Manfred and Hildy took Horst and Frank to the airport early Sunday morning. The boys were sorry to see them go. Frank especially had made an impression on them. At times he acted like a big kid when he played with them. His joy at simply being with the boys clearly showed in the glow on his face as they interacted. Horst had been more reserved, but was still more outgoing than he had been on his last visit. I was happy to see that his new medications were making a positive difference in his condition.
The next two weeks were rather hectic. I was kept busy at my old consulting firm working with the younger project managers, dumping as much of the knowledge that I had gained over the past few years into their eager young minds. It was during the second week that I had to take John for another hearing on his custody.
I was both relieved and saddened when he was returned to his mother's custody under the supervision of CPS. John's father was to have no contact with him until he had gone through the court ordered counseling. I can say positively that Joel was saddened by the decision. He said very little all Wednesday evening when he found out that John wasn't going to be living with us anymore.
Later that evening after everyone had been tucked into bed, Joel knocked on my study door.
"Come in, son."
"Dad, can I talk to you?"
"You know I always have time for you."
"Thanks," he said and climbed into the recliner with me.
I put the bookmark in the book that I had been reading and asked, "Is it about John?"
I felt his head nod against my chest, but he didn't say anything. I waited for a few minutes before I continued, "I know you miss him, but he still goes to school with you."
"Yeah, but..." he trailed off before continuing. "We won't have a chance to talk like we did when he was here. We could tell each other anything. We could share secrets and not have to be afraid that someone would hear us and make fun of us. Now, we can't do that."
"Well, maybe not like you could when he was living with us, but you can still visit him at his house and he is certainly welcome to come and visit you here. He will always be welcome in our house."
"I know, but it's not the same," he sniffled.
"I understand how you feel and I'm sure that John feels much the same. Still, I'm also sure that he's happy to be back living with his mom and his sisters. He needs them and they need him."
"I guess..." he whispered. "I need him, too."
I held him for several more minutes, not knowing what else to say to him. It wasn't long before I felt a warm teardrop on my shirtfront. I hugged him tighter and tried not to cry as well. Finally I said, "Joel, I hope that you know just how much I love you. I would do anything in my power to keep you from being hurt. I'm afraid that this is one thing that I can't do anything about. This is part of growing up that you will have to sort out pretty much on your own. You love John and I think that John loves you. If this is the case, you will have a lot of hurdles to overcome. This is one of them - separation. It's not like you aren't able to see each other. It's just that you've gotten used to being together almost all of the time. It's going to be hard for you to accept for a few days. I don't want to minimize the way you're feeling right now, but you will get through this.
"Now, I really think you need to get back in bed. You have school tomorrow and I don't want you falling asleep in class."
"Can... Can I sleep with you tonight?"
"Of course," I said, giving him another hug. "You run and climb in bed. I'll be in very shortly."
I closed up the house for the night and went into my bedroom to get ready for bed. Joel appeared to be sleeping as I slipped as quietly as I could into the bed. I had just settled down, when he scooted over and grasped the bicep on my right arm. It wasn't the most comfortable way for me to sleep, but it seemed to help Joel. He was still holding onto my arm when I woke up the next morning.
Friday while I was at the consulting office, I received a call from Carol at the foundation. She said that she had received a call from the Eschenberg Family Trust. They wanted to set up a meeting with Darcie and me for the following week, possibly Wednesday the thirteenth. I told her that would be fine with me, just to make sure that it fit into Darcie's schedule as well. She told me that she already had and that she had taken the liberty of scheduling the meeting for 2 PM on Wednesday. I chided her for being so efficient before we hung up.
I spent one more day at the consulting office on Monday to make up for the day off I had to take for John's hearing. Although I was relieved when the end of the day came and I said goodbye to all of the people that I had worked with for so many years, I also had a bit of regret.
When I got home from work on Monday and since it was getting close to Christmas, I suggested that we go out and find our Christmas tree. That met with no objections from the boys. I had seen a lot that had just been set up at the corner of 281 and 306, which appeared to have some nice looking trees. At least they looked good from the road. Hildy and Manfred thought it sounded like a good idea, also.
After supper, the boys were raring to go. Since we could all ride in the van, the eight of us piled in, but not until I had made sure that the roof rack was securely attached to the van. The dogs were none too happy to be left behind, but there wasn't room for them in the van even if we had wanted to take them along. There were only a few other people looking for trees when we got to the lot. The boys were quickly out of the van and scattered in all directions trying to look at all of the trees at the same time.
It took the three adults a few minutes to round up the boys to begin a systematic search for the perfect tree. A stern looking man approached us. He appeared to be the person in charge.
"What do you want?" he asked. He needed to learn a lot about customer relations if he was going to be successful in sales.
"We're looking for a tree somewhere in the 12 foot tall range." I answered his blunt query.
"This way," he said, turning on his heels and walking swiftly toward a large stack of bound up trees. "Long or short?"
"Long or short?" I responded.
"Needles," came his terse reply.
"Oh, short," I said.
He lifted several trees before he held one upright and turned it toward me. "This is 12 and a half."
"Can you cut the twine and let us have a good look?"
"I guess," he said, grudgingly. He took out a large pocket knife and quickly sliced through the twine that bound the tree in several places. Grabbing the tree by the trunk somewhere in the middle, he pounded the cut end several times on the ground.
It was an excellent tree. It was almost completely symmetrical and very full. I also noticed that when he pounded the tree, almost no needles fell off indicating that it was still quite fresh. I looked around at the boys. They were all nodding their heads in agreement that this was the tree that we wanted. I was glad. I didn't think I could take much more of this man's surly attitude.
"We'll take it," I said. "Tie it back up and then we'll need it secured to our roof rack.
He grunted and went about re-tying the tree.
"Crane," Hildy said. "Manny and I are going to get a small tree for our apartment. I saw a three foot tree when we were rounding up the boys that I think will be just right."
"I understand, but I hope that you will help us decorate our tree. I know the boys would like that."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world. We had so much fun last year doing it for the first time with the boys."
"Can I put the angel on top again?" TJ asked.
"Why sure you can," Hildy said, picking him up. "The littlest one always gets to put the angel on the tree and you're my littlest one."
He giggled and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
We paid for our purchases and were soon on our way home. Manfred and I were able to remove the trees from the top of the van without too much difficulty. I got out my saw, removed several inches from the bottom of the larger tree and then stood it up in a bucket of water. Although the boys wanted to start decorating it tonight, I reminded them that they had homework to do. The tree trimming would have to wait until tomorrow evening.
Tuesday evening the five dogs and I met the boys' school van as it arrived at our gate. The boys received enthusiastic tongue licking greetings from their dogs as they climbed off the van. I received mine from the boys, usually with their arms full of dog. With Bandit in his arms, TJ launched himself into my arms.
"Can we decorate the tree now?" he said as I received a kiss on one cheek from him and a tongue licking on the other from Bandit.
"After supper," I said.
"Why can't we do it now?" he pouted.
"Because Hildy is getting ready to fix us an early supper, that way we'll have more time to decorate the tree. Now, run get your snack and then tell your brothers to start their homework."
"Okay, dad. Come on Bandit, let's go," he said, as he jumped down and took off for the house.
Manfred, Hildy and I had rearranged furniture in the family room and then he and I set the bare Christmas tree in place early this morning after the boys had gone to school. The tree looked good, even undecorated, standing in front of the large floor to ceiling windows. Now, we just had to make sure that we kept the dogs away from the tree.
Hildy had prepared a delicious beef stew for our supper. Her cornbread slathered with honey-butter and washed down with large glasses of cold milk were to die for. I ate way too much stew and had too many pieces of cornbread. I could have curled up on the couch and taken a nap, but the boys were having none of that. They wanted to start on the tree as soon as the dishes were in the dishwasher.
Thank goodness for Hildy's organization. Everything we needed to begin decorating the tree was all laid out in the order required. She put each of the boys to their own task. Each was assigned a part of the tree that they could reach from the ground to decorate. Manfred and I were assigned to do some of the taller parts of the tree. I had put a CD of Christmas music in the sound system. The boys would join in singing parts of the songs that they knew. Hildy's crystal clear voice could be heard above the somewhat mumbling efforts of the rest of us.
It was fast approaching half past nine when Hildy brought out the box that TJ had been waiting for all evening. He carefully opened the lid and gently took the angel from the box.
"She's so beautiful," he said, showing the ornament to his brothers. "I bet my momma has wings just like hers."
"I'm sure she has," I said, trying very hard to hold in my emotions.
"How am I gonna put it on top? It's too tall for you to hold me up."
"Here you go, little one," Manfred said as he moved a tall step ladder into position. "Your dad can climb up with you so you can put the angel where it belongs. I'll hold the ladder so it won't fall."
I think TJ was a little frightened when he had to lean out and away from the ladder to put the angel into place, but with my firm grip on him, he finally got it placed properly.
"Excellent job," I said, giving him a hug before we climbed down.
"Okay, everybody, are you ready to turn on the lights?" Hildy asked.
A loud chorus of "Yeah!" was all she needed.
I don't know how Hildy did it, directing seven men and boys, but the tree turned out magnificent. It was even better when she turned off the house lights and turned on the tree.
There was a chorus of "Wow," and "Cool" among other sound of appreciation and awe from the boys as we stood looking at what we had done in about the last three hours.
"This is the bestest tree I've ever seen," TJ said, throwing his arms around Hildy's waist.
"It certainly is, little one," Hildy replied and gave him a kiss on the top of his head. "How would everybody like some banana pudding?"
There was no need to answer her rhetorical question as five boys took off for the kitchen. It was a little late for their snack, but their schedule had been turned upside down so we could decorate the tree. It didn't have any effect on their appetites when it came to the portion size of their snack. As soon as the snack had been eaten, I shooed them to their showers and then tucked them into bed. It was late, so I knew that getting them up in the morning was going to be a problem.
I was correct. I almost had to physically drag the twins out of bed. They didn't fully revive until they had finished their breakfast. It was another struggle to get them dressed and down to the gate in time to meet the school van. We weren't quite to the gate when the van pulled up. Thankfully the driver saw us hurrying down the lane and waited for them.
When I got back to the house, Hildy reminded me that she and Manfred had a supper meeting at the church and that we would be on our own for our supper. She told me that with a twinkle in her eye. I knew that she would have something fixed for us that I could warm up for the boys and me.
It was good to be back into the routine of only having to go to the foundation office and not split my time with my old company. Carol was working out really well. She was so organized. She had redone our filing system, such as it was, into a logical system that even I could follow. Another thing I liked was that there was always coffee made when I stepped into the office. She never considered it beneath her to fix it and to bring me a cup when I sat down at my desk.
"I've given Darcie a few files that have come in. I arranged them into what I considered likely and less likely candidates, based on what Darcie described your criteria were," Carol said. "I hope I haven't overstepped my bounds?"
"Not at all, I expect for you to have input into our decision making processes," I answered. "By the way, have you found out any more information on our meeting this afternoon?"
"That Eschenberg Family Trust? No, they seem to keep a low profile."
The rest of the morning was spent going over request for assistance and progress reports on those already receiving our support. During lunch, I drove to the mall to see if I could pick up a few Christmas presents. Now that the tree was up, it was time to start putting presents under it. The boys had already started hinting that they wanted to go shopping. It looked like my weekend was going to be one of trips to the malls.
As two o'clock approached, I grew more and more curious as what this trust wanted with our foundation and specifically why they had me investigated so thoroughly. Carol had done her usually efficient job and had set the conference room up with coffee and soft drinks as well as a platter of a variety of delicious looking cookies.
At the appointed hour of the meeting, I was surprised to see Nathan and Doris Woods arrive with another younger man whom they introduced as Mallory Williams. They were the elderly couple that sat at the table with Eric and me at the symphony dinner and whom we later helped rescue from being robbed.
After the introductions were completed and everyone was settled at the conference table, Mr. Woods began. "Mr. Johnson, I must apologize for any inconvenience that you may have been caused by our investigation of you and to you also, Ms. Glenn. It was not our intention to embarrass you."
"I was curious why I was being investigated," I said loudly, remembering his hearing problems.
"It's quite all right to speak in a normal tone of voice. My hearing aids work very well in small groups. It's when I get into large setting like where we first met that they are nearly worthless. All sounds are amplified equally, so I get overwhelmed by noise and cannot distinguish normal voices. Doris is the same way.
"Let me get down to the reason that we are here today. Doris and I were very impressed with the assistance that you gave us in the parking garage that night. We wanted to do something to show our appreciation, even though you had refused any reward for your actions that evening. Doris and I manage the Eschenberg Family Trust. It's named for Doris' grandfather on her mother's side. As you can clearly see, we are getting on in years and there is no family left that we would feel comfortable leaving in charge of the trust after we are gone. Over the years the trust has grown in size. It now has assets in excess of thirty million dollars."
"What does that have to do with us?" I asked, hoping that I knew the answer.
"Doris and I have contributed to a number of children's charities over the years. Many that used to be worthy are now merely vehicles to make those running them rich. It has been our policy to thoroughly investigate everyone associated with a charity before we make a donation. We want to make sure that the bulk of the money will go to help the children and not into the pockets of some CEO."
"Crane," Doris interrupted, "what Nathan is trying to say in his long winded style is that we want to liquidate the Eschenberg Family Trust and transfer all of the assets to your foundation."
"Oh, my goodness," I gasped. "I was hoping for a donation, but nothing of this magnitude. I'm... WE are very grateful, but are you sure that this is really what you want to do? I mean, that's a lot of money that we're talking about."
"Yes," Nathan said. "We have been looking for some time to find a charity that we would be comfortable giving the money to and yours is the only one we found to be worthy and fits our criteria of helping children. There is one provision to this and that is Doris and I be named to the board of directors of your foundation."
"That would be the least that we could do for a contribution of that size. I will call a special meeting of the board this week as soon as I can get them all assembled and propose the expansion of the board and your appointment to it."
"Mr. and Mrs. Woods," Darcie said, "you don't know how much this means to us. We get so many files on deserving kids in foster care whose natural parents are no longer in the picture that we would like to help. We can only give support to about one in five cases, because of the long term commitment we are making to that child's life. With this infusion of capital, we can probably double or triple the number of kids we can support for adoption. Thank you so much. This will mean so much to some very deserving kids."
"No, thank you," Doris said. "All of the reports that we have received from the CPS workers to the families that you have helped, confirm that this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it. Mallory is our lawyer for the Trust. He will work out all of the details and legal mumbo-jumbo to make it all work."
"I'll have Carlos Martinez and Gerald Cousins get in contact with you at the earliest possible time to work out all of the details," I said.
"I have the information on the two gentlemen that you mentioned. If you don't mind, I will contact them directly," Mallory responded.
"No, go right ahead. That will probably speed things up if you talk directly and keep me out of the middle."
We talked for a few more minutes before the meeting broke up and the Woods went on their way. When I looked at my watch it was nearly time for me to leave to be home in time for the boys' arrival from school. Darcie was so excited about our soon being able to help more kids that she was hardly able to stand still. She was still talking to Carol and shaking her head in disbelief when I left the office.
I got home in time to put the presents that I had purchased at lunch under the tree before it was time to let loose the dogs and go meet the boys. Hildy had left a note for me telling me that the fried chicken was in the oven staying warm and that I was to turn up the temperature to 350 degrees a half an hour before supper so that it would be hot. The potato salad was in the refrigerator along with a pot of green beans that I was also supposed to put on the stove and heat up. Bless her heart. I knew she would look after us helpless men.
After supper and the boys were working on their homework, I picked up the book that I had been reading. I had just gotten totally involved in the convoluted mystery that the author was spinning when the phone rang.
"Crane, is Manfred there?" a very upset sounding voice asked.
"No, he isn't. Who is this?"
"Sorry, this is Frank... Frank Paulis, Horst's friend," he said and then began to sob loudly.
"Frank, what's wrong?"
"He... He's dead. My baby is dead," again all I could hear was sobbing.
"What? What do you mean 'he's dead'? Who's dead?"
"Horst," came a very weak reply.
"Oh, my God! How? Was it his AIDS?"
"No, he was run over by a... a cement truck in downtown Chicago," Frank said now a little more composed. "I have to tell Manfred."
"Frank, he and Hildy are at a church meeting. I expect them back within the next half hour or so. Are you all right?"
"I guess. I just got back from the hospital. What am I going to do? He's gone. I can't even imagine my life without him."
"Tell me what happened from the beginning."
"Okay. It started this morning. When I went off to work, he told me he was going to see his doctor at one and would call me when he got out of the doctor's office. He was so happy. He was feeling so much better and he had enjoyed our trip to Texas to visit his dad and all of you. I hadn't seen him as happy for a long, long time.
"Anyway, about two o'clock I got a call from him. He had just left the doctor's office and had stopped at a little coffee shop he liked to visit when he was downtown. The doctor had told him that everything looked great. He was responding to the medications much better than had been expected. He said that he was going to go home and fix a special supper for us to celebrate." At this point his narrative was interrupted by more sobbing.
"Take your time. I know this is hard for you," I said.
When he started again, he said, "I was starting to close up the office when I received another phone call. This one was from the University of Chicago Hospital. Horst carried a card in his wallet asking that I be called in case of an emergency. They told me that he had been brought into the emergency room. They said that he was in intensive care in critical condition and not expected to make it.
"My office is only about five miles from the hospital. I was there in less than fifteen minutes, which must be some kind of record considering rush hour traffic. I went to the emergency room and asked the nurse behind the desk where I could find Horst. She pointed out where the intensive care unit was, but told me that I probably wouldn't be able to see him.
"I got the same spiel from the nurse at intensive care. I wasn't going to take that and informed the nurse that I was not only Horst's domestic partner, but I was also his lawyer and demanded to see him. I had to talk to her supervisor, but they finally let me in to see him only if I promised not to cause any problems.
"After I got all gowned up, I was led to a bed surrounded by people and machines. I could hardly recognize the person in the bed. The whole right side of his head was wrapped in bandages. His right arm was in a splint and suspended in a sling. There were tubes and wires coming out of everywhere. It was horrible." At this point, Frank broke down again and couldn't speak coherently for several minutes.
TJ entered the room at this point wanting me to check his homework. I whispered to him that I would check his homework later and asked him to tell his brothers to get their snack when they finished their homework. I gave him a squeeze and a pat on the seat of his pants and sent him to find his brothers.
"One of the doctors attending Horst finally noticed me. His eyes were all that I could see and they spoke volumes about my beloved's condition. He took me aside and began explaining Horst's injuries to me. I honestly didn't understand everything that he was trying to explain. What did come through loud and clear was that it would take a miracle for him to live through the night. He said that they were doing all that they could but he recommended that I contact Horst's clergy if that was appropriate. I asked him if I could stay with Horst. I don't think he was going to allow it until he saw the tears streaming down my cheeks. He walked with me to the left side of the bed where I could see Horst's relatively undamaged hand. I reached out and placed my hand over his. It was cold, so awfully cold. I stood there for maybe a half an hour when I saw his one undamaged eyelid flicker slightly.
"My spirits soared when I saw that and squeezed his hand to let him know I was there. Nothing more happened for several minutes and my hopes were beginning to fade. Then it happened. He opened his eye and looked at me with what I'm positive was recognition. His fingers moved in my hand and he made a sound that was unintelligible due to the breathing tube in his throat. I told him I loved him and bent over to kiss his forehead. That was it. That was all. The next sound I heard was the unwavering tone of the heart monitor and the flat line on the scope.
"He was gone. Half of my being was gone. The doctors and nurses rushed up to the bedside and were going to try to revive him, but I wouldn't allow it. He had a living will with a no-resuscitate provision. That is probably the hardest decision that I have ever had to make."
"Frank, are you all right? Is there anyone there that you can have stay with you? You need to be with someone," I said.
"I'm fine. One of our neighbors is coming over later as soon as his wife gets home from her shift at another hospital."
"Did you ever find out exactly how the accident happened?"
"Yes, when I left the intensive care unit, I was met by a policeman wanting to know how to contact the next of kin. I told him I would contact his father. Before he left he gave me the details of how all of this happened. It seems that Horst was crossing the street along with a number of other pedestrians. They were crossing with the light when the cement truck came barreling through the intersection without stopping for the red light. He never even applied the brakes. He hit Horst and two other pedestrians. Horst was most seriously injured. The truck drove over both of his legs, pelvis, and right arm and nearly missed crushing his skull. The driver of the truck appears to have suffered a heart attack or stroke so there was nothing malicious in the accident. He also died."
"Frank, thank you for telling me this, I can't tell you how sorry I am. Do you want me to tell Manfred?"
"Thank you, I don't know if I could go through all of this again. But, please tell Manfred to call me if he would like. I have put off making any arrangements until after I talk to him."
"Please take care of yourself and know that you are always welcome in our house. The boys were quite taken with you while you were here. Try to get some rest. I'm sure that you will be hearing from us. Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Crane and thanks again."
I went to check on the boys and found that they were almost finished with their snack. I told them to clean things up and then bring their homework into my study so that I could check it.
As I finished checking each of their lessons, I sent them off to take their shower and get ready for bed. I gave them a few minutes after I finished the last set of homework before I started the rounds of tucking them into bed. Joel was the last to be tucked in, when I heard the back door open. I knew it was Hildy and Manfred. I finished with Joel and went to catch them before they got to their apartment.
"Manfred, Hildy, please come into the family room, I have something I need to tell you."