The first time I met him he was wearing a green-striped shirt and following David, his elder brother, into his Dad’s office. He looked over the counter and smiled at me.
“Boys,” their father said in a voice reserved for children. “This is our new Park Aid, Janet. She’s brand new so don’t bother her. She’s still trying to learn how to type.”
My boss was their father, a man who was funny, but many times his jokes were directed at me. I ended up marrying him eighteen months later, though at the time I was clueless of my true feelings for him. Instead of “not bothering me” the boys gravitated to my desk as I hoped they would, wide-eyed and full of discoveries and questions. David told me that they had come on a plane together to California, all the way from Kansas City.
“That’s where our Mom lives,” Joe said, dreamily. He was a blonde, blue-eyed boy who had just turned six. David was brown haired, brown eyed and a tanned seven, but he was quick to tell me that he would soon be eight.
They were beautiful. They were filled with observations and questions. They wanted to use my new electric typewriter. They told me they had just ridden a horse the day before and Joe actually fell off.
“But I got up and got back on,” he said. It wasn’t hard to tell he was proud of himself for getting back on the horse; what was harder to see was that Joe would one day become quite an accomplished horse rider. A cowboy, if you will. Both boys would learn to break and care for horses with such skill that they could make a living. They would also learn how to ride bulls - get bucked off of those monsters - and get back on.
I went to my boss’ house for dinner that night, more at the invitation of the boys than of him. I got the feeling that they all liked me there, a woman in the shadow of all these guys. I was also delighted to watch them together. David was bold; Joe was thoughtful.
At some point, I picked up a book and started reading to them. It was beautiful; magic. I read four or five books that evening before I excused myself and went home.
“Why are you leaving?” Joe asked me as I packed up my purse.
“I have a baby,” I answered above their father. (Mario was laughing, saying: “Because she doesn’t live here!”)
“A girl baby or a boy baby?” Joe asked.
“A boy. His name is Vince.”
“Can you go get him and bring him back here?”
I looked up at Mario who was smiling.
“No, honey,” I said. “I’m going to go home and spend some time with him. Usually I give him a bath and put him to bed.”
I left that night, strangely intoxicated by the boys. They were friendly and wonderful; they bore the marks of being well loved.
When they visited the office from then on, they would wind up by my desk and we would draw together while their father hammered out whatever problem he was called in for. I think I felt more attached to the boys than I did their father in those early days.
Soon, that changed. I fell in love with Mario hard and fast and realized slowly that he had great integrity and deep, passionate feelings. He was a stunning man, one that knocked the wind out of me; and before long I knew all of his hopes and dreams.
I also learned of his chief regret.
“I feel like I failed my boys,” he told me one night as we were getting to know one another.
“How? They love you, and they seem really happy…”
“By divorce. Divorcing their mom, leaving all of them. I failed.”
I didn’t know what to say. After all, we were dating by then. I didn’t want to hear about how my “boyfriend” regretted divorcing his ex-wife. This confession began the interesting dichotomy that I was emotionally catapulted into: the peace and tension of sharing custody of children. There was a beautiful and strange respect that Mario and Cathy had for one another and I felt as if I were observing some kind of strange science experiment, rather than participating (or not participating) in something that threatened my happiness.
David was the leader; Joe was the careful one. David accepted me right away; Joe held back for awhile. David agreed to hold my hand when we took a trip to New York City and strolled the streets; Joe permitted me to hold his wrist. David shared his heart and mind with me while Joe watched to see how I would react.
Eventually, Joe accepted me and I became to him what he was to me: a treasured part of a new life. Thank God there was that acceptance; thank God his heart was so like his father’s: steady, beautiful, tender.
Today is his birthday. Over the years, I have amassed thousands of memories and thousands of words to describe him, but none come as close as this: he is just like Mario. He’s kind and funny and tender and strong. He thinks before he acts, works well in a team, and takes a long time to make decisions – but when he does, they’re wonderful.
Recently, he met a woman of great value to him. She lights up his world and has a beautiful smile and an appreciation of who he is. Want to know the beautiful thing? She’s a single mother of a young son. God has an amazing, beautiful sense of continuum.
I love you, Joe. Happy Birthday.