Chapter OneI'LL TELL YOU THIS-even on the so-called mean streets of New York, where the only thing harder to get than a taxi in the rain is attention, we were managing to turn heads that grim, gray December afternoon.
If anything could tug at the coiled-steel heartstrings of the Big Apple's residents, I guess the sight of my mobilized Bennett clan-Chrissy, three; Shawna, four; Trent, five; twins Fiona and Bridget, seven; Eddie, eight; Ricky, nine; Jane, ten; Brian, eleven; and Juliana, twelve-all dressed in their Sunday best and walking in size order behind me, could do the trick.
I suppose I should have felt some privilege in being granted the knowledge that the milk of human kindness hasn't completely dried up in our jaded metropolis.
But at the time, the gentle nods and warm smiles we received from every McClaren stroller-pushing Yummie, construction worker, and hot dog vendor from the subway exit next to Bloomingdale's all the way to First Avenue were completely lost on me.
I had a lot on my mind.
The only New Yorker who didn't seem like he wanted to go on a cheek-pinching bender was the old man in the hospital gown who cupped his cigarette and wheeled his IV cart out of the way to let us into our destination-the main entrance of the terminal wing of the New York Hospital Cancer Center.
I guess he had a lot on his mind, too.
I don't know where New York Hospital recruits its staff for the terminal cancer wing, but my guess is somebody in Human Resources hacks into St. Peter's mainframe and swipes the saint list. The constancy of their compassion and the absolute decency with which they treated me and my family were truly awe-inspiring.
But as I passed forever-smiling Kevin at reception and angelic Sally Hitchens, the head of the Nursing Department, it took everything I had to raise my head and manage a weak nod back at them.
To say I wasn't feeling very social would have been putting it mildly.
"Oh, look, Tom," a middle-aged woman, clearly a visitor, said to her husband at the elevator. "A teacher brought some students in to sing Christmas carols. Isn't that so nice? Merry Christmas, children!"
We get that a lot. I'm of Irish American extraction, but my kids-all adopted-run the gamut. Trent and Shawna are African American; Ricky and Julia, Hispanic; and Jane is Korean. My youngest's favorite show is The Magic School Bus. When we brought home the DVD, she exclaimed, "Daddy, it's a show about our family!"
Give me a fuzzy red wig and I'm a six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound Ms. Frizzle. I certainly don't look like what I am-a senior detective with the NYPD Homicide Division, a troubleshooter, negotiator, whatever's needed by whoever needs it.
"Do you boys and girls know 'It Came Upon a Midnight Clear'?" the woman who had latched on to us persisted. I was just about to sharply point out her ignorance when Brian, my oldest son, glanced at the smoke coming out of my ears and piped up.
"Oh, no, ma'am. I'm sorry. We don't. But we know 'Jingle Bells.'"
All the way up to dreaded Five, my ten kids sang "Jingle Bells" with gusto, and as we piled out of the elevator, I could see a happy tear in the woman's eye. She wasn't here on vacation either, I realized, and my son had salvaged the situation better than a United Nations diplomat, certainly better than I ever could have.
I wanted to kiss his forehead, but eleven-year-old boys have killed over less, so I just gave him a manly pat on the back as we turned down a silent, white corridor.
Chrissy, with her arm around Shawna, her "best little pal" as she calls her, was into the second verse of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as we passed the nurses' station. The little ones could have been life-size Precious Moments figurines in their dresses and pigtailed hair, thanks to the extreme makeover work of their older sisters, Juliana and Jane.
My kids are great. Amazing, really. Like everyone else lately, they had gone so far above and beyond that it was hard to believe sometimes.
I guess it just pissed me off that they had to.
At the end of the second hallway we turned, a woman, wearing a flowered dress over her ninety-pound frame and a Yankees cap over her hairless head, was sitting in a wheelchair at the open door of 513.
"MOM!" the kids yelled, and the thunder of twenty feet suddenly shattered the relative silence of the hospital hall.