Skip - Part 62
"Yeah. I'm sorry ... "
"I wouldn't be any different if my son were in danger, Aaron. Jeff would do for me what I'm doing for you. It's easy to care about someone who can't care for himself for a while. You need to adjust your attitude before you see Jake today. If he feels what you do, he's in for a tougher fight."
I nodded. He was right, of course. Jake could read me. He'd rather not see me at all if all I could give him were my own fears. I'd be that way, so I knew. Jake needed forward progress every day. If he fell, I'd catch him. I'd carry him a long while if I had to. He'd rather walk on his own.
So would I. Matt and I dressed and then headed out into the early morning fog. Perfect. I couldn't see what was five feet in front of us. I couldn't see beyond today either.
Not that any of us should. I did want to know though. No insult to Skip and Billy, but for today I wanted my son alive more than I wanted anything on Earth. They would not only forgive me that lapse in my love for them, but expect it, and welcome it. Aaron needs a son to be complete. No one doubted that, most especially Jake. Jake was not his father's son. He was his Dad's son, and wanted to be, now and forever. Forever was the tough part, because Jake had a hard enough time with this moment.
I stood at the foot of Jake's bed. He was still sleeping. It was barely 7:00 a.m. Jake always woke at 6:00 a.m. I went over to him and wiped sweat off his forehead. I slid my right arm underneath him and pulled him to me as I kissed his lips softly. Matt watched me. I lay him back down gently and then lay beside him. I talked softly into his ear. He was safer than he was yesterday, but not safe enough. I told him otherwise. He'd either know I was lying and he'd forgive me, or he'd know I wanted to believe it myself.
Jake loves music. He likes my Richard Marx CDs because they spoke volumes for heart love, without the hands and without the touch.
Wherever you go
Whatever you do
I will be right here waiting for you
Whatever it takes
Or how my heart breaks
I will be right here waiting for you
And from a Kenny Loggins tune:
In a lifetime
Made of memories
Every moment returns again in time
When I've got the future on my mind
Know that you'll be the only one
Meet me halfway
Across the sky
Out where the world belongs
to only you and I
But don't go too far away, love. You've endured too much to lose your life. I'll come more than half way, and then bring you back. Skip did that for me. Yeah people struggle and die anyway. I know you're fighting. Fighting to struggle, struggling to fight. I knew what it took to let that happen.
I held Jake close to my heart, physically, because touch got through a fog no matter how thick the fog was. I could feel Jake. Skip could feel me, so I finally understood. It took a while to get there. However, I hated that I could feel. I'd had enough pain for a lifetime. I took hold of Jake's pain anyway. Willingly. Was he strong enough to handle it? Dunno. I hadn't been at 34, all those years ago. How could a 21 year old? At my worst, I had 12 years more life experience on him. It took the love of two to bring me back. Jake had that and then some. Full credit goes to Matt, Jeff, Skip, Billy, and Daniel. I had been unable to stay with him and lost too many tears at that.
My success came from Skip and Billy, Andrew, Claire, Andy Jr., and blessed Jason. Little Luke, Abby, and Eddie did not play small parts either. The dance continued. We waltzed into the spotlight and retreated from each other's lives at the edge of the light (never at the edge of darkness-there is a difference), available on demand. I couldn't overuse that. Each one of us does have to stand on his or her own at some time, lots of some times, and to know when it was good to call for a helping hand.
Jake stirred. He tried to open his eyes. He snuggled to me instead. When he opened his eyes, he kissed my forehead. Matt stood and took Jake's hand. Jake smiled up at him, but a tear fell down his cheek and onto my arm.
"Daddy, I don't know how much more of this I can take."
That was heart wrenching to me. It wasn't a complaint. It was a cry for help.
"What can I do for you love?"
"Don't let me go."
I didn't, through his waking hours and his fevers and his sleeping hours. I always whispered sweet things to him when he was in a fever, hoping something would get through to him. I kissed his heart. I felt the love that flowed from it. Jake was not weak, but he really was badly beaten, almost as badly as by his father. What his father did to him was the worst though. Jake was barely past the stage of danger, and dying. Now he needed a strength that would bring him fully back to his life. Existing sucks. When he was at his worst, I reminded him that he was safe because I loved him purely.
When he felt good, we took him outside. Jake marveled at the world like he was seeing it for the first time. I loved that, because he made me see it too, through his eyes. I really can do that on my own, but it's sooo cool to be reminded and refreshed that we do live. I hope someone slaps me one moment from senseless if I ever just exist.
When he felt physically bad, The Four and I gave him all we had. Daniel was no small part of Jake's love and life. Reality said he had to work if the two were to have a future. They wanted an apartment for themselves. Soon. Daniel sacrificed his time in the moment to be there for Jake's inevitable future. Daniel was there for Jake at every moment possible.
When he was sad, we talked it out.
"You're not alone love. Whatever you need, you'll have. I love you my Jake. You'll feel better when your fever breaks."
"Are we going home soon?"
'Because I don't want to die here', I finished in my own mind.
I didn't answer right away. I had thought he was lucid, but now I thought otherwise.
"Not today, I know. But soon?"
"I hope so Jake. I can't wait to take you home. Can you keep working hard?"
"I dunno. I'm tired. It's easier to stop fighting."
"I understand that. But keep fighting anyway. First for Daniel and second for me. Please?"
He nodded and then took my hand.
"For you both at the same time. It's how I love you. Equal."
"Okay. You should have something to eat."
"Says you. What does The Tummy say?"
I lifted his t-shirt and rubbed his tummy. It gurgled.
"Busted!" I said, smiling at him.
I kissed his tummy and stared him down.
"Okay okay. I guess I can eat."
I took that as a positive sign in itself. We were all about baby steps. Matt went out in search of Jake's nurse. He would ask for something light but ample enough. He returned with a peeled banana, a muffin on a plate, and a half-pint carton of milk. He started to hand them to me. I got out of bed.
"No Matty. You feed Jake."
"Lemme wash my hands again then," he said as he went to the bathroom.
We were past the stage of having to gown up. Even then, being careful around Jake was second nature. Matt sat on the edge of Jake's bed, his left leg tucked underneath his butt. I stood behind him and left my hand on his shoulder. Matt broke off a piece of the banana and fed it to Jake. After Jake had eaten half the banana, Matt took the crown off the muffin, pulled the base in half, and fed it to Jake. Cranberries and orange rind shown through. Jake's favorite. It didn't surprise me that Matt knew Jake's favorite anything. He'd spent the better part of two and a half months with him. Matt put his right arm under Jake's neck and gently lifted his head. He tipped milk into Jake's mouth. Jake slowly made all gone with his breakfast.
"Well love," Matt said, "I guess you were hungry. Do you want more?"
"Not now. Lunch. I need to get out of this bed."
"You can," said Matt. "I asked the nurse. Better yet, we can dress you and take you to the sun room."
"Sweet. Let's go."
I went to Jake's duffle and pulled out a sweatshirt, Adidas pants, socks, and his sneakers. I handed the clothes to Matt one at a time. He dressed Jake's frail body. My own weight loss had nothing on Jake. If he weighed 70 pounds, I'd be surprised. He'd easily lost half his weight. Matt started to leave, probably to get a wheelchair.
"No need bud. I got him."
"Matty?" Jake said. He puckered up.
Matt loved our boy and would do whatever Jake wanted. He put one hand on my shoulder and his other on Jake's. He leaned in and kissed Jake warmly on his lips.
"Love you Matty. Thanks for being here for so long."
"No need for thanks, love. I'll be here still, and after you come home."
"I'm sorry you gave up your wedding plans."
That took Matt by surprise. He didn't think Jake would know.
"I don't forget much. I know the date from the calendar in your kitchen. I know you're not married yet."
"Not until you'll be my best man."
"No, don't ... well, yeah, but don't wait that long. I don't know when I'm coming home yet."
"Ginny and I already talked about this. You're very important in our family, so the honor should be yours."
"With six brothers? And Jeff?"
"Who all think you are the coolest brother I have. Younger brother gets the honor in my family, by tradition."
"Thanks. But still don't wait on me."
"It's already settled. We're waiting until you come home."
Jake tucked closer into my chest. Matt took his hands for a moment and held them. He kissed Jake again, this time on his cheek.
"I love you Jake. It's been awful to see you so sick. It's small, but you need something to look forward to. School is the biggest. You still might make it."
"Maybe. You know what Dad says."
"The moments we're in. Your Dad's pretty great, huh?"
Jake looked up at me. His eyes were so beautiful. He smiled at me. "Yeah Matt, My Dad is pretty great."
I sat Jake on the loveseat and then sat on the floor in front of him, wrapping his legs over my shoulders and holding on to them. Matt took the hint and sat beside Jake. They took each other's hands. None of us spoke for a long while. It was quiet and sunny. We were coming up on August. Jake had missed almost the whole summer. I, or we (many we's) would make that up to him next summer. For now, we let Jake enjoy the freedom and the bright sunlight. We sat and watched the sun disappear over the western suburbs.
"Time to go home, Dad."
"I don't want to."
"Yeah, but I do. You need your life back. Mine's better, and I need to sleep. Come back tomorrow."
I didn't say anything. I looked at Matt. He knew what I was thinking because he'd do the same. I picked Jake up just like before. Matt walked beside me, already taking Jake's sneakers off. He tied the laces together and hung them around his neck.
Outside Jake's room, Matt leaned in and kissed Jake on his cheek.
"See you guys tomorrow."
He walked away, Jake's sneakers still hanging around his neck. He made a face as he waved goodbye with one of them.
Jake looked up at me. He scowled. I laughed at Matt. Then I kissed Jake's forehead.
"I need to be with you love. Some day you and Daniel might adopt someone. You'll understand then."
"I understand now. I'm alright you know."
"Then ... "
"Sshhhh. I just wanna hold you. I'll go back to work on Monday. For now we'll dream together."
He nodded. I lay him on his bed.
"How much do you want to leave on?"
"All of it. I get cold overnight."
"Do you tell anyone?"
"Yeah. Jeff knows. Matty knows."
I lay beside him, up against him. I interlocked our fingers and put our hands on his belly.
"I love you Daddy," were the words that I took into sleep with me, as usual. Much better than over the phone.
To my word, I did go back to work on Monday. I had finished off one project while in DC and started another. The design specification was approved and I worked with my data models first. This project came from one of my ideas, not from my management's project list. GE was just now becoming a 'green' company and I had been reading up on the subject for months. Manufacturing wouldn't see my design for a long while yet, but I would get the GE patent on it. That's worth $250,000 up front and sales residuals for life. I would always be part of GE even though I wanted one career. Now that I was okay again, I could resume my paramedic license training. I liked being a fire fighter too, so that was part of the program, though it'd wait until after my next (and hopefully final) kidney transplant.
On Monday night, I called Skip and Billy in Boston. We talked for an hour, maybe a bit more. I told Billy that I was sending a check for him to use for school. He didn't ask how much, nor would I have told him anyway. I kept $25,000 for Jake's next year at Penn State. Billy would share his portion with Skip for any class Skip wanted to take. Skip was not idle for a minute. His professors, like his classmates, saw him in action and that action was impressive. With a classmate to help place his hands on his laptop keyboard, Skip could do anything. His notes were sought after. He got the subtle things that others might miss. His exams were oral exams, which was fine by him. He had to talk to keep his breathing regular. He didn't have one major, but two minors-secondary education and human development. He could be a teacher if he wanted to, but he had other plans.
Billy, David, Patrick, and Matt were getting ready for medical school. They had over 100 schools to choose from, but one plan-to go together. Johns Hopkins in Baltimore was at the head of the list. Stanford (California) and George Washington University in DC rounded out the top three. All four guys have had 3.9 to 4.0 GPA's all through their Boston College life.
My only plan was a single-minded determination to get Jake home. He was mostly out of danger but nothing in life was certain. Skip is one proof of that-fully healed from a terrible two plus years with cancer only to fight another eight years later. And Billy fighting for Skip's very soul only to have his stolen from me for a few weeks. Here we were though, despite that. If wishes were fishes, we'd all cast nets out to sea.
I did more than wish. I worked each day because Jake wanted me to. Ginny or Kellie took turns to be with Jake each afternoon, since school was out. Matt, Jeff, and I stayed at night in alternating schedules. I stayed with him around the clock on Saturday and Sundays. We got him out of his room as much as he could stand. It was quite usual for Jake to be thrown over one of three shoulders and carted around the hospital and grounds. He endured tests and needles.
Mid-August 2002-finally, he was declared to be in remission (a word that means wealth beyond measure to a cancer patient) and plans were made for his release. He cried in my arms that night. Jake had been here for over four months.
"Dad? If I'm dreaming, don't pinch me."
I pinched him. Hard. After all, he wasn't dreaming.
"Ouch! Okay okay, I get it! Wow, home."
Jake's personal independence day came far beyond July 4th. Matt and Ginny had gone to a wedding (not their own) out of town, so Jeff and I brought him home to Matt's place. Jeff took Jake's clothes, threw everything into the washer, put them in the dryer a bit later, and then folded and put them away in Jake's dresser. In the meantime, Jake and I sat out at the lake, ducks gathered around us, still to Jake's amazement. Jeff joined us outside again.
"There love, now you're home. Mom and Dad are coming for dinner tomorrow. Okay by you?"
"Of course. Mom was the best at writing everyday stuff to me weekly, just so I'd know that there was life beyond my room. She and Pop came to see me several times. It'll be good to see them without gowns and masks. It's only a week to school registration. Dad? Can I?"
"Don't need to ask me love. You worked hard to make it back to school."
When the air cooled, Jake shivered. Jeff picked him up and carried him back to the house. We settled in the kitchen. Jeff and I made tacos while Jake cut up the lettuce and tomatoes.
The front doorbell rang. Jeff looked at Jake and said, "It's for you."
Jake went to the door and opened it. Daniel came in and hugged Jake for all he was worth, tears running down his cheek. Daniel shut the door behind him and walked arm-in-arm to the kitchen. There were eight tacos ready. Of course we knew Daniel would be here for dinner. Jake would learn eventually not to take me for granted. Not that he did, but it was fun that I could still surprise him with little things.
Billy and Jake's birthdays were a few days apart. Jake turned 21 while in the hospital. It was no place to spend a birthday but we would make up for it. I had given Jake and Daniel tickets to any place Daniel wanted to take Jake-anyplace. He chose Canada, to see some very fine innkeepers. They would go for Christmas break.
SAT scores were one thing that Jake worked hard for. I doubt his family ever cared one way or the other. His prick father had made it clear that Jake would not go to college on his dime. That was just one reason, of many, why I readily paid Jake's tuition last year. But he wasn't satisfied with his SAT scores out of high school. They were in the high-600's to low-700's (of a possible 800) for each of three elements; critical reading, math, and writing. Before he had his bone marrow transplant, he had retaken the SAT. His scores all increased-790, 800, and 775 respectively. (My math score was maybe 400 ... not my best subject ever.) Even today, I would be happy with that. I had scored 800 each, on critical reading and writing. Go figure.
"For you, Dad,' he had said to me. "Because you believed in me and so did I."
I loved that about Jake. He listened to everything I said, profound or not (and most was not).
With those scores, he could get into any college he wanted. He and Daniel, like I said, were looking at Michigan State or University of Michigan. Daniel already had a tentative job offer at UMich. Jake already had an offer letter from Michigan State. He never told me he also had an offer letter from University of Pennsylvania, one of the Ivy League schools. I found the offer letter one weekend when I was cleaning up his room. He had a smiley face on it, in the shape of a heart, with my name in the middle of it. Yes, he could go to an Ivy League college. He chose not to.
His IQ, tested at Penn State, was 130. Mine in 2000 was 120-"just this side of bright" said Claire. Yup, I was a chip off the old block, even before I met Jake. No wonder he loved me. Neither of us cared that I was more stupid than him. He was new school while I was old. And I knew how to love him.
"I'm glad we're home, Dad. I wasn't sure ... "
"I wasn't sure I'd ever see you again, until Heaven."
"My only fault is that I was away from you for so long. I'm sorry for that."
"Stop. Fourteen tumors? It's more than a miracle that YOU are here, never mind me. Could you ... could you feel me, in the hospital?"
"Every moment. That's part of what love is. I didn't just miss you. I worked very hard to be well enough to come to you."
"I know. I worked hard to stay alive for you."
"You should do everything for Daniel. I'm second in line."
"Yes. I know you love me Jake. I love you, I hope, as much. But Daniel is going to do more for you than I ever can. He might have been in the background, but somewhat because of you. You should have told him what was going on at home from the beginning."
"I didn't know he felt anything for me. Daniel was just another guy, in another grade."
"What was he supposed to say? 'Hi, I'm gay. Will you be my boyfriend?'"
"It might have been easier," Jake said softly, almost to himself.
"He was watching out for you the whole time. He needed a way to show you he was there. But it took you nearly being killed for that to happen."
"I know that now. Don't be mad at me Dad."
He gave me teary eyes. The last thing on Earth Jake wanted was my disapproval. I did mean the world to him. But I wanted his life to be about Daniel.
"Not mad. Not even close, love. I'm thrilled 24/7 by you because you're my son. I will love you deeply always, forever and even beyond that, if I can. But I'm not the one to carry you into your future."
"You won't be far away from me, no matter what."
"Same for me. I don't make promises I can't keep."
"I love being your son. Seems we earned that, huh?"
"I think so." I shrugged.
"You're thinking about your own son."
"Yes and no. You're my own son. Not from my seed. From my heart. But yeah, I have to wonder what my life would have been like with Kate and little Bradley."
"No me, for one thing."
"I know. No Skip or Billy either. My path would never have crossed all those that I love so dearly. I'm not sad that you are mine love. I really can't picture my life any different than it is. I'm not sad that I have you. I think I had to lose Kate and even young Andrew before I could finally have you."
"It was too much to give up, Daddy. Even for me."
I didn't have an answer for that just yet, not an honest one anyway. What did I give up? Who knows? I don't. The moments I'm in have to be the best ones. Jake was quiet for a few minutes. I realized that he had fallen asleep. I held him close. Daniel had fallen asleep on the sofa. Matt delivered him to Jake's bed. Matt took me to his. I wasn't back to the 'real' me yet either. Matt helped me get past nightmares that were common. Jake was more of a miracle than he would ever know.
The days passed. I worked half days in the office and half at home. I wanted to be close to Jake. Matt and Jeff wanted to do the same, but we had used their kindness and then some. I loved being the parent to my son.
"Tell me about Skip," Jake said to me one night, late. He was having trouble sleeping, not yet 100% Jake again. "He's inside of me now, and will be forever. I already know how I feel about him. What is Skip to you?"
"My whole world, far above everyone except you."
"The first time I ever saw him, I just stared at him. He didn't know it yet. I tried to be discreet. He was doing the same to me, but I didn't know it. He really wasn't trying to be discreet."
"Because of Jason."
"Yeah, because of Jason. He knew I needed Skip, and Skip knew I needed him. I was the only clueless one."
"Not exactly clueless. Just out of sync with time."
"You give me a lot of credit love. I dunno if I deserve it."
I smiled. Jake being Jake, again. Finally.
"Skip says it was love at first sight."
I was quiet for a moment.
"You didn't know that?" asked Jake.
"No. Well, not for a while. I wasn't looking for Skip because I had lost young Andrew a few months before. Two of the people I loved the most were dead. Would you want to love again after that?"
"Doubt it, but love is new to me."
"Mine? Or Daniels."
"Both. Daniel loved me too, pretty close to 'at first sight' but he didn't tell me. It was my fault. He was more an acquaintance than a friend last year, until . . ."
He didn't finish. "But he loved you. You were a lot like me-out of sync with time."
"A fault that caused me a lot of pain, maybe more than necessary."
"Maybe love. But that one last time, Daniel brought you to me. You scared me the first time I ever saw you though. Badly scared me. I had a dream that first night about young Andrew dying in my arms, but he looked more like you."
"No need to be. Can't love a ghost. Skip said that once. He was mostly right."
"You still love Kate? And young Andrew?"
"I don't know how to answer that truthfully. How can I with them gone? How can I love Skip and Billy if I hold on so tightly to Kate and young Andrew? It's not fair to them."
"How DO you love Skip? Tell me about him."
"My first thought about him was that he's a boy-next-door type, and my lust said that I wished I lived next door. Actually, I almost did. Turns out my townhouse was owned by Skip and Billy's dad. I had known him for almost three years. Never made the connection until Skip saw my place."
I stopped for a moment.
"Jake, how do you feel about me being in love with two guys, and two brothers at that?"
"I think it's brilliant. Uncle Billy and Skip as brothers and heart mates is awesome. Did you know that when you met Skip?"
"No. I knew Skip had a brother. I'd seen a kid around my building who looked like Skip. It's in the eyes. And more, but I wouldn't know that for a while. Skip guided our time together along. I wanted a friend to hang out with. All the while he was conspiring with Jason to figure a way to bring me to him. There were no stupid labels to mess with either. Jason didn't consider Skip 'gay-by-stupid-label'. He also loved that Billy had kept Skip alive, but that took more doing than I knew until recently. Skip's heart has stopped beating five times. The second time, it took all of Billy's CPR knowledge and more to get his brother's heart beating again."
"Skip almost died?"
"Yeah. Only one of those five times was since I've known him."
"What would you have done if Skip died?"
"Gone with him."
"No Dad. That's not right."
"Three times losing someone I love? I'd consider it a jinx finally broken. No love, I would not have lived without Skip."
Jake got quiet. He looked into my eyes. He didn't look away. He looked into and past them.
"Uncle Skip lived. So you could. So I could."
"Yeah. The world is about connections. I've said that more than once."
"Love or lust, at first I mean."
"Lust. 101% lust. I've scaled that back a bit, knowing the substance that lies behind that lust. Skip had invited me to stay over one Friday night for pizza. I had the options of sleeping on the sofa, in Billy's room at Skip's townhouse, or with Skip. He asked it in such a way that I found bunking with him to be innocent enough. Truthfully Jake, I was tired of being alone all night. The next morning, I woke up with a boner."
"Morning wood? Had to pee?"
"No. Didn't have to pee. But I was mortified that Skip would see it. We both slept naked, but still. Then he saw my embarrassment and came clean. He wanted me."
"From me. A plan, on Skip's part. He would have known I'd be a bit confused about my feelings. He wanted the feelings to take a natural course. It was pure sex the first two times. After that, anything but. When he wrapped me up in his arms, I felt safer than I had felt in too many years. It still amazes me that Skip wanted, and still wants, me."
"You say that like you think you're a nobody."
"I thought that. Then Billy called me something that changed me forever."
I didn't say anything, because what Billy said still chokes me up. Jake waited. He kissed my nose. "Tell me."
"He said that I'm a special somebody."
"Nice. Like Dad, like Jake. Daniel said that to me, that first weekend at Matt's. At home."
"It must be true. Daniel doesn't lie."
"I love Daniel. In love, and head over heels. He said we'll always love equally because neither he or I could be better than the other."
"Works with three too. Or close to that. I love Skip 1% more than Billy, but it took Billy to allow me to do that."
"Because of Skip's circumstance?"
"He worked sooo hard to hug me the first time. I couldn't see his disability though. I couldn't see or feel pity. I wish he could walk, but he told me not to wish for something that can't happen. It's a waste of energy. I see why you love him. I feel like you do-wondering how Daniel can love me so much. He just does. Like Skip loves you. And Uncle Billy too. It's not all that amazing."
"It is to me. I'll be disappointed when I finally wake up."
He pinched me, hard, like I had done to him. "Owww. Okay, enough of that. You love me too."
"Two percent better than I love Daniel."
"I can't. Daniel knows. He thinks you're the bravest person on earth. Not just rescuing me, but for what you lost. And for what you do. Balls of steel. I said that when you stood up to my father."
I knew he had more to say.
"I love you Daddy. I will forever."
"Love Daniel more."
"Can't happen. Two percent more. Live with it."
"A quarter percent."
"I don't do fractions."
"Sshhhh. I love you more."
"It's not fair."
"Yeah it is. Daniel agrees with me. It's not 2% less for him. It's 2% more for you."
"Okay. But soon, love Daniel more."
"No. You almost lost me. I did fight for my life ... for you. I heard everything you told me back in the hospital."
He proved it to me. He sang a part of the Richard Marx tune, the best parts of it. He told me things that only he had heard, things I had never said to anyone else, and never would. I was so scared at the time, and he'd know that. After a few minutes, he fell asleep, snuggling up against me, listening to my heart to beat for him.
Matty stood in the doorway. Snoopy sat at his feet. They both came over to the edge of Jake's bed. Snoopy put his paws up on the bed, leaned in, and licked my nose and cheek. Matt sat on his heels and reached over to Jake. He ran the backs of his fingers gently on Jake's cheek. He smiled, a little tear flowing down his cheek.
"So sweet, you two. I'll know how to love Ginny all the better, but even then, you two leave the rest of the world in the dust."
He wiped his face.
"Welcome home, love," he said softly. "And you friend Aaron. I know you'll go back to Connecticut soon, but don't rush. I like you in my life."
"No hurry, Matt. Skip and Billy are in Boston, getting ready for Billy's last year at BC. But I don't ... "
"Sshhhh. You won't. My home is yours, whenever. For however long. I'm going back to bed. Want the lamp off?"
"Yeah. Jake's okay now. Kinda like taking care of a newborn."
"He is newborn. Mostly we don't get a second chance. Skip is brilliant. I felt badly for his circumstance for a while but he showed us what's he's made of. He loves Jake as if he's his own."
"In a way, he is."
"You're okay with that." It was not a question.
"We are five. Sometimes three and two, but always five."
"Matty? How do I ever thank you for being there for my son when ... "
"When you couldn't be. You're still needy, so you need to work on that. I've already been thanked, and blessed after that because Jake is home. Every day, Aaron, every day I worked so hard to make sure. I kept feeling hopeless. My God, he was so sick, so tired, warn down and beaten down."
"And you held on anyway. Jeff. Skip, Billy, your Ginny, and our Kellie, bless them til the end of time."
"I'm jealous. Daniel says you're an Angel. He's not wrong. Hold your son and keep him safe. See you in the morning."
Snoopy and Matt went back to Matt's room. I did hold my Jake. I went to sleep with no problem.
In the morning, when I woke, Jake lay beside me, his head propped up on his hand, just watching me. I bet the guys all did that each morning for Jake too.
"Morning Dad. Do you have to get up yet?"
"No reason. I just want to look at my Dad. I ... "
He didn't finish, and I don't know what he was going to say. I could guess, and maybe guess right. We lay quietly together. He turned my head toward him and kissed my forehead.
"Yeah. I'm fine. I'll miss you when I go back to school."
"I'll be right here when you come home each time, if you will I mean."
"I will. Until we go to Connecticut, this is my legal address. I like that it is. Mom and Pop will be glad to have me there again too. I owe them too. But nothing I can pay back."
"You pay along the way, love. They love you as much as the rest of us do. Pop told me it's too quiet at home. He sits in your room sometimes, thinking about you. You're worried about leaving them to go on to Michigan, right?"
"I have a present for you. Stay here."
I went into my room and got a box out of my dresser draw. I was small, rectangular, and wrapped in heavy paper that I had drawn a lighthouse scene on. I sat down on my right leg and handed him the gift.
"A cell phone. Just like yours."
I nodded. I put Jake under my cell plan so he'd never see a bill.
"When you miss someone, anyone, call. Matt's cell is plugged into your contacts. Jeff and Kellie's. Mom and Pop's. Andrew and Claire's. My cell phone. Skip and Billy's in Boston and at home in Connecticut. Did I miss anyone?"
He paged through the contacts. Daniel's cell was there as well, plus his home phone. Daniel's parents had cheered Jake on as much as anyone did. They had visited Jake before his transplant. They got progress (or lack of progress) reports through Daniel, not wanting to add another set of germs to Jake, especially when he was struggling too hard.
They both loved Jake dearly, happy that he was with Daniel. He had been accepted from day 1, when Daniel returned home after bringing Jake to me. They had been awake most of the night talking it out. Both the parents hugged Jake sincerely when he went home with Daniel. Daniel's dad wanted to raise hell for Jake's father. In the end, Jake said to let it go. He had a new dad (even before I adopted him) and it was okay to let the past die.
"All there," he said.
He hit a contact name. My cell rang in my bedroom. He laughed aloud at my personal ringtone for him-a wild duck quacking. Seemed fitting since he loved what I loved.
"Qvack qvack," he said, probably mocking me, but who cares.
He laughed happily. Sooo sweet. THERE was my reward for bringing him home. His laughter that day still rings in my ears, years later. Jake was Jake-like again, finally.
Daniel took Jake to campus, two hours away, for his orientation. Freshmen would spend the week, and then start classes. Jake needed only a day, and then he and Daniel went away for the rest of the week, to be by themselves. They settled into a bed and breakfast inn, up in the Adirondack Mountains of New York state. Daniel's folks picked up the tab. They had proven time and again that they loved Jake as much as they loved Daniel. They were Mom and Dad by name. Jake didn't want to call them by their first names. The folks knew that the boys planned to be in Michigan a year from now, so they would spend a lot of time with them.
The wedding. There were many reasons that it was a charming affair. Proud dad Aaron says that Jake was one of them. He looked so swave and deboner (couldn't help that one-Jake's love of live makes me refuse to say suave and debonair) in his tux. It was our secret that he wore a size for a 14 year old. He had the heart of one, so it was fitting.
Jake tapped his glass when it was time to give the toast. I had not seen what he had written. He told me he was looking forward to it. Having been a best man twice, I personally found it nerve-wracking.
He stood and raised his glass. We all raised ours. He was impressive, and not nervous in the least.
A raised glass ... may it always be full
A couple ... sweet and truly beautiful
True friends ... may we be ever faithful
Drink to life and love.
We did. He was more than impressive. Confident and bright young Jake. Sweet!
Jake went to stand between the couple. He asked them to stand.
"You may now kiss the best man," he said, echoing the wedding service.
They both kissed him and a hundred flashes exploded. Matt turned Jake's head to him and kissed him lightly on his lips. He whispered in Jake's ear. Jake smiled. He then turned to kiss Ginny. She too kissed him sweetly on his lips. She wiped a tear away.
Ginny and Matt left from the reception to drive to Canada. The innkeepers promised to take good care of the couple for two weeks. The newlyweds met all those that we special to us, and managed to meet Michael and Will before they too left for school in Toronto. Even our favorite pup, Snoopy, went on vacation. Jake, Daniel, and I held down the household while they were gone.
At the end of summer, I made sure Jake was packed, had money in his checking account, had his mail forwarded to State College, and had enough hugs to hold him over until he came home one weekend. I had been with him longer at this last stand against his cancer than I had since the day I met him. Jake going back to normal life, bald, too thin, determined, at peace, and still loving his life was heart-warming. I wasn't just proud of Jake. I was in absolute awe of him. I held that awe for weeks. It was sweet, bittersweet even, to love my son so much. And for him to love me back in exactly the same way.
The Four wanted to see Jake off to school. Truthfully, not one of us had expected this day to come on time. We made a weekend of it, celebrating at Jeff's folks place. Daniel was here, of course, and he was staying. Mom and Pop knew of Daniel's plans to get into sports medicine and that he had an offer pending. He had been here overnight a few times so he could interview, get hired, get oriented, and finally get working. The new job had kept him away from Jake, but at Jake's insistence. Their life would be about their present and their future. If they needed a dime to carry them on, they knew when and where to ask.
"Thanks Dad. I'll take good care of your son," Daniel said to me, sitting down beside me on the back porch, my hand in his.
"He's more than my son. He's your heart mate. That overrides Dad any day."
"Nah. Because you love me too, so I know what that feels like. If you keep us both in here," he said, hand on my heart, "then all is right with our world."
"I do love you Daniel. I like, uh ... that you call me Dad."
"You earned that. You know I love my own dad, and I have learned how to love you as equal. You brought Jake back to us."
"Thanks for that. I know you don't make promises you can't keep. You told me before the transplant."
"I told you WE would bring Jake back. I didn't save him. Sshhhh, stop. Listen to me. You deserve at least half the credit. Probably 90%. None of us was going to let you lose your Jake. My Jake too, but your Jake more. You're going to be with him longer than I am."
"Maybe, but ... "
"Thanks Dad. For everything."
I hugged him to me and kissed his forehead. "You're welcome love. Are you settled in? Need anything?"
"I'm settled in just fine. Mom and Pop are so sweet. I'm at home, easily. Only thing I needed is now right here beside me. Thanks Dad."
We sat there for a while, on the back porch. I saw Jake through the kitchen window, helping Mom with the dishes. This home was a very special, very loving place. Jake would heal here, as it should be. He might be in remission-we didn't know for sure. His type of cancer was hard to get gone, but I had faith that he'd be fine, even on short doses of chemo if necessary.
After cleanup, Jake, Jeff, and Matt came out to sit with us. The girls went up to the all-season room over the garage to entertain little Jordan before his bedtime.
"Come on, let's walk up to the ridge," said Jake.
We walked in a row, arms over shoulders, laughing like school kids. Matt pulled Daniel down and sat him between his legs. I was already doing the same to Jake. Jeff sat behind me. Matt wrapped his arms around Daniel the way I always wrap mine around Jake. We sat and talked about stuff, looking down over the valley, listening to the evening's concert.
The weekend was spent doing nothing important except being together. Mom worked on getting Jake some healthy weight back. He was nervous about going back to school looking like he is, so he and I went to campus and walked around. A couple of his classmates saw him.
"Hi Jake," said the female, holding on to her boyfriend's hand. "How was your summer?"
"Kinda unusual," he said shyly.
"Treatment for your cancer?" said the male.
"Um, yeah. I didn't know you knew."
"We figured it out early this year," said the male. "My brother has leukemia. You too?"
"Yeah. Keep it down though, huh? I want to be Jake, not Jake the cancer guy."
"Oh Jake, a lot of us know," said the female. "Since you didn't say so, we had to respect what you were doing. My dad says he saw you at the hardware store no matter what."
"Hi," said the male, looking at me. "Are you Jake's dad?"
"Yeah. Aaron. You two surprise me a bit."
"I'm Jared. Laurie, my fiancÚ. Like I said, my brother has leukemia. He doesn't shout about it either. Pity doesn't make you well."
"Is he okay?" asked Jake.
"Not yet. He had a bone marrow transplant last week. It's a long way to recovery."
Jake nodded. Then he spoke. "I had a transplant too. Right after school got out. Just hold on, a lot. It's hell to go through that. Is he close by?"
"Wisconsin. We have a large family. Someone will be with him around the clock."
"Good. That's what it takes. My Dad sent me notes every day, showing my favorite things. It helped."
"Good idea," said Laurie. "We gotta go but can we talk again?"
"Yeah. Any time. I'll see if Mom can make dinner for us soon."
Laurie leaned in and hugged Jake. Jared took Jake's hand. "Thanks Jake. It's nice to know Jazz might be okay."
"Like I said, hold on tight. It matters."
"We will. I'm gonna call him tonight. Okay to tell him about you?"
"Yeah. See you next week?"
"Nice to meet you Aaron. See you Jake," said Laurie.
I shook hands with Jared too. Laurie leaned in and kissed my cheek. We watched them walk away, hand in hand. Sweet couple.
"Easier than you expected, huh love?"
"Yeah. Nice to know I can talk to someone. Still ... "
"No worries love. If you feel pity from them, speak up. Show who you are. Obviously Laurie and Jared know how it is."
He nodded. He put his arm around my back as we walked.
When it was time to leave the weekend behind us, we all hugged Jake and Daniel. I slipped a $20 bill into Jake's back pocket. He'd have lunch money for school. I had taught him to check his pockets before he did laundry. It wasn't hard to leave my son behind. He's earned his place back at school. He'd come a very long way in four months.
That night, at home, I got my usual call from Jake, just before bedtime.
"I love you Daddy," he said to me, very sweetly. His love for me carried me to sleep.
I was doing my chemo routine when a familiar face arrived. It took me a moment to realize she was Jake's mother.
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