Six-year-old Joey was grimacing in his hospital bed, unable to speak, but in obvious pain from the nine-hour surgery he had just endured. Now his lower body was immobilized in an unwieldy fiberglass cast, his legs angled toward the ceiling. The intent of the operation was to stabilize his hips and release ligaments in his rigid legs. It was only the latest of the myriad, agonizing surgeries he had endured alone.
Robin Graves stood over his bed, her eyes misting. She was not related to Joey. But in that moment, she made him a silent promise. Never again would he spend a night by himself with no one there to squeeze his hand, whisper words of encouragement, or plant a kiss on his forehead.
That promise has changed her and her family in ways they never could have imagined.
Joey was healthy and normal when he was born in July 2008. Several months later, he suffered a traumatic brain injury at the hands of a relative and was permanently taken from his biological family. He was eventually admitted to Children’s Specialized Hospital in Toms River, N.J., a medical facility for severely challenged children, where he had lived ever since.
Today, at 11, he is unable to speak, stand, or walk alone, or lift himself in and out of the wheelchair in which he is strapped. He’s connected to a feeding tube, because he cannot swallow. Until he met Graves, his medical caretakers and his social worker from the New Jersey Department of Children and Families were his only family.
Graves, now 66, had just retired from her job running a vitamin website for a physician. She lives in Toms River with her husband, Jim, now 67, a retired captain in the Newark, N.J., fire department. They were eager to see what this new phase of life would bring them.
They were just 20 when they met at a Pocono Mountain resort where they were both working — he as a waiter after returning from Vietnam, she as a waitress on summer break from nursing school.
“This guy kept coming up to me asking for a date,” she remembers. “He always wore a wig, so I thought he had cancer. When he finally picked me up for a date, my mouth fell open. He looked so handsome, with this shoulder-length, thick, brown hair.” It turned out he preferred to wear a shorthair wig, instead of a hairnet, over his long locks, because he was serving food.
The pair continued to date through the summer. During their breaks, they might simply sit under a tree and talk. “It was so easy and I just felt safe,” Robin said. She and Jim didn’t have all the same interests, but their values pulled them together. Family was huge for both of them.
The couple married less than two years later, at Sacred Heart Church in Newark. Jonathan, their first child, arrived nine months later, “just under the wire,” Robin said, smiling. “We loved being parents and this little boy was Jim’s life.”
Jared was born three years later. Then came Ashley. All were healthy, normal children, and their parents were grateful. Together with Carlos, their black-and-white Jack Russell terrier, and Gracie and Ollie, their German shepherds, one ebony and one chocolate, their happy family was complete.
In retirement, they envisioned traveling, spending more time with their children and four grandchildren, planning festive holiday dinners, and reading the books they loved.
But something inside of Robin nagged at her, insisting it was not enough. On the beach that summer, she confided to her three sisters that she was restless, that she wanted to do something meaningful. Did they have any thoughts?
“How about the children’s hospital where I volunteer?" asked her sister Laurel, a retired nurse, referring to the Children’s Specialized, where Joey lived. “They could use more volunteers."
Robin took up her sister’s suggestion and in her first year came to know all the children.
“I found myself gravitating toward a couple of little boys,” she said. “They were so damn cute. When I learned that one of them" — Joey, then 6 — "was going to the hospital for major surgery and there would be no one with him, I was floored. How could that be? He doesn’t speak so he can’t even let you know if he is in pain.”
After passing a background check from the social-services agency overseeing Joey’s care, Robin received permission to visit one-on-one with Joey in the hospital. Once there, she never left his side except to go home for a quick shower while her sister kept watch. She became friends with Kathy Schwed, Joey’s teacher at the nearby school he attended. Kathy, too, was enchanted by Joey and showed up often in his hospital room.
“I’m the kind of person who gets overly involved, and my husband kept saying, ‘Why do you set yourself up to be sad and heartbroken?’” said Robin. But it was too late. By the time Joey’s eight-day hospitalization in intensive care ended, Robin knew she was “hopelessly hooked.”
Jim had not yet met Joey. But when Robin was about to leave for a long-planned trip to Texas to visit a granddaughter, she convinced him to go to the hospital once a week, to tell Joey that “Grandma Robin still loves you and she’ll be back soon.”
“The first time I saw him,” remembered Jim, “Joey looked up at me and gave me a big smile. He grabbed my heart and he won’t give it back.”
Meanwhile, Robin had given up volunteering to become Joey’s everyday visitor at the hospital and was thrilled to watch him break into a happy grin whenever she arrived. She received permission to accompany Joey to all of his medical appointments, and went through training to learn how to give him his medication and tend to his nutrition needs.
The first time she held him in her lap, she shivered. He looked so fragile, and she was certain she would dislodge his feeding tube. “When I got it that he wasn’t going to break, I just sobbed,” Robin said, her voice choking at the memory.
It was Schwed, Joey’s teacher, who broached the possibility of adoption to Robin.
“Don’t even go there,” Robin responded. “Jim and I are in our 60s, too old for that kind of commitment.”
Kathy just smiled and told her that love counted more than age; indeed, over the next two years, Robin and Jim fell more deeply in love with Joey. Finally, they met with a specialist from the Philadelphia-based Adoption Center who was working on Joey’s behalf and who explained the options available to the couple — including legal guardianship. It was Jim who pushed for adoption. Both he and Robin wanted to be in Joey’s life forever.
On Feb. 21, 2018, Jim and Robin legally adopted Joey in the packed Monmouth County courtroom of Judge Kathleen A. Sheedy. The judge bought Joey a giant teddy bear and said it was the first time she had ever cried in court. The Graveses invited family, friends, and neighbors for a rollicking celebration.
“Joey didn’t understand adoption, but he understood the attention and the joy,” Robin said.
The Graves’ adult children — Ashley, Jonathan, and Jared — were not shocked that their parents wanted to adopt Joey.
“We’re a tight, close-knit family, and my mom has been doing different things since we were little," said Ashley, 38. “So we embraced this new adventure.”
“This was never on the radar for my parents,” said Jonathan, 43. "But life takes a lot of different turns. Now, Joey is part of our family.”
“I consider him my brother,” said Jared, 40.
Because of his medical needs, Joey cannot live full-time with the Graves family, so he remains at Children’s Specialized with the caregivers who love and know him well. Until the coronavirus spun the world around, someone from the Graves family would visit him every day, and bring him home on weekends. And Jim wouldn’t miss a night at the hospital, where he’d snuggle with Joey at bedtime and tell him how much he is loved. Even now during coronavirus distancing, Jim and Robin FaceTime twice a day with Joey. And they are now permitted to see him once a week through a plate glass window.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Robin. “I want to hug him.”
Joey is able to sleep at the Graves’ home, in his own bed, 25 nights a year, which the family reserves for special occasions — holidays, birthdays, family celebrations. Together with his brothers, sister, cousins, extended family, and friends, Jim and Robin delight in taking him to the zoo, the beach, and the park. Joey beams when he’s swaying on the swings and dipping in the aboveground swimming pool they had installed in their backyard.
“Joey has changed my children’s lives in a way that no one else could,” said Ashley. “They push him around in his wheelchair, go on the swings with him, and love to make him laugh. At my parents’ home, they always ask, ‘Is Joey coming?’ They look at life with a different perspective. No one could teach them these lessons.”
“Joey is my medicine ball,” said his father. “I could have the worst day on the planet and as soon as I see Joey, I feel nothing but pure joy.”