The rest of the weekend was rather uneventful. Jack and his family visited on Sunday much to the chagrin of TJ. Sara again followed him around like a puppy. His patience wore thin after about 45 minutes of her undivided attention. Some day, I thought to myself you will relish the attention that she is giving you. His brothers and Jack's boys saved him by involving him in their baseball game.
Monday the boys went back to school and I went back to work. I was just beginning to see the end of all of the paperwork that had accumulated on my desk when Darcie called.
"Judge Riley has scheduled a hearing on Chris' custody arrangement for Wednesday at 1:00," she said. "Do you think you and your lawyer will be able to be there?"
"I'm sure that Benjamin or one of his associates will be able to be there. Do the other boys need to attend?" I asked.
"No, not at this one, but she has tentatively scheduled an adoption hearing for them on January 23rd. That is if you are still interested in adoption," she almost giggled knowing what my answer would be.
"Thanks, Darcie, I think I had better call Benjamin to see what he can do for me," I told her before we hung up.
Benjamin was not in when I called but his secretary said that she would have him call when he returned from court.
I had just sat down at my desk after returning from lunch when Benjamin called. I explained the situation with Chris and his parents' problems.
"Hmm," he started. "I wonder if the Martins would be willing to voluntarily give up their parental rights to Chris now that they know there is no way they will ever be able to get their hands on his inheritance?
"You say they have been returned to Plaquemine Parish?" he asked.
"That is what I have been told by Jack Hogan."
"I have an old school buddy that practices there. Let me contact him to see if he will return a favor he owes me. If we can get them to relinquish their parental rights it would smooth the way for you to ultimately adopt him also. You have never said so in so many words, but I would have to be rather naive if I didn't know that is what you intend to do."
"Yeah, you're right. I sometimes think I have rocks in my head but I do love those boys."
"Karen Lin will be able to attend the hearing with you. It should be fairly routine and she is a very bright young lady with a great future in family law. I'll be getting back to you as soon as I hear from my friend in Louisiana," he said before hanging up.
I didn't get my hopes up about the Martins giving up their rights to Chris so I was surprised Tuesday afternoon when Benjamin called and told me he had a signed and notarized release from them. I was both happy and sad at the event. I was happy for me and for Chris but at the same time I was sad that any parent would think so little of their own flesh and blood to simply cast him off so easily.
I waited until Tuesday evening to tell Chris that we had a hearing the following day. I explained as best I could what I thought was going to happen trying to make it as routine as I could.
His reaction was nonplussed until he asked, "Are Larry and Lenny gonna come too?"
"No, son, they have to stay in school. It's just you and me and of course Darcie will be there," I said trying to make him feel more comfortable about it.
"But, that man Mr. Everest said I shouldn't be here. He wanted to take me away," he said with tears starting to form in his eyes. "Please, can't they come with me? Please?"
"That's Mr. Everett, and he is not going to take you away. Darcie and I and our lawyer are going to make sure that he doesn't," I said although I was weakening.
Chris got up from the couch where we were sitting and ran into his and the twins' bedroom sobbing as he went. I felt like a first class heel realizing when we had been to court before there was always comfort in numbers having all of the other boys there. It dawned on me that if I didn't address his fears of being alone and of being taken away from us he would be a basket case tomorrow.
I followed him to their bedroom and knocked on the door, "May I come in?"
I waited a few seconds with no response before I opened the door slowly and looked in. Chris was sitting on the edge of the bed with a twin on each side of him. He was sobbing uncontrollably. The twins had their arms around him and were doing that humming thing that they did. I knelt down in front of him and took his hands in mine. He tried to pull them away but I held onto them.
"I'm sorry, Chris. I didn't think about your feelings when I said that these guys couldn't come with you. I know that you will feel much more comfortable if they are with you," I said.
"You mean they can come?" he sniffed.
"Yes, Chris. Sometimes dads are not as sensitive as they should be. I'm pretty new to this dad business and I don't always look at you as a boy. I'm more used to dealing with adults. I promise that I will try to be more aware of your feelings in the future. Is that alright? Come on, let's see if Hildy has a snack ready for us," I told him as I stood up still holding his hands.
"Thanks, dad!" Larry said as he and Lenny wrapped their arms around my waist and hugged me.
The lump in my throat kept me from saying anything. I could only nod.
I picked my 'Three Musketeers' up at eleven o'clock so that we would have time for lunch before we had to be in court. The boys were dressed in their regular school uniforms. I brought their school blazers along so that they would be more formally dressed for the proceedings. I am still amazed at the amount of food that three nine and ten year old boys can put away. I'm sure that the 'all you can eat' buffet that we stopped at lost their days profits by the time we finished.
We met Karen Lin at the court house. She had all the paperwork that the Martins had signed giving up Chris. "This should be fairly easy," she said. "I can see no way that there can be any roadblock to you getting permanent custody."
"Great!" I said.
The court room was called to order and Judge Riley took her place on the bench. Ignoring the rest of us, she looked at the trio of boys sitting with us at the table.
"Well, I wasn't expecting to see so many handsome young men here today. Let's see... you two must be Lawrence and Leonard. I can't say which is which but I remember you two," she said with a smile and getting one in return from the twins.
"Christopher, please follow that man in the uniform to my room," she said.
Chris and the twins got up and started to follow the bailiff one twin on each side of him.
"Lawrence, Leonard you don't need to go," Judge Riley said.
Chris looked up at her with a look in his eyes of abject fear. "But... but... " was all that he could get out.
Realizing that he needed the support of the twins she said, "Go ahead, you can all go."
The rest of the hearing was relatively straightforward as Karen had predicted. With Darcie's recommendation and the Martins' documents presented to the court it only took about fifteen minutes before the judge said that she was going to talk to Chris. Gary Everett did not say anything and was not asked for his opinion by Judge Riley.
A few minutes after she entered her chambers the twins came out and stood right outside the door as if guarding it. Ten minutes later a smiling Chris came out with Judge Riley's arm around him. The twins immediately commandeered him and escorted him to our table.
"That is some threesome you have there Mr. Johnson," she said laughing at the boys.
"Yes, it is," I responded with pride.
Taking her place on the bench she began, "I can see no reason not to grant Mr. Johnson permanent custody of Christopher Mathew Martin. It is so ordered. My clerk will prepare the necessary order and it should be delivered to you no later than end of business on Thursday.
"Mr. Johnson, if you intend to adopt Christopher, I will entertain a petition to that effect at the same time as your other petitions are considered in January."
The entire hearing lasted less than an hour and it had been less that two since the boys had eaten but that didn't stop the twins from asking if we could stop for something to eat. We stopped at the Marble Slab for some of their marvelous ice cream. I settled for a single dip while the boys had triple dips, each dip a different custom blended mix done right in front of their eyes on the store's marble slab.
We enjoyed our treat in the store. I was not anxious to have the ice cream dripping on the leather seats of the BMW. We still arrived home about an hour before Joel and TJ got there.
TJ was walking on air when he got home. He could hardly wait until he got off the van before he started telling me about his day.
"We had a fire drill and I got to lead everyone out to our place and the teacher said I did a great job and I got to wear a fireman's cap and I got to shake the fireman's hand and everthing," he bubbled.
"That's great! I'm so proud of you," I said as I picked him up and hugged him as we walked back up the lane to the house.
When we got to the house he ran to tell Hildy about the fire drill. She also beamed with pride as he told her all about it.
Later in the evening as I was sitting in my lounge chair reading the paper, Chris came in an crawled into my lap.
"What's the matter Chris?"
"Well... What is going to happen to me now? Do I get to stay here with Larry and Lenny?"
"Yes, Chris, you get to stay here just like all the other boys do. The judge said that you are my son now and if you want me to be in January you will be my son forever," I told him.
His answer was to snuggle into my chest putting his head under my chin and purred almost like a cat. I held him tight for several minutes before the twins came in and insisted that he go with them. Before he went he kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, "Thanks for being my dad."
With Christmas approaching things seemed to get more hectic around the house. None of the boys had ever had a real Christmas and I was determined that this one would be special for them. I had each of them make a list of the things that they thought they would like to have. I helped TJ write his list.
Hildy, the boys and I went to the 'Christmas Tree farm' on Saturday and selected a beautiful six foot tree. The man there cut it down, bound it up and tied it to the luggage rack on top of our van. I thought that the van would bounce off the road the boys were so excited about getting it home to decorate.
I don't know where Hildy found all of the decorations that she came up with, but when she brought them out the boys' eyes were as big as saucers. They were very attentive to her instruction on how she wanted the tree to be decorated. For the most part they did as she instructed. TJ could only reach about half way up on the tree so his job was to decorate the lower branches. I helped a little but most of the decorations were put on by the boys. Hildy could have done the job in half the time but everyone was having so much fun it didn't make any difference. Besides, they were so proud of their work when it was done it was worth the extra time and effort that it took.
When the job was complete and everyone was standing back admiring their handiwork, Hildy brought out one more small box and handed it to TJ.
"In my family the youngest one was given the honor of putting what is in that box on the tree," Hildy said. "Open it little one."
TJ carefully opened the lid of the box and looked inside. The other boys crowded around trying to get a look at the treasure inside. TJ reached in and took out an object wrapped in tissue paper and handed the box to Joel. He carefully removed the paper to reveal a beautiful white angel with gold tipped wings that was clearly meant to top the tree.
"That's so pretty, Hildy. Where do I put it?" TJ asked.
"It goes on the very top of the tree. Your dad will have to lift you up so that you can put it up there," she replied.
I dutifully complied and after the second attempt TJ got the angel securely in its place on the top of the tree.
When Hildy plugged in the lights there was a collective "Ooooh!" from the boys.
"Now all we need are presents under the tree," I said. "In the next couple of weeks I will take each of you to the mall so that you can pick out a present for each of your brothers and then we will put them under the tree.
"Since Joel has an appointment with Dr. Adams on Monday we will start with his shopping first."
It was hard to get the boys settled down the rest of the weekend. A few firm reminders that they had school on Monday and that their homework had to be done before they could have their Sunday evening snack finally succeeded in calming them somewhat.
While Joel was taking the battery of test that Dr. Adams was having administered by his staff I talked to the doctor about Joel's very protective attitude towards TJ.
"Does this protective attitude go so far as to exclude his other brothers?" he asked.
"No, but he seems to protect or do for TJ to the extent of ignoring his own comfort and needs."
"I don't think that I would worry too much about it unless he begins to exclude the others from his care. He is the big brother and naturally feels a need to protect his siblings. Since he was placed in a position, because of his father's brutish behavior, to protect his brothers he probably finds it difficult to give up that role. TJ being the weakest of the boys has probably reinforced that role for him. I'm sure that as he becomes more and more sure of the security that you are providing he will begin to relinquish that role. It would be unhealthy if he ever completely abdicated that role and began to reject his brothers," Dr. Adams said. "Keep an eye on his actions toward TJ and the others to see if there are any significant changes and let me know if there is and I will try to explore them with him."
Joel's test took longer than his normal appointment so we didn't get away from the doctor's office until almost five o'clock. We went to the mall to start the round of Christmas shopping. When we got there I reminded him that he could spend around $25 each on presents for his brothers. But before we started we had to stop at the food court for the afternoon snack that he had missed because of the doctor's appointment.
I was surprised at how well planned Joel was when it came to shopping for the presents. He had given a lot of thought to each gift that he wanted to purchase and what store he thought where he could buy them. I wish that some of my project managers at work were as well organized I mused.
We finished shopping for all of the present in less than an hour and were on our way home at the height of the rush hour traffic. Despite the traffic we arrived home before Hildy had supper ready. The other boys were really wound up when the presents were placed under the tree. I had to warn them that they were not to handle the presents once they went under the tree. I was sure that I would have to administer that admonition several more times before Christmas arrived.
I had planned to spread the present buying out over a week or so but that didn't fly so I was coerced into taking one boy each night until all had finished their shopping and the floor under the tree was piled high with presents. I decided that the best way to select who got to go which evening was to do it by age. That meant that Chris went next, then Larry (he was 15 minutes older), Lenny and finally TJ. I figured that it would take TJ longer to buy his presents and it did. All of them did a good job of picking out presents with a little help from me. Several of the present were duplicated from boy to boy since they had similar interests.
Saturday I took all of the boys shopping to buy something for Hildy. After much discussion we decided that we would buy a new TV for her since her old one was almost as old as Joel. I had to caution the boys to keep the TV a secret so that it would be a surprise to her on Christmas. We were walking through the mall when we passed a store that was displaying an apron that caught TJ's eye.
"Can we get that for Hildy, too?" he asked with his nose pressed against the display window.
I took a closer look at the apron. It was very nice, but the thing that caught my eye was the fact that they could embroider a message on it. We went into the store and purchased it and waited while they stitched the message that we requested and wrapped it.
As we left the store, Joel whispered in my ear, "May I buy a present for John? Please?"
"Of course you may. That is a very good idea. Each of you may buy a present for a friend you have at school," I announced to all of them. "TJ if you want to buy a present for Joey, you may. Larry, Lenny, Chris you may also if you have someone you would like to give a present. The present that you select should be a token of your friendship and should not be very expensive. It should tell the person that you are giving it to that you value them as a friend."
Joel bought a present for John. Larry bought one for a boy named Craig. Lenny bought one for Billy. Chris bought one for JR and TJ bought one for Joey.
Now that the boys had finished all of their shopping I had to start thinking about what I would get for them. I still had their lists of things that they said they would like to have. The lists were rather meager. They had never been given a lot of gifts for Christmas, mostly clothes and maybe a small toy. I was determined that this year would be different for them.
Being new at this father thing, I decided to ask some of the consultants that worked for me who had children for some ideas. I got a lot of advice, some of it good and some not so good. It did give me enough ideas that I decided on the major gift that each would receive.
I must say that after I started shopping for the boys I got almost as excited as TJ had been. I just didn't hop around and run from display to display. The harried store clerks were very helpful once they realized the amount of money that I was going to spend. It was a good thing that I had driven the van to work the day I went shopping because I doubt that the BMW would have held all the packages I ended up with. I still had to buy the major presents.
However, due to requirements of the business it was several days before I could stop at the Bike Shoppe to make the final purchases. I wanted to give each of them a bike that they could ride around the property and would be rugged enough to stand up to the rough terrain. The salesperson was very knowledgeable and helpful in helping me select the right bikes for the terrain and the right size for the boys. I made arrangements for the delivery to take place while the boys were at school.
Hiding the bikes until Christmas should not be a problem since the third garage bay was separately enclosed from the other two car space. The van was too long to fit in any of the spaces and it sat out all of the time so that space was never used and could be locked.
The closer it got to Christmas the more excited the boys got. It was hard to get them to concentrate on their school homework, but threats of withholding their evening snack seemed to work fairly well. Since Christmas was on Sunday, the last day of school for them was on the Wednesday before.
Eric closed on his house and got moved in on the Monday before Christmas. The boys insisted on going to see JR on their first day off from school. I didn't object and phoned Eric to see if it was okay to bring the boys over. He said that things were still a bit messy but that he could use a reason to take a break.
"I need Darcie to help me arrange furniture," he said when we arrived. "She has a knack for decorating and making things look homey and inviting. I'm a klutz when it comes to this stuff. Unfortunately she has been in a conference in Austin all week and hasn't been able to help me."
"Don't ask me. I'm as big a klutz as you are," I said laughing. "When does she get back?"
"She'll be back this evening. I know that she will throw up her hands in frustration. Every time my ex-wife and I moved into a new place, Darcie would come help us decorate and try to explain how to arrange things. I heard what she said and they made sense at the time, but I can't translate what she told me to a new situation," he said shaking his head. "I guess it just goes to show that not all gay guys are interior decorators."
We chatted awhile before I told the boys it was time to go home. As we were leaving I told Eric that if they didn't have plans that they were invited to the house Saturday evening, Christmas Eve, to have some wassail and cookies. He agreed that they were available and was sure that JR would be happy to come.
It was all Hildy and I could do to keep the boys away from the mountain of presents around the tree. We did succeed in keeping the presents from being shaken to pieces. TJ was beside himself wanting to believe in Santa Claus but at the same time not sure there was such a person. He still hung up his stocking on the fireplace mantle as did the other boys, even Joel.
Eric and JR arrived around eight. The six of them were having a great time playing and talking about all the presents under the tree. The only thing that calmed them down was when Hildy served the wassail (the non-alcoholic kind) and cookies to the boys. TJ turned up his nose at the drink after his first sip and asked Hildy if he could have a glass of milk instead. The others seemed to like it but the cookies went faster than the wassail did. They did leave a few cookies for Santa when he came down the chimney along with a glass of the wassail.
When our guests left about 9:30 I suggested to the boys that they get their showers taken and get ready for bed so that Santa would have time to come while they were sleeping. It was still about an hour later that I finally got them to bed, tucked in and kissed goodnight.
Every so often I would listen at their doors to see if they had quieted down and gone to sleep. For a little while I thought I was going to have to go in and settle the twins and Chris down, but eventually there were no sounds coming from either of the rooms.
Santa Hildy and Santa Crane spent the better part of the next two hours laying out the presents that Santa was leaving and filling the stockings with candy, fruit and small toys. This was the most fun that I had had since I was a small boy at Christmas time. Hildy was like a teenage girl. She was having as much fun as I was. It looked like a toy store exploded and all the toys dropped into our family room.
Although it was nearly 2:00AM when I got to bed I was up at six to set the bikes out on the patio for the boys to find when they went outside. I needed my coffee badly to try to keep my eyes open. Two cups later I was ready for the boys as they straggled into the kitchen. TJ was the first to see all of the stuff in the family room.
He grabbed Joel's hand and dragged him in there. "Santa did come. See! See!" he shouted but stopped in the middle of the room and just stared. "Is all of that for us, dad?"
"Yes, son, Santa said that you all had been very good boys this year so he left a lot of presents for you," I said giving him a hug. "Now why don't you go see which gift that Santa brought is yours. Then we will open the other presents."
That's all it took and they were off to claim their prizes. After each one had claimed their presents from Santa, I had them sit down and passed out a wrapped present to each from under the tree. The whole procedure took about an hour before the entire floor of the family room was covered with wrapping paper remains.
"Okay, guys, listen up," I said trying to get their attention. "Now you all got a lot of toys and they belong to you. They are yours to play with, but I also want you to share. If you want to play with one of your brother's toys you first have to ask if he cares. I expect that he will say yes most of the time if he isn't playing with it. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yes, dad," Joel said. "But what if they break it?"
"Well, that depends. If they broke it on purpose, then they would have to use part of their allowance each week to pay for a new one. If they didn't then I will buy you a new one to replace it. Is that fair?" I asked.
"Let's get this place cleaned up. Joel, if you will get a couple garbage bags from under the sink, the rest of us will start picking up the wrappings," I told him.
Displaying a mischievous grin on his face Joel said, "Just a minute, we got a present for you,"
Hildy had retrieved a package from somewhere and handed it to Joel who then handed it to me.
I had not expected for them to get me anything and I don't know how they did it but I suspect that Hildy had a hand in it. My hands trembled a little as I carefully slipped the bow off the package and removed the paper. Inside the box was a beautiful silk dressing gown in a royal purple. I took it out of the box and slipped it on. It fit perfectly and felt absolutely fabulous.
"Thank you, this is so nice," I said with a lump in my throat. I went to each of the boys and gave them a hug. "I love you so very much."
We started the clean-up process and before long the family room looked livable again. I whispered in TJ's ear and he ran to his room and came back with another package.
"Hildy," he said. "We got something for you too."
She opened the package and held up the apron that TJ had picked out for her. When she saw the words embroidered on it, tears filled her eyes. The words read "We Love You Hildy" and then each of the boys' names was stitched below.
"I love you too, boys!" she said as she went to each giving them a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
"We also have another present for you, Hildy," I said. "Joel if you will help me bring it in from the garage."
We went into the garage and took the TV box out of the back of the Land Rover and carried it into the house and presented it to Hildy. I could probably have carried it in by myself but I wanted Joel to be part of the presentation.
"Hildy, we know that your old set is as old as me so we thought you could use a new one," Joel said in a very adult manner. "If you will lead the way dad and I will set it up for you."
This surprised me but I was very proud of him for his thoughtfulness. So we did. I was also surprised that Joel was able to hook up the TV and her VCR and cable box without my help.
"I have one more thing to show you all. If you will follow me to the patio," I said leading the way.
I opened the curtains and then the sliding glass door to the patio. I was nearly crushed in the mass rush of the boys when they saw what was waiting for them outside. Each one ran to the appropriately sized bike for them. TJ was so thrilled he was jumping up and down yelling "Oh boy! Oh boy!"
Joel was rubbing his hand over his new bike but there were tears flowing down his cheeks. I walked up to him, put my arms around him and asked, "What's the matter son? Don't you like it?"
He turned around and buried his face in my chest still sobbing loudly. I just held him not knowing what else to do. The other boys gathered around trying to soothe Joel and to find out what the matter was. It took a few minutes before he regained his composure enough to try to answer my questions.
"When we were in our old home and my old dad was beating me or doing other things to me, I always thought that someday I would run away and live someplace where nobody would hurt me. As long as I could think about that I was able to stand what he did to me. When he hit me hard it was hard to keep my thinking on it and sometimes it was so bad I couldn't think about it, but when it was over I could remember and start thinking about it again. I knew I couldn't run away because he would just hurt my brothers. I had to stay and protect them.
"Now we have you as our dad and everything I used to think about is real. I'm so happy about our new life but I'm so sad about our old one. How can I be happy and sad at the same time?"
"Joel, I don't know. I can't answer that question. I just want you and your brothers to have your new life and to always be happy. You are a remarkable boy, Joel. So are your brothers. I thought that my life before you guys came into it was full and I thought that I was happy. Now I know that my life was really empty and I was just going through the motions. My job was my life and it was boring, now that I look back on it. The five of you have made my life complete. You have made me happier that I even knew was possible," I told all of them as we gathered in a group hug.
After a minute I continued, "Let's go have breakfast and then I'll get my bike out and we'll go for a ride."