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They're not children, Norman Balthus told himself.
Throughout the drive from Stockton to Mintern, he'd been rehearsing what he'd say to Justin and Iris. Trying to convince himself they'd be able to cope with the news he was bringing.
But they were his "children," in all but blood, even now. And he dreaded the pain he'd see in two pairs of eyes.
No, in one pair of eyes.
I don't have to worry about Iris.
As he was about to ring their doorbell, she flung the door open. "I thought I heard a car pull up!" She went on to say, "Come in," even as she enveloped him in a hug that made movement impossible.
They were both laughing as they went into the parlor, where they were immediately joined by Justin. "Norman! It's always good to see you." But the younger minister looked anxious - already more troubled than his sister by the phone call in which their foster father had said he needed to pay them a visit, to discuss something important.
When they were comfortably settled with glasses of lemonade, and had made the obligatory small talk, Justin asked, "What is it you wanted to tell us, Norman?" Studying the older man's face, he blurted out, "Th-there isn't any problem with your health, is there?"
"No, no!" Norman gave them his most reassuring smile. "I've never felt better. But I have some news I wanted to deliver in person. I hope you'll think it's good news.
"I know this may come as a shock to you - sort of 'out of the blue.' But...I'm planning to get married."
Iris spilled lemonade in her lap.
Justin went deathly pale. "But Ro -"
Norman knew he'd been about to say But Rose has only been dead for three years.
To his credit, he caught himself. What he actually said was, "But I didn't even know you'd been seeing anyone!" With a pleading look at his sister, he asked, "Did you know, Iris?"
"No." She'd laid her glass down on an end table, and was already composed and smiling. "But I think I can guess who the lucky woman is. Norman - is it that lovely Clara Wilson?"
"Yes!" He thanked God for women's intuition - and for Iris's having the tact to describe the elderly Clara, whom she'd seen only at her worst, as lovely. We raised her well, Rose. "But I'm the lucky one."
Justin still looked lost. "I'm afraid I don't remember meeting her. Did I ever meet her?"
Norman nodded. "Yes, but only once, I think. I'm not surprised you don't remember her. You couldn't be around as much as Iris, with your responsibilities here."
"Couldn't be around? Around where?"
Iris said gently, "The hospital, Justin. When Rose was dying."
"Oh." His eyes betrayed all the hurt Norman had expected.
"Clara's husband was dying of cancer too," Norman explained quietly. "They'd been married for forty years. He lingered for months, suffering...just like Rose, and at the same time. Clara and I each gave the other a shoulder to cry on. I'm not sure either of us could have gotten through it without the other's moral support.
"Beyond that, it seemed my faith really helped her. She hadn't been brought up in any religion, and she found strength in ours. After her husband Charlie passed on, I baptized her, and she became a member of my congregation. An active member, because she needed something to fill her life. Her children live hundreds of miles away, and she wasn't willing to give up her home and go live with either of them.
"By now we've discovered we care deeply for each other - so deeply that we'd be fools not to marry and spend however many years the Lord gives us together. We're sure Rose and Charlie would approve."
Iris said, "Of course they would!"
Justin's eyes said something very different.
When he didn't speak, Iris gave him a reproving, "big-sister" look.
If we were sitting at a table, Norman reflected, she'd probably be kicking him, under it.
Justin's face hadn't regained any of its color. But he finally said, in a strained voice, "It seems congratulations are in order. I'll be eager to meet Clara, uh, again. I hope you'll be very happy."
He sounded like a schoolboy, resentfully reciting something he'd been forced to memorize.
Norman said solemnly, "Thank you, Justin."
Oh, Justin. I'm glad you bonded with Rose and me. But if we hadn't made mistakes, would you have been better able to accept her death? To have a normal adult life of your own?
He was thankful Rose had lived to see Justin assigned to a large, thriving congregation - the kind of posting where a Methodist minister could put down roots, plan on staying there till he retired or died.
But if she were alive today, she'd be distressed that after four years in such a place, he still hadn't married and started a family - freeing Iris, in turn, to get on with her life.
Our fault, all our fault.
Iris asked, "When are you planning to have the wedding, Norman?"
"Soon," he told her. "Within the next few weeks." Then he took a deep breath and said, "We'd love to have you perform the ceremony, Justin. Will you do it?"
Justin had managed to pull himself together. He rose, clapped Norman on the shoulder, and said, "Of course! I'll be honored."
But the smile on his face never reached his eyes.
It could have gone worse, Norman told himself as he was driving home.
But his next thought was Why am I kidding myself?
As children, Justin and Iris had been so quiet and undemonstrative that he and Rose hadn't realized how attached the youngsters had become to them. Hadn't known they remembered both their birth parents as wild-eyed, crazy-acting fanatics - whom they yearned to forget, to replace.
The Balthuses had made a huge mistake when they sent Justin to the "best" Methodist seminary...in faraway St. Paul, Minnesota. Reticent as always, he hadn't complained. Too late, they'd learned he'd felt abandoned, been desperately lonely. The snowy, frigid Minnesota winters had brought back unwanted memories of his native Russia. And as he struggled to remain chaste (with Norman's pious Rose and I were both virgins on our wedding night ringing in his ears), he'd been shocked by his dormitory mates' experiments with homosexuality.
On top of that, Rose had fallen critically ill - and with the best intentions in the world, she and Norman had decided not to tell Justin, summon him home, lest they disrupt his studies. Rose had recovered; but when Justin learned about it, he'd been devastated by their "rejection" of him. He'd gone into a tailspin - cutting classes, going on drunken binges, using illegal drugs.
By the time Iris went to St. Paul to check up on him, he'd become inexplicably obsessed with a Gypsy fortune-teller some ten years his senior. His sister had caught him in the act of raping the terrified woman.
The Gypsy had wanted only to be rid of him - had no interest in pressing charges. But despite that, the incident, the guilt, had blighted Justin's life. He'd confided to Norman that his violent attack on the Gypsy had been his first experience of sex.
And it's very possible, Norman reflected now, that he's never had another.
So Justin was still single, still childless; and Iris still, illogically, felt responsible for her "little brother."
The Balthuses, when they realized their mistake, had gone all out to convince Justin he was loved and wanted. And he'd wound up so devoted to Rose - to both of us, I'm sure, Norman told himself - that he couldn't think of them as anything but a couple. Deep down, he probably viewed Norman's planned remarriage as a sin comparable to his rape of the Gypsy.
Norman sighed. At least he won't have long to fret about it.
Norman had indeed found true love, for the second time, with Clara. But there was something he hadn't told his "children." The reason he'd decided to plunge into this marriage, even at the cost of hurting Justin.
Clara now had terminal cancer. And he meant to be by her side, making her every moment as happy and as full of love as it could possibly be, for the year or two she had left to live.
Author's Afterword: As the reader may or may not have realized, this fic is meant to suggest a solution to a canon problem.
In the Season 2 premiere, "Los Moscos," Iris attempts to explain Norman's stroke by saying, "He hasn't been the same since Clara died." Anyone hearing that, and knowing nothing to the contrary, would assume "Clara" was Norman's wife.
But the Character Bio of Norman on HBO's website named his deceased wife as Rose.
When fans began speculating about the identity of "Clara," series creator Daniel Knauf confessed that he and the show's other writers had made a mistake. When they wrote "Los Moscos," they'd forgotten that they'd already given Norman's wife the name Rose.
Complicating the problem: the general rule is that whatever actually airs in a TV series is canon. Anything else, even posted on an official website, is less binding. But in this case, fandom as a whole has stuck with the name Rose. Why? Because it had been established during Season 1, long before the confusion about "Clara."
In a draft script for "Los Moscos," which its purchaser graciously shared with fandom, Iris, after speculating that Norman had suffered a stroke because he "hadn't been the same since Clara died," went on to mention that she'd died while Justin was in the seminary. That line was cut from the final script; the writers probably concluded it wouldn't be reasonable to suggest that someone could have a stroke because he "hadn't been the same" since a loss he'd suffered some twenty years before.
The Character Bio, at least in its final version, states that Rose Balthus died in 1927. I don't remember whether it always included that date.
For this fic, I've borrowed some details from an earlier version of the backstory, which appeared in a "Pitch Document" Daniel Knauf submitted to HBO. In that telling of the tale, Norman's wife (named Clara!) did indeed die, of cancer, while Justin was a seminarian (in Kansas City, Missouri). Grief over her death sent Justin into a tailspin much like the one I describe here, culminating in his sexual encounter with the Gypsy Apollonia. Key differences: his reckless behavior included patronizing prostitutes, and Apollonia "seduced him into her bed." There was no rape!