MESS

Love not blood: Unconventional family shows it's the mutual support — not the makeup — that makes a difference

An 18 month old boy in Saskatoon was in a dire situation. He needed to find a family in Saskatchewan or risk deportation to Singapore. Meet the people who stepped up to build a family around this little boy.

Single, living with an adult daughter and at the peak of her career, a Regina woman was asked to adopt a baby

Tyrelle Kennedy, 17, still has the blanket that was with him when he was adopted as a baby. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Thirteen years ago, Danyta Kennedy was curled up on her living room couch with her four-year-old son watching Animal Planet. They stared as a pregnant animal lumbered through the jungle. Tyrelle rubbed her belly and looked up at her, and said "just like you and me, Mommy."

But it wasn't.

Danyta had played out the scenario thousands of times in her head: how she would tell her son that she wasn't his birth mother; how she would tell him where he came from.

But when that moment arrived, she couldn't bring herself to do it. Her adult daughter, Terin Kennedy, was the one who had to tell him he was adopted. Her son looked up at her with big, teary eyes and asked her if it was true.

"Yes, honey," she said.

Tyrelle studies a photograph taken by his sister, Terin, of the very first time he met his adoptive mother, Danyta, at the Social Services office in Saskatoon. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Tyrelle didn't come into Danyta's life in the way her first child did. She was 47. She had raised her daughter as a single parent.

At the time, Terin was 22 years old and in university, and Danyta was at the peak of her career. She had a government job that regularly involved travelling.

Raising another child was the last thing on her mind.

But everything changed one morning in 2003. Danyta got a call from the Ministry of Social Services. The woman on the phone said she got her name from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations chief. They had an 18-month-old boy whose father was from a Saskatchewan First Nation and they were looking to place the boy with an Indigenous family.

Danyta found out years later that his mother, from Singapore, had died of a kidney infection in her Saskatoon apartment. Baby Tyrelle was found there, alone and severely dehydrated, days later. There were no family members in a position to take care of him and he risked deportation to Singapore.  

Tyrelle's 'special book' shows pictures of his birth mother excitedly awaiting his arrival. Terin used this book to explain to a four-year-old Tyrelle where he came from. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

The little boy had lived with five foster families when Danyta and Terin first met him in the Social Services office in Saskatoon. He was clinging to the social worker when they came in and wanted nothing to do with them. Danyta crouched on the floor and made him laugh by throwing a squishy strawberry on the floor.

Two weeks later, he came to live with them in their Regina home, but the trauma Tyrelle had experienced followed him into their new life.

He would get violently ill every time they travelled to stay with family, until he realized he wasn't going to be abandoned. His speech was delayed; he didn't speak in sentences until he was four.

Danyta said it was hard to form an attachment with Tyrelle. She often didn't get home from business trips until after midnight and would have to be gone by seven the next morning.

It was Terin who cuddled with him in the mornings before daycare. It was Terin who took on the bulk of the day to-day mothering jobs and took longer finishing her second degree so she could care for her little brother. 

Tyrelle and Terin have a close relationship. She took on a mother-like role with Tyrelle since they are 20 years apart. (Submitted by Terin Kennedy)

And Terin's father is who Tyrelle called dad growing up. He's the one who taught Tyrelle to ride a bike and took him on weekend adventures. Even though Danyta and Cliff Blenkin hadn't been together in decades, he played a huge role in the family's life.  

The family may not have been conventional, but it was loving.  

Sense of identity

Tyrelle, now 17, is the kind of kid who will show up on a weekend night to play board games at his mom's work party. He's soft-spoken and respectful and studious. While other kids were playing video games, Tyrelle spent hours upon hours lost in books about mythology. He is an elite athlete, playing competitive hockey and lacrosse.

He balances school and athletics with a part-time job at a bistro and has his sights set on taking biology at the University of Regina next year.

School is important to Tyrelle, who wants to study biology at the University of Regina. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

But five years ago, Tyrelle was headed down a different path. When he was 12 years old, he began acting out, talking back to teachers.

His sister described him as "defiant"; his mother as "angry."

"I was having a lot of issues with my identity and who I wanted to be," said Tyrelle. "I wasn't sure who I wanted to identify as — if I wanted to take pieces from my paternal or maternal parents' side, or if I wanted to take my mother's and my father's side."

Even though Cliff Blenkins (left) and Danyta Kennedy (bottom right) have been separated for decades, the family spends a lot of time together as a unit, regularly spending holidays and even vacations together. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Tyrelle said he had a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions but he didn't know how to express himself. Danyta said her relationship with her son tested her character.

"He made me open up. He made me look at myself, and I can't say something to him and make a correction if I'm not doing it myself," said Danyta.

She walked away from her job for two years. She thought if she was home when he came home, then he would have a constant in his life. It was not an easy decision and it had financial implications. The family lived off her savings and she took out a line of credit.

Danyta said those two years were transformative for her and her relationship with her son. She managed to crack his shell and built a strong foundation of trust and open communication.

Putting together the pieces

Danyta knew little about Tyrelle's birth family when he first joined hers. She knew his birth mother was 18 years old and  didn't have any surviving family members in Canada who were in a position to take care of a baby.

This baby book was started by Tyrelle's birth mother and was diligently updated until she died. The book came with him to the Kennedy house when he was adopted at 18 months. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Through her work with the Department of Justice she met Tyrelle's birth father a few times. He's a man from a Saskatchewan First Nation who she describes as very nice, but with some serious addictions issues — issues that put him back in jail soon after getting out.

When Tyrelle was seven, Danyta had to make a difficult decision. The family was at powwow when a woman came up to her, pointed to her son and said, "I know who his grandfather is. Can I pass along your number?"

A framed photo of Lawrence Greyeyes and Tyrelle has a place of honour in his bedroom. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Within a week, her phone rang. The man on the line introduced himself as Tyrelle's paternal grandfather and he wanted to know about her son. He asked if he could watch the boy play hockey.

"Now this sounds easy but you have no idea what I went through emotionally," remembers Danyta, "the insecurity, the oh my God, could I lose him?"

Danyta sat in the Rouleau, Sask., rink, looking at the door every few seconds. A tall, handsome man walked in, I went "Oh, My God he is a duplicate of Tyrelle."

Since that first meeting at a small-town rink, Lawrence Greyeyes has been a big part of Tyrelle's life.

He lives up north but he'll often make the trip down to watch Tyrelle play hockey and lacrosse. When he does, he'll drop off wild meat for Danyta's family.

Danyta describes Lawrence as a window into some of the missing pieces of Tyrelle's life: "I'm so glad I didn't allow my insecurities to stop that relationship from evolving to what it is now."

Just keep talking

Danyta acknowledges communication doesn't come easy for her. Her advice is to "fake it till you make it" — just keep talking and eventually it just becomes part of a natural routine.

"You take the bad experiences from the past and not use them as a crutch where it immobilizes you, but where it can make you a better person moving forward in a good way."

Tyrelle admits he would still rather listen than talk, and he's hesitant to offer advice to other young people, acknowledging everyone's experience is unique. 

But he does offer this perspective: "You really have to think about how you are going to live your life and how you want to live your life. If you think about it enough and replay it in your head, it may take a long time, but you will eventually come to live it or some version that is better than your current state."

In this house, family is not defined by blood and it's not defined by culture; it's defined by relationships.

About the Author

Nichole Huck

Producer

Nichole Huck is a mother of three and producer of CBC's Blue Sky. She is passionate about creating opportunities for open discussions and helping people find common ground. If you have a story idea email nichole.huck@cbc.ca.