The slender, almost four-year-old bundled in an oversized coat against the late-November wind, held his caseworker’s hand tightly as he craned his head to look up at the tall building in a part of the city he had never seen. The sunlight was already failing in the early evening. He was afraid; he was almost always afraid. The feeling was no change from normal. He had no control over his world, having lived in a series of foster homes for all his three-and-a-half years. One thing he had learned was how he needed to avoid upsetting the adults and other children with whom he had lived.
Most of his homes had been group homes, some with fine, older couples trying to make a difference and some, like the one in which he now lived, with couples earning a living from the state stipends. He had no hope that this placement would be any different, except that it would be with two men he had met only briefly. They had been kind and hadn’t frightened him at their two brief meetings ahead of this living-together trial; at least, no other children would complicate the picture.
The caseworker, who carried a plastic garbage bag containing the boy’s few clothes and possessions, stopped at the glass doors of the building’s entrance. The two men with whom the boy would stay, at least for a while, were waiting on the other side. They opened the doors and first greeted the caseworker before ushering her and the boy inside to the lobby, where they both dropped to their knees and, smiling with genuine pleasure, said hello to James. They made no attempt to touch him because he looked as many children look who are used to fear and can’t influence what happens to them. But one of them said, “Welcome to your new home.”
One of the men took the plastic garbage bag from the caseworker. The boy was almost hiding behind the woman as they walked to the elevators in the lobby. The elevator doors were shiny metal, and the boy could see himself and the others in reflection. One of the men pushed a button to summon one of the two elevators. When it arrived and its doors opened, the boy’s fear dropped away momentarily as he examined the elevator compartment. He’d never been in an elevator, and he watched one of the men insert a key into a panel with numbered buttons and turn it. The elevator had recessed lighting, and the boy worked out where the light must be coming from. He didn’t see the men watching his reaction and smiling at one another. The elevator began an almost-noiseless ride, and the boy could feel himself gently pressed toward the floor as it started up—but not enough to frighten him any more than he already was. The elevator stopped, and they all stepped out into a short hallway with only one door at its end.
“Here we are,” one of the men said as he used another key to open the condo door. He held it open as the other crossed the threshold, and the caseworker guided the boy inside. The room astonished and spoke to the boy as his eyes darted around. Paintings and photographs covered the walls. He wouldn’t see as large a collection until he later visited museums with the two men. Across the room, glass doors led to a lighted balcony, and the boy could see that they were up high, away from the street. The living room had no TV, and he wondered how he would spend his days if he could not park in front of a television. And there were books everywhere—on tabletops and in shelves. He could see hallways, leading where he could not see. The large room in which they stood had a dining area with a large table. Beyond was a passthrough from the kitchen in which he could see gleaming, silvery appliances. He felt warm and fidgeted in his coat.
One of the men came to him and asked, “Would you like to take off your coat? It’s nice and warm here.”
The boy shrugged off his coat, and the man, whose name he remembered because it was the same as his own, helped him, tossing the coat onto one of the sofas in the living room. The boy eyed where the coat landed in case he needed it later. The man kneeled so that he and the boy were on nearly the same level and asked, “Do you remember our names?”
The boy shrugged but said nothing.“I’m Jim and he’s Tom,” as he pointed to the other man. The boy nodded. “We have to talk with Ms. Hartman. Do you want to sit with us, or would you rather stay in here and draw or look around?”
The boy saw that lying on one of the low tables were large sheets of paper and colored sticks that weren’t crayons but looked a little like crayons. Without answering, the boy went to the table and began to examine the sticks.
Jim said, “If you get tired of drawing, come over to the table.” The man indicated the dining-room table with his eyes. When the boy continued his silence, Jim stood and walked to the table, where Tom and Mrs. Hartman were looking over some papers. They patiently reviewed the paperwork for the foster placement, including the state-subsidy forms. Jim and Tom had already agreed to place whatever funds they received from the state in a savings account for the boy. When they had reviewed all the paperwork, Mrs. Hartman relaxed a bit.
“I was afraid you might have changed your mind.”
Tom was surprised and asked, “What would make you think that?”
“He’s not very talkative. For a while we wondered if he might have …”
“Developmental disability? Is that the correct phrase now?”
“Yes. But we think his intelligence is normal.”
“Did you see what he did when he first got in the elevator?”
“No. I’m not sure what you mean.”
“He was figuring things out—the lighting and the feelings of movement. We think he’s bright.”
“Well, I hope you won’t be disappointed.” But she didn’t sound hopeful.
Mrs. Hartman gathered the papers and stowed them in her bag before walking to her charge as he drew at the table in the living area. She was surprised to see a reasonable facsimile, for a three-year-old, of the table and the three adults. “James, I’m leaving you with your foster fathers now. I’ll check in on you next week.”
The boy nodded and went back to drawing. With Mrs. Hartman out the door, Jim and Tom walked over to the boy. Since he had the same first name as one of them, the men had decided to try to call their foster son by another name. Tom asked the boy, who was still busily drawing with the pastel sticks, “Would you mind if we called you by your middle name?” He continued, pointing to Jim, “We think it might be confusing to call you Jim because his name’s Jim also.”
The boy looked up from the paper and shrugged. Jim said, “We could try it for a while, and if you don’t like it, we’ll figure something else out. You get to decide.”
The boy stopped drawing and looked carefully at the men. No one had ever asked him about things like this, and he nodded.
“Would you like to see your room and put your things away?” Tom asked.
The boy scanned the living room until he located the plastic bag containing his clothes and a book he had been given. He walked over and took the large bag by the end where the opening had been tied in a knot. His foster fathers followed and pointed to one of the hallways.
Tom asked, “Can you handle the bag, or would you like Jim or me to carry it?”
For the first time since his arrival at the condo high over the Willamette River, the boy spoke. “Me.”
As he dragged his bag along the floor because it was a bit too big for him to shoulder, Tom stopped and pointed to a group of switches on a panel at the beginning of the hallway. “The first one is the hall light. Turn it on whenever you want.”
The boy released his grip on the bag and stepped over to where Tom was standing. He had never seen light switches like these. Instead of the switches he had seen before with a lever that could be flipped up or down, James North Martin saw three wide, rocker switches that he had no idea how to operate. He reached up and began to touch the first switch. When he pressed on the top part of the switch, it rocked in and the hall light came on. After a couple of tries, he pushed on the bottom of the switch, which rocked in and turned the light off. The boy happily turned the light on and off a few times before leaving it on. He suddenly looked up at Jim and Tom as if they might scold him, but he saw smiles on their faces.
The boy grabbed his bag and waited until his foster fathers led him into the hallway. The men stopped and opened a door. “This is our room,” Tom said.
The boy leaned his head in and quickly looked into the room. In his other foster homes, the most important rule had been to stay out of the parents’ room. In fact, he had never seen some of his foster parents’ rooms. The room he saw now was larger than any bedroom he had seen before. He saw floor-to-ceiling bookcases against one wall and a computer screen and keyboard on a table against another wall. He quickly pulled his head back, waiting for a rebuke, which never came. He dragged his bag slowly down the hall to another door, which was thrown open by Jim. “This is your room… North.” The boy was startled by the use of a new name, but he liked it.
The lighting, which was recessed at the border of the walls and ceiling and cast a soft light onto the white ceiling, was already on in his room. He had never slept in a room that was his alone. He saw that it was larger than any of the rooms he had shared with two and sometimes three other children. He saw only one bed against the far wall, made of wood with a carved headboard. Against the opposite wall was a chest with five drawers made of the same sort of wood. On the same wall was a table made for someone his age, with a separate light on it, the same sort of lamp he saw on the table by the head of the bed. What attracted him most was the four-shelf bookcase on the wall next to the foot of the bed, two shelves already filled with books.
Tom and Jim walked to the chest, and both sat on the floor, beckoning North to come over. The boy dragged his bag with him, and Jim patted the floor between Tom and him. North seemed to think a moment and then sat on the floor with the bag in front of him. Tom said, “We weren’t sure what clothes you had, so we got a few things to tide you over. We’ll go shopping in a couple of days.”
Tom then pulled open the bottom drawer. “Pajamas here.” Then he pulled two other drawers out, pointing out underwear, T-shirts, and pants. He pointed to a small stool by the chest. “You can put what you brought with you in the top drawers; they’re empty. Let us know if you don’t want to keep anything.
“Tom and I are going to fix a snack while you look around your room and put your things away.”
After Jim and Tom left the room, North, as he apparently would be known, tugged at the knot on his plastic bag until it opened. He took a few articles of worn clothing at a time and, climbing up on the stool, placed them in the top drawer, repeating the process until the bag was empty. He wasn’t attached to these clothes, but he’d keep them in case he had to leave again. When he had finished with his clothes, he took the worn book from the bag and placed it on the bed. He loved the drawings in the book that one of the older children from the home in which he had lived before the current one had read to him—Dr. Seuss. The book was old and had missing pages, but he loved what he knew of the story about fish of different colors.
North had never been left alone in a room in which he slept. He walked about, stopping to turn the lamp on the bedside table on and off. He lifted the comforter off the bed and looked at the pale-blue blanket and sheets on the mattress and the plump pillow. He ran his hand over the light blanket and smiled. He almost jumped up on the bed and burrowed into the comforter and blanket, but instead he smoothed the bedding so that his foster fathers wouldn’t know he had disturbed it.
Then, he went to the bookcase and began looking at the spines of the books on the two filled shelves. His breath caught when he recognized the spine of one of the books. He ran to the door and looked out to see if the men were near. He heard their distant voices, but not seeing them, he ran back and gently pulled the book from the shelf. The colors on the book’s cover were bright and clean. He gently opened the book, and the same was true of the pages, which he carefully turned. He saw pages he hadn’t seen before—pages that had been torn from his old copy. He thought for a moment; they wouldn’t miss this slim book that he loved, one of many on the shelf. He went back to his bed, picked up the old copy and put it on the shelf where the newer one had been.
He put the new book in his now-empty plastic bag and looked for a place to hide it because he thought he might need it again soon. He decided to put it under his bed and tucked it in under the dust ruffle so that it couldn’t be seen. In the wall opposite the bed, North saw doors, but not doors like the one to his room. He decided not to try to use them. Finally, he couldn’t resist and wandered back to his bed. He jumped up and settled onto his back; the bed was so soft, and yet he didn’t sink deeply into it.
“You okay, North?”
The voice was coming closer, and the boy rolled quickly off the bed and tried to straighten the comforter. Jim stuck his head in the door and seeing the attempted repair said, “Hope the bed is comfortable. After you try it for a night or two, let us know if you need to change anything about it.”
North nodded, surprised that he hadn’t been upbraided.
“Come see your bathroom.”
North followed Jim out of his room and directly across the hall to where, once the light was on, he saw a very clean bathroom with a sink in a pale-green vanity with a large mirror on the wall behind it. Beside the vanity was a toilet, and on the far wall was a set of racks with fluffy dark-green towels of various sizes. To the left was a shower and tub combination with translucent, sliding doors instead of the shower curtains he was used to. On the surface of the vanity, North saw a cup, a soap dish, and a toothbrush holder. To the right of the vanity was a small cabinet. What fascinated North was the tile that covered both the walls and the floor. They formed an odd checkerboard of colors, from greens to light browns and rusty reds.
Jim said, “There’s a toothbrush and floss for you. We don’t know if you prefer showers or baths, but you can do either.”
North had never used a shower, and in his previous home, he had only hurried baths, which he took to take care of himself two or three times a week. He saw in front of the toilet another small stool which would make it easier for him to pee, he thought. He liked the room; it felt bright, happy, and welcoming.
“Ms. Hartman said you took baths by yourself and that you had no problem brushing and flossing with picks.”
North nodded. No one at the group home checked to see that he had brushed his teeth, so, although he knew how, sometimes he skipped.
“Come out and have a snack with us before bed.”
North, his head only at Jim’s waist level, followed Jim out of his bathroom and down the hall. When they reached the living area, Jim smiled as North turned off the hall light. On the passthrough from the kitchen to the dining area, Tom had set out a plate of oatmeal cookies. He boosted North up to a seat on one of the tall stools at the passthrough. “Milk or apple juice?”
North seemed confused until Tom came out of the kitchen with short glasses of each. That North might never have tasted apple juice dawned on Tom. North waited until the men each took a cookie and began to eat and talk in turn. Jim pushed the plate of cookies toward the boy, who finally took one. He took a small bite and carefully chewed the cookie. North had never had homemade cookies, and the taste and texture, both soft and crunchy, pleased him. As the men talked between bites of cookie, North took a sip of apple juice and smiled.
“I have to go to work in the morning, but Tom will be here all day with you. I’ll be home earlier than usual so that we can go out shopping.”
North realized that Jim was talking to him and nodded. The foster parents in his previous homes didn’t go to work; the homes were their work, and North wondered where Jim worked, but didn’t ask.
Tom said, “Jim wanted to be home all day with us, but one of his patients is very sick, and he needs to look after him.” Sensing North’s confusion, Tom added, “Jim’s a doctor; he works at a big teaching hospital.”
Through the passthrough, North noticed two metal bowls on the kitchen floor but didn’t ask why they were there. While he finished his cookie and drank apple juice, North watched and listened to his new foster fathers as they talked. Occasionally, the men’s hands would touch, and something, perhaps tenderness, in how they were with each other began to ease his fears. Then, as the men talked about a book Tom was writing, Jim put his hand on North’s forearm. The gesture was as natural as the contact between the men, and North began to hope that he would be able to stay with them.
After a half hour, Tom asked, “Snack all right?”
North nodded, and Tom said, “Let’s get you ready for bed.”
He held out his arms to the boy who let the man pick him up and carry him to his bedroom. North rested his head on Tom’s shoulder and put his arm around Tom’s back. He almost fell asleep on the short walk down the hall, and Tom felt the boy relax into him. This will work, Tom thought.
In North’s room, Tom sat on the bed, and North started a bit from his drowse.
“What PJs do you want to wear?”
North shrugged, and Tom stood him on the floor before walking to the chest, where he opened the drawer with pajamas. North followed him over and looked into the drawer.
“You have these with feet in them. They’ll keep you warm and toasty.” He looked at his new son and waited. Finally, North shrugged. Tom took the pajamas and suggested, “How about you take a nice warm bath and brush your teeth? Then you can change into the PJs. When you’re ready, we’ll read a bedtime story to you.”
Again, North shrugged, but he followed Tom into his bathroom and waited while Tom filled the tub with warm water. Without a thought, North began to peel out of his clothing.
“When you’re through in here, put your dirty clothes in the hamper,” Tom said pointing to something like a tall basket near the door. It had a cloth cover with a wood rod on the side where it could be lifted.
“Would you like me to help you wash your hair?”
Again, a nod.
When the boy had undressed and placed his dirty clothes in the hamper, Tom lifted him into the tub and sat on the bath mat beside the tub. The water was of perfect temperature, and Tom, reaching for a hand-held showerhead, said, “I’m going to use the spray to wet your hair.”
North had never had anyone wash his hair, and he closed his eyes. He felt Tom ease his head back, and he stiffened a bit. He felt the gentle spray on his hair and scalp.
He relaxed until his hair was thoroughly wetted. “Hand me that bottle of shampoo,” Tom said. “It’s the white one.” North scooted forward, his bottom squeaking on the tub surface, until he could reach the back of the ledge surrounding the tub with the bottle that must be what Tom had called shampoo. He didn’t use shampoo when he washed his hair—only the same soap he used everywhere else. He handed the bottle to Tom who squeezed a little shampoo onto his palm and then asked North to turn to face the wall. North felt Tom’s hands distributing the shampoo in his hair and gently washing it.
While he was washing North’s hair, Tom said, “Think about what story you’d like to hear when we’re through in the bathroom.” North didn’t think very clearly, and knew that he’d ask for One fish, two fish. Tom rinsed North’s hair and repeated the process with conditioner.
“Think about whether or not you’d like a haircut.” North shook his head. “That’s fine, but maybe a trim. I’ll leave you to finish, if that’s okay.” The boy nodded. When Tom had closed the door behind him, North splashed in the tub a bit and then found the bar of soap and washed himself as he had been taught, although he couldn’t remember exactly when he had learned. When he had finished, he stood in the tub and then stepped onto the bathmat. He pulled one of the towels from the rack and dried himself, his hair last. He picked up the pajamas from the closed toilet seat and sat down on it to pull the pajamas on. He liked the feeling of the pajama feet over his own. He moved to the stool in front of the vanity and picked up the new toothbrush from a glazed ceramic cup with slots along its top edge and brushed his teeth carefully, spitting into the sink and rinsing with water from the plastic cup beside the sink. He wiped up as best he could, then opened the door and walked across the hall to his room.
North found the comforter and blanket on the bed turned down in what seemed to him an invitation. He hopped up and slid his feet and legs under the top sheet and laid his head on the pillow. As he looked up at the ceiling, North began to feel attached to this place and these men. The fear that he might have to leave this place was replacing the fear he had felt when he came to this new home earlier in the evening. He was tired and began to relax toward sleepiness when Tom and Jim came into the room.
“Great job on the bath. Got your teeth brushed?” North nodded. “Let’s see.”
The boy sat up in the bed and opened his mouth. No one had looked at his teeth before. Jim looked into his mouth before saying, “Pretty good job. We’ll practice together for the next few days. How about I read a story?”
North nodded vigorously.
Tom went to the bookshelf, and North’s breathing quickened. But Tom returned with a smaller book than the one North had switched. When Tom had settled on the floor next to the bed, he began, “In a secluded and mountainous part of Stiria there was in old time a valley of the most surprising and luxuriant fertility. It was surrounded on all sides by steep and rocky mountains rising into peaks which were always covered with snow and from which a number of torrents descended in constant cataracts.”
Jim, sitting on the foot of the bed seeing confusion on North’s face, interrupted Tom, “A torrent is fast moving river, and a cataract is a big waterfall. We’ll take you to see some big waterfalls near Portland.”
Tom continued, “One of these fell westward over the face of a crag so high that when the sun had set to everything else, and all below was darkness, his beams still shone full upon this waterfall, so that it looked like a shower of gold. It was therefore called by the people of the neighborhood the Golden River.”
As he approached the end of the first chapter, Tom saw that North’s eyelids were almost closed. Both men tucked North in and kissed him on the forehead. Jim asked, “You remember where our room is—just up the hall?” North nodded. “If you need us for anything, or if you wake up and are scared, you come get one of us, okay?” Again, North nodded. After the men turned the light out, a soft glow by the doorway remained. “Is the night light okay? We can turn it off, if you want.”
“No. Leave it on, please.”
Both men said, “Good night, son. See you in the morning.” North was already asleep in his new bed in his new room in his new home.
North awoke in the night and went to his bathroom to pee. The nightlight made finding his way back to his room easy, and as he climbed back into bed, he first thought of the evening and the story of Gluck and the Golden River. Then, old doubts surfaced, and he wondered if he would be here long enough to hear the story’s end. He stared at the ceiling for what seemed to him a long time, and in the morning, he couldn’t remember when he had fallen asleep. The more he became attached to his new fathers, the more he feared he would make an awful mistake that would let them see him as he really was—not worth their love.
In the morning, after breakfast, North asked Tom if he would read more of the Golden River. Jim had left the condo long before North had awakened and was at the hospital for rounds. Tom smiled, and said, “Sure. Brush your teeth and get dressed. Then, we’ll read another chapter.”
North’s first week in his new home seemed to him to rush by. Sometimes, he felt as if he had always been there, and other times he felt as if he were on some sort of probation even though his fathers never hinted that he was. Tom was around more than Jim, and one day Tom took North to the hospital of Oregon Health Sciences University, where Jim practiced and taught. They all had lunch in the cafeteria, where Jim introduced North as his son to everyone, or so it seemed to North, who only nodded to all the strangers. As North watched Jim with his colleagues, he was aware that they all respected and liked his new father.
The beginning and ending of North’s days fell into a comforting routine, and the middle of his days were full of adventure—shopping, walking by the river, and helping Tom with household chores. At bedtime, during that first week, Jim and Tom took turns reading from the book that North would always treasure. North could see characteristics of the hero, Gluck, and his brothers, known as the Black Brothers, and of the Southwest Wind, Esquire, in people he knew.
North’s fears of having to leave his new home faded as his comfort grew. His new fathers didn’t lie and seemed to be inherently decent and loving. Then, at the beginning of his second week, North thought his new world would crumble.
At bedtime that night, Jim said, “We have a book I think you’ll enjoy.”
He walked to the bookshelf and pulled out a tattered book, which North immediately recognized as the one he had brought with him from the foster home. Looking at the ragged copy of the Seuss book, he asked Tom, “What happened to this book?”
North realized that they would discover that he had switched the books, and he began to cry, but very quietly.
Jim heard Tom ask, “What’s wrong, North?” He saw the tears running down the boy’s cheeks and walked back to the bed, and put his hand lightly on North’s shoulder.
Gulping and trying to stop the tears, North rolled out of his bed and reached under to pull the plastic bag out. He reached in and pulled the book out. Looking at the floor, he held the book out to the men. He knew they would ask him to leave.
“North,” Jim said, “Look at me.” The boy raised his head. “Does putting the book in your bag make you feel safer?” North nodded as Tom gave him Kleenex from the box on the bedside table. “Okay. We’ll keep this book in your bag until you feel safe putting it on the shelf.”
North smiled and the tears stopped. Jim held the bed covers back until North was in bed and snuggled up under them. Jim sat on the side of the bed beside North, and Tom sat on the floor, both facing the head of the bed, holding the book so North could see the pictures and began:One fish
Tom stopped reading, and Jim, pointing to Dr. Seuss’s picture of the sad fish, asked, “Do you think this fish is sad all the time?”
North, without thinking, said, “No. No one is sad all the time. Maybe he doesn’t have a home.”
Tom began to read again:
Not one of them
is like another . . .
And, so it went, with the men stopping occasionally to ask North a question. The boy said more in the half hour before bed than he had in the whole day before.
After the story ended, with Jim reading, he put the book back in the plastic bag, intending to put the bag back under the bed.
The small voice said, “You can put it on the shelf.”
Jim placed the book on a shelf in the bookcase.
* * * * *
Other than his discoveries about his new home and new fathers, the two highlights of his first weeks with Tom and Jim had been the appearance of Bear and his visit to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, OMSI, with Tom.
It was at the end of his first week with Jim and Tom. Jim came home at the end of a day, and he brought Bear with him. Tom had explained to North that they wanted him to be comfortable in his new home before they introduced him to Bear, an Irish Setter, though small for the breed. None of North’s previous homes had pets, and the dog proved a revelation to the boy. As soon as Bear was let off his leash, the dog ran toward North and skidded to a stop in front of him before beginning to lick his hands and face. North was ecstatic as he tried to control his own enthusiasm and the dog’s.
He learned how and when to feed Bear and began to make sure that the dog had water. He talked to the animal as if it were a human friend. Better than almost anything else about Bear’s presence was that the dog, without prompting, began to sleep on the floor of North’s room.
North had spent the better part of a day at OMSI playing in the Science Playground, building things at the Art of Science table. One of the other children sharing the table on North’s visit was a blond girl North’s age with whom he found a bond. Her name was Annie, and Tom had spoken with her parents to arrange a couple of play dates. Her parents had been unfazed by Tom’s clear explanation of his relationship with Jim and how North came to live with them.
The evening after North’s first visit to OMSI found Jim and Tom at the dining-room table conferring with a young woman. They had introduced her to North as Julie Steiner. While North looked over one of his books in the living room, Bear curled up by his feet, he didn’t pay much attention to the adults’ conversation.
“I don’t think this will be an insurmountable problem, but you will probably find resistance in some quarters,” Julie said.
They were talking about the adoption process for the boy. Oregon was a generally liberal, or at least libertarian, state, especially in the Portland area. Julie was a lawyer that Jim and Tom had met during their student years at the University of Washington, where Jim had finished medical school and Julie law school. Tom, after completing his Masters of Fine Arts, had started to write a series of fantasy books that were beginning to sell well.
“We want you to do whatever you need to do to make this happen. We’re not interested in a crusade. We’re interested in making a home for North and us,” Tom said.
“You’ll have to trust me. I’m only interested in accomplishing what you want. You three are my clients.”
“Next steps?” Jim asked.
“We file the application and let DHS do their thing. You’ve already started in a way because you have a foster-care license, and DHS knows you. It will be impossible to say that you’re qualified as foster parents but not to adopt. The home visits will continue for six months, you both will go to some training sessions, they’ll do a home study, Frank Gerard will weigh in, and last, a judge will finalize the adoption.”
“Okay. We’ll be patient. We don’t want the fact that we’re gay to get in the way,” Tom said.
“That possibility is why you pay me a raft of money,” Julie said with a smile. “But the law, since last year, is clear that you can adopt.”
After the discussion, Julie walked over to the couch where North was engrossed in his book. “North, thanks for giving me your fathers for the evening. You are a very handsome young man, and I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
North nodded. He wasn’t yet talkative with strangers.
* * * * *
To North, Christmas seemed a television event. He had no religious training, and the few presents he received in his foster homes were utilitarian, mostly second-hand clothing. He wasn’t consumed with the prospects for the holiday upcoming in a month, which to him was like any other day.
“I have to run out for a few minutes. No one should come to the door, but if they do, don’t let them in, okay?” North watched Tom put on his overcoat and grab his keys. He nodded at his father.
Very occasionally, Tom and Jim were allowing North to remain at home alone for five or ten minutes at a time so that North wouldn’t feel like an inmate. Usually, Tom went down to collect mail or a delivery. The first time he had been left alone, North had explored his fathers’ bedroom. He hadn’t opened drawers or disturbed items on their bureaus, but he had looked closely at the photographs of his fathers, some when they were younger and some of each of them alone. But most of the pictures were of them together, and in them they were always smiling or laughing with their arms about one another. The photographs comforted the boy.
This day, when Tom left the condo, North ran to the pile of Bear’s toys and picked up the dog’s favorite stuffed animal, a green lion. He called Bear, and he and the dog began to play. They rolled around on the floor a bit, having a tug of war over the toy as North giggled. Then North tried what he had seen Jim do now and then: he threw the toy so that Bear could run it down and return it.
His coordination wasn’t developed, and on his second toss, the toy lion came close to knocking over a lamp on one of the end tables in the living-room. North was relieved to see it miss for only a couple of seconds because Bear, in his enthusiasm for the chase, bumped the table. The lamp teetered and fell to the hardwood floor. The lamp’s base was hammered brass and suffered a deep dent from its contact with the floor.
“Bear!” North shouted, and his dog turned and scrambled back to sit in front of the boy, looking up innocently.
North began to shake as his new world seemed to crumble about him. Without thinking, he ran to his room, reached under his bed to retrieve the black garbage bag, and hid in the corner of his closet, where he tried to think about what he should do. Switching a book was one thing, but damaging furniture was another, and he felt deep fear and sorrow at disappointing Jim and Tom. He would understand if they wanted him gone, although his stomach ached at the possibility as he waited in the dark of the closet.
When Tom returned, carrying the mail, he didn’t hear North or Bear, and then in the living-room, he found the lamp on the floor. His pulse rate accelerated, and his first fleeting thought was that someone had broken in and taken North. That explanation evaporated as more reasonable explanations arose in his mind.
He called, “North! Bear!”
The dog galumphed down the hallway and skidded to a stop in front of Tom. Tom reached down to pet the dog’s head and asked, “Where’s North?”
Bear harumphed, sort of a snort, and ran back to the hall entrance, where he waited for Tom, who promptly followed. The journey ended with Bear sitting in front of North’s bedroom closet doors, head down, and looking as if he were a world-class snitch.
No answer came, and Tom gently opened the closet door to find North curled up in a corner at the back of the closet. The boy’s face was hidden against the wall. “North? What’s wrong, son? Are you hurt?”
The boy’s head moved sideways, but he still wouldn’t look at Tom. “Come on out, please; I need to be sure you’re not hurt.”
Nothing in Tom’s voice told North that his father was angry with him, and Tom hadn’t pulled him out of his hiding spot. After a few moments, North ventured a look at Tom. He saw only concern in Tom’s face and slowly crawled out of the closet. Tom looked him up and down and, seeing no sign of an injury, sat on the floor by North.
“So, what happened with the lamp? Did Bear knock it over?”
“No…well, yes, but it wasn’t Bear’s fault.”
“I was throwing his lion so he could fetch it, and I threw it close to the table. He was trying to get it, and he bumped the table. I’m sorry about the lamp. If you want me to go, I will.”
Tom could hear the fear in North’s voice. “First, you aren’t going anywhere. You’re our son, and we don’t want you anywhere but with us. You weren’t trying to hurt the lamp, were you?”
“So it was an accident. Everyone has accidents. Maybe it would be better to play fetch with Bear outdoors, though.”
North nodded. Tom stood and pulled the boy into a hug. Hugs were becoming important to North.
As the new family made its way through December, North began to understand that his fathers had expectations for his behavior and that if he didn’t meet those expectations, there were consequences. But the consequences never involved being hit and were always accompanied by questions and explanations. He wanted to please his new fathers, but he was becoming less afraid to make mistakes. When he did make a mistake, he remembered their reaction to the hidden book and the dented lamp.
His fears about being sent away by his fathers had ebbed, but his experience had taught him that the people who ran the system, people like his caseworker, could upend his life in a moment. He did worry that he might be summarily moved to another home, and that fear began to gnaw at him. Ms. Hartman had been to visit at the end of his first week in his new home. She had asked him about whether he was happy and if he felt safe. She had asked about what he had done in the days that he had lived with his new fathers and told him that she’d be back in a couple of weeks. That visit was the same.
A couple of times, when Jim and Tom and he had been out around the town, they had gone shopping in Pioneer Place. They had seen all the Christmas decorations and Santa Clauses in some of the stores and in the mall. His fathers had asked him if he would like a tree at home or if he wanted to visit Santa Claus. He had always said no. At home, when asked if he wanted anything for Christmas, he had reverted to silently shaking his head. Finally, one night, when Tom asked again if North wanted anything for Christmas, the boy almost launched himself at his father and, hugging him tightly, said, “Please don’t let them take me away.”
North was trembling as Tom hugged him back. Almost in tears himself, Tom whispered, “I’m so happy you want to stay. Jim and I want this to be your forever home, and I think Bear does, too. No one will take you away while you want to stay here.”
North eased the hug a bit, and said, “They’ve moved me before.”
Tom looked his son in the eye, and asked, “Have I ever lied to you?” North shook his head and began to believe that he was home.
* * * * *
Irish Setters don’t do well cooped up in apartments, so, North and his fathers took Bear to Delta Park, a large park near the Columbia River where dogs could run until they were…dog-tired. One day toward the end of fall in the year he turned four, North, his fathers, and his best friend, Annie, were in the park exercising Bear. As they walked, throwing a grimy tennis ball from a sling for Bear to retrieve, North saw in the distance a boy about his age. The boy seemed to be dancing in his own world until he looked up and spotted North and his group. At almost that moment, Jim let the ball fly toward the boy, who had stopped dancing, and Bear tore off after the ball.
Afraid that the ball or Bear might hurt the boy, North broke into a graceful and powerful run, surprising his fathers, who watched him reach the boy just after the ball zoomed by, followed by Bear, who retrieved it and ran back toward North’s fathers.
North coasted to a stop, barely breathing harder than he did at rest and, as the boy looked at him, said, “Hey. My name is North.”
The boy said, “My name is Jonathan. How old are you?”
“I’m four. Are you four?”
Looking back toward Annie and his fathers, North said, “Annie’s four, too.”
Then he utterly surprised Jonathan by hugging him. After the hug, they talked about their dogs and their families until Tom, Jim, and Annie arrived with Bear, now on a leash.
Tom said, “Hi. I see you've met North. I'm Tom, this is Jim, and this is Annie, North's best friend. We're North's fathers. I hope he didn't frighten you with the hug; he's big on hugs.”
“I’m Jonathan Sumner. I liked the hug.”
* * * * *
When Frank Gerard, a psychiatrist who specialized in children and adolescents and was a friend of Jim’s and Tom’s, had first observed North in his new home, he saw a wounded kid who barely spoke and shied away from him when they were introduced. Frank had agreed to help with the adoption petition because the State agency that managed adoptions was new to having children adopted by gay couples. They had obtuse questions about whether having gay parents might affect North negatively. In fact, Oregon law then allowed only one of his new fathers to adopt North.
Now, close to Christmas, when he visited, Frank saw a different child, as North played with his dog and talked to his fathers. North’s head wasn’t continually bent toward the floor. He looked at Frank without any but the normal fears of a child his age.
“Would you mind if just you and I talk for a bit?”
North said, “Okay.”
“So, pretty cool dog you have.”
North nodded. “Watch this. Bear, come.”
The dog came running with the green lion in its mouth.
The dog sat, and North petted his head, telling him, “Good dog.”
Then, after smiling, North told Frank, “We don’t play fetch inside, anymore. We knocked a lamp over, but my dads said that accidents happen. But we don’t want that to happen again.”
“Were you afraid when you and Bear knocked the lamp over?”
North thought a moment. “Yes. I thought I might have to leave, and then I’d cry. But Dad told me that everyone makes mistakes, even him. So, they didn’t want me to leave, because that would make them sad. I’m going to stay here forever. They promised.”
Frank said, “You know, North, I think you and your dads are very lucky to have found each other, and I think you will stay with them forever.”
Bear woofed, and North reached down and began a tug of war with the green lion between them. Frank looked to Jim and Tom and nodded.
* * * * *
We see them come.
We see them go.
Some are fast.
And some are slow.
Some are high.
And some are low.
Not one of them
Is like another.