*Party Plans is fictionalized around missing scenes from the aired episode Virus. This story first appeared on Johnny’s Green Pen. Please visit the Green Pen site to read more stories written for the site’s first birthday celebration held on November 24, 2001. A direct link for Johnny’s Green Pen can be found on my Links page.
Later I would realize it had been a mistake to get the kids excited about Johnny’s birthday. Or perhaps mistake is too strong of a term. After all, there’s nothing wrong with children wanting to plan a party for someone they love. I was proud of my little ones. Jennifer was four years old, and Chris two months from turning seven. Children that young aren’t always known for their generosity. They love birthday parties, and cake, and presents, as long as they’re the guests of honor. But it was the kids who suggested we have a birthday party for Uncle Johnny when they overheard Roy ask me to bring a cake to the station on August 28th in honor of Johnny’s special day.
Jennifer ran in from the living room upon hearing her daddy’s request.
“Can we have a party for Uncle Johnny?”
“A birthday party, Mommy! With balloons, and pointy hats, and noise makers, and a big sign that says, ‘Happy Birthday, Uncle Johnny,’ and pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and drop-the-clothespins-in-the-bottle, and musical chairs, and chocolate cake with chocolate frosting ‘cause that’s Uncle Johnny’s favorite.”
Actually, chocolate cake with chocolate frosting was Jennifer’s favorite. She had turned four in April. I had a children’s party for her that included five kids from the neighborhood as well as Chris. Then we had an adult gathering on a Sunday afternoon that included the only two relatives Roy and I have who live locally, my sister, and Roy’s mother. At Jennifer’s request, Johnny was included as well. He and Roy had been partners for almost a year by then, and Johnny was slowly but surely becoming a fixture around our house. When the kids started calling him ‘Uncle’ Johnny, I’m not certain. Overnight it seemed like they’d progressed from being too shy to say a word to him, to the house suddenly being filled with “Uncle Johnny, this” and “Uncle Johnny, that” whenever Johnny was present. And sometimes even when he wasn’t.
Before I could give Jennifer an answer, Chris abandoned his Saturday morning cartoons. He flew into the room, sliding across the vinyl flooring on his socks.
“Yeah a party! We gotta have a party for, Uncle Johnny. ‘Cept he likes banana cake with white frosting best, not chocolate cake.”
“Huh uh,” Jennifer argued. “He likes chocolate. He told me so.”
Roy stepped in at this point.
“If you two keep fighting, all talk of a party will end right now.”
Jennifer turned her baby blue eyes on her father. Johnny could never resist any request she made of him when she gazed up at him like she was gazing up at Roy right then. Roy was a far tougher nut for Jennifer to crack, but then, he was her father and more concerned with proper behavior than Johnny could ever hope to be when it comes to my kids.
“We won’t fight, Daddy. Promise. Now can we have a party?”
Roy chuckled. “Uncle Johnny’s birthday is three weeks off yet, princess. Are you sure you and Chris can stop fighting until then?”
Jennifer cocked her head in thought. After a lengthy pause, she asked, “How long is three weeks?”
Roy laughed, but then conceded. “I guess we can have a party if it’s okay with Mommy.”
Jennifer turned to me. “Can we, Mommy? Pleeeease.”
“Please, Mom,” Chris joined in on his sister’s behalf. “Please can we have a party for Uncle Johnny? Jen and me won’t fight for a whole month if you say yes.”
“For a whole month, huh?”
“Well. . .” I pretended to be giving it heavy thought. If the truth were known, however, I had already decided a birthday party for Johnny was a good idea. He had no family in California other than an aunt who lived several hours away, and turning twenty-five was a bit of a milestone, so why not celebrate?
I smiled at my children. “Yes, we can have a party.”
Jennifer’s ponytail bobbed as she jumped up and down clapping. “Yay! Yay! We get to have a party for Uncle Johnny!”
“Yay!” Chris yelled, thrusting a fist in the air. “Yay, a party!”
Jennifer grabbed her brother’s hand. “Come on, Chris! Let’s get some big paper and crayons. You can write ‘Happy Birthday, Uncle Johnny’ on it, and I’ll color it.”
The kids dashed down the hall to Jennifer’s room. Chris would be entering second grade right after Labor Day. I didn’t have great confidence many of the words on his sign would be spelled correctly, but I knew Johnny would treasure it regardless of the mistakes it contained.
After the children were out of the room Roy looked at me.
“You don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” I said as I went back to preparing lunch for my family. “Look at the calendar and see what weekend closest to Johnny’s birthday you guys are off.”
Roy crossed to the calendar hanging on the wall beneath the phone. He studied it a moment.
“Johnny’s birthday is on a Friday. We work that day, but go off duty at eight on Saturday morning.”
“How about if we plan for a cookout on Saturday evening then? We can invite the guys from the station and anyone else you can think of who might like to come.”
Roy mulled it over a minute. He then mentioned the names of three paramedics from other stations – two from Station 8 and one from Station 65, who were friends of Johnny’s, plus Dixie McCall.
I nodded my agreement. Including spouses or significant others, plus various children, that would mean our gathering might grow to include as many as twenty-five people if everyone was able to come, but that was all right with me. Roy and I hadn’t hosted a picnic of any kind that summer. It would be nice to get together with some of our friends before the school year started, and shortly after that, the busy holiday season would kick off.
I spoke out loud as I mentally planned the menu.
“We can grill hamburgers and hot dogs. I’ll make potato salad, taco salad, a couple Jello-salads, that macaroni salad Johnny likes so much, buy some bags of chips and a couple containers of dip, put out a platter of pickles and olives, make a watermelon boat—“
Roy interrupted me as he began setting the table. “I don’t want you going to that much work.”
I raised an eyebrow at my husband. “I’m not doing all the work, mister. You’ll be home by eight-thirty that morning. I’ll allow you a short nap, but then you’re going to be given a few jobs to do yourself.”
“And just whose idea was this birthday party anyway?” Roy teased.
“Your children’s. And I’m proud of them. It was sweet of Chris and Jennifer to suggest a party for Johnny.”
“It was,” Roy agreed. “But they might be in for a shock when no one wants to wear pointy hats or play musical chairs.”
“I bet Johnny would wear a pointy hat and play musical chairs if Jennifer asked him to.”
Roy smiled. “I bet he would, too.”
That evening after supper, Roy and I took a walk with the kids to the ice cream parlor a few blocks from our home. When we returned, I sat at the kitchen table writing out a grocery list for Johnny’s party. Chris sat at my right elbow and used a red crayon to create his own list.
Balons. Pinty Hats. Nose makers. Streemers. Kandy.
Which translated meant we needed balloons, pointy hats, noise makers, streamers, and last but not least, candy.
Jennifer sat on my left, drawing pictures of the items Chris was laboriously printing out.
“I see,” I acknowledged. “Those are nice pictures, sweetheart.”
“So you don’t forget anything.”
“I’m drawing these pictures so you don’t forget anything for Uncle Johnny’s party. In case you lose Chris’s list.”
“I don’t think I’ll lose Chris’s list, but the pictures will be a help, too.”
“Can Chris and me draw in’tations for Uncle Johnny’s party?”
“It’s ‘May Chris and I,’ Jenny, not ‘Can Chris and me.’ ”
My little girl sighed at my grammar correction, but asked her question again.
“May Chris and I draw in’tations?”
“You certainly may.”
“I’ll draw a chocolate cake on the in’tations.” Jennifer reached for the Crayola box and plucked a brown crayon from it. “Chocolate is Uncle Johnny’s favorite.”
“Is not,” Chris was quick to negate. “Banana cake is Uncle Johnny’s favorite! Draw a banana cake.”
“I’m not gonna draw no stupid banana cake. Chocolate. Chocolate is Uncle Johnny’s favorite.”
Roy turned sideways in his recliner. He was sitting in the living room reading a book.
“Hey, you two. What did I say about Uncle Johnny’s party if I hear any fighting going on?”
The kids exchanged glances. Jennifer’s eyes dropped to the table as she mumbled, “It’s not fair to punish Uncle Johnny just ‘cause me and Chris are fighting. He should still get a party, Daddy.”
“Well, that wasn’t the deal,” Roy said, while trying hard not to smile. “The deal was there would be no fighting.”
“But what is Uncle Johnny’s favorite cake?”
“Yeah, Dad. What’s Uncle Johnny like best? Banana or chocolate?”
“When it comes to food, I have yet to see your Uncle Johnny refuse any. Or say he doesn’t like something. So I think you’ve been fighting for nothing, because I’m sure Uncle Johnny will eat either kind of cake. Banana or chocolate.”
“But that doesn’t help,” Chris said. “Me and Jen have to decide about the cake and we’re never gonna agree.”
“I’ll decide for you,” I said from my position between my children. “We’re having enough people over for Uncle Johnny’s party that we’ll need two cakes. So, we’ll have one banana and one chocolate.”
It’s funny how such simple solutions seem so complex to children, and how happy those simple solutions make them.
“Great idea, Mom!”
“Yeah, Mommy. Great idea. Chocolate and banana cake both. Uncle Johnny will love you forever and ever.”
Roy looked up from his book. “Now Daddy definitely might have something to say about that.”
Chris and Jennifer giggled at their father’s teasing.
“Not that kinda love, Daddy. Not mushy Mommy and Daddy love. It would be more like. . . ”
Jenny let her sentence trail off as she thought hard, trying to express what she meant.
“Like the kind of love two friends share,” I supplied for her.
Jennifer smiled and nodded her head.
Chris looked up at me with his head slightly cocked.
“But Uncle Johnny’s a boy, Mom. How can you love him when you already love Dad?”
“Just like I said, Chris. Uncle Johnny’s my friend, so the love I feel for him is based on the friendship we share. It’s not any different from the love you and Jennifer feel for him.”
“Oh. But still, I didn’t think a grownup man and a grownup woman could love each other without being married.”
“Well, they can. You love Uncle Johnny, but not in the same way you love Daddy and me, right?”
Chris thought a long moment, then gave a slow nod of his head. “Right.”
“Well, that’s how I feel, too. I love Uncle Johnny, but not in the same way I love your dad.”
I’m not sure how much of that the kids understood. At their ages a love that is born and nurtured from friendship is not easy to comprehend.
“Daddy, do you love Uncle Johnny, too?” Jennifer asked.
Roy skillfully evaded that question. “Uncle Johnny’s my friend, princess.”
“Yeah, I know. And he’s Mommy’s friend and she loves him, so do you love him, too?”
“He’s Daddy’s good friend, Jenny,” Roy reiterated.
“I know. But does that mean you love him?”
Roy shot me a look that said, Thanks a lot for bringing up the ‘love and friendship’ thing, Joanne, then answered our daughter once again.
“It means Uncle Johnny is an important friend to Daddy.”
“But is being an ‘portant friend the same as you love Uncle Johnny like Mommmy--”
I took pity on my poor husband then.
“Jennifer, men don’t always express their feelings in the same way women do, so leave Daddy alone now.”
“I know, but—“
“But does that mean Daddy doesn’t love Uncle Johnny? If so, it doesn’t seem right ‘cause the rest of us all love Uncle Johnny. Even Callie, and she doesn’t love many people, you know.”
Callie was Jennifer’s Calico cat. Our finicky feline didn’t give away her affection easily, but she did love Johnny. She’d curl up in his lap and purr for hours if he allowed her to stay there that long. Granted, this affection on Callie’s part usually came after a round of hissing and scratching, but we kept assuring Johnny the cat was crazy about him because she normally hid beneath Jennifer’s bed when any visitors came over. Johnny often said he’d prefer Callie would hide when he came over, too. This claim usually being made between muffled curse words while Roy was putting iodine on the wounds Callie had left on Johnny’s arms.
“Mommy?” Jennifer demanded my attention again. “Does it? Does that mean Daddy doesn’t love Uncle Johnny?”
“What it means is that Uncle Johnny is a good friend to Daddy. His best friend.”
“His very best friend in the whole wide world?”
I laughed. “Yes, his very best friend in the whole wide world. And that’s likely all you’ll get Daddy to admit to.”
“I didn’t even admit to that much,” Roy said from the living room. “You said it.”
“Oh you,” I waved a hand of dismissal at my husband. “You know it’s true.”
Jennifer hopped off her chair and ran from the room. She climbed in Roy’s lap, forcing him to set his book aside.
“Daddy, me and Mommy and Chris will just go on loving Uncle Johnny, and you can just go on being his very best friend in the whole wide world, okay?”
Roy chuckled as he kissed Jennifer’s forehead. He responded with an, “Okay,” before setting our little girl back on her feet.
“Now go on with you. Let Daddy read his book. You go back to helping Mommy and Chris plan that birthday party for Uncle Johnny.”
Jennifer did as Roy instructed. She skipped back into the dining area and climbed on her chair. Roy returned to his book while the kids and I returned to making our party plans. If I’d only known then that the party would be canceled because the guest of honor would be too ill to attend, I would have never allowed my children to get so excited over it.
Two weeks before Johnny’s party I sent most of the invitations the kids had drawn and colored to work with Roy. He would deliver them to the men of the A-shift and give Dixie hers when he saw her at Rampart. I folded the three remaining invitations, put them in envelopes, and mailed them to the men who didn’t work out of Station 51.
Because the children had made the invitations, each one was unique to say the least. Jennifer had fashioned two with crooked chocolate cakes and enough burning candles to indicate Johnny was going to turn fifty-five, rather than twenty-five. Not to be outdone by his sister, two of Chris’s invitations had banana cakes drawn on the front. The other invitations were a mixture of drawings that contained balloons, giant birthday candles, party hats, the words Happy Birthday printed in Chris’s young hand, and then a final invitation the kids had worked on together. It showed a dark headed, thin man standing outside Squad 51 with blue, green, and yellow balloons tied to the squad’s mirror. On the side of the hand-drawn squad Chris had printed, Happy Birthday Uncle Johnny! The children were so proud of that invitation because it was made especially for Johnny, and no others had been drawn like it. Jennifer made certain to remind Roy of that fact before he headed to work that morning.
“And don’t forget to give Uncle Johnny his invitation, Daddy. The special one I showed you with Uncle Johnny standing outside the squad.”
I handed Roy the manila envelope containing the invitations. Though the kids’ art work was on the outside of the invitations, it was my precise handwriting on the inside that revealed the party details such as time, place, date, and the fact that the get-together was to celebrate John Gage’s twenty-fifth birthday.
“I won’t forget, princess,” Roy promised as he kissed the top of Jennifer’s head. She and Chris were still seated at the table in their pajamas as they each ate a bowl of Cheerios.
“You’re sure you know which one it is?”
“I’m sure,” Roy confirmed to his daughter while smiling at me.
“It’s not for Chet. Don’t give it to Chet by accident, Daddy.”
“ ‘Cause sometimes Chet is mean to Uncle Johnny and I don’t want him to have Uncle Johnny’s special card.”
“Jennifer,” I scolded. “That wasn’t a nice thing to say.”
Chris shrugged as he stuffed a spoonful of cereal in his mouth. “It was the truth.”
Roy simply shook his head at our children. Our little Jennifer, the ardent defender of her beloved Uncle Johnny against that prankster, Chet Kelly. And then Chris, our matter-of-fact child who always saw a situation for what it was and didn’t hesitate to point that out if need be.
I tried not to laugh at our kids as I walked Roy to the door.
“They really shouldn’t say things like that,” I told my husband once we reached the living room. “One of these days they’ll say something in front of Chet.”
“And if they do, he’ll probably deserve it.”
“I suppose you’re right. Just do me a favor and tell Chet to leave the Phantom at home for this particular party.”
“I will, but I can’t guarantee he’ll listen.”
I knew Roy was right on that account. Chet was the ultimate practical joker, but he sometimes got carried away where Johnny was concerned.
“Be careful,” I said as I kissed my husband good-bye. “Stay safe.”
I said those words to him each and every time he walked out of the door for work, and each and every time he responded with that same firm, “I will,” as though by making that promise it would always come to pass and he would, in fact, stay safe. I’d been a firefighter’s wife too long not to be fully aware that a kiss and a promise doesn’t bring with it any guarantees, but it was our ritual, and one we had yet to break since Roy had joined the department three months after Chris was born.
Roy did return home safely after that twenty-four hour shift. The kids ran out of the house and threw their arms around him as he climbed from his car. I joined my family in the front yard. After the kids had been kissed by their father, and then I had been kissed by their father, Jennifer took Roy by the hand and led him toward the house. She knew I had pancakes waiting for him, and she and Chris would each snack on one, though they’d eaten their usual bowl of cereal just an hour and a half earlier.
“Did you give out the in’tations, Daddy?”
“I sure did.”
“Is everyone coming?”
“Everyone said they are.”
Jennifer jumped up and down while still clinging to her father’s hand.
“Yippee! It’ll be the bestest party ever!” When she calmed down, Jen asked, “And did you give Uncle Johnny his special in’tation?”
“Did he like it?”
Before Roy could answer, a roar came from behind Jennifer and she was scooped off her feet.
“He loved it!”
Jenny shrieked as she was tossed in the air, then caught in two strong arms. “Uncle Johnny!”
Neither the kids nor I had heard Johnny’s vehicle pull up to the curb. It wasn’t unusual for Roy to ask Johnny to stop by our house for breakfast every couple of weeks or so. I didn’t mind because I always made too much pancake batter anyway, and Johnny was always good company.
Johnny kissed Jennifer’s cheek as he gently set her back on her feet. He tousled Chris’s blond hair as he winked at my son.
“Hi, Uncle Johnny.”
Each of my children claimed one of Johnny’s hands as we walked to the house as a group.
“You really liked your in’tation, Uncle Johnny?”
Johnny smiled down at Jennifer. “You bet I did, Jenny Bean.”
Johnny had saddled the kids with their nicknames of Sport and Jenny Bean shortly after he started working with Roy. He’d originally called then three-year old Jennifer ‘Jelly Bean,’ but she’d put her hands on her hips and stomped her foot while insisting, “It’s Jenny. My name’s Jenny, not Jelly.”
Johnny had laughed at my daughter’s indignation and then apologized. Later that same day he slipped and started to call her ‘Jelly Bean’ only to quickly change it to ‘Jenny Bean.’ That evidently passed Jennifer’s muster because she allowed him to do so, and one year later, has allowed the tradition to continue. For some reason, I have a feeling that even when Jennifer’s forty years old, she’ll be ‘Jenny Bean’ to John Gage.
Chris looked up at Johnny. “So are you coming to the party?”
“Of course I’m coming to the party. You know I never miss a party, Christopher Roy.”
“Especially when he’s the guest of honor,” Roy added dryly.
“Hey, it’s not every day a guy gets a homemade invitation to his own birthday party.”
“No, it’s not,” I agreed. “The kids are really looking forward to it.”
“Just don’t go to a lot of work,” Johnny told me as we stepped into the living room. “I mean, you don’t have to do that for me.”
“I know, but I want to, so don’t worry about it.”
Johnny didn’t make a verbal reply, but he did blush a little, so I know the thought of a party being thrown in his honor really meant a lot to him. It has to be difficult to be single and live so far from your family. Johnny has a large number of friends, but still, friends aren’t the same as family when it comes to birthdays and holidays. I suppose that’s why, in just the one year’s time Johnny and Roy had been partners, I had come to be the big sister to Johnny who made sure he had a home to go to on those holidays when he and Roy weren’t working. Whether it was a Fourth of July picnic or a formal sit down meal on Christmas Day, Johnny was a fixture at our house during those celebrations.
Johnny stayed two hours that morning. After he and Roy had eaten, Johnny played with the kids in the backyard for a while. He made sure to come in the house and thank me again for breakfast before he headed to his apartment.
“If I don’t see you before, I’ll see you the Saturday of the party,” I told him.
“Want me to bring anything?”
“Nope. You’re the guest of honor. Just come ready to eat and have a good time.”
Johnny tossed me that infamous crooked grin. “When don’t I?”
“Never,” I laughed. Johnny’s appetite was enough to flatter any woman who liked to cook, and goodness knows fun seemed to follow John Gage wherever he went.
Johnny walked out the patio doors then. He called a final goodbye to Roy and the kids before walking around the house. I heard the door on the Land Rover slam, then heard the engine start.
And that was the last time I saw Johnny until Saturday, August 29th, when I visited a quarantined room at Rampart General Hospital.
There are a lot of things being a fireman’s wife prepares you for. Or at least you have a number of possibilities in your mind in regards to ways your husband might be injured. . . or even killed, on the job. But of all the scenarios I had resigned myself to, and there were many, I certainly never thought an obscure virus from Asia might bring the possibility of death to my doorstep.
Nine days had passed since Johnny had breakfast with us. It was Tuesday evening, and the birthday party was scheduled for that upcoming Saturday. Johnny’s birthday was Friday. I was in the kitchen making sure I had the necessary ingredients for the cupcakes the kids and I were going to take to Station 51 on Friday for a little pre-party celebration, when the phone rang. I glanced at the clock to see it was seven. It was a bit early for Roy to call on a summer evening. Usually he waited to phone until eight-thirty when he knew both of the kids would be inside after a long day of play outdoors.
I glanced through the glass of the patio doors as I picked up the phone. Jennifer was on the swing set with a little girl from across the street, while Chris and two boys from down the block were playing ‘construction workers’ in the sandbox with Tonka trucks.
“Hi, honey,” I smiled in greeting. “You’re calling early tonight. The kids are still outside playing. Let me call them in so they can—“
“No, no. That’s okay. I need to talk to you for a minute first.”
Something in Roy’s tone gave me reason for concern.
“What’s the matter? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” my husband assured, and it was then that I could hear Station 51’s TV in the background.
“You sound a little. . .upset.”
“I’m not upset. Just tired I guess. Listen, Jo, I won’t be coming home tomorrow morning.”
“Where are you going?”
“Oh. All right.”
Just like it wasn’t unusual for Johnny to pop in at our house for breakfast every couple of weeks, it wasn’t unusual for Roy to go out to breakfast with Johnny after a shift every so often, or to go to his apartment for coffee and doughnuts before coming home.
“You’ll be home in time for lunch though?”
“Uh. . .no. Actually, I’m going to bunk at Johnny’s for the next couple of days.”
“What? Roy, what’s going on?”
I suppose if I wasn’t confident Roy and I have a solid marriage, I would have been worried this was his way of telling me he was leaving me, but that thought never crossed my mind. I was, however, confused as to why my husband suddenly felt the need to have a sleep-over at Johnny’s house.
Within a minute I knew the answer to my questions. That morning Roy and Johnny had treated a young woman who was very ill with a virus the doctors at Rampart were unable to identify. Just two hours before Roy phoned me, another fireman who had responded to the call, Tim Duntley, had also taken ill.
“Brackett had Johnny and me come in for blood tests but so far we don’t know anything. Until they can figure out how this virus is spread, or how to treat it, I think it’s best if I’m not around you and the kids. Johnny said I can stay at his place until we have some answers.”
“How soon will that be?”
“I don’t know.”
“Joanne, I just don’t know. But no matter how long it is, I can’t take the risk of you or the kids picking this up from me. It could be dead. . .dangerous.”
I knew Roy almost said ‘deadly’ before changing his choice of words.
“Do you mind packing a bag for me and taking it over to Johnny’s apartment this evening, or early in the morning? Just so it’s there, and you’re gone, before Johnny and I arrive.”
“No, I don’t mind. I’ll put in a few changes of clothes, your razor, toothbrush, things like that.”
We had a key to Johnny’s apartment. We’d collected his mail for him a couple of times when he’d gone on week-long camping trips. The last time we’d done so, in early June, Johnny had told Roy to hang onto the key.
“I’ll get the kids up early tomorrow and we’ll take the bag to Johnny’s. I can treat them to breakfast out on the way home.”
“Sounds like a nice idea. Wish I could join you.”
“I wish you could, too.” I looked out the patio doors again. The children were still as I had seen them a few minutes earlier, on the swing set and in the sandbox with their friends. “What do you want me to tell the kids?”
“The truth, I guess. I don’t know what else you can tell them. But don’t say anything about how serious this could be, just—“
“I won’t,” I promised. “I’ll do my best to make it sound like a. . .a bad cold.”
Roy didn’t even laugh at how stupid my remark was. But then maybe he didn’t think it was stupid to begin with. After all, how do you explain a deadly virus to a four- year old and a six and a half year old?
“This virus. . .it’s very serious, isn’t it?”
There was a hesitation on the other end of the phone, then I heard Roy’s quiet, “Yes, Jo. It’s very serious.”
“Serious enough that Tim and the woman who’s sick could die?”
“Yes, serious enough that they could die. But Doctor Brackett’s doing all he can to prevent that from happening. There are two labs here in LA working on trying to pinpoint just what causes it and how to treat it, and information has been sent to the Center For Disease Control in Atlanta as well. They’ll find something out soon, I’m sure. Maybe I won’t even have to stay at Johnny’s all day tomorrow. Maybe I’ll be home in time for supper.”
“I hope so, because we both know Johnny can’t cook worth a damn.”
My husband laughed at my words. We needed the levity right then. We were a young married couple with young children. The thought of something happening to Roy that would make me both mother and father to Chris and Jenny, in addition to being the sole breadwinner of the family, was terrifying at that moment.
Roy must have sensed my thoughts.
“It’ll be okay, Joanne. I’ll be fine, sweetheart.”
“I know you will. And Johnny? Is he okay with all this?”
“He’s fine. Doesn’t appear to be too concerned. You know Johnny. Not much worries him when it comes to his own well-being. Right now he and Chet are fighting over what TV show to watch next.”
I chuckled at that remark.
“Well, tell them to stop fighting and tell Johnny I said to take care of himself. After all, he can’t be sick for his birthday party.”
“I’ll tell him. Tell the kids I said hi.”
“I will. I love you, Roy.”
“I love you too, hon. I’ll call you tomorrow from Johnny’s.”
“Okay. Talk to you then. Goodbye.”
When our connection was broken I slowly returned the telephone receiver to its cradle. I was grateful that I had children to round up and get in the house for baths, a snack, and a bedtime story. If nothing else those mundane events kept my mind off my worries for my husband until I went to bed at ten o’clock. I tossed and turned most of the night. Since I was already awake, I had no trouble rising with the sun in order to pack Roy’s bag and get the kids up to make the trip to Johnny’s apartment. We were in the car by seven, so we’d be gone from Johnny’s before he and Roy went off duty at eight. The children had no idea what was going on until they realized we weren’t waiting at Uncle Johnny’s for their dad to arrive. It was over breakfast at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant that I told them Daddy had been exposed to a very bad cold virus while taking care of an ill woman, and he couldn’t come home for a few days.
“Is he sick?” Chris asked as I wiped egg yolk from his chin with a napkin.
“No, not all. Daddy’s fine.”
“Then why can’t he come home?”
“Because if Daddy does get sick from this virus, he doesn’t want us to get sick, too.”
“But I could take care of Daddy,” Jennifer said as she sat her glass of apple juice back on the table. “I could make him chicken noodle soup if he gets sick.”
“Daddy probably won’t get sick,” I assured the kids in what I hope sounded like a confident voice. “And even if he does, Uncle Johnny will take him to Rampart right away and Doctor Brackett will make Daddy well again.”
“Who’s gonna take Uncle Johnny to Doctor Brackett if he gets sick?” Jenny asked.
“Daddy. That’s why Daddy’s staying at Uncle Johnny’s apartment. They’ll look after each other.”
Chris picked up a piece of bacon but held it suspended in mid-air.
“But Uncle Johnny’s birthday party is Saturday. Him and Dad gotta be there.”
“It’s ‘Dad and he have to be there,’ Chris, not ‘Him and Dad.’ And they will be there, don’t worry.”
“Can we still make cupcakes to take to Uncle Johnny on Friday?”
I smiled at my daughter as I wiped her greasy hands and pushed her plate aside.
“Yes, sweetie, we can still make cupcakes.”
Throughout that day, the kids would occasionally ask when Daddy was coming home. Each time I’d remind them that Daddy was with Uncle Johnny and he’d be home as soon as Doctor Brackett said the worry over the ‘bad cold’ had ended.
Roy called in the middle of the afternoon to talk to all three of us. Johnny was in the laundry room of his apartment building doing wash. I felt sorry for both the guys. They were trying to keep themselves as isolated as possible from others, so that meant they couldn’t even go out to a store or restaurant. Or at least that’s the choice they’d made. Doctor Brackett hadn’t pulled them off duty, but knowing my husband and Johnny, I was fully aware they didn’t want to take any risks of exposing anyone unnecessarily.
It was a long two days for all of us. I talked to Roy frequently. By the time Friday morning came and the guys had returned to work, Johnny and Roy were getting on each other’s nerves. Roy kept complaining to me about how uncomfortable it was sleeping on Johnny’s convertible chair, while I could hear Johnny complaining in the background about Roy’s habit of wanting to turn on the television news as soon as he got up in the morning. It seems Johnny preferred to listen to music as he went about his morning routine. But, they survived one another, as I knew they would. Roy then told me that Jenny Holister was a little better, though Tim Duntley was getting worse.
“I don’t think you should come to the station today,” my husband said. “Mike brought in a batch of cookies Peggy made, so we’re calling them Johnny’s birthday treat.”
I looked at the vanilla cupcakes with chocolate frosting and festive blue candy sprinkles neatly lined up in my big square Tupperware container.
“The kids will be so disappointed. We made two dozen cupcakes last night.”
“I know,” Roy acknowledged the project the kids and I were working on when he called from Johnny’s apartment the previous evening. “But for now I’d feel better if you don’t come by.”
“What about the party tomorrow?”
“We’ll just have to wait until tomorrow comes for that decision to be reached. Maybe something good will break at Rampart today.”
“I hope so.”
“At least let me say happy birthday to Johnny,” I requested.
Roy called Johnny to the phone. I wished him a happy birthday, then apologized for not being able to get the cupcakes to him.
“Don’t worry about it, Jo. I don’t want you and the kids coming down here right now.”
“I know. I understand. It’s just that it’s your birthday, and then there’s the party tomorrow. I hope we don’t have to call it off.”
“If we do, we do. It’s no big deal.”
“Well, it’s a big deal to me. But if we have to call it off, I’ll reschedule it for the next available Saturday.”
I could hear Johnny’s smile in his voice. “Thanks, Jo. I appreciate it.”
I put the kids on the phone to wish their Uncle Johnny a happy birthday, then to say hello to their dad. When they were finished, I talked to Roy one last time.
“Have a good day.”
“Call me as soon as you know whether we can have the party or not.”
“And speaking of birthday parties, Johnny sounded tired. Is he all right?”
“He’s fine. He said he woke up with a headache, but he’s okay now. He took a couple of aspirin at breakfast.”
“No, it’s not any symptoms to do with the virus,” Roy assured. “Don’t worry, Johnny’s fine. We’re both fine.”
I heard the klaxons go off, then my husband’s rushed, “Gotta go. Love you.”
“Love you, too. Be careful!”
Roy hung up the phone without answering me. For lack of knowing what else to do, I gathered the kids from the living room where they had gone to watch cartoons, grabbed my purse from the bedroom, took the grocery list off the bulletin board, and headed for the supermarket.
“We’re going shopping for Uncle Johnny’s party, Mommy?”
“We sure are,” I told Jennifer as I held the car door open for her and Chris.
“So we can still have the party?” Chris asked. “Dad will be home tomorrow and then everyone will come over for Uncle Johnny’s birthday party?”
“Yes,” I promised, while hoping I wasn’t lying to my children. “Dad will be home tomorrow and then everyone will come over for Uncle Johnny’s birthday party.”
When tomorrow arrived, my promise was met halfway. Roy came home, but there was no party. Johnny was in a bed at Rampart running a temperature of one hundred and five, his body fighting to overcome the virus that had now infected Doctor Brackett as well.
The same virus that had taken Tim Duntley’s life late on Friday afternoon.
If Roy brought home any good news it was that the doctors now knew the source of the virus and how to treat it. Doctor Early had also assured Roy it was doubtful he was infected since he’d shown no signs thus far. The doctor felt it was safe for Roy to be with his family, but also told my husband what symptoms to watch for. Roy was already well aware of the symptoms. He realized now that Johnny’s headache and fatigue on Friday morning were indications of the onset of the virus.
Roy was barely out of his car before Chris and Jennifer were all over him like frisky puppies. They hadn’t seen their father since Tuesday. They had missed him, and as would be normal for kids their ages, didn’t fully understand why a ‘bad cold’ virus would keep him away from home.
My husband bent to gather our children in his arms. The hugs and kisses lasted a little longer than normal, as was befitting of his extended absence. The hug and kiss Roy gave me was no less warm, and conveyed his love in a way his words never could have.
“I’ve missed you,” was whispered in my ear. “Thanks for holding down the fort.”
I brushed my lips across his cheek as we parted.
Part of being a fireman’s wife was the ability to ‘hold down the fort,’ regardless of the circumstances that brought that need to your door.
Jennifer grabbed Roy’s hand. She leaned forward like a straining little workhorse and did her best to drag him to the house.
“Come on, Daddy! We gotta get stuff ready for Uncle Johnny’s party! Me and Chris need you to hang the signs we made.”
Chris took his father’s free hand.
“Yeah! Come on, Dad!”
Roy looked at me. I shrugged and shook my head. He understood the meaning of my body language. I hadn’t told the children Johnny was ill. I had been hoping Saturday morning would bring good news regarding his health, but one look at Roy’s tired eyes and drawn face told me there was little good news to share.
Roy did his best to smile at the kids.
“Listen, guys, why don’t we go sit down and eat some breakfast.”
Chris looked up at his father, his blue eyes wide with anticipation. “And then we’ll get stuff ready for Uncle Johnny’s party?”
I could tell the kids were confused when Roy didn’t answer them. And even more so when he ignored the beckoning of, “Daddy?” “Dad?”
Roy led the kids into the house. He sat down at his place at the table. He lifted Jennifer and put her on his right knee, then hoisted Chris to his left knee. I stood at the counter pouring pancake batter onto the griddle while Roy broke the news to the kids that there would be no party that day.
“I know Mommy told you why I wasn’t able to come home the past few days, and why you couldn’t come to the station yesterday with the cupcakes you made.”
Chris nodded. “ ‘Cause you helped a lady with a bad cold and Doctor Brackett didn’t want you to make us sick.”
Roy smiled at his son’s explanation. “That’s pretty close, Chris. Only this virus makes a person even sicker than he normally gets with a cold. Uncle Johnny has the virus now. He’s too ill to come to a party, so I’ll be making phone calls after I eat to tell everyone we invited not to come over this afternoon.”
“We could have the party at Uncle Johnny’s,” Jennifer said. “Instead of hamburgers we can have chicken soup. That’ll make Uncle Johnny feel lots better.”
Roy kissed the top of our daughter’s golden head.
“Uncle Johnny’s in the hospital, princess. We can’t have the party at his apartment today. Maybe another day, but not today.”
Jennifer was too young to completely understand the gravity of the situation. All she knew was that a party had been promised for her favorite ‘uncle’ and that party was supposed to take place on this day.
“But we’ve got all the food for the party, and Mommy was gonna make two cakes after breakfast – chocolate and banana. And me and Chris made Happy Birthday signs, and we blew up balloons, and we bought pointy hats, and we were gonna play musical chairs. . .even big boys like you and Captain Stanley were gonna play, Daddy, and--“
“Jen, I know, and I’m sorry. But Uncle Johnny didn’t get sick on purpose. Don’t you think he’d rather be here than in the hospital?”
Jennifer dropped her eyes to the floor, still not completely reconciled with the thought that the party was called off.
Roy rushed a hand through Jennifer’s bangs. “Jenny?”
“You only guess?”
Jennifer gave a reluctant nod of her head. Her lower lip trembled as tears filled her eyes.
“I know Uncle Johnny didn’t mean to get sick, but I wanna party and now he won’t be here!”
Jennifer jumped off Roy’s lap. She dashed down the hall and into her room. I could hear her sobs and pictured her lying stomach-down on the pink bedspread, her face buried in her pillow.
“So this means Michael and Jeff won’t be coming over?” Chris asked.
Michael and Jeff are Mike Stoker’s children. Michael and Chris are the same age, Jeffrey a year younger. Mike and his wife Peggy also have a daughter, Lori, who is six months younger than Jennifer. The children get along well and enjoy playing together at fire department functions.
“I’m afraid that’s what it means,” Roy said.
“But there will be another time when the Stokers can come over,” I assured my son.
“Next Saturday?” I questioned.
“Yeah. Uncle Johnny will be better by then, won’t he, Dad? We could have the party then.”
Roy glanced at me before looking back down at Chris.
“I. . .I don’t know, Chris.”
“Nobody’s sick with a cold for a whole week,” my hardy son said with disbelief.
“Well, what Uncle Johnny has is a little more serious than a cold,” Roy told Chris, “so don’t count on the party being rescheduled for next week.”
“The week after then?”
I could tell Roy didn’t know what to say. And because of that, I could tell just how serious Johnny’s condition was.
“We’ll see, Chris. As soon as Daddy feels Uncle Johnny is ready to attend a party then a party we shall have. In the meantime, please go sit with your sister until I can come in there.”
Chris jumped off Roy’s lap. “She’s a crybaby.”
“Hey, no name calling,” Roy warned in a tone that was sharper than the one he would have normally used for such a minor offense.
“Jennifer’s just disappointed. She was looking forward to Uncle Johnny’s party. Now you go make her feel better by playing a game with her,” I instructed. “I’ll be there after Daddy gets his breakfast.”
“Okay, but I still don’t think it’s anything to cry over. I’m dis’pointed too, but I’m not bawling my eyes out. We’ll have the party as soon as Uncle Johnny gets better, right, Mom?”
I looked at Roy for guidance. Tim Duntley had died less then twenty-four hours earlier. Exactly what type of promises was I suppose to make my son, and what promises was I supposed to avoid? Roy seemed able to read my mind.
“We’ll. . .we’ll do the best we can,” Roy told Chris. “No promises today, okay?”
For the first time Chris seemed to sense his father’s demeanor. He gave a slow nod.
“O. . .okay. Uncle Johnny. . .he’s that sick?”
“He’s sick, Chris, yes. Uncle Johnny is very sick. But the doctors at Rampart are doing everything they can to make him well again. Now please do as your mother asked and go play with your sister.”
Chris didn’t run down the hall with quite the vigor he normally would have, yet he was still young enough to take his father’s words at face value. Uncle Johnny was sick, but the doctors would make him better. Given the situation, what else can you tell a child Christopher’s age?
Roy stared out the patio doors while I flipped the pancakes. His gaze didn’t waver when I set his plate in front of him, nor a cup of hot coffee. I sat in the chair next to him and reached for his hand.
A few more seconds passed before my husband would look at me.
“He’s really sick, Jo. Johnny’s. . .he’s really sick. I don’t. . .I just don’t know if he’ll make it.”
I lifted Roy’s hand and placed a kiss on his knuckles. He opened his hand and cupped my face with his callused palm. My gaze fell on the colorful signs, hats, noisemakers, and balloons setting on the counter.
If someone didn’t know better, they’d think we were having a party.
God bless my little sister. Eileen is single and has an apartment eight miles from our home. I had invited her to Johnny’s party, and she had volunteered to come over on Saturday morning to help with the preparations. When I called to tell her the party was canceled Eileen insisted on coming over anyway. She offered to take the kids for the rest of the day and to keep them overnight at her place. A weekend with Aunt Eileen was exactly what Chris and Jennifer needed to chase away any lingering disappointment over the now defunct birthday party.
Roy slept through Eileen’s arrival, and the bustle going on in the house while I packed an overnight bag for the kids. He’d gone to our room to take a nap after he’d eaten breakfast and made the necessary phone calls to let Johnny’s friends from Station 65 and Station 8 know the party had been canceled. The deep sleep Roy had fallen into five minutes after he’d laid down was a testament to what little sleep he’d gotten the evening before at the station. He’d told me he’d only gone out on one call with his temporary partner, Sid Greenwell, so I knew Roy’s lack of sleep stemmed from his worry over Johnny and not a busy night filled with rescue calls.
I walked with Eileen and the kids to her little Chevy Nova. I hugged first Chris, and then Jennifer, while reminding them to behave for Aunt Eileen.
“Will Daddy be here when we come back?” Jennifer wanted to know.
Though Jenny was excited over the prospect of spending the next twenty-four hours with Eileen, she hadn’t seen much of her father this week and was in need of some reassurance.
“Yes, he’ll be here.”
“I didn’t get to kiss him good-bye.”
“I know, sweetie, but Daddy was really tired and needed a nap. I’ll kiss him good-bye for you, how’s that?”
“Okay,” Jennifer nodded. “Will Uncle Johnny be here, too, when we get back?”
“No. . .no, Jen, he won’t. Uncle Johnny will still be in the hospital tomorrow.”
Chris poked his head out a rear window. “But I thought the doctors were gonna make him all better.”
“They’re working to do so, yes. But I’m sure it will be a few days before Uncle Johnny is well enough to come home.”
“Will Daddy see him?”
“In the hospital? Will Daddy go see Uncle Johnny and take him a toy like we took Chris a toy when he had his tonsils out?”
I smiled at my daughter.
“I don’t know if Daddy will take Uncle Johnny a toy, but yes, he’ll probably go to Rampart for a little while later today.”
“Have Daddy take the birthday card I made for Uncle Johnny, okay? That will make Uncle Johnny feel better, don’t cha’ think?”
I kissed Jennifer’s upturned nose. “I’m sure it will. Now go on. Get in the car. Aunt Eileen is ready to leave.”
I stood in the driveway waving good-bye until the car turned right at the next block and disappeared from view.
I went in the house and took a load of laundry out of the dryer. I stood in front of our short utility table meticulously folding each item. I made stops at the linen closet and in each of the kids’ bedrooms, putting away towels, underwear, and socks. I quietly opened the master bedroom door. My husband was on his right side, still sleeping soundly. I set the laundry basket on the floor at the foot of the bed and crawled in beside him. I lay spooned against Roy’s back, drifting into a light doze while still dressed in my shorts and cotton blouse. I woke up thirty minutes later when I felt Roy kiss my forehead. We spent time getting ‘reacquainted’ after his four-day absence. We continued our lovemaking in the shower after Roy heard the kids were gone. When our loving came to an end I dressed and put on a fresh application of makeup while Roy shaved and combed his hair. He came into the bedroom to dress in jeans and a short sleeve shirt, then helped me put the laundry away. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand when we finished.
“Do you want to go out for lunch?”
I wasn’t about to pass up on that offer. Considering the ages of our children, and the fact that it would be another year before Jennifer was in kindergarten, my husband and I didn’t get an abundance of time alone.
“Sure. I’d love to.”
“Then we can go by Rampart to see Johnny if you don’t mind. Or I can drop you off back here and head to the hospital by myself.”
“No, I’ll go with you,” I assured. “I’d like to see Johnny, too, if the doctors will allow it.”
Roy smiled and placed a kiss in my hair. “Thanks, hon.”
I heard relief in his voice and wasn’t sure why. After all, Roy’s a paramedic so it’s not like he hasn’t seen sick people before, or spent a good deal of time at Rampart in the course of his daily work.
Roy stopped on his way to the hall. “Yeah?”
“You’re scared for Johnny, aren’t you?”
“I. . .yes, I’m scared. Like I said, he’s really sick. It’s just. . .I guess to see Johnny with the ‘Johnny bounce’ removed has me unnerved. He. . .last night his temperature was so high, and he was so weak, that he was just laying in the bed with his eyes half open. I never saw him move the entire twenty minutes I was with him.”
“Did he know you were there?”
“I think so. He looked at me a few times and he seemed to recognize me. Or at least he seemed. . .relieved, for lack of a better way to put it, to know I was in the room with him. Dixie noticed it too.”
“Then I think we should head out for lunch and pay a visit to Rampart. Maybe a short visit from you will be just what your partner needs.”
I knew my words were overly optimistic, but they brought comfort to my husband. He hugged me, then grabbed his watch, car keys, and wallet from the dresser. I retrieved the birthday card Jennifer had made Johnny from amidst the neat pile of birthday supplies still setting on one end of the kitchen counter. We walked out of the house together and got in Roy’s Porsche. We stopped for lunch at a small, quiet restaurant we’d discovered ages ago. It was one-thirty when we walked back out into the afternoon sunshine. Visiting hours at Rampart started at two - not that I figured they were observing visiting hours to any degree where Johnny and Doctor Brackett were concerned. I assumed they weren’t allowed to have any visitors, but also assumed they’d at least let Roy in to see Johnny for a few minutes.
It was two when we arrived at Rampart. Roy led me down unfamiliar corridors until we reached a set of double doors marked Isolation: Do Not Enter. Roy ignored the signs and led me into another corridor, this one quiet and seemingly deserted. Roy headed for a closet. He opened it and pulled out two blue gowns, two sets of gloves, and two face masks.
“Is it okay?”
“That I go in with you?”
“You can’t catch it from Johnny.”
“I know,” and I did. They knew Johnny and Tim Duntley had caught the virus from coming in direct contact with Jenny Holister’s monkey. Doctor Brackett had caught the virus from coming in contact with Jenny’s blood when he took a sample minutes after the young woman had arrived at Rampart, so there was little concern that anyone else would catch it at this point. “What I mean is, will the nurses let me in?”
“They will,” Roy said. “We’re family.”
And that’s the last thing my husband said on the subject. After just seventeen months of working with John Gage, Roy was admitting to me, for the first time, how close the two of them had grown despite their polar opposite personalities. “We’re family,” said in the firm tone Roy had used, definitely allowed no room for argument.
I’m not sure if our hassle-free entry into the room Johnny and Doctor Brackett were sharing was because the nurses on duty recognized Roy as ‘family,’ or because Doctor Early was there and immediately welcomed us. Or possibly no one gave us a hassle because the medical staff present was too busy trying to keep Johnny in bed. He might have been weak and quiet the last time Roy had seen him, but Johnny was neither of those things now. He was screaming with raw terror while trying to climb over the bed railing. I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying, but every so often picked up on “Roy!” very clearly.
“Roy! Come in!” Doctor Early called over the fray. “See if you can help us calm Johnny down.”
Roy immediately crossed to Johnny’s side. Perspiration coated John’s face and neck. His hair was plastered to his forehead, and the hospital gown he wore clung to his chest.
My husband took the cool cloth a nurse handed him. It took me a moment to recognize her as Dixie. It wasn’t until she turned and I caught her eyes that I knew it was the woman both my husband and Johnny thought so highly of. Like the rest of us, Dixie was wearing a gown, mask, and gloves.
While Doctor Early, Dixie, and another nurse fought to keep Johnny in the bed, Roy laid the cloth on his forehead and began talking to him in a quiet tone of voice. When Chris was two years old and prone to the temper tantrums the ‘terrible twos’ bring on, Roy’s mother gave us a piece of advice that worked magic. She said to speak softly into Chris’s ear and he’d stop yelling in order to hear what we were saying. Nine times out of ten that method worked. It worked now with Johnny, as well. The affects weren’t immediate, but after a few minutes the cries for Roy punctuated by swear words I’d never heard Johnny use before started to abate. Roy bent close to Johnny’s ear and spoke softly just like he used to do with Chris when he was out of control. I’d occasionally pick up some of his words.
“You’ll be fine.”
“Calm down, Johnny.”
“It’s all right.”
“Johnny, it’s okay.”
“Calm down, John.”
These words were repeated for the next fifteen minutes as Roy wiped Johnny’s face with a cloth. He didn’t even turn around when Dixie would hand him a fresh one. He simply reached a hand out when the cloth he was using had the coolness drawn from it by Johnny’s feverish skin.
Whether it was Roy’s presence that finally caused Johnny to quiet and fall asleep, or whether that came as a result of the medical treatment he was receiving, I wasn’t certain. Doctor Early led us from the room after requesting Johnny’s temperature be taken. The nurses were turning Johnny on his side, so I was pretty sure I knew exactly how that was going to be accomplished. I also knew it was a good thing Johnny was too out of it to realize what was happening. I could just imagine the fuss he’d put up at the sight of the rectal thermometer.
The door had barely shut behind us before Roy and Doctor Early removed their masks.
“How’s he doing, Doc?”
“I don’t have a firm answer for you yet, Roy. But I can tell you Jenny is on her way back to good health, and that Kel is responding to treatment.”
Doctor Brackett had slept through all that was going on in the room, and though he looked feverish and exhausted, he also appeared far healthier than Johnny at the moment.
“But what about Johnny?” I asked as I removed my mask.
Doctor Early gave me a slight smile.
“Johnny’s being a little more stubborn about it, but that doesn’t come as any great surprise to me. We’ll continue with treatment, cooling measures, and measures to keep him hydrated. Given time. . .well, he’s young and strong.”
“Tim Duntley was young and strong too,” Roy reminded the doctor.
“He was. But he’d been sick longer than Johnny before we were told what drugs to use against this virus. By far I haven’t given up faith that Johnny will respond positively yet.”
Roy swallowed hard while nodding. I could tell he wanted a more confident answer from the doctor than we had just received. He looked through the small window in the door that allowed him a view of Johnny’s bed.
“It was his birthday yesterday,” my husband said softly. “He was twenty-five. Only twenty-five.”
Doctor Early patted Roy’s arm.
“And with any luck, and some help from the man upstairs, Johnny will live to see twenty-six, Roy.”
“But you can’t promise me that.”
“No,” Doctor Early shook his head. “No, I’m afraid I can’t promise you that.”
Again, Roy nodded.
“I’d like to see him once more before Jo and I leave.”
“Sure. Go on. But don’t stay long. Now that he’s calmed down I want him to rest.”
“I know,” Roy agreed. “I want him to rest, too.”
Roy and I put our masks back on and entered the room. Doctor Brackett was still sleeping peacefully. Johnny, on the other hand, was awake again. Though he couldn’t seem to open his lids more than halfway, his eyes tracked our movements to his bedside.
“Hey, partner,” Roy greeted as he laid a hand on Johnny’s bare forearm.
John was too weak to verbally respond, but I saw three fingers on his right hand rise from the mattress in the best form of a wave he could muster. Roy spoke to him a minute, letting him know that we were there with him and that we’d come back again later in the evening. He stepped aside then to allow me to say hello.
I didn’t hesitate to bend and place a kiss on his forehead. The mask was covering my mouth, so I wasn’t concerned about any risk. With one gloved hand I brushed his hair from his brow.
“Hi, Johnny. How are you feeling?”
It was a dumb question, but what else was I going to say? Gee, Johnny, you must feel rotten because you sure look lousy?
He raised his thumb; giving me a wobbly ‘thumbs up’ as only Johnny would do. I smiled at him and gave him a ‘thumbs up’ in return.
“You’re going to be fine,” I assured. “I know you don’t feel very good right now, but you’ll get better soon.”
I held up the birthday card Jennifer had made. This time her picture was of Johnny and Roy in the squad with herself, Chris, and me hanging on the back as though we were riding a fire truck. At my daughter’s request, I had written ‘Happy Birthday Uncle Johnny’ beneath the squad in blue crayon.
“Jennifer wanted you to have this.” I saw him struggle to focus on the thick piece of vanilla construction paper I was holding. “It’s a birthday card. I’ll ask Dixie if we can hang it right here next to your bed so you can see it.”
“We certainly can,” Dixie assured. “I’ll go get some Scotch tape right now.”
After Dixie left the room Johnny mouthed something that I had to bend down to hear. At first I couldn’t understand his garbled words, but then he repeated them.
“Par. . .party. Sor. . .sorry, Jo.”
I covered his hand with one of my own.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault you got sick, and the party can be rescheduled for another day. As a matter of fact it’s going to be just as soon you’re out of this bed and can give me a Saturday when you’re free.”
Johnny gave a slight nod of his head along with a barely audible, “Thanks.” His eyes drifted shut again. He didn’t appear to feel me release his hand, nor did he appear to feel the light squeeze Roy gave his shoulder as we turned to leave the room.
We returned to the hospital at seven o’clock that evening. The good news was; Johnny wasn’t any worse. The bad news was; he wasn’t any better. Doctor Brackett was better, however, which pleased Roy, but also concerned him. As we were driving back home once again my husband said, “I wish Johnny would start responding to treatment. Doctor Brackett is. You’d think Johnny would be by now, too.”
“He will, Roy,” I said with a conviction meant to bolster my husband’s spirits. “Just give him time.”
“Jo, he doesn’t have that much time. The longer he runs such a high temp, the harder his body has to fight and in turn, the weaker he becomes.”
“I realize that.”
Roy reached over and took my hand. He gave it a squeeze while offering me an apologetic smile.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take my worries out on you.”
“I know you didn’t.”
“Forgiven,” I smiled in return.
Neither of us slept well that night. Roy, because of his concern for Johnny. And me, because of Roy’s constant tossing and turning.
Roy called Rampart at seven on Sunday morning. Johnny’s condition hadn’t changed any overnight. His temperature had climbed, causing him to grow delirious again. Eileen dropped the kids off after feeding them lunch at McDonald’s. She came in the house just long enough to say hello and ask how Johnny was. I shook my head at her. She got the message. Johnny wasn’t doing well, and I didn’t want to say so in front of Chris and Jennifer.
Roy and I had just finished eating vegetable soup and tuna sandwiches, and were still sitting at the table. We thanked Eileen for keeping the kids overnight, then said good-bye as she headed for the front door. Jennifer climbed in Roy’s lap while Chris snuggled into my side. They told us all about their time with Aunt Eileen, similar to the same excited way they tell us about their time spent with Uncle Johnny when they’ve been with him for an overnight adventure.
“Except Aunt Eileen doesn’t let you build a fort out of the couch cushions and camp out on the floor like Uncle Johnny does,” Chris told me. “She makes you sleep in a bed and the cushions have to stay on her couch.”
“Yeah,” Jennifer agreed. “And she doesn’t let you eat cookies for breakfast either.”
“Jen!” Chris admonished. “That was supposed to be a secret. Uncle Johnny said we couldn’t tell.”
Jennifer clamped her hand over her mouth and mumbled, “I forgot.” She allowed her hand to fall after a few seconds and looked up at Roy. “You won’t be mad at Uncle Johnny ‘cause he feeds us cookies for breakfast, will you, Daddy?”
Roy smiled. “No, princess, I won’t be mad at Uncle Johnny.”
Jennifer looked over at me. “Is today the day we’ll have Uncle Johnny’s birthday party?”
“I’m sorry, sweetie, but no. There won’t be a party today.”
Tears threatened to spill from Jennifer’s eyes. “Why not?”
“Because Uncle Johnny is still sick.”
“The doctors haven’t made him better yet?”
“They’re trying to, but he has to stay at the hospital where Nurse Dixie and Doctor Early can take care of him.”
Chris made a face. “Are they giving him yucky tasting medicine?”
“I imagine they are, but right now Uncle Johnny is too si. . .tired to notice.”
“How can you not notice the taste of yucky medicine?”
“Most of the medicine Uncle Johnny is getting is going directly into his bloodstream,” Roy explained. He kept his left arm around Jennifer while holding out his right with his wrist facing up. “He has a needle going in this vein so the medicine goes right in through there.”
“A needle?” Jennifer questioned. “That hurts! Is Uncle Johnny crying?”
“No, he’s not crying. And no, it doesn’t hurt. Like Mommy said, Uncle Johnny is too tired right now to notice the needle, and when he does notice it, what he’ll feel is more discomfort than hurt.”
I don’t think Jennifer understood what her father meant, but being assured Johnny wasn’t in pain calmed her fears.
“So when can we have the party?”
“As soon as Uncle Johnny is feeling better. It might be a while yet though, so let’s not think about it too much, okay?”
Jen’s eyes widened. “Mommmy, how can you not think about a party?”
“Well, it is difficult, but that’s what we need to do for the time being. The important thing right now is to think good thoughts for Uncle Johnny and to remember him in our prayers each night.”
“But we always ‘member Uncle Johnny in our prayers. We say, “ ‘God bless Daddy and Uncle Johnny and don’t let them get hurt at a fire,’ every time we pray.”
“Yes, we do,” I acknowledged the portion of the prayer the kids incorporated into their bedtime ritual.
“So if we ask God to make Uncle Johnny get better, then He will, right?” Chris questioned.
I looked to Roy for help with this question. He usually left the theological discussions up to me since I was the one who attended church regularly with the kids. But this time I flicked my head at my husband to let him know the ball was in his court.
“We hope so, Chris,” Roy said. “We hope if we ask God to make Uncle Johnny well, that He will.”
“But why wouldn’t He?” Chris asked. “Uncle Johnny’s not bad. He’s a good guy like you, Dad. He helps people. Why wouldn’t God make him well if we ask?”
“Chris, there’s some things even I don’t know the answers to. As your Grandma DeSoto says when sad things happen, it’s God’s will.”
“But I don’t want it be God’s will that Uncle Johnny dies!”
“Neither do I, son,” was all Roy could say in response as he lifted Jennifer from his lap and stood. “Believe me, neither do I.”
Roy opened the patio doors and walked outside. I did my best to smile at the kids.
“Come on. Let’s go put the clothes away you brought back from Aunt Eileen’s, then we’ll all go for a bike ride.”
“Daddy, too?” Jennifer asked.
“Daddy, too,” I confirmed.
We put the children’s things away, then I made quick work of cleaning up the lunch dishes in the kitchen. When that job was done I shooed the kids outside. We found Roy on his hands and knees weeding a flowerbed that didn’t need weeding. It didn’t take much persuasion on my part to convince my husband a bike ride would do us all good. After we returned home we played baseball in the backyard for a little while, then the kids’ friends began drifting over to play. At suppertime I called for a pizza to be delivered. I knew Roy would want to leave for Rampart as soon as we finished eating.
Because Chris and Jennifer were home, I didn’t go to the hospital with Roy that night. The kids and I watched our favorite Sunday night programs, The Wild Kingdom and The Wonderful World Of Disney. When Disney ended, I told Chris to take a shower. He stomped his foot and pouted all the way to the bathroom when I wouldn’t take that instruction back even though he’d taken a shower at Eileen’s the night before.
“Uncle Johnny never makes me take a shower when I stay with him. Now I have to take a shower two nights in a row.”
What it is about little boys and their aversion to water, I’ll never know. They seem to be drawn to every mud puddle and drainage ditch they run across, but when it comes to being put in contact with clean water you’d think they’d just been asked to douse themselves with perfume.
Chris was still too young not to be forced to endure his mother’s inspection of his ears, face, and neck once he had taken his shower and was standing in the bathroom in his clean underwear. While he put his pajamas on, I combed the tangles out of his hair. I allowed him to return to the television set to watch Bonanza while I gave Jennifer her bath. I had just finished helping Jen put her pajamas on when Roy came home.
Chris trailed his father down the hall. I looked up when Roy appeared in the bathroom doorway. I was seated on the closed lid of the toilet with Jennifer standing in front of me. I was holding onto her long wet hair, gently running a brush through it.
I started to ask, “How’s Johnny?” but didn’t get out more than “How’s” before Roy was shaking his head.
Jennifer didn’t seem to understand the meaning behind this exchange, but Chris did.
“Is the medicine making Uncle Johnny better?”
Roy looked down at our son. He ruffled Chris’s hair while giving him a downtrodden smile.
“Not yet, buddy.”
Roy gave a weary sigh then nodded. “Yes. . .yes, maybe tomorrow.”
Chris stayed in the doorway after his father walked away. Jennifer turned and looked at me.
“How come Daddy’s unhappy?”
“Because he’s worried about Uncle Johnny.”
Jen thought a moment. “Mommmy, ‘member when you said Daddy doesn’t love Uncle Johnny?”
“I never said that.”
“Yes you did. You said they were best friends, but that Daddy doesn’t love him.”
“You’re right,” I admitted, recalling our conversation from several weeks earlier on the day the idea of Johnny’s birthday party was first hatched. Granted, that wasn’t exactly what I’d said, but I understood why a four year old would have interpreted my words as such. “I remember.”
“Well I think you’re wrong. I think Daddy does love Uncle Johnny, ‘cause if he didn’t he wouldn’t look so sad.”
I kissed my little girl’s forehead as I pulled her to me for a hug. I held out an arm as Chris approached us so he could be included.
“You’re right, Jen,” I said as I rested my chin on top of Chris’s head. “Daddy does love Uncle Johnny, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with admitting that. Especially at a time like this.”
Fifteen minutes later the kids were kneeling in front of Jennifer’s bed saying their prayers. It didn’t surprise me when their first request was, “Dear God, Please make Uncle Johnny all better.”
God must have been answering the prayers of small children that night. Or at least the prayers of my small children.
On Monday morning Roy called Rampart before he left for work. Finally, we received a bit of good news. I listened to the one-sided conversation he held with a nurse as I put his breakfast on the table. When he hung up the phone, he faced three pairs of questioning eyes. He hesitated a moment, then smiled. The relief in his voice was plain to hear.
Chris threw his arms in the air, jostling his cereal bowl in the process.
I didn’t scold my son for the milk that splashed on the table. I grabbed Jennifer’s juice glass and held it aloft as she mimicked her brother’s actions.
“Yay! Yippee! Uncle Johnny’s better!”
“That’s wonderful news,” I told my husband as I put Jenny’s glass back where it belonged, then grabbed a napkin to wipe Chris’s spill.
Roy held up a hand indicating caution.
“It is good news,” he acknowledged, “but keep in mind Johnny’s still pretty sick.”
“But he’ll get better now, Daddy,” Jennifer said with firm conviction, “ ‘cause we prayed for him to.”
Roy didn’t reply to his daughter, but neither of the kids seemed to notice. For now they were feeling confident Uncle Johnny was on the road to recovery. Evidently Roy knew it was best not to upset them again, and like his children, have faith that Johnny would continue to improve over the next few days.
Roy ate, then said good-bye to the kids and gave them each a kiss on the top of the head. Jennifer tilted her face upwards causing her father to pick up a napkin and wipe away her orange juice moustache.
“Will you see Uncle Johnny today?”
“I hope to.”
“Good. When you do, ask him when we can have his party, okay?”
Roy gave Jenny’s ponytail a gentle tug. “Okay.”
I left the kids at the table while I walked Roy to the door. We kissed good-bye.
“Stay safe, and call me later,” I requested. “After you see Johnny.”
“I will,” Roy promised, understanding my desire for an update on Johnny’s condition sometime before the day ended.
I watched from the door until Roy had pulled out of the driveway. I locked the storm door, but left the big wooden door open so the late summer breeze would blow through the house. I turned to face the tasks that awaited me; dishes, laundry, and beds to be made. I thought of Johnny several times that day, but assumed no news was good news when I didn’t hear from Roy.
True to his word, Roy called with an update before the day was over. The kids and I had just finished eating supper when the phone rang. They were outside playing on the swing set, and I was putting dishes in the dishwasher.
I snatched the receiver up on the second ring. Roy greeted me with a “Hi, babe,” then apologized for not having called sooner. He said they’d been busy that day and had gone out on multiple runs.
“And Johnny?” I questioned. “Did you get to see him? How is he?”
I could hear the smile in Roy’s voice.
“One hundred percent better.”
I gave a heartfelt sigh. “I’m so glad.”
“And Doctor Brackett?”
“He’s doing great. He’ll probably be released on Wednesday or Thursday. I’d say Johnny will get out a day or two after that if he continues to improve at the rate he is.”
“How long will he be off work?”
“Doctor Early said a week or two provided he rests and follows doctor’s orders.”
It was hard to believe that Johnny could have been so ill just twenty-four hours earlier, and now Doctor Early was predicting he’d return to work in a week or two. An example of the wonders of modern medical science at work, I suppose.
“Let Johnny know we’ll give him any help he needs once he’s home. Grocery shopping. Laundry. And I can cook up a few meals for him and stick them in his fridge.”
“I’ll tell him. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it. You know how much he loves your cooking.”
I chuckled. “Sweetheart, Johnny loves anybody’s cooking provided it’s not his own.”
Roy laughed in return. “You’re right about that.”
I don’t remember what else we talked about that night. I suppose I told him about my day and he shared a few things about his, as was normal when Roy called home each evening he worked. When our conversation was finished, I stood at the patio doors and called the kids in. They each spoke to their father for a minute, and the first question they both asked him was, “How’s Uncle Johnny?”
After final “Good-byes” and “I love you’s” were said to Daddy, the kids dashed out the door again. I said a final “I love you,” and “Good-bye” to my husband then as well.
I heard Roy’s “I love you,” in return. I hung up the phone and turned to look at the calendar. It was August 31st. I lifted the page so I could see the month of September laid out before me. Roy’s work schedule was recorded with red pen. I looked for printing in a Saturday square that would indicate the A-shift was off. For some reason I was suddenly in the mood for a party. When I found a suitable square that I thought was far enough into the month that Johnny would be back on his feet I grabbed a pen from the drawer and wrote; Johnny’s Birthday Party.
And I planned on letting Mr. Gage know this was one party I wasn’t canceling.
On Saturday, September 26th, almost one month after Johnny’s real birthday, we held his party. My backyard was filled with adults and children, including Doctors Early and Brackett. They hadn’t been on our original invitation list, in large part because I didn’t know either of them well at that time, and couldn’t imagine two esteemed physicians, who made five times the salary my husband did, wanting to attend a gathering at our humble home. Roy assured me I had both men pegged wrong when he had suggested we invite them and I voiced my concerns. I was glad I listened to him. Joe Early was an easy-going entertaining man who always had a funny story to tell, while Kelly Brackett possessed a very sharp wit I hadn’t known existed. The few times I’d seen Doctor Brackett he’d been so serious, and almost always frowning over something. But away from the stress the hospital brought him Doctor Brackett was a different man to a large degree. He bantered back and forth with Johnny about their time together spent sharing a room at Rampart, and proved to be a good athlete when the guys got a volleyball game underway.
The men were good sports about not disappointing Jennifer when she insisted upon a round of musical chairs, followed by pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Actually, I think the guys got a kick out of participating in games they hadn’t played since they were children. Johnny made a big deal over all Jennifer’s plans, which had my little girl beaming from ear to ear at the man who truly was her favorite uncle.
We had three picnic tables lined up end to end in the backyard. One was ours, the other two we’d borrowed from neighbors. After a meal of hamburgers and hot dogs cooked on the grill with all the trimmings, from potato salad to Jello, Dixie and I carried the cakes out. Yes, there was one banana and one chocolate.
“You like chocolate best, Uncle Johnny, don’t you?” Jennifer asked from her place on John’s left at the picnic table.
“No, he likes banana best,” Chris insisted from his seat on Johnny’s right.
Johnny was quick to end the argument.
“I like both chocolate and banana the same. They’re both my favorites. I’ll eat a piece of each.”
“Thank you,” I mouthed.
Johnny winked at me; his silent way of saying, “You’re welcome.”
To please the children we had stuck twenty-five candles on both cakes. Once the cake pans were set in front of Johnny, Roy and Hank Stanley lit those fifty candles, then we sang a lively round of happy birthday.
“Holy cow, Gage,” Chet said when all the candles were glowing. “I’m not even sure you’re full of enough hot air to blow all those babies out.”
“I’m not,” Johnny grinned at his foe. “The kids can help me.”
That’s all the children needed to hear. Chris and Jennifer, along with Mike Stoker’s children, crowded around Johnny. Even Hank Stanley’s two teenage daughters got in on the fun. Johnny counted to three. On “Three!” John and the kids blew. With all his helpers, Johnny got every candle out.
I handed Johnny the first plate of cake. I put one piece of chocolate and one piece of banana on it, and like he had told the kids he would, John ate both of them.
Right in the middle of eating her own piece of cake, Jennifer looked up at Johnny and smiled.
“Know what, Uncle Johnny?”
“No, Jenny Bean. What?”
“Daddy loves you as much as me, and Chris, and Mommy, and Callie do.”
Jennifer’s declaration caused half the firefighters in attendance to choke on their dessert. Roy’s ears turned bright red, and I’m not sure if Johnny knew whether to blush or laugh. Which is probably why he did a bit of both.
“Hey DeSoto! Gage!” Chet shouted from where he was sitting at the far end of one of the tables. “You two got something you need to tell the rest of us? Is something going on in that squad we don’t know about?”
“Don’t be mean to Daddy and Uncle Johnny, Chet” Jennifer scolded. “Friends can love each other you know. My mommy said so.”
My strong-willed four-year-old managed to do what few others could – shut Chet Kelly up. Jennifer turned her attention back to Johnny.
“Daddy was worried when you were sick, Uncle Johnny. That’s how come I know he loves you.”
At this point both Johnny and Roy simply wanted to get Jennifer off this subject. Not that Johnny wasn’t touched by Roy’s concern I’m sure, but still, this was not exactly a topic a couple of macho firefighter/paramedics wanted to discuss. And certainly not in front of an audience.
“Your daddy loves me as much as Callie does, huh?” Johnny asked.
“Well, considering Callie hisses at me and sticks her claws in my chest every time I pick her up, I’d say Chet doesn’t have to worry about what’s going on in the squad. What do you think?”
Of course Jennifer hadn’t understood what Chet meant by his remarks, nor what Johnny meant either, but she dutifully shook her head.
The conversation shifted direction then, much to the relief of Roy and Johnny. Thirty minutes later, the backyard had been cleaned of paper plates, napkins, food, empty soda cans and beer bottles. Mike and Hank carried the borrowed picnic tables back to their owners for me. The men played a round of lawn darts in the front yard, the kids scampered across the backyard playing tag. I invited Hank’s girls to watch TV in the living room, then went out to the deck where the other women sat talking while keeping an eye on the children.
By ten o’clock, everyone was saying their good-byes and heading for home. Jennifer had fallen asleep in my arms as I sat in a lawn chair on the deck. She never woke up as Roy carried her into the house, laid her on her bed, and covered her with a blanket he pulled from her closet shelf.
The last of the cars had pulled away from the curb, save for Johnny’s Land Rover, when I entered the living room. I had just finished overseeing Chris washing his hands and face and brushing his teeth. I’d left him with instructions to get his pajamas on and get in bed. I knew by the time I entered his room he’d be sound asleep just like his sister was.
I stood at the storm door, listening as the men’s conversation drifted in on the gentle night breeze. Johnny was giving Roy a hard time about Jennifer’s comments.
“So, you really love me, huh, Pally?”
“Don’t bet on it, Junior. Like my wife, my daughter is overly sentimental when it comes to her observations of the world around her.”
Johnny laughed, then sobered.
“Hey, thanks for the party. It really meant a lot to me. And tell Joanne thanks again for me, too.”
Although it was too dark for me to see either John or Roy clearly, I could picture Johnny’s eyes dropping to the ground and his right foot scuffing idly against the pavement.
“And uh. . .thanks for being there for me when I was at Rampart. Coming to see me and all. I. . .I
uh. . .I appreciate it. It made things. . .easier, you know?”
“So anyway. . .uh. . .thanks.”
“You’d do the same for me, but you’re welcome.”
Johnny must have turned for his vehicle then because I heard him say, “See ya’ Monday.”
“Yeah, see you Monday.”
Johnny passed beneath the streetlight and I saw him get in the Land Rover. Before he closed the door Roy beckoned.
Johnny chuckled at the way it was difficult for my husband to openly express any sentiment; even one as simple as happy birthday. It had been almost a month since Johnny had turned twenty-five, and by John’s reaction, I surmised this was the first time Roy had wished him a happy birthday.
I caught the shadow of Roy’s right hand as he raised it to wave good-bye. The Land Rover pulled away from the curb and soon disappeared into the night.
Roy watched until he could no longer see the red specks of the truck’s taillights. He entered the house, putting an arm around my shoulders as he shut and locked the front door. As we walked together to tuck our son in, I felt the contentment in my husband’s grasp. As I had told the children over a month ago now, there are many different forms of love, not just ‘mushy Mommy and Daddy love.’ And sometimes, one of the most special forms of love that exists is a love born from friendship. Even if two macho firemen I know will never admit to that.
*Thank you to my good friend, Debbie, for the beta read.
*As always, this story is dedicated to my readers, the best group of people a woman could hope to know.