A few minutes past nine, Dr. Kerner and a nurse came in to begin Mathew's first chemotherapy. Hildy was still sitting with him talking quietly when they approached the bed.
"Good morning, Mathew," Dr. Kerner said. "Are you ready to start?"
"I guess," Mathew replied timidly.
"It's going to be fine, honey," Hildy said softly. "I'll be right here with you."
"Thanks," he more mouthed than said.
Hildy got up and moved around to the other side of the bed so that she could hold his hand while the nurse inserted the catheter. Mathew winced as the needle was inserted into the vein of his left arm that had been immobilized to keep him from twisting it.
Kerner picked up both IV bags from the cart that the nurse had pushed up along side of Mathew's bed and examined them. He compared medicines against the chart he was carrying before he hung them on the IV stand and inserted the needles into a "Y" shaped tube that the nurse had attached to the catheter. After starting the drip he adjusted the rate of each bag.
"Is it gonna hurt?" Mathew asked.
"You might feel a sting like a mosquito bite, but it shouldn't last too long," Kerner said.
"Don't you worry son, I'll be right here beside you. If it hurts, you just let me know and we'll get it fixed," Hildy said looking directly at Kerner.
"That's right. You just let Miss Hildy know and we'll get you something to make it stop. Now, I want you to take this pill," he said handing Mathew a small paper cup with a pink pill in it and a cup of water. "This will make you a little sleepy."
Mathew took the pill and then the cup of water. He looked to Hildy who nodded and then he swallowed the pill.
Hildy sat with him for about an hour holding his hand until he dozed off. She stood up, leaned over and kissed his cheek before coming over to Joel's bed. Her eyes were glistening with unshed tears. "I cannot understand a mother or, for that matter, a father who would allow a son to face this alone. They don't deserve to be called parents. I'm going to stay here until they come," she said with steel in her voice.
Joel held out his arms indicating he wanted a hug from her. She obliged. "I love you Hildy."
As I left a few minutes later, Hildy picked up the book that Joel had by his bedside and began reading it to him. Mathew was still sleeping peacefully. I wondered what would happen if his parents showed up while she was there.
The boys were in the swimming pool receiving their lessons from Becky Sue when I returned to the apartment. I was just about to change into my trunks when the phone rang. It was Foster from the office asking if I could be in the office tomorrow for a meeting and take care of some paperwork that needed my attention. I told him that I would be there by ten in the morning. I then called the airport to see if I could get a flight to San Antonio before eight tomorrow morning.
By the time I had made all of the arrangements, I was surrounded by four boys in wet bathing suits wanting their hugs.
"Hey, guys, go jump in the shower and get the chlorine off and then we'll go get something for lunch." Then turning to Becky Sue I said, "I'm going to take the boys out for lunch. You're welcome to come with us and then we'll go to the hospital."
"Thanks, but if it is all the same to you, I think I will stay here and work on the research for my class this fall."
"That's fine. I need to spend some time alone with the boys since I will be gone all day tomorrow."
I decided to take the boys to Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen for lunch. It had been a while since I had any good Cajun food and their menu was probably as varied as you could get in Houston. Their gumbo, crawfish etouffee and jambalaya are really good. The place was beginning to fill up when we got there, but we were able to get a table without waiting. After looking over the menu I decided to get three of the Pappadeaux Platters for the five of us. Even with the boys' appetites I thought that three of them would be more than enough to satisfy them. The platters contained fried shrimp, fried oysters, fried catfish fillets, stuffed shrimp, stuffed crabs, crawfish and French fries.
I wasn't sure that they would like the oysters or crawfish, but after they asked what they were they disappeared along with most of the rest of the food on the platters. There were a few pieces of the seafood left after the boys had their fill. I had the waiter put the leftovers into a styrofoam carton so that we could take them with us.
As we got up to leave I noticed that we needed to go to the restroom to wash their hands and faces because much of the food had been consumed without the aid of utensils. I'm sure that Hildy would have enforced better table manners if she had been there, but fingers were efficient tools for eating most of the seafood.
TJ insisted that we take the lunch leftovers into the hospital for Joel. I thought perhaps Hildy might be in more need of them if she hadn't gotten away to get her own lunch. Joel and Mathew were just finishing their meals when we arrived. Hildy had made sure that they both could eat their lunch one handed since each had one forearm immobilized.
Before TJ assumed his usual position beside Joel, I whispered to him that Hildy might be hungry.
"Here, Hildy, we brought you some fish," he said handing her the carton he was carrying.
"Why thank you, little one," she said giving him a hug.
"Yeah, we went to the Poppa place," Chris said. "We even had oysters, but we ate them all."
"They were good, too," Larry added.
"And the crawfish and crabs were yummy," Lenny said.
"My, it sounds like you had a feast," she said opening the carton that TJ had handed her.
Hildy went to get something to drink and stretch her legs as TJ took his position beside Joel. After greeting their brother, Chris and the twins went to greet Mathew as well. He did not seem to be quite as shy as he was yesterday and greeted them enthusiastically. During the next twenty or so minutes while Hildy was out of the room there was a constant stream of boys traveling back and forth between the beds. Even TJ climbed down and went to visit with Mathew for a minute or two before returning to Joel.
Mathew appeared to be having fun talking to the boys when Hildy returned to the room. I was pleased to see the change in his demeanor. God I love my boys and their unconditional acceptance of others in troubling situations. I got a lump in my throat and tears came to my eyes as I watched them and Mathew.
Hildy saw what I was feeling and gave me a hug and said, "I know. They are amazing."
After about an hour I told the boys it was time to go and let Joel get some rest. That was met with a little resistance, but they too could see that Joel was beginning to get tired. Turning to Hildy I told her that I would be back this evening and would take her home then. Getting a nod from her I ushered the boys out of the room after they had given hugs to both Joel and Mathew.
Since it was one of those miserably hot and humid June afternoons in Houston, I decided that it might be nice to take the boys to a movie. "Toy Story" had just been released and was showing at a theater not too far from the apartment.
The boys loved the movie as much as the popcorn and sodas. All of the kids in the audience cheered Buzz Lightyear and Woody. Some of the younger members of the audience were disturbed by Sid and his room full of "cannibal toys," but TJ just thought they were funny. All in all it was an enjoyable afternoon at the movies.
When we got back to the apartment they all had to tell Becky Sue the whole story of Andy and his birthday party and Buzz and Woody. It was hard to tell if Becky Sue understood any of it with all four of them talking at the same time.
After I saw that the boys had their supper I took off for the hospital to visit Joel and pick up Hildy. Mathew was sleeping when I got there and Hildy was reading softly to Joel. I approached the bed and gave Joel a hug and received one in return.
"How's he doing?" I asked inclining my head toward Mathew.
"He's doing fine. He was so upbeat after the boys were here. I think it did him a world of good. I think he even forgot for the moment about his chemotherapy."
"Have either of his parents been here yet?"
"No," she said bitterly.
"Will you be able to come to the hospital tomorrow? I have to fly to San Antonio to take care of some business and won't be back until around six o'clock."
"Of course, I was planning on it anyway. I'm confident that Becky Sue can handle the boys for a few hours by herself. I'll take a taxi so that you will have the van to bring the boys to visit tomorrow night."
"Thanks, Hildy. I don't know what we would do without you."
"Me neither," Joel added.
"Oh, I was going to tell you. I was talking to Mathew and I asked him if he knew a Frank Rollins. You know, the pastor at my church. He said he did. Reverend Rollins is his uncle. I need to call him and let him know. As compassionate as he is, if he knew his nephew was in the hospital I'm sure that he would be here."
We talked for another half an hour when an overly dressed woman entered the room and looked over toward Mathew's bed.
"That's Mathew's mom," Joel whispered.
Hildy immediately got out of her chair and approached the woman. Putting out her hand to the woman she said, "Hello, I'm Hildy Ramirez, you must be Mathew's mother."
"Yes, I'm Eleanor Rollins."
"I've been anxious to meet you. In fact I have been here all day waiting for you," Hildy said with the steel starting up in her voice again.
"Oh, really? Why?"
"Could we step into the hall? I'd like to talk to you and I don't want to disturb the boys."
Hildy didn't wait for an answer but took Mrs. Rollins by the arm and steered her out the door and closed it behind them. Curiosity got the better of me and I went to the door to see if I could overhear the conversation. It was faint but I was able to discern most of it.
"Why weren't you here when your son needed you? When I heard that you were not going to be here I came and sat with your son as he went through the very frightening experience of his first chemotherapy."
I could almost see Hildy shaking her finger under Mrs. Rollins' nose.
"I had a very important social engagement that I simply had to attend. Someone of my social standing in the community has to make an appearance at these functions," Mrs. Rollins said. You could almost visualize her nose being raised by the tone of her voice.
"Oh, was Celia Berger there?" Hildy asked.
"Why yes she was. We had a very nice conversation."
"We are talking about the Celia Berger who writes the "Celia's Society" column in the Chronicle aren't we?"
"Yes, I'm sure that I will get a mention in her column tomorrow."
"Celia is my niece."
"Oh?" Mrs. Rollins said with just a touch of panic creeping into her voice.
"Yes, she is. You know, I wonder what would happen to your precious social standing if Celia wrote a column telling Houston's social circle of the callous attitude that you display toward your critically ill son?"
"Oh my god, you wouldn't do that. I'd be ruined. Everything that I have worked for to attain my position would be for naught."
"In a heart beat, I would," Hildy said. "Answer me one question. Do you love your son?"
"Well of course, I'm his mother."
"That's not what I asked. I know that you are his mother. I asked if you love him? Really love him?"
There was silence for a moment of two before Mrs. Rollins answered. "Yes... Yes, I do love him. I guess I forgot about him and was only thinking about myself. Oh my god, I've been such a fool. I didn't want to admit that Mathew was sick. It would interfere with my life. As long as I wasn't here with him I could pretend that everything was alright."
"I hope that means that you will concentrate on him from now on. It's going to be a long struggle to get him well. I plan to follow his progress. I've become attached to him in the last couple of days. He is a frightened little boy who needs his mom and dad. By the way, where is his dad?"
"He's in Dallas trying to close a deal."
"He would risk losing a son rather than risk losing a deal?" Hildy asked with as much anger in her voice as I had ever heard. "It sounds like he needs to rearrange his priorities also."
The voices faded as I assumed that they had begun walking away from the door. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall so that I could have heard the rest of the conversation. It sounded like Hildy was going to give her opinion as to what Mr. Rollins priorities should be in no uncertain terms. Unfortunately all I could hear were faint words here and there but could not make out the conversation.
I was barely able to get away from the door as I heard footsteps approaching before Hildy strode into the room. Joel tried unsuccessfully to suppress a giggle behind his hand. Hildy gave me a knowing look as she approached Joel's bed.
We secretly watched as Mrs. Rollins approached Mathew's bed and stood there watching him sleep as if it were the first time that she had seen her son. I saw her dab at her eyes before she leaned over the bed and lightly kissed her son's forehead.
Mathew stirred slightly before his eyelids started fluttering as he began waking up. It took him a few seconds before he was able to focus his eyes. "Hi, mom," he mumbled, his voice still filled with sleep.
"Hi, son," she said brushing the hair off his forehead. "How are you feeling?"
"I'm a little sleepy. Where's Hildy?"
"I'm right here, son," Hildy said as she approached his bed.
"Mom, Hildy held my hand all the time they stuck the needle in my arm. I was scared. She said I did good, didn't you?"
"Yes, you were a very brave boy," Hildy answered.
"I wish you'd been here, mom."
"I wish I had been too, son. I will be from now on," Mrs. Rollins said. Then looking directly at Hildy, "I now realize how much you mean to me. I'm glad that Hildy was here for you when it should have been me."
"I'll see you tomorrow," Hildy said leaning down and giving Mathew a hug before walking over to Joel and doing the same for him.
We left the hospital shortly thereafter.
I was on my way to the airport the following morning by 5:30. My day in San Antonio was filled with signing contracts, meeting with client management and handling personnel matters. The latter was the part I liked least. Foster had recommended that one of our consultants be terminated for cause. He had been discovered to have been drunk on the job. That was a clear violation of his contract so it was my unpleasant job to give him his walking papers.
Still I was able to catch a flight back to Houston by four o'clock. Again the traffic was horrible between Houston Intercontinental and the apartment. I only wished that there were better service between San Antonio and Houston Hobby airport. It would have made the trip much shorter.
Instead of being greeted by four boys when I entered the apartment there were five of them. I received hugs from my four, the other one just stood there watching. He looked to be seven or eight years old.
"Who's this young man?" I asked after the hugging was over.
"That's Jimmy," TJ said. "He swims with us."
"Hello Jimmy, it's nice to meet you," I said.
"Hi," Jimmy said.
"His mother had to go pick up his dad downtown and he didn't want to get out of the pool and go with her so I told her that he could stay with us until she got back," Becky Sue explained. "I hope that's alright."
"Of course it is. I'm glad that they are making some friends while we're here. When are his parents supposed to be back?"
"Mrs. Samuels said it would take her about an hour to pick up her husband, so it should be another fifteen or twenty minutes. Supper should be ready about that time. If they are not back by that time there is enough for him also. We're just having meatloaf and macaroni and cheese so it is nothing fancy."
When it came time for supper, Jimmy's parents had not arrived so he joined us in our meal. We all had just begun eating when the doorbell rang. It was Jimmy's mom. I told her that we had just begun to eat and that he might as well finish and then we would bring him home. After checking that Jimmy was alright, she consented which was greeted with approval from all five of the boys.
We took Jimmy home after we had eaten and before we readied ourselves to go to the hospital. I was a little surprised when we got there that Mrs. Rollins and a man whom I assumed to be Mathew's father were by his bedside.
Hildy and Joel both got their share of hugs and kisses from the boys and me when we arrived. When the commotion had subsided, the boys looked over at Mathew's bed but didn't rush to greet him. I guess that they were intimidated by his parents being there. I chatted briefly with Hildy and Joel finding out how the day had gone and making sure that there had been no problems.
I could tell that the boys wanted to go say hi to Mathew so I walked over to his bed. "Hello, Mrs. Rollins, it's good to see you again." Turning to the man I said, "You must be Mr. Rollins. I'm Crane Johnson, Joel's dad."
"I'm happy to meet you, Mr. Johnson. Please call me Matt," he said.
"These are my other sons, Chris, Larry, Lenny and the one in Joel's bed is TJ," I said pointing out each of my sons.
Each one shook Matt's hand before going quickly to Mathew's bedside and giving him a hug.
"Are they always so friendly with strangers?" Matt said as he watched the boys greet Mathew.
"They are not exactly strangers. They met him the day he was admitted and quickly became friends. My sons are very outgoing and make friends easily. Hugging a friend is the most natural thing in the world for them."
"May we talk... privately?" he said.
"Sure, let's go out into the hall. We can talk there."
I told the boys I'd be back in a little while and then followed Matt into the hall.
"That Hildy lady is something else," he said. "My wife called me last night after she got home and ordered me to get here as soon as possible. She said that Hildy had talked to her like no one had ever talked to her since she was a little girl and made her feel like a spoiled brat. I guess we both deserved that. Both of us have been so wrapped up in our own lives that Mathew sort of got pushed into the background and... and I'm ashamed of that."
"Yes, Hildy is something. She is the rudder that keeps the boys and me on track. I don't know what we would do if she weren't around. She's like a mother to me and a grandmother to my sons."
"You are truly fortunate to have her as part of your family. By the way, I have called my brother. I understand that he is the pastor of Hildy's church. He also gave me a tongue lashing for not letting him know about Mathew's condition. He said that he would be here first thing in the morning. He would have been here sooner, but he had a wedding and a funeral today."
"I have met your brother. He preached at the funeral for my sons' mother. I was impressed with him."
I saw that my comment about my sons' mother confused him. I was tempted to leave him hanging but then thought better of it.
"My sons are all adopted. It's a long story but four of them are biological brothers and the other one, Chris, is their brother by adoption."
"Oh," he said nodding his head.
A few minutes later we returned to the room. The room was a little crowded with four adults and four boys alternating between beds. It was also a little noisy, but it was a happy noise.
Later when we returned to the apartment and the boys gave Hildy her good night hug and ran into the apartment, I walked her to her apartment. "Hildy, you are amazing. What you did for Mathew and his parents was unbelievable. The change in them is nothing less than remarkable. I don't know how you do it, but how ever you do it, don't stop," I said giving her a hug and a kiss on her cheek.
When I got back to our apartment, the boys had already started getting their evening snack ready. Becky Sue had left a note saying she had baked some oatmeal raisin cookies. The boys had set out the glasses for their milk and Chris was filling a plate with the cookies from the cookie jar.
After I got the boys settled into bed, I sat down with the video tape that Collin had sent me with the confession of Benny's old foster parents. I needed to decide what I was going to do with it and the best way to proceed. I had been putting this off for a couple of weeks and needed to take care of it before we returned to Canyon Lake. More than anything I wanted to see that Betty Venisti was dismissed from CPS and hopefully prosecuted on some charge. I would also like to see her scumbag husband disgraced, but that was of secondary concern.
As I was mulling over my options the phone rang. It was Hildy. She apologized that she had forgotten to tell me that Dr. Kerner said he was going to give Joel what may be his last chemotherapy treatment at nine tomorrow. That sort of took care of what I would be doing tomorrow so I put the video tape aside and prepared myself for bed.