Trials and Tribulations
Roger leaned forward from the backseat of our SUV and patted JT on the shoulder. "You all really kicked butt tonight!"
"Yeah, I guess we did," JT answered with a half-smile.
"You had a pretty good game yourself." Roger said with his voice still filled with the excitement of the big win.
"Yeah." JT's face flushed. "I tried too. I mean..." He glanced at Dad and then dropped his chin to his chest. "I wanted to make Ma and Pa proud - mostly Ma."
I could feel the emotions building in him, and I wanted to let him know that we were on his side and understood. So, in a gentle tone I said, "JT, there is no doubt in my mind that your mom is very proud of you and not just because of football either."
"Andy's right son. I'm proud of you, too." Dad said, lightly touching his shoulder.
"We all are, JT." Joey added with an understanding nod.
JT turned and studied each of our faces for a second. "You know," he began, then glance down. When he brought his head back up, he had a more relaxed expression, and unashamedly allowed us to see a single tear escaped his eye, "I believe you."
That's the first time I've ever seen JT show that side of himself. My heart broke for him with the loss of both parents, but I was happy for him at the same time. I was happy for him because it seemed he finally realized that dad and I meant what we said about him being a part of the family now.
Saturday was clearly hard on JT, but it appeared to me his spirit was lifted with a large showing of the football team that evening at the funeral home. I may be wrong, but I think every member of the team made an appearance, including the coaches. The only letdown for me, was I don't think a single member of JT's family stopped by. You would have thought, at least the ones who lived nearby, could have came by to offer some support. He had to have noticed, but he never mentioned it to any of us.
When I answered the front door Sunday afternoon, there stood Roger with Joey slightly behind him. It was Joey I focused on, completely ignoring Roger. So help me, every time I saw Joey my heart skips a beat and this afternoon was no different.
Roger ran his hand through his hair, cleared his throat, and asked, "Is everyone ready?"
Without taking my eyes off Joey, I nodded and invited them in. As I closed the front door behind them, I answered, "Yeah, I think JT is in his bedroom going over some notes my dad helped him with."
Joey smiled. "Hi Andy."
"Hey babe." I glanced back down the hallway for Dad. Not seeing him, I gave Joey a quick kiss on the lips and then gestured for them to join me in the living room, while we waited for Dad and JT.
Just as we sat down, Dad walked by the living room and waved for me to join him in the dining room.
"I'll be right back guys. Let me see what Dad wants." I told them, as I stood to find out what was up with Dad.
Dad placed a hand on my shoulder. "Would you check on JT for me, son.?"
I just gave Dad that look that says, are you kidding me? Why?
Seeing my look, "Andy, I think he needs a brother right now, not an adult."
"Sure, Dad." I nodded and headed for JT's room.
I started to knock on his door, but I hesitated, because I could clearly hear sobs coming from within JT's room.
The finality of it all had finally hit JT, and hit him hard. Today he would never see his parents again, except in photographs. He feared their voices would also fade from his memories. His mother's smile, his father's laugh, would be lost to him forever. He was alone now. No family. He was so unsure about his future. Everything was in flux. How could he ever pay for college? Even if he received a full scholarship, he would still need money, a car. It seemed kind of hopeless to him at the moment.
A soft knock on the door brought him back to the present.
"Come in." JT said, wiping the tears from his face.
When I walked in, JT quickly glanced up at me and raised his hand, and stopped me before I could say anything. "Please don't. Everything's okay."
"No it's not, JT. You've lost both of your parents and we're burying them today. There's nothing alright with that, but you'll get through it, in time." I said as I sat down beside him on his bed.
"Yeah." he said with his voice full of sadness.
"It took awhile, but the pain does dull. It doesn't go away completely. I mean, I still miss my mom. Yet, I know she would want me to go on and live life to its fullest, and I intend to." I said, placing an arm around his shoulder.
Andy's arm, words, and presence reminded JT, he wasn't alone. He had a new family, one who cared, like his mother. He remembered back to when he was eight and his best friend Buster, a seven year old collie, was killed when it was hit by a truck. It was his Ma that helped him through it. She even help him bury Buster and they held a little funeral for him. Andy was here now trying to help him through this, just like his Ma. As he turned his head to meet Andy's eyes, with a small smile and a nod, he accepted his lot in life and started to believe everything could eventually be better.
Just because JT accepted his lot didn't mean he wasn't overflowing with emotions. He walked into the church with his head down, not looking at anyone, his face expressionless. His appearance was sharp, but that was all Andy's doing. Before they left home, Andy helped comb his hair, tied his tie for him, and made sure he wore the clothes the judge bought him the day before. JT seemed disinterested in how he looked, so Andy took it upon himself to help JT through this, not unlike how Roger had helped him a few years before.
"I've never been to a funeral before," JT began as he stood before the large crowd gathered at the church, "so, I was unsure what exactly I was suppose to say, but Judge Collins assured me that whatever felt right to me, was okay. So," he half smiled at the judge, "if I say anything wrong, you can blame him." He knew he had the desired effect after he heard chuckles and saw smiles spread across most everyone's face. He gripped the note cards with his trembling hands and shuffled his feet; but the smiles directed at him from around the church helped calm him a little.
JT lowered his eyes to the two caskets in front of him. "I don't know why my Ma and Pa were taken from me, but over the last few days, a friend of mine taught me to cherish the time I was lucky enough to have with them." He glanced up at me and I nodded.
Still nervous, he scanned the faces of the surprisingly large crowd gathered for the funeral. At that moment, he understood they were there to support him, and he didn't need prepared remarks for anything more than a guide. He could speak from the heart.
"From the beginning, Ma was the one person I knew I could always count on. No matter what I did, right or wrong, I knew she loved me. She would defend me, protect me, and give me her love unconditionally. Don't get me wrong, if I had done something wrong, her disapproving look would hurt me much more than a whopping from Pa..."
Being at JT's parent's funeral brought back a lot of sad memories. Not only Mom's funeral, but my grandparent's as well. I was feeling the loss of my mother as much as ever. So I kind of knew what JT was going through, but he had lost both parents and I still had my dad. Hopefully, our growing family could help JT to feel like he belonged.
It was then that I noticed how the sun shone through the stained glass window made JT appear like he was receiving a blessing from heaven. I don't know if it was truly a sign from God or not, but I decided to believe it was a sign something good was going to come from the horrible tragedy taking his parents from him.
Sitting outside the church in an old, beat-up, rusty, Ford truck were two men not there to offer their support to JT, in any way. They watched as everyone began to leave the church and make their way to their vehicles. They particularly kept a close eye on JT, as he and the Collins family entered the large black limousine.
Thinking they had been unobserved, the driver pulled the old Ford truck in behind the last car of funeral procession and followed it to the graveyard.
After Pastor Irwin finished the grave site service, I stood with Dad, Joey, Roger, and Cody, and watched JT say his final goodbyes to his parents. It was heart wrenching when he fell to his knees and kissed his Mom's casket. I had to briefly turn away to keep from falling apart myself. Dad placed a hand on my shoulder and I felt Joey pat me on the other shoulder and whisper he was going to help JT.
Joey walked over, knelt beside him, quietly spoke to him, and then slipped his arm around his old nemesis. Slowly, Joey helped him to his feet and began to lead him to the car, but not before JT reached out and patted his Dad's casket as they pass by it.
The rest of us followed with Cody on Dad's left, me on his right, and Roger beside me. Dad had his arms around both Cody and me. I couldn't tell you how much that comforted me. I'm sure it helped Cody as well.
The driver of the car company Dad rented the car from opened the door for Joey and JT. They both got into the car, and then Cody, Roger and myself sat in the large back seat. Dad motioned for the driver to close the door and walked over to someone I hadn't seen before, but it really didn't register with me as my eyes searched for JT to see how he was doing.
The tears still flowed as he tried to pull himself together. I scooted up in the seat so I could reach him and placed a hand on his knee. He raised his head to look me in the eye. I felt his hand cover mine and he squeezed it. I nodded and he seemed to gather some strength as he took a deep breath.
I heard a quiet sniffle and turned to see that Cody was fighting to control his emotions as well. I leaned back and placed my arm around him. When I did, he leaned into me and rested his head on my chest.
"Thanks Andy." Cody said barely above a whisper. Unable to speak, I nodded my acknowledgement.
A few minutes later Dad joined us in the car. He placed a hand on JT's shoulder and asked, "Are you okay, son?"
JT nodded. "Yes sir. I think I'm ready to move on with the rest of my life with my new family."
Dad smiled and motioned to the limo driver and we started the ride back home. When we arrived home, Dad asked us to wait a second before we all disappeared in the house.
"I want everyone in the living room before you head to your rooms. I need to have a word with you first." Dad said glancing at each of us. We all nodded and then he waved us all inside as he exited the car and walked over to the driver and tipped him.
Unbeknownst to the boys, the judge had hired a private company out of Louisville to keep an eye on the boys for their protection. The judge respected most of the law enforcement in the area, but he knew they didn't have the manpower to watch over five teenage boys twenty-four hours a day.
Before they had even left the graveyard, one of the new bodyguards, Tyler Firestone, told the judge about the Ford truck and the occupant's strange behavior. When Tyler discreetly pointed out the truck, Judge Collins immediately recognized the truck and everything started to fall into place for him.
"Keep an eye on that truck, Tyler. Those men are dangerous, so be careful." Judge Collins told him in his no nonsense voice, the judge was famous for. "I think it time I had a serious talk with the boys and see if what I suspect is correct."