To say I felt relieved would have been a vast understatement. It was more than I could ever have hoped for. After hearing Graham's description of the people Brent brought through with him and his explanation that they were here to show their support for my new family made me feel as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.
I know it may sound strange that I had even been concerned about such things, but I must admit I had worried for quite some time about what my wife might think of my activities since she'd passed. I guess it would not have been a problem if I didn't believe in God and a life after death, but that was only a small drawback, considering all the solace my beliefs had given me over the years.
Of course, my concerns surfaced only after Graham experienced his first series of visions. Once he told me about those experiences, I was forced to consider the implications they presented. Now that I had proof the dead were cognizant of what was happening to us, I was convinced my wife was aware of what I was up to. This, in turn, made me wonder if she would be able to understand why I was taking on so much responsibility and starting a whole new family. I mean, how could she? It was the total opposite of what we'd anticipated doing before she died.
Back then, my wife and I had been looking forward to taking early retirement and enjoying the rest of our lives together. We had been planning on finally doing some of the things we had put off while the family was growing up and anticipated using the money we had set aside to indulge some of our frivolous whims and fantasies. We'd made a list, which included such items as attending the theater, symphony and art exhibits, pursuing hobbies we hadn't had time for and taking the trips we'd only dreamed about. We wanted to do this before our health deteriorated, we were too old to enjoy such things or the money ran out.
We were eagerly awaiting this chance to finally live life on our own terms - with no schedules, no commitments and no interruptions. The problem was, we ran out of time.
We hadn't even reached the point where we could opt for early retirement when my wife suddenly, and unexpectedly, became ill. Everything happened so quickly that we didn't even have an opportunity to study her diagnosis and explore our options before she passed away. During her final days, we commiserated about the lost possibilities and the fact that we never got the chance to put our thoughts into actions.
Maybe it was due to what happened to her, and how quickly it progressed, that fueled my obsession over how she might feel about what I was doing. How would she react to my taking in more young men, adding more responsibility to my life and tying myself down by committing to care for my new sons until they were also self-sufficient? These, however, weren't the only issues troubling me.
In addition to the boys, I was also wondering how she would interpret my relationship with Jake. I feared she would be confused by it and wouldn't approve. She might even look at my partnership with him as a betrayal of our marriage. However, if what Graham reported was accurate, my concerns had been misplaced.
I can't tell you how much it meant for me to hear him tell how she held out a bouquet of roses and later gave a double thumbs-up to show her approval. Those simple signs finally relieved the guilt I harbored about her feeling I had made a mockery of our marriage. I was no longer concerned that she considered our years together to have been a sham or that I had tarnished her memory by my actions. Now that I knew she saw what I was doing in a positive light, I could put everything else behind me - forever.
Even better than getting her approval, there was an added bonus. All of the boys' parents that had previously passed on had also appeared to support us and give their blessings as well. That meant those boys were now also relieved of any guilt they had been feeling about betraying their parents' love and devotion by also loving me. It was an amazing catharsis for those involved and this allowed us to move on with a clear conscience.
A couple of days later, it was time for me to turn the page on the calendar, as another month came to an end. It's not that this was a major or dramatic event, but I wouldn't call it a normal transition from one month to the next either. Before it even had a chance to get started, July was already showing signs of being anything but a typical month, at least for me.
The biggest reason for this was due to the fact that various members of my brood would not be with us for a time, because they were heading out in different directions. Ricky was already residing in Australia as an exchange student and would be there for eight months. Brandon and Nick were also away for a few weeks, while they spent time with their parents. However, it didn't end there.
Shortly after Brandon and Nick were scheduled to return, near the end of the summer, it would then be time for Brandon, Danny and Kevin to leave for their freshman year at college. At the same time, Dustin and Frankie would be returning for their final year at the two-year colleges they attended. All in all, it meant six of the boys (the five in college and Ricky) would be away from home, for varying amounts of time, and I was already starting to feel apprehensive about being separated from them.
More than a third of those who had been living in my home, six of the sixteen young men, would be gone during the school year and then it suddenly struck me. This number would continue to increase every year from here on, which ignited more than a few anxious moments for me. The anxiety then turned into depression and that's when I concluded I would have to distract myself from dwelling on such somber thoughts, before they totally consumed me.
Hoping it would keep me from dwelling on the inevitable, I threw myself into preparing for the arrival of Nigel and his family. And if that wasn't enough, I also immersed myself in my position as acting superintendent for the local school district. I was trying, almost single-handedly, to take over the process of hiring someone to replace me on a permanent basis.
Now, this might sound strange, and I'm sure some of you are thinking it's illogical for me to try to get rid of my job when I was using it to keep from dwelling on my depression. In fact, you might be correct. It is possible that I'm merely focusing on the short term or even subconsciously thinking that by the time the job is filled I will be able to accept the boys moving on.
Let's face it, this isn't the first time I've had to do adjust to my children moving on, but this time it was different. Although I went through a similar situation when my biological children were leaving home and going off on their own, I was younger then and it didn't affect me as deeply. Possibly, that was due in part to the fact that my wife was there to share my feelings and commiserate with me about what we were facing. I guess I could probably do the same thing with Jake, but I doubt he'll be able to appreciate how I'm feeling until Shannon is going off without him.
I must admit I'm not even sure about my own reasoning, but I suspect you can now appreciate my reactions, even if you don't understand them. Either way, I think you should now be able to see why this summer is so unusual for me and didn't look as if it was going to settle down anytime soon.
As it turned out, the commitment required to carry out my role as acting superintendent didn't leave me any time to think about the issues that were troubling me. Instead, I focused solely on the job and pushed all other concerns from my mind and, hopefully, I'll be better able to deal with them if they resurface again later.
Even though I wasn't dwelling upon the fact the boys were becoming independent, I didn't avoid them or let it affect our relationship. I tried to carry on normally at home and even kept in touch with Brandon and Nick while they were away. However, this eventually presented a new problem for me to deal with, when it became apparent the latter pair was aggressively trying to alter the vacation plans I had worked so hard to arrange for them.
Originally, both boys were going to spend most of June and all of July with their folks, but now they wanted to cut their visits short. The reason for this was that neither wanted to miss out on the visit from Nigel's family. Immediately after arriving at their parents' homes, both boys began working on getting their parents to allow them to change the length of their stay.
Nick and Brandon began by explaining how they were worried they'd miss out on much of the fun with Nigel and his boys and weren't certain when we'd see them again. Nigel and his crew were scheduled to arrive around mid-July and then leave by mid-August. If things remained unchanged, Brandon and Nick would miss the first half of their stay, but would return in time for their final two weeks.
Knowing this, they each spent some of their time at home whining, begging and rehashing the situation, hoping it would convince their folks to let them come back by the middle of July. That way, they'd be able to enjoy their time with their families and still get back early enough to spend the entire visit with their friends from across the sea.
After hearing what they were up to, it put me in a tough spot. I had gone out of my way to make sure each of them returned to their own homes for the summer, but not just to get rid of them. I did it because I knew their parents needed some time with them too, but I should have had the foresight to anticipate such problems.
Without considering these issues or giving it a second thought, I had arranged for Brandon and Nick's families to plan their vacations around the times their sons would be home. I also suggested they keep their weekends free as well, so they'd be able to spend even more time with their sons after they had used up their vacation days and had to return to work. Once the Lawrences, O'Haras and I had reached a consensus, I finalized arrangements for the boys' flights home.
At first it didn't dawn on me that this pair might prefer spending time with the Barstows, instead of with their folks, but they soon made it known that was exactly how they felt. Even though I tried to reassure them I had planned the special, and more memorable, events with our guests for the final two weeks of their stay, it didn't placate either boy.
I must admit this situation hadn't come as a total surprise to either the Lawrences or the O'Haras. Fortunately, I had a moment of clarity on the drive to the airport and recognized the potential for a problem. At the time, I was mentally going over the various arrangements I had made for the Barstow clan, when I began to suspect the timing might create problems.
Even though it was too late for me to do anything about it, I did want to make both families aware of this situation. When I called to let them know their sons' plane was in the air and the boys were on the way, I also warned them about the scheduling conflict. I felt this would be sufficient to prepare them to deal with the situation, when and if it arose. Both families thanked me for the heads-up and confirmed they understood why the boys might feel bad about missing out on part of the visit. They then said they would deal with it, if the boys brought it up.
Since their sons had now made it painfully obvious they weren't entirely happy about being away when our guests from England arrived, the adults began to concede a change in plans was inevitable. They'd already concluded their sons would make their lives miserable during that time, if they thought they were being deprived of participating in events more to their liking, so the Lawrences and O'Haras proposed a compromise. As long as the boys would agree to give them their full cooperation and attention while they were there, their parents would let them go back early, so they wouldn't miss out on anything.
Thinking back upon some of the comments the Lawrences and O'Haras made when they called to tell me about their agreement, I suspected they might have also been a little relieved. Since they had taken their vacations at either the end of June or early July, they might have been worried they'd run out of things to do before their sons returned to Pennsylvania. So, in one way this eliminated that worry and allowed them to cram the activities they had envisioned into a shorter time frame. This would make it seem like they actually did more, since there would be less down time, and the boys would be satisfied and have less chance of becoming bored.
After this had been agreed to, the boys concluded it had been due to their powers of persuasion. No one told them I had been working quietly on their behalf. behind the scenes, but either way, everyone was satisfied with the arrangements.
Part of the new conditions were that both sets of parents would come to join us at Thanksgiving and again at Christmas, so they wouldn't be apart from their sons for too long. I also promised to make sure they got to spend quality time alone with their sons during those visits as well, to rectify the sacrifice they were making now. Since everyone was amicable with the arrangements, we could finally put this behind us and enjoy the rest of our summer.
Since the month of July had now officially started, the first event on our calendar was Independence Day. Usually, this would be special enough, but this year the day would have added meaning. It would be the first Fourth of July since the World Trade Center had been destroyed, so I assumed the patriotic fervor would run unbelievably high.
It isn't difficult to think back to a time when waving the American flag or professing your support of the government was looked upon with disgust. Not only that, but being a member of the armed forces was something you didn't necessarily want to flaunt, yet all of that changed on September 11, 2001. That's why this year's events would be dramatically different than those held in the past.
It had already been widely publicized that local members of the armed forces and their parents, spouses and children would be highly visible during this year's formal ceremony. Along with the military presence, there would also be a multitude of American flags and other patriotic memorabilia, as well as some specially designed activities. At least to me, it sounded like fun.
Although I was fairly certain the boys were looking forward to attending these events as a family, I soon discovered there would be an added bonus. It came about when Mark asked if his girlfriend and he could join us. He wanted us to get to know each other better and thought this would be the perfect time, so I happily agreed. I then informed each of the boys that I expected them to be on their best behavior, so we didn't scare Mark's girlfriend off the first time she was with us, and they all promised to behave. This didn't come as a surprise to me, since I suspected they would, at least after I brought it to their attention.
In addition to Mark and his girlfriend, the Shays, Spences, Curtises (Jay's parents) and Sally were also going to join us, but the Beckers had opted to attend a big community picnic their friends and neighbors were having. We told them we understood, but would miss them nonetheless, and wished them an enjoyable time.
Our day began with the annual Fourth of July parade, but this year it was much larger than any in recent memory. Our local high school band took part, along with bands from several smaller surrounding communities and a fife and drum group. There were also representatives from the VFW and American Legion, local members of the armed forces that happened to be home on leave or the family members of those that were currently stationed elsewhere, a few military vehicles, a multitude of homemade floats and an assortment of classic cars filled with parade organizers and local political dignitaries.
It was very reminiscent of the parades I had seen as a boy, not the big fancy extravaganzas you see at Disneyland, or anything like the Macy's Thanksgiving or football bowl parades. This was the basic, small-town, down-home variety, but with an added patriotic zing that had been created by recent events. This parade was charged with an electricity and excitement that probably hasn't existed since the periods during and after World War II or the Korean Conflict. At various times, I got goose bumps or felt chills run up and down my spine, as I watched both those participating in the parade and the other spectators.
When the parade ended, everyone went to the high school football stadium, to watch the various bands and the American Legion rifle group perform. Once they finished, we listened to a couple of speakers, followed by each band playing a special patriotic song. When each group's selection was announced, the crowd was urged to sing along, as a way of saluting the birth of our nation.
Amazingly, nearly everyone participated, including those who couldn't carry a tune, and the performances soon grew very emotional. During the remainder of the morning, we belted out our interpretation of 'God Bless American,' 'American the Beautiful,' 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' and 'The Star Spangled Banner.' As the somewhat harmonic voices of my family and our friends wafted through the air, I, along with the many others in attendance, contemplated when the world, and our own lives, might return to a more carefree and less troubled existence.
Once all of the other activities concluded, the carnival-type festivities were declared open and the crowd began to mill around the various booths that surrounded the field, to check things out. There were numerous rides and activities for the kids, some being the typical things you'd expect to see at a modern carnival, but others were reminiscent of a Fourth of July celebration from the past. A traveling carnival group had been invited to set up their rides and games of chance for everyone, but various community groups added their own touches and provided these more historic offerings.
First, a couple of local farmers brought in several of their horses to take kids on short rides, while the VFW manned a dunking booth. Members of that organization took turns and braved the accuracy of those throwing baseballs at a triggering panel. When hit, the seated volunteer would drop into a tank and end up treading water for a while.
In addition to those activities, the American Legion had set up an old fashion wooden stock, where they placed members of their group. They then sold tickets that allowed kids, and others, to throw water balloons at the 'victims.' The youthful participants were told that rotten tomatoes or other uneatable foods would have been used instead of the water balloons when this type of punishment had actually been used, in colonial times. The kids seemed to enjoy this activity, even the older ones, but there was still much more being offered.
As acting Superintendent of the local school district, I had talked some of the other administrators and teachers into joining me in another fund raising activity. We allowed the kids, or anyone else willing to pay for the privilege, to throw whipped creamed pies at us, as we placed our heads through the openings in a sheet of plywood. The plywood was painted to represent several amusing caricatures (such as a circus weightlifter, the circus fat lady, a stern schoolmarm and a clown), and when we put our head through one of the holes, we became the face of that comical character.
Our activity seemed to be especially popular and the local student body took a great deal of satisfaction in smearing a teacher, principal or even me with whipped cream. Maybe this, or something similar, was a fantasy they had secretly hoped to be able to act upon some day, but no matter the reason for our success, the money came pouring in.
Everything that was earned from the community booths, as well as a percentage of the ticket and refreshment prices, was being donated to a worthy cause. In fact, that played a big part in the reason all of these groups had gone to so much trouble to have their own booths. The money we raised was being given to the emergency relief fund of the American Red Cross, to be used for future emergencies, regardless of whether they were natural disasters or acts of terrorism.
In addition to the games and rides, there were also numerous tents set up that contained a wide variety of food and drinks. Each tent basically had its own international theme, so there was something for nearly everyone.
The first tent was serving Italian delights, like pasta, pizza, sausage and peppers, Italian cookies and Italian Ices. Next to it was the Polish tent, which served pierogies (a semi-circular dough envelope stuffed with either potato and cheese or cabbage filling), Golabki (cabbage rolls) and kielbasa (Polish sausage).
On the other side of that tent was another one with Greek goodies, such as Gyros (meat roasted on a vertically turning spit and served with sauce, often tzatziki, and garnished with tomatoes and onions, on pita bread) Moussaka (an eggplant casserole), a Greek Salad (with grape leaves and feta cheese) and, of course, Baklava (a Turkish pastry made with nuts and honey, which has also become associated with the Greeks).
The final tent in that group was filled with Chineese treats, such as sweet and sour chicken or pork, sesame chicken (served in a reddish sauce with toasted sesame seeds), Hunan beef or chicken (a spicy dish fixed with hot peppers) and egg rolls. There was also a choice of chicken, pork, beef or vegetable fried rice or lo mein (long, thin noodles that is purported to be the origin for spaghetti) and every order was served with a fortune cookie.
In addition to the international offerings, there was another tent set up across from those tents that served the typical American summertime offerings, such as hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecued chicken. These items could be served with potato or macaroni salad or corn on the cob. This tent also offered fresh watermelon, honeydew and cantaloupe, and it could all be washed down with homemade lemonade.
The final tent was loaded with a variety of treats, such as ice cream, cotton candy and snow cones, as well as candy and caramel apples. It also sold soda, coffee, iced tea and bottled water. After looking at the total selection being offered, we thought we had something for everyone, at least where the food was concerned.
As lunchtime approached, I gave each of the boys some money and let him get what he wanted, and then we all went off to find a place where we could eat together, as a family. We found a nice, semi-quiet spot off to one side of the grounds, so we spread out a few blankets the boys had retrieved from the van and sat down to enjoy what we had purchased.
While we ate, we talked to Mark's girlfriend and I soon discovered she was not only a very interesting person, but also someone I had known previously, yet had forgotten. To my extreme embarrassment, she quickly reminded me she had attended my middle school for a period of time. Her family had moved into the district just before the start of her seventh grade year, so she spent that year and the next in my building.
After some polite prodding from her, I finally remembered Amy was a very quiet young thing, who stayed mostly to herself and was very studious. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to know her very well, so this was my opportunity to make up for that oversight.
She was very kind and didn't make a big deal about my lack of memory. In fact, she even told me she had enjoyed her time at my school. Amy was not only kind, but also extremely sweet, so I could see why Mark was taken with her. She was certainly his intellectual equal, plus they complemented each other in the looks department as well, with Mark's coloring being so dark and hers so light. Their personalities also seemed to mesh, so I thought they had a great chance of making it as a couple.
In addition to all of her other positive attributes, Amy also seemed to get along very well with the rest of the boys and had no trouble with seeing some of them as couples. I learned later that Mark had prepared her for this, and possibly that accounted for why she seemed so comfortable with the situation, but no matter the reason, the boys were pleased by her open and accepting nature. All of them hit it off really well, but she took a special interest in Andrew, possibly because he was the youngest and smallest. Amy babied and pampered him whenever she could, much to Andrew's enjoyment and Mark's delight, so I knew she would fit in nicely, if she joined us on some of our other outings.
The rest of the day went by quickly, with everyone having a good time and enjoying this unique celebration, which continued through the afternoon and into the early evening. Even before the sun began to set, Andrew let everyone know he was eager for it to get dark, so the long awaited fireworks would begin. This year it would not only include a very elaborate array of aerial treats, but there would also be some very special ground displays.
Shortly after the last rays of sunlight had disappeared, the show started and the only sounds that could be heard, other than the fireworks, were the gratified gasps of the spectators. For nearly the next half-hour, the sky was filled with colorful streaks of light, which were accompanied by the loud booms and following shockwaves from those exploding attractions.
When the aerial show concluded, the ground displays began to light up. They had been set up on a small hillside, so they were elevated enough for everyone to see, and now the crowd stared in that direction as they were set off, one at a time.
The first of these displays was an American flag, the second an outline of the three Revolutionary War soldiers that had become so familiar to us (with one playing a fife, another a drum and the last carrying a flag), and the next the outline of the famous scene from World War II, with the marines raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. The final ground display was a message, 'God Bless America,' and then the air was once again filled with more rockets, which comprised the finale.
My family, including our friends and guests, sat transfixed throughout this wonderful show. Once the last of the aerial delights had exploded and the crowd was thanked for attending, we got up, said our farewells to Mark's girlfriend, our extended family and some of the others seated around us, and then got ready to go home after a long day.
Since everyone was so tired, the boys rushed through their showers and raced off to bed, knowing they still had tomorrow to do whatever else they wanted. Jake and I turned in as well, although we took a slight detour along the way, by paying special attention to each other's needs, before we drifted off.