Joel's test was fine when we got the results on Tuesday, so Dr. Kerner said that he would be released Wednesday morning. I was sure that his brothers would be anxious for him to be back with them all the time. My next problem was to figure out the logistics of getting everything back to Canyon Lake. I didn't want to drive the van back because I thought that Joel would be worn out from the three to three and a half hours it would take to drive. I also had the BMW at the airport in San Antonio. It wouldn't hold us all so I needed someone to drive it back to the house.
I called the private air service to reserve a jet to take us back to San Antonio on Thursday. After I had made all of the arrangements for the plane, I called the limousine service to have them pick us up and take us to Hobby at one o'clock.
Having made all the travel arrangements, I began making calls to let everyone know that we would be leaving for home in a couple of days. The first call was to Eric's parents to see how they were getting along with Bran and Benny.
"It's so good to have kids around again," Alan beamed after we had exchanged greetings. "Ethel is in heaven. She dotes on those boys. Benny is really coming around. He is so happy. The only time he's sad is when he and Tony get separated after a visit. But that doesn't last too long. He and Bran are becoming really great friends. I think Bran has adopted him as his little brother. And speaking of Bran, he has really cleaned up his language since he has been here. He still slips now and then, but Ethel just gives him a disappointed look and he apologizes."
"That's great," I said. "What's Bran's status? Is there any chance that he will be returned to his dad?"
"I don't know if I told you that Cindi Sessions has taken over Bran's case as well as Benny's. It's unlikely Bran's dad will ever get custody of him. He has indicated that he has no desire to have Bran come back to live with him. Bran doesn't want to return I know. He's told me that in no uncertain terms. We're willing to keep him as long as he wants to stay with us."
"What about Bran's mother? I never did hear anything about her."
"She's dead. Bran said that she had cancer and passed away about a year and a half ago. That's one of the few times he gets upset is when he talks about his mother," Alan said.
"I am well aware of how it is to lose your mother. How is Ethel handling the boys and dealing with Darcie's up coming wedding? I would have thought that it would be a mad house with the wedding less than two weeks away," I said. "I suppose that you will be going up there to help soon."
"In fact," Alan said, "we are heading up there this weekend. We're going to stay at Eric's place. I know it's going to be a tight squeeze with just his three bedrooms, but I plan to put in a couple of sleeping bags and the boys can make it a campout."
"I'm sure that they'll enjoy that. The boys will have to come over and visit my sons while they're there. I have plenty of room and I know that my boys would love to have them come and spend a night or two. Hey look, I have a proposition for you if you are interested. I have to get the van back home, but we are going to fly back because I don't want Joel to get worn out. If you would be willing to drive the van to Eric's house, I will loan you either the Land Rover or the BMW to use while you are there. I don't want you to feel obligated..."
"That sounds like a great idea. My little Toyota Corolla would have been overloaded with all the stuff we were going to try to take. The minivan is in the shop with a broken axle. When are you leaving?"
"We're flying out around two o'clock on Thursday."
"We weren't planning on leaving until Friday... but Ethel has been hinting that she would like to go earlier. Hold on, let me ask her if Thursday would be better."
I could hear an animated conversation going on in the background, but couldn't hear what they were saying.
"Crane, Ethel is packing already. She would leave today if we had everything ready. She has the final fitting on her dress for the wedding this afternoon and it should be ready to pick up tomorrow around noon. That means that Thursday would be a great day to leave. I was not looking forward to her driving one of the cars back here. We are bringing Darcie's car back so that the newly weds will have a car when they return from their honeymoon. They are going to spend the July 4th holiday in Houston and then drive back later in the week. Ethel's eyesight is not what it should be. She is going to have cataract surgery on her right eye at the end of September so this will work out really well."
"We have a lot of stuff to pack in the back of the van, but with the roof rack and carrier I think we will have room for everything," I said. "If we can't get it all in I'll have the courier service take some of it. That's what we did when we moved to the apartment. We'll take as much as we can on the plane."
We talked for a few more minutes working out the details of getting the van to them on Wednesday evening before we hung up.
I then called Karen Boise. I wanted to talk to her about whether they still wanted to adopt Tony.
"Karen," I asked after we had exchanged greetings, "are you and Bill still of a mind to adopt Tony?"
"We would give anything to," she said with a noticeable catch in her voice. "I talked to our new caseworker, Alan Carson, yesterday. Mrs. Venisti is no longer Tony's caseworker. He couldn't give us any hope that it would be possible to adopt. Bill works hard but his income just isn't enough for us to qualify for the criteria they set. Even with the stipend that the state provides we still don't qualify."
"I just wanted to check to see if you were still interested. Since you are, I will contact the foundation I told you about and they will get in touch with you probably the middle of July to see if there is anything that they can help you with to make adoption possible."
"That would be wonderful. I just wish there were some way we could reunite both Tony and Benny, but I suppose that is asking too much," she said.
"Well when Darcie Glenn calls you to talk about Tony, you can mention it to her and she will see if there is anything she can do."
"You seem to know a lot about this foundation. What's its name?"
"The ASEC Foundation, they specialize in helping people adopt kids that would normally not be good candidates for adoption. They also provide financial support if the adopting family needs assistance. It is fairly new. I have passed on to them a lot of information about you, Bill and of course Tony. I really think that they can help you. Good luck, I'm sure that Tony will be hearing from Joel. He, as well as the rest of the family, would love for you to come and visit us some time.
"By the way, how is Tony?"
"He's doing just fine. He is gaining strength every day. I told him this morning that I thought that I could see a little fuzz coming back on his head. We still have to be careful about any infection, but life is returning to normal... almost. He has to go for another treatment tomorrow, but the doctor said that it shouldn't have too big an effect on him. I hope he is right."
"Fantastic, I hope that Joel does as well. Tell Tony that the boys ask about him all the time."
After I finished talking to Karen I decided to call Cindi Sessions to see what she could tell me. She was most informative, filling me in on all the gossip concerning Betty Venisti. It seems that her filing false reports on the children she was supposed to be supervising were actually violations of state law. She said it was something akin to perjury for filling out state forms falsely. She said the penalty for each infraction is 2 to 5 years in prison. So far they have uncovered at least a dozen instances of false reports being filed by her.
Cindi also said that there were two more cases where Betty approved children to be placed in foster homes when the families had not gone through normal procedures or training. It seems that these placements were made close in time to donations made to Richard Venisti's campaign by the foster parents involved. She said that one of the assistant district attorneys had interviewed everyone in the office and had asked some very pointed questions about the office manager as well as Betty.
I thanked Cindi for the information and told her I would like to meet her at Darcie's wedding since we had only talked on the phone.
There was only one more call to make and that was to the limousine service in San Antonio to arrange for them to pick us up at the airport and drive us home.
As I finished my calls, the boys burst in the front door fresh from their swimming lesson and looking for their afternoon snack. I knew that Hildy had baked some brownies because I could smell them while I was on the phone.
"Hey guys, why don't we take some of the brownies and go to the hospital? I'm sure that Joel and Mathew would like some," I said.
They looked a little disappointed that they would have to delay their snack for a while but the idea of seeing their brother overcame their disappointment. Their feet nearly set the carpet afire as they ran to the showers so that they could change and go see Joel.
To keep the drool off the carpets of the van, Hildy let the other boys have a brownie before we got to the hospital. Needless to say the brownies were a big hit with Joel and Mathew as well as the other boys. Since you can't eat brownies without milk we had to visit the snack bar to stock up. Hildy made sure that there were enough for the two patients to have a couple of brownies after we left the hospital.
When we got back to the apartment I told everyone to sort out the things that they would need between now and Thursday when we were to leave for home. The things we didn't need we would begin to pack in the boxes we had saved from our move a month ago. Hildy and I helped them figure out what clothes to keep out. When we finished our inventory it seemed like we were leaving with an awful lot more than what we brought. Looking over the stuff that we would have to put in the van, I decided that by the time we got it loaded there would be no room for any passengers. I called the same courier service we had used to bring part of our things to Houston and arranged for them to come and pack what we couldn't get in the saved boxes and pick up everything Wednesday afternoon
It was supper time before we got everything sorted out that we needed to box up for the courier.
"Dad, is Joel really gonna get to come home tomorrow?" TJ asked as he hugged my waist and looked up into my eyes.
"Yes son, he really is going to come home. Do you want to go to the hospital to bring him home in the morning?"
"Yes!" was the immediate response from all four of the boys.
"Okay then," I said. "We need to set out some clothes for Joel to wear. I don't think he wants to ride home in his pajamas. Right after supper we'll pick something out for him. Now get washed up, I think Hildy has supper ready."
You would have thought that we were picking out an outfit for a coronation when we went to set out Joel's clothes. Each one had their own idea as to what he would like to wear. We did finally decide but it was definitely a compromise.
It had been a while since any of the boys had climbed in bed with me, but around 1:30 in the morning I was awakened by my bedroom door being opened. I then heard the patter of bare feet on the hardwood floor as they approached the bed. I could tell it was TJ as he slipped under the covers and snuggled up against my back.
"What's the matter little one?" I asked as I turned over and wrapped my arms around him.
"I don't know. I couldn't sleep."
"Are you worried about Joel?"
"I know you miss him, son."
"Is he gonna get well and everthing?"
"Yes, but he is going to be weak and won't be able to do a lot of the things he used to do, at least not for a while."
"Can I sleep with you tonight?" he asked timidly.
"Of course you may," I said and kissed his forehead. "Now go to sleep."
It wasn't long before I could tell from his regular breathing that he was asleep. I wasn't quite as fortunate. I kept going over my lists of things to do before we took off for home. It's the curse of a list maker.
TJ was not in my bed when I woke up. That surprised me a little. I went to check on his and Chris' room and he wasn't there either. Now I was really starting to get worried. I slipped on a pair of shorts and started toward the kitchen to see if Hildy had seen him. I was relieved to see that he was sitting on her lap talking very seriously to her. I couldn't hear what he was saying from my position just outside the kitchen, but I did see Hildy give him a big squeeze and a kiss on the cheek before he hopped down and started back towards me.
"Hi dad," he said and jumped up into my arms.
"Good morning, son. You got up awfully early."
"I wanted to go get Joel."
"It will be about three hours before Joel can come home. Dr. Kerner has to examine him one more time and he won't be there until after nine o'clock. Why don't you go wash up and get dressed, I'm sure that Hildy will have breakfast ready by that time."
"Okay," he said wiggling out of my arms and running into his bedroom.
I thought I was going to have to tie the boys down before we left for the hospital they were so excited. I finally relented and we left to pick up Joel around 8:30. TJ insisted on carrying the clothes that had been picked out for Joel. Naturally Dr. Kerner had not been in to examine him yet when we arrived, but the boys didn't care. They were just glad to see their brother.
"I got your clothes," TJ hollered as we entered Joel's room.
"Hi TJ, thanks," Joel answered. "Hi guys. You're early."
"They would have been here at seven if they could have talked your dad into it," Hildy chuckled. "Are you ready to go home?"
"Yes. Just being in this room all the time really gets boring. I want to see Samson again. I hope he remembers me," Joel said sadly.
"Oh, I'm sure he will. We should be home around four o'clock tomorrow," I said. "I'll call Eric and see if he will bring Samson over after he gets home."
Mrs. Rollins had not arrived yet so Hildy went to talk to Mathew. She gave him a big hug and received a kiss on the cheek. They talked quietly for several minutes before Mrs. Rollins came in shortly after nine.
The boys alternated between Joel and Mathew until Dr. Kerner came in to examine Joel about ten minutes after ten. That caused the boys to all crowd around the bed to see what Kerner did. He was very good about the boys watching as he explained to them everything that he was doing and whether it was good or bad.
"Well Joel, it looks like you are fit to go home," he said when he finished.
"Yeah! Yeah!" the boys chorused.
"Now, I don't want you to over do it. I want you to try walking around the house several times a day. Always have someone with you so that you don't fall. Get out in the sun a little. Don't stay out too long. I don't want you to get sunburned. You will have to go see Dr. Greene a couple times a month for treatments, but they won't be too bad," Kerner said patting Joel on the shoulder. "I'll send a nurse to accompany you to the front door."
"If you guys will help Joel get dressed, dad will go sign all the papers so Joel can leave the hospital. I'll be back in a little while. Stay here until I get back," I told them.
It took me about twenty minutes to get all the paperwork signed, the bills paid and back to the room. Joel was dressed and sitting in the wheelchair ready to go. TJ was sitting with Joel, Larry and Lenny each had one of the handles on the wheelchair and Chris was carrying a bag with all of Joel's hospital clothes.
As soon as they saw me the entourage started for the elevator. It was an impatient group that waited for the elevator to arrive. Thankfully it was empty so all of us could get in. When we got to the lobby near the front door of the hospital, I told everyone to wait and I would drive the van up to the front door. Chris decided to go with me and put Joel's clothes in the van.
It didn't take long before we were driving up to the hospital door. As I stepped out of the van, I saw Rodney talking to Joel who was all smiles.
"You take care of yourself, you hear?" Rodney said to Joel. "I'm going to miss you my little friend."
"I'll miss you too, Rodney," Joel replied as he shook Rodney's hand. "Goodbye."
Larry and Lenny wheeled the chair out to the curb where the van was parked and to my surprise reached down and set the locks on the wheels so it wouldn't move. I opened the sliding door of the van and after Joel stood up I put my arm around him and half lifted him up the step into the van. TJ crowded in around us and sat himself in the seat next to Joel even before I had Joel's seatbelt fastened.
By the time we got back to the apartment, Joel was getting tired so I suggested to him that he lie down on the couch and rest until lunch time. I steadied him as he walked to the couch with a lot of help from TJ on the other side. Hildy came out of the kitchen with a tray with glasses of orange juice for all of the boys.
"Now don't spill any," she warned. It was not her custom to allow the boys to eat or drink anything in the living room, but today she made an exception.
"Thanks, Hildy, I missed having you look after me," Joel said as he got his glass.
"You're welcome, son. It's so good to have you home again," she said turning and rushing back to the kitchen dabbing at her eyes with her apron.
Joel finished his orange juice and then stretched out on the couch. TJ snuggled up beside him. "I'm so glad you're home. I missed you so much. I don't ever want you to leave me again," TJ sobbed.
Joel wrapped his arms around his little brother. "I promise. I won't ever, ever leave you again."
About an hour later Hildy called everyone to the lunch table. Again TJ and I assisted Joel to the table. Everyone watched as Joel filled his plate and made sure that he had everything that he wanted. He seemed to be happy that he was back with his family among the people who loved him and whom he loved.
After lunch I left to go pick up Alan so that he could bring me back to the apartment and then take the van back to his house. Joel went to take a nap and the rest of the boys were going to have their swimming lesson after their lunch settled.
Alan was ready when I got to their house and so were Bran and Benny. They had convinced Alan that they needed to say goodbye to my boys before we left tomorrow. It didn't matter that we would all be in Canyon Lake at about the same time tomorrow.
"Where is all the stuff you were going to pack in the van?" Alan asked.
"I decided that if we packed everything in the van that there wouldn't be any room for you guys to ride. And since I was going to have to have the courier service take some of it anyway, I decided to let them take it all. I don't know how we accumulated so much stuff in such a short time," I said.
I let Alan drive the van back to the apartment so that he could get used to the way it handled while I was there to give him tips if he had any problems. I didn't have to worry. He drove it like it was his own van.
The courier service was there to pick up the boxes when we drove into the apartment parking lot. Hildy was showing them what needed to be taken. Since the boys were not there supervising I assumed that they were still having their swimming lesson. They must have seen the van drive in because it wasn't more than a couple of minutes that they burst into the house.
When they saw Bran and Benny there were hugs all around. By the time they got to Alan and I most of the water from their swimming suits had been transferred so we didn't get too wet.
With all of the commotion going on with the couriers and six boys talking all at once it was no wonder that Joel woke up. I was the first to notice him leaning up against the doorway of the bedroom. I quickly went to him and helped him to the living room couch so he could talk to the other boys. Six hugs later he was talking and laughing with the others.
A few minutes after the couriers left Hildy announced that she had their afternoon snack ready. It was her version of strawberry shortcake. Hers started with a slice of pound cake in a bowl topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and sliced strawberries macerated in sugar with whipped cream on top of all of it. I held to my resolve and decline a serving as did Becky Sue. I still think I gained weight just by looking at it. All seven of the boys made quick work of theirs and washed it down with large glasses of milk. Alan made us promise that we would not tell Ethel that he indulged.
Our visitors left after they had finished their snack but not before my sons extracted a promise from Bran and Benny that they would come to visit us when we got home.
The rest of the day was spent enjoying Joel being home. Hildy prepared one of his favorite meals to celebrate his homecoming. The only time we got to see his smile was when he had to remove the surgical mask to eat. He would have to continue wearing it if there were a significant chance of him coming in contact with a source of germs at least for a couple more weeks.
When bed time came I wondered whether the boys would revert to their old way or decide on some new sleeping arrangements. I guess old habits die hard. As they finished their showers and were ready to be tucked in, it once again was Joel and TJ in one bed and the other three in the other as if nothing had happened.
I woke up early the next morning. The aroma of fresh coffee tantalized me as I made quick work of my shower and morning ritual.
Hildy was humming to herself as I entered the kitchen.
"You're happy this morning," I said pouring myself a cup of coffee.
"It's just so nice to have all of our boys back together again. This has been the longest month I think that I have ever been through. I have been so worried about Joel. I know that he still has a long way to go, but at least we have him home," she said.
"Yes, according to Dr. Kerner he has another couple of years of treatments before he can be considered cured. And even then, he will still have to be watchful that there isn't any recurrence of the cancer. We also have to be aware of any unusual effects resulting from the chemotherapy such as delayed puberty or stunted growth."
"I'm just glad that he has made it this far. I know that he is going to be cured totally. He just has too," she said almost in a whisper.
"Dad, Joel wants to come out for breakfast," TJ said as he pushed under my arm to get his morning hug.
"Good morning, son. Sure, let's go help your brother," I said picking TJ up and carrying him to the bedroom. "Did you guys wash your hands and face?"
When they said they had not, I helped Joel into the bathroom and steadied him while he and TJ washed up.
"Okay, you get on one side of Joel and I'll get on the other and we'll both help him. How's that?" I asked.
"Okay," TJ said slipping under Joel's arm and grasping his hand.
TJ beamed with pride all the while we helped his brother to the kitchen table. He wasn't all that much help since I was doing most of the steadying but he thought he was and that was what was important. The other boys joined us at the table a minute or so after we sat down.
"How did you guys sleep?" I asked the trio.
"It was fun, just like before," Lenny said getting nods from Larry and Chris.
"Oh boy! Waffles!" Joel said as Hildy place a plate stacked high with enough waffles to feed a small army.
I picked up the morning paper and went back to my neglected cup of coffee. I usually start with the business section before I read the front page. When I got to the front page I couldn't help but smile with satisfaction. It wasn't the headline story but it was a prominent story. The heading of the story read "Venisti Arrested for Campaign Violations". The story went on to say that the special grand jury had been investigating political corruption in the city for some time. That a video tape received from a confidential source was the final piece of evidence that led to the issuance of the arrest warrants for Venisti and his campaign manager. The alleged violations of law centered on non-reporting of campaign contributions. A footnote to the story said that his wife had been arrested on unrelated charges of filing false documents with a state agency.
That made my day. My life was getting back to normal. Joel was back at home with his brothers and all those who love him. I had everything to look forward to. The business would be sold at the end of the month. My foundation would soon be in operation to help kids get the happiness that they deserve with parents who loved them.
The morning went by quickly as we readied everything to vacate the apartment and head for home. The boys got in one last swim. Joel sat in a deck chair on the side of the pool under a beach umbrella enjoying his brothers frolicking in the water.
Hildy prepared a lunch of sandwiches for the boys at noon. By one we were ready for the limo to arrive. It was only a couple of minutes late, but I knew we had plenty of time to get to Hobby Airport before our scheduled two o'clock take off time.
The limo drove us to the general aviation terminal and stopped at the private air service I had contracted with. I didn't see a plane similar to the one that I was expecting. I left the boys in the limo and went into the office. The manager there told me that the larger jet on the tarmac would be taking us to San Antonio. It seemed that it had to be flown there anyway for a rental so instead of dead heading they had decided to fly us there in it and save some money. That seemed entirely reasonable since it was a much more luxurious plane than I was expecting. I asked the manager if they had a wheelchair that we could use to board my son. He said he would have one brought to the limo.
I went back to the limo and directed the driver to drive around to the side of the office. The ground crew met us and began removing our luggage and taking it to the plane's cargo compartment. The manager I had spoken to came out pushing the wheelchair for Joel. It only took a few minutes to get everything and everybody loaded. We were actually ready to depart shortly before two.
I was impressed with the plane's interior. It would seat fifteen in soft leather high back seats. It had a table where the busy executive could work. There was even a small kitchenette and wet bar. Everything was first class. I was glad that I was not paying the actual rental cost on this plane.
We got the boys all strapped into their seats and we were ready for take off. It didn't take us long to get to cruising altitude. The steward came by and served all of us soft drinks and various snacks which the boys devoured.
I looked at my watch and noted to myself that we should be landing in San Antonio in less than fifteen minutes. I saw a light go on over the cockpit door and the steward quickly enter the cockpit. He was in there for several minutes before coming out. He looked a little shaken. He motioned for me to come forward with him.
"Mr. Johnson, we have a problem. It seems we have a hydraulic leak in the landing gear assembly and we can't lower it. The pilot is going to try to cycle it down, but he doesn't think that it will go down or if it does it will only go part way down. He has declared an emergency so we will be given priority for landing but we will need to burn off some fuel before he will attempt a landing. That will take at least another half to three quarters of an hour before he thinks it will be safe to try a belly landing."
"What are our chances of a safe landing?" I asked through a very dry mouth.
"Our pilot and co-pilot are very experienced, but you have to realize that they don't practice these landing except in simulators. He thinks that our chances are better than even of sustaining no physical injury to any of the passengers or crew."
"Okay," I said taking a deep breath. "What do you want us to do?"
"I think it would be better if you were to tell your party as much as you think they should know. It would probably be less traumatic, if that is possible, coming from you. After that I will run through the emergency procedures and make sure that everyone is properly buckled in."
"You are right of course," I said and turned back toward everyone and prepared to deliver the news.
The boys were wide eyed as I explained the situation. Becky Sue's face was as white as a sheet. Hildy was calm. After I finished outlining what was going to happen, the steward began going over the emergency procedures. He checked all of our seatbelts and made sure that they were tightened properly. Then he gave each of us a pillow and told us to place it on our lap.
"When the captain announces over the intercom to prepare for landing, I want you to lean forward and wrap your arms around your knees and squeeze hard and stay that way until the plane stops. Do you have any questions?"
No one did. It was dead silent in the plane for the next thirty minutes. Finally TJ broke the silence.
"Dad, are we gonna be okay?"
"Yes we are," I said with more conviction than I felt. "We should be on our way home in a few minutes."
Just then the pilot came over the intercom, "We will attempt our landing in approximately three minutes."
That was a long three minutes. I was reminding the boys what they were supposed to do when the intercom announced, "Prepare for landing."
I glanced around and all the boys were doing as they had been instructed.
The intercom came alive with a countdown, "Five... Four... Three... Two... One..."
"I love you sons," I shouted as the intercom announced "ZERO" and all hell broke loose as the belly of the plane hit the ground to the accompaniment of a horrible screeching sound.