I rushed off to the hospital the next morning so that I would be there when Joel received his last chemotherapy treatment. There were a lot of questions that I had for Dr. Kerner about the treatment Joel would need after he left the hospital.
It was just past 8:30 when I arrived at Joel's room. Joel and Mathew were just finishing their breakfasts. I was a bit surprised that Mrs. Rollins was there already. She was wiping what looked like oatmeal from Mathew's face with a napkin. I greeted Joel with a morning hug and asked him how he was feeling and how he slept.
"My mouth is kinda sore, specially when I brush my teeth," Joel said.
"We'll ask Dr. Kerner if he can give you something for that. You remember he told you that this could happen don't you?"
"Yeah, but it keeps getting worse."
I talked to Joel for a few more minutes and then turned to the other bed and greeted Mathew and his mother.
"Good morning, Mrs. Rollins. It's good to see you here."
"Thank you, Mr. Johnson," she said sheepishly.
"And Mathew, how are you this morning?" I asked.
"Fine... Is Hildy gonna come?"
"I think she will be here this evening when I bring the boys," I said. Mrs. Rollins looked surprised at her son's question, but then recovered.
"Your Hildy has certainly made an impression on Mathew," she said.
"She makes quite an impression on everyone, most of all me and my sons."
"Good morning, Joel," Dr. Kerner said as he walked into the room followed by his nurse.
"Hi, Dr. Kerner," Joel replied.
"Are you ready for your last treatment while you're in the hospital?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"Okay, then. You have had these medicines before so there shouldn't be any problems. You will get an IV and have to swallow some of these big pills you call 'horse pills'," he chuckled.
"My mouth is really sore today," Joel said timidly.
"Oh, let me take a look," he said removing Joel's surgical mask and then retrieved a pen light from his smock pocket. "Mmmm. Yes, your gums and the roof of your mouth are definitely irritated. How long has this been bothering you?"
"About a week, I guess. It wasn't bad at first."
"After we get your IV started and you take the pills, I'll get some mouthwash that will help with the pain."
Before starting Joel's medications, Kerner did his usual examination of him. "The lymph nodes are slightly swollen, but that is to be expected at this stage. Everything else seems to be fine."
Dr. Kerner gave Joel his 'horse pills' and started the IV. He then scribbled a prescription on a pad and gave it to the nurse and asked her to get it from the pharmacy. Mathew was next to receive his attention.
Before he was finished examining Mathew the nurse had returned with a bottle containing a red liquid. When Kerner was finished he returned to Joel and explained to him how to use the mouthwash.
"This is an antiseptic as well as a pain killer. We don't want your gums to become infected. You pour a small amount, about an inch, in one of these small cups and then swish it around in your mouth for about twenty or thirty seconds. Don't swallow it. It could upset your stomach. Then spit it back out into the cup. You can do this whenever your mouth starts to hurt, but try not to do it too often. One of the side effects of it is that you won't be able to taste too much for a while after you use it. It might make your tongue feel numb also."
After he finished with Joel, I started asking all the questions that I had about the follow on treatment after we took him home and when that would be.
"I will give you a schedule for Joel's treatment. Dr. Greene should be able to administer it without any problem. If the blood tests and the spinal tap that we will do on Monday don't show anything unexpected, Joel should be able to leave the hospital on Wednesday."
On hearing that, Joel's eyes brightened and I could tell he was smiling under his surgical mask.
I read to Joel most of the rest of the morning from a book that I had gotten from the hospital lending library since we had read all of the books that I had brought from home.
About an hour after I started reading Reverend Rollins walked into the room. He glanced around the room before spotting Mathew and his sister-in-law and then went directly to Mathew's bed. I don't think that he recognized either Joel or me.
"Uncle Frank!" Mathew said excitedly.
"How's my favorite nephew?" he asked as he gave Mathew a bear hug.
"You say that every time. I'm your only nephew," Mathew giggled.
"Yeah, but you're still my favorite."
Mrs. Rollins was sitting there all the time while the two bantered back and forth. Finally Frank turned to her and greeted her coolly.
Turning back to Mathew he said, "How about we get you out of that bed and go for a walk? You don't have to stay in that bed all of the time do you?"
"No," Mathew said not waiting for an okay from his mother. "Do you know Hildy is here?"
"Yes, I talked to her on the phone. I'm glad that she was here for you," he said giving Mrs. Rollins a critical look.
After Mathew put on his robe and slippers, he took his uncle's hand and they walked out the door followed by his mother.
I went back to reading to Joel for about another hour before they returned to the room. I had never seen Mathew as animated and happy as he was when they returned. As Frank helped him back into bed I could tell that he was getting tired. The chemo really sapped his strength.
When the lunch trays arrived, Frank said, "I have to meet a fellow pastor for lunch. I will be back to see you in a couple of hours. You be good while I'm gone."
"I'm always good, Uncle Frank. You know that," he laughed and gave his uncle a hug.
"Dr. Kerner was right. I can hardly taste anything," Joel said as he ate his lunch.
"That's too bad. Does your mouth hurt?" I asked.
"No, it just feels funny."
I read a little more after lunch but the medicine tended to make Joel sleepy so he napped about half of the time. While he was asleep, I tried to go over my options on how to handle the video tape I had received from Collin. Since I was not as familiar with the Houston establishment I decided to call Collin and ask him if he had any suggestions on the best way to maximize the impact of the tape.
I stepped out of the room for a quick trip to the cafeteria to grab a sandwich. The place was nearly deserted when I got there so I chose a table in the corner and used my cell phone to make the call and to give me a little more privacy.
"Crane, how much do you want to be involved in all of this mess?" Collin asked after we exchanged greetings and I told him what I wanted.
"Well, I really don't have any desire to have my name associated with it, but I don't know how I can avoid it," I answered.
"I think that I can offer you the opportunity to accomplish your goal without you being associated with Betty Venisti's downfall. I'm not sure that the tape will have any impact on her husband. It might embarrass him but he is so entrenched in the political machine that he will probably be able to survive the embarrassment."
"That would be great if you could keep me out of it. How are you going to do that though?"
"Over the years I have cultivated relationships with several of the investigative reporters at the major TV stations in the area as well as a couple of the columnists for the local papers. I'm sure that if I provide them copies of the tape as a confidential source they could do the rest. I know one columnist who is very critical of the local CPS office here in Houston and would probably jump at the chance to dig up some more dirt on them."
"Would Benny's identity be protected?"
"Oh, absolutely, that would be one of the conditions that I would demand before I would release the tape to my contacts."
"Have you verified everything on the tape that the Bensons said?"
"Yes we have. We even have a photocopy of the check that they gave to Venisti's campaign. We also have a copy of Benny's case file at CPS."
"How in the world did you get those?"
"Don't ask," Collin said suppressing a chuckle. "I'd have to kill you if I told you."
"Okay, okay, I get it," I said.
"There won't be any charge for doing this. The only payment I want out of this is the satisfaction that one more corrupt caseworker is exposed. I hope it rubs off on her supervisor and he gets his. If he had been doing his job instead of just drawing a salary this would never have happened. Our agency has investigated too many cases of CPS incompetence or corruption. Many times nothing resulted from it being exposed. They just swept it under the rug and went about their business as usual. This time I intend to make it my mission to keep up the heat until something is done."
"Bless you Collin. If you ever need any help or support from me, don't hesitate to ask."
"Thanks, it's been good doing business with you. Let me know if you need any more detective work," he said.
Shortly after we finished our conversation and I had returned to the room, Joel woke up.
"I'm hungry," he said.
"What would you like, son?"
"I'll go get you some frozen yogurt. What kind would you like?"
Turning toward the other bed I said, "Mathew, would you like some frozen yogurt too?"
He looked at his mother for her okay before nodding his head.
"What flavor do you want?"
"Can I have the same as you brought me before?"
"Some of each coming up," I said as I took off for the snack bar. I notice that his mother had a quizzical look on her face.
Frank Rollins had returned by the time I returned to the room. The frozen treats were well received by both of the boys. I resisted the temptation of having some myself. My sedentary life the past month had not done anything good for my waistline.
It wasn't long after Joel had finished his snack that Dr. Kerner returned and removed the IV which was almost empty. He then removed the catheter that had been in Joel's arm for nearly a month, telling Joel to apply pressure on a ball of cotton that he placed over the puncture site. He also removed the splint that kept Joel's arm from twisting.
"Oh, I'm glad to get that off," Joel said. "Sometimes I would forget and bang myself in the head with it."
After a couple of minutes, Kerner checked to see if the puncture was bleeding. When he found that it was not, he put a fresh cotton ball on it and covered it with an adhesive plaster.
"Now try not to exert that arm too much for the next couple of hours. I don't want it to start bleeding. If it does, ring for a nurse and she will take care of it."
I stayed with Joel until nearly five o'clock before giving him a goodbye hug and telling him I would be back with his brothers after supper. I also waved goodbye to Mathew.
"Hi, dad" TJ said jumping up into my outstretched arms as I entered the front door. "I missed you."
"I always miss you, son," I said giving him a kiss on the cheek and receiving one in return. "Have you been a good boy while I was gone?"
"Yeah," he giggled as the other boys gathered around to receive their hugs.
"What have you guys been doing all day?"
"We went swimming this morning," Chris said. "I'm learning to hold my breath a real long time."
"Becky Sue took us to the park so that we could play," Lenny volunteered.
"She's teaching us to play checkers, too," TJ added. "I got a king, didn't I?"
"That sounds like fun," I said putting TJ down. "Do you want to go see Joel after supper?" I knew that was a dumb question but I was nearly knocked over by the response.
Becky Sue elected to stay at home and work on her research while the rest of us took off for the hospital after eating another of Hildy's delicious suppers. I saw Hildy put something in her large purse before we left.
Joel's room was crowded when the six of us arrived. With Mathew's three visitors there were nine of us not counting the two patients. I hoped that nasty Nurse Grantham didn't come by. She would probably have a fit. Joel was sitting in a chair beside his bed.
"How come you're not in bed?" TJ asked as he squeezed in beside his brother.
"My back got tired and the nurse said I could sit up a while," Joel said giving TJ a hug.
With Joel in the chair it made it easier for the other boys to greet their brother. At least they didn't have to climb up on the bottom rung of the side rails to reach him.
"Hi, Hildy," Mathew almost shouted when he saw her.
"Hello there Mathew, I'll come see you in a minute," she said waving at him.
After we all had talked to Joel for a while, Hildy went to visit with the Rollins family. She first gave Mathew a hug and talked quietly to him for a moment before turning to her pastor and greeted him with a hug. "Reverend Rollins, it is so good to see you. I have missed your inspirational sermons. The pastor at the church where I have been going is well meaning but he is an awfully dull speaker."
"Thank you," he said with a smile. "Unfortunately the clergy is cursed in a large part with well meaning but dreary speakers. It is even more unfortunate that some only preach fear and hate for those who disagree with them. They seem to forget the "Judge not" teaching of our Lord."
While Hildy was talking to the Rollins, Larry whispered to me, "Can we go see Mathew?"
"Sure, just do it quietly. Don't interrupt the adults."
With that TJ slid out of Joel's chair and followed in single file behind his brothers over to Mathew's bed.
"Although I didn't recognize Joel when I came in this morning, I do remember these twins and the youngest. He's TJ, isn't he?" Reverend Rollins asked Hildy. "I don't think I've met this other boy though."
"Yes, that is TJ and the twins are Larry and Lenny. Chris is the one you haven't met. He became part of the family some time after the funeral," Hildy said.
The boys didn't stay long at Mathew's bedside but they did get a little exuberant despite my admonition. They spent most of the time with Joel and enjoying each other's company. Joel began to tire after a while so I helped him back up into his bed. TJ didn't need any help to join his brother.
Reverend Rollins left first saying that he had to get back to Canyon Lake because he had a wedding to perform tomorrow. We left after it was apparent that Joel was very tired and needed to sleep. The boys made their usual goodbyes to both Joel and to Mathew before we left.
I saw Hildy take a couple plastic bags out of her purse before we left and handed one to Mathew and to Joel along with a kiss to each of their foreheads.
"Is Joel gonna get to come home?" Chris asked as we were on our way to the parking lot.
"If everything goes right, Joel will get to come home on Wednesday. If that happens we will go home on Thursday. That's not too long from now," I said to all of them.
That was reason enough for a round of high fives among the four boys.
The days until Monday seemed to drag on forever, but if finally came. I got to the hospital early hoping that Dr. Kerner would come and take his tests. All of the tests that had been run on Joel up to this point had been encouraging and I had no reason to be apprehensive, but I was. I knew we wouldn't get the results back today so I don't know why I was worrying.
Joel seemed to be in good spirits when I arrived. His bright attitude soon had me feeling more upbeat as well. It wasn't long before Dr. Kerner and Nurse Sharon came in to take the samples. Although Joel had a blood sample taken every week, he only had a spinal fluid sample taken once since the initial one on being admitted to the hospital.
He knew what to do when Kerner told him what he wanted and curled up in a ball so the needle could be inserted into the base of the spine. I stood at the head of the bed and rubbed Joel's shoulder until it was over. There was just a hint of a tear in the corner of his eye when Kerner finished the procedure.
I leaned over and kissed Joel's forehead, "We'll be going home soon, son."
"I hope so, dad. I miss John and I miss Tony."
"Why don't you call John and then call Tony. I'll bet they would like to hear from you. I know John misses you."
"I'll go get a cup of coffee so you can call your friends in private."
I walked to the cafeteria for my cup of coffee. The cinnamon rolls were calling to me as I passed them in the line but I successfully resisted their siren call. I took my cup of coffee to a table and was about to sit down when my cell phone rang.
"Crane, this is Collin Cupp. I just thought I would give you a heads up. You might be interested in watching the ten o'clock news tonight on Channel 2. You might also want to pick up a copy of the morning paper tomorrow."
"I hope this is what I think it is."
"You won't be disappointed, I can assure you. Take care, my friend. Goodbye."
I finished my coffee with a light heart but my sense of anticipation was that of a child the night before Christmas. When I got back to Joel's room he was wrapping up his call to Tony.
"Tony said that he gets to see his brother a couple of times a week and talks to him on the phone every day. How come they can't live together, dad?"
"Joel, that is a little difficult to explain so that you can understand it. However, the simplest explanation that dad can give you is that Tony's dad doesn't make enough money."
"Oh... that's too bad," Joel said.
I stayed with Joel until he had his lunch and then left telling him I would be back this evening with his brothers. I was planning to spend some time with them. Although they realized that Joel needed extra attention they also felt neglected because I didn't spend very much time with them.
It was nice just spending some lazy time with the boys. We swam for a while and then I read to them. They had their snack. I had an apple. We simply enjoyed each other's company all afternoon. I cherished these times with them and thanked the day that Joel came into my life that made it all possible.
Our visit to the hospital to see Joel went without incident. Mathew got his share of attention from the boys. I was glad to see that both Mr. and Mrs. Rollins were there. Of course Hildy got an enthusiastic welcome from Mathew. I knew that he would miss her when we all went back home and I felt sorry for him. I also knew that Hildy would keep tabs on him to make sure that his parents didn't revert to their previous behavior.
When we got back to the apartment I told Hildy what Collin had said about watching the news and invited her to stay and watch it with me if she wanted. She accepted my invitation.
The boys had their snack then went to take their showers and prepare for bed. They had the added treat of having Hildy tuck them in as well as me. TJ gave her an extra big hug and kiss when it was his turn to be tucked in.
There was about half an hour before the news was scheduled to come on so I filled Hildy in on what Collin Cupp had told me. When I had finished she sat there for a minute thinking.
"Crane, I think I need to call my niece," Hildy said getting up to go make the call. She used the one in the kitchen so I didn't hear the conversation.
The story was not the first one on the news program, it was the third. The news reader introduced the investigative reporter and headlined the story.
NEWS READER: "We now turn to another shocking story of Child Protective Services failing in their job to protect our most vulnerable citizens. Here is KXXX-TV investigative reporter David Campo with more on the story."
The screen shifts to the reporter superimposed on the video of the Bensons apparently detailing the scheme to someone off camera.
DAVID CAMPO: "This reporter has been given a taped confession of two individuals who allege that they made a $5000 contribution to Richard Venisti's campaign so that his wife, Betty Venisti, a case worker with CPS, would give them a foster child to use in a fraudulent attempt to scam money from sympathetic individuals. I have been provided with evidence that the contribution was made and accepted by the campaign. (Screen changes to show an image of the cancelled check.) I also have a copy of the case file of the child involved showing gross irregularities in not only record keeping but also showing clear violations of standard policies of CPS. When this reporter attempted to interview Mrs. Venisti, I was rebuffed at every turn. (Screen changes to show the reporter following Mrs. Venisti down the street with a microphone and then back to a full face shot of Campo.) Attempts to get a statement from her supervisor were unsuccessful. Over the next few days I will have more reports on this new scandal in the already scandal ridden CPS. I will also be reporting on the alleged involvement of the politically powerful Richard Venisti in this matter.
"This is David Campo reporting. Now back to you in the studio."
I switched off the TV and turned to Hildy, "Collin doesn't think that anything will happen to Richard Venisti because of his political clout and social standing in the community. It's not a crime to accept a political contribution and as long as he or his political campaign were not directly involved in any quid pro quo there is probably nothing that can harm him personally."
"There might be other ways," Hildy said as the phone rang. "That's probably for me. I asked Celia to call me after she saw the news."
Hildy went into the kitchen again to answer the phone so I was unable to hear the conversation. When she came back into the living room she had a broad smile on her face.
"You look like the cat that swallowed the canary," I said. "Tell me what's up."
"Well, Celia wants to help 'throw the scoundrels out' as she put it. It seems that the Venistis are social climbers of the first order. They have been sucking up to the cream of Houston society for a long time in order to further his political career. These people have been a source of campaign contributions for him. Now, Celia believes that with a few calls to her contacts among the social leaders that the money may start to dry up. If there is one thing that these people don't want, it's bad publicity. Being associated with public corruption is not in their best interest.
"Celia also said that her Thursday column will be devoted to the story. If Houston society is anything like that in San Antonio, they will begin avoiding the Venistis like the plague. If that's the case his campaign funds will dry up"
"We can only hope," I said. "I just wish they had said whether Betty Venisti had been fired. If not she is still free to wreak more havoc on the system. I guess we will just have to wait to see what the paper says in the morning."
Hildy left and I went and got ready for bed not completely satisfied with the outcome.
The coffee was ready and Hildy was beginning to prepare breakfast when I exited the bedroom the next morning. I poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table. The newspaper was laid out on the table open to the 'Bayou City Beat' column. The guy writing under the name of Steve Larue was a real muckraker. He provided much more information that the guy on TV last night. He wrote that Betty Venisti had been suspended from her job and a termination hearing was scheduled the following week. He also interviewed several of her co-workers who said that the only reason she kept her job was because of her husband's political influence. They said she was lazy and although she had a fair amount of cases to handle that she rarely made the required home visits for the children placed in foster care as specified by CPS regulations. It was well known in the office that she routinely falsified her reports and that the supervisor knew about it but was too afraid of her husband to do anything about it.
"This guy is good," I said to Hildy.
"I thought you would enjoy his column. I know I did. I just wonder what the status is of the kids she was supposed to be supervising."
"I should call Cindi Sessions to see if she has any more information. I would like to find out what she knows about Bran and his long term status and also Benny of course." I said.
I left for the hospital after finishing my coffee. Joel was sitting up in bed when I got there having just finished his breakfast. We talked until Dr. Kerner came in with the test results.
"All of the results so far are very good. We are still waiting for one more result before we can discharge Joel," he said looking at me. "That result should be available either late today or first thing in the morning. Either way if it turns out as I expect it to, Joel will be discharged at noon tomorrow."
"Yes!" Joel said.