"How come Joel gets to stay home?" Lenny asked as we were getting into the van.
I knew that was coming and I hoped that my answer would satisfy them. "Joel has company so he and John are going to stay here while we are gone. He's older than you guys. Besides, TJ needs you to cheer for him."
"Oh," Lenny replied not entirely convinced.
I was surprised that I got off that easily about Joel staying home. We drove to the ballpark with no further questions. TJ's team won their game but I don't think it made any difference to them. They were having too much fun playing the game to worry about silly things like winning or losing. That would change in a few years with all the emphasis and pressures that are placed on kids to win at sports in Texas. I hoped that they would keep sports in a reasonable perspective as they grew older.
"We're thirsty," Chris said as we climbed into the van.
"There're some bottles of juice in the cooler. Why don't you get some out for everyone? Don't spill it, please." I said.
"We're hungry, too," TJ added.
"We'll be home in about twenty minutes. Hildy laid out some cookies for us that you can have when we get there. I think they're peanut butter," I told him.
"Oh boy," TJ enthused. "They're my favorite."
"I thought chocolate chip cookies were your favorite."
"Yeah, them too," he giggled.
We made it home without any juice spills. As soon as we were parked, the boys flew out of the van and headed for the kitchen. "Don't forget to wash your hands," I called after them. Samson greeted them like they had been gone for a week.
I poured glasses of milk for the boys and set out a plate of cookies while they were washing up. I hadn't seen either Joel or John since I came into the house, but then I hadn't really looked for them.
It wasn't long before the cookie massacre began. I was surprised that Joel and John hadn't joined in on the snack so I went looking for them. I found them in the family room. John was sitting on the couch and Joel was sleeping with his head in John's lap.
"He got tired," John whispered.
"How long has he been asleep?" I asked.
"I guess about fifteen or twenty minutes," John said as he brushed the stubble of hair on Joel's head.
Joel must have heard us talking because he blinked his eyes and yawned. When he saw me he said, "Hi, dad. I must have gone to sleep."
"Are you feeling okay, son?"
"Yeah, John and I were riding the bikes and I got tired. Can we go swimming now? John really wants to, don't you?"
"Sure son, it'll be a couple of hours before supper. Did you guys have your snack?"
"Ah..." Joel started looking at John and smiling. "Yeah, we did, but..."
"Well, if you hurry there might be a few cookies left that your brothers don't eat." I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth than both he and John were heading to the kitchen.
Everyone thought that swimming was a great idea so as soon as the cookies disappeared we quickly changed into our swim suits and headed to the pool. For the next hour we romped and played and generally had a good time. Joel did take time out to rest every so often when he started tiring. His stamina was getting better but he was still a long way from being back to his old self. Whenever he took time out to rest John would sit with him on the side of the pool until he was rested.
The boys continued playing in the pool while I started the barbeque pit to cook our supper. I put the hamburgers on the grill as I sliced the tomatoes and prepared the lettuce. Our fare was going to be simple, just hamburgers, chips, carrot and celery sticks. For dessert there was vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup.
When the burgers were done I called the boys. They hopped out of the pool and ran to the picnic table without even drying off. I didn't make them put on their shirts like Hildy would have done. I figured this was really a picnic and didn't see the reason for shirts.
I had to laugh at the burgers that the boys built. By the time they had put the hamburger, tomato, lettuce, pickles and sliced onion on the bun it was so thick that they had a hard time opening their mouths wide enough to take a bite. They did manage however.
After they had eaten their fill and we had everything cleaned up, it was time to take John home. Everyone jumped into the van and we took off. Joel and John were fairly quiet on the way. Their conversation was so low that I could barely tell that they were talking. Maybe it was just that the others were talking so loud.
Bruce and Pauline were in their front yard along with their three daughters when we arrived. The boys piled out of the van as I went to say hello to the Gordiniers. Larry and Lenny made their way over to Linda and Cassie. TJ noticed that Rachel was holding a black puppy so he and Chris went straight to her. Joel and John went off by themselves.
"I see you have a new member of the family," I said to Bruce as I shook his hand.
"Yeah, the kids have been wanting a pet so we went to the Canyon Lake Animal Shelter and picked him up. He looks like he is at least part Lab but mostly just dog," Bruce laughed.
"You know what this is going to lead to. The boys have been hinting at getting another dog for a while now, but I've been putting them off. I'd better talk to Hildy. She is the one who would have to care for them while the boys are in school."
We chatted for a few more minutes before I called to the boys and told them to say goodbye to their friends and to get in the van. TJ was holding the puppy and was reluctant to give him up but finally gave the puppy a hug and a kiss before relinquishing it to Rachel. I saw Joel give John a quick hug before walking back to the van.
I kept waiting for it and was not disappointed. About half way home TJ whined, "I wish I had a puppy like Bubba."
"What about Samson? Do you think he would be jealous?" I asked.
"No, he needs a little brother," TJ said.
"Well, we'll see," I added hoping to put off any further discussion of the matter.
The rest of the evening went fairly well with only a few mentions of another dog. I knew it would not be the end of the discussion though. Joel had been quiet all evening after we had returned from John's house. He never said much even when I tucked him into bed. As I was tucking Chris and the twins into bed Larry asked if they could go shopping for TJ's birthday present since his party was on Wednesday. I told them that I would take them shopping tomorrow and asked them to think of what they wanted to get for him because I didn't want to spend the whole day at the mall.
I think they spent an hour or so discussing what they wanted to get after I tucked them in and went back down stairs. I could hear a giggle every so often from them as I sat reading my book in the family room. I figured that sleep would overtake them soon enough so I didn't try to settle them down.
I was just about to put my book aside and close up the house for the night when I heard footsteps coming down the hall. When I looked it was Joel. "What's going on, son? Can't you sleep?"
He crawled up beside me in the recliner and laid his head on my chest without saying anything.
I felt his forehead to see if he had a fever. His head was not hot so I didn't think he was sick. I put my arms around him and gave him a hug. "Can you tell dad what's wrong?"
He let out a big sigh before he said, "I'm confused, dad. How come I feel so funny when John's here?"
"What do you mean you feel funny?"
"It's like something is squeezing my insides and my face feels hot."
"It sounds like you really like John, maybe even love him. Do you think that might be it?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Does John feel the same way as you do?"
"Did he tell you he did?"
"No, but he likes to kiss me. Oh... I didn't mean to say that."
"That's all right, son. Do you like it when you kiss?"
"I hope that before you do anything besides kissing that you will talk to me first. I've explained to you the 'birds and the bees' but I want you to know that even if you know what and how to do it that doesn't mean that you are psychologically ready. Don't rush into something that you are not ready for. I trust you to use your best judgment as to how your relationship with John will progress. Just remember that I'm always available to listen to you when you need someone. I won't tell you not to do something but if I don't think you're ready for it I'll try to explain why I think you shouldn't. Always know that I love you and I always will."
"I know you do. I love you, too. You're the best dad anyone could have," he said stretching up and kissing my cheek.
"You're a pretty neat kid and I'm lucky you're my son. Now, I think it is time to get you back to bed," I said choking back my tears but with pride clearly in my voice.
TJ was the first one of the boys out of bed in the morning. He padded into the kitchen rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. "Good morning, little one," Hildy said holding out her arms for her morning hug.
"Umph," he said sleepily as he was enclosed in Hildy's arms.
"Did you have a good sleep?" I asked as he crawled onto my lap.
"Yeah, I guess so. Joel is still sleeping. He must be tired," he said giving me a hug before tucking his head under my chin.
TJ sat on my lap enjoying our cuddle as I read the morning paper. He was so quiet I had to look every so often to see whether he had gone back to sleep. We sat that way for maybe fifteen minutes before his stomach let out a growl. "I think we better feed that before it bites somebody," I laughed and tickled his stomach. "You go wake Joel and get washed up. I'll go wake the rest."
"Okay," he giggled as he jumped down off my lap and ran toward his bedroom.
After breakfast I told Larry, Lenny and Chris to get dressed and we would go into San Antonio to shop for TJ's birthday present. When Becky Sue arrived I told her what was going on and that we would be back around noon. I also told her that JR and Bran would be coming over with her sister shortly, that I had invited them to spend the day. They arrived about a half an hour later.
"Where are you going?" TJ asked Larry as he was getting in the van behind his two brothers.
"We're gonna go get your birthday present," Larry responded.
"Oh, okay," TJ said his eyes lighting up. "What are you gonna get me?"
"You have to wait 'til your birthday," Larry said closing the van door.
We got to the mall just after it opened at ten o'clock. The boys had decided what they thought they wanted to get for TJ so it didn't take all that long for us to do our shopping. We did have to go to several stores before we found exactly what each wanted to buy. Since it was time for their morning snack they convinced me that we needed to stop at the Cin-A-Bun shop for one of their sinful cinnamon rolls and a carton of milk each. I had a cup of coffee and drooled as they ate the sticky confection.
When they were finished, I cleaned up their sticky hands and faces as much as I could before leading them to the restroom for a more complete wash up.
"Come on guys, I want to stop by the foundation office and check my voice-mail before we go on home."
It was not that far to the office. When we got there I was surprised to see Darcie's car parked in front. "What are you doing here? I didn't expect to see you this week."
"I needed to work to keep my mind busy. Besides, dad has Aunt Edith and Edna to be with him. Mel had to go back to work today so I thought I would to. I may have to take off Friday. Mom's will is to be read in the afternoon."
"Take whatever time you need. The foundation is not going to be too busy until we start getting referrals. So far we only have the Boises to concentrate on," I said. "I'm only going to be here long enough to check my voice-mail before I have to get these boys back home."
"What have you guys been doing this morning?" Darcie asked.
"We bought TJ's birthday present," Chris said.
"Oh, that's right. His birthday is Wednesday isn't it? Are you going to have a party for him?"
"Yeah," Lenny answered. "He invited seven of his school friends to come."
"With JR and Bran, that will be fourteen boys. Do you want to come and enjoy the fun?" I chuckled.
"Thanks for the invite, but I think I'm busy that day," Darcie laughed.
I only had one voice-mail of interest. It was from Jack. He said that the preliminary investigation of the Boises had been completed and he wanted to meet with me to go over the results. All that was left to do was a credit check and verify their financial statement. I called him back and left a message that I would be available all day Tuesday for a meeting. I confirmed that Darcie would also be available.
When we got home the boys couldn't resist taunting TJ with the wrapped presents until I made them take the presents upstairs to their bedroom. I went outside to check on the other boys and saw that Joel and Bran were paired off against Becky Sue and JR playing a game of badminton but with out a net. It was more like seeing how long they could keep the shuttlecock in the air before someone missed it and it hit the ground. I hated to break up their fun but Hildy had told me that lunch would be ready in about twenty minutes. They all seemed to be out of breath when I stopped them and were ready for a break.
I followed them back into the house when the phone rang. It was Jack returning my call and wanted to set up the meeting on the Boises for tomorrow morning at nine. I told him that would be fine with me but I would have to check with Darcie. He said that he had already talked to her and she would be there at nine.
After lunch we sat down to plan out how to occupy fourteen boys at TJ's party. Hildy had the food and cake all planned. Becky Sue would act as life guard in the pool and Mary Jane would organize games and other activities for the group. I was in charge of decorating the game room upstairs and setting up the tables and chairs. I was going to have to go to the party store to rent a couple of folding table and chairs so that all fourteen of the boys could sit down when the cake was served.
I took off for the party store when we finished to pick up everything so I could start the decorating process. Thank goodness they had all the things I needed including the Happy Birthday banners, napkins, paper plates and balloons. I also picked up favors to give to the guests.
Eric came to pick up JR and Bran when he got off work. I bribed him into helping me decorate tomorrow night by inviting him to stay for supper. It didn't take much to twist his arm. I thought it might take his mind off his mother for a while. I could tell that he was still a little depressed. I hated seeing him that way. He had always been such a happy and outgoing person.
TJ was so excited about his birthday coming up that he was hardly able to settle down to go to bed. I wondered how he would be tomorrow night. I don't think that he had ever had a birthday party before. Wednesday could not come quickly enough for him. I hope Becky Sue would be up to his hyperactivity.
Tuesday morning I left early to meet with Jack and Darcie on the Boises. I got to the office a little early so I made a pot of coffee. I knew Jack would want a cup and I only had time at home for about a half a cup. Darcie arrived shortly after the coffee pot quit perking followed a few minutes later by Jack.
"Come on in, Jack. Grab a cup of coffee and join us in the conference room," I said shaking his hand.
"Thanks, Carolyn didn't fix any coffee this morning. She wasn't feeling well. I think it's her allergies," Jack replied.
"It's good to see you again, Jack," Darcie said as he sat down at the table.
"Thanks, it's good to see you, too. Sorry to hear about your mother. I know how hard it is to lose a parent. I lost both of mine six years ago in an auto accident," Jack said.
"Well, Jack, what do you have for us?" I asked.
"They check out pretty clean. There is only one blemish that we were able to find on Bill's record and that was a long time ago. It seems that he was picked up for shoplifting merchandise worth less than twenty dollars when he was thirteen. He was given three months probation and twenty hours of community service."
"How did you find that out? I thought that juvenile records were sealed," I said.
"You don't really want to know how we got the info. Just let it be said that it is nice to have contacts. The incident occurred in Gonzales County where I grew up. Other than that one incident he hasn't had so much as a traffic ticket since. Karen is also clean. There are no police records for her at all. It's all here in the report. Everything is detailed from their birth through school up to the present time."
"That looks promising," I said.
"The preliminary look at their financial status is also in the report," Jack said. "Bill does not make a lot of money and with Tony being sick Karen has had to give up her part time job to take care of him. They are making it but there is not much left over for luxuries. It would be even more difficult for them if they didn't have someone paying all of Tony's medical bills that the state doesn't pay." The last he said giving me a knowing look.
"Darcie, from your experience in the system, how much more would their income have to be to meet the guidelines to adopt Tony?" I asked passing the financial report to her.
She spent several minutes looking over the report before she answered. "There are a lot of variables and there is some state assistance for expenses associated with the adoption process itself. If my memory serves me correctly the state will pay up to $1500 for non-recurring adoption expenses. They may even be eligible to receive monthly payments from the state because Tony can be classified as a 'special needs child' since he is over age six. If Benny were to be adopted along with Tony then both would be considered 'special needs'. Such payments could continue until each reached the age of 18. It is possible that each could be eligible for a waiver of tuition to one of the state universities.
"Now that is all a bunch of ifs and the paper work necessary could drag out the process for heaven knows how long. I know that hasn't answered your question but it's something to consider before we make a grant to them."
"I think we need to consider all possibilities before we make a decision but for the sake of this discussion give me your best guess at what additional income they would need to have the adoption of Tony approved," I said.
Doing some quick calculations on a small calculator before she answered, "I would say a minimum of $800 a month to meet the requirements that most caseworkers look for."
"That would allow them to just maintain an even keel. They could not improve their standing or provide more for Tony. Hmm..." I mused. "I think it would be a mistake to only provide the absolute minimum. What do you think if we were to provide a stipend of $1000 a month? Would that provide them with a little breathing room?"
"It won't make them rich, but it would allow them to have a few luxuries that they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford," she replied.
"Now, let's put Benny in the mix. What additional financial burden would that add? How much more would we have to provide to maintain the same standard of living?"
"I think a good rule of thumb would be three-fourths of the amount given for the first child. Let's say around $750 a month and a little less for each additional child if we ever encounter that situation. Now if the state does provide a monthly payment then the foundations contribution should be reduced by that amount."
"So that means that the foundation would be providing up to $20,400 a year to the Boises. That certainly won't break us. Our investments are providing about four times that amount each month. Are the three of us agreed that based on the information that we have that we are in favor of supporting this action to the board for final approval?" I asked.
"I am," Jack said.
"I am, too," Darcie echoed. "If Bill and Karen are willing to adopt both of the boys, I definitely think the board should approve our suggestion."
"Great! Darcie would you set up a board meeting for later this week? I think that everyone is in town. Try to set it up for Thursday if you can. That way you could go to Houston on Friday.
"Now if both of you will excuse me I have to go pick up TJ's birthday present and find someplace to hide it so he won't find it before tomorrow."
"Have fun," Darcie laughed as Jack and I left the office.
As it turned out TJ's present wasn't ready when I got there and wouldn't be until tomorrow morning so I went on home to get started on the decorating for the party. When I drove through the gate I saw a parade of six bicycles riding on the long drive up to the house. Becky Sue was riding my bicycle. I got in line and drove behind them all the way to the house.
"Hi, Crane, I hope you don't mind my borrowing your bike. I was giving the boys some safety tips on riding in traffic," Becky Sue.
"No, that's fine. The bikes are there to ride," I told her as the boys gathered around. "Hey guys, isn't it about time to get washed up for lunch?"
That was all it took and they were off like a shot. Becky Sue and I followed at a more sedate pace. I made a mental note to tell them to put their bikes away in the garage if they weren't going to ride them anymore today.
Later in the afternoon I decided to swim. I again had been remiss in doing my laps in the pool for a while. Naturally the boys wanted to join me. When I started swimming my laps, Chris started swimming with me as he had done many times in the past. I was pleasantly surprised at how long he could stay with me. I'm glad that I was able to out last him. It would have been embarrassing to be matched by a ten year old.
Eric arrived about 5:30 with JR and Bran to help me decorate for the party. We decided that we would wait to start until after supper. I took Eric aside and asked him how he was doing.
"Okay, I guess," he said. "It's still hard to believe that mom's gone. At least the last time I saw her I hugged her and kissed her and told her that I loved her. That makes me feel better, but..."
"I know," I said putting my arms around him as he started crying.
"I feel like such a baby," he said after his crying had subsided. "Thanks Crane, thanks for being here."
"You're welcome. You are very special to me," I said. "I want you to know that."
"I feel the same," he said. Then brightening, "I suppose we ought to see what the boys are up to. There's no telling what kind of mischief the seven of them can get into."
We found the boys outside playing with the badminton set that I had put up earlier. Larry and Lenny were faced off against Bran and Chris. At first I thought it would be a mismatch since both Bran and Chris were older than the twins but it actually was the other way around. The twins seemed to have better communication between them as to which one of them should hit the shuttlecock when it was close. Bran and Chris on the other hand were continually running into each other or banging rackets. When they did it invariably cause the twins to double up laughing especially if one of their opponents fell down. Neither team was very good but they sure were having fun. Even the non-players were having fun watching and cheering.
It took Eric and me almost two hours to put up the decorations and set up the tables to Hildy's satisfaction. When we were finished I must admit that it did look good. It even passed muster of the boys. They even tried to help, but to be honest they tended to get in the way rather than aid in the process.
When Eric and the boys were ready to go home they went by the kitchen to say goodbye to Hildy. She was in the process of frosting TJ's birthday cake. There were seven set of young boys' eyes glued to the large cake. I'm sure that there was drool trying to escape all of their mouths.
"There now boys, you'll have to wait 'till tomorrow before you can have any of this cake but if you look in that cookie jar you might just find something that will satisfy you," she said nodding her head toward the large cookie jar.
They didn't wait for a second invitation as seven hands tried to grab a cookie at the same time. Eric and I laughed at their struggles but in the end each had grabbed at least two cookies. We waited until the jar was clear of other hands before we reached in and got our treat.
Before Eric climbed into his car I gave him a hug and said, "I'm always here for you whenever you need someone to talk to or just to be with. You're always welcome here."
"Thanks, my friend, I do appreciate that."
TJ was even more excited when I tucked him in bed tonight. I tried to settle him down but it took Joel to finally get him settled down enough to lie still in bed. I just hoped that he would sleep at least part of the night. He had a big day ahead of him tomorrow.
I was a little surprise that TJ was not up when I walked into the kitchen on Wednesday morning. Hildy was busy making waffles and browning sausage when I poured my cup of coffee. I retrieved the morning paper and sat down to drink my coffee and wait for the seven year old tornado to appear. Joel appeared shortly with Samson and led him out to do his morning duty.
It wasn't long before the smell of the waffles brought all of the boys to the table suitably washed. I was surprised that no one mentioned TJ's birthday. I guess they were to busy eating to remember. That didn't last long. After the first round of waffles Joel was the first to wish TJ a happy birthday. That jogged the others' memory and they too wished him a happy birthday.
After breakfast I sat the boys down and told them that we would give TJ his gifts from us this morning. I didn't want the guests to feel badly because our gifts to TJ would probably be more expensive than the gifts that they would bring. Of course that was just fine with TJ. He was a perfect gentleman as he opened each of the gifts as the boys gave them to him. After opening each he would thank the brother and give him a hug. Hildy gave him her present once the boys were through.
When he had opened all the presents TJ looked at me as if to say "Where's my present from you?"
"What? Are you looking for another present?" I asked.
He just giggled as an answer and looked at the floor.
"Of course dad has a present for you, but Joel and I have to go pick it up. Now all of you go get dressed and then we'll go pick up your present," I said.
It took us less than an hour to pick up the present and return to the house. TJ must have been watching the security camera aimed at the gate because he was waiting for us beside the driveway when we drove up. I got out of the BMW and went around to the passenger side and opened the door for Joel. He stepped out holding a white puppy with four black feet, a black tipped tail and black markings around his eyes that looked like he was wearing a mask.
TJ was ecstatic when he saw the puppy and grabbed it out of Joel's hands. "Oh, he's so cute," TJ said cuddling the puppy to his chest. "I love him! I love him! I'm gonna call him Bandit. Yeah, Bandit."
With that Bandit peed on TJ's shirt.