Joel: Book Two ~ Joel and Family

Chapter Twenty~Four

I don't know what I would do without Hildy. I had totally forgotten about wedding presents for Darcie and Mel with everything that was going on in my life. Hildy saved me. She knew that Darcie had registered with Foley's and she had purchased with her household credit card china place settings, crystal and silverware for me and the boys to give to the happy couple. We didn't physically have the presents in hand. Instead Hildy gave us cards that we signed that would be exchanged by the bride and groom for the actual gifts. This made it so much easier on everyone concerned, especially the mother of the bride whose job it was to take care of all the wedding presents.

Over breakfast I tried to explain to the boys what was going to happen today. None of them had ever been to a wedding and I wanted them to know how to behave. I also wanted Joel to know he was to wear his surgical mask since we would be around so many new people. I didn't want him to pick up some bug with his weakened immune system.

June 24th was turning out to be a gorgeous day for a wedding. It was going to be a little warm this afternoon. The weatherman forecasted the temperature to reach 92 degrees by late afternoon. I hoped that the church was air-conditioned. If it wasn't there would be a lot of sweaty people in the church.

I let the boys play as long as possible and still have time for lunch and to get dressed. It had been a while since any of them had worn their sports jackets. I had them try them on to make sure they still fit. They did but just barely. All of the boys had grown and put on weight since they became my sons. It looked like we would be going clothes shopping before school started. They did look handsome in their dress clothes even though they were none too happy to have to wear them. I didn't make them wear jackets and ties on the trip to Fredericksburg. Hildy put them all on hangers and hung them in the back of the van.

After making sure that everyone had gone to the bathroom we took off for the wedding shortly after 12:30. It was going to be over an hour's drive to Fredericksburg so I had checked out a book on tape from the library. It was "The Secret of Pirate's Hill," one of the Hardy Boy mysteries. I thought that it would hold their attention most of the way up and back. It worked. They were enthralled by the story. It didn't hurt that Hildy hauled out some peanut butter cookies about halfway there. We didn't pack any milk so they had to make do with bottled water. At least it would dry if they spilled any.

We found the church without any trouble due to the excellent directions that Darcie had provided along with the wedding invitation. It was a small church on the outskirts of Fredericksburg in a beautiful hill country setting. Between Hildy and me we got the boys into their coats and ties. Joel donned his surgical mask and we headed toward the church doors. Once inside I was pleased to note that the place was well air-conditioned.

The inside of the church was very nice. It was plain but at the same time elegant. The pews were wooden but were comfortable even though they had no cushions. There was probably room for a hundred or so worshipers to fit comfortably in the pews. The pulpit was a simple raised platform with a lectern. Behind it was the area for the choir and behind them was a small pipe organ. All in all, it was a very pleasant, unostentatious place of worship unlike some of the gaudy cathedrals in San Antonio.

We were escorted to a pew by one of the ushers a handsome young man I learned later was one of Mel's cousins. Since we were a little early we were seated in the third pew from the front behind where Darcie's family members would sit. Hildy sat on one end and I sat on the other with the five boys in between us. Joel was seated beside me. He objected slightly when I told him he would have to remove his ever-present hat when we entered the church. He leaned into me trying to bury his hairless scalp in my shoulder. I tried to soothe him by placing my arm around him and telling him that nobody cared that he didn't have any hair.

A few minutes after we sat down Eric arrived leading JR, Benny, and Bran to the pew right in front of us. This seemed to enliven everyone as the boys began whispering to each other. Even Joel seemed to forget about his baldness for the time being. The whispering began to get louder after a while. It took Eric, Hildy, and me to quiet the boys down as the organist took her seat and began playing. For being a small pipe organ it certainly sounded like a much larger one. It filled the little church with its music.

Mel and his two groomsmen took their places as the preacher took his. The bride's maids, flower girl, and ring bearer also made their way to the front of the church. Ethel was escorted to the front pew before the organist began the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin. Everyone stood and turned to watch the bride approach from the rear of the church. As I turned I felt a little body squeeze by me. When I looked down there was TJ sticking his head out into the aisle to see what everyone was looking at. I grabbed hold of his shoulder fearing that he would completely step out of the pew.

Darcie was dressed in a long ivory gown that looked like it had pearls sewn on the bodice. She walked slowly up the aisle on the arm of her father. TJ looked up and me and mouthed something I couldn't hear over the organ music. When I leaned down he repeated, "Who's that lady wearing the mask?"

"That's Darcie," I said in his ear chuckling at his reference to Darcie's veil being a mask.

As Darcie came next to our pew TJ said, "Hi, Darcie."

She turned her head toward him and smiled while I blushed and steered him back to his seat. Eric barely controlled his snicker when he saw my embarrassment but patted TJ on the head as he returned to his seat next to his brothers. The rest of the wedding went off without a hitch. Darcie Marie Levin became Mrs. Melvin Eugene Glenn.

Except for TJ's minor lapse of proper etiquette, I was very proud of the way the boys acted throughout the nearly forty-five minutes that they had to sit quietly in the pews.

After the wedding ceremony, everyone was invited to the reception at a local VFW hall. When we got there the band was just setting up and the caterer was readying the food which immediately caught the eyes of the boys. I restrained them saying we had to wait for Darcie and Mel to arrive. That didn't go over that well but they grudgingly agreed.

Soon the newlyweds arrived and the reception line formed. We got in line about in the middle of the seventy or so people who were at the wedding. As we were approaching the happy couple I told the boys that it would be proper if they gave Darcie a kiss on the cheek and that they should shake hands with everyone else.

"Daddy said that we could kiss you on the cheek," TJ said when it was his turn to greet Darcie.

"Only if I can give you one, too," Darcie replied as she leaned down and gave TJ a kiss.

The other boys followed suit. We shook hands with Mel, the Levins, and Mel's parents. Mel's mother was a very heavy woman whose face still showed the beauty that she was in her younger and slimmer days.

"Oh, you're the Johnson that my son has told me about," she said as I introduced myself to her. "I think it is very courageous of you to take on raising five boys."

"Thank you, they are the light of my life," I said.

As I introduced each of the boys to her she hugged them to her ample bosom which almost made them disappear, especially TJ.

Going through the reception line I was able to meet Cindi Sessions. She was so helpful in getting Benny settled in the Levins' home. I was looking forward to meeting her and to thank her for everything that she had done. She stuck out her neck for a complete stranger so that a child could have a good home to live in. She wasn't afraid to cut through the bureaucracy and do the right thing. I have been very critical of Child Protective Services, but she was one of the good guys in a thoroughly broken system.

We found an empty table and sat down to wait for the cake cutting ceremony to begin. Eric and his three charges came and sat down at the table next to us. We chatted for a moment before TJ whispered in my ear that he had to go to the bathroom. I looked around for the restrooms. At first, I didn't see them but at last, I spotted them just inside the front doors. When I told the rest of the boys that I was going to take TJ to the restroom they all decided that they needed to go as well. It must have been catching because Eric's three decided that they had to go also. The ten of us trooped off to the restroom. Thankfully there was no one using it when we arrived.

There were two urinals and two stalls to be shared among the eight boys ranging in age from 6 to 15 years. Bran and Joel were tall enough to use the urinals, but the other boys had to use the toilets. TJ made a beeline for one of the stalls and made it just in time from the sounds of it.

After the boys washed their hands we returned to the tables. Hildy had been kind enough to save them for us. We had no more than sat down when the bride and groom approached the four-tiered wedding cake for the cutting ceremony. It seemed like half of the guests rushed forward with cameras to take pictures. The boys watched in fascination as Darcie and Mel cut the cake and then fed each other a piece. Then came the part I know all of them were waiting for. We got in line to receive the cake, bridal mints, and punch. They couldn't decide between the bride's cake which was white with white frosting and the groom's cake which was chocolate with chocolate frosting so they had a piece of each.

The band had started playing while the refreshment line continued. A few couples started dancing while they waited to go through the line. As people finished their refreshments more and more of them started dancing. Then it was time for the bride and groom to dance and the floor cleared. After that it seemed like everyone danced with everyone else. Pretty soon after they had consumed the cake the boys started getting bored so I suggested to Hildy that we make our goodbyes to the happy couple and head back to Canyon Lake.

By the time we reached home, the boys were becoming very restless and irritable. I could tell that Joel was completely worn out. Although he objected, he didn't put up too much of a fight when I asked him to lie down for a while. We compromised by him agreeing to use one of the lounge chairs by the pool while the rest of us, except Hildy, changed into our swimsuits and took a dip in the pool. I made sure that the large umbrella-shaded him so that his pale skin wouldn't get sunburned.

Sunday was very relaxed. The only thing on the schedule was TJ's T-ball game at two o'clock. I had never seen a T-ball game before. My only experience with it was the practice session last week. It was really something else to watch. I laughed until my sides were sore. A couple of the boys ran to third base after they hit the ball. One boy ran toward second base chasing the ball that he had just hit. Some of them would hit the ball and then just stand there not running to first base. One boy just stood there with his bat on his shoulder and refused to swing at the ball on the tee.

I don't know what the score was or who was winning the game. All I know was that TJ enjoyed himself and that was all that mattered to me or to him.

My last week at the office was hectic. I spent most of my time in meetings with Gerald and Carlos making sure that everything was ready and in order for the turn over at the end of the week. There were all of those last-minute details to take care of before I gave up ownership. The hardest part was making sure that I received all of the profits generated by the company up through Friday when my ownership ended.

The week was also complicated by Joel's first chemotherapy treatment since he left the hospital. I was glad that Dr. Greene could do it in his office. It took a little over two hours for the IV to complete and another half an hour before Sam allowed him to leave.

Thankfully Joel's treatment didn't occur the same day that one of the boys had baseball practice. By the end of the week, I didn't know if I was coming or going. With three different practices and then two games on Friday, I was worn out. The new management team had arrived mid-week and when I wasn't meeting with Carlos and Gerald I was meeting with them going over everything I could think of that they might need to know about the business.

On Saturday morning John had a soccer game that Joel wanted to attend so we packed up the van and all of the boys and I took off for the game. The soccer game was a time for me to relax. I could sit in the bleachers, as hard as they were, and watch the game and four of my sons as they ran along the sidelines cheering John. Joel sat with me. The chemotherapy had sapped his strength but that didn't take away from the enjoyment of watching his friend on the field. John was really pretty good. He wasn't the biggest kid on the field but he was quick and could control the ball with his feet as good as or better than anyone else out there.

John's dad saw Joel and me sitting in the bleacher after a while and came up and sat beside us. He inquired as to Joel's health and we chatted for the rest of the match. You could tell he was proud of the way his son was playing from the way he cheered John on. Bruce seemed to have mellowed since I had talked with him last. He didn't make a single comment about the relationship between Joel and John. I gathered it may have partly resulted from the new preacher that his church had hired. From the way, he talked the new guy preached a much more tolerant attitude toward others who didn't believe as they did.

By the time the match was over Joel was completely exhausted. That did not stop him from wanting to talk to his friend. After Bruce had congratulated his son on his team's win, John ran to Joel. We gave them some space for a few minutes before I insisted that Joel and the rest of us head for home so that he could get some rest.

TJ's T-ball game on Sunday afternoon was again a source of amusement. I know it is not nice to laugh at the youngsters but some of their antics were classic. However, some of the parents were obnoxious. They yelled and screamed at their sons when they didn't do everything right. I was ashamed of them. One father who was sitting near me was particularly obnoxious. My first instinct was to move away from his boorish behavior. Instead, I moved closer to him. When he started yelling at the boy in the batter's box trying with little success to hit the ball off the tee, I pointedly asked him if that was his son.

"Yeah, the little shit never listens to me when I show him what to do," he said.

"How old is your son?" I asked.

"He just turned six."

"He must be one of the youngest kids on the team then."

"Yeah, but..." he started, I think seeing where I was going.

"Well, maybe he just needs a little time to develop. Maybe he needs a little encouragement instead of criticism. I've found that to be the case with my five sons," I said.

He looked a little ashamed. "I guess your right. He's my only son and I want him to be good so badly."

When the game was over, TJ ran to me and jumped into my arms all excited. "Did you have fun?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah! We won!" he said his smile nearly splitting his face in two.

I noticed that the son of the man with whom I had been talking to approached his dad with his head down and a hint of a tear in his eyes. The boy was totally taken aback when his father picked him up, hugged him, and told him that he thought he did a good job. The boy's face lit up like it was Christmas and he started telling his dad all about the game even though his dad had watched the whole thing.

Tuesday was the Fourth of July Holiday. I remember my parents always made a big deal of it no matter where we were in the world. After consulting with Hildy, I invited a number of families to an afternoon barbeque and swim. It turned out to be a fairly large number of people: Eric and JR, Bruce and Pauline Gordinier with John and his three sisters, Harold Nicholas and Joey, Max, and Janet Sutton with their son Billy, Jack and his family and finally Manfred Strasser. That was twenty-six people if everyone showed up. Mary Jane and Becky Sue were also invited but they had plans to be with their family.

Hildy started preparing food on Monday morning and I don't think she stopped until well after all our guests arrived. Most everybody insisted on bringing something for the barbeque. I let Hildy coordinate that. I was going to handle the meat to be put on the grill. She was going to do the side dishes and desserts. I cheated a little. I bought a couple of briskets at a smokehouse in New Braunfels. I didn't have the time to tend to them for twenty-four hours while they slow-cooked. All I would have to do was to put them on the warming rack in the grill and then slice them when they were ready. The other meats would be cooked from scratch on the grill.

On Monday I went to the party supply store in New Braunfels to pick up folding tables and chairs. I also went to the grocery store to pick up paper plates and plastic cutlery. We didn't have enough plates and utensils in the house to serve everyone.

Manfred arrived early on Tuesday morning shortly after the boys and I had finished breakfast. He insisted on helping Hildy with the preparations of the day. She tried to dissuade him but he was adamant. It turned out that he was a big help. He loved to cook and considered himself to be a gourmet cook. It wasn't long before the kitchen was humming with activity. The boys went to get dressed for the day and I went to start setting up the tables and chairs.

Chris helped me set up the long tables while the twins and TJ helped arrange the folding chairs. Larry and Lenny did a good job of setting up the chairs. They were very precise in aligning the chairs around the tables. TJ was not so neat which cause the twins to straighten the chairs that TJ shoved up to the table. He only did a couple of chairs so it wasn't a burden on the twins.

I suggested to Joel that he remain inside and rest because it was going to be a long day and he would need all of his strength. I also asked him to let me know during the day if he was getting tired. I didn't want him to miss any of the fun, but I didn't want him to overexert himself and set back his recovery. He said that he would. I gave him a hug and kissed his naked head.

After we got the tables and chairs set up I started the grill and put the briskets on the warming rack before I went into the house to get the cut-up chicken that had been marinating overnight. They would take the longest to grill compared to the bratwurst, hot dogs, and hamburgers.

Our guests started arriving shortly before noon. John and his family were the first to arrive. Joel had been watching the picture from the gate security camera for some time before they arrived. As soon as he saw their car he was out to the front step waiting to greet them. His face lit up as he saw John peering out of the side window as they drove up. The twins were there also to greet Linda and Cassie. After we had greeted everyone I directed Bruce where to park his car at the side of the house while Pauline took her covered dish into the kitchen to join the rest of the food. Rachel, the tomboy of the family, went to join Chris and TJ who were playing catch.

John and Joel walked into the house and sat down on the couch in the living room to talk. I was glad to see that Joel was trying to conserve his energy so that he could last most of the day.

Over the next half hour, the rest of the guests arrived. While I was greeting our guest, Manfred was tending the grill. He probably did a better job of it than I would have. Everything looked delicious when I went to check on it. The chicken was done to perfection and the brats were beginning to sizzle along with the hot dogs and hamburgers. Manfred took the briskets and began slicing them placing the slices in a pan covered them with sauce and placed it back on the warming rack.

By this time we had the majority of the kids hanging around just waiting to start eating. Hildy and the rest of the women started bringing all the food out and placed it on the tables. It fell to the men to corral the kids and see that they washed their hands before they were allowed to eat. It looked like an awful lot of food when it was all spread out. The adults paired off with the kids seeing that they got their plates filled before we filled our own.

The kids' table rang out with laughter as they pointed to each others' faces covered with barbeque sauce. It was all good-natured teasing and no one got their feelings hurt. The four girls didn't seem to be intimidated by the eleven boys. They gave as good as they got.

Everyone enjoyed the meal and if anyone came away hungry it was their own fault. As we were cleaning up the dishes, throwing away the trash, and putting the leftovers away, Chris came up to me and asked if they could go swimming.

"I think you had better wait a while until your food settles. In about an hour we can all go swimming. Go play with your friends for now," I said giving him a hug.

"Okay, dad," he said and ran off to play with his friends.

With everyone's help, we cleared the tables in no time. Hildy emerged from the house with large glasses of iced tea and bowls of lemon slices for those who liked lemon in their tea. To me putting lemon in tea was a crime. If I wanted lemonade, that's what I would drink. But from the looks of it I was a minority of one. Also, the Southern tradition of sweet tea was an abomination to my way of thinking. It was so sweet it could give you diabetes just by looking at it. Hildy knew my preferences so the tea she brought was unsweetened but there was ample sugar for our guests to indulge themselves.

Manfred followed with glasses of lemonade for the kids which they quickly took off his hands. As TJ took his glass I saw him talking earnestly to Manfred. I wasn't close enough to hear what was being said but when they finished talking Manfred gave TJ a hug and received a big smile in return.

Before long the women went inside leaving the men to watch the kids. It wasn't a difficult job because they were having so much fun playing tag that their laughter echoed through the hills and out onto the lake almost forcing us to watch their antics. Joel and John sat watching the others with envy for a while before Joel asked if they could go in and play with his video games. I could see that he was getting tired so I readily agreed.

I think it was almost exactly an hour when Chris came running up to me. I knew what he was going to ask so I just shook my head and said to all the kids, "Go get your swimsuits on but wait until there is an adult here before you get into the pool. Chris, you go show our guests where they can change. Show the girls upstairs."

"Come on, let's go. I'll show you," he said and took off for the house.

Max and Bruce said that they didn't swim but the rest of the men including Manfred all went in to change. Pauline, Carolyn, and Janet were supervising the girls changing as well as getting changed themselves. Some of the boys were already changed and hurried past us as we made our way inside. I'm sure that there were piles of boys' clothes all over the floors of the downstairs bedrooms.

I always thought our pool was pretty good-sized until we got twenty people in it. Some of us were content to sit on the sides of the pool and let the kids enjoy themselves. A couple of the men usually were in with the kids giving them boosts into the air so that they could cannonball back into the water. Manfred was in excellent shape for a man in his mid-fifties. You could tell that he worked out and took care of himself.

After about an hour I decided to go into the house and check on John and Joel. The door was open to the bedroom when I approached. When I looked in I saw that Joel was asleep on the bed. John was sitting beside him with his hand resting on Joel's. As I walked in John looked up at me. I could see a worried look on his face. I carefully sat down beside him and put my arm around him.

"Is Joel ever going to get better?" he asked quietly.

"Yes, son, but it is going to take some time," I said.

"I like him so much. I don't want him to be sick," he said burying his face in my chest.

"I know. We would all give anything if he could be back to normal. He will. We just have to be patient. Joel needs our support to help him get well. I know that he really appreciates that you didn't abandon him when he got sick."

"Oh, I could never do that. He's my best friend. It makes my stomach hurt that he is sick and I can't help him," he said as I felt his tears beginning to drip on my bare chest. "I love him."

"Yes, I know you do."

I sat there for several minutes holding John before Joel started to stir.

"Hi, dad. Is something wrong?" he said looking at John in my arms.

"Nothing's wrong, son. How are you feeling?"

"Okay, I guess. Just tired."

"You guys want to come outside? I think Hildy should be about ready to serve dessert," I said

"Yeah, in a minute, dad, we'll be there."

I went to check with Hildy to see if she was indeed about ready to serve the desserts. She and two helpers were busy cutting the cakes, pies, and brownies that covered the breakfast bar. As I entered the kitchen she told me to grab a couple of half-gallon containers of vanilla ice cream out of the freezer so that they would start to soften. I was also told to take a stack of paper plates, plastic utensils, and napkins out to the patio. Hildy and her helpers followed me with their hands loaded with the desserts.

It was amazing how fast thirteen kids could evacuate the pool as they saw the treats being brought out. The adults were only a little bit more dignified in their exit. I sent Chris into the house to bring the ice cream out while we got everything organized.

The rest of the afternoon went by quickly. I spent so much time talking to all of our guests that I really didn't have much time to talk to Eric. It seemed we were always surrounded by others. I did have a short conversation alone with Jack. He said that he had submitted his papers to the police department to retire at the end of July. He had worked out an agreement with Collin Cupp and Independent Investigators to open a branch office in San Antonio. He just wondered if my offer of a retainer to do work for the foundation was still good. I assured him that it was and I already had an assignment for him as soon as he got started.

Supper was a simpler affair consisting mainly of leftovers. The remaining brisket made excellent sandwiches and with more hamburgers and hotdogs everyone had plenty to eat. After everyone had their fill, we began sending the kids into the house to shower and get dressed before the fireworks began.

The hill that the house was built on was one of the highest around the lake and commanded a view of almost every place that had fireworks planned. Shortly after nine, the fireworks started. One of the subdivisions to our west in Spring Branch was the first to start their show. It had hardly gotten underway when the Canyon Lake Forest subdivision on the south side of the lake started their display. It was difficult for the kids as well as the adults to make up their minds which one to watch. To make it even more difficult the marina started setting off their fireworks. We were literally surrounded by brilliant flashes of light, starbursts of all colors, and fiery rain all followed by loud bangs strangely out of sync with the display.

TJ was beside himself. I don't think he had ever seen a fireworks display before. He was running around, grabbing hold of whichever person was nearest. When he got to me he grabbed my hand and yelled, "Look, look, daddy, look! Oh wow! That's so pretty!"

I gave him a quick hug before he was off to share his excitement with someone else. This made the whole day worth all the effort that we put into it. I was surprised when he gave Sara a hug even though she had been tagging after him all afternoon.

The fireworks displays had all ended by 9:30 and our guests started to leave. You could still hear firecrackers going off and could see an occasional skyrocket go off from houses around the lake, but the organized displays were over. Unfortunately, we would probably hear firecrackers going off most of the night.

As our guests were leaving, Chris came up to me and asked if JR could spend the night. He was backed up by TJ and the twins.

"I don't care, but you will have to ask his dad," I said.

He took off with his three brothers close behind to confront Eric. It looked like JR was hitting his dad up as the boys approached him. I couldn't hear what was being said by Chris but Eric looked at me as if asking for my assent. When I nodded my head he must have said it was okay with him from the reaction of the five boys. They raced into the house as Eric walked over to me.

"Are you sure you really want another kid here tonight after having fifteen here all day?" he asked.

"What's one more boy? Five or six you can hardly tell the difference," I said as we followed the boys into the house.

All of our guests had departed except for Manfred who was helping Hildy clean up things in the kitchen. When I saw him I went into the kitchen to thank him for all the work he had done today.

"Crane, no thanks are necessary. I haven't had so much fun since my son was a little boy twenty or so years ago. I should be thanking you for allowing me to be part of your celebration," he said.

"You are welcome here anytime," I said. Then turning to Hildy, "You are amazing. I don't tell you often enough how much the boys and I appreciate your looking after us and how much we love you." I hugged her and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"Are you going to tuck us in?" TJ said interrupting our conversation as he padded into the kitchen in his pajamas.

"Of course I am. Is everybody ready? Did JR get some pajamas?" I asked as I picked him up and carried him to his bedroom.

"Yeah, Larry gave him some of his."

Eric followed us into the bedroom as I tucked TJ and Joel in bed and gave them their goodnight hugs and kisses. Eric followed suit. Going into the next room the twins were in bed by themselves. Chris was missing.

"Where's Chris?" I asked.

"He's with JR," Lenny answered.

The twins got tucked in by both Eric and I following our usual routine. Then we went to the fourth bedroom that was rarely used. I guessed that was where Chris and JR were. I was right. I didn't think they would sleep upstairs by themselves.

"Hi, dad. It's alright if we sleep in here isn't it?" Chris asked.

"Of course it is," I said as I sat on the side of the bed and brushed the hair off his forehead. "Just make sure you go right to sleep. It's been a long day."

"We will," he said giving me a hug which I returned with a kiss.

Eric was doing the same to his son before we switched.

As we left the room Eric said that he had taken tomorrow off from work. That brought up an infinite number of possibilities.

"Let's talk," I said as I led him into the living room.