I was so deep in my own thoughts that I didn't notice Dr. Barrow until he placed his hand on my shoulder. I jumped like I had been shot.
"He's okay isn't he? My Joel is okay, right?"
"Yes, he's okay. He's not out of danger yet, but he is stable."
"May I see him?"
"Yes, but he's sedated and won't know you are there. We will keep him in ICU overnight and possibly all day tomorrow depending on his condition. He has a breathing tube so he wouldn't be able to speak even if he were awake."
"What happened? Why did this happen?"
"The simple explanation is that he had an allergic reaction to the chemo. It's called anaphylactic shock. This is not common with the medicine that was being used particularly when it is injected into a muscle. The reaction is much more common when it is used intravenously. You have got to realize that these agents are in reality poisons. We are trying to kill the cancer cells. These agents act most aggressively on the rapidly growing cells or those cells which divide the fastest."
"May we go see him now?"
"Sure, let's get you all fixed up with a gown and mask and so forth. You can only spend a few minutes with him. Don't be alarmed by all of the equipment that he is hooked up to. It is there to make sure that he doesn't have a relapse and to make sure that he recovers fully from the reaction."
I followed Dr. Barrow to a small room next to the ICU where I was outfitted with sterile garments, booties and mask. I was then led into the ICU. There were three other beds besides Joel's that were occupied all surrounded by machines and tubes and wires that went every which way. As we approached Joel's bed my knees started going weak and my heart started beating faster.
Joel was hooked up to the same array of machines that I had seen around the other patients' beds. There was barely room for me to reach the side of his bed. I gently took hold of his hand which felt cool to my touch.
"Why does his hand feel so cold?" I asked.
"The temperature in here is kept very cool. It's kept that way for various reasons," Barrow answered.
I rubbed Joel's hand as I leaned over and kissed his forehead through the mask covering my nose and mouth. "Dad's here son. I love you."
He looked so pale and helpless just lying there in that bed with all the stuff hooked up to him beeping and whirring and whooshing. Tears started to run down my cheeks soaking my mask. "Why? Why must you suffer when all you deserve is to be healthy and a normal happy boy? You never hurt anyone. Please get well. Your brothers need you. TJ needs you. I need you. You have made my life so much better just because you came into it."
Barrow placed his hand on my back and indicated that it was time to go. I followed him and placed my gown in the receptacle he showed me. I got assurance that I would be notified if there were any changes to Joel's condition before I started back to Joel's room.
On my way back to the room I started thinking about how I would tell the boys or if I should tell the boys about what had happened to Joel. I was undecided. Part of me thought that they had a right to know that their brother had a problem and another part thought that it would only cause unnecessary worry for them.
When I got to the room Bill and Karen were still there with Tony. As soon as I stepped inside they immediately bombarded me with questions about Joel's condition. I reassured them as best I could and tried to reassure myself at the same time.
"Our prayers are with you and Joel and of course his brothers. Tony has gotten very attached to the twins," Karen said as she gave me a friendly hug.
"Thanks," was all I could say. I shook hands with Bill, waved goodbye to Tony, picked up my stuff and hurried out the door. I still hadn't decided what I was going to tell the boys.
I reached for my car keys and when I didn't find them I panicked. "Where the heck did I put those keys?" It took me several minutes of searching through everything I had with me before it dawned on me that I had sent the van home with the rest of the family earlier. It seemed like an eon ago but in reality it had only been a few hours. I didn't even know what time it was. When I reached the front door of the hospital I saw that the sun was just beginning to set so it had to be around eight. I looked at my watch and it showed 8:17.
The taxi let me out in front of the apartment. I slowly made my way to the door and inserted my keys. I had no more that got the door open when my arms were full of boys. They each got a special hug and kiss as I made my way into the apartment.
"Daddy, we got to go to the zoo on the way home," TJ said in his excited high pitched voice. "There were lions and tigers and elephants and ostrics and monkeys and snakes and all kinds of animals. It was fun. Can we go again? Please?"
"I'm sure you can and didn't you mean ostriches?" I said ruffling his hair.
"And there is a train in the park and we got to ride it," Chris said.
Not to be left out Larry said, "There was this bird that had a great big tail. It was blue and green and it looked like it had eyes on the feathers. It was pretty."
"Oh yeah, that was a peacock," I said.
"They even had a porcupine and a llama," Lenny added. "And a eagle."
"That's great, guys. Have you had your snack yet?"
"No," was the unanimous response.
"Well let's go see if Hildy has anything for you to eat."
Hildy gave me a worried look as she saw my face. "Have you had anything to eat?" she asked. "We had Kentucky Fried Chicken for supper. I didn't have time to prepare anything since we took the boys to the zoo. I saved back a couple of pieces in case you didn't eat at the hospital."
"Thanks, a piece of cold chicken and glass of milk sounds great right now," I answered.
"Okay boys, we have ice cream for your snack. Take your seats and I'll bring your bowls. There is some chocolate syrup to put on it if you want," Hildy said stepping out of the way of the thundering herd of boys heading for the table.
Soon the only sounds in the room were spoons scraping bowls as nearly half-gallon of ice cream disappeared in record time. There was just enough left for me to have a small bowl.
"Okay guys, as soon as you put the dishes in the dishwasher go get your showers taken and brush your teeth then we need to have a family meeting," I told them barely able to keep my voice from cracking.
As they rushed off to the bathrooms to shower I motioned for Hildy and Becky Sue to sit down at the table.
"What's wrong Crane? I noticed that you looked upset when you came in. Is Joel alright? Oh, God please!" Hildy pleaded.
"Not exactly," I said and then went on to explain the events of the afternoon. By the time I was finished Hildy was in tears as was Becky Sue. Although I tried to put it in as positive light as I could, I was not too successful. How do you put a positive light on a train wreck in your life?
Soon four freshly scrubbed boys bounded into the living room. Hildy and Becky Sue busied themselves in the kitchen. Patting the couch beside me indicating that I wanted them to sit next to me, I picked up TJ and placed him on my lap.
"Look guys, I know that you just saw Joel this afternoon and he was fine. He was happy to see you. After you left and were at the zoo the doctors gave him some more medicine. Joel had an allergic reaction to the medicine and is now very sick. Do you understand?"
"What's lergic?" TJ asked.
"You know when a mosquito bites you how you get a bump and it itches, that is like a little allergic reaction. Well Joel's allergic reaction was in his throat and windpipe. It made his throat swell so much that he couldn't breathe for a while until they gave him some special medicine. Now he is in a special place in the hospital where they put people who are very sick."
"Can he breathe now?" Chris asked.
"Yes, he can now. The doctor put a tube in his throat so he could breathe."
"Can we go see him?" Lenny asked.
"Probably not, son, we will just have to see how he is tomorrow. If they bring him back to his room then you may be able to see him. He is still really sick."
"I wanna see Joel," TJ cried burying his face in my chest.
"I know, I know," I said rubbing his back.
I wrapped my arms around all four of the boys and we sat there for several minutes just comforting each other without saying a word.
"Time for bed," I said. "I'll be in to say good night in a few minutes. Let's go!"
While the boys headed for bed I went and talked to Hildy and told her I would be leaving for the hospital by seven. I wanted to be there in case he woke up.
Then I went in and tucked the boys into bed. I gave each of them an extra hug and kiss before I went into my own bedroom. I brushed my teeth and slipped on my pajama bottoms before getting into bed. I knew it was going to be a long night. My mind was racing with all of the possibilities. Sleep would not come easy tonight. I tossed and turned for several hours with no sleep on the horizon.
I heard my bedroom door opening slowly and then the sound of little feet padding across the carpet. I knew it was TJ. This visit was not unexpected. As he slipped under the sheet I turned over and drew him to me.
"I'm scared daddy. I want Joel to come home. Why can't he come home? I miss him" my little angel sobbed.
"I wish he could come home too, pumpkin. The doctors have to get him well before he can come home. We want Joel to get well so he can be with us for a long time," I said.
"But I still miss him," TJ said as he snuggled up against me. It wasn't long before his breathing showed the pattern of sleep.
The last time I looked at the clock it was about ten minutes before two. That didn't stop the alarm from going off at six. I quickly shut it off before it woke TJ. I looked over at my sleeping angel and kissed him lightly on the forehead. As I got out of bed I noticed another lump in the bed on the other side of TJ. When I looked closely I could tell it was Chris. I kissed his forehead also before going to take my shower.
I checked on my other two angels before going to the kitchen to grab something to eat. I should have known that Hildy would be there but it surprised me none the less. When she saw me she walked up and hugged me.
"I prayed for Joel last night," she said dabbing at her eyes with her apron. "I just know he will be alright."
"I hope that you are right. I can't imagine my life without him. He is such a special boy."
I called a taxi to pick me up at seven and then ate the breakfast that Hildy had prepared for me. I planned to leave the van for the family in case they wanted to go back to the zoo or one of the museums in the area. I don't even remember what she had fixed for my breakfast. My mind was a million miles away trying not to think of the worst things that could happen to Joel.
As I was waiting for the taxi to arrive I noticed a young black male who looked maybe 14 or 15 sitting on the ground with his back against one of the walls of the apartment. It seemed strange but the taxi came before I could give it much thought.
I stopped by Joel's room first just to make sure they hadn't brought him back from ICU. Tony was still sleeping and Karen had not yet arrived. Joel was not there so I continued to ICU. The closer I got the more it felt like I was walking in molasses. I wanted to get there quickly but my feet were not cooperating. I did finally make it to the nurses' station outside the ICU.
"Good morning, I'm Crane Johnson. My son Joel is in there. Could you tell me how he is?" I asked the attractive nurse sitting at the desk.
"Good morning, Mr. Johnson, Dr. Kerner and Dr. Barrow are in there with him now. Your son's vital signs all look normal according to the monitors here at the station. If you would like to wait, I will tell the doctors that you are here when they come out. They have been with him for about ten minutes so it shouldn't be long. There is a coffee pot in the waiting room if you would like a cup," she responded brightly.
"Thanks," I said as I turned toward the waiting room. I sat down and picked up a three year old copy of Newsweek thumbing through it without even seen what was on the page in front of me. I don't know how many times I paged through the magazine before Dr. Kerner came in and sat down beside me.
He held up his hand as I started to ask questions. "Before you ask anything, Joel is fine. We removed the breathing tube and he is breathing on his own. We still have him on oxygen but that is just a precaution. If there are no further complications we will take him back to his room by around noon."
"Can he have visitors?"
"Yes, but I would like for you to limit it to one or two visitors besides yourself. This has been a shock to his system and he will be weak for a few days before he is back to normal. He will be able to talk but his throat will be sore and his voice will be very hoarse. Just don't let him talk too much. I'll give him some lozenges that will help the soreness but they won't completely eliminate it."
"Thanks Dr. Kerner, is it possible to see him now?" I asked.
"Yes, but only for a few minutes. He is still groggy and not quite awake yet. He may not even know you are there," he said.
"That's okay, I need to see him."
I went through the same ritual as before getting all outfitted for the ICU. I approached Joel's bed tentatively not knowing what to expect. His eyes were half open but glazed. As I took hold of his hand he turned his head toward me. There was no recognition in his eyes.
"It's dad, Joel. How are you feeling?"
"Not too good," he said in a raspy whisper. "My throat hurts and I'm cold."
I looked around for a blanket and found one on the foot of his bed. Grabbing it I spread it over him.
"What happened? Why am I here?"
"You had a bad reaction to the medicine. Don't talk too much they had to put a breathing tube down your throat. That's why it is sore." I leaned over and again kissed him through the mask.
"He wants to come see you, but he can't until you get back to your room."
Dr. Kerner came up and placed his hand on my shoulder indicating that it was time for me to go. I squeezed Joel's hand and started to leave.
"I'm hungry," Joel rasped.
"I'm glad," Kerner said. "I'll have them send up some soft food so it won't irritate your throat."
As we walked out, Dr. Kerner said, "Having an appetite is a good thing. He hasn't eaten anything since yesterday noon so I'm sure he needs something to eat. I'll order a high calorie drink for him to go along with his breakfast."
"No grits, though. He's like me he doesn't like them," I laughed.
"Okay, we will continue to monitor him but if he continues to improve I'm sure that we can have him back in his room by noon. I want to run one more blood test before we release him from ICU."
I decided that since I wouldn't be able to see Joel again until he got back to his room that I would go back to the apartment and spend some time with my other sons. I had been guilty of neglecting them since Joel had been in the hospital and although I think they understood I'm sure they didn't like it. I grabbed a taxi and headed back to the apartment.
Hildy had a worried look on her face when I walked in. "He's alright," I said. The relief showed on her face.
"Daddy, when can we go see Joel?" TJ asked.
I explained that we could go this afternoon but only a couple of them could go in to see him at a time. That seemed to satisfy them that they at least were going to get to see their brother.
"That guy looks so sad," Chris said.
"What guy Chris?" I asked.
"That guy sitting over there against the wall. He's been there since last night. I saw him," he replied.
"Let me see," I said. "Oh, I saw him there earlier when I left for the hospital. Do you want to go see why he is so sad?"
"Yeah," Chris said and got agreement from all the other boys.
"Okay, get your shoes on and we will go for a walk. We don't want to scare him so we will walk around a bit first."
We walked around the apartment complex for about five minutes before we rounded the corner of the building where he was sitting.
"Hi, Chris said that you have been sitting there since last night. Is something wrong?" I asked.
"None of your damn business," he retorted.
"You're right it isn't any of my business, but if you need some help maybe I can."
"Why would you want to help me? You don't know me."
"Call it a hobby. As I said if you need help just give me the word."
"My dad kicked me out," he said sullenly.
"That's too bad. Are you hungry?"
"Don't you want to know why he kicked me out?"
"Not unless you want to tell me. By the way, my name is Crane and these are my sons Chris, Larry, Lenny and the little one here is TJ. Do you have a name?"
"I'm glad to meet you Bran. You didn't answer my question. Are you hungry?"
"Yeah, I haven't eaten since yesterday morning. What's it to you?"
Chris went up to Bran, sat down beside him and began whispering in his ear. Bran got a funny look on his face before he said, "No shit?"
"I don't know what Chris told you but if you want to come with us we'll get you something to eat and then try to decide what to do next."
I noticed that he winced as he got up and walked slightly hunched over as we made our way to our apartment.
"Hildy," I started, "this young man is hungry. He hasn't had anything to eat since yesterday morning. Do you think you could get him something to eat?"
"Of course," she said. "Will one of you boy show him where to get washed up. And you might wash your hands also if you want a snack."
The room cleared in a flash as they herded Bran to the bathrooms to wash.
"What are you getting yourself into now?" Hildy asked.
"I don't know. I just think the kid needs some temporary help is all. It seems his dad kicked him out."
A few minutes later and with the help of the microwave Hildy had a complete hot meal ready for our guest. Hildy put his plate at the end of the table with the other boys on the sides. He sat down and took his napkin placing it on his lap before closing his eyes, mumbled a few words and then crossed himself.
The boys looked at him as he did all of this. They had this quizzical look on their faces and I knew they were dying to ask why he did that. I guess they had never been around Catholics much. I think most of our friends were either Baptist or Lutheran.
Bran quickly finished the plate that Hildy had fixed for him. Hildy began dishing out second helpings to his dazzling smile. They disappeared almost as quickly.
"Would you like some fruit cocktail and whipped cream like the boys had?" Hildy asked.
"Yes, ma'am," he said enthusiastically.
The boys and I had already eaten our dessert. I skipped the whipped cream and had a small bowl of fruit cocktail. After he had finished and the dishes removed I asked, "Why did your dad kick you out of the house?"
"What the hell do you want to know for? So you can throw me out too?"
Hildy reached around in front of Bran and grabbed a bunch of his shirt. "Now you listen to me young man. When you are in this house you will keep a civil tongue in your head. There will be no swearing as long as I'm around. Now Crane asked you a question. I suggest that you answer him in a civil manner. I know you have better manners than that," she said looking him straight in the eye.
The expression on his face was almost comical. Hildy had been so mothering that the change in her demeanor took him totally by surprise.
"Y... yes ma'am," he said totally cowed by what had just happened. Then looking at me he said, "It's kinda personal. Can we talk alone?"
"Sure, let's go for a walk," I said getting up from the table. "You boys stay here while I talk to Bran."
We walked in silence for a few minutes before he began to open up. "My dad hates me. He says I'm no good, that I'm a disgrace to the family."
There were tears in the corners of his eyes as I looked at him. "Why would he say a thing like that? You appear to have good manners except for your tendency to use profanity."
"Is she your mom?"
"No, Hildy is our cook, housekeeper, nanny for the boys and their surrogate grandmother. She is not a lady to mess with as you just learned."
"Does she hit people?"
"No she would never do that."
"I wish my dad didn't," he almost whispered.
"How does he hit you?"
"With his fist or his belt or whatever he can get his hands on. He never hits me where people could see. I'll show you," he said lifting his shirt tail up over his ribs.
His skin color was more honey brown than black probably indicating mixed race. The bruises were clearly visible on the sides of his ribcage and when he turned around his back was bruised as well. There didn't appear to be any lacerations of the skin but it was apparent from the various stages that the bruises were in that he had been beaten for some time.
"How long has this been going on?" I asked.
"A couple of weeks," he said looking at the ground after pulling down his shirt.
"Okay, we have been skirting the issue for quite a while now. Why don't you tell me why your dad does this and why he kicked you out of the house?"
"I might as well. You'll probably kick me out too. He found out I was gay. There, are you satisfied? You hate me too, don't you?" he said as the tears began to fall.
I didn't answer. I simply wrapped my arms around him and hugged him. After a few minutes his sobbing subsided enough for him to look up at me. "Why did you do that?"
"I guess because you needed to be comforted. I could never hate you for what you are. I know you didn't choose to be gay and you would probably give almost anything to be normal. So you're gay, big deal! That doesn't give your dad the right to beat you. No one deserves that.
"Now, where do you live? I think we need to have a talk with your father."
It seemed that Bran lived in the same apartment complex that we did but in a building several over from where ours was.
The meeting with Bran's father was neither pleasant nor successful. His attitude toward gays was unbending and vehement. I thought for a minute that he was going to strike me but I guess he came to his senses long enough to realize my six inch height advantage and much fitter physique put him at a distinct disadvantage. The confrontation ended with Bran's clothes and belongings being tossed out the front door. There were not that many so between the two of us we were able to carry them all back to my apartment.
Hildy and Becky Sue gave me strange looks as we entered with Bran's stuff. I suggested that Becky Sue take the boys to the swimming pool for their swimming lesson while I tried to sort out what to do about Bran. I noticed that he had a pair of trunks in his belongings so he could go also.
While they were gone I explained the situation to Hildy. "You know I hate to do this but I think the best thing we can do is to call CPS. I simply cannot take on raising another boy. If it weren't for Joel's illness I might think differently but I'm not able to spend enough time with the other four let alone adding another one."
I called the weekend number for CPS and explained the situation to them as best that I could. The man I talked to on the phone seemed very sympathetic which was encouraging. He said that there would be someone by to assess the situation in about an hour.