All Robert MacArthur wants for Christmas is a puppy.
But even if he gets one, it can't top last year's present: a new last name, a permanent home and a mother's unconditional love.
MacArthur, known to friends and family as Bob, was adopted last Christmas at age 17 after two failed adoptions. Now a senior at Traverse City West Senior High School, he and adoptive mom Jen MacArthur were recently honored by Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan for their unusual success story.
"They ended up together as a kind of fluke, but they're the ones that made it work," said Lisa Wisniewski, an adoption supervisor with the agency and Bob's former adoption caseworker. "What is so inspiring to me is he has such a positive attitude and a positive outlook in spirit in spite of three profound losses, including his birth parents.
"If there is anyone who would have a reason to have a chip on his shoulder, he would be it. Yet he's willing to trust again and open up his heart to another family."
The pair's story begins in 2010, when Bob, then nearly 16, was placed in Jen's Grawn home on a short-term basis after his second adoption went awry.
"He came in with two duffel bags like the Tasmanian Devil and went down the hall to find his room," recalled Jen, who didn't even get a chance to greet him. But as the pair got to know each other, the days turned into weeks. And after about six months, the "respite" foster placement became permanent.
From the beginning, the two had a lot in common, said Bob, from their favorite movie genre (sci-fi), to their least favorite color (yellow), to their response to chaos (retreat).
"We do the exact same things," he said. "When I went through her movie collection and saw 'Matrix' and 'Lord of the Rings,' I thought, 'This is going to work out.'"'
But the reasons they click go far beyond the superficial, said Jen, a personal trainer, school American Sign Language assistant and owner of a nutrition, fitness and personal development business.
"It's outlooks toward life, attitudes toward schools and attitudes about careers," she said. "It's what makes our communication effective and our relationship deeper."
Their first year together wasn't without its ups and downs. But through it all, they managed "a lot of bonding time, close time," said Jen, who also was a foster parent to her nephew at the time. "We had real conversations. We never went to bed angry. Our relationship is important enough that we iron things out."
"I can only count two fights," added Bob.
Finally, in late summer 2011, Jen decided to take the leap and adopt Bob as a Christmas surprise. With the help of Child and Family Services, she began the necessary paperwork without telling family or friends of her plan.
"I can't say there was any one thing that was the turning point. It was just time," she said. "He was already my kid. Why not give him the last name?"
During a family Christmas celebration at her mother's house, Jen saved the best gift for last. She handed Bob a wrapped shirt box containing an unofficial certificate of adoption, complete with his new last name and a second middle name he now shares with Jen's father.
"He opened the box, peeled back the tissue paper, took one look inside and turned bright red," Jen said. "Then he closed the box immediately. I said, 'Honey, open it back up. No one knows what's in there.' And he looked at me and said, 'Jen, I'm trying not to cry.'"
A year later, the pair's relationship is stronger than ever, thanks to their love and determination to make it work, said Wisniewski.
"He will always have a home to come to and that is what's so cool," she said. "Usually when kids are older and have been through something like what he's been through, they're done with people, they're done with trusting anyone.
"Jen's willing to meet him where he's at and not have her own set of expectations. She's flexible in the way she parents Bob. She's willing to look at unconventional ways of parenting and teaching him. She's very high energy and passionate about what she does. It's a calling."