It wasn't long before we arrived at the Carlton's house. It was a good-sized, well-kept, two-story house in a craftsman style. It was on a slight hill with several steps up to the porch. It had nice, well-kept gardens around the house, but as I got closer, I could see they'd been neglected. Mrs. Carlson drove into their driveway and we parked on the street.
Mr. Carlson met his wife at the bottom of the front steps. When he saw us walking toward them, he blanched and turned to his wife in disbelief.
"It's alright, Ray," she told him. "You know the boys and Tim McGill."
"Well, yes, but, Dear, I thought we decided . . .," he began.
"They were at church and sat with me, honey. They came especially to ask the pastor to pray for Raymond. The boys were so cute. They want to support him. I just couldn't say no."
"Oh, I suppose if you think it will be okay. Of course, we need to see if . . ."
"Ray!" shouted my boys.
"Guys! You came!" shouted Ray Carlton, standing in the doorway in his pajamas. Batman pajamas.
The boys ran past us and Ray's parents and onto the porch.
"Nice getup, weirdo. Your mom still buys your clothes?" asked Jeffy.
"Um, these are just some old stuff really. Hey, you're jokin' already, huh?"
"Yes, he is, Ray," answered Elliot for his brother. "He probably wants some for his own. It's good to see you. We were worried sick about you."
"Oh, well, sorry. Believe me, I was sick enough for all of us."
Then the boys handed him the paper bag that they'd been carrying. It's the first time I'd noticed it. The adults were still standing in awe of the outburst while Ray took the bag, opened it and peered into it with an expectant smile. Then his head came up and stared at my two sons.
"Very funny, you guys. Hardy-har-har."
"What? We knew you wore out the old ones and probably needed to replace 'em. We're just givers. What can I say?" said Jeffy as though he were apologizing to Ray.
Elliot could barely keep from laughing. That caught on and soon, all three boys were laughing their heads off. Finally, Ray reached into the bag and pulled out a three pair pack of super hero underpants, much like what he was caught in during their kidnapping event.
As the boys bantered back and forth, Ray finally ushered them into the house, pretty much leaving the rest of us standing on the steps. AJ ran up the front steps to the front door as if he were going to follow them. Then he stopped and turned to see what we were doing.
I looked at Ray, Sr. with his mouth hanging open. He finally shook his head in disbelief.
"Well, I guess that answers that question," he said.
We all continued into the house, chuckling. AJ walked ahead and hung by the alcove to the living room where the older boys had settled. It must have been somewhat difficult for him. He cared so much for everyone, especially those that hurt, but he was also sensitive to the friendship between the three amigos and didn't want to take away from it, until . . .
"Hey, AJ," shouted Ray, "Get in here and join the party. How's it goin'?"
AJ looked back at me as he beamed a huge smile before he went into the room and sat with the older guys.
The oldsters crowded into the entry hall, talking quietly for a few minutes. I introduced Ray Sr. to Joshua. He'd met Jeb when the three boys were taken to the hospital after their 'church camp' experience. I also introduced him to little Lewis. He said that Ray Jr. had spoken of our youngest addition, but he hadn't met him yet either.
After introductions and before long, I made a suggestion.
"Ray and Imogene, I'm afraid all of us will overwhelm you all. You must be exhausted after all you've been through. I'm wondering if the five of us, Jeb, Joshua, AJ, Lewis and I, shouldn't take off and, if it's not too much trouble for you, leave these guys for an hour or so to catch up with each other. I need to feed this little guy and put him down for a nap. But I can also take the rest home too if it's too much."
Ray Carlton Sr. and Imogene Carlton turned to look at their son bantering with his compadres in the next room, then they both turned back to me.
It was Ray that spoke first, "Well, I'll say I'm surprised, but I have to admit, this is by far the most animated Ray's been since he started in on all this. It has to be good for him, his psyche, if nothing else."
"Yes," agreed Imogene, "It's wonderful to see him this happy. We were so worried about him. He was getting so disheartened by everything that was happening. It just fortifies what I said at church about how far he's come since his adventures with your boys. They seem to hit it off so well. I know he'll be exhausted in a little while, but we'll quiet them down and serve some lunch, then make sure he's lying down afterward, while they talk."
"If you're sure?" I asked.
"We're sure. He'd be upset if we broke them up any time soon, I'm sure," said Ray, looking at his son and shaking his head, though he was smiling.
Honestly, Ray looked pretty good. He was talkative and laughing with the rest of the boys. It was hard to believe what he'd gone through. But I also knew that the fight wasn't over yet by a long shot. In fact, he'd barely started, and he had a lot more to go through before this would all be in the past. As I looked at him interact with my three boys' I could see some changes in his appearance. His skin had lost some pink and the areas around his eyes were a little darker. Once in a while, he'd sit back, and I could tell he was tired. But laughter is good medicine. He needed it and would need it even more before his trials were over.
"Okay, then we'll take off."
I took a step into the living room and told the boys what we'd discussed. They were in full agreement, understanding that they weren't staying all afternoon. That would be far too much for Ray. Then I told AJ to come along with us.
"Huh? Can't I . . .?"
"Sarge, can't he stay too?" asked Ray. "I like havin' a pipsqueak around, ya know."
While the three older boys laughed, AJ made a face at Ray, then quickly turned to me with his pleading, pouting look.
"Yeah, Pop, can he?"
I looked at Ray's parents and they nodded. That got cheers from the four boys. I had to remember to thank his brothers for including him in something so important to them all.
"Okay, obey the Carltons. When they say it's time to go, give me a call. Remember, you're here so Ray can get better, not exhausted."
I got four, "Yes, sir's."
"You're pathetic, Carlton," said Jeffy, shaking his head. "We're taking care of you. You have no say in this."
"Oh, brother," said Elliot, rolling his eyes.
As we looked at Ray it appeared as though he was going to start to laugh, but the emotion of that moment must have caught up to him first and his eyes started to water and leak before he began to sob.
Imogene gasped and walked a few steps toward him, but Elliot wrapped the boy in his arms and joined him in his crying. AJ put his hand on his friend's knee and waited with a very concerned Jeffy.
After a minute or so Ray began to recover. His head was still buried in Elliot's shoulder. Elliot was rubbing the boy's shoulder and we could just barely hear Ray's muffled voice.
"See, you jerks, this is why I didn't want you to know what was going on. I didn't want you to see me cry. I really didn't want you to pity me and stuff. Maybe . . ."
"No maybes, Ray," said Jeffy, with a little more tenderness that had not been displayed up to that time, "You're stuck with us. You can blubber all you want but nothing is going to change our friendship. As for pity, I guarantee we'll be lookin' for some ourselves before we're done takin' care of you. You can't have it all."
I thought Ray was going to start crying again. His head was still buried in Elliot and we all heard as well as saw him shake like he was crying. Then he lifted his head and started really laughing. Well, soon we were all laughing at Jeffy's remarks, but especially at Ray's reaction to them.
As they all wiped their wet eyes on each other's sleeves, acting like the silly goofballs they were, and returned to bantering back and forth, we adults turned from the living room and went out on the porch.
"I think they're going to be just fine," said Imogene, wiping her eyes with her handkerchief. "Tim, I don't think we could have survived much longer without your boys to lift Raymond's spirits. I feel much more confident today that this will all be behind us soon and we'll be able to get along with our lives as we have before all this began."
"Yes," added Ray Sr., "I feel the same. Soon I'll be grounding him again for his crazy antics."
That got a laugh or two.
We said our goodbyes and headed to the truck. I was buckling in the little one when a car pulled up and Pastor Gooding got out.
"Ah, the McGills and clan. I'm glad to see you were able to visit Ray Jr."
He looked into the truck and then scanned around it.
"But where are your boys? I thought they'd be here for sure."
"Ha! Believe you me, Reverend, they sure are here. They're already causin' a ruckus right there inside the house. Yup, all four of them little scalliwags."
"What Jeb's trying to say in his own way, Pastor, is that my boys are with Ray for another hour or so. Then I'll come back and get them, so Ray doesn't get worn out. It looked like them being here did wonders for the boy, according to Ray Sr. and Imogene."
"Oh, that's wonderful. And that's just what we'd prayed for, Tim, isn't it?"
"Yes, sir. We were very pleased."
I turned from adjusting the car seat and Pastor Gooding held out his hand to shake mine, which I did.
"What a blessing your family is to the Carltons, Tim. Now, I think I'll go see if I can talk to his parents and help ease their minds some. My first call was to be a chaplain at a large hospital in the Chicago area. It gave me a lot of insights into the pain and suffering that the whole family goes through, not just the one who is ill. I guess the experience weighed on me such that it is one of the ministries to which I am drawn."
He then looked into the back of the truck where Joshua was sitting.
"Young man, I'd sure like to meet up with you, perhaps even during this coming week. I have some ideas that may be to your liking."
"Really? Wow, that sounds terrific. I'll, uh, I'll give you a call."
"Yes, do. But remember, we're not in the office on Mondays, so the day after will be soon enough."
"Okay. And thank you, sir. Thank you very much."
As we drove to our place, I noticed that Joshua didn't lose his smile the whole way. The opportunity must have been very exciting to him.
"You thinkin' of working for the pastor, Boy? He seems like a good man, honest, upfront," asked Jeb, turning to look at Joshua in the back seat.
"It would be wonderful to finally get to work in a parish. Being a minister is what I've wanted for so long. Oh, Mr. Harding! Um, I don't mean I don't like working for you, sir. It's just that . . ."
"Ha! I understand, Boy. You need to do what you need to do. Church stuff seems to be your callin' and I'll do what I can to support it, that's for sure."
"Wow! Thank you."
"Now, looky here, no reason for you to move to some lonely apartment or t'other. No, sir, you just feel free to stay put as long as you like. Ain't that right, Tim?"
"Well, I know the boys would sure be disappointed if you were to move away any time soon, Joshua."
"Thank you. That's nice of you to say."
After our lunch and as I finished putting Lewis down for a much-needed nap, I heard the phone ring. I don't think the sleepy baby heard it at all. His sigh was followed by a thumb going toward his mouth and him moving to get comfortable in his cool crib.
I hurried to grab the phone to hear Jeffy at the other end.
"Pop, we're ready to come home. We had a great time but you said not to wear Ray out too much, so we'd better get going."
"Good for you, Jeffy. I need to get Joshua over to be here while Lewis naps, then I'm on my way. You guys are being really good friends, you know."
"Thanks, Pop. It isn't hard when you care about someone." Then I heard him turn his head and say a bit louder, "Even if it's someone dorky like what's his name!"
"Ha! He's laughin' his head off, Pop. He'd think I was sick too if I said somethin' too nice and mushy, ya know."
When the call came in, Imogene was the closest and picked up the telephone on the second ring. The caller ID said it was the hospital where Raymond had been to receive his treatment. She knew that he had three days of chemo and several days to recover. The first day was eight hours strapped to the IV that dripped the deadly chemicals into his bloodstream to fight and kill the abnormal cells that were assaulting his body. The second day was six hours of the same and the third day required him to only last for four hours. But it had taken its toll. It left him weak, but his recovery was quick. That seemed to please his doctors.
"Ah, Mrs. Carlton? It is so nice to be speaking with you," said a voice with a thick Eastern Indian accent, she knew belonged to Dr. Molhotra.
"Doctor, it's nice to talk to you. My men arrived a short time ago and Raymond seems pretty chipper for going through his first session."
"I am so glad to hear of this, Mrs. Carlton. He seemed to have recovered quite well, actually."
"But, tell me, why are you calling on a Sunday, Doctor. Shouldn't you be home with your family?"
"Thanking you for your concern. I am not as yet married, and my family is in India. The reason I called is to inform you that we have an opening to begin his first and second session of his therapy."
"Oh," was all she could say, as she looked over at her son, talking and laughing with the three other boys. She was reminded of how much she'd missed hearing his voice for almost two weeks. Her mind hadn't registered that the doctor had said first and second session.
"Mrs. Carlton, please do not be alarmed. Your son handled his initial therapy very well. We will expect a full recovery and nothing less. But we must be proactive if we want that to happen as quickly as possible."
"I understand. Um, when does he need to be there, Doctor Molhotra?"
"This coming Wednesday he will begin his first real treatment. Then . . ."
"Um, what? Excuse me. You said his first real treatment? I don't understand. I thought . . ."
"I will attempt to explain. When a patient, especially a child even Raymond's age, comes to us, we always give them a reduced treatment to begin with, to test his stamina and to see if his body will react negatively to the therapy in regard to any side effects. Are you understanding this?"
"Yes, yes," she answered him weakly. "I just thought I'd have him a little longer than a day or two."
"Well, the cancer waits for no one, I am afraid. I am really sorry for being so forthright, Mrs. Carlton. I trust you know that it is not caused by a lack of concern that I speak so, but our desire to help Raymond as quickly as possible. If we do not begin soon, we cannot be sure of the outcome down the highway, um, down the road."
"Thank you, Doctor. We'll make arrangements for him to be there Wednesday morning."
When she hung up, her husband was standing over her, waiting to hear what he'd missed.
"I heard most of it, Honey, but it sounds like we're back at it next week?" her husband asked his tearful wife.
"Yes, oh yes. I just got him back and they're taking him away from me. I didn't think it would be so hard."
Ray held his wife and let her cry for a minute. He was concerned for her too.
"Darling, we knew it would be a long road. But we need to be strong for Ray. He's going to need all the positive vibes we can offer. He came away pretty depressed this time. It'll only get harder. We must be there for him in every possible way."
"Oh, I hope you know that I want that too, Ray. It's just the mother in me or something. I didn't know how much I'd miss him until he was gone."
Just then they heard a blast of raucous laughter coming from their living room where the boys were.
They stood smiling at each other at the joyful sounds coming from their son and his friends.
"But we need to tell him, perhaps after the boys leave, but soon, Dear," said Ray.
"Tell me what, Dad? Mom, what's up?" asked their son, standing in the doorway, his water glass in his hand.
"I said I'd get more water for him, Mrs. Carlton, but he wanted to do it," said Elliot, behind Ray.
"It's okay, boys. Um, Raymond, we need to talk but we thought it could wait until after the boys left."
"What? No, Mom. If it's about the medicine and the hospital and stuff, I want them to hear too. Is something wrong?"
Resigned, his dad reached for his son's glass.
"I'll get your water, Son, then we'll come in there and tell you. It isn't bad."
Of course, all four boys' interest was piqued, and they were sitting up as straight as possible, waiting for the news, whatever it was.
"The phone call was from Dr. Molhotra, Raymond," Mrs. Carlton told them.
"Oh, yeah. Guys, he's my doctor in charge of the chemo stuff, huh, Dad?"
"Raymond, he'd like you back on Wednesday to begin your next session. I'm sorry we don't have more time before you need to go back."
There was silence for a moment as the news sunk in. All three of my boys turned their attention to their friend to see how he was taking it.
With a big sigh and after his head drooped, he said quietly, "Well, I guess it was gonna happen. I just wish I'da got a few more days."
"Son, this will start a much stronger dose of the chemo. It will last longer, too, because it will happen each week, instead of just one."
"But, Honey, Dr. Molhotra said that he was sure it was going to work. Now that's the best news we've heard. I'm very hopeful that our prayers are being answered. What about you, boys?" asked Mrs. Carlton.
Elliot said, "Mr. and Mrs. Carlton, we want to help any way we can that will help to heal Ray. I don't know what it's like, Ray, Chemotherapy, but if you need to be there, we'll carry you on our backs to see that you get there and start getting better."
"Oh boy. Thanks, Elliot. Pushing me into the fire, huh?" said Ray with a weak smile.
Elliot blushed and hung his head a bit as Ray continued.
"Elliot, I'm just giving you a hard time. Someone's gotta liven up this group of deadheads, man."
"But, Ray," said AJ, "I don't want you to hurt anymore." His eyes were brimming with tears.
"Ah! It's nothin' really. They stick ya in the arm and ya lay on the bed for forever. I mean like hours. It isn't so bad."
Both his parents looked at each other, then turned their attention back to their son, trying to hide their worried faces with some sort of smile, knowing that their son was trying his hardest to be brave.
"We need to be honest, Ray," said his father. "It doesn't get easier. Remember, you had a mild session this last time. Now comes the hard part and it will probably last for many weeks. You know what the doctor told you about when you got into this full blast. It won't be easy, but you've got a mother and father who love you completely and great friends right here that will harass you until you're healed. Right, boys?"
"You bet, sir. I'm ready to start harassing him right now," said Jeffy.
"Wait, brother. You haven't stopped harassing him since you met him," stated Elliot.
"Okay, well, that was just practice for the main event."
That's when I knocked on the door to pick up the boys.
"AJ, will you go tell the guys that dinner is ready?"
He'd just set a fork in front of a place at the kitchen table, straightened and gave me a warm smile, then turned and screamed so Jeb and Joshua could hear him,
"GUYS! DAD SAYS GET YOU'RE BUTTS DOWN HERE FOR DINNER!"
Then he turned to smile at me and calmly set the last fork down in front of the next seat over.
"What?" he asked when he saw me staring, mouth wide open. He then followed up with a giggle.
"You are a poop, you – you pipsqueak. You knew exactly what you were doing, didn't you?"
"You said . . ."
"But I said 'go', didn't I? So," I said, walking around the table toward him, "I guess some spankings are in order."
And when he saw me start to pick up speed, he ran all the way around the table and out into the living room, screaming at the top of his lungs.
"HELP! I'M BEIN' ATTACKED BY A MONSTER!"
He headed for the stairs, laughing so hard that he almost fell over. He also kept looking back to make sure I was still following him, which I was. I'm pretty sure that he would have stopped and waited if I wasn't. Oh, he knew that there was no chance that I would lay a hand on him as punishment, unless you called tickling punishment.
When he got to the boys' room, looking for protection or at least someone to laugh with him, he stopped at their doorway. I almost ran into him but looked up soon enough.
No one in their room was making any sign that they heard us at all. I looked over AJ to where he was looking at his brothers. Elliot was sitting at his computer and Jeffy was standing behind him, looking over his shoulder and pointing to the screen. It wasn't even a picture on the screen. Just a lot of writing.
"So that means he could be doing chemo for like months or something?"
"In the worst cases, that looks to be a possibility," answered Elliot.
Both AJ and I walked into the room and stood next to them, looking at what they were looking at. They never even noticed us, or showed that they did, anyway.
"It says that if they treat it aggressively, he has a better chance of remission but it will take a greater toll on him, his health."
"So, that means he gets sicker before he gets better," asked Jeffy.
"Afraid so. The chemotherapy is really, really harsh on a body."
"But he's young and in really good shape, guys," I interjected, walking in with my arm on AJ's shoulder, our excitement totally forgotten. "His body will help a lot. But he will probably get down, um, depressed even more and that's where you guys come in."
Both boys turned to look at me as though they knew we'd been standing there all along.
Elliot added, "And that's what we plan on doing, Pop. Right, Jeffy?"
"Oh, hi, Pop, AJ," said Elliot with a slight blush.
"Huh?" started Jeffy. "Oh, hah, hi. We didn't . . ."
"It's okay. I'm so proud of what you guys are doing, have done, for Ray. And now you're even looking up information to help him more, I see."
"Well, actually, we've just started looking for information about what he'll be going through. We haven't started to look at how we can best support him, yet."
"Yeah, Pop," said Jeffy. "It's like they try to kill him to kill the cancer, almost. He's gonna go through some heavy shi . . ., um, stuff before he gets better. Oh, then we find out he won't be cured, like it's all gone."
"Yeah, he'll be in remission which means they got as much as they could and hope it doesn't start up again. It could take years before they say he's completely healed, if ever."
"Cancer is not a fun thing, guys. But we're very fortunate to be living in a time when advances have come so far that they're finding preventions and even cures for some forms of cancer. That means that Ray has an excellent chance of pulling out of this."
"Chance?" asked AJ. "But a chance doesn't mean it's for sure, does it?"
"Well, there's always the . . ." I said.
"Nuh-uh. I don't want a chance. I want him cured. Yeah. He needs to be completely better. That's what we prayed for. That's the answer I want."
He stood there with a determined look on his face with his arms crossed in front of him. He was very serious.
"Us, too, li'l bro," agreed Jeffy. "We all want that. Hey! What'd you guys come up here for?"
"To say," started AJ, throwing out his chest and breathing deeply to scream again, I'm sure.
Very quickly I grabbed him from behind and clamped my hand over his mouth.
"Muruphump!" Then he started laughing into my hand.
"That means dinner is ready, fellas. Come on down and eat."
Thanks again to RCN for his editing wizardry. It makes for a smoother read.
I would like to hear/read your criticisms, good and bad. I'd love to talk about where this gets to you. Matthew Templar