By LEANN BURKE
JASPER — For Alecia (Ewing) Messmer and Jim Stone, looking back on the COVID-19 pandemic will also mean looking back on the day they legally became family.
On April 17, the Dubois County courts held a teleconference adoption hearing for Messmer and Stone. The call took about 15 minutes, and by the end, Messmer, 25, was legally Stone’s daughter.
It was a moment 25 years in the making.
Stone has been in Messmer’s life since she was 5 months old. He and Messmer’s mom, Leanna Bechtel, started dating in 1995, married and eventually divorced in 2006, but Stone made sure to stay in Messmer’s life. He helped her raise and show horses in 4-H — which offered some of their favorite memories together — and when Messmer got married in December, Stone walked her down the aisle.
“She’s my daughter,” Stone said. “We don’t need a piece of paper to feel that way.”
Stone wanted to adopt Messmer when she was a child, but at the time, her biological father was still in the picture, and it didn’t seem like the right time, Stone said. After that, the years just got away from them, he said, and before they knew it, Messmer was grown up and in nursing school. While she was busy with college, it didn’t feel like the time either. Now, though, Stone is in his 50s and thinking about the legacy he’ll leave, and Messmer is finished with nursing school and working as an ICU nurse at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center. For both of them, now seemed like the time to legally become family.
“It’s been something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time,” Messmer said.
The two got the process rolling in August. Messmer said Stone did most of the work, which mostly entailed gathering documents to prove their relationship. They timed it so that the adoption would be finalized after Messmer’s wedding — that way she’d only need to change her name once — and the final court hearing was set for April. But when COVID-19 hit and the courts closed, the two wondered if the adoption would have to be postponed. Two days before the scheduled hearing, Stone’s lawyer called to tell him the hearing would move to teleconference.
“It’s kind of surreal, given everything that’s going on,” Stone said.
When the hearing took place, Stone was in his Santa Claus home, and Messmer was sitting in her car outside her Jasper home. Cell service at her house is spotty, she explained, and she was determined not to let the call drop. Messmer cried tears of joy through the entire call.
Although they weren’t able to be in the courtroom together and surrounded by friends and family when the adoption became official, there were a few perks of doing it over teleconference, the biggest one being that Messmer could record the entire proceeding in a video.
“I don’t know why I recorded it, really,” she said. “I think I just wanted to make sure I’d remember it. Sometimes when I get caught up in things, I don’t remember it well, and I wanted to remember that.”
She also wanted to make sure their friends and family could see it since no one else was able to be there in person. It was tough not being able to share the moment with their loved ones, Messmer said, but looking back, she’s glad it happened the way it did. The hearing gave them something positive to remember during the pandemic, and now she has the video to watch anytime she needs to lift her spirits.
“I’m just really happy they were able to do it over the phone,” she said.
As soon as the teleconference was over, Stone called Messmer, who was still crying, and they had a short celebration by phone. Messmer also edited the video of the call to include photos of the two of them.
“It was as happy a moment as we could have, given the circumstances,” Stone said.
The two are planning a big celebration for after the COVID-19 emergency. When that happens, it will be the first time Messmer and Stone have hugged since February. As an ICU nurse, Messmer has been quarantining herself at home when she’s not at work, and although Stone has stopped by her house to drop off a few things, they don’t interact much during his visits.
Although their father-daughter relationship is legally official now, Stone and Messmer agree it doesn’t change the way they feel about each other.
“He’s always been my dad,” Messmer said. “But it feels nice to have it be official.”