Champaign dad gets by (with help) raising his boys

Champaign dad gets by (with help) raising his boys

It takes a village to raise a child, but certainly Dad does a lot of the village's heavy lifting.

Michael Downs is grateful to the doctors, educators, therapists, philanthropists, friends and grandmas who help raise sons Jack and Charlie.

That includes a motorcycle group, the Regulators, that helped the Downs family buy a van to get Jack around, and Carrie Busey School in Savoy.

He's especially grateful that wife Kara is a tenured teacher with insurance because the bills have been heavy for Jack, 8, who has needed 11 surgeries in his short life.

They are all related to his extreme prematurity, which caused hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy, a heart valve issue, structural issues with his stomach as well as reflux — and some eye problems to boot.

Jack was born a "micro-preemie," less than 2 pounds. His lungs were OK, but his twin, Bridget, did not survive.

Michael is grateful that he has jobs — he's an artist, a writer (both a screenplay and a novel in the works) and a handyman — that give him the flexibility to work at home or at least in the Champaign neighborhood.

Sitting in a southern exposure sun room, he can work on his writing projects or create his popular images of prominent local buildings, all while still keeping an eye on the kids.

Charlie, 4, is also a handful. He likes to crawl all over his dad and run around the living room while PBS cartoons play in the background.

Jack likes his TV. When Circuit City was closing, the Downses bought a big flat-screen model that makes it easier for Jack to see the images.

Jack can't verbalize much — "I" means "yes" — but he loves to watch people talk. He loves watching people drop spoons on cooking shows.

He finds it hilarious when Michael falls or when he broke his toe while vacuuming.

"He has a sense of humor all his own," Dad says.

A former tackle at Bloomington High, Michael has a number of football injuries — and more recent pratfalls that keep his son in stitches.

Jack is definitely a slapstick fan. A big question for Michael and Kara right now is: Do we get him "The Three Stooges?"

Dad, 43, has a daily regimen that includes feeding and dropping off the boys at school, hitting the gym, penciling in bricks on his artwork, writing, picking up the kids, feeding Jack one piece of macaroni at a time and finding something silly for him to watch on TV.

But Michael still gets to sleep in later than wife Kara, a Centennial English teacher.

"She's great; she's naturally up early," he says. "I try to make sure she can sleep in on Saturdays and Sundays."

Then there's the "golden hour." Dad says the boys are good about getting to bed early, so Michael and Kara can have some quiet time together without any cartoons.

He notes that he is a big fan of carbohydrates and savors that beer he can have during the golden hour.

So how did a skinny tackle get to be a gym-bulked stay-at-home dad?

Via Hollywood, of course.

After a stint at Illinois Wesleyan University and film school at Southern Illinois University, Michael went to work as a prop man in the movies.

That included a stint with horror schlockmeister Roger Corman and working with actors like Armand Assante, Elisabeth Shue, Ben Gazzara and Robert Davi.

(You can rent "Blind Justice," a 1994 western wherein, as describes it, "Canaan, a mysterious gunfighter left nearly blind from Civil War combat, roams through Mexico with a baby he has sworn to protect." Even Jack Black had a small part in it.)

One of his most daring props was an eviscerated Civil War soldier, which he constructed from pork "and other things from the grocery store."

The pork product did not make the final cut.

He also made a lot of fake weapons and other props. What he couldn't make was a living.

"I was tired of being unemployed every four weeks," he says. "Me and Jewel were both living in our cars, but I didn't know her."

He returned to central Illinois, where he found work through a friend sorting through two houses full of stuff, four barns full of stuff and more than 50 vehicles they stripped parts from to sell to car customizers.

And one day, at the High Dive in downtown Champaign, Michael and Kara met. A.J. Croce was performing. She thinks she was probably holding a Miller Lite; Michael, a connoisseur, does not approve of that brand.

But "she's a good egg," he says of Kara.

That concert would have been 1999, and four years later they were married. They had some trouble with an earlier pregnancy, and when Jack and his twin were born, a medical condition caused Kara to deliver prematurely.

Jack spent four five months in a neonatal intensive care unit. This was a time when Medicaid didn't cover such hospital costs.

"He's a good half-million" in early hospital costs, Michael says.

Kara says she probably wouldn't have been able to return to work without Michael there, aided by two grandmothers who live in Champaign.

Because Jack might pull his feeding tube out, one of the parents always sleeps with him. They have been away from him for two nights since he was born, one of them all the way to the Urbana Holiday Inn.

Kara said she can work without worrying about Jack because she trusts her husband without reservation.

"Mike is awesome with all of that, fixing the wheelchair and putting in his feeding tube," she says (interrupting herself to instruct: "Charlie, don't drink the pool water").

"The way Mike bonds with both boys eases my mind so much that whatever happens, he can take care of it."

For instance, Michael keeps Jack's head up while he feeds him mac and cheese. Jack also enjoys Chinese food and crab legs; Charlie is partial to a steak.

"Choo, choo, choo," dad says.

No, it's actually "Chew, chew, chew," as he gives small pieces of chicken to his older son.

Many PBS cartoons later, there will be the pool and tummy time, where Jack and Charlie practice lifting their heads up.

"Despite everything, we are lucky," Michael says before heading off to the pool with his boys.

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