I could barely keep a straight face as John jumped away from Joel's bed, turned a deathly white and froze like a statue. Joel, on the other hand, turned a bright red.
"Ah... Hi dad, I didn't expect you so soon."
"I could tell that. Why don't we go someplace and talk?" I said to both of them.
"Yes sir, I'm sorry Mr. Johnson," John almost whimpered.
"Bring Joel's wheelchair over here," I said as I began getting Joel's slippers and robe.
John pushed the chair as we made our way to the waiting room which was empty, thankfully. I indicated that we should sit at a small table with two chairs in the far corner of the room. All the while we were on our way I was trying to figure out exactly what I was going to say to them. We arranged ourselves around the table so that we were all looking at each other.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Johnson, I won't do it again," John sobbed.
I reached out and took John's hand and gave it a squeeze. Then I turned to Joel and said, "Please tell me what was going on, son."
"Well... ah... John just gave me this thing to put on my chain," he said showing me a small charm that had been attached to the chain that Larry and Lenny had given him.
"That's very nice," I said examining the charm. "It looks like it has some writing on it. I can't read it in this light. What does it say?"
"It's my name is all. But, see it's only half. John has the other half. Show him, John," Joel said.
"See," John said, "if you put them together and they fit."
"Oh," I said. "So you were just thanking John for his present?"
"Yeah... well... and... well, I like John too. You said it wasn't bad, didn't you?"
"Yes, I did and I still mean that. John, do you think that you like Joel the same way?"
"Yes, sir," he answered without hesitation.
"I don't want to interfere with the feelings you guys have for each other. I want to caution you again about public displays of affection until you are old enough and secure enough to handle the reactions you will experience from others. John, you know how your parents first reacted to your feelings for Joel. That was mild compared to how people who don't love you will respond."
"But, we pulled the curtain, dad"
"Yes, I know you did and that was fine. It still didn't give you much privacy. Did you think what might have happened if a nurse or orderly had walked in on you? They might have reacted much differently than what I did."
"Yeah, Mr. Johnson, I guess we didn't think about that," John said.
"There is another thing I want you to think about. Did you see that Tony always wears that surgical mask except when he is eating?" I asked. "Do you know why?"
"Yes, dad, you said he wears it so he won't get sick."
"That's right. The doctor will probably ask you to begin wearing one very soon. John, the reason the mask is necessary is that the medicines that Joel is getting make him very susceptible to germs. Kissing, like you two were doing, is a very effective way of passing germs. Even if you had just a slight cold, those germs could easily be passed to Joel. Any infection could be very serious for him."
"Gee, I didn't know that. I sure don't want Joel to get sick 'cause of me," John said.
"I know you don't, John. I want you guys to be good friends. I also want you to be careful. While Joel is sick, your relationship will have to be restrained. After that if you still have feelings for each other, you will have to decide how you want to proceed. Now, if either one of you ever have any questions about anything I want you to know that you can always come to me. I don't know if I will always have the right answer, but I will always be honest with you."
"Thanks, Mr. Johnson, I wish my dad and mom could understand like you do."
"I know that they are trying. Give them time to adjust. You know they love you and don't want to see you get hurt," I said.
"Yeah, I know. It's just sometimes... oh, I don't know. Sometimes I get the feeling that they wonder what they did that makes me like Joel the way I do."
"It's not their fault. It's nobody's fault," I told him. All the while we were talking the boys were eating the burgers and fries that I had brought for them. "Do you guys think you have room for some ice cream or frozen yogurt?"
Joel looked at me and giggled, "Yeah, dad."
"Me too," came the expected response from John.
"God, I hope I handled that right," I thought as we headed off to the snack bar.
John was very quiet as he pushed Joel's wheelchair down the hall. Joel chatted away about the party and the gifts that he got and how good the chocolate cake was.
After the boys had their ice cream and Joel returned to his room, I suggested to John that we needed to get him back to the Levins' before it got too late. I told him to say goodbye to Joel while I went to say goodbye to Tony and his family.
I got the impression that Bill and Karen wanted to ask me something about John and Joel but didn't know how to bring up the subject. I didn't volunteer anything. If they had asked about the relationship, I don't know what I would have said. It really wasn't any of their business anyway.
John was quiet as I started to take him back to the Levins' house. After about ten minutes, I asked, "What's on your mind, son?"
"I just feel so bad for Joel. I wish he wasn't sick. Sometimes I wish it was me instead of him."
"I know how you feel. I would give anything in the world for Joel not to be sick. We both love Joel in our own ways and it is difficult for us to accept that he is sick."
"I guess I do love Joel. When I'm around him I don't stutter or stop in the middle of talking because the words won't come out. He makes me feel good. I don't know what I would do if he wasn't around. I miss him so much when he is not home."
"I understand, John. Joel is a remarkable boy."
The rest of the trip was made in silence. JR, Bran and Benny were playing kickball in the front yard with a couple of neighborhood kids when we arrived. Eric was sitting on the front step with his dad watching the boys play.
"C'mon John, we need someone on our side," JR panted as he ran up to the van.
"Okay," John yelled as he jumped out of the van and ran to join the game.
I joined Eric and Alan on the front step to watch the game for a while. It wasn't long before Ethel called for Alan to come help her with something or other. That left Eric and I alone to talk.
"Only four more weeks before you sell the business," Eric said. "Are you looking forward to it?"
"I guess. It's going to be strange not having a real job after working there for seven years. I am looking forward to getting the foundation started. I hope Darcie is as excited as I am. I know that she will do a fantastic job. She cares so deeply about kids in need. We can't solve all of the problems, but saving one child from the horrors of abuse or not knowing a caring family will make it all worthwhile. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to get preachy," I said.
"No, that's okay. I know that you feel strongly about what you are doing. I just hope you don't let your heart overrule your head. You say that you know you can't solve all of the problems. Just remind yourself of that every once in a while."
"Thanks, I'll try to keep that in mind."
"Is there going to be room in your new life for us?" Eric asked looking into my eyes.
"I hope there is. Things are a little hectic right now. My first priority at the moment is making sure that Joel gets well. Which reminds me, I had better be getting back to my boys before they wear out Hildy and Becky Sue. Thanks for bringing John with you. His visit really brightened Joel's day."
"It was my pleasure. He was so excited on the way here. He couldn't stop talking about Joel. That kid has it bad for Joel as much as he tries to hide his real feelings from others. He's a good kid, though."
As we got up from the step I gave Eric a hug before calling to the boys telling them I was going. This brought the game to a halt as four of them came rushing to say goodbye. John was the first to receive a hug.
"Thanks, Mr. Johnson, for letting me come see Joel," he said.
"I'm glad you could be here for Joel's birthday. It meant a lot to him."
"Goodbye, Mr. Johnson," JR said getting his hug.
"Did you enjoy your visit this week?" I asked.
"Yeah, I got to make two new friends," he said smiling.
"Mister," Benny said, "Gram says that you got me here. Is that right?"
"In a way, I guess I did, but there were a lot of other people involved."
"Thanks," he said throwing his arms around my waist muffling a sob.
"Do you like it here?" I asked.
His only response was the movement of his head against my stomach. I leaned down and kissed the top of his head and gave him a tight hug before he released his hold on me.
Bran was standing there with his hand extended for me to shake which I took and shook.
"Are you too big for a hug?" I asked.
"No, sir," he whispered looking down at his feet.
"Come here, then," I said as I pulled him into my arms. Then in a quiet voice, "Are you doing okay here?"
"Yes, sir, they are so good to me. Why are they? They know what I am. Why don't they hate me like my dad does?"
"There is no reason to hate you, son. The Levins love you for the person you are. Believe that. They don't judge you."
I gave him another squeeze before he let go. He looked up at me for a moment then nodded his head as if to say he understood.
Hildy had sent the boys off to get their showers taken before I got back to the apartment. This seemed like an awfully long day. I was exhausted as I collapsed into the lounge chair. It wasn't long before I had a lap full of a clean smelling, pajama clad six year old. He was soon followed by the twins sitting on the chair arms and Chris nudging TJ over to one side of my lap so he could sit there also.
"I hope this chair doesn't break down," I said trying to get my arms around all of them. "Did you have your snack before I came home?"
"Yeah," Chris answered, "Hildy had some cookies that she didn't take to the party."
"Did you have a good time at the party?" I asked.
"Uh-huh," TJ said, "but everyone was bigger than me. I like Benny. He's not mad at me for asking 'bout his hair."
"That's good. I think it is about time you all were in bed. Hop down and I'll tuck you in."
Sunday morning Hildy fixed our breakfasts before taking off for church. Before she left she took me aside and told me that she thought that Becky Sue needed some time off. She hadn't seen her boy friend or had a day off since we came to Houston. I guess that I had been rather insensitive to Becky Sue's needs. My thoughts were on Joel. I decided to have a talk with her before I went to see him.
I could tell that Becky Sue was getting a little homesick when I talked to her. She had planned on spending a lot more time with her boyfriend this summer. I got the impression that they were on the verge of becoming engaged. When we finished I decided to send her home for a few days so that she could see her boyfriend. I arranged for her to fly out this afternoon and to fly back on Wednesday afternoon. It would be a strain on Hildy and me to take care of the boys with my trips to the hospital but I thought we could manage it for a few days.
We managed while she was gone but it was a lot easier when she got back and all three of us could share the duties. Joel's chemotherapy went without a hitch. Tony did not get released from the hospital as he expected on Friday because he had developed a slight cold and Dr. Kerner wanted to make sure it didn't develop into something more serious. It was the following Monday when he finally got to go home.
Although Tony was happy that he was going to get to go home, it was still an emotional goodbye when he checked out around ten o'clock. I had brought the boys to visit Joel in the morning because I knew it would be the last time they got to see Tony at least for a while. Everyone got their share of hugs before Tony was wheeled out of the room.
"I'm gonna miss you, Tony," Joel said through his surgical mask. "It was nice having someone to talk to."
"I'll miss you too," Tony replied. "You've got my mom and dad's phone number. Call me anytime you can."
Tears came to Joel's eyes as his friend left the room.
"It'll be alright, son," I said trying to sooth him. "You will probably have another roommate soon."
I was right. When I returned in the afternoon the other bed was occupied by a cute little blond boy who looked to be about ten years old. There was no one with him. When I asked Joel about the new boy he said that all he knew was the boy's name was Mathew Rollins III.
"His momma was here when they brought him in but she left about five minutes later and hasn't been back," he whispered to me. "She didn't even hug him or kiss him or nothing. She just said goodbye and left. He hardly even wants to talk to me. He just lays there and cries a little."
"Well maybe his mom had to go to work and couldn't be here with him," I said trying to give her the benefit of the doubt.
"I don't think she hasta work," Joel said. "She was all dressed up in really nice clothes. I never saw anybody dressed up that fancy that had to work."
I stayed with Joel for a couple of hours talking and reading to him. I noticed that when I was reading that Joel's roommate listened intently and didn't cry that I could tell. As I got up to leave I gave Joel a hug and kissed his forehead. I made sure that Mathew heard that I would bring the rest of the boys this evening. I was about to leave when I decided to introduce myself to him.
"Hello, my name is Crane Johnson. Joel is my son," I said holding out my hand for him to shake.
He cautiously reached out his hand and took mine. In a voice that was barely above a whisper he said, "Hi, my name is Mathew."
"It is very nice to meet you Mathew. I hope we won't disturb you when I bring Joel's brothers to visit him tonight. They can get a little boisterous."
He gave just the hint of a smile before he released my hand and slid down in his bed.
Hildy was reading to the boys when I got back to the apartment. She put down the book as the boys rushed to greet me. Becky Sue had gone to the University of Houston Library to do some research for a class that she would be taking this fall.
"Can we go swimming?" Chris asked.
"That sounds like fun. Go get your swimsuits on. It will be a while before supper."
They were in their bedrooms before I finished talking. I quickly followed after I found out from Hildy when supper would be ready. We had a good two hours to play in the pool. After playing with the boys for a while I realized how much I had missed these times with them. I also realized that despite my best intentions I had been somewhat neglectful of them while I concentrated on Joel's illness. Another week or week and a half he would be able to come home and we could resume a somewhat normal life.
I could tell that Becky Sue's swimming lessons were beginning to pay off for the boys. It was especially noticeable with TJ. He could hold his own in most of the water games that required swimming. Chris had improved his technique and the twins had reached a level where Chris was before Becky Sue's instructions. Hiring her was one of my better decisions as a father other than hiring Hildy.
After supper was over and the dishes all rinsed and put in the dishwasher, we took off for the hospital. Becky Sue elected to stay at the apartment to catch up on some reading. On the way I explained to everyone that Joel had a new roommate named Mathew who was a little shy so they were not supposed to overwhelm him with attention. My admonition to the boys did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm when it came to greeting their brother. As usual, TJ assumed his position beside Joel on the bed and the twins and Chris climbed up on the side rails so they could hug Joel. It was a little while before Hildy and I could get close enough to greet Joel.
As I leaned down to hug Joel, he whispered in my ear, "He's scared."
"Did you talk to him? Did he say he's scared?" I whispered back.
"No, he hardly says anything. He just lays there and cries. He needs someone to hug him. His mom or dad haven't been here."
I just about lost it. Here was my wonderful son, sick with a serious disease and what was on his mind was the welfare of someone else. God, I hope he never loses his caring nature.
"Come with me guys, I want you to meet Joel's new roommate," I said lifting TJ out of the bed.
Hildy followed us as we approached the other bed.
"Mathew, I told you this afternoon that Joel's brothers were going to visit him this evening. Well, here they are. This one is TJ. He is six. The twins are Larry and Lenny, they are nine," I said pointing to first one and then the other. "Chris is right over there. He is ten. And this lady who takes care of all of us is Hildy."
"Hi," came his soft reply.
"How old are you?" Chris asked.
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" Lenny asked.
"No," he said in an almost whimper.
"Are your mom and dad gonna come and see you?" Larry asked.
"No, they're too busy."
That was too much for Hildy. She pushed past the boys and took Mathew in her arms, hugged him to her breasts and started cooing to him. That's all it took. The dam burst and he began sobbing his heart out.
I ushered the boys back to Joel's bedside leaving Hildy to comfort Mathew.
"Can we go get some of that jogert?" TJ asked.
"You mean frozen yogurt, don't you?" I chuckled.
"Get Joel's wheelchair and we'll go get some," I said.
On the way to the snack bar we stopped by the nurses' station to see if Mathew had any food restrictions. I wanted to bring him back yogurt also. He didn't have any restrictions which was good to know for future reference. With my troop, it seemed like after greeting Joel the next thing on their minds was something to eat.
"How come his mom and dad are too busy to come see him?" Larry asked after we got settled in the snack bar.
"I don't know, son," I said trying to come up with any reason I could think of to explain their actions. I could not think of any.
After washing the chocolate off TJ's face, I asked the boys what flavor of frozen yogurt that we should get to take back to Mathew. If the snack bar had more than three flavors they would have come up with more suggestions. As it was, since they couldn't agree on a single choice, I filled the paper dish with a sample of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry.
We started back in what was now becoming our standard way of traveling. TJ was sitting on Joel's lap, Chris was pushing the chair and the twins were flanking Joel on opposite sides. This never failed to get smiles from the nurses or visitors that we past in the halls.
Hildy was holding Mathew on her lap in the chair beside his bed when we got back to the room. When she saw us coming she whispered something to him. He looked up and smiled the first real smile I had seen on him. TJ jumped off Joel's lap and took the dish of yogurt from me and walked it over to him.
"Here, we brought this for you. We didn't know what you liked so we got some of everthing," TJ rambled.
Mathew continued to sit on Hildy's lap as he ate his treat. I think TJ was a little jealous of him but didn't say anything. I helped Joel get back in bed where upon TJ resumed his customary position beside his brother.
It wasn't long before Dr. Barrow came in on his nightly rounds. He gave Joel the usual examination before he removed Joel's cap. TJ watched carefully as Barrow closely looked at Joel's now totally bald head.
"He doesn't have any eye browns either," TJ volunteered.
"Eye browns? Oh... I see," Barrow said stifling a chuckle.
"They are eye brows," I said correcting TJ.
Dr. Barrow then went over to check Mathew. "I see you have found a friend," he said to Mathew.
"Uh-huh," he responded.
"You get your first treatment tomorrow, Mathew. Is your mom or dad going to be here with you?"
"No, mom said she might come tomorrow night. Maybe"
"Okay, why don't you hop up into bed so that I can check you out?"
I could see that Hildy was barely able to hold her tongue as she hugged Mathew and kissed his cheek before she let him down to climb in bed. "What time does his treatment start?" she asked Dr. Barrow.
"It's scheduled for nine o'clock. Why?"
Hildy shook her head and came back over to Joel's bed. We stayed another half an hour before deciding that Joel was beginning to tire. After he received his usual hugs from his brothers the boys went to say goodbye to Mathew. I guess because they had seen Hildy give him a hug and a kiss earlier that it made him one of the family and they also gave a very surprised Mathew hugs all around. Hildy was the last to approach his bed. She leaned over and kissed his cheek and whispered something in his ear before turning and walking out of the room.
I didn't ask her what she had said to him but I was pretty sure I knew what was coming.
I was right Tuesday morning when Hildy announced that she would be accompanying me to the hospital to be with Mathew when he started his chemotherapy. She had discussed it with Becky Sue and they had decided that Becky Sue could manage the boys by herself and prepare the boys' lunch if she was not back by that time. I knew better than to argue with her and I was confident that the boys would be well taken care of.
It was just after 8:30 when we arrived at the hospital. This was earlier than I usually arrived, but Hildy was determined to be there with Mathew when his treatment began. She greeted Joel and spoke briefly with him before going to Mathew's bedside and greeted him the same way she had greeted Joel.