Author's Note: David of Hope has really done a tremendous job on this chapter. This chapter is almost all David's work and I am greatful for his continued assistance with this project.
Love is better than anger.
Hope is better than fear.
Optimism is better than despair.
So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.
And we'll change the world.
Jack Layton - July 18, 1950-August 22, 2011
"Darren, what's wrong?" I knew it couldn't be good if he was phoning me this early in the morning.
"Tom, I wanted all the facts before I let you know," he began, "shortly after midnight, the car the Burtons were in, side swiped a semi as it crossed a four-lane bridge on the black ice and ended up down the forty-foot embankment at the end of the bridge hitting a number of trees. There were no survivors. I'm going down to the shack and speak to Quince. He's a bit shaken up"
I knew I wasn't dreaming, but I was numbed by Darren's words as I tried to realize the enormity of a new situation.
"Good God," were the only words that crumbled from my mouth as I sat up in the bed.
"Tom," Susan had taken the phone from Darren. "Regardless of what happened last night, I know how hard this is going to hit all of us. The main thing here is Michael."
"God don't I know it." I replied as Bryan woke up, turned on the bed side light, and looked at me, his eyes full of concern.
"Tom, please don't go getting all shocky on me." Susan said sternly. "Did the Burtons mention anything, anything at all about where their siblings lived? They'll have to be notified."
"I.... I know she said that her brother lived in Montreal and her sisters lived in Nova Scotia.... uh.... his brother or maybe it's one of his brothers lives in Saskatchewan. That's all we know for sure."
"That's about all they ever mentioned to us as well. We'll see what's on their person. Maybe we'll have to get into their house somehow to find out more. In the meantime, I'll talk to the others and suggest all the kids stay home from school today. Don't you worry about anything Tom, I'll get everything in shape one way or the other.... you guys concentrate on Michael."
"You know we will. I'll let you know if I can find anything else out about the relatives." I closed the cell phone and looked at Bryan.
I had a number of things and faces going through my mind. How happy the Burtons were at our pre-Christmas dinner; a clouded image of how proud they were last night when they walked into that meeting; then the image of Michael's smiling face and how peaceful he looked lying beside Mark in bed. I could feel Michael's happiness and his shy, although proud, confident demeanor as an air cadet.
Quietly, I said, "Angela and Howard are dead.... car accident last night caused by black ice on a bridge.... they went over the embankment, down forty feet and hit a tree."
"Good God. Tom...." He paused and put his hand on my chest. He thought for a few seconds, continuing to look at me. "We didn't do it. We were just one of many people he came in contact with that brought this about. Don't even think 'what if'."
I was still trying to get the images and the words to work together. "I know Bryan, it was caused by his zealous greed. I just hope that Darren and Quince realize it too.... they knew they didn't have their seat belts on and they didn't do anything about it. We have to sit down with Michael.... we won't run this morning.... Susan's going to get as much organized as she can.... they have to notify Burton's siblings, but she doesn't know where to start."
"Nothing's going to happen until after breakfast. When it comes up, we'll have to assure him that he's safe here."
"We don't know anything about the relatives.... maybe Michael will want to go and live with one of them." I pondered, "In spite of the guardianship agreement we signed last night, I wouldn't hesitate to give him up to someone who's a blood relative that could provide Michael with an equal or better home environment."
"It's a possibility, but I doubt he'll make that choice. He loves living here and he loves us. More important, he's in love with Mark." Bryan thought for a moment, "Tom, I know this sounds very cold hearted of me, but we should get to the Burton house as soon as we can. Mom said that he'd maxed out his mortgage and his line of credit.... that's like a demand note.... and I'll bet the bank or mortgage company will seize that house as soon as they can and we won't be able to get into it. In addition to a lot of things that Michael will want from it, there could be more of that letterhead and such."
"OK, I know what you're meaning.... maybe Michael has a key and we can use the excuse that we want to get the names and numbers for the Burton brothers and sisters if we're confronted by any authority."
"OK then," Bryan agreed, "Let's get ready for the day and I'll get breakfast started, then we'll wake up the boys. I don't want to break the news to Michael without something in his stomach. It may be the only meal he'll want to eat for a while."
"I'm going to wake up Josh first. I think he could be good peer support for Mark and Michael after we tell Michael." I said.
By the time Bryan and I finished showering in the big shower and looked after our other S's, we dressed and I went quietly into Josh's bedroom and closed the door. I gave Brutus a quiet ruffle on the neck and then nudged Josh's shoulder gently.
"Mmmmm," he smiled and slowly blinked his eyes from a slit to half-open to wide-awake. "Is it time already Dad?"
"Morning Josh. It's a little early, but I'd like you to get up now. We have a hard day in front of us."
"We do? What's going on Dad?" He asked with some concern.
"Josh I want you to be strong today and just be there to support your brothers. Last night son, there was a terrible accident. Angela and Howard died when their car went over an embankment."
"Oh my God Dad.... does Michael know?" He said quietly as he grabbed me into a hug. I could feel his tears and sobs.
I shook my head 'no'. After a moment, I kissed his forehead and held his shoulders. I almost lost it myself when I saw the tears he'd shed. "I love you son. I know how hard this will be for everyone, but do you think you could keep Mark occupied while Bryan and I break the news to Michael after breakfast. Please be strong for us Josh."
"I will Dad, especially.... especially for Michael."
Brutus and I left while Josh showered. I opened the door to Michael and Mark's room and quietly coaxed Daisy to come with us before I shut it again.
Downstairs, I let the dogs out to do their thing, then into the kitchen to help Bryan get breakfast ready - French toast, scrambled eggs, sausage, and a small portion of Bryan's great hash browns. I told Bryan that I'd explained to Josh about the accident and that he'd help us by keeping Mark occupied while we told Michael. Other than that, we worked in silence.
Josh came down, gave Bryan a hug, and then sat at the counter sadly watching Bryan and I prepare breakfast. I could tell he was still a bit numb from the news as he tried to rationalize the enormity of what happened.
"Josh, can you go wake up Mark and Michael and act as if nothing's happened?" I asked.
With a wan smile, he just nodded his head and went up the stairs. Even from the kitchen, Bryan and I could hear Josh's happy shout, "Burton! Callahan! Get your lazy asses outta bed! Breakfast is ready! Come on. Hurry up!"
"YOU'RE GONNA GET IT FOR THAT CHAMBERS! I outrank you ya know!" We heard Mark yell as Josh came running down the stairs.
Josh giggled when I looked out the corner of my eye. "I thought of throwing a glass of water on them, but decided to just pull the covers off. It worked."
A few minutes later, Michael and Mark showed up at the counter already dressed in their sweats for their morning run.
"Just wait Josh!" Mark exclaimed glaring at Josh. "We'll be getting even when you least expect it."
"Hey, where's the orange juice?" Michael asked.
"Help yourself Michael. Pour some for all of us." Bryan said.
While Michael pulled out five glasses, Mark asked, "Aren't we running this morning?"
"We're having a special day today boys," Bryan announced as I continued whisking the eggs. "We're going to do things a bit different today. First we're going to have breakfast and then we'll see."
Mark looked from Josh to Michael back and forth repeatedly grinning with anticipation in his eyes. Michael shrugged his shoulders and Josh paid no attention while he drank his orange juice.
All the time I was slowly eating my breakfast, it was gnawing at me.... how would I want someone to tell me about such a life-changing event? I sure wouldn't want them to beat around the bush or butter it up with a bunch of fancy crap. Tell the truth, understand their grief, and offer as much love and support as possible was the only conclusion I could come to.
When we'd finished, Bryan said, "OK boys, uh, Josh.... Mark, why don't you go out and see if you can round up Daisy and Brutus while we clean up."
Once Mark and Josh had gone outside, I said, "Michael, we're going to leave the clean up 'til later." I put my arm around his shoulder. "Come on into the family room and have a seat. There's something we have to tell you."
As we walked into the family room, I said, "Michael, last night we had a meeting at Darren and Susan's.... you knew that. It was an important meeting we couldn't postpone and of course your Dad and Mom were there."
Undoubtedly he felt intimidated when both Bryan and I sat on either side of him. I continued, "A few hours after they left the meeting, your Mom and Dad were in a serious accident. Michael.... we're sorry, they didn't survive.... they were dead at the scene."
His reaction was immediate and expected - shock! "Oh God NO!" He wailed as I held my arm over around his shoulder. Immediately, his head melted onto my chest gagging with sobs he couldn't control. "NO, no, no," he repeated over and over. He pounded my chest with his free fisted hand. "They.... they NEVER wore their seatbelts."
Josh and Mark came into the room, it was evident they were concerned at the scene in front of them, both had tears coming from their eyes. Bryan beckoned them over to our sides.
Right away Josh was at my other side and Mark fell on the couch beside Bryan. The five of us sat there in the same formation, with the same arms around each other as we had been last night while we happily marched home - only this morning, we were engrossed by the grief of the sudden loss. None of us said anything; we just listened to the continued outpouring of Michael's sobs.
Daisy and Brutus came into the room after eating their bowls of kibble. They seemed to recognize the scene and instead of their usual exuberant greeting, they lay down at our feet.
When Michael's sobs ebbed, Mark said quietly, "Michael, because they were yours, I felt like they were a Mom and Dad to me too."
"When your Mom and Dad brought you here to go to school," Josh said, almost whispering, "I could only think how great they were to let me be a part of their son's life. It was like a personal gift of a new brother."
"I love all you guys," Michael croaked through what had now become simple weeping.
I patted his back. "We love you too Michael," I said as I continued rubbing his back and kissed the top of his head. I waited another few minutes. "Michael, do you feel OK for the moment?" I asked still holding him to my chest. He just nodded his head.
"Michael, there are going to be a number of things happen in the next few days." Bryan said quietly. "One is preparation for a funeral for your Mom and Dad, but more important, first we have to know who we should contact.... the names and phone numbers of your aunts and uncles."
"I don't know their phone numbers.... Mom and Dad kept them in a book in the office at home. I guess we'll have to go over there and get it." He said looking at me through bloodshot eyes.
"Do you have a key to get in?" I asked.
"Yeah," he answered flatly.
"OK, how about you and Mark go upstairs and get showered and changed," I suggested. "As soon as you're ready, the five of us will go and get it."
With a deep sigh he said, "Yeah, OK ... but I'm not looking forward to this."
"You're a brave young man Michael," Bryan said as we stood up, "and we'll be there all the time to get you through this." He pulled him into a hug and continued. "This will be your home as long as you want it to be."
Michael nodded his head silently. Mark took his hand and they went upstairs to shower and change.
I grabbed Josh into a hug. "Thank you son, that was a very difficult thing to do. Bryan and I needed those few minutes alone with Michael."
"It was tough having to tell Mark," Josh said, "and right away he wanted to get in here to be with Michael, but I had to hold him back. I realized that these kinds of things aren't meant to be easy regardless of how much you love a person. It's because you love the person that you have to break unpleasant stuff to them as gently as you can."
There was a light knock on the front door just before it opened. Kevin and Shelley came into the family room with Freddie. Once we had silent hugs all around, Bryan went on to explain to the kids what we were going to be doing for the next few hours. I phoned Susan and told her what our plans were to get the address book explaining that if we found any additional 'special' documentation, we'd be bringing that with us as well.
When Mark and Michael came downstairs, Shelly went to Michael right away and hugged him. "Michael, be brave," she said, "everything's going to work out the way it's supposed to."
Michael's tears came again as he hugged Kevin. "We're here for ya bud," Kevin said. "All for one as we always will be. Your back's safe with us."
Bryan and I looked at each other with a lot of pride. I felt the camaraderie that these five teenagers felt for one another was in part due to the summer we spent at Camp Tonawonka and that their friendship would last a lifetime. Kevin and Shelly said they would be happy to look after Brutus and Daisy while we went on our quick errand.
On our way to the Burton residence, we passed over a bridge that had some red cones at the end. I wasn't sure if I was the only one who noticed it, but nothing was said by anyone.
As soon as we were in the house, we were astonished. It didn't look at all like the last time we'd been there for dinner. All the furniture had been replaced with a new formal French provincial décor. Even the fireplace stone work had been replaced with an ornate marble mantel and facing. No doubt about it, it was elegant and had been the work of an interior designer, and it was expensive. Everything was precisely carved and the quality just oozed out of every square centimeter, but it sure didn't look comfortable like the heavy cushioned furniture we lounged in at the ranch house. I wondered if they'd done this here in preparation for moving into their new castle.
"Golly!" Michael exclaimed. "Mom said she was going to decorate to get the best sale price for the house, but I didn't expect this."
"It makes me feel like I'm back in Europe," Mark said, awed by the sight.
"Kinda like something from Louis XIV's time." Josh added.
"Michael," Bryan asked, "could you show us where the office is?"
"Yeah, it's one of the spare bedrooms upstairs."
We followed Michael up the stairs and he took us into the first bedroom that we came to.
"They even changed all the furniture in here!" Michael exclaimed. "I don't feel like this is home anymore. I think the address book would be here in one of the desk drawers.... at least that's where they kept it in the old desk." He moved behind the desk. "Yeah," he said as he pulled out a hand-sized book from the left top drawer. "This is it," he continued as he thumbed through the pages. "Do I have to phone them right now?" He asked.
"No Michael," I said, "I think that Bryan and I should handle that. We'll go over the list as soon as we get back to the ranch. How about if you check out your room and collect anything that you want. This may be your last chance to get anything you may want from the house."
"OK. Come on Mark, let's go see what she's done to my room." Michael replied, grabbing Mark's hand.
As soon as they were out the door, Bryan and I started searching through the other drawers. Josh was looking at the books on the book shelves. "He sure had a lot of books about finance and insurance subjects." Josh said. "Hey Dad, what's this?"
I closed the drawer I'd been looking in and looked over his shoulder. He was holding what appeared to be an open package of printing paper that he'd pulled from the bottom shelf. We both stared at the top of the open package at a copy of the 'Davis-Callahan and Burton Corporation' letterhead glued to the top of the package.
"Josh, the other night when I told you I couldn't say why you were feeling the way you were," I said quietly as I took the package from his hand, "this package was part of the reason. One day, I promise, we will tell you, but right now, I need you to check with Michael and get us a dark garbage bag. We'll be taking that package with us. Don't tell Michael what you found. OK?"
Josh slowly darted his eyes from me to Bryan and other parts of the room. He nodded his head. "OK Dad, I think I'm beginning to understand. Won't say a thing." He turned to leave the room.
"Josh!" Bryan said, "make that several bags."
"Gotcha." Josh said as he left the office.
"Josh is a very perceptive young man," I said. "He'll probably have everything figured out before we have a chance to tell him what happened."
"I agree Tom.... come here and have a look," Bryan said. He was holding another stack of fifty pages or so. He handed me the top one. It felt as if it was banknote paper. The page looked like a very official document. It read in part:
My mouth dropped at the ludicrous enormity of Howard and Angela's plan. "Holy shit!" I exclaimed quietly. "What a scam!"
Attached to it was a double spaced typewritten document that appeared as if it was intended to be an official statement for a court proceeding. I scanned through it briefly until I realized what it was. The unsigned, undated and unfiled document was a false statement that the Burton's had prepared claiming that Michael had been molested by Bryan and I. Attached to it was a second legal agreement seeking settlement of 51% of Davis-Callahan Corporation in exchange for out of court settlement.
"Jesus Christ," I said softly and turned to Bryan and handed him the papers. "So this is how they planned to pull it off," I said sounding sick to my stomach.
Bryan shook his head after reading it. "It's frightening. It's also clear that Michael knew nothing about it. God only knows how they would have threatened and cajoled that boy to get him to play along. You keep looking through the rest of the drawers and files. Anything that looks even strange, grab it, bag it, and put it in the Jeep. I'm going to disconnect this computer and printer as if they'd never been here and we're going to take them as well. Let's hurry."
Josh showed up just in time with the garbage bags and I started putting the documents in them, careful that he didn't see them. When I finished with the drawers, which were full of CD's and old 3 inch floppies which I bagged, I looked into the file drawer of the desk. There were a number of file folders and although they appeared to be just household files and bank statements, I put them in the bag as well without reading every label.
Carefully, I looked up at the books on the shelves. One book was just a few centimeters indented from the others. It had no title on the binding. I went very close to the shelf and checked for dust. Although barely detectable, it was obvious this was the last book that someone had placed on the shelf. I showed Josh what I'd observed and asked him to examine every book on all the shelves that may have been similarly placed or had a peculiar title. I pulled out the book and opened it. It was a diary and it appeared to be in Howard's writing. I placed it in the bag.
Meanwhile, Bryan had the computer disconnected and was placing the monitor, the processor, and the printer wrapped with their related cords in separate garbage bags. "She should have a computer too," he said, "I'll ask Michael."
Then Josh pointed out another book to me that he thought was out of place. It was labeled 'Emergency Survival'. The title had peaked my interest, so I pulled it out and opened it. It wasn't a book - it was a box made to look like a book. Inside was a nine-millimeter snub-nosed revolver. Without touching the weapon, I closed the box as Michael, Mark, and Bryan reentered the room.
"We're done here," I said looking at the three of them. Bryan was carrying a laptop in one arm and holding onto Michael with the other. Michael stood there holding a bag - he'd obviously been crying again. I went over to him and pulled him into a hug. "You ready to go Michael?"
"Yeah," he croaked. "I just picked up some pictures and other things. I.... I don't want any of the other stuff."
"OK, Josh, you pick up that bag and I'll take the monitor and the printer." I said. "Mark, would you take that other bag with the processor in it?"
Without another word, the five of us went down the stairs and headed for the front door. I watched carefully as Michael locked the door and we carried on to the back of the Jeep. We had just loaded the last of the bags into the Jeep when my cell phone rang.
I look at the caller ID. It was Darren. "Hi Darren," I said quietly, hoping that it wasn't more bad news.
"Where are you?" He asked.
"We're at the Burton house," I replied. "We just loaded the last of the things that Michael wanted from the house."
"Get out of there now! I said NOW!" he shouted.
"INTO THE JEEP GUYS, NOW!" I shouted in response.
Quickly I headed for the driver's door, jumped in, started up the Jeep, and put it in gear. As soon as I heard the last door shut, I gunned it in reverse and headed down the drive. The warning bell was dinging like crazy because no one had their seatbelts done up. Once I got on the street, I put it in drive and gunned it again until I reached the speed limit. I put the phone back to my ear.
"We're on the road. What's up Darren?" I asked.
"The sheriff should be to the Burton house by now to secure it for the bank." He answered.
Just then I saw the sheriff's car coming in the opposite direction. I slowed down and pulled over.
"He just passed us going the other way Darren." I said with a smile. "How'd you know?"
"You can thank Quince and his sharp ears.... he picked it up on the scanner. What did you get?"
"I'll let Bryan tell you," I replied as I handed him my cell phone.
While Bryan spoke to Darren with cryptic messages, I turned in my seat and looked at the bewildered boys in the back seat. I looked at Josh and shook my head slightly hoping he understood that I didn't want him to say anything about what he'd seen or what we'd talked about.
"Boys, Michael, We're pretty sure that your mom and dad had mortgaged that house to the hilt in order to build their new one at the ranch. As soon as the bank heard that your folks had died, they had to seize the property to ensure a return on their investment. The reason we were in a hurry to get off the property and the reason that Darren called is, if we were caught taking anything from the property, we'd have had to return it or be arrested for stealing."
"But it's my stuff we took. It's my personal stuff. It's no good to anyone else." Michael protested as Bryan closed my phone.
"That's true Michael," I continued, "but once the house is seized by the sheriff on behalf of the bank, it belongs to them and we'd have to go through a lawyer and a court hearing to get into the house again.... and then only with a sheriff's escort to make sure that everything we took was documented. It's the legal system and financial institutions can become ruthless when it comes to money owing them."
"What's going to happen to all the furniture and stuff?" Michael asked.
"Once the courts have established that there's a will or maybe no will to probate and if the next of kin can't afford to pay off the debts, they'll probably give the property, lock, stock and barrel to the bank and they'll hold an auction for the furniture, dispose of clothing etc. as they see fit and then sell the house." Bryan answered. "We'll have to find out if there's a will before we know where to proceed from here. Andy will be waiting for us when we get home."
I did up my seatbelt and we carried on wordlessly until we parked the Jeep in the garage.
Just as I opened the back of the Jeep, Andy came through the door to the house. Without a word he reached Michael and pulled him into a hug. That was enough to get Michael's tears running again.
"I promise," Andy said, "we're all here to get you through this. It takes a long time to get over something like this, but you're going to be fine."
I reached into the bag and pulled out the address book before I handed the rest of the contents in the bag to Andy. "This is the address book.... Michael and I will go through it to find out who we have to contact. The rest of this stuff in the bag is going to be for you to look at. Take it to our office. There's a book in their about Emergency Survival. Be careful with it, give it to Darren to look after."
"I hope there's a will in there," Andy said.
"I don't know Andy, we were in a hurry." I answered.
While Josh, Mark, Andy, and Bryan emptied the Jeep and headed for the basement office, Michael and I went into the family room, where we saw Darren and Susan waiting for us. Once again there were hugs and tears.
"Michael, I'm so sorry about your mom and dad, but you know we're all here to help you through this." Susan said.
"Michael that accident could have happened to anyone," Darren said. "Even the cops at the scene said they were having trouble stopping on the bridge."
"They..... they didn't have their seat belts on, did they?" Michael asked through his tears.
"No they didn't Michael," Darren replied, "although we won't know if that would have saved them or not. We have to wait to see what the coroner's report has to say."
"Michael, can we sit down while you tell us about your Mom and Dad's relatives?" I asked.
Michael and I sat on the love seat, while Susan and Darren sat in the arm chairs as we went through the address book. The first names we came across were the Burtons. They lived a number of miles apart - one on a farm and the other in a small town, both in Saskatchewan.
Michael said that both of his uncles were quite different. The first he came to was his Uncle George, his wife's name was Dorothy and they had two children who were just about his age. He said that they were pretty nice and his kids were a lot of fun when they visited them on the farm. The second uncle was very religious. His name was John, his wife's name is Mildred, and he had six children. He didn't like them very much because he was told he had to call them aunt and uncle and all the kids called him Cousin Michael. Aunt Mildred had said that children were to be seen and not heard.
The next name he came to was Pamela and Fred Embers. Pam was his Mom's sister and they had two children. He hadn't seen them since he was six - they lived in Nova Scotia. His other aunt in Nova Scotia was Lena Watson - she had never married and he only met her once as well back when they made the trip to Nova Scotia to see Angela's side of the family. Michael had met his Uncle Victor Watson a few times. First was on that trip to Nova Scotia when he was six years old and twice since then when Victor lived in Montreal, he'd come out to Calgary to have a visit. It was on his last visit that he found out that Uncle Victor was gay. Naturally, he liked Victor more than all his aunts and uncles.
Once Michael had explained the history of his family, Susan said, "Would it be alright if we phoned them and told them what's happened?"
Sadly, Michael nodded his head. "Yes, I guess that's best, but when you phone Uncle Victor, could I talk to him too?"
"That's no problem," Susan said with a slight smile, "Tom, you phone the Burtons and Victor, I'll go in the kitchen and call the aunts in Nova Scotia."
With my curiosity peaked, I decided to call Michael's Uncle John first. His answer surprised me.
"Pastor John. How may I help you?"
I replied, "Hello, this is Tom Davis calling. Are you the brother of Howard Burton?"
"Yes I am. How may I help you?" he replied.
"Sir, I'm a business partner with the company that your brother Howard worked for these past few months. I'm afraid I have some bad news. Last night Howard and Angela were on their way to their home in Calgary and were in a terrible accident. I'm sorry, but neither of them survived."
"Good grief.... may the Lord have mercy on their souls." He sounded sadly sincere. "He phoned just last month and told me about how wonderful his life was going for him and his family. He.... he sounded so happy. How is young Master Michael holding up?"
"All things considered, he's being a very brave young man." I replied. Master Michael? Did people still talk like that?
"Is he there with you?"
"Yes John, Michael lives with me and our extended family here at the Serenity Ranch."
"I..... see. When do you think the funeral might be for my brother?" John asked.
I had to think for a moment. "John, we haven't made the funeral arrangements yet, but possibly on Saturday or we may hold off until Monday in order for Angela's relatives to arrive from Nova Scotia."
"I doubt that Pamela or Lena will attend. They're rather poor people down there to pay for a trip like this, so I'll assume that if I arrive on Friday evening it may be a Saturday funeral service. I would like to request that I conduct the service at the Calgary Church I'm affiliated with. I'm sure they will agree because I am Howard's brother and I am the Pastor of our church here. If I make the arrangements with the church, would that be possible?"
"I think that would be a wonderful befitting way to celebrate the life of your brother, John, no one could give the service more meaning than you." I replied.
"Thank you Mr. Davis, I'll phone you back shortly and let you know what arrangements I've made with the Church. Please give Master Michael our love and let him know that with God's guidance, he will learn that his suffering is a small price to pay compared to the life that Jesus had to give up for our sins."
"Indeed Pastor," I answered, confused by this man's formal religious attitude. "Michael is in goods hands. Don't be concerned on that count. I have a number of calls to be made yet, and other arrangements to make. For now, I'll be waiting for your call in an hour."
"Yes I will call then. Thank you Mr. Davis." He ended the call.
I looked at Michael sitting beside me. He still looked a bit numb, obviously deep in thought. "Master Michael?" I questioned.
He looked up at me with a grin. The first I'd seen today. "I told you he was religious."
"He wants to conduct the funeral service at the Calgary Church he affiliated with. Are you OK with that Michael?"
"I suppose, but it'll be long and boring though. I think he knows every word, verse, and chapter in the Bible and he likes to listen to himself talk." He grinned slightly, "wait 'til you have to listen to him say grace. The food will be cold by the time he finishes."
Although we wanted to laugh at the comment, we just smiled.
It was an entirely a different story when I phoned George Burton.
"Hello," a deep voice said quietly.
"Hello, this is Tom Davis calling. May I to speak to George Burton."
"I'm George Burton, what can I do for you?"
"George, I'm calling you regarding your brother Howard. I'm-"
"Ahh.... I recognize your name. Aren't you into that ranch scheme of Howard's?"
"Sir, Howard and Angela were business associates, but the reason I'm calling is not related to that. Last night Howard and Angela were in a terrible car accident and I'm afraid it was fatal for them."
"Oh damn. That's terrible. How's Michael?"
"Right now he's fine, pretty shaken up about everything, but he's coming around."
"He's the best thing that ever happened to Howard and Angela. Where is he now?" George asked with concern.
"He's been here at the ranch with me and my extended family for the past six weeks for security reasons."
"Howard and I were so different," George went on to explain. "He always had some hair-brained scheme going on that he thought I should join in. I'm just a simple farmer that enjoys getting a crop off my section every year. Does my brother John know?"
"Yes, I just spoke to him and he wants to be here on Friday evening. He wishes to conduct the funeral service on Saturday at the church."
"Well there ya go, it's hard to believe that we're three brothers. I got one that's a super schemer always trying to chisel someone out of their last buck and the other one who's gone all pious into religion. Me, I'm just the hard working farmer, doing an honest day's work, wondering how I could be related to either of them."
"George after having listened to you for the past few minutes, I can share your perspective. Will you be able to make it to the funeral?" I asked.
"Of course. I'll phone John and see what travel arrangements we can make to get there."
"You'll all be more than welcome to stay here at the ranch. We have lots of spare bedrooms here at the main house." I offered.
"Well it'll just be me and Dorothy coming from our house. I imagine that it'll only be John and Mildred coming from his."
"John said he'd get back to me within the hour to confirm the arrangements he's made with the church for the service. This afternoon we'll have to make arrangements with a funeral home."
"OK then, I'll speak to John and let him know what we've discussed and one of us will get back to you sometime this evening to let you know our final arrangements."
"Good, I'll be waiting for your call. Bye for now."
"Bye Tom and thank you for the call. Give my love to Michael."
"Will do," I said as I ended the call. Turning to Michael, I said, "I like George, he seems like a nice guy. He sends his love."
"He is a nice guy, so is Aunty Dot nice. You gonna phone Uncle Vic now?" Michael asked.
"Yes. I'll talk to him and then if you still want to, you can talk to him. OK?"
"Yeah, I want to talk to him."
I dialed and heard, "Hello."
"Hello," I answered. "This is Tom Davis calling. Is this Victor Watson?"
"Tom Davis! Well this is an unexpected honour." The sound of his voice was positive and happy. "I've heard a number of amazing things about you from my sister. What can I do for you this fine day?"
"Victor, I'm sorry, but the reason I'm calling is not a happy one. Early this morning Angela and Howard were in a serious car accident. Neither of them survived."
"WHAT! Oh my God," he whispered. "Please..... I'll.... I'll call you back in a in a few minutes." His voiced cracked as he ended the call.
"I'm sorry Michael, he sounded like he needs a few minutes to compose himself."
"I know," Michael replied. I put my arm around him as he started weeping again. I knew there would be a number of these moments over the next days until the funeral finally ended and time was the only thing that would take these moments away.
Under normal circumstances, I'd be pretty upset to have lost an employee, but not in this case. I knew how greedy and treacherous Michael's parents were and I felt little personal remorse for their loss - the main remorse I felt was for Michael who knew he could trust them and love him. If, actually when, one day something would slip in a passing conversation and Michael would find out the truth about his parents, which would be fine with me, but I knew that one day I'd have to prepare him for the truth, however I had no idea how or when.
Just as Michael's sobs ended again, the phone rang. It was Victor.
"Tom, I apologize, that was quite a shock. Angela was my favourite sister.... unfortunately she married a rather charismatic man who always wanted to make a big buck off of other people's hard work. How.... how is Michael holding up?"
"He's doing well, although there are bound to be moments until time heals the loss." I answered. "He's been living here at the ranch with me and our extended family for the past six weeks. So far, I've spoken to Howard's brothers. John is arranging to have the service at a church here in Calgary and he wants to perform the service. The funeral will probably be on Saturday. If you can possibly get here, we have a lot of room right here at the ranch for everyone. Another business associate and dear friend, Susan Chambers, is making the calls to your sisters, Lena and Pamela."
"That is so good of you. I'm not looking forward to meeting with the Pastor though. You see, I'm gay and he's very homophobic. I suppose you know that Michael is gay."
"Yes I do," I confirmed, "and that doesn't make any difference to us. Michael and my partner's brother, Mark are very close as well."
"That's good news. I'll let you know when my travel arrangements are made. Do you think I could speak to Michael?" He asked.
"Of course he's right here." I handed the phone to Michael as he continued to snuggle into my side.
"Hi Victor," I heard Michael say through a tearful smile. "It sure wasn't what I expected when I woke up this morning..... all the way, we're going to be fighter pilots. I want you to meet him..... I'm glad, I want to see you too.... Tomorrow! That'll be great! OK, I'll tell him. Thanks Victor. Love you too. Bye for now."
Michael handed me the phone. "Victor said he'd phone back when he had his flight booked."
"That's good," I said as Susan walked into the room and kneeled in front of Michael giving him a hug.
"Michael, your Aunt Pamela and Aunt Lena send their love," Susan began. Although your Mom was their sister, their hearts go out to you. They're anxious to get here and see you again."
"They're going to come here?" Michael exclaimed.
"Yes, they are. I've already called Air Canada and they'll be here on Friday evening at 6:30. I told them not to worry about having a place to stay.... if you don't mind, I'd like to have them stay with Darren and I."
"Yeah, that'd be good." Michael said.
Just then Andy, Josh, Bryan and Mark came in. Immediately, Mark sat on the sofa beside Michael and took his hand.
"I did find a will and I've checked to see if it's the last one to be registered," Andy said as he walked over to Darren with the 'Emergency Survival' book. "Keep it closed for now," he cautioned Darren, then turning to the rest of us, he continued, "Essentially, the will generally reads that if Howard was to pass on before Angela, everything would go to her and vice-versa. However, if both of them were to pass on, everything was to go to Michael at the age of maturity with George Burton assigned as the executor of the estate."
"I've spoken to George on the phone and he seems to be a very level headed, hardworking man," I said. "Considering what Mom said about the financial assets of the estate, I think we'll have to give him a hand with finances."
"I hope the documents that we signed yesterday will supersede the will." Bryan said.
"Have no doubt about that," Andy said. "I did phone his former employer and let them know about the accident, but they already knew. There is one great saving grace about all the debt that Howard and Angela had accumulated.... working at an insurance company, both he and Angela had up-to-date insurance policies with a few million dollars payout. So all in all, the final balance sheet will come out on the positive side. We haven't had time to go through all the documentation yet."
"I haven't found anything on the computer yet," Bryan added.
Just then my cell phone rang. It was John Burton. He gave me the name and address of the church and said they'd be ready for an 11:00 AM funeral service on Saturday. He also said that he and Mildred would be staying with the church's pastor and his wife at the manse. While he and Mildred would be driving to Calgary, George and Dorothy would be making their own travel arrangements. I restated that they were welcome to stay with us at the ranch, but he and Mildred were having none of that.
After I explained that to everyone in the room, Michael said, "He is a bit of a stuffed shirt."
"Michael, there's a very unpleasant thing that has to be done," Susan said cautiously. "If you don't wish to be a part of it, we'll understand. We have to choose a funeral home and caskets for your mom and dad."
Michael sighed deeply before he looked from Bryan to me. "Will you guys come with me?" I put my arm around him and gently squeezed his shoulder.
"Of course we will Michael," Bryan replied. "It's all part of the love and caring. Is there any special funeral home you would care to go to?"
"Not really," he replied, "There's a big one on the south side that we used to drive by."
With that, all of us put on our coats and the boys, Bryan and I headed for the Jeep with the boys. Bryan knew where we were going, so he drove. Andy went with Susan and Darren in Susan's Chrysler.
The courtesy and kindness of the funeral director was outstanding. After we explained the circumstances of Angela and Howard's passing, he excused himself while he made a phone call to the coroner's office. When he returned, he said that a Saturday funeral was possible. The coroner had explained that they would probably have to be closed caskets. From there he went into the showroom of caskets that were available. After showing us many models with their various features, Michael chose two steel models - one in a pink colour for Angela and the other in a copper tone for Howard. The funeral director went on to explain, to Michael in particular, that during the winter months there would be no graveside internment because the ground was frozen, so we had some time to choose a final resting place for his mother and father. In the meantime, they would be interred in a refrigerated building. We went on to explain which church that the funeral service was to be. He made a note of that, and then asked about pallbearers. Right away, Darren said that we would be providing all the pallbearers that would be necessary. Once I mentally added it up, it was true; we had more than twelve able-bodied males able to carry the two caskets. We chose an appropriate guest book for visitors to pay their respects together with a brief description of their lives, as we knew it. Each of us was surprised as Michael filled in some of those blanks; he never broke down once. The funeral director said that he would have the newspapers informed with an appropriate ad. Bryan and I signed all the papers on behalf of Michael so there would be no doubt that payment would be made within thirty days after the funeral.
Once the front door of the funeral home closed behind us, Michael stopped dead in his tracks and Mark grabbed him into a hug. That's all it took - Michael's sobs were very pronounced and prolonged. Bryan, Josh, Andy, and I were quick to put a hand on Michael's shoulder to reassure him. As his sobs ebbed, Susan reached into her handbag and pulled out a wallet sized Kleenex. Once Michael had made generous use of the tissues and composed himself, I looked deep into Michael's eyes with a smile.
"You're a super strong young man Michael. That was a really tough ordeal and I honestly don't know of anyone who could have handled it better. Now, I think it's time for everyone to have some lunch. How about it?"
"Yeah," Michael said with a slight smile, "I guess that would be a good thing."
"That's my man!" Mark exclaimed with a smile as he kissed his cheek.
Andy looked directly at Bryan, Susan, Darren and I in turn and with a slight smile, he said, "I think we should go for chicken."
I had to smile in return. It was one of the good times that we'd had with Michael's parents when we bought all the vehicles, one that the boys had never experienced. In spite of everything that had happened at last night's meeting with Angela and Howard, I was feeling a sense of relief. The bad memories were being replaced with some of the better times we'd had with them.
During lunch, we reminisced with Michael about his parents - how much help they'd been to us during our house-hunting trip, how well he organized everything when we were purchasing the cars, and the great audio-visual room he'd had set up at the office. In turn, Michael told us a few of the good times he'd had with his folks when he was younger. Bit by bit Michael seemed to be getting used to the drama of today's events.
As we headed for the parking lot, Susan said that she and Darren had a few errands to run. Andy said that he would see us later as he joined them. On the way home we passed the church where the service was to be performed. It was enormous and more than big enough to accommodate the number of people in our family and our friends. I didn't suggest we go in today - this had been a hard enough day for Michael.
As we were driving up to the main house, we found Hamish's crew cab parked in the driveway. As soon as we got out of the Jeep, the dogs were surrounding us with their happy greetings. Hamish and Irene were busy unloading groceries into the house. Hamish and Irene put down the bags they were holding and went over to Michael. Irene hugged him and Hamish gave him a hearty handshake expressing their sympathies. Michael stood up well to their sincere gestures as he expressed his gratitude. There was a moment of silence as Michael and Hamish stared at each other. It was as if Hamish was exuding his strength of character into Michael as they stared at each other.
"My God," Bryan laughed as he approached Irene breaking the spell, "this is why we never run out of food. Surely, we can do our own grocery shopping."
"I'm afraid not Bryan," Irene said with a smile, "I've been doing this for all these years with the old folks that lived here and it's one of the pleasures I get from my job.... spending other people's money and watching them enjoy the fruit of my labours."
"How about the others?" I asked.
"They leave me a shopping list on the fridge door and I make sure it gets done once a week.... two houses per trip. Diane and I organized the routine once all of you started going to work at the office. With you fellas, all I have to do is look and see what's missing and replace it. I should say though, that if there's anything special you boys would like, just leave me a list on the fridge."
The five of us started helping taking the bags into the house while Irene and Bryan stayed in the kitchen and started putting all the groceries away.
With the groceries out of the way, I phoned Major Steele, the CO of our cadet squadron and explained our situation. He said it would be no problem for one week and he could get into some of the technicalities with the other cadets of what happens to an airplane when it's overstressed. He wanted to leave the formation flying to me. I felt that was a pat on the back.
As I ended the call, Mom, Grant, Ethel, Kevin, Trevor, Debbie, Shelly, James, Anne, the twins, came in and immediately went to Michael and smothered him with their condolences. It wasn't until he got into a hug with Debbie that he broke down again. He started to apologize, but everyone said he had nothing to be sorry for - it was an overwhelming situation for him to be in with everyone trying to comfort him. We were proud of the way he handled the situation.
"I can't imagine what this would have been like if I hadn't been here without all of you to help me." Michael said as he hugged Anne. "I wouldn't have known what to do."
"Michael these are just some of the bumps we get thrown our way while we go through life." Anne said as she held his shoulders and stared into his eyes. "Just know that you're the victim in this situation and all of us are proud of you and we're here to support you for as long as it takes. You can call on any of us at any time for anything and we'll be here to help you."
It was like magic - while all this was going on, Mom, Debbie, Shelly, Mark, Josh and Bryan came from the kitchen with bowls of chips, dip and coke, putting them on the tables.
"Thank you," Michael replied shyly as Anne took a seat beside James.
With all the seats taken in the family room, Michael sat on the floor beside my leg. Without hesitation, Richard and Matthew sat on each side of him. Eddie took a place at his feet and sat cross-legged facing him. Without coaxing, the twins had Daisy and Brutus at their sides and Freddie lay beside Eddie.
"Dogs know what you're feeling Michael," Matthew said as he patted Brutus' neck.
"And they never complain." Richard added with his hand around Daisy.
"Just like the three of you," Michael said as he wrapped his arms around the twins. "It takes people like the three of you to help take the hurt away. I'm glad you're here."
I smiled with pride as I caught Anne's face grinning from ear to ear. Josh looked at me and winked and smiled as he looked at Anne. There was something unspoken between the two of them that I wasn't aware of, but I accepted it as a moment of relief. It had been a harrowing day for Michael and the rest of us and we needed that time of contentment.
As Freddie rested his chin on Eddie's knee, Eddie quietly said with a smile as he ran his fingers through Freddie's fur, "The dogs can feel their love. That's all that's left.... your folks love."
I looked over towards Debbie and Trevor. They shrugged their shoulders smiling as all of us pondered Eddie's comment.
"That's quite true Eddie," Grant said. "Freddie has helped our family through a pretty rough time."
From there our conversation went into the world of dogs, their intelligence and the tricks they each had a talent for. They put on quite a show for us with their masters - Kevin directing Freddie, Mark directing Daisy and Josh directing Brutus. It brought a smile to everyone's face in the room - even Michael.
The routine was interrupted when Susan, Darren, and Andy came in. Right away, Brutus had to go over and greet Susan. Naturally Daisy and Freddie followed suit each of them boisterously wagging their tails vying for attention.
"All right you guys!" Susan exclaimed. "I'm glad to see you too, but how about if you take all the kids and all this energy outside while I have a chance to catch my breath."
With the hint given, Shelly and all the boys stood up, donned all their coats, and went happily out the front door.
Before Susan had a chance to sit down, Darren said, "We had quite a whirlwind trip this afternoon. First thing we did was go to the coroner's office. Angela and Howard did have ID with them, but they did ask if one of us would ID the bodies. They warned us that it was pretty gruesome, so I volunteered. The damages to the bodies were severe and in Angela's case all I had to go on were the clothes she was wearing.... the business suit and blouse were pretty distinctive. Howard on the other hand didn't go through the windshield, but the contusions to his face were severe. The caskets will definitely be closed. He didn't say the amount, but the examiner said that their blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit."
"While Darren was doing that, I went over to the compound yard and had a look at their car. I think it must have rolled end-over-end before it hit the tree head-on." Andy said.
"Next we went to the flower shop." Susan began. "After going through the ordeal of picking out caskets, I thought it would be better if Michael wasn't involved in that part. I know that many of us here would prefer to have had donations made to the Cancer Society rather than purchase flowers, but you can do that in addition to the flowers. The casket sprays will have a silk banner on them - one for Mom and one for Dad with a card from Michael. I picked a large one for behind the caskets from Davis-Callahan Corporation, but in addition, there're others from each of families here, including Hamish and Irene. Also, there's one each from the sisters in Nova Scotia, one from each of the brothers and another from Victor. I hope I didn't forget anyone."
"From there they took me over to see little Jimmy again.... remember the boy we saw at Christmas Eve," Andy said. "He's still holding his own.... in and out of consciousness."
Mom snapped her fingers and stood up beckoning Susan toward her. "Susan, Darren.... while all that was above and beyond the call of duty, I want the receipts." Right away Mom grabbed Susan into a hug. "Bless you dear lady." Naturally all of us had our turns at giving Susan an embrace of gratitude.
"OK ladies, enough of this," Mom continued. "Let's hit the kitchen and see what we can hustle up for dinner. If you boys want to make yourself useful, you can set up the table before the kids come bouncing in."
The rest of the afternoon went pretty good. The ladies made us a wonderful dinner that everyone enjoyed and they all stayed until about eight that evening. It made a difference for Michael and for the boys, Bryan, and me. Without school, the office, and cadets to distract and fill our day, we were having it difficult to fill the silent brooding voids of respect we should be feeling for the Burtons.
By ten that night, we ushered the boys to bed. It had certainly been a long day, especially for Bryan and I.
Together, Bryan and I went into Mark and Michael's room to say goodnight. They were both together in the larger bottom bunk. If there ever was a time for that to be necessary, it was now.
"Sometimes it hurts so bad," we heard Michael say sadly as we entered the room. He and Mark were clinging to one another.
"For now, Michael, that's as it should be." Bryan said as he sat on the edge of the bed. "When a loved one dies, the life you've spent together with them is all you can think about at first. After a week or so, other thoughts will start to take the place of those memories and you may feel guilty when you come to realize that other parts of your life are interfering with those thoughts, but that's as it should be as well. A short while later, you'll know that life goes on and all your ambitions are just as important as the memories that you had about your loved ones that passed away. It's the fulfilling of those life's ambitions that becomes important for your own self-esteem and you'll come to realize that your loved ones that passed on would be very proud of your accomplishments. I know that's a lot to absorb right now, but know this for sure.... Tom and I love you as does everyone living here at the ranch.... and regardless of how long it takes, we'll always be here to help you through this."
"I wish my father had been like you guys." Michael said forlornly and he reached up for a hug, first from Bryan and then from me.
"Michael, your father was a very ambitious man," I said, "but he had different interests than Bryan and I have. No one knows for sure when our time is coming to an end on this earth.... but we do know that everything we've done throughout our lives will be a reflection of what we are when that end comes. Right now, all I can say is that your father was very ambitious."
"Yeah, he was, wasn't he?" Michael echoed my thoughts.
"More than that Michael, he was intelligent." Mark said. "He knew that by accepting us, we'd be able to find a good life together no matter what."
I reached down and kissed Mark's forehead. "Love you Mark because right now, you're the right man for Michael to hold on to during this time."
"Love you too Dad." Mark whispered.
I kissed Michael's forehead. "Try to get some sleep Michael and remember, I love you too."
After Bryan repeated my scenario, Michael said, "I love you guys too."
We went into Josh's room to tuck him in. I sat on the edge of the bed and placed my hand on his chest. "It's been quite a day son and I have to say how proud I am of you. I'm guessing by now, that you know what went on at our last meeting with the Burtons."
"Yeah Dad.... it's sad. When I saw that letterhead at the Burton's house, it hit me what they had been up to and why Bryan was in such a panic to get the computer out of there and why you wanted all that stuff out of the desk. When we took all that stuff down the basement, I told Andy and Bryan that I'd seen the letterhead and they kinda explained what happened at the meeting. When they showed Mark and I the plans of the house, we were shocked. As sad as today was, it made me happy when they told us that you were Michael's legal guardian."
"Josh, that meeting was very upsetting for all of us." Bryan said. "We were hoping the Burtons would relent when we faced them with the facts, but Angela and Howard just got angrier and stormed out vowing to get even with us. I'm amazed at your maturity Josh, Mark too.... you both remained silent about the whole thing."
"We had to Bryan. Dad, you said I had to stay quiet about what I saw at the Burtons. Bryan and Andy told us not to say anything and that all of us would be together when you had to tell Michael about his parents and that you were now his dad."
"I'm so proud of you Josh," I said smiling as we rubbed noses. "We still have a lot to iron out with Michael's aunts and uncles. We'll let him know what he has to know when the time is right. Right now his life has been turned upside down and we need to get him used to every step of this ordeal before we spring any of the hard news on him."
"I was proud of the twins this afternoon when they snuggled up to Michael with the dogs." Josh said smiling. "I did the same thing with them when we were watching all the stuff on TV on 9-11. We were hoping we would see you in the crowds of people."
"Really!?" I asked.
"Yeah.... really, really Dad. It kinda made them realize why everyone was so sad and why we were all together. They're really great kids. I think Eddie was right.... forget the bad stuff and remember the love. I'm sure Angela and Howard loved Michael at least a little bit."
"Maybe Josh," I said as I moved my head slowly from side to side remembering the last words we heard them speak as we stood on the verandah.. "Maybe they did," I said. I didn't believe my own words.
"How's Michael doing?"
"Both he and Mark are in bed together.... they're both pretty sad. It's going to be hard for them to get some sleep tonight." Bryan said.
"I'm going to go in there and keep them company. If I get tired, I can always sleep on Michael's bunk."
"That might be a good idea Josh. Reminisce about camp and air cadets. That might get their spirits up." I suggested.
By the time our heads hit the pillows that night, Bryan and I were emotionally drained. Sleep came so quickly.
Thursday morning my eyes blinked open lying flat on my back. Bryan was leaning on his elbow looking down on me with a smile - his free hand resting on my chest with my hand resting on his. He nodded his head to my side of the bed. Both Michael and Mark were standing there in their boxers with a weak smile.
"We want to go for a run this morning," Mark said quietly.
"I think that's a good idea," I replied as I smiled back at them. "Go get dressed and pour some orange juice. I'll be right there."
I followed Bryan into the bathroom while the boys went to get dressed. Bryan commented, "Every day will get just a little bit better for him."
"I hope we can all breathe a sigh of relief once Saturday night arrives and the funeral is over." I replied.
By the time I got downstairs, the boys handed me a glass of OJ and were raring to go.
The fresh air was invigorating as I stepped out onto the verandah and started my stretches. I felt the world was starting to come alive for us once again - maybe just a small step, but a hell of a lot better than yesterday. Even the dogs had livened up.
As we started our run towards the north gate, Michael said, "Josh came in and stayed with us last night. It felt good."
"I'll bet with him chattering away, you didn't get much sleep." I said with a smile.
"It was OK when he was talking about cadets and camp and the twins," Mark said, "but when he started talking about what he was debating in his debating club, it got boring and we fell asleep."
I thought, 'Good for you Josh!'
Kevin and Freddie were just coming off their verandah as we approached and joined us as we maintained a steady pace. When we got to the main gate, Kevin said he had to stretch - he had the inkling of a leg cramp starting. While we waited for Kevin to stretch, the three of us run on the spot and did a few circles around him - just as they had done to me on Tuesday morning. We had a bit of a laugh about it.
As we started our run again, each of us had a bit of a smile. It wasn't until we were just past the halfway point to Susan and Darren's house, that Michael veered off the road and went plodding through the snow. It took a moment for the rest of us to backtrack and follow him. About a hundred feet in, he stopped and looked over toward the valley beyond. When we caught up to him, he said nothing, but I could tell he was searching.
"What is it Michael?" I asked quietly.
He kept looking from one side of the valley to the other. "Mom and Dad really liked this ranch. They never got to build the house they wanted to.... the funeral director said that they don't bury people in the middle of winter.... they wait until the frost comes out. I was thinking because they loved this place so much, do you think we could have my mom and dad buried here at the ranch.... say over there at the other side of the valley. I think they'd like a spot like that."
I put my arm around Michael's shoulder. "Wow!" I said quietly. "The idea never occurred to me before this, but it's something I would like for myself. However Michael, it's not a decision I can make on my own. Everyone that lives here on the ranch will have to agree to it. I'm sure there will be some environmental concerns that will have to be addressed as well. How about we have a meeting with everyone tonight after supper, including all the kids and find out if they would want that too."
"If you and Bryan were buried here, it's something I would like," Mark admitted.
"If you're going to be here, then that's where I want to be buried too," Michael agreed.
"I don't know who I'll marry someday," Kevin said, "but if I wasn't married, like right now, I'd sure want to be buried here, especially if Mom and Dad wanted to be here as well."
"Well mention it to your folks then Kevin, and we'll see what they think tonight. We'll tell Bryan and Josh and let them think about it before the meeting tonight." I said. "Now let's finish our run."
Quince was waiting for us when we got to the main gate. As soon as he saw Michael he grabbed him into a hug. "Michael I'm so sorry this had to happen to you. I wish I'd stopped your parents and told them to put on their seat belts."
"Thanks Quince," Michael said, "but don't worry about it. They never wore their seat belts.... ever, even when I told them to. Darren said that maybe the seatbelts might not have helped anyway."
"You're a remarkable young man Michael," Quince said seriously, "you stick with Tom and Bryan and I'm sure you're going to have a great life."
As we said goodbye to Kevin at the main house, he said that he, Shelly, the twins and Eddie would be going to school today and tomorrow.
When we entered the kitchen after our run, Bryan and Josh were there preparing a breakfast of poached eggs, English muffins, ham and hash browns. Josh couldn't stop and give me a hug as he stirred the cheese sauce bubbling slightly with one hand and flipped the ham over with the other. Bryan was busy toasting the muffins, frying the hash browns and watching the pot of poached eggs.
I took over the stirring of the cheese sauce and Mark and Michael set up the plates, and poured the coffee and milk.
Once everything was served on the plates, both Bryan and Josh were quick to grab each of us into a hug. Needless to say, the Eggs Benedict were great.
Once we finished our breakfast, and before I followed Mark and Michael upstairs to have a shower, I explained to Bryan and Josh about Michael wanting to bury his parents on the property because they loved the ranch so much.
After I said that we had to have a complete family meeting to agree to it including all the kids, Bryan said, "I love the idea, and I think it would be a good time to talk about other things too before the aunts and uncles arrive."
I looked at Bryan questioningly, then over to Josh. He was nodding his head.
"Dad, he has to know the truth from us before he hears his relatives bad-mouthing his parents." Now Bryan was nodding his head.
"You're right," I said, "so let's try to keep Michael as happy as we can today before we have the meeting."
"Good Tom," Bryan said. "You go have a shower and I'll make the phone calls. We'll have it here at seven."
By the time I came back downstairs, Bryan was starting up the slow cooker and mixing up some sweet and sour sauce for baby back ribs that were going to be cooking for most of the day. The ingredients looked delicious and the crock pot was filled.
With that underway, we started our day by going through pictures that Michael had of Howard and Angela. We were able to find two suitable ones that we took to a photographer to have enlarged and framed. When we explained the situation, that we wanted them available for the funeral to place on their closed caskets, he gave the project a high priority and would have them ready by tomorrow morning. Then the five of us went and got a new suit for Michael. He had outgrown his old one. While the suit was being altered, we spent time getting haircuts for all of us, then roaming the shopping mall checking out new computer games.
The boys were very intuitive when they looked at any package. Each of them would explain the advantages of the game and what it lacked. Even the pre-school programs were of interest to them pointing out what age group would get the most from the program and how long it would keep their interest. All the time, Bryan and I were making mental notes of their logic levels. We knew their interests were going to be a great asset to the programmers - at least until they had to go to college.
By the time we got home, Bryan and I finished the preparations for dinner while the boys went out romping with the dogs, which had been with Hamish for most of the day.
Naturally the boys were a bit impatient eating their salad, when they knew there were baby back ribs and baked potatoes waiting in the wings. I think the sweet and sour sauce made them enjoy their broccoli, carrots, and brussel sprouts more than usual.
After our cleanup, we moved all the chairs from the dining room into the family room along with all the stools. We tried to reassure the boys that they would probably find that everyone might be on our side and regardless of their decision; Michael's request was an honourable one. Bryan and I got the big urn of coffee going while the boys put out the coke and ginger ale for the kids along with the tumblers and mugs.
Kevin and Shelly were the first ones to arrive. Naturally Josh was thrilled to have a tender moment with Shelly while Kevin talked about what went on at school and if they wanted to go on line, they'd be able to see what they'd missed during their days away.
A few minutes later, everyone else arrived. I noticed that there was a bit of a smile on everyone's faces as they seated themselves with their drinks, except for James and myself. I was going to open our get-together, but James motioned me to sit down.
"We all know why we're here tonight." James began, "after all the phone calls this morning, about Michael's wishes to have his parents buried here on the ranch, it was a consensus among the adults that in spite of our meeting on Tuesday night, it was a fine idea. Trevor, Grant and I went into the office today and we mentioned it to Harold. He said that he knew someone in Alberta Environment who may be able to advise us on where the most acceptable place might be to have a cemetery with regard to how it may affect the water shed. Most important though is what the children think. First of all kids, no one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. Yet death is the one thing we all share. No one has ever escaped it and that's as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you'll gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so serious, but it's quite true. How about it Richard, would you like to be buried here on the ranch after you die?"
"I don't want anybody to die," Richard said sadly, "but if they do, they do. I like it here and I think if I'm dead, it would be a good place to be, even then."
"I think it's good that Michael wants his mom and dad to be buried here, so he can still be near them," Matthew said, "and I want to be buried here too if that's where Dad and Mom, Tom, Bryan, Josh, and everyone else will be."
"I know what it's like to have someone nearly die." Eddie said quietly. "When Mom and Dad told me that Shelly was really sick and she may not be with us for very long, I was kinda scared, but then she got better because Josh made her better." Right away Shelly got up and put her arm around her brother. "It's not nice to find out that someone you know has died. If Shelly, Mom and Dad are going to be buried here, then that's what I want too."
The room went silent. Finally Mom broke the silence.
"I'm the oldest person here and I hope that for all that is Holy, that I will be the first of anyone here to be buried on these grounds, knowing that each of you, your children and our maybe even our children's children will be nearby my resting spot. I think a show of hands is in order. All those in favour of having Angela and Howard Burton buried in our family plot here on the ranch?" Mom raised her hand and we all followed suit.
Although Michael had a tear running down his cheek, he smiled. "Thank you," he said quietly, "I know it's what my parents wanted." He continued to smile as he wiped the tears from his eyes.
"One more thing." Susan said. "Irene, Hamish, let there be no doubt.... you're a part of this family and we'd be honored if you would agree to be included."
"I was wonderin' why we had to be here tonight," Hamish began. "This land has become so important to Irene and me especially since you folks have been here. I find it hard to believe that you would give us this honour."
"You've made us so much a part of your lives," Irene added. "Your happiness that all of you have shared with us has been a blessing for Ham and me. I know now that the burdens of life have been worth it and we'll be able to rest easy for the rest of our time on this earth. It's been a miracle to have all of you accept us the way you have. Thank you from the bottom of my heart."
"It's us that have to thank both of you for looking after us," Mom said.
Josh was intently staring at me. I nodded, expecting him to have something to add to the subject. Instead he said, "Dad, it's time." I stared back at him. "While we're all here."
I looked at Anne, who simply nodded her head. Indeed it was time. "Bryan, I'll need that roll of drawings."
"I'll get it." Andy volunteered.
"Michael, there is something I have to tell you about your parents," I began. "It could be that when all your aunts and uncles get together, you may hear some kind of mean remarks about your parents.... especially about your father."
"I.... I think I can expect that," Michael said hesitantly. "Dad was always saying things about Uncle John and how lazy he was choosing to be a preacher rather than do an honest day's work. He always said that Uncle George was nothing but a dumb farmer. Maybe they didn't like him either."
"Michael, that's not exactly the case with all of us here," Bryan said. "There was some things that were said at the New Year's party that your folks went to that made us think that he intended to undermine the values that Tom and I set up for our business. What concerned me more was that it appeared that he didn't care what may have happened to you."
"Last Monday night we met with the architect that designed the new house that your folks wanted to build here at the ranch. He showed us the drawings." I said as Andy pulled the coffee table over towards him and Michael. "Do you remember before Christmas when your father and mother were here for dinner and he told us he wanted a house like this one?"
"Yeah," Michael replied. "He really liked this house and he was going to have the designer or someone come here and look through it."
"Well Michael, it turned out that he had the architect design a much bigger house with twelve bedrooms and it was three storeys high."
"Why would he do that? We'd be lost in a house that big." Michael said.
"Michael I spoke to your neighbour, Mr. Durham," Darren said. "From what he said, I gathered that your father always wanted to be the number one on the block."
Michael took a deep sigh. "He, uh.... didn't seem to like Mr. Durham very much. He was nice when he talked to him, but he'd call him names behind his back.... you know.... the asshole next door." Then he pointed to the twins and Eddie. "I don't want to hear you kids ever say that about anybody."
"Or we will tan their hides," James warned with a smile.
"No you wouldn't dad," Richard said.
"Because we wouldn't say it without a very, very, very, very good reason," Matthew added.
I certainly didn't expect that interaction between Michael and the youngsters. I was gaining more and more respect for Michael with every word as I observed a greater confidence in his demeanor. The influence of Josh and Mark's attitudes was actually showing itself.
"Andy, show Michael the drawings.... start with the basement." I said as Bryan and I went over to the coffee table and sat on the floor facing the two of them.
We all remained silent as Kevin, Shelly, the twins and Eddie stood behind Bryan and I. Michael's finger went from room title to room title and said them out loud. He looked at Bryan with a puzzled face. "A bowling alley?" He questioned. Bryan just nodded his head. Andy kept his hand over the title block as he flipped the sheet to the first floor plan when Michael finished with the basement. Andy and Michael repeated the same procedure as he went to the second and third floor plans. "This is silly," Michael finally concluded as Andy flipped the page to the elevations. With the sheet revealed in front of him, his jaw dropped. He looked at me in shock. "It would ruin the ranch. I wouldn't want to live in a place like that."
"Michael, that's the way we felt as well," I said. "Andy, move your hand please."
Michael looked at the title block and read it. "Did you guys add him as a partner?"
"No Michael, we didn't," I said, "but we found out that he fully intended to take over the Davis-Callahan Corporation. Monday night we stayed up until three in the morning preparing documentation to remove your folks from the corporation. We met with them on Tuesday night hoping they would relent their desire to take over the Corporation, but they didn't. They just got very angry."
"Michael, the architect gave us a letter signed by your folks that said he was commissioned to design this house in an amount of ten million dollars." Andy explained. "Your father fully intended that Tom and Bryan were to pay for the house."
"But it wasn't their money," Michael protested. "It's Tom's money. He was the one that brought us all together. He risked his life to-"
"Yes he did," Bryan said, "and we want everyone to share the fruit of our efforts with the Corporation equally.... no one here wants it all for themselves."
"He was going to steal all the money?" Michael asked.
"I'm afraid he was," Andy replied. "Because your mother and father didn't relent when they were given the chance, we had to have them sign a document relinquishing all claims now or in the future in the Corporations or we would have them prosecuted for fraud."
"You mean you would have put my mom and dad in jail?" Michael asked as he stared at me.
I paused and looked at Michael for a moment. "Yes Michael, that would have been our only choice, otherwise your father could eventually have swindled every penny that we had. The college funds for all you kids, the ranch, the office, everything would eventually have gone. Under protest and after threatening our lives, your father and mother signed the document."
"There's more Michael. They made up a false statement that they were going to try to force you to sign that claimed that you were molested by Tom and me. In exchange for not pressing charges, they were going to take control of the whole company."
Michael turned pale. "Neither of you ever touched me except to give me a hug. I wouldn't have signed anything. When they left that night, they..... they didn't take me with them." Michael said, a bit overwhelmed by the realization.
"No they didn't Michael," Darren said, "and I'm glad you weren't in the car that night, otherwise you wouldn't be here right now."
Michael started to cry. Andy put his arm around him. "It's OK Michael. I know this is a lot to take in at once. All of us here understand how you feel and believe me, you're not abandoned.... we're here for you." Mark stood up and went to his other side and held his hand.
I couldn't imagine what was going through Michael's mind at that moment - finding out that his parents did abandon him - sitting here in front of all of us with his heritage and soul bared to the wind.
"Michael, you know that Tom and I care about you, just as we do for Josh and Mark," Bryan said, "and we want you to know that we'll do whatever it takes to see that your future is secure with us and this family. We are your family now. I hope you can accept that."
Michael took a big gulp and looked down at the drawings on the coffee table. "I.... I can't believe that after all they did to you guys, that you would still want them buried on your ranch."
"In part Michael, it's closure," I said. "This morning when you said you wanted them buried here, I wasn't thinking of what they nearly did to us.... I thought it was something I would want for myself as well. In spite of their greed, they were a part of this family and I knew all of us needed to reflect on that now and in the future. Sometime in the future when we visit their grave we can reflect on the fact that they were one of the founders of the family that we are today.... and we can give thanks."
"Michael, I gotta give your father a lot of credit," Kevin said. "It took a lotta guts for him to dream up this scheme and stick his neck out that far. I don't know if it's something I would have or could have done for myself or my family. I would have found another way or just lived within my means."
"Kevin's right Michael." Shelly said. "I'll remember your parents for their courage and what they contributed to all of us during the short time we knew them."
Michael wiped his face on his sleeve. "Andy, put those drawings away please.... we don't need to see them anymore." He looked deeply into my eyes. "I wish I'd been here to see them leave.... even if it was just to say goodbye." He stood up and looked around the room at all the faces. "I can't imagine how my parents felt when all of you faced him with the facts. I would be totally ashamed. I'm sorry they put you through this." He looked confused, then he stared at Mark. "I gotta have some time to think."
Mark took his hand and guided him from behind the coffee table. We heard their steps wind up the stairs.
I continued to sit on the floor and looked at the eyes of everyone darting from one to another. I had a wash of guilt rush through my mind. Anne stood up with her hands up. "It's OK. He's going to be fine. He DOES need some time to think. We dumped a big bundle on him tonight. Mark's with him.... he'll be fine. Let's give him a half hour."
"He's feeling his parent's shame," Shelley said sadly as Bryan and I stood up.
"I have to go talk to him," Josh said. "He's my brother."
"That would be a good idea Josh," Anne said. "Talk him around the idea that he has nothing to be ashamed of. He should be proud that he wasn't influenced by his parent's ways. However, no talk about guardianship.... he's got enough to digest right now."
"OK." Josh replied as he went up the stairs.
"Tom, don't take all this on your shoulders," James said as Bryan put his arm around my shoulder. "We're all feeling the same as you. He's in this position because of what Angela and Howard were going to do to us. He just doesn't realize it yet, but he has no need to take on his parent's shame. I think what's hurting him the most is that he wasn't a witness to what happened that night and that he didn't have a chance to say goodbye. We all know that they totally abandoned him."
"James, that has to be the biggest guilt I have," I said. "Actually I'm quite proud of him and the way he handled the things we told him. Mostly I'm proud of all you kids. The things you said to him made him feel a lot better."
"He's our friend," Eddie said. "Kinda like a big brother I never had."
"Better than a big brother." Matthew added.
"To me he's a lot like Josh." Richard echoed.
"Josh is a good teacher, just by being himself." I said.
"Well if anyone can work a miracle with Michael, it'll be Josh and Mark." Bryan said. "Those boys are like glue."
"Right now, I don't think there's a parent here who could be prouder." Grant said as he put his arm around Kevin.
"You want to bet!" Trevor said as he kissed the top of Shelly's head and hugged Eddie.
"I'm the lucky one," James said. "I don't have to do too much to be proud of my boys. With everything that Tom, Andy, Josh, and Mark do with them, my job as a dad is so much easier. Well.... I think we're all aware of Anne's ability to maneuver their thoughts, so really none of us can take all the credit."
Anne winked and said, "Close call James. Actually, if we all think about it.... the Burton's did what they thought was right.... we did what we thought was right.... and they paid the price. None of us have any reason to hold any animosity towards them anymore."
Just then Josh came back into the family room with a grin on his face. He walked over to Bryan and I. "He wants to see both of you."
Encouraged by Josh's positive attitude, Bryan and I almost ran up the stairs and took a deep breath before we opened Mark and Michael's bedroom door. They were sitting on the edge of the bottom bunk - Mark still had his hand around Michael's shoulder. Bryan and I sat beside them.
"Josh said you wanted to see us," Bryan said.
"You guys still want me to live here after all the things my parents put you through?" Michael questioned.
"Michael, look at it this way," I said as I reflected on the conversations that we'd just had downstairs. "Yes, it was a terrible ordeal that we went through with your parents, but that shame belongs to us, not you, but all that's in the past. Through no fault of anyone, your parents paid the ultimate price with their lives. We can no longer hold a grudge for what they did.... now is a time for forgiveness and we can give that willingly," I said. "In your heart, you should too."
"Michael, I've said it before.... you know that Tom and I love you just as we do Mark and Josh. It isn't a matter of whether we want you to live here.... what's more important is would you want to live with any of your other relatives.... say Victor or George and his family?" Bryan asked.
"Actually no.... there all great people, but I can't live without Mark.... I.... I'm in love with him."
Mark smiled and kissed Michael's cheek. "I'm in love with you too."
"Well then, this is your home as long as you want it to be and we're your family.... AND there's a lot of people downstairs that forgive your parents as well and they will defend your right to call this your home because they love you too. How about we go downstairs and say goodnight to our extended family?"
Michael's face brightened a little and he nodded his head. "OK," he replied.
Bryan and I followed Michael and Mark downstairs, both of us smiling and happy. When we got to the family room, we put our hands on both boys. The smile still hadn't left our faces.
Michael scanned the faces before he spoke. "I guess I'm home to stay with the greatest family in the world."
Above the din of applause, Mom said, "GOOD! I've got another grandson."
Before long, everyone had put on their coats and gave Michael a hug before they left. After the four of us cleaned up all the dishes and the coffee urn, putting all the chairs and stools back where they belonged, it was time for bed.
We went into Mark and Michael's bedroom first. With everything that had been said this evening, we left it at a simple hug, 'I love you', and a kiss on the forehead.
We went into Josh's bedroom and he was lying there with a grin on his face. "It turned out pretty good didn't it?"
"Well yes it did son. What magic did you perform on Michael?" I asked.
"No magic Dad, just a bit of common sense. He was sitting there feeling sorry for himself. I got mad at him actually. Somebody had to. I said that it wasn't right for him to leave everyone in the family room feeling guilty for what had happened to his parents. Then I really nailed him.... I asked him just what kind of a soldier are you? He wasn't too happy about that, but it did smarten him up and he said he had to talk to you two."
"Good call son," Bryan said. "You did the right thing. All of us were feeling sorry for Michael ever since we heard his parents had died and he's been smothered with a ton of sympathy. It's only natural that he'd start feeling sorry for himself. Between you and Anne we have everyone back on the right track."
A big grin of satisfaction came across Josh's face. "Careful son," I warned, "don't get too smug. The world of diplomacy is a slippery slope. You don't want to alienate the people who love you."
"I didn't Dad. When we were cleaning up tonight, he actually thanked me for yelling at him. I apologized and he gave me a hug. He told me that anytime he ever got out of line, I should get mad at him again."
"It was just the magic we needed," I said as I hugged him. "I love you Josh." I kissed his forehead and backed away as Bryan repeated our ritual.
Josh took a deep sigh. "Our dads.... we're the luckiest guys in the world. I love both of you too."
Once I closed the door to our bedroom, I said, "I'm so very proud of our boys. When one of them is down, the other two are there to give him support."
"Oh I know you're right Tom," Bryan said. "They have a great chemistry between them. Back in Toronto, it was Mark that needed Josh.... one day it maybe Josh that needs their support and you know that Mark and Michael will be there for him."
I smiled at the realization. "Tomorrow's going to be another tough day for Michael. The relatives are coming and we'll have to go to the funeral home to see that everything is in place for the funeral.... you know, pallbearers and such."
Friday morning came and I was up, dressed for our run before anyone came downstairs. I think Daisy must have heard me and wakened Mark and Michael which got Brutus ready to leave Josh's bedroom. I had a pot of coffee brewing and was just pouring the orange juice when the four of them came down.
"Good morning boys," I said as I hugged them. "Did you sleep well?"
"Yeah, it was great.... we didn't have to listen to Josh tell tales all night and then listen to him snore after he went to sleep." Mark said with a laugh.
"Don't let him hear you say that Mark," Michael said laughing. "I don't think we want to get him mad again."
"Come on guys," I said. "We better get out there before Kevin beats us to the draw and comes knocking on the door."
Our run was typical that morning, except when we silently plodded past the point where Michael had left the road yesterday. The four of us smiled as we went by and each of us gave two thumbs up. Yesterday was a plan for the future and the events of last night were just another resolved memory.
Once we returned to the main house, Josh and Bryan weren't up yet, so we started preparing breakfast without them. I pulled out three mixing bowls and started preparing some pancakes. One bowl with blueberries in the mix, another with peaches that were cut up into small chunks and the third one plain. Meanwhile, I had Michael started on the sausages. Mark, with a bit of sausage in his hand, took Brutus and Daisy upstairs to wake up Josh and Bryan.
While I was putting cooked pancakes in the oven to keep warm, I heard a shout. "I TOLD YOU I'D GET YOU BACK!" Then Mark came running down the stair.
"Mark, what did you do?" I asked glaring at him out of the corner of my eye.
"Nothing too serious," Mark replied with a giggle. "Just snuck in and put a bit of sausage under their pillows and let the dogs wake them up. The dogs loved it!"
"You're bad," Michael said as he pulled the syrup from the fridge.
I poured two cups of coffee and handed one to Bryan as he wearily wandered to the kitchen counter. "Did I miss something?"
"I guess you did," Mark said. "Didn't you find something furry like a dog waking you up this morning?"
"Oh, was that a dog? I thought Tom hadn't shaved in a couple of days." Bryan said with a giggle.
"Watch it or I'll have Michael burn your sausages to a crisp," I said with a smile.
"This is a real treat," Bryan said as we started to pile the pancakes and sausages on the plates and serve them onto the counter. "I didn't have to prepare a thing this morning."
After all the tension of last night it was a relief for everyone to jokingly banter back and forth while we ate our breakfast.
While we were cleaning up the residue from our breakfast, Darren came in. Over a cup of coffee, we went through a list of our extended family that could be pallbearers at the funeral. Starting at one end of the ranch, the list began with Hamish, Andy, James, Trevor, Grant, Kevin, Darren, Josh, Mark, Bryan, and myself. That left a need for one more and Darren said that Harold would be honoured.
"It won't feel right that I wouldn't be a pallbearer with you guys," Michael said with some disappointment in his voice.
"Usually that isn't the case for an individual immediate family member," I explained. "In some families, if there are enough sons and relatives, they will elect themselves to be pallbearers.... a sort of tradition of family pride where they express the honour of family by burying their own."
"OK then," Michael said with some assurance, "if there's going to be any sort of procession at the funeral home or at the church where you guys are carrying the caskets, I want to be part of the procession in between the caskets.... my mother in front and my father behind me. Would that be OK?"
"I think that would be perfect!" Darren said. "The rest of the family members, whether they're related to your mother or your father can all follow behind."
"OK," I said. "The next order of business is for us to get over to the photographers and take the pictures to the funeral home. You think you can handle it Michael?"
"As long as you guys are with me, I can."
"From there, we'll have to pick up George and Dorothy from the airport at three PM. I think from what Susan said, Pamela and Lena will be arriving on the same Air Canada flight from Montreal around six-thirty tonight."
"I guess we'll need three vehicles at the airport then," Bryan said. "I can take George and Dorothy in the Explorer and then tonight, Tom, you can take Victor with you in the Jeep with the boys. Darren, I guess you and Susan will have to look after Pamela and Lena. Will that work?"
"Good plan." Darren said. "I'll let Susan know. I'm sure that the ladies will be exhausted when they get here. They'll have been in the air for about seven hours from Halifax to Montreal and another five hours from Montreal to here in addition to their stop-over in Montreal."
"Well it won't be that way on their return leg. I'll make it a point to have them go back on a private jet. It'll certainly be more comfortable. OK boys," I said. "Let's get showered and shaved and be on our way."
As soon as we saw the framed pictures at the photographer's shop, we were overwhelmed. In addition, he had framed and matted the original small photos we'd given him and put them together in an oval matted background for Michael. That was an invoice I was happy to pay for - he'd done a great job.
As soon as we entered the funeral home, Michael stopped dead in his tracks. The directory sign in the lobby with his parent's names on it made all of us realize that this whole ordeal was actually true. When we actually entered the 'slumber room', we were all taken back. The number and size of the flower vases and baskets were overwhelming. The largest one was from Davis-Callahan Incorporated and stood right behind the two caskets that were placed end to end across the width of the room with all the other flower contributions from each of the families spread around the length and ends. Also quite prominent were the casket sprays with their broad ribbons.
Michael held back his silent sobs as best he could while he took the pictures out of the bag and placed them on the top of the caskets. He took a step back and Mark led him to a chair nearby where he could compose himself. The funeral director approached me and explained that the bodies were inside the appropriate caskets and had been hermetically sealed with all the air drawn out. He asked what we wished to do with the flowers after the funeral at the church. Between Josh and the boys, they all agreed they should be taken to the children's ward at the hospital and the big one had to go to little Jimmy.
We confirmed the arrangements for pallbearers to be at the funeral home by ten the next day for the transport of the caskets to the church and all the arrangements needed for limousines and the flower truck.
On our way out, each of us signed the family visitors book. We wanted Michael to be the first in the book. He looked at the page for a moment and ignoring the name and location columns, in exacting scroll, he wrote: 'Your love will be with me forever. Michael'. Bryan and I signed next and then Mark who wrote: 'Thank you for sharing your Michael to me'. Josh wrote: 'Thank you for giving me a brother'.
Once we were in the Jeep, I asked Michael how he learned to write so well.
"Mom taught me before I started Grade One," he replied. "She always said that good penmanship would be an asset that would enrich my life." I thought, 'Good for you Angela.'
We arrived at the airport a few hours before George and Dorothy's flight was to arrive, so we sat and had a long lunch while we waited. It was obvious that it was George when he came through the security doors. The family resemblance was remarkable, although George had a few more wrinkles, probably from so much sun. Dorothy, although in her mid to late fifties had a rosy healthy complexion.
George went straight to Michael and gave him a hug. "How are you doing Michael?"
"I think I'm going to be OK Uncle George," Michael replied.
"Hey there boy.... none of that 'uncle' crap. We don't need any titles between us.... we know we're kin."
George was every bit the person I imagined him to be just from the short conversations we'd had on the phone - friendly, honest, and down to earth. His handshake was solid and meaningful - the rough-hewn texture of his skin told me he was a man of the earth. I really liked him right away. Dorothy was sweet, kind, and tender, yet determined - her personality reminding me of my mom.
Inasmuch as we were so close, we took this part of the Burton family for the five-minute drive over to the office building. They were definitely impressed although they didn't understand the nature of the business. When we showed them the audio-visual training centre and explained that it was Howard's idea, their interest was peaked. While we were in the area, Michael suggested that would be a good place for the photos that were sitting on the caskets to be hung after the funeral. In spite of all that had happened, Bryan and I agreed, that would be appropriate. Once again, we agreed that forgiveness was ours to give.
From there, we took George and Dorothy to the funeral home. This time Michael was prepared and reasonably unaffected by the display. George and Dorothy were somber in their observance and quietly signed the visitor's book after reading all the comments from the boys.
Once at the ranch, we found Mom, Irene, and Hamish working away in the kitchen. After our introductions, we showed them where they would be sleeping - on the main floor in the master bedroom. While they refreshed themselves, we started serving dinner in the main dining room.
Throughout our early dinner, we talked about Howard and Angela and we learned a bit more of what it was like to watch Howard grow up during his early years. It seemed even then he was one step ahead of his brother - always learning how to get something free or getting his brothers to do something for him. Dorothy confirmed that John and his wife were already in town, however they hadn't phoned us. George said that was the way he was. We probably wouldn't meet him until we arrived at the church and he was in his funeral garb ready to give his sermon. As we chatted through our meal, it was obvious there was an affinity between Hamish and George - both men of the earth.
I was able to explain to George that he was named the executor of Howard and Angela's will and that he would give him any legal advice that we could get from our legal team. I knew that Andy couldn't handle the whole thing singly and go to school as well, so Bryan and I had made the decision to turn the whole matter over to our corporate lawyers.
By six that evening, it was once again time for all of us in the three vehicles to head for the airport to pick up Lena, Pamela, and Victor. As soon as they came through the arrivals gate after picking up their luggage, it was blatantly obvious which side of the family Michael got his looks from. Victor and Michael could have been brothers and there was a striking resemblance between Pamela, Lena, and Angela. As soon as he was able, Michael was in Victor's arms. In spite of their reason for coming to Calgary, they were so very happy to see one another. Before Michael started the introductions of his aunts and uncles, he got a generous hug and kiss on the cheeks from his aunts.
When it came time for Michael to introduce us, he was happy and I think he was proud. I know he was very thorough with his introductions, making sure that the Watson sisters were properly introduced to the Burton's. A young gentlemen through and through.
Once we arrived back at the main house the boys went over to Susan and Darren's to help them unload Pam and Lena's luggage, while Bryan and I got Victor settled into the other bedroom on the first floor which also had its own private bath considering there was no one staying in the adjoining third bedroom.
Before all of us went to bed, Bryan and I started to prepare two plates of sandwiches, together with a fresh pot of coffee. Before we knew it, Dorothy, George and Victor had joined in our assembly line and we were just about done when the boys came in. We'd gone through three loaves of bread and between the eight of us, it was gone in no time as we sat in the family room with the dogs. It was a happy evening as Michael and Victor reunited with stories about Angela. By ten that night we were all ready for bed. We found out that Victor and his partner run a restaurant and that's why he had to be back to work on Monday morning.
While Bryan and I cleaned up the kitchen, Mark, Josh, and Michael took our visitors through the house for the dime tour. When they returned, Bryan and I gave our goodnight wishes to George and Dorothy as they headed down the hall. We told the boys that we'd be up in a minute and tuck them in.
"You tuck them in?" Victor questioned.
"Yes we do.... it's our time for a little son, dad time every day," Bryan said. "It's especially important when we're in the middle of a crisis like this."
"It's also our chance to relieve any fears they may have acquired through the day," I added. "It lets them have a good sleep and know that they're loved."
"May I come along?" Victor asked. Bryan and I smiled as we beckoned him to follow us up the stairs.
First we went into Mark and Michael's room. I noticed that Michael had placed the picture of his parents beside his computer. I was glad that there was still that respect there for them. They were both just getting into the bottom bunk. I tilted my head questioning their action.
Mark looked at us. "What? You never know if Josh is going to come in here and start telling us stories again."
"You did very well today Michael," Bryan began.
"Everything was going fine until we got to the funeral home," Michael said. "That's when I realized it was final. The second trip was a lot easier."
"Are you going to be OK tomorrow?" I asked.
"Yes, no problem. I know that tomorrow is just a ritual that goes back for thousands of years, maybe even before the Egyptians."
"Michael, you're an amazing kid.... actually an extraordinary young gentleman." Victor said.
"No I'm not," Michael laughed. "Mark and Josh are the extraordinary ones."
"Not in our eyes!" I exclaimed.
"That's right Michael," Bryan said. "You're equally good as Josh or Mark and you should realize that just because of your rank as an air cadet."
"Well yeah, we do make a good team," Michael replied with a smile. "Things sure look a lot better tonight than they did last night."
"We told you that every day was going to get a little bit better," Mark said with a smile. "You're going to be fine Michael," he said as he kissed his cheek.
Michael raised his arms up for a hug. "I'm glad you guys were there with me today."
After hugging him and kissing his forehead, Bryan said, "No problem Michael. Looking after you boys is what we do best."
"I love you Michael," I said as I hugged him and kissed his forehead.
"You're a lucky young man Michael," Victor said as he hugged him.
"I'm glad you're here Victor," Michael said.
"We all are," Mark said as he got a hug from Victor as well.
After Bryan and I repeated our ritual with Mark, we headed for Josh's room.
He was already under the covers, his eyes almost slits. I knew he was overtired from his vigil last night.
"Do you think I should go in there tonight and keep them company?" Josh questioned as I sat on the side of his bed.
"No, I don't think so son," I answered. "I think Michael has put last night aside for now and he'll deal with it later if he has to."
"That's good because I was running out of things to say."
"You always could have told them about the three little pigs," I kidded.
"No way Dad," Josh said with a giggle, "That's your job."
"Was it a better day?" Bryan asked.
"Yes.... it was much better for Michael. I think he's going to be OK once the funeral is over." Josh replied as he reached up for a hug. After I hugged him and kissed his forehead, I stood up and Bryan took my place and repeated our goodnight habit. "Thank you for coming," Josh said as he hugged Victor. "It's made a big difference for Michael."
"I can see that it's you that's made a big difference for him as well," Victor said.
Once we said our goodnights, Bryan, Victor, and I stepped out into the hall. Victor turned to Bryan and I. "These boys are so great together. Do you go through this ritual every night?"
"Of course," I answered. "Wouldn't you?"
He smiled broadly and hugged Bryan and I in turn. "Of course I would."
The next morning, all the ladies showed up bright and early to drop off their dishes and dishes of food. While the rest of us went to the funeral, Irene was going to set-up the table and have all the dishes ready to serve, starting at five in the afternoon.
The funeral actually went off without a hitch. The biggest shock came when we got to the church. People we didn't know - all respectfully waiting to follow our procession into the church with the caskets - mobbed the walkway and the sidewalks. However, I did recognize a full contingent of our Air Cadets standing there in full uniform. The flower truck had come long before us and set up the flower displays inside the church. The two hearses were parked at the curb as the funeral director arranged all of us pallbearers behind, waiting to receive the caskets. I was indeed impressed as we carried Howard's casket behind Michael up the stairs. Once inside the church we placed the caskets on the gurneys and followed Michael to the altar. Michael stood in front of Angela's casket as we maneuvered Howard's casket sideways. They were spread across the front of the altar as they had been at the funeral home.
I didn't realize it, but Pastor John Burton had followed behind us and when I first caught his face, I was stunned. He was about twenty years older than Howard, but the family resemblance was very clear.
Once we pallbearers had moved out of the way, he approached Michael who was still standing solemnly in front of the caskets, looking down with his hands clasped in front of him. I couldn't hear what the Pastor said, but he did gently shake hands with Michael. Bryan and I had made a space between us for Michael to occupy on the front row pew.
There was at least a ten-minute wait while the church filled with mourners before Michael sat between us and the Pastor walked up to the raised dais to begin the service.
The pastor was long winded as Michael had warned us and I didn't entirely appreciate his sermon. There seemed to be an undertone of fire and brimstone in the prayers he conducted - all five of them. The Lord's Prayer was the only exception. Other than that his words were kind and as with most funerals, generically kind to the people that were left behind. The music of the choir was something of a relief as the singers droned out some familiar hymns.
On behalf of Angela, Victor gave a short eulogy, followed by George who gave a short and meaningful eulogy for Howard.
At the conclusion of the funeral service, the Pastor announced that refreshments would be served in the basement hall of the church, compliments of the Ladies Auxiliary for all who wanted to meet with the members of the families. Then he performed the 'sand-to-sand-dust-to-dust' ritual usually reserved for the graveside. Again, all the pallbearers were ushered to their places and we moved as a procession through the nave of the church to the entrance. Once we had the caskets loaded into the hearses, the funeral director explained that he would be back in an hour with three limousines to pick all the family members up and take us back to the funeral home.
In that short hour we shook hands with so many people. I thanked all the boys from the Air Cadet Squadron personally. I finally got to meet the Pastor John Burton for the first time and thank him for a fine service. His hand shake was definitely too soft for a man, but I detected a certain determination in his voice. His wife Mildred, was somewhat stocky, not obese, but I thought she could wield a heavy blow if she wanted to. Her face was sour and her body language told me she wasn't a very open or outgoing person, the way she kept her hands folded across her chest the whole time we were talking. Either that or she just didn't like me. I did manage to get them to accept our dinner invitation at the ranch.
As promised, the limousines showed up on schedule and returned all our family members and visitors to the funeral home where we transferred into our own vehicles. John and Mildred followed our entourage from the church and then again as all of us headed home to the ranch.
Right away Susan was set into action and had all of us seated making sure that Michael was placed between Bryan and I with Mark and Josh at our sides. The pastor and his wife were in the middle of the table on the other side facing us. I wondered about that, however I wasn't going to let it spoil my appetite. Out of common courtesy, I requested that the Pastor say grace before we delved into the salad bowls that were laid before us.
"Dear Lord," he began, "we thank you for the food we are about to consume and our strength that has allowed us to surmount the trials of this day. We thank you for taking mercy on the youngsters here today and have not brought your wrath upon them. In your own time, you will pass judgment on them and we implore you to show them your way throughout their lives. May the idolaters of evil never break their trust in you. Amen."
"Excuse me Pastor, but I take exception to that," Mom said as we all started to fill our salad plates. Personally I was a bit aggravated by his words. "True, we are not God-fearing people because we believe that God would not want us to inhibit our lives in fear of Him. Rather, as our Creator, he would want us, all mankind, to embrace the love he has for us. When I say all mankind, I'm referring to their beliefs in God as well. Throughout the history of mankind, God has let himself known to all peoples at the time and place when those people were ready to receive Him and need His love. It matters not who was the prophet of that religion.... Zoroaster, Buddha, a Guru of the Siek religion, Mohammad, Jesus, just to mention a few, they all have one common teaching.... do unto to others as you would have them do unto you. It's also true, we are not church-going folks, but we are good Christians and do abide by the golden rule. My husband and I brought up our children to believe that our duty to God and mankind was to raise our children to be a benefit to all people that they might come in contact with and to respect the gift of creation. We don't need a church, a cathedral, a synagogue, a mosque or a monastery to express our love of God.... it's right here in this room in the faces of our children. You can see it in the faces of my boys.... and their children and the children of the other families. Love, it has been said, flows downward. The love of parents for their children has always been far more powerful than that of children for their parents. I've heard it said that there is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God's finger on man's shoulder. Sir we do not fear God, we embrace the gift of His creation right here with our children."
"That is very noble of you Mrs. Davis," John said, "however, the reason we came here today was for Michael to gather up his things and take him back to our home in Saskatchewan. It has been agreed by the members of the Burton and Watson families as Michael's next to kin, that I and my wife would be the appropriate mother and father to carry on with Michael's guardianship."
"I didn't agree to that." Lena stated flatly.
"It's a forgone conclusion that neither you nor Pam could afford to continue with Michael's education.... besides, you're a spinster and the boy needs a father to deal with his needs.... both spiritually and materially." John retorted.
"And it was only under coercion that Dot and I agreed to it." George added. "However, after finding out that I am the executor of the will, the custody of Michael is not yours to make."
"Don't look at me, this is the first I've heard about it." Victor said.
"It matters not," John said confidently, "any court in the land would agree that we are the more suitable parents to be attending to Michael's upbringing," John protested, "and with all due respect of the parents in this room, certainly NOT with any heathen homosexuals." You could feel the anger burning in the room at that moment.
I was about to protest, when Michael suddenly jumped up. "ENOUGH!" He shouted. "It's me you're talking about. I'm right here. Don't you care what I want?" Although he was angry, he had tears starting to streak down his face. Bryan and I both stood up and put an arm around Michael. "You don't know me. You don't know what I want. I'm 15 years old and I can make up my own mind. You don't know what I need." Michael proclaimed through his tears.
"Michael, it's OK," I exclaimed as I held his shoulder. "Andy.... put an end to this NOW!"
"Oh indeed," Andy replied as we urged Michael to sit down. "Pastor, as lofty as your intentions may or may not be, legally you cannot take over the guardianship of Michael. A while before the accident that ended the life of Howard and Angela, they signed a custody agreement giving full parental rights of Michael to my brother Tom. If you wish I can provide you with a copy of the document."
"That's hog wash! My brother would never agree to such a thing!" John exclaimed.
"Pardon me while I run down to the basement and get the document," Andy said as he stood up. "In the meantime, carry on and enjoy your dinner."
Josh looked and me and I recognized the question in his eyes. I nodded. Quietly, he left the table to join Andy in the basement office.
"Is that true," Michael asked quietly looking at me - his face full of bewilderment as he wiped his tears.
"Yes Michael," I answered quietly. "It started when you went to school here. Your parents agreed that I was to be contacted in case of emergency, then after he tried to get control of our corporation, we had to convince them to give up custody of you." In many respects, I wanted to tell him more details about the way the guardianship agreement came about, but now was not the time.
"They wanted to make sure that I'd always be.... taken care of.... with you.... me.... their only son." Michael replied.
"Well don't start thinking you're divine," Mildred snarled, "or that your father was God himself, although that's what he might have believed."
"I worked hard to make my father and mother proud of me and they were," Michael protested. "They worked hard to give me the things I needed to make them proud because they wanted me to be better than anyone else when I grew up."
Just then Josh and Andy returned to the dining room with copies of the guardianship agreement. Andy handed a copy to John and Josh handed a copy of the agreement to Michael.
"You children are all spoiled and you're going to grow up to be nothing better than Howard.... a selfish, greedy and conniving man with no morals about who he puts in the poor house to gain his own riches!" Mildred scoffed. "God made His will known when He snuffed out their evil lives! A few years in military school would certainly teach you how to respect and address your elders as well."
Toward the end of the table I immediately heard a fork drop noisily onto a plate. Kevin stood up at attention - his stare straight forward.
"Ma'am, my name is Kevin Brown." His voice was strong and forceful. "I am a Corporal in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets Squadron. I have been trained to uphold the values of good citizenship, community services, provide leadership, maintain personal fitness and healthy living, armed marksmanship, the principles of flight, meteorology, air navigation, familiarity of the aerospace industry, aircraft manufacturing and maintenance, aircrew survival in a crisis, and encouraged to always portray positive social relations, all under the command of Captain Tom Davis. One day I will be a lawyer and will defend anyone's right to the freedom of speech in this country regardless of their age.... ma'am."
Mark stood up and snapped to attention and stared straight ahead. In a voice as forceful as Kevin's said, "Ma'am I am Mark Callahan, a Sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets Squadron under the command of Captain Tom Davis. I too uphold all the values that Corporal Brown described and one day I will defend this country with all the might I can muster whether it be on the war front or as a peaceful mission in any country I am commanded to, in order for you to have the freedom to speak your mind.... ma'am."
Encouraged by the other two boys, Michael cleared his throat, stood and snapped to attention, however he did a head jerk and stared right at Mildred. "Ma'am, I too am a Sergeant in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets squadron commanded by Captain Davis. I too have learned the values that Corporal Brown described. I too share the intent to join the Royal Canadian Air Force and serve in any capacity that I am best suited for, all for the purpose of preserving peace, equality, and freedom for ALL Canadians regardless of colour, race, creed, religion, or sex.... ma'am." He jerked his head forward and remained at rigid attention.
Josh stood up and snapped to attention. "Ma'am, I'm Sergeant Joshua Chambers. I also serve our country in the Royal Canadian Air Cadets squadron under the command of Captain Tom Davis. I am proud to serve our country under his command and have dedicated my life to the future welfare of the citizens of this country regardless of their wealth, poverty, or state of health. Ours is a country of imaginative, innovative, hardworking, and caring peoples of all types trying very hard to sustain their goals. It is our goal in life to promote acceptance above tolerance, for all that is right in this country and to promote additional rights that the people of Canada seek and need, to make a stronger country that is the envy of everyone in the world. That is MY RIGHT. If we were in uniform, we would salute you.... ma'am. You aren't really Michael's family. You are his blood relations and nothing more. Family is what you make it. Family is about love and trust and caring for each other. You don't care about or love Michael. I do. We all do. Michael is my brother not because we are blood related but because we care about each other. We are family not because we have the same DNA but because we choose to be. Mark my words. There will come a day in this country when your idea of what a family is will be turned on its head and everyone will recognize what family is really about."
The room was in stunned silence as I quickly looked at the smiling proud faces except of course for Mildred and John. Verna actually had her hand over her mouth. I knew she was trying to stifle a giggle.
I quietly stood up, but before I could speak, Mildred jumped up sending her chair tumbling behind her. "JONATHON," she yelled. "WE'RE LEAVING RIGHT NOW!" She turned and took a few strides towards the foyer.
"Yes we are dearest," he replied meekly, but without looking down at where he was placing his feet, he stumbled over Mildred's upset chair in front of him. It was like watching someone in a slapstick comedy doing a pratfall after slipping on a banana peel.
Verna couldn't hold it anymore and just burst out laughing. That got everyone laughing and between giggles, I ordered, "Stand down gentlemen." Right away the boys broke their rigid pose and joined the rest of us in raucous laughter.
Grant went to John and helped him stand up. As soon as he was to his feet, he shrugged off Grant's hand and headed to the foyer to pick up his coat. Grant and a few of the others made their way to the verandah to make sure they got into their car in one piece. Fortunately, John had no limp, so he really didn't injure himself.
"I think that went rather well, don't you ladies?" Lena said with a giggle.
Between laughs, Verna exclaimed, "That was an encore performance! Boys, you told the truth and put her in her place at the same time. Thank you." She stood up and started to clap her hands, which cued the rest of the family and me to do the same.
I stood and proudly said, "Our boys were just doing their duty as conscientious citizens. What all of us have witnessed here is another reason why Bryan and I are so proud of our boys. NOW let's all sit down and enjoy our meal."
Before he took his seat Michael turned to Josh. "Josh, I don't know how I know it but I do know that one day all of us will be saluting you on a regular basis. Let me be the first," He then fired off a smart salute and sat down.
Josh blushed and smiled back at Michael.
Of course the meal was outstanding and there was volumes of it. Verna Stemming and Lena Watson turned our dinner into a party atmosphere. Lena with her stories of her teaching career and Verna with her stories of embarrassing moments in her real estate career kept us in stitches. To say that Lena was a spinster was anything but true.... she had travelled the world and had many romantic encounters in her life, but had never wanted to be tied down to family responsibilities.
Saying goodbye to everyone that night as they returned to their homes on the ranch and the Stemmings to their home was a happy occasion.
That night, with Victor tagging along again, Bryan and I went into Mark and Michael's room to say goodnight. We were surprised that neither one of them had undressed yet and were sitting on the edge of the bed.
"Hey guys, what's going on?" Bryan asked. "After all that went on today, you have to be tired."
"I don't think I'll be able to sleep," Michael said flatly.
"Why's that?" I asked.
"Michael, you have to tell him," Mark said.
Michael nervously shifted his eyes from me to Bryan and then to the floor and back again.
"I.... I can't thank you guys enough for what you did for me since I've been here and especially for getting me through today. I was really scared when John said he was going to be my guardian, but I was mad too. Then Mildred....."
Quietly Mark put his arm around Michael's shoulder as Bryan and I knelt in front of them. I had a feeling this was going to get serious. "She's a bitch, Michael," Mark said quietly.
"I'm glad Kevin stood up when he did," Michael continued, "or I'd have been still screaming at her."
"Or we could have had a riot or at least a food fight," Mark said with a giggle.
"You.... you're my guardian now," Michael said nervously.
"Yes Michael, but regardless of what's on the paper, Bryan and I are equal in this." I said.
"W.... would it be OK.... ya know.... if I called you..... Dad?" His face was full of concern, hope, and I think some fear all mixed together.
Our smiles couldn't have been broader as Bryan and I quickly glanced at each other. "Would it be OK if we called you son?" I asked.
Right away Bryan and I had a pile of Michael in our arms. "I love you Dad." His voice was positive and happy.
"We love you too son," Bryan replied as he kissed the top of his head, "more than you'll ever know."
"It goes double for me," I said. "I'll always be proud to call you our son, but with that comes some responsibility. Tomorrow's another big day and we have to be up very early to see our guests off, so it's time to get into bed and go to sleep." I stood up and pulled Michael up at the same time. "I love you son," I said as I kissed his forehead. "You make me very proud."
We repeated our goodnight hug with Mark as did Victor with Mark and Michael before the three of us left the room.
Before we entered Josh's room, Victor whispered, "I've never experienced such emotion before. I thought I was going to bust a gut in there."
"It's all part of being a dad," Bryan said. "We've had a lot of emotional times with these boys. The stories we could tell you about the time we had last summer would make you cry and they'd make you split a gut laughing."
We walked into Josh's room and he had a big mischievous grin on his face. "So?" he asked.
"You officially have a new brother and he wants to call us Dad," I answered happily.
"I knew that.... I was listening at the bathroom door," Josh replied.
"We can't hide anything from you can we?" Bryan said.
"Dad, I have to keep up on all the secrets," he replied, "but I coaxed him into asking you. I knew you wouldn't say no."
"Josh, where did you get those words you said tonight while you were standing at attention?" Victor asked.
I don't know," Josh answered. "Maybe from here," he said as he tapped his chest.
With a big smile, Victor said, "It's a good place to get them from. Michael was right, you had better get used to being saluted regularly."
After we completed our nightly ritual with Josh and gave our goodnight hugs to Victor as he retired to his bedroom, Bryan and I hugged each other after I closed our bedroom door. It was time for our emotions to catch up with us. Our pride, our respect, and our love for Josh, Mark, and Michael flowed between us. I knew that I thought about Angela and Howard in that moment and I think he was too. Our tears of happiness flowed together.
The ordeal was finally over.
By the time the chartered business jet landed on our runway, Sunday morning, we were all standing at the hanger saying our goodbyes. It was truly an emotional moment for the ladies, but more so for Michael and Victor. They had a meaningful history of trust that we'd never had with Victor, but I knew his character spoke volumes of the great person he was.
As we gave our final waves to the jet soon to disappear into the horizon, Susan said, "OK people we're going to have a quick business meeting in the dining room now. I promise it's just a one cupper." While George, Dorothy and the kids all went into the main house to entertain themselves, we adults shuffled into Susan's dining room.
While she poured the coffee, she said, "We have to figure out how we're going to replace Angela and Howard's positions at the office. We've already drafted ads for staff that was to work in their departments, but we need a head for those departments."
"I don't think it's a problem Susan," Trevor said, "In the realm of technical training, there are many experts already out there with the abilities to teach our other staff on an as-needed basis. I'd spoken to Howard over the months and kinda pumped him as to how he'd handle his staffing needs and that was his plan. He intended to be the simple coordinator. He explained that these consultants have great charisma and would know how to get a point across to our staff."
"You mean we should outsource the technical training department?" Bryan asked.
"Essentially yes," Trevor replied. "All we need is a point person to hire the right training firm for a particular course we need taught. Anyone could do it. It would be no big deal for me to add it to my responsibilities."
I looked around the room at the faces and said, "I think we should give it a go. Does everyone agree we should try outsourcing the technical training?"
The nodding heads were affirmative.
"Good!" Susan exclaimed. "Now I think Ethel and Debbie have something to say about Angela's graphics department."
'When Susan asked us to outline what we needed for staffing of our customer service department, we were at a loss," Debbie said. "Actually we realized that the two of us could handle the department by ourselves. Ethel mentioned a few weeks ago that she would like to give Angela a hand in the graphics department when we weren't too busy in our area."
"Actually, I have always been a bit of an artsy person from the time I started needlepoint and rug hooking as a child," Ethel said. "I've enjoyed being creative in that line, but I never took any formal training in that area."
"You've never needed it dear," Grant said. "You're a natural decorator and I think a great water colour painter. I think if you threw your imagination to the wind, you could come up with some fantastic designs for the software packaging."
"How about it Ethel?" Bryan asked. "We could hire a commercial artist to assist you, but you would run the department. If you wish, you could take an artist course at the university."
"I'm not sure of going back to university at this point in my life, but the commercial artist back-up would certainly make it work." Ethel responded.
"That's good then," I said happily. "Ethel is now in charge of our Graphics Department and Debbie, we'll hire a helper for you in the customer service department. Ethel, keep young Glenn Webster in mind too for some of the graphic work we need done. That boy is an amazing talent and I know he'd love to help. My coffee cup is empty and this meeting is over!"
"Hey! Watch it there Davis.... I'll say when the meeting's over," Susan said, then took a final swig from her cup. "Coffee's gone and the meeting's over!" She declared while the rest of us laughed with her.
We had another problem solved and I hadn't come to realize that it was there.
Once I had my coat off, I wandered into the kitchen and found Josh, Mark, Michael, Kevin and Shelly all standing there with mischievous looks on their faces. Josh had a Tupperware bowl in his hand and Kevin was holding a broom. Next to Mark in the middle of the floor stood one of the stools from the kitchen bar. Oddly enough, Shelly had a camera.
"Hey dad, check out this cool magic trick that I learned today," Josh said with that familiar old twinkle in his eyes that told me immediately that he was up to something.
"Ok show me," I said knowing better, but somehow unable to resist his charms.
"I'm going to make this water disappear," he announced as he went to the sink and filled the bowl with cold water from the tap. He then proceeded to climb up on the stool and pressed the bowl onto the ceiling.
As I watched Josh, Kevin handed me the broom.
"Ok Dad, use the broom handle to push on the bottom of the bowl and keep it from falling down," Josh instructed.
Reluctantly, I did as I was told and accepted the broom and gently pushed the broom handle onto the bottom of the bowl holding it firmly against the ceiling. I didn't realize that by this point Shelly was filming our every move. As I stood there, Josh climbed down from the chair and Mark put it back with the other ones.
"Ok what next?" I asked.
"Hmmm not too sure. I can't remember the rest," Josh said seriously, just barely avoiding bursting into laughter. "See ya later!"
"Later!" Kevin, Mark, Michael, and Shelly repeated as the four of them took off laughing, leaving me standing in the middle of the kitchen using a broom to hold a bowl full of cold water against the ceiling.
"You little devils realize this means war don't you?" I shouted after them just barely containing my own laughter.
"What's going on?" Bryan asked as he entered the kitchen with a bewildered look on his face. It only took him a moment to realize what had happened and then he burst out laughing. I knew he was going to take off and leave me there too, but unfortunately for him, he was close enough to me at the time that I decided to get a little payback and let go of the broom soaking both of us completely in the process just as George and Dorothy came into the room.
We both gasped at the coldness of the water, but Bryan was the most shocked. I guess he didn't think I'd do something like that to him. When I explained how it happened, he commented, "It's going to be noogie time when they least expect it."
"You're right Bryan, I said as we mopped up the mess on the floor, "but you know, our kids are running on normal again."
"After yesterday's fiasco at dinner, it feels good to see the kids being kids again," Dorothy said.
"Pride in our children is our reward for our life's work," George said smiling. "As I watched all of you carrying those caskets yesterday, I was proud to be just a small part of this family. We're ready to get to the airport anytime you are."
Our last duty of the day was to take the last of our guests, George and Dorothy to the airport for their short flight back to Saskatchewan.
Tomorrow was going to be a regular day again - back to school for the kids and back to the office for the rest of us.
"Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself."
Lois McMaster Bujold.