Dad’s dying gift: that daughter know her heritage
When Wilson McLaurin learned earlier this year that he had terminal pancreatic cancer, he started settling his affairs.
As an adventurer who’d accumulated few possessions in his lifetime, he had only one true concern: What would become of his 3-year-old daughter?
Mariah, born when McLaurin was 64 and still struggling with alcoholism, had primarily been raised by a foster family in Bellevue, Washington, that he had grown to respect and love during his faithful visits with his child.
When McLaurin, who said he has no other living relatives, was told in March he had about four to six months to live, he relinquished his parental rights and asked Sheila and Wes Shriner to adopt her.
“They are a beautiful family,” he said in a recent interview. “I know they love her and will take good care of her.”
But still he couldn’t help worry a little. His daughter is black, her new family white. Would they be able to nourish in her a connection to and admiration for her black heritage and culture?
Yes, he thought — but perhaps not by themselves.
He invited them to Holly Park Community Church, where he’d started going once he got his diagnosis, and they have been “surrounded by love” there, Sheila Shriner said. But McLaurin also wanted to leave something more tangible.
He said he told his nurse at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance that his “dying wish” was to be able to afford to take his daughter and her adoptive family to the Northwest African American Museum.
When the museum heard from the nurse, administrators decided to not only invite McLaurin, his daughter, the Shiners and their two older children for a private tour of the museum on June 4, but to also gift them with a lifetime membership.
“He worried that she would not know the invisible and forgotten history of her people and the connection to those that came before her,” said Amie Newman, the director of communications for the museum that documents the activities and experiences of African-Americans in the region and has an interesting narrative of its own.
“You can’t absorb all this in one outing,” said Newman in the museum’s hall where the stories of Washington’s first black settlers is told. “We’re trying to do what we can to not only make his wish come true, but to provide his daughter with an ongoing connection to the museum and her roots.”
McLaurin’s mother was a school principal and his father was a New Jersey state police officer, he said.
He attended college for three years in New Jersey, worked for the Urban League and fathered a child he didn’t help raise before he made his way out to the West Coast, he said.
In California, he worked at a number of jobs, including providing supervision at a juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles and driving a cab in Hollywood.
Those were good days, he said. As a cabbie, he met celebrities often: Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Carlos Santana. He kicked it with Luther Vandross and was in Dick Clark’s house. He went to the Playboy Mansion several times.
“I was a very adventurous person in my partying days,” he said.
But when he moved to Seattle more than two decades ago, he said he believed he’d come home.
“I felt I was in God’s country, all these nice trees,” said Wilson, who supported himself in Seattle by selling roses in Pioneer Square. “It’s like the Garden of Eden.”
He and Mariah’s mother, who has also given up her parental rights, had a brief affair about four years ago, according to McLaurin.
Because Mariah’s biological mother was in prison at the time of her birth, the girl was taken into custody by Child Protective Services and placed with the Shriners, who have two biological children, Levi, 13, and Gracia, 11.
“We wanted to expand our family, and a series of events led us to believe that God was calling us to this,” said Sheila Shriner about becoming foster parents six years ago.
“We got her when she was a tiny, tiny baby,” said Shriner, “and we looked at her and said, ‘We love you and we will continue to love you, whether that will be for two weeks or a lifetime.’ ”
She said Mariah “has a way of capturing people’s attention and drawing them in, and she is very social, and I believe that comes from Wilson.”
Mariah was 5 weeks old when McLaurin learned he was her father.
He says he was surprised, but delighted, to find himself a father at his age. He did not initially think he could care for her, but soon changed his mind and began to work toward gaining custody, he said.
He began making weekly visits with Mariah, who calls him Dada Wilson. He even had custody of her for a short while before a drinking episode brought CPS back to his door, he said.
After that, he got sober in earnest, he said, and now has more than a year and a half clean. He had planned to continue his efforts to gain custody of his daughter, but the cancer derailed him, he said.
Now, he’s focused on gathering information about his biological family and has left a list of nine or 10 names of relatives and ancestors with the Shriners, who plan to teach Mariah how to use the African-American museum’s Genealogy Center when the time is right.
“I’m in a positive mind,” McLaurin said, who was admitted to the University of Washington Medical Center last week. “I feel like Wes and Sheila and their kids are beautiful people and this is a sacrifice that I’m making for Mariah.”