WORKING IT OUT--Book 3, Part 3

Usually only the pre-schoolers were dismissed that early in the day, but by the time Stan arrived, all the grades at St. Stephen's School had been released to give the kids a good start on the Christmas holidays.  When he pulled up in the car to pick up Matthew, Michael and Kyle, he noticed a big crowd of older kids circled around something or other going on at one side of the school's front entrance.  The three Broman boys were not standing in their usual spot for their ride, so he shut off the motor and stepped out of the car.  He didn't see any adult supervision anywhere.  Strolling over to the school entrance, he walked up a few steps for a better vantage point to see what all the screaming and shouting was about.

What he saw put him into an instant rage.  Two seventh or eighth grade boys, fairly big kids, had the three Broman boys pinned up against the wall, where they were being screamed and shouted at and pushed around.  The three little guys weren't crying or cowering.  Far from it.  Scowling, they were punching and kicking their much bigger tormentors for all they were worth, and had given one of the big kids a nosebleed.  Stan vaulted over the stone balustrade and down into the crowd.

"MOVE IT!!" he bellowed as he waded through the massed children.  At the sound of an adult male voice, things quieted down pretty fast, and the throng parted like the Red Sea for Moses.

Reaching the center of action, Stan kept his emotions under tight control as he faced the two offenders.

"Did you ever hear of picking on somebody your own size?" he demanded of the two big kids.  "What's going on here, anyway?"

"Nothing," the kid with the bloody nose mumbled, holding a handkerchief to his face.  Both boys stared down at their shoes so they wouldn't have to look at Stan.

"This isn't 'nothing,'" Stan said, his eyes focused on the malefactors after a quick glance told him Matthew, Michael and Kyle were all right.  "Is beating up on pre-schoolers your idea of a big thrill?  Do you feel good about it?  Who started this, and why?"

When the perpetrators didn't answer, Stan eyed another big boy farther back in the crowd and beckoned to him.

"You!!  Commere!"

The kid didn't look too happy about it, but he wedged his way through the children to the front of the crowd, and faced Stan.

"Tell me what's going on here," Stan ordered.

"They were kidding them a little about having two dads and no mom, that's all," the boy said.

"You call this 'kidding?'  And so what if they have two dads?" Stan demanded.

"Their dads are fags," the boy mumbled.

"You don't even know what that is!  Do you!?"

"Well..." the boy stopped talking and looked at the ground.

Stan stared in frustration at the crowd of children.

"All right," he said loudly, "break it up and get on home--RIGHT NOW!!"  He swung around to confront the perpetrators.  "And you two--this isn't over for you!" he told them.  "I'll be seeing you in the principal's office right after the Christmas holidays.  You don't know what a terrible thing you've done, but you will before I'm finished with you.  Now, get going!"

Still not looking Stan in the eye, the two bullies slunk off as the crowd began dissipating.  He resisted the temptation to kick them both in the ass as they walked away, knowing it wouldn't be the right thing to do.  He knelt down to look at the little boys.  The pressure off, now all three of the boys were crying.

"You did good, guys!" Stan told them, wiping their faces with his handkerchief and hugging them.  "I'm really proud of you!  Common, let's go home."

Stan shepherded the boys to the car, put them inside and buckled them into the back seat.  He tried to reassure them on the way home that everything was going to be all right, all the time feeling a cold anger in him that constricted his chest and wouldn't go away.

After they arrived home, Stan took Mary aside and briefly filled her in on what had happened at the school.  Then he decided to let the boys do what they liked best--swim and play in the pool.  After the boys first said hello to their buddy Chris, Stan and the kids put on their suits and went up to the pool deck, and soon the beach balls were flying around in the water.  The kids were bouncing back a lot faster than Stan was from the trauma at St. Stephen's school.

Matt arrived home in about an hour, and was surprised when Mary told him that Stan and the boys were swimming earlier than usual.  "Why so early?" he asked.

"Matt, I think something happened to the boys at school today," she said, looking unhappy.  "I'll let Stan tell you about it."

Apprehensive, Matt put his book bag down and sprinted up the stairs to the pool.  Stan and the boys were having a good time nailing one another with the beach balls.

"DAD!" Michael yelled.  "Get your swimsuit on, will ya?"

"Maybe a little later, guys," Matt said, and motioned Stan over to the side of the pool as the boys continued playing.  Stan heaved himself out of the water on to the pool deck and reluctantly stood and faced Matt.

"Stan, Mary said something happened at school today.  'Sup?" Matt asked.

Stan told him what had happened, and Matt's expression turned grave.

"Are the boys all right?" Matt asked.

"Yeah.  You'd have been proud.  They were punching and kicking those jerks for all they were worth.  I think they landed some good punches, too.  They gave one kid a bloody nose.  And now they just seem to be totally cool about what happened."

"You didn't lose it with any of the bad guys, did you?" Matt questioned.

"No, but I wanted to," Stan said.  "I'm fucking pissed!  But I'm sick inside, too."

"Whaddaya mean?"

"Because both those little assholes are growing up to be the bully I was a few years ago. That's what I mean."

Matt shook his head 'no,' and spontaneously drew Stan into a hug, wet body, wet swimsuit and all.  "That's not who you are now, buddy.  I love ya, and I'm so proud of you!" Matt said, looking his friend right in the eye.  "Let's talk about how to handle this whole thing when Mike gets home, 'K?"

Stan nodded, and cannonballed back into the pool with the boys, where he immediately got a beachball in the face from Matthew for his trouble.

Matt was chuckling at Stan's beachball misfortune as he went downstairs to the den to telephone the school.  As expected, he heard only a recording which said that St. Stephen's School was closed for the Christmas holidays, and that the office would open again on January 2 of the new year.  Then he dialed the church office, and asked for Father Howard.  The secretary connected him.

"Matt!" David Howard answered.  "How are you?  We haven't had much chance to talk since you came back from your honeymoon."

"I know it, Father.  I apologize for that.  I want to have you over for dinner as soon as we get back from Pennsylvania after Christmas."

"I'll look forward to it," the young priest said.  "What else is going on?"

"Well, there was some trouble at school today, and of course the school office is shut down for the holidays.  But I wanted to vent to someone, so I guess you're elected."

"I'm all ears.  What happened?"

"Stan went to pick up the boys when pre-school was over today, and I guess all the classes were dismissed early for the holidays.  Anyway, a couple of seventh or eighth graders had Matthew, Michael and Kyle up against the wall of the building giving them shit because they have two dads and no mom.  There was some pushing and shoving involved, and my boys landed a few punches of their own.  Stan says another kid, a bystander, told him the harassment started because Mike and I are, quote, 'fags.'  The kid didn't know what that meant, or claimed not to, anyway.  Naturally, I'm concerned.  When school starts again, I think we need to talk with the principal and the teachers about what happened and nip stuff like this in the bud," Matt said.  "By the way; there was no adult supervision today in front of the school, according to Stan."

"The whole thing's appalling, Matt!!" David Howard said, sounding disgusted.  "I'm behind you one hundred percent.  It's totally unacceptable, and it's definitely contrary to everything St. Stephen's stands for.  Do you want me to talk to Father Rohm about it?"

"I don't think so, at this point.  If the principal can't be persuaded to take some action after we talk to him, you'll both be dragged into it anyway.  So let Father have Christmas with one less worry."

"All right, if you're sure," Father Howard said.  "We will address it and take action, though.  It's as important for the perpetrators as it is for your family that we confront this head-on.  I read some statistics the other day about bullying.  According to longitudinal studies carried out in Canada, bullies have a high prevalence for alcoholism, drug abuse, mental illness and incarceration.  I'm not making this up.  We need to identify these kids and intervene.  And we will.  Besides, incidents such as this poison the whole learning atmosphere in a school.  We're just not going to have it, that's all!  This may be the opportune time to inaugurate an anti-bullying curriculum at St. Stephen's.  I understand there are some good ones out there."

"I knew I'd feel better if I talked to you, David.  Thank you.  Now, to change the subject, what are your plans for Christmas?"

"Masses and hearing confessions, and then more masses and confessions.  That's about it.  I'm looking forward to it, really.  Next to Easter, there's no more meaningful season for any of us.  It's wonderful.  And I have to go to Indianapolis for a day to drop off Christmas gifts to my parents and visit with them."

"Are you and your parents close?" Matt asked.

"No, not really.  They're Bible thumping extremists, and they detest the fact that I'm a priest.  That tends to put a damper on any pleasant conversation."

"Yeah, I'll bet.  Do you have any vacation time coming?" Matt asked.

"Well, a few days, I guess.  Why?"

"Mike and I are taking everybody in the condo to Pennsylvania with us for Christmas.  We'd promised Mom and Dad we would come home if they spent Thanksgiving week with us in Chicago before our wedding.  It just occurred to me that if you can get the time off, why don't you fly over and spend at least some of the holidays with us?  There's plenty of room, and you know Mom and Dad would love to see you.  We can pick you up at the airport once you get there, no sweat."

"What a great invitation, Matt!  Let me talk to Father Rohm, and if he says I can have some time off after Christmas Day, I just may take you up on it.  Thanks so much!"

"Call me back and tell me you're coming, will ya?  This'll be great!  And the trip will be on us."

"I can't let you do that.  I can afford it," the priest said.

"I know.  But we're paying for everybody else to go, so it's only fair that we pick up the tab for you.  So, no arguments, please.  You'd force me to say some bad words, and then I'd have to head for the confessional, and none of you priests has enough time to hear my confession."

"You're a very funny man, Matt," the young priest chuckled.  "I'll get back to you.  Thanks."  The priest wrote down the Bromans' Pennsylvania phone number as Matt gave it to him.

They broke the connection just as Mike walked into the den, and Matt told him about the dust-up at St. Stephen's School.  Mike was not pleased to hear the news.

Later that night, when Matt and Mike talked with the boys about what had happened at school, the little guys seemed singularly unperturbed by it.  Kyle even reminded his dads of their talk with them before they started school, about their family and how it was different from many families.  Matt and Mike were relieved that the kids did not seem upset about what had occurred, but were determined to make sure they stayed in close touch with the boys' feelings about the situation at school as events unfolded.  They were resolved that the boys would not become victims.

"Guys, how would you like to start some self-defense classes after Christmas?" Matt asked.  "You know, learn some moves you can use to protect yourselves when there's trouble?"

"Like Kung-fu?" Michael asked.

"Yeah, something like that," Matt said.

The kids' eyes lighted up, and they agreed they would like to do that.  Matt made a mental note to do some research on what might be the best classes for them to take at their age.  After the the boys said their prayers, Matt and Mike kissed them goodnight and left them to drift off to sleep.

*  *  *

Andie Parker had been delighted when Mike had telephoned to invite her to fly to Pennsylvania with the family for Christmas.  Her own parents were traveling to Seattle to celebrate the holidays with Andie's sister, her sister's husband and their two children.  Of course Andie had been invited to accompany her mother and father to the West Coast.  But she had already planned to stay in Chicago because Jeff had told her he was coming there as soon as he could gracefully get away from home after Christmas Day.  She acceded to Mike's request not to tell Jeff that instead she would be coming to spend the entire holiday with his family.  As far as Matt's and Mike's little secret about taking her home to Pennsylvania with them was concerned, she felt it was time Jeff, the Merry Prankster, got back a little of his own.  She couldn't wait to see his face when she stepped out of the car at the Bromans'.

Andie was a very rational young woman, with a cool, dispassionate, scientific mind.  Not for nothing was she an honors student in physics at Northwestern.  The last thing she had expected to do was to fall in love with a Summer lifeguard at Chicago's Oak Street Beach, even if he was a hunk.  Make that, especially if he was a hunk.  She had known too many handsome males with empty heads.  So no one had been more surprised than she when she realized what her true feelings for Jeff had become.  They weren't complicated at all.  She loved him through and through, and she knew it.  Andie was not one to give her heart easily, but she had fallen, and she had fallen hard.  In her eyes, Jeff was intelligent, educated, good-natured and resilient, loving, funny, hard working, handsome and very tender-hearted, the latter most certainly not a quality she associated with most of the jocks she knew.  There was a pervasive goodness and kindness to him despite his fondness for jokes and pranks.  That latter aspect of his personality seemed to run in the family.

Family was definitely a big thing for Jeff.  His loyalty to and love for his family, both blood and extended, were a basic fact of life for him.  In the time she had known him, Andie had learned a lot about what family life was supposed to be like from the Chicago Bromans, things she had never learned growing up in her own prominent, North Shore family.  It wasn't that she came from a bad family or an unloving family, but in her family, when unpleasant or difficult matters came up, the members just disengaged until the subject under discussion went away.  The Bromans, however, were always so incredibly engaged with one another, usually in a very positive way.  There was no smothering going on in their familial relationships, and sometimes there were spirited disagreements.  But theirs was a world of engagement, commitment and contentment.    Andie sensed that the Broman family relationships would endure no matter what the future challenges to them might be.  She was learning firsthand how that familial glue--unabashed and frequently articulated love for one another--did its job so effectively.

When Jeff had first told her that his older brother and his adoptive brother were gay and in a relationship, she had frankly expected to be, well, a little underwhelmed by them.  She was no bigot about sexual orientation, and like many well educated individuals, was committed to full civil rights for homosexuals.  But the nuts and bolts of a gay partnership were completely foreign to her life experience.  She had admitted to herself later that she had harbored more than a few stereotypes about gay men.  She wasn't deeply offended by the idea of gays living openly in a sexual relationship, but she had not been prepared to find much positive in it, either.  That began to change as she began meeting the condo family, beginning with the very hetero Stan Rosinski and his fiancée' Linda Kosco, and she started to get a sense of Matt and Mike as they talked about them.  And after she met Matt and Mike in person and had been exposed to their love for one another, for their children, for their family, and seen how they conducted themselves around each other and everyone they knew, her preconceptions vanished quickly.  In a very short time, she came to care deeply for them and their three boys, along with all the residents who lived in the sprawling condo on Sheridan Road.  She was certain that those feelings would never change no matter what Jeff's and her future together might hold.

The decision that Andie and Jeff had mutually made to enter into a sexual relationship had not been taken lightly.  Of the two of them, Jeff had been the more cautious about not taking their relationship to a new level until it was clear to both of them that this was much more than a quick, if satisfying, Summer fling.  When Jeff had told Matt that he and Andie were going to be intimate, and Matt and Mike had offered them a beautiful dinner and evening at the condo so that everything would be nice for them on their first night together, Andie had been deeply touched and very grateful.  Jeff's and her lovemaking had been special, as Andie had known it would be.  When Andie thought about Jeff and all his wonderful qualities, she had to add to the list that he was incredibly good in bed.  He was very passionate, but also very gentle, very giving, very caring, very skillful in the art of making love.  Thinking about that aspect of their relationship invariably brought a smile to her face.  There had been no "morning after" regrets for either of them.

At any rate, when Jeff had telephoned to tell her when he would be flying into Chicago after Christmas, she had pretended to welcome the news as if it were really going to happen.  When she talked to Martha briefly during their call, Andie laid out the real plan and asked her to cancel Jeff's airplane and limo reservations.  Martha got a good laugh out of Matt's and Mike's chicanery, and promised to take care of it.  Jeff didn't have a clue.

Andie knew this was going to be a wonderful Christmas.  She didn't know how wonderful.

*  *  *

Two limousines packed with people, luggage and Christmas gifts knifed swiftly through the swirling snow on their way from the airport to Justice and Mrs. Broman's home.

The huge lanterns at the sides of the Bromans' wrought iron front gates were gleaming through a veil of snow and early dusk by the time the Chicago contingent arrived at their destination.  Matt noticed as they entered the grounds that colored Christmas lights had been entwined in the ironwork at the crest of the gates, and then were strung as well along the top of the estate's surrounding brick wall for perhaps one hundred yards on either side of the gated entrance.  The trees along the mile-long, winding driveway to the house were also festooned with lights.  Matt smiled.  He hadn't seen this many Christmas decorations on the estate since he was a little boy.  Mom and Dad were obviously going all out to make this a Christmas to remember, he thought to himself.

The limousines pulled up and stopped at the front door.  As usual, people surged out of the main door of the house when the cars stopped, surrounding them.  Car doors flew open and Matt's and Mike's extended family began to emerge from the limos, wreathed in smiles.  Matthew and Jane Broman began greeting everybody, paying special attention to their three little grandchildren as they came rocketing out of their car and into their grandparents' arms.  Mrs. Brighton, the housekeeper, hugged and kissed Matt and Mike and the boys, and even Branford, the very English butler, allowed himself the hint of a smile as the conversation surged and people milled about.  After seeking out a tree and relieving himself, Breakers danced around, barking and biting at the falling snow.

Chris Russo sat in the open back door of the second car, crutches in hand, trying to take in the scene before him.  After meeting and warmly welcoming Carole Maggliozzi, Justice and Mrs. Broman went to Chris and gave him a special greeting, thanking him for coming to spend Christmas with them.  Mrs. Broman patted his face as Matt and Mike came over.  Handing Chris' crutches to Stan, they put Chris in a two-man carry to the front door so he wouldn't slip in the snow, which had started to accumulate and was now picking up in intensity.

Smiling broadly, with Martha by his side, Jeff was still greeting everyone jovially when the last passenger stepped out of the second car, and he stood frozen in his tracks.  Andie gave him a little wave and a smile, and he felt as if his heart had stopped.  A few giant strides later, and he had picked Andie up off her feet and whirled her around and around.  The two of them laughed like lunatics as snow fell on their heads and faces, and they kissed.

"Come on inside, everybody, before you catch a chill," Justice Broman finally said.  "Branford, will you have the staff bring in the luggage?  Leave it in the front hall, and we'll sort it out later."

"Very good, sir," Branford said.  He beckoned to some of his staff standing at the front door of the house as the limousine drivers popped the trunks of their cars and began unloading the suitcases and boxes of presents.  Soon everyone and everything was inside, and the limousines were retreating down the driveway.

Those who had never been to the Broman estate before were stunned when they entered the house and saw the huge Christmas tree, ablaze with Christmas lights and standing two stories high, gleaming in the center of the immense, circular front hall, with a huge staircase to the second floor winding around the side and back walls as it ascended.  The massive chandelier which usually dominated the hall had been raised so as not to interfere with the view of the monster tree.  Brightly wrapped Christmas packages surrounded its base.

"Wow!" Stan said, falling silent as he stood with his arm around Linda, leaning back to look up at the star on top of the tree.

"You aren't kidding, wow!" Chris agreed, by now maneuvering about on his crutches.  "I'd forgotten they grew this big.  And look at all the presents."

Overhearing them, Justice Broman chuckled.  "This tree is right off the estate," he told them.  "There is a whole stand of them down by the river, and each time we harvest one, we plant two.  We have trees down there for the next hundred Christmases or longer.  As for the presents, these out here are fakes.  The real ones are around the tree in the library."

Once he had the luggage inside and piled neatly by the front door, Branford and his staff began divesting people of coats and jackets, hanging them in a hall closet.

"Who's hungry?" Mrs. Broman asked the group.

"We all are," Mike responded.  "We kind of limited ourselves to snacks because we knew we'd be having dinner with you," he added.

"Well, dinner's ready anytime you are," Jane Broman said.  "First, though, there's one bathroom on the left, and one on the right, for those who need them.  Then walk around the tree to the last door on the right, and that's the dining room.  We'll wait for everybody before we start eating."

The crowd broke up to use the facilities.

"Mrs. Brighton, will you be kind enough to tell the kitchen we'll serve in about 15 minutes?" Mrs. Broman said.

"Of course."  Mrs. Brighton quickly counted heads, and went off to talk to the kitchen crew.

"Mom, I'm going to take Breakers and Matt to the kitchen and feed them," Mike said to Mrs. Broman, hefting a can of dog food which he had just removed from his bag by the door.

Matt groaned.  "See what I have to put up with?" he asked his mother.  "And people think Mike's the abused one in this relationship!"

Justice Broman grabbed Matt and hugged him, kissing his cheek.  "I'm almost feeling sorry for you," he said.  "I said almost."

Soon everyone had gravitated to the dining room, where they stood and held hands around the table as Jeff said grace.

"Father, we thank you for this opportunity to gather together with friends and family in anticipation of Your Son's birthday.  We are grateful for all Your blessings, Lord, in keeping safe those we love and bringing us all together.  We receive the food You have provided us with thanks, and ask that You make us always mindful of the needs of all Your children, through Jesus Christ our Lord."


When the diners were seated, Branford and Mrs. Brighton began moving around the large table with platters heaped high, from which the diners served themselves thick slices of well done roast pork, crispy at the edges.  Large bowls of sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, salad, and platters of freshly sliced baked bread, still warm from the oven, were passed around the table.  Then Branford poured a fine, slightly chilled Riesling wine into the adults' wine glasses, and poured milk for the three children.

As the food was still being served, Mrs. Broman stood up from her place at the foot of the table and went to where Chris was seated, his arm still in its cast.  Without a word she took his knife and fork and cut up the meat on his plate for him, and then returned to her place.  Matt, Mike and Jeff did the same for the boys.

"Old habits die hard, huh, Mom?" Martha commented.  Jane Broman nodded and smiled.

"Mom, when are Aunt Judy and Uncle Jack coming?" Matt asked.

"They'll be here Christmas Eve," Mrs. Broman said.

"What about Grandma?"

"I don't think so.  But Jack and Judy are going to stop and see her, and if there's the remotest possibility that she's up to it, they'll bring her."

"If she can't come, Matt and I want to drive over to see her sometime while we're here," Mike said.  "I brought a video of our wedding for her."

"She'd love to see you boys," Mrs. Broman said.  "She asks about you all the time."

The conversation moved on to other topics, and Matt took the opportunity to study his mom, sitting close at hand, and his dad, sitting farther away at the head of the table.  Both of them were aging gracefully, Matt thought, although his father's face had begun to record some of the stresses and strains of his work on the Supreme Court.

He watched the two of them as they effortlessly talked and laughed with the people around the table, some of them near-strangers, and made them feel welcome and appreciated and, yes, loved.  Their gift was not merely skillful social lubrication.  His parents had "been there" time and time again for him, for Mike, for Jeff and Martha, when needed, and Matt understood that was what parents, or at least good parents, do.  But observing them now with their guests, Matt knew their hearts were big enough for everybody, that in a very real way their caring embraced everyone with whom they came in contact, all without making any social judgments.  That had always been their way.  In a flash, Matt was no longer seeing his parents through the prism of his childhood and youth, but as one adult sees others.  He was suddenly overcome with love for them, and tears came to his eyes.  He excused himself and went into the hall for a moment to wipe his face and compose himself, and then came back.

After the main course was completed and the dinner plates were removed by the staff, a wonderful chocolate mousse was served for desert.  Everyone loved it.  As the last bites were consumed, Justice Broman stood and clinked his wine glass for attention.

"On behalf of Mrs. Broman and me, I want to thank you all for coming to spend Christmas with us.  Because you're members of Mike's and Matt's family, you're  family to us, and we're delighted that you're here.  We look forward to getting to know you better during this wonderful holiday.  Please let us know if there is anything you need while you're here.  Now, those of you who are not too tired from your trip, please join us in the library for coffee or an after-dinner drink. Or both."

Mr. Broman then briefly ducked into the kitchen to thank the staff for their hard work, as was his habit after one of their big dinners.

The diners sated, they all adjourned to the library for their drink of choice.  It was a tight squeeze for so many people, so Matt and Mike and the boys sat on the floor near the fireplace in which a few logs blazed.  It had been a big day for Matthew, Michael and Kyle, and they began to nod off.  Chris looked tired as well.  Matt caught his mother's eye, and they walked out into the hall together.

"Mom, thank you from the bottom of my heart for doing all this for Mike and me and for people you hardly know.  I can't tell you how grateful we are, and how wonderful it is to be home with you and Dad for Christmas."  He embraced her and kissed her.

"Sweetheart, we love having a crowd for the holidays, you know that," Jane Broman said.  "It really is a joy to have everybody here."

"Well, we appreciate it.  Listen, I think Mike and I need to bathe the boys and put them to bed a little early tonight.  And I was wondering if we could put Chris in Jeff's room across from ours, and move Jeff down into the old wing.  He won't care, and we like to be near Chris in case he needs anything at night."

"That's fine, hon."  She didn't tell Matt that she knew perfectly well Jeff would much prefer to be in the old wing, down near Andie's room, anyway.

Matt and his mom returned to the library, and Matt signaled Mike it was time to take the kids upstairs for their bath.  Mike asked Chris to hang in until they came back so they could carry him upstairs rather than letting him tackle the huge circular staircase on his own.  Matt beckoned to Jeff, and the two of them and Mike each took a boy and headed for the stairs.

Matt smiled at Jeff as they climbed the stairs, the kids riding on the adults' shoulders.  "Mom says you can take the room assigned to Chris in the old wing, and he can take your room so he'll be near Mike and me during the night.  Is that OK with you?"

Jeff grinned from ear to ear.  "Outstanding!  I owe ya bigtime for that, Matt.  Thanks."

The three brothers stayed together as they bathed the little boys, heard their prayers, kissed them goodnight, and put them in their beds.

"Remember, guys, Dad and I are in the room right next door if you need anything during the night," Mike told the kids.  The boys nodded, and their eyes began to close.

Jeff, Mike and Matt returned to the library.  Chris saw them come in, and nodded to Matt.  He and Mike went over to him and made sure he got up on his good leg with his crutches well under him.

"Justice Broman, Mrs. Broman, thank you so much for your hospitality.  I think I'm going to hit the bed early, if that's all right," the young policeman said.

"Of course, Chris," Mrs. Broman said.  "We're so happy you're here.  Your room will be right across from Matt's and Mike's, in case you need anything during the night."

"Thank you.  Good night, Aunt Carole.  Sleep tight.  Good night, everybody," Chris said.  Carole got up from where she was sitting and went over and hugged him and kissed him.  Then he crutched his way into the hall, trailed by Jeff, Stan, Mike and Matt and a chorus of good nights.

"Why don't you let Jeff and me do the honors?" Stan asked Matt and Mike as they reached the bottom of the stairs.  "You old farts might be a little weak after a long trip like this."

"Didn't I tell you an education would make Stan a wiseass?" Matt asked Mike, simultaneously slapping the back of Stan's head.  Stan had tried to duck but still got nailed, and grinned bigtime.

Jeff and Stan picked Chris up under his legs with one arm and put their other arm around his back as he placed his own arms around their necks, and they started up the long, winding staircase, followed by Mike and Matt with the crutches.  Once at the top, Chris was set down gently on his good foot and took his crutches back.  Stan went back downstairs while Jeff went on to remove his bag and shaving kit from his room and take them down to his new bedroom in the old wing of the house.  When Jeff came back from his new room, he dropped off Chris's bag and went downstairs.  Mike opened Chris' suitcase on top of a low chest against one wall.

Chris sat down for a moment on the side of his bed and looked at Matt and Mike.

"I haven't had this much fun at Christmas for a long time, and we're barely here," he told them.  "I want to thank you both for bringing me and Aunt Carole with you, especially since I acted like such an asshole around the condo for quite awhile.  I want to apologize for that."

"After what you've been through, you've handled yourself pretty well, bro," Mike said.  "I don't think any of us could have done any better."

"I agree," Matt said.  "And we're happy you're with us."

Chris looked around at Jeff's room, now his for the moment.  "Your mom's and dad's house is humongous," he said.  "It just swallows up this whole crowd like we were nothing."

"I know it," Matt said.  "The oldest part of the house pre-dates the Revolutionary War, and of course it's been remodeled and added to over the years.  I remember when I was a little kid, maybe five years old, when the last major renovation was done.  We actually lived in the gatehouse for awhile because things were so torn up.  The contractor added a slew of bathrooms to the place, and modernized the heating and cooling systems, and put in a new kitchen.  Every bedroom in the place has its own bathroom, just like the condo."  Matt smiled.  "I wish they'd have put in an elevator, though.  There's a dumb waiter, but no elevator.  Maybe next time."

"And wait 'til you see the grounds, Chris," Mike added.  "They're mammoth.  And that brick wall you saw when we got here runs around the whole property."  He looked at Matt.  "Y'think there are any snowmobiles or ATV's in the garage?"

"We'll check, but I think there might be one of each," Matt said thoughtfully.

"Good," Mike said.  "Maybe Chris can use one of 'em to go with us when we run.  Listen, buddy, do you need us to do anything before we go downstairs?  There's a TV over there, and the remote is on your bedside table."

"Yeah," Chris said.  "Help me take off my pants before you leave, will ya?  And can you give me a wire coat hanger I can stick down inside this cast on my leg to scratch with?  I forgot to pack the one I was using at home--jeez, listen to me, calling your place 'home.'  I mean, I left it back at your condo.  Anyway, my leg is itching like crazy.  My arm isn't, though, I don't know why.  Anyway, I hafta scratch my leg."

"No problem, dude.  And by the way, the condo is your home, for as long as you need it to be."  Matt went to Jeff's closet, retrieved a wire coat hanger, and started unraveling it to make a scratcher while Mike unlaced the tennis shoe on Chris's good leg, and removed the shoe and the sock.  Then he took Chris' slipper and sock off of the bad leg.  Chris undid his belt, opened his top button, and raised himself up off the bed on his arms so Mike could pull his baggy jeans off, leaving him clad in his boxers and a T-shirt.

This guy has a great body, Mike reminded himself as he checked Chris out.  Even through his boxers you could see he had a nice package .  The leg without the cast was perfectly proportioned, a jock's leg, well developed.  It and his chest between his pecs were lightly dusted with hair, dark hair like the hair on his head and under his arms.  Mike had seen his body before when he'd been swimming at the condo the night they first met, and it was a very pleasant sight.

Matt finished his job with the coat hanger, and handed Chris the makeshift scratcher.  Chris grabbed it and immediately plunged it down his leg under the cast, giving a blissful sigh of relief as he hit the spot that was itching.

"You need anything else while we're here?" Matt asked.  "The bathroom's through that door."  He walked over and snapped on the bathroom light, and looked the room over.  "There are fresh towels and everything in there.  There's a robe hanging just inside the door.  Do you need your pain pills or anything?"

"Nah.  I stopped taking 'em."

"That's good," Mike said.  "You'll heal faster without that stuff in your system."  He pulled Chris up to a standing position for a moment so he could turn down the bed, then let him sit down again.  "I'm sure Linda will stop by before she goes to bed.  I think she packed your urinal, in case you need to pee in the middle of the night and don't want to get up.  Now, Matt's and my room is right across the hall, and when we come to bed, we'll open your door and leave ours open, too.  Just give us a shout if you need anything, OK?"

"Guys, thanks again.  I'll never forget everything you've done for me, and I mean that," Chris said, looking at both of them seriously.

Matt and Mike just smiled, and shrugged it off.  Then Matt got a wicked gleam in his eye.

"Y'know, you two guys are kind of a captive audience, just the kind I like.  For sure, you can't run away," he said, looking at Chris.  "I think it's time for a story.  It has a sort of religious theme, in keeping with the season."

Mike groaned, but Matt launched into his story anyway.

"There's this guy who had been lost and walking in the desert for about 2
weeks. One hot day, he sees the home of a missionary.  Tired and weak, he
crawls up to the house and collapses on the doorstep. The missionary finds
him and nurses him back to health. Feeling better, the man asks the
missionary for directions to the nearest town. On his way out the back door,
he sees this horse.

"He goes back into the house and asks the missionary, 'Can I borrow your
horse and leave it there for you when I reach the town?'

"The missionary says, 'Sure, but there's a special thing about this horse.
You have to say "Thank God" to make it go and "Amen" to make it stop.'

"Not paying much attention, the man says, 'Sure, ok.'

"So he gets on the horse and says, 'Thank God,' and the horse starts walking.
Then he says, 'Thank God, thank God, ' and the horse starts trotting. Feeling
really brave, the man says, 'Thank God, thank God, thank God, thank God,
thank God,' and the horse just takes off at a dead run.

"Pretty soon he sees this cliff coming up, and he's doing everything he can to
make the horse stop.

"'Whoa, stop, hold on!' but the horse continues at a full gallop.

"Finally he remembers, 'Amen!'

"The horse stops 4 inches from the cliff. The man leans back in the saddle,
takes a deep breath of relief, and says, 'Thank God!!!!'"

Chris laughed as Mike tried to keep from smiling.

"Thank God that's over," Mike said, briefly putting Matt in a headlock and then letting him go.

After telling Chris goodnight, Matt and Mike shut the bedroom door behind them, leaving their friend to finish getting ready for bed.  They looked in on the boys.  They were all sleeping soundly, and Kyle hadn't even thrown his blanket on the floor as he so often did.

"I saw you checking out Chris while you were helping him undress," Matt said as they started down the stairs.

"Yeah, I was.  I check out other guys once in awhile just to remind me that I'm already married to the best."

"You're good!" Matt said, laughing.  "I like a guy who's fast on his feet like that."

Then they headed for their family and guests in the library, which was now echoing to the sounds of conversation and laughter.  Before they went in, Mike and Matt stood outside the library door and exchanged a few kisses.  Good ones.  Very tender and very good.

*  *  *

The next morning, Chris woke up about 7 a.m. after a great night's sleep and lay in his bed listening for the sounds of the house.  There wasn't much to hear.  It was very quiet.  Swinging his legs to the floor, he took his crutches from where they were leaning against his bedside table and made his way slowly to the bathroom.  After relieving himself, he cleaned his teeth and ran a damp washcloth over his body and took a quick shave with his electric razor, and then went back to the bedroom.  After a struggle, he managed to put on his pants without assistance, and pulled a fresh T-shirt out of his suitcase and over his head.

His bedroom door was open.  He crutched into the hallway, peering into Matt's and Mike's room as he passed by their door.  The two young men were silent and unmoving in their bed, lying loosely entwined facing one another on their pillows, uncovered and bare to their waists.  Chris had come to realize how deep the love between these two men was, for all their clowning around with each other.  Gay relationship or not, the young cop envied them that love.

Continuing down the hall, he reached the stairs, and holding both crutches on one side and clutching the balustrade on the other, he hopped down a hundred or more steps.  It seemed like a thousand.  He followed his nose into the dining room, his stomach rumbling.

Justice Broman sat alone at the head of the table, sipping coffee and reading the morning paper.  He looked up as Chris entered the room.

"Good morning, Chris," he said, folding up the paper.  "I'm glad there's at least one other 'morning person' around here.  Come on in and sit down."  The jurist pointed to a place setting near him.

A sideboard stretched along one wall, covered with juice glasses and heated plates, along with glass and silver decanters and silver chafing dishes from which steam and enticing smells were emanating.

"Let me fix a plate for you," the jurist said, standing up.  "We have scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, biscuits and gravy, oatmeal, cold cereals, toast, French toast, mixed fresh fruit, orange juice and tomato juice and grapefruit juice, decaf or regular coffee, and tea.  If none of that appeals to you, we can have the kitchen fix you something you like."

"Thank you, sir," Chris said.  "Scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, fresh fruit, tomato juice and regular coffee sound good to me."

He watched as the older man went to the sideboard, where he filled a small bowl with fruit, a glass with tomato juice, poured coffee into a cup, and brought them over to the table, putting them down in front of the young policeman.

"Start with these," he said, smiling.

Mr. Broman went back to the sideboard, and taking a warm plate, began to fill it up with Chris' choices of food.  Soon there was a full plate sitting in front the young officer, and he got right down to the business of eating.

Justice Broman sat down at his place again and looked over at Chris.

"Are your arm and leg healing all right?" he asked.

"Yes, sir, they're coming along fine, according to the doctor," Chris said between bites.  "I can't wait to get out of these casts.  You know, we just don't realize how much we take our bodies for granted until we're incapacitated for some reason.  Anyway, I really appreciated Matt's and Mike's offer to stay with them while I'm healing."

"Any residual effects from your wounds?" Mr. Broman asked.

"Did Matt or Mike tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"The doctor thinks I'm going to have some permanent weakness in my left hand from the bullet I took in the brain," Chris said.  "If that's true, my career in law enforcement is over, I'm afraid."

The justice groaned, and shook his head.  "I'm really sorry to hear that," he said.  "That's pretty hard to take."

"Yes.  I spent quite a bit of time wallowing in self-pity about it until Matt kind of snapped me out of it.  I don't know yet what kind of work I'm going to do to make a living now, but something will turn up, I'm sure."

"I'm sure you're right," Justice Broman said.  "Let me think about your job situation, though.  And if there's anything else I can do, perhaps providing a reference or something, I'd be happy to do that.  I can talk to potential employers on your behalf.  We all owe you a great deal for what you did in catching a lot of very bad people.  Society in general, I mean, owes you, and this family in particular."

"Thank you.  But I was just doing my job."

Mr. Broman smiled.  "I understand.  But there's 'doing your job,' and then there's 'doing your job!!! '  You know, with exclamation points.  I put what you did in the latter category."

"Thank you."  Chris chewed thoughtfully on his food for a moment, and then took a sip of coffee.  "May I ask you a question, sir?"

"Yes, of course."

"I think you have a remarkable family, Justice Broman.  Especially for people of wealth, and I don't mean to be offensive when I say that.  There's so much love and understanding and support.  It's pretty unusual, I think.  I suppose this is a strange question, but I was wondering how that happened.  Is there a secret to it?"

Mr. Broman chuckled.  "You're right, this is an unusual family.  I don't take the credit, by the way.  If anyone is responsible for what we are as a family, it's Jane.  I do credit the Church to some degree as well.  I don't go along with just everything the Church tells us, but I respect it for protecting and teaching the core values we should all try to live by, and for proclaiming the forgiveness of God to us when we fail to do so.  Of course, determining what those core values are, and conversely, what they are not, is an ongoing challenge.

"I do think that the kind of marriage Jane and I have, has had a good effect on our children and on our relationship with them, though.  If you had asked a few weeks ago what the actual ingredients were in our marriage that have kept us close to each other and happy with each other, I probably couldn't have verbalized it very well.  But I was reading an article recently that gave me some insight.  It basically said that the happiest and most enduring marriages depend on maintaining and nourishing the initial illusions about your partner that caused you to form a relationship in the first place."

"Maintaining your illusions?" Chris asked skeptically.

"I know that sounds strange, because we all expend a lot of effort attempting to decipher what's real in everyday life.  But the author's contention was that the happiest lovers are those who are the most positive about each other and continue to idealize their partners the way they did early on in their courtship.  They tend to be the kind of people who remain positive and hold on to the expectation that their relationship can and will endure through hard times."

Chris continued eating for a moment, lost in thought.

"You know, that makes a lot of sense," he said finally.  "Mike and Matt told me you and Mrs. Broman are amazing people.  I can see what they meant.  You kind of bowl me over, sir, to be honest.  You've definitely helped me understand how it is that Matt and Mike are, well, so committed to each other."

"Do you know many gay people or gay couples?" the jurist asked.

"No, I don't.  But I recently learned that my best friend is gay, or thinks he might be.  That tells me that there are more homosexuals out there than we think, and that we're probably rubbing shoulders with them every day and don't even know it."

"I suspect you're right.  How do you feel about homosexuality?"

"If you had asked me that question before I met Mike and Matt, and before my friend came out to me, I'd have given you an entirely different answer, sir.  Not all police officers are homophobic, but many are, and I have to admit I was in that camp to some degree.  I never really hated gays or persecuted them, but I grew up not thinking very highly of them, to be honest with you."

"And now?"

"I'm confused," Chris said.

"About what?"

"I guess I'm trying to resolve the conflict between beliefs I've had my whole life, guided by the Church's official teachings about homosexuality, and the clear evidence of the powerful and loving relationship that gay people like Matt and Mike have in the real world.  And also with the fact that my best friend maybe is gay and yet is a great guy and a good person.  I'm think I'm pretty much at the point where I just don't have it in me to condemn people anymore for their sexual orientation.  Captain Angelo--you remember him from Matt's and Mike's wedding, I'm sure--initially had a hard time with your sons' relationship after he found out they were gay.  I guess the Sisters from Hospice kind of took him to the woodshed and gave him another perspective right quick.  Matt and Mike are very special people, and they've been kinder to me than I deserve.  How can I condemn them for the love they show each other?  So, I guess I'd say I'm working on my problem, and it's become clear to me that it is my problem.  Is sexual orientation an example of what you meant when you said you don't go along with just everything the Church teaches?"

"Yes, it is.  If every gay clergyperson, or for that matter, every gay layman and laywoman in the history of the Church is going to burn for homosexual acts, it's going to be one hell of a conflagration.  I'm obviously not talking about pedophilia, here, you understand.  That stands condemned, and rightly so.  But it behooves the Church to take a new look at the issue of sexual orientation and at the God-given mandate to all Christian believers to live their lives in accordance with their nature, that beautiful nature that God gave us and redeemed for us.  So I'm very comfortable with the fact that a gutsy young priest, backed up by a gutsy parish rector, married my sons to each other in church, right out there in front of God and everybody.  These two priests, by almost any measure, would be considered theological conservatives.  But their sense of justice and compassion made them move ahead of their peers on this issue, and Mike's and Matt's relationship is the stronger for it, I can assure you."

"There's no way that it wouldn't be," Chris said.

Jeff and Andie, both looking very happy, came into the dining room for breakfast right then.

Justice Broman looked at them.  "Happy faces," he said to Chris, smiling.  "They lift the heart, don't they?  For these two young people, things are easier than for gay couples like Matt and Mike.  Thanks be to God that somebody is having an easier time of it."

Before getting their breakfast, Andie and Jeff approached Mr. Broman, and Jeff took Andie's left hand and showed it to his father.  She was wearing a sizable diamond engagement ring.

"Dad, I've asked Andie to marry me, and she's done me the honor to accept."

Justice Broman stood up, beaming at the young couple.  First he hugged Andie and kissed her, and then Jeff.

"Congratulations, son!" he said enthusiastically.  "And Andie, all my very best wishes!  I'm so happy for you both!  Jeff, your mother will be thrilled!"

"About what?" Jane Broman said as she came into the dining room dressed in a simple white blouse and black slacks, looking like a million dollars.

"Mom, Andie has agreed to become my wife," Jeff said.

"Oh, my goodness!"  Stunned but smiling, Jane Broman walked quickly to the young couple and embraced and kissed them both.  "I am thrilled for you!"  She oohed and aahhed over the engagement ring, and then said, "I think I need to sit down."

Justice Broman pulled out a chair for her across the table from Chris, next to his own, and when she was seated, he took her hand.  She looked at him with love.

"Our babies, Matthew!  They're leaving us, one by one.  But they're making some great choices for partners, I'll have to admit that."

"I agree, sweetheart.  Life should be so good for everybody!"

Chris extended his hand across the table to Jeff and Andie.  "Congratulations, guys!  This is wonderful news!"

"I don't think a handshake is gonna do it for us, dude!" Jeff said, and he and Andie walked around the table as Chris stood up, and each gave him a big hug.  Chris felt really good about that, and smiled from ear to ear.

Matt and Mike walked in just then with the three boys.

"All right, what's with all the hugging going on here?" Mike demanded, feigning disgust.

"Jeff popped the question, and I said 'yes,'" Andie said, showing them her ring.

Matt and Mike rushed over to the young couple and grabbed them up in their arms, kissing them both soundly.  Their little boys watched curiously, not certain what was going on.

"Oops, I forgot," Mike told everybody.  "The wedding is off!  Jeff didn't ask me for permission first, and he knows he was supposed to!"

Everybody hooted.

"Dad, what's happening?" Matthew asked, looking up at Mike, pulling at his pant leg.  Mike picked him up and gave him a kiss.

"Uncle Jeff and Andie are getting married, Matthew!  If you all play your cards right, you and your brothers might get to be in another wedding."  The boys all smiled, and Jeff took Matthew in his arms from Mike and then added Michael and Kyle to his collection, and danced around holding them as all three kids laughed at their uncle.

Matt embraced Andie again and kissed her, and took her hand and looked at the ring more closely.  It was beautiful.  "I highly recommend marriage.  But have you tried to cut glass with this yet?  It might not be real."

"If it isn't, I'm out an awful lot of money," Jeff said, laughing.  He'd cleaned out one of his savings accounts to buy it.

"Have you set a date?" Mrs. Broman asked the happy couple.

"No," Andie said.  "But just as soon after graduation as we can, though."

"In Chicago?" Mr. Broman asked.

"Yes," Andie said.  "I want us to be married at St. Stephen's Church, if the parish schedule permits."

"Looks like another fun trip to Chicago, sweetheart," Justice Broman said to his wife.

"Jeff, I'll put you on my schedule for a little chat about the birds and the bees before then," Matt said, deadpan.  "I don't want you to come across as ignorant on your wedding night."

Everybody roared as Andie, blushing a little, looked at Jeff.

"You just might be a little late on that, bro," Jeff said, grinning like an idiot because he was so happy.

Things finally settled down as those who hadn't yet eaten went to the sideboard and began helping themselves to platefuls of food.  Mike and Matt and Mr. Broman fixed plates and poured juice for the three boys, and then Matt and Mike got food for themselves and sat down to eat.  Deeply content, the justice watched the young people eat and kibitz with one another.

*  *  *

Father David Howard called midmorning that same day and talked to Matt.  Father Rohm had agreed to let David have the week off following Christmas Day, and he wanted to fly to Pennsylvania two days after Christmas, after he had made his duty visit to his parents in Indiana.  Matt was pleased, and good as his word, he made the plane reservations from his end and paid for the ticket.  Matt made a point of telling Martha that the priest was coming to spend some time with them, and she seemed energized when she heard it.

Martha hadn't completely sorted out all her feelings about David Howard, but she thought he was handsome as all get out, with a great personality.  She knew, too, that given what he had done for Mike and Matt, he had backbone and did what he thought was right no matter what others thought.  Those qualities counted for a lot with her, and she began looking forward to his visit with great anticipation.

When asked, Matt, Mike, Jeff and Martha all took turns driving various of their guests to a large shopping center about 10 miles from the estate so they could do shopping that they hadn't had a chance to do before, and to buy last minute things.  Matt took Chris, and since they hadn't brought a wheelchair along on the trip, he put him in one of those electric carts with a flashing light on top of it so he could get around.  Chris was a little embarrassed.  But the contraption got the job done, and saved Chris from getting all worn out from being on his crutches for an extended period of time.

When Christmas Eve day rolled around, much to Matt's astonishment, Mike asked him to go to church with him at noon for a late Advent service of preparation for Christmas.  The service gave parishioners the opportunity for corporate general confession as well as private confessions for those who wished to make them.  Matt said he would go.  Mrs. Broman and surprisingly, Chris Russo, went with them. Old St. Paul's was purposely dark and gloomy, relieved only by the occasional overhead light and splashes of color from a rack of blue votive lights burning beneath a beautifully carved wooden statue of the Blessed Virgin.  A lighted nativity scene also had been placed in one of the transcepts, with the crèche still empty.

Chris couldn't help reflecting somberly on man's inhumanity to man, even as the great feast approached, and glumly wondered to himself if things had improved in the world all that much since Jesus had been born.  The full force of the kingdom of God was certainly taking its own sweet time in making itself felt, he thought to himself.  On the other hand, maybe Matt's and Mike's philosophy of slogging along, putting one foot in front of the other when things were tough, was the only way the kingdom would come at all.

Mrs. Broman went to confession, as did Mike.  When Matt saw his partner go, he made his own preparation and went as well.  Chris thought it over, and decided that out of gratitude for his life having been spared when he was shot, he would go, too.  After quizzing Matt in whispers about the confession format to find out if was different from the Roman Catholic one, he crutched his way into one of the booths and made his confession.  Before long he emerged to do his penance, feeling satisfied with his decision.  He felt humbled and very much at peace.

On the way home, Chris was riding shotgun in Mrs. Broman's brand new Cadillac sedan, a Christmas gift from her husband.  Matt and Mike were sitting in the back.

Matt leaned over, blew in his partner's ear, and said quietly, "I hope you didn't scare the priest by confessing any of your weirder sexual exploits."

"I don't know about scaring him, but I think he was panting by the time he gave me absolution," Mike responded.

Chris wasn't supposed to hear it, but he did, and burst out laughing.  That started Matt laughing, too.

"What, Chris?" Jane Broman asked.

"Your sons crack me up, that's all!" he said.

Mrs. Broman just smiled and wisely refrained from asking for details.

When they arrived back home, Matt decided that the condo runners and anyone else he could catch needed exercise to stay in shape, so he hassled Mike, Martha, Stan, Linda, Jeff and Andie until they changed clothes for a run part of the way around the estate.  He also had looked in the garage, and in one of the bays there was an ATV.  He fired it up, and drove it to the front door of the house for Chris to use while everybody else ran.  It energized Chris to be with the gang.  Once he had familiarized himself with the controls and borrowed an old motorcycle helmet from Jeff, they all took off.  Chris matched the runners' pace as he drove to one side of them while they did five miles, first following the perimeter wall of the estate and then cutting back diagonally to the house.  Once they had gotten back and the runners had showered, everyone was feeling really pumped about the day thus far.

Mrs. Broman had written down the mass schedule for Christmas Eve night and for Christmas Day at Our Lady of Sorrows, the Roman Catholic parish, and drawn a map of how to get there for Stan, Linda, Chris and Carole.  But they all decided independently that they were going to attend the midnight mass at Old St. Paul's Church with the Bromans.  Matt ribbed Chris and Stan that the fires of hell would probably be warmed up a few degrees for them as a result of their impending visit to an Episcopal parish for mass on a high holy day.  Chris just laughed at him and Stan grinned and flipped him the bird.  Repeatedly, with both hands.

Jane Broman's brother Jack Hagerty and sister-in-law Judy arrived in their car around dusk with a trunk full of Christmas presents.  Grandma Hagerty had not felt up to the trip.  The Hagertys looked good, and the family was glad to see them.  Matt was surprised how well they took to all the people from Chicago, many of whom they had only met for the first time at Mike's and Matt's wedding and reception.  Judy liked Carole Maggliozzi immediately, and they started hanging out together in a new friendship no one would have predicted.  Matt was pleasantly surprised when his Uncle Jack didn't start pounding back the drinks, as was his wont on a holiday.  That was a nice change, although the man had never been a mean drunk at all.

After the Hagertys were settled in, the family and friends gathered in the dining room for a light buffet.  The decision had been made to open Christmas presents after a late breakfast on Christmas morning, followed by Christmas dinner at 4 p.m..

Old St. Paul's "midnight" Christmas Eve mass was to start at 10:30 p.m., so Mrs. Broman made sure that everybody was ready to leave the house by 10:00 they could make it to the church by 10:15.  That way, they could all sit together.  They drove over in three cars, and arrived right on time.

The earlier gloom of the church was now dispelled by additional banks of votive lights ignited by the faithful, and lighted candles were also mounted on tall staffs up and down the aisles at each end of every pew.  Two large fir trees dressed up the sanctuary at the sides of the altar, now clad in its gleaming white Christmas finery.  As the rest of the family seated themselves, Mike went over to the statue of the Blessed Virgin and asked for her prayers for the members of his birth family.  They were frequently on his mind during the holidays.  He lit a candle before he returned to sit with the Bromans.

Altar boys and girls dressed in red cassocks and freshly laundered white surplices soon came out of the sacristy and lit the tall altar candles.  Mike thought to himself that the corps of acolytes just kept being replenished with good looking boys and young men, all of whom looked really good in their vestments.  America had been keeping itself busy in the bedroom, praise God.  And Mike gave the pretty girls serving at the altar a second glance as well.

Matthew, Michael and Kyle had had not one, but two naps during the day so that they could stay up late for the service.  Dressed in cute little suits, white shirts  and red clip-on ties, they stood quietly on the kneelers between their dads so they could look around curiously at everything that was going on.

The pipe organ began playing softly as parishioners continued to come into the church quietly, enter the pews and kneel to make their preparation for the eucharist.  Soon the nave was packed and folding chairs were being set up in the back.  Matt enjoyed yet again the feeling he always got in the pit of his stomach from the deep bass sound of the organ's 64' bourdon pipes.  The magnificent old gothic building trembled at the lowest notes.

The organist played a prelude, and when he finished, there was a deep silence.  Matt smiled in anticipation when he heard at the back of the church the sound of a thurible top being run up its chains so that incense could be added to hot coals.  After the top rattled back down, a fanfare from the state trumpets mounted on the back wall pierced the air as the congregation stood and the organist launched into the first hymn of Christmas, Angels from the realm of glory, wing your flight o'er all the earth....  As the choir began singing and processing down the center aisle behind the thurifer and crucifer, Mike looked over at his partner and the three boys for a long moment, loving them and loving being there with them.

Matt and Mike weren't alone in savoring the occasion.  Mary Bradford stood there holding her hymnal, seeing from her place in the pews the members of this family whom she loved and to whom she felt she owed so much, perhaps even her life.  She caught Justice Broman also gazing at the family with a thankful, contented look.  Their eyes met, and they smiled at one another as they began to sing the opening hymn.

The thurifer continued making his way down the aisle, incense billowing, followed by the crucifer and choir.  Heads bowed as the crucifix was carried by.  The choir of about 40 people continued processing, with a deacon and two priests dressed in a matching set of white eucharistic vestments following them behind a second processional cross.  The three little Broman boys were watching everything intently and taking it all in.

After the celebrant had reached the altar and censed it during the singing of the introit, mass began in earnest with the collect for the first mass of Christmas, then an Old Testament lesson from Isaiah, [The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light...], Psalm 96, [Sing to the Lord a new song,* sing to the Lord, all the whole earth...], Paul's epistle to Titus [The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men...], and finally the Alleleuias and a gradual just before the Gospel from Luke, which was sung by the deacon from the center aisle of the church, in the midst of the congregants, who were now all standing:  [In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.].

The rector's homily was based on the Christian proclamation to the world that "the Word had become flesh, and dwelt among us," and was quite good in discussing the uniqueness of this belief for Christians among all the world's religions.  He said that the bridge between God and man could only be fully realized, however, as Christians built ties of love and trust to those of other faiths everywhere.  There was that difficult word, "love," again, Matt thought to himself.

After the gifts of bread and wine were placed on the altar, a lay reader led the congregation in the Prayers of the People.  When he asked for specific individuals to be mentioned for prayer on their behalf, Matt, Mike and Chris simultaneously said "Josh" aloud.  They looked at one another and grinned.  Matt and Mike included their grandmother and Chris in their petitions for the aged, the injured and the sick.

The celebrant stated that the intention of the mass was for world peace and the healing of the wounds of war and violence.

As Matt listened to the familiar words of the eucharist prayers, he silently offered thanks for the abundant blessings he had received in his life:  all the wonderful people who were part of his existence, starting with his partner Mike and their three beautiful sons, his loving parents and grandmother, Jack and Judy Hagerty, Martha and Jeff and Andie, Mary Bradford and Stan and Linda and Chris and Carole and confused young Josh, Tony and Marie Angelo, Sister Angeline and Sister Catherine, Father Rohm and Father Howard, Arnie Watkins, and Branford and Mrs. Brighton, and Dominic their faithful doorman at home in Chicago.  He thought of Breakers and his unwavering devotion to the family.  He thought of the clothing he wore and the roof over his head that he all too often took for granted, and the food with which he had been fed, and the education he had received and the gift of limitless possibilities stretching out before him to be of service to others in this world.  His heart was full, and it was all he could do not to echo aloud the magnificent, pervasive, cosmic "YES!" of life as the priest-celebrant held up the consecrated host and the chalice to the faithful and said, "The gifts of God for the people of God."

© 2002 Don Hanratty

I was very honored and grateful to receive an award from the Gay Writers Guild for Working It Out for 2002 a few days ago.  There are many other writers in this genre who could, and perhaps should, have won this award.  A big "Thank you!" to the readers of WIO who have been so kind and encouraging with their compliments and so sparing with their criticisms for the story since its inception.  Part 4 will continue with the Bromans' Christmas, and then detail how Matt and Mike and Stan deal with the bullying situation at St. Stephen's School after they return home.  Again, my thanks to Scott (wright28) for proofing and editing Part 3.  DH .