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This part is totally true:

My cousin told us of her experience one day several years ago when she was driving home from some function. On the street in front of her was a fairly large cardboard box. For an instant, she thought about swerving into it to smash it, just for the thrill of it. But she thought better of it and decided to stop and move it off the road. Had there been something heavy or sharp in that box it could easily ruin a tire or the frame of the car.

When she approached the box and started to move it she felt the weight of something inside and stopped to check it out. There, in the bottom of the box was a tiny baby, alive and generally well.

Had she run over that box, well . . .

I honestly don't remember what she said she did with the baby, took it to a hospital or the police, but I know what I would have done.

Matt

The fiction starts now:

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Jesus Loves You

© Matthew Templar

matemp1148@yahoo.com

It wasn't really a strain, the coming holidays. It was just the continuation of a saddening trend that started the year before. You see, my son and daughter-in-law moved to the other coast for his work, taking with them my twin grandsons. They weren't even one year old when they left, and though I was able to visit their second summer away, they couldn't afford to come out the next year for Christmas. I missed them so much.

My wife and our son's mother passed away of breast cancer many years before. The shock of losing her brought out all the good memories of our years together, especially raising Jeremy, our son.

So, I had my work, but it left an empty hole between the evening and the next morning, to say nothing of the long weekends. I tried to keep busy, still attended our church and enjoyed their concerts and children's programs scattered throughout the year.

It didn't take long after my wife's passing to realize that most of 'our' friends were really her friends with whom I had little in common unless she had been there. I did have a close family with whom I enjoyed Thanksgiving with, even when it was just Jeremy and me. But later on, it was just me going.

In fact, I had just left their house and was heading home after a wonderful dinner and great conversation followed by a scrumptious dessert. Oh my, I had a hard time getting out of the comfort of that chair to make my way to my car. They even gifted me with some tasty leftovers, something they always seemed to have for me after each feast.

So, I wasn't depressed really; I just had some time to think about what or who I missed just then. The timing of my trip home was always pinpointed by my passing the billboard almost halfway home on the right-hand side of the road I was on. It must have been sponsored by a nearby church and simply read, 'Jesus Loves You.'

I'd always smiled when I'd passed it before, but that night I was in no mood and began to doubt that, indeed, He did love me. How could He leave me alone without my family close by me?

OH MY GOD!

I almost hit her car!

That lady was parked halfway on the road, right after the curve away from that billboard. I'd been so caught up in my own self-pity that I almost nailed her car's rear end. If it hadn't been such a clear, crisp night, dry as a bone, I'd have skidded into her.

I remember the smoke from the tailpipe and I remember her walking with something in her arms to a box by the side of the road. As I looked in my rearview mirror she was getting in her car, but . . . no, it couldn't be.

Did I see the box move?

I thought I must have been seeing things, but something gnawed at me. What would it take to be sure? If she left a puppy or a hurt animal in there, I'd be so pissed off. But it surely wouldn't last the night in this cold winter weather.

I had to know. I pulled over and waited for her to pass. After a few minutes I determined she either did a U-turn or turned down another road and wasn't going to pass me.

I started a U-turn and almost got creamed by a panel truck trying to get home to a warmed up meal, no doubt. I waved a sorry of sorts to the angry guy driving and completed my attempt at turning.

It was just a cardboard box and it wasn't moving anymore. I began to feel a bit silly for thinking the worst of this woman who I didn't even know, of course.

But still, better safe than sorry, I always said. I hobbled out of the car, still full of that wonderful meal, and walked over to the box. I looked in and, at first, just noticed brown packing paper wadded up and laying inside. I could have sworn she . . .

IT MOVED! I also heard a kind of squeak.

I began to pull out the papers and just tossed them next to the box. I saw what looked like a sack or, no, it was a blanket. Well, even a scared puppy can bite so I wasn't going to stick my hand in there until I could see my victim.

I pulled out two more pieces of brown paper and saw the blanket shaped like it was wrapped around something the size of a . . . baby! I moved the last piece and there he was. Wrapped in the blanket, with just his pink flushed head showing, was a very small baby. He couldn't have been more than a few months old, but I was no judge. Oh, I keep saying 'he', because tucked in his blanket was a scrap of notebook paper upon which had been scrawled 'Jesu'. Actually, it looked like the pen had run dry before the note was complete. I'd have to give it to someone to examine later. It was too dark for me to decipher.

There, before me, smiling into my heart, was a baby boy. He seemed content enough and well cared for, from what I could tell. That is, he didn't seem weak or sick. He was just a baby. He had pink, chubby cheeks and a tiny nose barely visible, squished between those cheeks. He had what Jeremy always called 'Disney Eyes', huge dark brown eyes like on the characters in the fairy tale cartoons that the Disney Studios were famous for. They were so alive and looking so intent, it seemed to me.

I picked him up and his beautiful eyes never left mine. There seemed to be a smile plastered to his face all the time. I always thought that babies that age only smiled when they had gas. If so, this little tyke had beans for lunch and dinner.

My only recourse, as I saw it, was to whisk the little guy to the next hospital and let them call the authorities to deal with him. You should have seen me, trying to bind him up in the passenger's seatbelt to keep my precious cargo safe on our journey. Even so, I had my hand constantly on him to keep him from sliding. I guess I was a bit of a worry-wart.

Soon enough we came to the county hospital. Of course, I had been obsessing about what to do with Jesu. I'd noticed, when the little guy had gotten warm in the car, besides falling asleep, his pink cheeks warmed to their true complexion which was dark enough to be Hispanic. He sure was a darling. He seemed to have no worries in the world, so far. Little did he know what must be in store for him down the road, literally.

I had been toying with the idea of just leaving him inside the front door but shuddered at the idea of stooping so low, as low as the woman, perhaps his mother, who'd left him for, well, dead.

I carefully pulled the seat strap away from his cocoon and carried him through the front doors to the front desk. He felt so warm and he wiggled around as if to try to find the most comfortable position in which to cuddle up to me. When he quit moving, I swear I heard him sigh and go completely relaxed. I almost cried, it was so precious a moment for me.

I tried to explain the situation to the front desk but she referred me to Emergency who seemed very busy when they just pointed to a chair, without even looking up, and said someone would be right with me, us. As soon as I sat down Jesu turned into me and snuggled as best he could while wrapped in his blanket. Another long, contented sigh and he was fast asleep again.

It may have been a long time that we sat there. I was so enamored by this little bundle, so peaceful in his sleep, that I barely noticed the shadow indicating someone standing over us.

"I'm Helen, the night nurse tonight. Is there something wrong with your baby?"

"No. Well, no, I mean, I don't know, that is, he's not really mine."

"He sure seems to be comfortable in your arms. How may I help you, sir?"

"Henry, Henry Wilcott. I was driving on the road and passed a lady putting something, a bundle, into a cardboard box. I thought I saw the box move when she was leaving so I turned around and found this little charmer in there. She'd abandoned him, I guess."

"I see, Mr. Wilcott. So, is your baby hurt or sick?"

"No, I thought I explained. He's not really mine. He's been abandoned and, truthfully, I haven't taken him out of his blanket to see if he's injured. He doesn't seem to be hurting."

"No" said the nurse, smiling. "He seems to be very comfortable just where he is, doesn't he. Still, we should make sure. Could you follow me please?"

We wound our way through doors and hallways until she found an examining room that was available.

"Okay, lay your baby . . ."

"No, see, he's not really my-y-y baby. I just found him. I guess I'm not making that too clear."

"Oh, it's clear enough, sir. But honestly, he does like your arms," she said smiling to both of us.

I laid him down and he jerked like I'd dropped him. I can remember Jeremy doing that when he was that size, no longer being held and no longer feeling safe, it would seem.

Little Jesu opened his eyes and looked at me with a sad frown that caused his chin to begin to quiver and move into a cry until I tickled his chest then just laid my hand on him. It practically covered his whole torso. His eyes seemed to smile at me and then they closed almost immediately.

"Well, I'll be. I thought for sure we were going to have an all out screamer on our hands until he felt yours on him. Are you sure this baby doesn't know you?"

"Ma'am, do I look like I would have a baby at my age? I have a son that's almost 25, and twin grandchildren that are almost two."

"I believe you. Let's get this blanket off and see if there's more than just a cute little noggin on this child, hidden inside."

She began to carefully unwrap the babe, uh, Jesu, and bared his arms next to his body. They were just the right plumpness as far as I could tell. His little t-shirt was a bit dirty but just looked like any shirt on a drooling, messy baby. He had a disposable diaper on but it had no drawings or labels on it like Jeremy's had.

"Oh, this baby has been to some government facility, or the mother has gotten some diapers from one. These are only obtained at such a place."

"So, do you suppose they were homeless?"

"No, not necessarily," answered the nurse. "She could have just applied for assistance and gotten a package of diapers in the deal. He looks healthy enough."

Jesu had started to fuss a bit as any baby would, just being exposed to the cruel, cold world, having had their security removed from around them.

My hand automatically came up to lay on his upper torso, once again, gently rubbing up and down. He immediately stopped fussing and lay perfectly still, except he'd opened his eyes. He stared straight into my eyes, penetrating deep within me, like he was checking out who I really was.

"That baby sure has a thing for you, Mr. Wilcott. Are you sure . . . ?"

"Nurse, I assure you I have never laid eyes on this child before this night."

"Well, we can't keep calling him 'Baby'. Maybe we should give him a name at least temporarily to . . ."

"Jesu."

"What?"

Jesu" I repeated. "His name is Jesu."

"Oh? But I thought you didn't know this child," said Nurse Helen, as she squinted her eyes at me like one of us was losing it.

"No, no. I, uh, there was this note left, tucked into his blanket." I pulled the scrap of paper from my coat pocket and handed it to her.

"'Keep Jesus', it says. The pen didn't write very well but it left a groove in the paper. Yes, don't you think? 'Keep Jesus'." She automatically pronounced it with the J as a Y as in Spanish, as I had been doing. That might have been because I saw no other way to pronounce Jesu.

"Yes, I see what you mean. That's all. No mother's name of course."

"So, little Jesus and just as precious, for now," the nurse said, reaching down to pick him up.

Jesus started to squirm and fuss. Since his arms were free he started to wave them around. He was doing that pouty thing with his chin until . . .

"W-A-A-A-A!"

Ambulances were quieter than that little tiger at the moment.

"Oh my," exclaimed the nurse, looking into the bright red face and tightly closed eyes of our poor abused boy. "His lungs seem to work well, don't you think?"

I had to chuckle. There's something about the cry of children that wrenched my heart but I knew there was no reason for Jesus to feel tormented.

"Help me remove his shirt. I want to be sure he has no injuries we can't see."

She laid him down and began pulling the tiny shirt over his punkin head. He never let up on his screams.

"Everything okay in there?" came a voice from the hall.

We both kind of jumped and looked at each other and laughed for no good reason.

"Yes. We're fine. Just being attacked by a tiny one with perfect lungs," laughed the nurse.

As I'd imagined, there probably wasn't an inch of the hospital that couldn't hear the resounding voice of one so small.

"Hmmm, I have a suggestion. You remove his shirt and lift him so we can check his upper body."

I was about to ask why but just took hold of Jesus to ease off the shirt, instead.

The crying immediately stopped!

The nurse and I exchanged looks and she began to open her mouth.

I interrupted her and answered her unspoken question once again, "I assure you, I've never seen him before this evening."

But it was clear to all three of us that Jesus preferred my touch over the nurse's. Maybe my hands were warmer or stronger feeling. I didn't know then. I still don't know.

We finally undressed him completely. He was definitely a boy and seemed to have all the right parts in all the right places. I poked his puffed up belly and he cooed for me. His smile was becoming infectious. I started thinking that I needed to get home and call my son and ask how everyone was.

Just as the nurse put on a new diaper he baptized it. She laughed and got another and had a better time with it. It seemed like, as long as he could see me, feel me close, he was okay; he didn't fuss or cry.

"We will need to call the authorities and have them look after our little one, Mr. Wilcott. Could you wait and give them a statement when they arrive? It shouldn't be more than about forty-five minutes."

The very sound of her request sent a chill up my spine that made me shiver. It sounded so climactic. The thought flashed that I'd never see him again and he'd be at the mercy of the Children Services system of our state. That thought caused another shudder.

"Oh, no, I think I need to get going," I said, looking at my watch but not really seeing it. "Uhm, they certainly can call and I'd be glad to give them a statement. In fact, if they need any help in getting him situated, I'd be glad to help out however I can."

"That's very generous of you, sir. I'll certainly tell the person that picks him up."

"Here's my card," I said, removing my wallet to grab two out of it. "I do telecommute, so I'm at this number most of the day, except for meetings and such." I had a small office off of the kitchen that worked perfectly for my work.

I picked up Jesus after the nurse rewrapped him in his blanket. He had been getting fussy, maybe because it was past his dinnertime. As he went to my chest he turned his head toward me, looking me right in the eyes. He turned a bit farther, did his little squiggle and settled right down. He felt so small and warm, and seemed to fit so well where he was. We both sighed at exactly the same time.

"Amazing. I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it for myself," the nurse said, crossing her arms and shaking her head. "Well, excuse me while I make the call. You can say goodbye to your little one."

That same cold chill rode up my spine as she left the room and Jesus and I together.

I rubbed his black hair back while he slept or rested, anyway. Like most babies' hair, his was silky smooth but there was so much of it.

I thought about a time when Jeremy was a little older than Jesus. He went through a period when I was the only one that could hold him or feed him if I were near. Luckily, he allowed my wife to deal with him when I was at work or away, but when I came in, he knew and cried until he was in my arms. It turned out to be during the time we visited her relatives for Thanksgiving that year. She was so embarrassed. I didn't see a problem, but then, I was the hero, that time.

Soon the nurse was back and Jesus opened his eyes with a start when the door closed behind her. He started to fuss, even in my arms. Somehow he noticed a jar of warmed baby food in the nurse's hand.

I turned him around in my arms and he began to take small spoonfuls of the thick meal before him. He was very content to let her feed him, though he was still in my arms.

"They said they'd come right away as soon as they found someone and asked if you would stay. I told them you were feeling like you needed to leave. Was that okay?" she said, concentrating on her job, feeding the hungry boy.

"Yes, that's fine. Truthfully, I'm just beginning to feel like he may be trying very hard to bond with me and I think that will only hurt him in the end. There's no way I could have a child, especially so young. It will be better for him if I make myself scarce."

I felt Jesus shift where he lay in my lap, taking spoonful after spoonful.

"Oh, Mr. Wilcott, you'd be surprised what our Children Services group will allow these days. But you certainly have no responsibility for him. He just seems to prefer you, that is, until the next deserving person comes along. I'm sure he'll be fine with whomever they choose to place him."

She dropped the spoon into the empty jar, wiped his mouth and was rewarded with a smile and a nice burp from Jesus. Then she leaned back in her chair.

"See? He seems to be liking me more and more." She reached for Jesus and lifted him to her arms to burp him a bit more. He lay across her shoulder as she gently patted him.

I could see him begin to start fussing, though probably from the bubble he may have been still holding onto inside. Soon, he was crying and fidgeting.

Helen held Jesus at arms length and told him, "Well, you just have to get used to others holding you, little man. Mr. Wilcott is about to leave now and someone else . . .

Well, the dam broke and havoc reigned. Jesus started to cry, and cry, and cry.

"Maybe I should just go," I said with my hand on the door handle.

"Okay, but let's just try something, please?" she said as she handed over the small bundle of crying boy one last time.

Silence. As though a switch were thrown, he stopped crying and settled into me. I kissed him on the head and he sighed his contented sigh.

"I'll be. I've never seen the like, not this often anyway. He sure is into you, Mr. Wilcott."

I decided to be open with her, after all, she had been very kind to us. Ha. Us.

"And that's the problem developing here, Helen, isn't it," I began. "I'm growing very fond of this, this, (sigh) this boy. It's getting harder and harder for me to go through that door, get in my car and go home like none of this happened. I guess I'm just an old softy. I raised a fine boy who has given me two beautiful twin boys. My wife is gone and I'm by myself these days, wishing my family wasn't on the other side of this continent. As it is I'll be leaving part of my heart with this boy. I can't help it."

Helen, the nurse, nodded and smiled warmly. "I know someone else who will be sad at your separation, Mr. Wilcott."

"Please, Henry, or really, my friends call me Hank."

"I understand your reticence, Hank. I deal with seeing my children leaving here every day. A good day has them cheerful or even crying like little Jesus. A bad day . . . well, a bad day is something that is hard to get over when it means a little one didn't make it. So, if you need to leave, like I said, I understand."

Was that a tear I saw dropping from her eye?

My bundle of warmth jerked when I pulled him from my chest and handed him to Helen. She seemed to be among the finest people I'd known and would be good for Jesus until he was received by Children Services. I cringed to think.

"Goodbye now, and thank you for your kindness. I wish, well, never mind. Bye."

I turned and grabbed the door handle again. Jesus seemed to be unaware of my leaving. He was still sleeping, contentedly in Helen's arms.

"What, Hank? Please say what's on your mind," she insisted.

"Oh, like I said, I'm just an old sentimental man. I just wanted to know what happens to the boy. But, of course, not just tomorrow. I . . . I know there's no way they'll do that. I just wanted to maybe help out when and if it were needed. I know it's not possible. Bye now."

The door seemed pretty blurry when I pulled on it again. I took a step and felt a hand on my shoulder. Of course it was Helen's.

"I'll ask, Hank. It never hurts to ask, and I have all your information and know where to call to get more. Besides, I'm sure they'll want to follow up with you on the details tomorrow or maybe Monday."

"Of course. I'll be home waiting, then. Thank you again for everything, Helen. I'm honored to know you."

"And I, you, kind sir," she added as the door began to close.

I couldn't remember how we'd got there, so I stood there for a moment, trying to get my bearings, as the door clicked shut. Just as I made my decision on a direction I heard the most god-awful scream. I had to get out of there or I'd kidnap the boy. My tears began to flow and my vision suffered for it.

I found my way out of the hospital but by another door, and made my way around the building. I found my car and sat for a minute to collect myself. I looked down at my arms, some baby food on my shirt where he'd turned into me. I felt so empty, so alone.

All I could think of was that billboard, 'Jesus Loves You.' Well, I knew the other, littler one did, but I was getting upset thinking about the joke the other One played on me.

"Not nice, Lord," I said out loud, even looking up, "To play with my heart like that; not nice at all."

I got the car into gear and made my way to the exit. I had to pass the front doors to get out of the parking lot. As I did, I saw Helen standing inside the huge double doors with my, I mean, with Jesus in her arms. Ha! I could also see that she was barely able to hold him. He was kicking so hard one of her arms would fall away then he seemed to try to twist out of her grasp. He really was quite a tiger, that one. Standing beside Helen was an orderly, dressed in green scrubs, holding two big shopping bags. They were both looking very intently at my car as I slowed in the light of the overhang, in front of them.

I could see Helen get real excited, slap the young man on the shoulder and point at my car. He pushed open the door and ran to my car's passenger side and rapped on the window.

I stopped and rolled the window down.

"Uhm, Mr. Wilcott?" he asked.

"Yes, young man. What's going on?"

"Well, I think there's some problem with the county. But Mrs. Parker knows more about it, if you'll wait for her."

He turned around and Helen had approached the car behind him by then. She turned to the orderly, said something and motioned to the ground with her head. He set down the two bags and went back inside the hospital.

"Hank, I'm sorry to shanghai you but we have a problem. Children Services won't be able to come out until Monday. That's four days, well, four nights anyway. I was wondering if you'd be kind enough to take Jesus for that time. He won't quit crying. He hasn't stopped since you left."

"Oh, no. I just couldn't, Helen. I have nothing at home for a baby. I'd need so much . . ."

"It's all in these bags, Hank. I had Ned pull it all together. There's fresh clothes and bottles and food and diapers, even two blankets. Oh, I'd hate to make him suffer those few days here. It's not a very stimulating place, I'm afraid."

"But when Monday comes, how will I . . . what will happen? I, I just don't know if I can do it."

Then she said those words, the words that spelled the ultimate demise of my resolve to part company with this little cherub.

"Please, Hank. Jesus loves you. You know it's true. I even think he needs you right now. Please say yes."

"But I don't have a car seat," I countered. I was quickly running out of excuses.

"Yes, you do," she said with a huge smile turning to see Ned coming through the door with a car seat in hand. "It belongs to one of the other nurses, but she has two. So now you really have no excuse, and we're about to freeze our little guy out here."

I sat there for maybe a full minute, shook my head and said, "I'll pull over."

In a few minutes the bags were loaded, we'd figured out how to attach the car seat and buckle in a screaming Jesus. Helen thanked me again, told me to get moving so we didn't catch cold and slammed the door.

I don't understand, but as soon as the door closed, Jesus started to calm a bit. I reached back and smoothed his hair and brushed his cheek.

"There, there, little po-dunk. We're together again. All is well. We'll be home in a few minutes."

I heard some sniffling, some attempts at some deep breaths, then an unforgettable sigh, and then silence. It was almost eerie.

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Once we were inside, after a quiet ride of about twenty minutes, I laid Jesus on my couch. I kneeled in front of him as he opened his eyes.

"Welcome to my home, little man. This is your home too, now."

After his huge smile, like he understood every word, I went out to retrieve the two bags, and my sack of leftovers from the car in the garage. He smiled again when I stood over him, bright eyed, his cheeks once again flushed with blood trying to warm his body.

"Well, you little rascal, you've certainly had a day, haven't you? I think I have too. So, I think we need to get some sleep. What do you say?"

As if on cue he gurgled and bubbles came out to make a sparkling form on his lips. I laughed out loud and it scared him, making him jerk again, but he just smiled afterward.

I found another diaper and changed him. I was glad he had no rashes or sores of any kind. His skin was so pure and flawless as you would expect any healthy baby's to be. I couldn't imagine him uncomfortable in the slightest. I changed his t-shirt and found a long cotton gown for him to sleep in. We took one of the bags with a supply of diapers, clothes and the blankets up to my guest bedroom.

I laid him down on the bed and went to the closet to grab a few extra pillows to put around him. Before I could get back he was winding up into a full blown cry again. Only that time, even as I stood over him, he didn't relent; he continued to cry. I was in shock and dumbfounded as to what to do. Had I lost my charm? Of course, I grabbed him into my arms and tried to comfort him, but he was having none of it.

I was so tired I grabbed up his blankets, two of the extra pillows and walked into my bedroom. I gently laid him down on my bed so I could get undressed.

He immediately stopped crying. I think I was in more shock than before. No one would have believed that. How could he have known?

"You are one little vixen, aren't you, Jesus? How do you know this is my bed? I suppose you think I'm going to let you sleep with me tonight, huh?

He actually gurgled and cooed through his smiling face. He seemed to be getting cuter every minute. I knew I was hopelessly in love.

Down to my boxer briefs, I pulled back the sheets on my bed and eased in so as not to push Jesus off. I then reached for him and pulled him onto my chest. He looked down at me and smiled some more.

"We need to sleep now, little one. Will you be okay next to me?"

He turned his head and seemed to nestle it into the hair on my chest. Then he breathed in twice with his nose and sneezed, shaking the whole bed. He looked as surprised as I was.

"Well, you certainly have your strength. Let's rest up so you can continue to grow and grow. Then one day, I'll be lying on your chest."

He couldn't have understood me, but his look was like laughter from his eyes, those huge brown orbs that stole my heart.

I moved him to my side and pulled him next to me, positioning the extra pillow on the other side to keep him tight against me. Almost immediately his eyes closed and so did mine. I was exhausted.

          * * * * *

The next morning found me standing in the kitchen, in just my undies, with my parcel, warming formula for one hungry baby. Perfect as I thought he may have been, he still had only one way to indicate his needs and he used that well to his advantage. Thus, after fidgeting and cooing for a while in the early dawn, just as bright rays of sun began to flood our room, he began to get a bit vocal in his demands.

He seemed so attentive to all around him. I swear his eyes moved with my actions like he was following every gesture. When I had a bottle stuck in water warming, I moved to make my tea and he fidgeted in his blanket like I was taking too much time.

"We have to wait for the water to warm your food, po-dunk, or it will give you a tummy ache, right there," I told him, tickling his tummy through the cloth.

I was once again rewarded with his smiling face, one which I could get used to. Once my water was hot and poured to steep the tea in a tea pot, I pulled out his breakfast and tested it on my wrist.

"Aw. Perfect, just like you, my little Jesus. Just like you."

A moment later we lay back in my bed, barely propped up with pillows as he slurped his meal. I wanted to see his arms and see him move more freely so I unwrapped his blanket and pulled it to his waist. His hands came up to touch the bottle then his eyes moved over to gaze into mine.

"What are we going to do with you, my wonder? You've certainly stolen my heart. How someone could have dumped you there is beyond me. You are much too precious to part with, I'm afraid."

After his drink of formula, some tickle time, a change of stinky diaper and some preventative salve to his pink cheeks, I rummaged through the bag for something more substantial for him. A jar of mixed fruit looked like just the right breakfast. I set the open jar in his hot water and put two slices of whole grain bread in the toaster for me.

As he ate his fruit I ate my toast. At some point I touched his mouth with some of my preserves and his eyes crushed closed and his head shook, not really liking the strong flavors, I assume.

The day went much the same. It was almost noon before I realized that, except for a t-shirt, I hadn't bothered to dress though he was attired in a clean t-shirt and tiny shorts and small wonderful little sockies. He looked so cute and grown up. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and I really wasn't expected to do any serious work. I had for many years before that, simply because I had nothing else on my agenda, but I had plenty to do that afternoon.

I loved to just let him flail his little arms and legs freely and then I'd roll him onto his tummy to explore his world within the few feet of his eye span. He seemed to take in everything, very curious and intense. That was a good thing for I knew his world wouldn't be very accepting of such as he unless he was lucky enough to get someone who would love him like, well, like I loved him already.

But I couldn't cry. I was too happy. Our evening was the same as the rest of the day. He would begin to fuss, I'd check his diaper for any special gifts he'd left me and then he would eat. When he began to smell my dinner cooking he got fidgety until he had his spoon in his mouth and some vegetable concoction was sliding down his throat.

He napped off and on and on one occasion so did I, with him next to me in our bed. I never did wrap him in his blanket so his arms were free except once on Sunday when we went to the store together.

All he had to wear was from the hospital and was nice enough, just white and plain. I bought him some t-shirts and sleeping gowns that were brightly printed with animals and cartoon characters. I even got diapers that were printed as colorfully. He seemed to brighten even more when he wore bright clothes like that. I also bought more of those little socks and a cute knit hat for the cold weather.

I laughed when he strained to look at the hat as I tried to put it on his head. I'd move it up to pull over his head and his eyes would take his head up to see what was happening, forcing me to wait until he was looking at me so I could try again. Finally, hat on noggin, he was certainly a charmer.

"You're going to make some little partner of yours very happy one day, little mite."

He smiled just like he had a clue what I was saying.

I found a children's book in my son's room and read to Jesus several times from it, until his eyes closed and a nap ensued. Sunday night was the hardest. I was dreading Monday and the arrival of the county to whisk him away to some stranger's arms.

But, alas, the inevitable happened and we were visited by a worker from Children's Services. She seemed nice enough but wasn't very forthcoming about telling me his eventual destination or if I could know how he was doing.

The parting was as traumatic for me as for Jesus. I could hear him crying in the car on the street until they drove off. When I finally got too cold, looking to see if they would return to throw the little poop into my arms and leave in disgust from his belligerent screams, which never happened, of course, I walked back into the house and slumped into my chair.

I felt the urges of life overtake my body and the need for the bathroom become stronger than my sadness. I realized that the sun was already setting, I hadn't eaten a thing since our last breakfast together and I hadn't done a lick of work, either.

I finally retired for the evening, having perked up a bit, allowing me to take in some sustenance. I think I did all the right things before going to bed that night but I really don't remember doing them. When I threw back the covers to get into our, I mean, my bed I saw a flash of color fall to the floor. When I circled the bed to retrieve it, I found his little knit hat on the floor. I picked it up and crawled into bed, then lost it completely as, finally, sleep overtook me.

The year passed all too slowly until one night with a tray of dinner in front of me and benign television programming playing on the screen, I saw an ad for the Children Services division of our county and a plea for respite care providers and foster parents. I hurried to write down the number and within a few days had scheduled an interview with the coordinator of their respite care program. I would be available to help foster parents when they needed to be free from their charges to do whatever they needed. See, some foster parents aren't looking for adoption or a permanent placement. In fact some are committed to provide a safe home for kids whose actions may have landed them in some court appointed juvenile facility had that home not been available to them. So, the foster parent or parents weren't expecting to lay a lasting foundation and build up a strong bond with some children in these cases. That meant that their personal lives were kept separate from their job of fostering children.

It sounds heartless and cold but one, it was needed and two, it was certainly a lot better than an orphanage or a juvenile home for some child that just needed some attention and understanding.

When I was asked why I wanted to do this, I related my recent experience with Jesus and my desire that no child ever be left out in the cold ever again.

"Mr. Wilcott, we can't save every child but, with your help, we can make the lives of a few a lot more pleasant."

That was good enough for me.

The way it worked, evidently, was to give the foster parent a list of three or four names to contact to see if they would care for their charges for whatever period of time was required. There was also some stipend allowed from the money the foster parent got from Children Services, but that certainly wasn't important to me.

It was a week or so before Christmas when I received a call from a nice sounding lady saying all my checks and investigations had proven satisfactory and I would be placed on a list to serve when asked. It was only a day or so later when I got my first call.

"Oh, I'm sorry, Mr. Wilcott. I must have gotten my wires crossed somehow," said a harried voice over the phone.

"Why do you say that, ma'am. What can I do for you?"

"I have you on a list for respite care providers from the county but I didn't expect a single man to answer. Not under these circumstances."

"Oh. And what are those circumstances?" I asked.

"I was able to get a flight to visit my family for Christmas , but there's no way I can take my foster child on such short notice. But we're talking about a baby here, not a child of the age I'm sure you would prefer."

"Well, let's don't jump to conclusions, ma'am. My recent experiences had me dealing with a practically newborn baby for a few days and I loved every minute of it, in fact we both did."

"So, that could be a problem too. You see this child hasn't given me a spare moment since he's come into my life. He certainly is a handful. I would hate to throw you into the lion's den, so to speak, on your first go at this. I'm pretty new at fostering, myself."

"I would love to help you out, ma'am. I have no plans for the holidays except for dinner on Christmas. I could come and visit to see the child and see if we're compatible. How does that sound?"

As she began to speak I heard a baby's cry behind her, slightly muffled. Even so, the volume would have made my little Jesus proud.

"Oh, I need to go. How about tomorrow for our meet and then three days before Christmas until New Years day is when I'm gone. We can work out payment and such tomorrow. Here's my address."

She seemed in such a hurry that it was all I could do to get the information down, repeat it to her and assure her I'd be there in the early afternoon. She hung up, calling over her shoulder that she was coming with food. Ha!

My heart swelled at first then emptied just as fast. Scenarios of what I was getting into were flashing through my mind. I also realized, if for some reason I couldn't or wouldn't take the child, she wouldn't be able to leave to visit her family.

The next day came soon enough, held down by my anxiety. 'Maybe I shouldn't set myself up for this again,' I thought as I drove to her house. 'If I let her know today, there might still be time to find someone else.' So, it was decided; I'd let her know the moment I walked in that something came up. Yeah, that's it. Something. What? A big wuss that wasn't strong enough to hold a baby or deal with it for a week? Anyway, it was decided.

I knocked and waited and waited at the door in the cold. When I thought I must have gotten my times mixed up I heard walking and finally, the door swung open.

"Mr. Wilcott, oh, thank you for coming. You have no idea how happy I am that you came. Come right in." She moved aside and motioned me in. She was a young lady with a bright personality and was quite attractive.

"I must tell you though before . . ." I started, primed to be strong about my goal.

"Oh, no. It's quite alright, I assure you. Please let me take your coat and come into the living room. I'm about to get the little cutie up from his nappie. Maybe he'll be calm enough for a while, for you to get to know him."

"Well, I'm sure you must be desperate for . . ."

"Oh, you have no idea. See, my dad is not very strong and, actually, Mom was thinking this might be our last Christmas together. Everyone will be there for the first time in years. Isn't that wonderful, uh, Mr. Wilcott?"

"Hank. Call me Hank. Are you sure there isn't another respite person . . .?"

"You know, Hank, you're right. You were not only last on the list but I was actually asked not to contact you because this would be your very first time with respite care. But you seem so nice and secure, I'm sure you'll do fine."

Great!

"I'm really not prepared for . . ."

"Don't you worry about a thing. I've already started gathering all of his needs, clothes, foods, diapers, in fact you could take some with you tonight. Make it easier on the day of, huh?"

"I'm sure it would but really Mrs. . . ."

"Miss. I'm Miss Burton. Denise Burton. I have had courses in child development just so I could start to foster several children like this one. Call me Denise."

I didn't even have a chance to open my mouth before we heard the gurgles and squeaks leading up to a cry to 'come and get me' from the next room.

"There he is now. Perfect timing. That's a first with him, you know."

She stood and went into the next room. I could hear her talking baby talk to her baby boy and I could also hear that it did little to stop his attempts at an all out cry.

She came back with several blankets wrapped around a bundle that must have been twice as big as the baby inside. It must have been stifling in there.

"Well, here is my little one. Hank, may I introduce . . ."

The bellow from within those blankets could have stopped a ship at night! If I didn't know better I'd swear it sounded just like my . . .

". . . My Jesus to you?"

She lowered him to my arms and I almost dropped him in shock. Of course he jerked when I did that and it forced his eyes to open right into mine.

Silence. Squiggles, cuddling in and a big sigh.

"Oh my. I've never had him do that before. I think he must like your cologne or something. I'll have to ask you what you wear."

"I, I don't wear cologne or aftershave. I, well, I'll have to admit, the last time I had a baby in my arms (I tried as hard as I could to keep my cool; to not cry out loud like a blithering idiot, I was so happy.) he did the exact same thing."

The little darling turned to look up at me from his nesting place against my chest. His smile was radiant. No, not radiant, just intimate. It was between him and me; ours alone.

"Oh, look. Isn't that cute? He must have a little gas."

I started to remove one of the three blankets he was wrapped in. When I finished I took off another. I was hot in the room and he was hot against me. I'm sure he was at least medium rare in all those coverings.

"Oh, Mr. uh, Hank, I don't know. I don't want him to catch cold right before I go. Do you think that's wise?"

"Denise, it's very warm in here and it's perfect for a growing boy to stretch out his little bones and tell us about his day. He must be a year old by now?"

"But he'll scream. He's never let me . . . Well, he seems to like it when you hold him like that."

I'd sat him up on his padded rear end, letting him look around the room. Jesus hummed and even laughed a bit as he tried to turn around and almost fell off my leg. He laughed again and so did I.

My heart was soaring right about then. He was so big to me. There was so much more of him to love. Had she said the trip was cancelled I would have taken her to the airport and thrown her on the next plane. I was overjoyed.

"He seems so natural in your care, Hank. You may not believe it when I tell you but he isn't this happy with me all the time."

"Oh, I believe you, Denise. You know, some babies just have a way of knowing things. I guess he's taken to me a bit."

"I should say so. Now, you were saying why you couldn't, something. I didn't catch it all."

"I said that? Really, I think you heard me say something like I couldn't imagine you not being able to go to your family's for Christmas."

"Thank you, Hank. I think I can safely say I'm leaving my little charge in good hands."

The time, which seemed to drag by all day up to that moment, flew by until it was time for me to go. I'd changed Jesus and fed him and his eyes had just started to get heavy. It looked like he was trying with all his might to keep them open. I could imagine him being afraid to close them, not wanting to awake and not have me there for him again. But was I being too egotistical?

"This has been a delight, Hank. I think I'll enjoy my trip even more knowing you will be here with Jesus. You certainly have a way with him."

I didn't want to hand him back to her. He'd given up and was fast asleep. I almost wept for him when I thought of him waking up. But I was thrilled to have him with me for almost two weeks. I'd worked out with Denise to come early the day before so she had plenty of time to get packed and ready for the trip. She said she appreciated my thoughtfulness. I didn't even feel guilty for my selfishness.

I made two trips to load what she had set aside already, then came back in to say goodbye. Even though he was sound asleep, I held his tiny hand and whispered to him, "Four days, Jesus, and we'll get to play and have fun together aga . . . uh, for a while. Be patient, little man."

He snuggled into Denise like he did when I held him.

"Oh, my. What's he doing? Oh, he's never done that before. How special. Maybe I should take him with . . ."

It was my turn to interrupt.

"No. You need to be with your father and your family. You just rest assured that we'll do just fine for that short a time."

I left and started to walk down the steps of the small porch in front of her house. As the door clicked I heard a little voice begin to start in on what could have been a whole cacophony of sounds.

"Oh, no, little one. He'll be right back in a few days. You just be patient a bit longer and you can have his arms once more." Her voice was pleading but sweet. I'm sure she wanted to love him as much as she dared. Being a foster parent was a tricky job. Getting too emotionally involved wasn't at all wise.

But the boy seemed to know her heart all of a sudden. He tapered off his bellowing and quieted down to a snivel.

I smiled as I fairly danced to the car.

           * * * * *

To say our time together for those few days was magical would be the understatement of all time. My little Jesus was an angel from day one. Everyday began with us waking and lying together until his tummy told him to warn me of something about to happen. Once or twice his tummy gurgled and we laughed together at the sound. He was so cute.

He'd munch a little teething biscuit while I made breakfast, after changing his diaper. After breakfast we'd climb into the shower and laugh and squirm and sputter when that nasty water got into our faces. Clean and as slippery as can be, we dried and got dressed for the day.

Two or three days I had work to do, but not for too long. I tried to time it during his naps but, frankly, by the time his afternoon nap came around, we slept together.

There never seemed to be a shortage of what we could get into. One day I made biscuits from scratch and I must have set his curious little butt too close to the bag of flour on the counter. Soon we were both covered with the stuff. I laughed at his antics like he knew full well what he'd done. Somehow, I always thought there was some truth to that.

Two wonderful things happened on Christmas. First, I had my usual dinner over at my friends' house, but this time I brought a date. When I told them, I said he wouldn't eat too much. They were all over him when we arrived. Questions and answers took up the first hour. I hadn't talked to them long enough to tell them of finding Jesus before that night, the year before.

Their children did very well playing with Jesus too. He was having the time of his life as long as I was within sight of him. After the last serving of dessert was passed, which we enjoyed in their family room, I said I'd trained him to keep me from having to do dishes at my friends' house. He started to fidget when I left to help the first time. I had one of the kids bring him into the kitchen when I insisted on helping with the dessert dishes. But he seemed to be growing more comfortable, being alone with the children, as long as I was near.

It was an early afternoon dinner and I said I really had to go home so I could call Jeremy. They asked that I do it at their house so they could say hi to my son, too. That was my second wonderful thing.

It wasn't too long into our conversation when Jesus let out a squawk. Jeremy's wife, Brenda, was talking and asked who that was. I was delighted to tell them the story after putting us on their speakerphone. Jeremy sounded a bit choked up when I mentioned how much I was enjoying this little delight of mine. I said how much he reminded me of raising Jeremy and how proud I was to see what my son had become.

The evening was over too quickly. I was flying from cloud to cloud as though the world was marshmallow and I was in cotton candy heaven. Jesus had conked out long before and the kids were ready for bed. They each kissed Jesus good night as they filed up the stairs, weary from a fun-filled day for them as well.

I said my goodbyes for each of us and headed home. It was one of the most wonderful days of my life.

As I drove along, trying very hard not to look over at my sleeping bundle too much, for fear of crashing, I remember passing by that billboard.

Jesus Loves You.

I did look at Jesus and felt a welling up of emotions that almost made me pull over. I silently thanked the other Jesus for my little Jesus and the joy He had let me have with him.

Then we drove past the hospital and I so much wanted to pull in and show off Jesus to Helen, our wonderful nurse from just the year before. But I had responsibilities with me and needed to get us to bed.

As I put him to bed that night I swear I heard his soft whisper say, "Papa."

Of course, Denise called from her parents' house several times to ask about Jesus. One time I had him in my arms and he laughed into the phone. My pride got the best of me as I thought he was bragging to her about what a wonderful time he was having.

During our talks after that, that is, Jesus and my talks, (though I did most of the talking and he did most of the squirming and trying out his own new words), I explained to him how he must be a nicer, happier young boy no matter who he was with. That there were many nice people out there for him, like Denise and the kids he played with. I think he got it. Time would tell. Yeah, right.

He'd always end up laughing and invariably bring me to tears almost when I heard him say, "Papa."

The dreaded day came, all too soon. When I got the call that Denise was home I almost cried. Could they find us if we hightailed it out of town? I knew better but my life would never be the same without Jesus in it. Jesus was playing with a truck on the floor when the call came in and looked up. I think he could see the sadness take over my body. He just lowered his head and played, but with less energy than before.

I made Denise promise that she call me for the slightest thing, no matter when, if she needed someone to watch Jesus. I never did tell her that we knew each other before our respite experience. I never got a chance to after New Years day.

I never saw Denise again. She had decided, even before she got home, that she would move to be with her father during his last days. Somehow, she was able to take Jesus with her; the county allowed it since Jesus had no relatives anyway.

I waited almost two months for a call from her before I called the respite care administrators to find out if she was okay. I was heart broken that I'd never see Jesus again, even for a brief visit.

Over the next months, I received requests for respite care from several families. I refused them all. The agency called me to ask if I was still interested in doing it. I wasn't but I said I was.

Then I got a brochure from them in the mail, saying classes were beginning for people seeking to be foster parents. Something nagged at me until I called for more information and found out that, somehow, I had managed to sign up for six months worth of the classes needed to be a foster parent.

I actually found most of the classes interesting. I wasn't the oldest person taking the classes but I was the only single person. That didn't seem to bother the instructors, especially when they saw me begin to climb out of my funk and meet the world head on.

By the time I was certified to be a foster parent I thought I was ready to take on the world. I was until I received a request to have a young boy stay with me for a few weeks. My heart sank when I thought of the strain I'd been through with Jesus leaving. I was upset at myself for gently requesting a little more time to let the lessons sink in. I don't think I was very convincing. I didn't believe me.

A year or more passed before I was asked again. This time it was for a ten year old boy and would probably be for only a few weeks until his school was out and he could travel to some relatives they'd found for him in another state. He'd wanted to finish his last few weeks with his friends before starting his life in a strange new place.

We got along fine and had a ball at the park. He brought a bike with him and rode around our block several times each night before dinner. Since it was getting warmer, we'd then walk to the park and toss the baseball back and forth. We'd even wrestle around for a bit until we were both sweaty and itchy.

After he took his bath I'd read Harry Potter to him and let him read a chapter when he was up to it. He seemed pretty smart. He let me kiss his forehead at bedtime as I tucked him in and he kept a worn teddy to snuggle with each night.

Then he too left me. While it wasn't as hard to let go of Daniel as it was Jesus, even though I had him longer, it was a strain that I would never get used to.

So, the next two requests I said no to. In fact it was right after Thanksgiving, two and a half years after Daniel that I got the third request. I'd almost forgotten that I was available still.

It seemed that there was a lad four years old that was in need of a foster home. I was so skeptical of someone so young, since it seemed I bonded tighter to little ones. I wasn't ready to be heartbroken after a few weeks with another boy.

"No, Mr. Wilcott. I don't see a time line for this child. It's open ended as far as the length of your care for him. It seems he's been from one family to another causing havoc wherever he goes."

"No, really. I can't see myself as a disciplinarian. I can handle a well-meaning child but one so obnoxious as to have to keep having to be moved. I don't think I have the skills to do it."

"Mr. Wilcott, you had rave reviews from Daniel's aunt and uncle for just the few short weeks he was with you. You two really hit it off and he was a bit of a handful, according to his first foster family."

I didn't think Daniel was a problem at all. What was it with these people that brought out the worst in kids? It certainly couldn't be me bringing out the best in them, could it?

"This goes against every experience I've had up to this point, but I'll try my best."

The social worker sounded very relieved upon hearing my answer. "Oh, Mr. Wilcott, I didn't want to sound desperate but if you didn't take this child, he would have grown up in an institution. I'm so glad and I'm sure you'll do well with him. May I bring him by in the morning?"

"Oh, well, I suppose so. I wasn't expecting to start that quickly. Usually there's several days until . . ."

"That would just mean several more days in an institution, waiting for the right person to love him, Mr. Wilcott. I hope it's okay. I don't think any child deserves to be institutionalized."

"Neither do I, ma'am. I'll be here anytime you want to bring him by."

What had I done? I could only hope that he turned out to be a bit more like Daniel, than the tormentor they made him sound like. I went to bed with more scenarios of disastrous proportions streaming from my tired mind.

I may have been up and I may have even had coffee and dressed, but I don't think I was awake when the door bell went off.

I pulled open the door to see a woman of about fifty with her arm wrenched around behind her and her exasperated voice insisting to whoever was on the other end of that arm,

"Now just stop that and come around here. You mind your manners, young man. This nice gentleman has agreed to let you live here with him. You need to be respectful of him."

Slowly and with what looked like great effort on her part she pulled and twisted until I saw an arm appear and then more and more of a small child, turned away from me and squirming to get loose.

I got down on my knee closer to his level and said, ""Welcome to my home, little man. This is your home too, now."

The boy froze. He no longer pulled on the lady's arm. He just stood there.

"Huh?" came a high voice.

"He said this is your home. Mr. Wilcott, may I present to you, your new foster child, Jesus."

The shock was almost too much to bear. How could the other Jesus make me bear such a coincidence? How could He ...

Then this young boy of only four years turned to look at me. Before me were the puffy red cheeks of any four year old, with the large Disney eyes of any four year old and a tanned complexion as though he was at least a bit Hispanic, all topped by a mop of black silky hair.

I almost fell over right then. The strange thing was, this boy, Jesus, was looking at me much as I was staring at him. His eyes squinted like he was either trying to see something in particular about me or remember something. He finally looked up and slowly walked past us into my living room.

"Now see here," started the social worker, frantic that he not be allowed to run amuck throughout my house, I suppose.

I held my hand beside me, blocking her way and turned to watch what was taking place.

He seemed to be walking in a trance, looking at the ceiling, of all places, as he stood in front of the couch. Then he faced the couch and gently ran his hand over the cushion. He then walked into the kitchen and laid his hand on the counter where I usually prepared my baking. He rubbed his hand around and brought it in front of him, rubbing his fingers together like he had something on them but couldn't quite see what it was. He looked at me, then back at his hand.

As I looked on, trying desperately not to get too hopeful, but wanting, oh, so, wanting a miracle, he turned to me.

"Home?" he asked hopefully. Maybe as hopeful as I was feeling.

I got on my knees again and said, "Yes. Your home if you'll have me, again, Jesus."

His arms fell to his side, his head went down to his little chest and I could see him start to quiver on his way to a good cry. Through a stream of tears he asked, "Really?"

He walked so slowly, it seemed like it took a week before he was close enough for me to pull him into my arms and crush him to me in a hug. He cried. I cried. Then I felt him squirm his way into me, closer than before. I laughed through my tears though, when I heard him sigh against my chest. That's when I heard the clincher; his voice as he whispered,

"Papa."

After some time I looked up to see the social worker standing with her mouth agape in the kitchen doorway.

"I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it. He's never responded like . . . But you said 'again', 'if you'll have me again.'"

"I did. It's quite a story too. Would you like to stay for a cup of coffee while I make my son a cup of hot chocolate?"

The End

Merry Christmas, 2010.


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