I stood up and went to greet the family and introduce myself. TJ and Peter had gotten out of their chairs when I did. TJ stood beside me while Peter hid himself behind me. I introduced TJ as my son and then gently urged Peter from behind my back.
"This is Peter. He is quite shy around people, especially strange men," I said.
"Hello, Peter," Gary said, extending his hand for Peter to shake.
Slowly, Peter extended his hand and shook Gary's. "Hi," he said and quickly withdrew his hand and grabbed hold of TJ's arm with both hands.
"He is shy," Gary said.
"Yes, it took him several weeks before he was comfortable with me. He took right to TJ from the start. Let me introduce you to the rest of the clan," I said.
The four older boys were cool, but polite when they were introduced. That is with the exception of the introduction to the daughter, Kari. My guess was that because they had a couple friends who were confined to wheelchairs, they didn't think anything was strange about her being in one. She was, in fact, a very pretty girl, which might have been part of the attraction to the twins and Chris.
Phyllis was overweight, tending toward being obese. Working in the school cafeteria probably didn't help the situation. She would have been an attractive woman if it weren't for the weight. She was a pleasant person and while Gary and I got more acquainted, she sat down beside Peter and soon got him talking about what Santa had brought him for Christmas.
Gary and I sat apart from the others. I learned that Kari's condition was known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy. In most patients they could expect to live until they were in their mid-twenties. However, Kari's condition was rapidly deteriorating and not expected to survive that long. Depending on which doctor he believed, she could live anywhere from two to ten more years. As Gary told me this, I could see the tears forming in his eyes. It was quite apparent that he loved his daughter very much.
"Gary," I said, "I understand that you've told Peter's caseworker that you are interested in taking Peter and raising him. Is this correct?"
"I know my sister was a rotten mother and her husband was an even worse father. After hearing that they had left him with someone and gone off God knows where, I just didn't want him to be left to the mercies of the state. I can't give him much, but at least I can give him love."
"I can understand that. My five sons are adopted. When the four brothers were almost taken away from me, I was devastated. Chris came along a little later."
"So you mean all of your sons are adopted?" Gary asked me. He seemed a bit more than surprised. "That's very nice for you and your wife. I'm surprised she is not here."
"Yes, they're all adopted and ... I'm not married."
"Oh, I didn't know a single man could adopt kids," Gary said. "How do you manage to take care of them and still work?"
"I couldn't do it without a wonderful woman who runs our lives. She's cook, nanny, housekeeper and surrogate grandmother all rolled into one to my boys. She and her husband are currently living in a separate apartment in our house."
"That must make things crowded," he said.
"Not at all, we have a large house. Let me get to the point of why I wanted to meet with you and your family today. I..., that is all of us, would like to keep Peter and raise him. And at the appropriate time, I'd like to adopt him. He's become a part of the family. We've all grown to love him and I believe he feels the same about us. We would be very disappointed if he were to leave us."
"But wouldn't that put a strain on you? How about your job?"
"I don't have what you would call a regular job. I own several rental properties and they provide sufficient income for us to live on comfortably. I have the luxury of being able to do the work that I have to do at home, giving me time to spend with the boys."
We were interrupted by the waitress returning to take our orders. None of us had even looked at the menus, so I asked the waitress to give us a few minutes. I instructed the boys to take a look at the menu to see what they wanted to eat and to ask me if they didn't understand what the dishes were. Since the restaurant specialized in Italian food, I was sure they would have questions. I was right. After answering multiple questions, I suggested that they allow me to order for them. I asked Gary if he would like to share several of the antipasto platters with us, that way we could get a good variety. He agreed and asked me for suggestions for the rest of the meal.
When the waitress came back, I gave her the antipasto order. While she was gone, I took a more careful look at the menu to make sure that the boys would like what I planned to order for them. Stella, our waitress returned with another young man carrying the three platters of antipasto. When the platters were placed on the table, she began pointing out what each contained. Each platter contained a different selection.
"This one," Stella said, pointing to the one closest to where I was sitting, "contains calamari, stuffed mushrooms, fried zucchini and fried mozzarella. That next one there has chicken fingers, fried mozzarella, fried zucchini and toasted pork ravioli. And the last one has stuffed mushrooms, calamari, toasted beef ravioli and fried mozzarella."
"What's cala... whatever she said?" Joel asked.
"Calamari, it's seafood. Try it, I think you'll like it," I said.
TJ asked. "Is this all we get?"
"No, son, this is just the appetizer. The main course will come later," I said. I turned to Stella, who was chuckling to herself, and gave her our orders. I had considered ordering spaghetti and meatballs, but decided that might be a little messy and chose the chicken parmigiana. It was served with a side of spaghetti and marinara sauce. I hoped that the boys wouldn't make too much of a mess with the smaller portion. I told her we would order dessert later. Gary decided that his family would have the same. That made it easy on Stella.
As we ate, I got to know Gary better and my opinion of him changed to one of admiration for the dedication and love that he had for his wife and daughter. I also believed him when he said he didn't want Peter left in the hands of CPS. We spoke of many things and finally the conversation turned to his financial situation and the impact that trying to raise Peter would have on it.
"I talked to Peter's caseworker," Gary said. "According to her the state would provide some financial aid, but it didn't seem to be very much. Certainly it's not enough to cover all the expenses of raising a young boy."
"How much of an impact would that have on your family?" I asked.
He sighed before he answered. "It would probably mean I'd have to take a second job. We're about to that point right now. I don't want to do that. I can't spend as much time with Kari as I would like to now."
"Gary, if you don't mind my saying, you are trying to do the right thing by taking in Peter even though it would adversely impact your family. For that you are to be commended, but the reality of the situation is you are going to have to devote more attention to Kari in the coming years. Even with the insurance that you have through the University, you will have some increased expenses. What will you do then? If you take a second job, you will have to spend less time with Kari just when she needs you the most. How will that make you feel? Would you begin to blame Peter for your situation? Don't answer that. It's something you need to take into consideration if you were to raise Peter."
"I know. Phyllis and I have spent a lot of difficult days wrestling with those questions. There are no good answers."
"I think there is an answer. Let me and my family raise Peter. You can see how TJ and the rest of the boys love him. I do, too. Adding him to our family will have no financial impact on us. I can give him the finest education and the opportunity to pursue whatever vocation he chooses. Right now, he's enrolled in one of the finest private schools in the state where he is excelling. You can always be a part of his life. You would be welcome to come visit him as often as you like. In fact, I would like to invite you and your family to stay with us if you are planning to attend the hearing on the twelfth. That way you could see the environment that Peter would be raised in. Give it some thought. You don't have to make a decision right now."
"Your offer to raise him is very generous. We are planning to attend the hearing. Kari's coming with us. Would your home accommodate her wheelchair?"
"Yes, the only problem is getting her wheelchair up the steps into the house. Once inside there wouldn't be any problems. The boys had a friend who was confined to a wheelchair and he was a frequent visitor to the house."
"Thanks for the invitation. Let me talk it over with Phyllis and I'll get back to you in the next few days."
I handed Gary a business card after I had written my cell phone number on the back. While we had been talking, our main courses were delivered. From the sounds the boys made while eating it, my selection met with their approval. I also noticed that the antipasto platters were bare, even the calamari had disappeared.
Once the main courses were finished, Chris asked, "What's for dessert?"
"You mean you're still hungry?" I asked, shaking my head knowing I was confronted by six bottomless pits.
When Stella and a busboy came back to clear our table, I gave her the dessert order for the boys. I figured they would like the chocolate torta. It was a six layer cake with chocolate frosting between each thin layer of chocolate cake. As much as I would have liked to join the boys in it, I decided to settle for coffee. Gary and Phyllis decided to follow my lead, but ordered the cake for Kari.
"I'm surprised at your boys," Gary said.
"Why is that?"
"They have been talking to Kari since we arrived. Most of the time kids her age tend to ignore her."
"The boy in the wheelchair I mentioned earlier also had a speech problem as your daughter has. His was the result of a car accident. That never was a concern of the boys. They involved him in as many activities as possible. He was particularly fond of our pool. I think it's because of the abusive background that all my boys came from, makes them empathetic for someone who also has suffered or is afflicted in some way. They constantly amaze me."
"You speak of them with such great pride," Gary said. "You must really love them."
"They are my life. I would gladly kill anyone who would harm them. I feel the same way about Peter. When he first came into our lives, I couldn't see raising another child and told the caseworker that I would only foster him until they found a good home for him. Now I don't want to give him up. He's part of the family and I want him to remain so for the rest of his life - and mine."
"You're really serious about adopting him, aren't you?"
Our conversation was interrupted by Stella bringing in the desserts and coffee. I could see all the boys' mouths drop open as she placed the large pieces of cake in front of them. Peter struggled, but was able to eat the last crumb off the plate.
While Gary and I enjoyed a second cup of coffee, I could see that the boys were getting antsy. When Stella returned with an offer to refill our coffee cups, we declined and I asked for the bill. She took a check presenter from a pocket of her apron and placed it on the table between Gary and me. I picked it up, glanced at the total, placed my credit card in the pocket designed for it and handed it back to Stella.
"I'll pay for ours," Gary said, reaching into his back pocket and retrieving his wallet.
"Gary, this is my treat. You are our guests. I invited you to meet with us," I said.
He looked relieved. "Thank you, we've enjoyed the food and most of all meeting Peter and your family."
Stella returned shortly with my credit card. I signed the receipt after adding a generous tip for the excellent service that we had received. "Okay, guys, let's head for the van."
Chris pulled Kari's wheelchair away from the table and gave an asking look at Phyllis. When she nodded, he started pushing her toward the door with the twins on either side of her chair. Thankfully, there was a handicap ramp, so there was no need to lift Kari's chair down any steps. Joel did step in to help Chris so that her wheelchair didn't race down the ramp.
We walked toward a Volkswagen van that appeared to be about eight or nine years old and not in very good condition. There was rust showing around all the tire wells. Gary slid back the side door of the van, lifted Kari out of her wheelchair and placed her in one of the back seats. After making sure she was securely buckled in, he did some things with the wheelchair, folded it and stowed it behind the seats.
Each of the boys came up to the open door and said goodbye to Kari. Peter gave Phyllis a hug before he and TJ headed toward our van parked a couple of spaces away. I handed Joel the keys and told him to get his brothers settled that I would be there shortly.
"Can I drive?" he asked.
"Sorry, son, your permit only allows you to drive when there is only one other adult in the car."
"I know. I just thought ..." he said, took the keys and walked to the van.
"He gets his license this summer. Then my worries really begin," I said. "Please accept our invitation to stay with us when you come for the hearing. We have plenty of room."
"What's this?" Phyllis asked her husband.
"I'll tell you later, dear. I think it's time we got Kari home. She's beginning to look tired," he said. "Crane, I'll get back to you in a day or two after I've talked it over with Phyllis. It's been very nice meeting you and your family."
"Thank you, we've enjoyed meeting your family as well."
I got into the van, buckled up and started the motor. "Well, guys, did you get enough to eat?"
There were mutual sounds of contentment coming from all of them. "I'm stuffed," Peter said, patting his stomach.
"I would think so. You ate as much as your bigger brothers."
"Joel helped with that chicken stuff," he replied.
"Yeah," Joel added, "I liked that gooey cheese on top. "That calamari was good, too. What kind of fish is it? We never had it at home before."
I almost hesitated to tell him what it was. "Since you liked it, I'll tell you. It's what we call squid in the US."
"Yuck! If I knew it was squid, I'd never have eaten it."
"Yes, but you did eat it and you liked it. That's a good lesson to learn. Just because you don't know what some food is, there's no reason not to at least try it. You could wind up liking it like the calamari."
"I guess so," Joel said, but I could tell from his voice that he was not entirely convinced.
We had been on the road for about an hour or so when the boys started to complain that they had to go to the bathroom. We were in between towns, but we were coming up on Bastrop. I decided to stop at the first service station to fill up the gas tank and let the boys use the restroom.
"Joel, stay with your brothers. Don't leave them alone in the restroom," I said pulling up to the gas pump. The boys hopped out of the van and made a beeline for the convenience store entrance. I went about my business, pumping gas. I was putting the gas nozzle back in place when I realized that the boys had still not returned from using the restroom. I immediately began to panic, imagining all sort of horrible things that might have happened. I ran to the entrance and opened the door. I was relieved at what I saw. The six of them were lined up at the checkout counter waiting to pay for the large cups of soft drinks that each of them were holding. Joel had several bills in his hand as he waited to pay for his brothers' drinks.
When I started to reach for my wallet, Joel said, "I've got it, dad."
I smiled and said, "Okay, son." He had very little opportunity to spend any of the allowance that he received each week. I was proud of him that he would spend part of it on his brothers. I just hoped we wouldn't have to make another stop on the way home because of all the liquid in those 32 ounce containers.
Hildy was waiting for us when we arrived home. She was anxious to know how things went with the Wright family. "I'm confident that we will be able to keep Peter," I said, to her multiple questions.
"How confident?" she asked.
"I'd say it's about 90% certain that he will stay."
"Why only 90%? What could the Wrights offer him that you can't?"
"Even though it would put them into a financial bind, they feel a certain loyalty to their family to raise him. I think they are blinded by that loyalty and haven't come to the realization as to what may be best for Peter. I've invited them to stay with us when they come for the hearing. I'm hoping by that time they can get past what they think is their duty toward Peter and realize that taking Peter to raise would place him in a situation of near poverty. Or, if they allow him to live with us and be adopted that he will have every advantage to be able to meet his full potential."
"He couldn't be more loved than he is in this family," Hildy said. "It's not just the money that you can provide that he deserves to stay here, it's those five boys who love him as if he were truly a brother, which in reality he is, regardless of the legal mumbo-jumbo. The judge has to see that and so do the Wrights."
"Let's hope," I said. "By the way, how did the carpet laying go today?"
"They did a great job - and they worked fast. They did it all in just over three hours. Now the only thing holding us up from moving is the furniture delivery. I got a call from the store this afternoon telling me that bedroom furniture will be delivered sometime between eight and four on Wednesday. They wouldn't narrow the time down so it looks like either Manny or I will be spending the day over there waiting for the truck to come. The rest of the furniture is scheduled for delivery on Friday."
"So I guess that means you'll be staying over there after that," I said.
"If things come off on schedule, we should spend our first night in the house on Saturday."
"It's going to feel strange without you here all the time."
"I'll still be here every day except Sundays. It'll just be the night that we won't be here, and besides I can get here in a couple of minutes if I'm needed."
"I know," I said, putting my arm around her shoulder. "We'll still miss you."
Sunday we followed what was becoming a ritual with us - we went horseback riding. Peter was becoming really good at riding Lady. He would take off at a gallop with the rest of the boys, but was soon left behind due to Lady's shorter legs. He wasn't left behind for long. One of the boys, usually TJ, would break off from the posse and come back to ride with him.
I usually rode along with Tracy. Today was no exception. He updated me on the status of the building where he was going to establish his practice. He had interviewed a couple of vet techs and had made an offer to one of them. On Monday he and the tech, Salvador, were going to get the pet boarding area ready to accept pets. He went on for several minutes telling me in detail his plans.
"I'm sorry, Crane," he said. "I'm sure that all this is boring to you, but I get so excited thinking about making my life's dreams come true that I can't help myself."
"I wasn't bored at all. I'm just happy that you're so enthusiastic about starting your practice. I'm sure it will carry over into it and will show through when you deal with your clients."
"Now that I'm going to be around home from now on, Bert has been talking about going to college. I don't think he's going to follow in my footsteps. I think he's more interested in studying chemistry or maybe chemical engineering."
"Has he said where he wants to go to college?"
"Not really, before he left home, I know he had applied to both the University of Texas and Texas A&M."
"What kind of a student was he in high school?"
"He was a good student. I think he was either ranked third or fourth in his graduating class of around 200. I don't think he would have any problem being accepted at either school."
"What about his financial situation?"
"He's got a little bit saved up. I don't think he has spent any of the money that you pay him to help out around here. The problem is, like Rosie and me, he burned his bridges with his family when he left home. His dad is a stubborn old cuss, so I know he won't help him out. I would, but until my business is up and running, I'm not in a position to help. Besides, I have that money to pay you back that I owe."
"It's too late to get into Texas or A&M, but he might be able to sign up for evening classes at UTSA. He could get a couple of the basic freshman classes out of the way before transferring to one of the Universities. Depending on how he does in those classes, I might be willing to provide some financial support in the way of low interest loans and grants. Why don't you suggest that to him, only leave out my possible financial assistance? I would be interested in seeing how he does without the external incentive to excel."
"I'll do it and if he doesn't work hard, I'll kick his butt," Tracy laughed.
The boys started back to school on Monday. I think they were ready. I was glad that they didn't see Hildy and Manfred moving some of their belongings to the new house. Every load of clothes and personal items they carried out of the house drove home the fact that we were going to be alone in the house very soon.
I received a disturbing call from Walter Schultz Monday afternoon. He told me that his wife had a stroke and was in the hospital. He said she was paralyzed on her right side, but the doctors were hopeful that it was only temporary. She wouldn't be able to continue with my sons' music lessons and the recital that was planned for later this month was canceled. I thanked him for calling and wished his wife a speedy and complete recovery.
When I told the boys the news about Mrs. Schultz, I think they were both saddened for her, but also relieved that they wouldn't have to play in the recital.
Gary Wright called me Tuesday evening to let me know that they were accepting our invitation to stay with us the night before the hearing. He said they expected to arrive sometime around six in the evening. I gave him directions to the house and told him we were looking forward to their visit.
Saturday came all too soon. The remainder of Hildy's and Manfred's furniture was delivered before noon. The last of their personal items were transferred to their house shortly after supper. All of us stood and waved at them as they took the golf cart and headed to their new home. If there had been people watching us, they would have thought that Hildy and Manfred were leaving for good.
When I took the boys to school on Monday morning, I stopped by Justin Pierce's office. I wanted to let him know that all of the boys would be absent from school Tuesday morning and possibly all day because of Peter's hearing. He said he would have his secretary take care of notifying their teachers and getting the boys' lessons and homework ready for them to take home this afternoon just in case.
I returned home to find Hildy busy in the kitchen getting ready for the Wright's arrival which was at least eight hours away. Mary's Maids were busy giving the house a thorough cleaning. I had no doubt that Hildy would have a feast prepared for us by the time the Wrights got here. I decided the best thing for me to do was to go into my library and stay out of everybody's way. I made a few phone calls and took care of some business.
"Are they there, yet?" Larry asked, as they were getting into the van after school.
"No, it'll be a couple of hours before they get here. You guys will have time to have a snack and do your homework before they arrive."
Hildy had a plate of brownies waiting for the boys when we walked in the back door. It didn't take them long to run to their rooms and change out of their school uniforms and get back to the breakfast table.
"Thanks, Hildy," Joel said, as he loaded the dishwasher with the plates and glasses they dirtied with their snacks. "You make the best brownies in the whole world."
"You're sweet," Hildy said, giving his shoulder a squeeze.
It was a few minutes past six when the gate buzzer announced that our guests had arrived. I pushed the button to open the gate and headed for the front door. Six boys came flying down the stairs and followed me out onto the front steps. The Wright's van pulled up to the steps. Phyllis opened the passenger side door and struggled to get out. The twins and Chris opened the sliding side door and greeted Kari. I greeted Phyllis while Gary retrieved Kari's wheelchair and unfolded it. After making sure it was secure, he unbuckled Kari's seatbelt and lifted her into the chair. Once that was done, he shook my hand.
"This place is a mansion," he said. "You said you had a large house, but this is unbelievable."
I gave him the short story of how I had inherited the original house and how it had burned down while we were in Florida and how I had this one built to house my growing family. By this time the four older boys had lifted Kari and her wheelchair up the front steps and were heading into the house. Peter had said hi to Phyllis and then retreated to a spot behind me with TJ by his side.
"Do you have any luggage to bring in?" I asked.
"Just the one suitcase, I'll get it," Gary said, and reached into the back of the van and retrieved a rather well worn case.
We went into the house where I introduced them to Hildy. "Let me show you where to put your things. You can also freshen up after the ride, if you'd like."
"Where's Kari?" Phyllis asked.
"The boys said they were going upstairs to the game room," Hildy said. "I'm sure that Kari is with them."
"Hildy, why don't you show Phyllis while Gary and I take the stairs?"
We arrived at the door to Hildy's old apartment just as the elevator doors opened to let Phyllis and Hildy out. "If we ever have a two storey house," Phyllis said to Gary, "I want one of these in it."
"I don't think it's likely," Gary replied.
"Here're your rooms," I said, opening the double doors. "The main bedroom is through that door on the left. The couch over there makes out into a queen size bed. Kari can sleep there or if you would prefer, there is another spare bedroom downstairs."
"This will do fine. More than fine, in fact," Phyllis said. "I think I had better go check on Kari."
"I'll show you where they are," Hildy said, leading the way. From the sounds of laughter coming from the family room when Hildy opened the doors, it was clear that they were enjoying themselves.
"Come on down when you're ready. I sometimes have a glass of wine before we eat. You're welcome to join me."
"Thanks, I will," Gary said.
"Red or white?" I asked Gary, as he descended the stairs. I had just poured myself a glass of red.
"I'll have what you're having. Pour one for Phyllis. We don't often drink wine except on special occasions."
Just then Phyllis and Kari rounded the corner from the elevator. Gary handed her a glass of wine and the three adults settled into chairs in the living room. Kari wheeled herself into the family room where the boys had gathered.
As we were talking Manfred came in and I introduced him to the Wrights. "Pour yourself a glass of wine," I told him. Looking at the nearly empty glasses in front of our guest, I asked them if they would like a refill. They said they would, so I went to the wet bar and opened another bottle and took it with me. I refilled our glasses and settled down in my chair.
"Crane, Phyllis and I have been talking. As much as we feel an obligation to take Peter and raise him, we have come to the conclusion that it would not be best for him and it would not be best for us. We are not going to ask the judge to give us custody of him. We had made this decision before we saw where you live. Seeing this place only confirms the wisdom of our decision."
"Thank you. You don't know what a relief it is to hear you say that." Hildy was standing in the breakfast area and heard what Gary had said. Tears of joy were streaming down her cheeks.