Three years ago, Cathleen Falsani and Maurice Possley traveled to Africa thanks to a ticket won in a raffle, returning home to Chicago transformed by an encounter with an orphan born with a birth defect. A year later, a visit with former classmates living in Laguna Beach offered the couple another enticement for change. Today, thanks to a legal battle in Malawi fought by pop star Madonna, the former orphan lives with newly minted parents in a new home in Laguna, their lives upended by a chain of unexpected events.
“I can’t imagine a better place to raise him than here,” said Falsani, speaking about the couple’s officially adopted 11-year-old son Vasco Fitzmaurice Mark David Possley and their new hometown. “I’ve never felt more a part of a community and so cared for by my neighbors.”
Amid mud and waddle huts in rural Malawi in 2007 the couple met Vasco, whose diminutive size and frailty made him appear to be 5 when he climbed into Falsani’s lap. “When he pressed his bony back into my chest, his heart was beating so violently it was shaking his little body and moving mine,” she wrote later. They were told Vasco had “a hole in his heart,” and were flabbergasted to learn nothing was likely to be done to correct it. They changed that.
Today, Vasco is healthy, living a typical American life, and thriving by all accounts. The family was welcomed first by the Little Church By the Sea, where friends were congregants, at Top of the World School, and then by an AYSO soccer team. “I couldn’t walk into Ralph’s without someone saying ‘Where’s Vasco?’ or ‘How’s Vasco,’ ” said Possley, clearly moved.
Vasco, who had heart surgery in June 2009, joined the Fat Pandas AYSO team last September, his first time on a true field. His spirit, fearlessness and natural instinct for the game helped the smallest player become a big contributor, said coach Jonathan Kieswetter. “He’s God’s inspiration to us all,” he said.
Teacher Marie Finman found Vasco’s classroom effort equally impressive. She attributed his academic progress in a short time to his own hard work and perseverance and supportive parents. “I look forward to seeing what tremendous things Vasco will accomplish in his lifetime,” she said.
In 2007, Vasco also inspired Possley and Falsani, who was overwhelmed by what she viewed as the economic and social injustice of a Malawi child condemned to an early death. First she wept. Then she vowed to act.
Back in Chicago, Falsani, a Chicago Sun Times’ columnist, wrote about Vasco. The next day, doctors from three different hospitals offered free treatment for Vasco. Getting him to the U.S., though, turned into an 18-month ordeal. But perseverance and help from unexpected quarters on both continents finally paid off.
In the meantime, the couple’s ties to Laguna were strengthening. Falsani’s friends from her alma mater, Wheaton College in Ohio, had settled here with their spouses, including Mark and Sarah Metherell, David and Sarah Vanderveen and David and Lisa Burchi. The tragic death in April 2008 of Mark Metherell served as a bittersweet occasion for friends to reconnect through a memorial page on Facebook. That virtual reunion led Falsani and Possley to visit and a subsequent trip convinced them to move.
Vasco arrived in Chicago for his surgery on April 29, 2009, even as Falsani and Possley were already dreading his return after his recovery. At the time, though, since a Malawi court denied Madonna’s attempted adoption of Mercy James, legal adoption was not possible.
Then Vasco was diagnosed with malaria, delaying his surgery by six crucial weeks.
Two days after he underwent open-heart surgery at Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill., the Malawi High Court of Appeal reversed the decision in Madonna’s adoption case, supplying a legal precedent for future adoptions.
A month later, the couple moved to Laguna Beach with Vasco, began the adoption process and opened a new chapter in their lives.
Not only does Vasco seem to be “the happiest kid in the world,” said Dave Vanderveen, but Falsani and Possley are benefiting as much, if not more, from the transition. “It’s neat to see a couple like that make such a big difference” by intervening for Vasco, he said.
Already a family in every sense but the legal one, the trio went back to Malawi for the final adoption proceeding last month. The judge approved the adoption, announcing that he was legally bound by the “Mercy James case.”
Against all odds, another Laguna Beach resident and friend, Kim Day, was waiting to congratulate them on the courthouse steps. Day was improbably in Malawi, working with children on a charity mission there. Vasco ran up the high court steps into her arms for a hug and then surfed down the banister like a classic Brooks Street wave, said Day in an email from Malawi.
The trip home had its own snags, including more than three hours detention by airport immigration officials. When they arrived, though, a crowd of well-wishers greeted them with a sign: Welcome Home Family.
“It felt like we were really coming home,” Falsani said.