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HOOTCH

 

hootch

It was supposed to be over one hundred degrees when we arrived in Gulu, a small village in Northern Uganda but, as the locals say, “God has blessed us and brought the rain.” I’m standing on the lip of our cruiser, a ten-person bus that I’ve taken to calling The Iron Donkey, and looking down the street towards Gulu’s own miniature version of The Sunset Strip. The entire length of the block is made up of shanties and lean-tos. Instead of doors, there are curtains. Instead of cement blocks, mud and corrugated steel. Instead of shingles, tin. If the big bad wolf comes around, he’s going to blow this entire place down.

 

Men and women sit under eaves, trying to escape the light drizzle while they wait for locals to buy their merchandise – sweet bananas, passion fruit, yams, mangoes, live chickens, dead chickens, chicken pieces and fry bread. All prices are open to negotiation.

 

Looking down the street I see dark faces and dirty people, individuals that my mind immediately associates with unsavory characters. I brush the thought away, remembering that I’m seeing them through a perspective that has been spoon fed to me through media and pop-culture for over thirty years. This looks like a slum to me, by my western standards, but to them, to everyone here, to these people, this is not a slum. This is everyday. This is what they were born into. This is what their parents were born into. This is the absolute unfaltering reality of their world.

fish market

Ten years ago the LRA was here recruiting children into the Lord’s Resistance Army and forcing them to kill their parents. They’d give a ten year old a gun and tell him to kill mom and dad. The soldiers would come in and cut off noses, lips and ears of children just so that, when they looked in the mirror, they’d remember their leader, Joseph Kony. This street was once ravaged by rape and violence so recently that George W. was still in office when it was happening. Most of the locals are now just happy that those days are over and they can now sell their wares in peace. They can feed their family without fear of a lunatic kicking in their door and making them choose which of their sons would be sacrificed to the LRA.

 

That 20-something guy with the mangoes spread out on the blanket across the street? That’s the world he grew up in while I was kicking back Bud Lights in college, cruising around on my Honda motorcycle in Colorado. I tell people I’ve never won the lottery but I gotta tell you, being born in America ain’t a bad runner up.

boot

From my vantage point atop The Iron Donkey I can see behind these shanties to the village beyond. This street might be where these people work but where they live is tucked away and kept safe from prying eyes. Over the tops of the tin roofs, I can see a collection of huts – true huts whose walls are made from mud and whose roofs are made from thatch. I try to decide if these people live beyond poverty or outside of it completely. It’s easy to call them poor but perhaps their lives are just simpler than ours, unbound by complications like rent control, electric bills and social media.

huts

A voice floats through the air and lands in the crook of my ear, “What are you thinking, Johnny?” I turn around. Noah, our Ugandan guide, is looking at me and smiling. I look back at the tiny strip and point to a bright red shack with people sitting out front. “What is that?” He answers, “A pub. You call it a bahrrr.”

 

I picture a bar as I know it – dimly lit, some tables, chairs. There is a bar up front, proper. A mirror, some bottles. Beer on tap, people sitting with their backs to the front door. Pool tables, darts, etc. But this red place – none of that is inside. It’s too small, too contained. I look at the people and judge them by their specific demographic. They’re not drinking Jameson. Hell, they’re not even drinking Black Velvet or Wild Turkey or the soup de jour, Bud Light – and not just because this is an impoverished community but because most places in Uganda don’t carry those brands. So what’s inside? My imagination tries to picture what this place looks like and my curiosity is peaked. Is there even electricity? Is there a refrigerator?

homes

There are certain places on Earth that I assume I’ll never set foot simply because I would be unwelcomed. You know the vibe – certain places in Detroit, those nasty neighborhoods in New York you’ve seen in the movies, Skid Row at night. We try to make a peaceful world but there are places where a certain type of person just doesn’t belong because it’s private. It belongs to a culture and by stepping foot inside; you are invading it, exploiting it, making a carnival ride out of their personal world.

 

I also assume that this red bar across the street or the huts behind them are one of those places. That is some raw humanity that my cowboy boots and sunglasses would never be allowed in.

 

Still, it doesn’t hurt to wonder. I ask, “What do they serve?” and Noah looks down the street and seems to judge it. “Would you like to go inside?”

 

There is a part of me, inside my head, that shouts, No! Stay here! Stay here where it is safe! Stay here where your group is! Stay here where the bus is! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. You will not be welcomed. Remember when you got mugged in Nicaragua while heading towards a local bar?

 

But then the other half of me screams, Go! Quick! Go where there is danger! Go where no one else has! Run from the comforts you know! That is the village. Those are the real people of Uganda. Those are the locals. They may embrace you. And you helped rescue a lady during that mugging. If you weren’t there, who knows what could have happened to her.

 

Ah, back and forth. Back and forth.

 

I jump down from the lip and say, “Noah. I would love that. Is it safe?” He shrugs and begins walking, stepping in front of a car that comes to a screeching halt. I jog to keep up.

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Across the street my boot hits mud. Deep mud. Sticky mud. Heavy mud that clings like little fingers that seem to say Now that you’re here, you’ll never leave. I look up and see a sea of white eyes lacking any casual sideways glances. They are staring, no two ways about it. And whether I am welcome or not, I can’t yet tell. I nod at them, give the cowboy quick-chin-down and nobody responds. I try the more street version with the quick-chin-up but still nothing. It’s very possible that people don’t do that here and have no idea what it means. They might think that my head nod is just a nervous twitch. Or they might think that I’m throwing attitude. This is how new cultures are – things you think are simple and straight forward sometimes get totally lost. I walk around a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) with its wheels ripped off, leaking oil into the rain, none of it mixing together. The mechanic sits on a bucket with a rusty tool in his hand. I lift up my arm and hold out all five fingers in a stiff wave. He stares at me, blinks, and then lifts up his hand in acknowledgment. No smile.

 

I tap my left and right pocket. Phone and wallet still there. Check and check.

 

I lift my hand to another person and they immediately respond, meeting my action with the mirrored version. Noah hangs a right and cuts across the street again, putting us kitty-corner from our bus and about a city block away. “Noah, I’m catching a lot of eyeballs here. Are you sure we’re cool?”

 

“We’re fine. Mzungus just don’t come down here.”

 

“Why? Why not?”

 

“They come to Africa but they want the safe and beautiful version from National Geographic. They want to keep their shoes dry and their hands clean. They’ll help as long as it doesn’t put them in an uncomfortable place.”

 

“And where are we going?”

 

“We’re going somewhere uncomfortable. When people look at you, you won’t be able to just drive by and take a picture. You’ll have to look back at them.”

banana bike

We approach a blue building and walk past a man sitting out front. Noah says something to him in Lugandan and the guy responds. Noah jumps up the single step and pushes the curtain aside that acts as a door and I lose him to the darkness within. I lift my hand to the man and he ignores me. Standing out here alone makes me feel exposed and vulnerable, like a snail in an atrium without its shell. I step up onto the concrete “porch” and push past the curtain, trying to look casual and confident, trying to look like I fit in, a white guy wearing a white shirt with a white hood and white sunglasses. Didn’t plan that one out. May as well drape Old Glory over my shoulders and sing the national anthem while I’m at it.

 

Inside the shack, the rain is considerably louder, slapping against the tin roof, and the light is almost non-existent. It slips under the sheet that covers the door and illuminates a bit of the floor. Inside, two young girls stand in haunting silence. There are no chairs or benches in the room. Noah says something to them in Lugandan and they mumble something in response. He says something again and the older of the two, maybe 13, shakes her head and points.

 

Noah pushes back past the sheet and steps out into the rain. He strolls past several structures made of rotting wood and tarps. Four doors down we come to the small cell with red walls that I’d spotted across the street. Sitting out front are a number of men, six on each side, lining the benches that lead to the entrance. “Mzungu! Ahh! Haha! Mzuuuungu!” (an African term for white traveler). Their eyes are bloodshot and their limbs are loose. They comfortably lean against one another, all of them drunk. We’ve reached The Pub.

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Noah and I push through another sheer sheet and into a dark red room, eight feet across and eight feet wide. Parting the room in half is a counter. Behind the counter is a heavy woman whose eyes are barely visible above the tall ledge. Noah stands on his tip-toes and says something to her. He points to me. Her eyes shift in my direction but show no emotion. She says something and, in English, Noah says, “How much?” She quotes a number and he pulls out a bill, handing it across the counter. Pudgy fingers reach out and gobble up yellow money. I hear a shuffling, a clinking, a pouring, and then over the counter comes a dirty cup about the size of two shot-glasses filled with a clear liquid. She hands it to Noah, who hands it to me. I’m suddenly reminded of the scene from The Goonies where Mouth orders water in the Fratelli’s restaurant before discovering Sloth.

 

It’s now that I notice another woman standing next to me with a wrap around her waist and a sleeping newborn swaddled into the backside. She smiles at me and I smile back, happy to see a friendly face. I smell the drink, breathing deeply. There is a hint of fruit and a punch of alcohol that burns my nose. “What is it?”

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Noah says, “Tonto. It’s made from sweet bananas – the little yellow ones.” It’s whiskey. Or moonshine. Or hootch. It’s made here. I take a little sip and the lady with the baby smiles. I smack my lips together and say, “It’s sweet. It’s like whiskey.” Noah smiles and signals me to shoot it. “Fast.” I pull in a breath and, on my empty stomach, begin to tilt the cup back. It takes me three drinks to finish it off. I pinch my eyes and pucker my mouth. I say, “Tastes a little fruity. It’s quite good,” and when I hand the cup back to the woman behind the counter, I see a small smile in her eyes. Is it pride? She takes the cup and places it back on the shelf behind her without washing it.

 

Noah says something to the lady with the baby and she nods twice before turning and leaving. Noah follows after her while I bring up the rear. The gray daylight cuts at my eyes and I squint, walking back out into the rain. The drink has gone straight to my head and I can already feel it loosening me up. The men outside again shout, “Yeah! Mzungu! Haha! Woo!” and I smile back and hold out my fist to one of them, not caring how it looks. Not caring about the social implications of lifting my fist or what that might mean here. The man stares at it, confused. Noah keeps walking. I don’t move. I just stare at him and wait for it to click. The drunk man laughs and lifts his fist in return.

 

Bump it.

 

I laugh and the rest of the men in the row immediately lift their fists as I walk past them. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Laughter chases behind me as I disappear back into the rain.

goat

The lady with the baby walks past six doors before taking a sharp left down a narrow corridor. I’m being led back into the quiet places. This is not the place that you see from the car. This is the internal. This is the inner circle. This is their community. Their private life. There is a sense of both fear and honor that mix around in my gut. The thought crosses my mind that it may have been years since a white man has visited. The thought crosses my mind that I could be making history.

 

I step out of the corridor and into a village where Africans in dusty clothes slowly walk back and forth. All eyes are on me, front and center. I lift my hand and say, “Hello. Hello,” being sure to hit each syllable hard. I feel like a visitor from outer space. I mean you no harm. Scattered abruptly around and seemingly without reason are huts. The huts. Real huts. That’s all I can think. These are huts. These are real huts. These are real huts that real people live in. I’ve seen them in movies and books but these are real. The real thing. This is what pre-civilization looked like. This is pre-brick and pre-commerce. I am in an African village. These are huts made of mud and thatch. People live here. This is raw humanity. This is pure. This is honest.

 

I want to pull out my phone and begin snapping photos. Look at me, Facebook! Look where I am! I’m at a hut village! But the idea immediately revolts me. A few yards ahead I see a small circle of people, eight in total. They sit in chairs around a small pot. Coming out of the pot are long straws that the people all suck on – it looks like some kind of water bong but there is no smoke coming from their mouths.

iron donkey

Noah says, “Do you want to try?” and I say, “What is it? What are they doing?” and he says, “It’s alcohol. It is called Ajono.” We approach the circle and the people all look at me, each of them appearing more haggard than the last. Teeth are missing. Eyes are sunken. Clothes are torn and dirty. Hands are caked in age and filth. I look to my right and see another circle made of younger men, all of them sending me The Eyeball.

 

“Do you want to try it?” Noah asks again. I look down into the blue and yellow striped pot, the size of a basketball, and see a mixture that looks like water and sand and glue. It looks like chewed up sawdust mixed with spit. It looks like ground up peanuts and warm milk. An older woman stands up, pulls her straw out of her mouth and hands it to me.

hootch

This is where the rubber meets the road. This is their culture. These are the hidden things that no one ever knows. You will not find this on a tour bus or a guided walk through a museum. This is a special moment. This is their community extending an olive branch to me. Welcome. This is they giving me a gift. The woman, mid-sixties, taps my shoulder and signals me to sit in her chair, a wooden contraption that’s low to the ground and, after I sit in it, I learn, exceptionally comfortable.

 

An old man across from me holds his straw in his hands and stares at me. Man, what have you seen? What things have you seen? Were you here when the LRA stormed in? What are those scars from? How long have you been here? What do you know?

 

I say, “Hello,” but he doesn’t respond. I look around the circle and see them all staring at me, waiting. Not pressuring me. Just waiting. Observing. Watching me take part in their tradition. There is something nearly spiritual about this. We are cultures combining, an unexpected exercise for both of us.

 

As with most of the monumentally memorable moments in my life, I never thought they would happen when I opened my eyes that morning. There is power in running towards fear. After all, can a true adventure be planned? Aren’t they, by their very nature, an exploration of the unknown?

 

I look back at the pot and the smell hits me. Rotten bread and moisture. I lift the straw to my mouth and think, Can I get Hep A from this? Hep B? I got my vaccines… Can you contract AIDS from backwash? I’m fairly certain that’s not possible. I pinch the straw between my lips and pull, pull, pull. The length of the straw is about three feet but the thick liquid comes up faster than I anticipate. It’s hot, like green tea that is just cool enough to drink without pausing. It doesn’t burn but it warms me. The taste is just bearable enough to take on, just awful enough to put my mind elsewhere while I swallow.

 

Sometimes taste is deceiving – sparkling water, curry and dark chocolate – sometimes you need a second taste to really appreciate whether you like it or not. I pull again and realize that this is not one of those things. This stuff just tastes like soggy bread with yeast. It is apparent that it will never grow on me.

 

I hear a laugh and when I look up, both circles, young and old, are watching me. A woman lets out a long cackle, which acts as a wick to the fireworks. The rest of the old people begin to laugh. They each pull their straws back into their mouths and begin to sip. Noah says, almost as a command, “Take more.”

 

I put the straw back in my mouth and pull deeply. Three, four, five, six drinks. The effect of the first shot is massaging my brain and I can feel this sludge caking my stomach like glue. The young guys begin to shout and I look over. A tall guy that would fit perfectly in the NBA yells something at me. I turn to Noah. “What is he saying?” Noah listens. “I don’t know. He’s speaking Acholi.” The NBA-guy yells something again and the woman with the baby says something to Noah, who translates to English, “He wants you to drink with him.” I say, “Should I?” and Noah tilts his head ever so slightly left to right.

 

No.

 

I don’t know why and later on I forget to ask. I stand up and admire the toothless smiles that shine up at me from these ancient villagers that have seen more tragedy than anyone on my block back home probably ever will. I stick out my fist to the oldest man and hold it. His smile grows ever wider as he pulls the straw from his mouth and bumps my fist. All the way around the circle I connect with each of them. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for this. Thank you.”

sunset

I know, even as it’s happening, that this moment is unique and will play back through my mind for the rest of my life. I know that it will be rare to ever meet someone with a similar story who I can compare notes with. I understand how valuable this is. This experience is irreplaceable and will probably never repeat itself.

 

I turn to the eldest man, the leader, and I say to him, “May I take a photo? May I take a picture?” Noah translates and then the lady with the baby translates again and the man’s eyes shine. He nods his head yes vigorously. I pull out my iPhone, worth more money than they make in three months, and snap a photo of the brew.

 

I repeat, “Thank you. Thank you for this,” as Noah speaks over me, translating. An older woman gently claps her hands together. The NBA-guy yells again and then hoots. The mood is so good. So light. So pure. So human. There is so much awesome connectivity happening that I try to take it one step further. I don’t want it to end. I’m in The Current of All Good Things and I want to watch it all play out. My luck is ripe. I pull in a breath and look at the group of elders. And then I ask, “May I see the inside of a hut? May I look inside?”

 

Noah looks at me and then looks at the woman with the baby. The woman with the baby says something to an older woman. The older woman smiles and jumps up from out of her chair with more grace than I would anticipate possible. She says something that I don’t understand but waves her hand through the air in a follow me gesture. She leads us to her hut, signals one more time, and walks inside.

 

I watch the lady with the baby disappear. And then I watch Noah disappear. I turn my head back to the circles and the old man waves at me. I look back at the hut and realize that this woman is bringing me, accepting me, into the deepest part of her life. This is the deepest privacy this woman has. These huts are only ten feet across and everything she owns in the world exists inside.

 

The only place this woman has with more privacy is her heart.

 

I touch the soft fabric hanging in front of the door and push into the darkness and once again, out of the rain that is now turning my clothes damp. The humidity hits me first. It’s very warm – at least 10 degrees hotter in here than it is outside. It’s also dark. It’s very dark. The rain falls silent. The drape falls and the four of us stand in silence. Noah, the old woman and the lady with the baby all stare at me. To my immediate left is a small bench. At the back of the hut a small curtain hangs, blocking something. To my right another small curtain hangs, blocking something else. There must only be a foot or two maximum between the other side of the curtain and the wall. What are they hiding?

 

I look up and touch the ceiling. I want to say something profound, something that shows how thankful I am to be brought here, to be shown this, to have this shared with me, a stranger who is opposite in every way. The old woman says something, pointing to each area – the bench, the first curtain, the second curtain. The woman with the baby translates for Noah. Noah translates for me. He says, “This is her living room (the bench), this is her bedroom (first curtain), and this is her kitchen (second curtain).”

 

The only decorations are four pictures of Jesus hanging on the wall in the living room.

 

I don’t know how to feel. Sympathy? Pity? Envy? I reach out my hand and take hers. Her skin is paper-thin and she feels like an autumn leaf. Our hands are so different. Young, old. Black, white. She’s spent year doing heavy work and I’ve spent my time sitting at a desk and writing. Our fingernails tell the story of our lives. I stare into her eyes and say, “Your home is beautiful. Thank you for sharing this with me. I will never forget this moment.”

 

Noah translates to the lady with the baby, who translates to the old woman. She gives me a tender smile and speaks a simple sentence. The lady with the baby translates back. Noah smiles and says to me, “You are not like the other mzungus.”

 

I smile.

 

Outside, the same rain that falls on Los Angeles, falls on everyone.

rain

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Bedtime Stories: Chapter 2

Screen shot 2014-07-11 at 11.06.30 AM

I ask Rory to step into his pajama bottoms and I say, “What is our bedtime story about tonight?” and he says, “A dragon!” and I say, “Good choice.  What color is the dragon?” and Rory says, “Red!”  I say,  “Wow.  And what color are his eyes?” and Rory says, “His eyes are pink,” and I say, “What else do we know about him?”  Rory thinks and then says, “He has wings!”  I say, “So he can fly.  Yeah.  I like that.”

Quinn says, “He has little wings!” and I say, “Little tiny wings?  On a great big body!?  That’s funny!” but Rory says, “NO!  BIG WINGS!” and then Quinn says, “YEAH!  BIG WINGS!” and I say, “Okay… here we go then…”

I say, “Once Upon a Time… there was a great big Red Dragon and… what was it doing?”

Quinn shouts, “FLYING!”

“Once Upon a Time… there was a great big Red Dragon and it was flying along, soaring through the air.  It flew over the countryside and over homes and cottages and villages and castles.  It flew over rivers and it went anywhere it wanted to go because it was a dragon.  Then, as The Red Dragon was flying over a pasture, it saw a field full of… sheep.

Rory says, “And two elephants.

Quinn says, “And two hippopotamus.”

“GREAT!  So The Red Dragon is flying over a pasture and he sees a field full of sheep and two elephants and two hippos and The Red Dragon swoops down and picks up one of the elephants in its great big claws and carries it away back to its mountain cave far above the clouds.

Rory stares at me with his mouth hanging agape.  I say, “Do you understand how big that dragon is?  It picked up an entire full grown elephant and then flew away.”

Rory says, “Bring my elephant back, DRAGON!” and I say, “We’ll get to that…”

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So the next day The Red Dragon is flying above the pasture and he sees the two hippos and he swoops down and he picks one up and he carries it back to his mountain cave far up in the sky above the clouds,” and Quinn says, “That’s my hippo!

I say, “It sure was!  And now it belongs to The Red Dragon!  I hope someone rescues them!  So… the next day, down in the pasture a couple of people are walking along, tending their sheep.  Who is walking along?” and Quinn says, “Miss Brittany!… and Nadia!… and Ben!”

SIDE NOTE: Miss Brittany is a good friend of ours, Nadia is her daughter and Ben is another friend.

I say,  “Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben are out walking in their pasture looking for their missing elephant and hippo–”

“It’s my hippo,” Quinn says.

“Yeah, sorry… Uh… Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben are walking in their pasture looking for the missing hippo and elephant that respectively belong each to Quinn and Rory… when suddenly… a great big shadow falls over them.  What was it?”

Rory whispers, “…..draaaaaagon……”

“Yeah.  It was.  The Red Dragon was back.  He swooped down again and he grabbed one of the sheep and–”

Quinn interrupts me.  “No!  Not a sheep!  A horse!”  I say, “But there are no horses on this farm.  We’ve already established this.  There are a ton of sheep, a couple of elephants and a pair of hippos.”  Quinn says, “They are not sheep.  They are horses.”

“Fine.  We’re replacing all the sheep with various brands of horses.  The Red Dragon swoops down and grabs a horse in its claws and lifts it into the air but that horse is Miss Brittany’s favorite horse and so Miss Brittany shouts… what did she shout?”

Rory says, “Give me that horse back, DRAGON!”

I say, “That’s right.  And what is the horses name?” and Rory says, “That horse’s name is Maximus!

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“ALRIGHT!  Miss Brittany shouts, “Give me that horse back, DRAGON!  Give me back Maximus!” and then she quickly gathers Nadia and Ben into one arm and she jumps into the air and she grabbs onto the horse’s tail and she gets carried away as The Red Dragon flies higher and higher and higher and the ground slowly drops away below them.  They fly higher and higher and higher–”

Rory takes up the chant, “–and higher and higher and higher and way high UP into the SKY!  ABOVE THE CLOUDS!”

“You got it.  The Red Dragon is taking them back to his cave high up on the mountain above the clouds.  That’s the plan anyway.  But Miss Brittany keeps shouting, “Let go, Dragon!  Let go, Dragon!” and so finally The Red Dragon does.  He opens up his claws and let’s Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben and Maximus fall.  They all plummet through the air, falling faster and faster and faster, head over feet and above them all they can hear is the booming voice of The Red Dragon laughing and laughing and laughing– BUT THEN!”

Quinn gasps.

“Another dragon… Quinn, what color is this dragon?” and Quinn says, “I don’t know…” and I say, “Any color you want,” and she says, “Oh, ok.  PURPLE!” and I say, “BUT THEN!  A GREAT BIG PURPLE DRAGON SWOOPS IN OUT OF NOWHERE and saves them.  He picks them up in his claws and places them on his back and says, “What are you doing here?” and Miss Brittany says, “The Red Dragon stole my friend’s elephant and hippo–”

Quinn says, “Oh yeah!  My hippo!”

“–and we’re trying to get them back.”  The Purple Dragon says, “I know where The Red Dragon lives and I can take you there,” and so he flies and flies and flies higher and higher and higher into the sky and above the clouds and to the mountain cave where The Red Dragon lived.”

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Rory says, “Is it a red house?” and I say, “But of course.  The Purple Dragon lands on the edge of the cliff where The Red Dragon’s Red House is attached and The Purple Dragon says, “I’m sorry friends, but I can go no further because I am too big to get through the door.”  You see, The Purple Dragon was enormous.  He was easily two or three times the size of The Red Dragon.  I mean, he was crazy big so he tells Miss Brittany and Nadia and Ben that he’ll just stand outside and keep guard while they go in to find their missing elephant and hippo.  So, they leave Maximus sitting outside as they turn and enter The Red House.  They open the door and you know what they see?”

Quinn says, “I don’t know…” and Rory says, “What?” and I say, “It’s a big cave that stretches on and on and on and gets darker and darker and darker.  But far away they can hear their elephant and their hippo.  What does an elephant say?”

The kids each make elephant noises.  Quinn’s kind of sounds like a crying monkey.  Rory’s sounds like a donkey that’s been kicked in the testicles.

“Miss Brittany leads the way into the darkness until…… they can’t see anything anymore….. now, Rory, Quinn… both of you shut your eyes.”  Both of the children do so.  “Do you see that?  That’s what it looks like in the cave.  It’s so dark they can’t see anything… so they just follow the noises of their beloved animals on and on and– WAIT!  What’s that?

Quinn says, “WHAT!?” and I say, “THERE!  In the distance!  A light!  They rush onward to the light and it gets bigger and brighter and bigger and brighter and they find…. what is it?”

Quinn says, “Baby Dragons……..”

“Yeah… well, sort of.  They find a great big glowing egg that’s as big as our house.  A dragon egg!  It’s glowing and it looks like a lightbulb but when they touch it they find that it isn’t hot.  THERE!  Behind the egg!  It’s the elephant and the hippo!  They found them!”

Quinn says, “YAY!” and Rory is completely asleep now because I think he forgot to open his eyes.

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“Miss Brittany hops on the back of the elephant and Nadia and Ben both jump on the back of the hippo and then BOOOOM!  The giant glowing egg cracks open and then EGG-SPLODES into a zillion little pieces that fly everywhere and they hit Brittany and Nadia and Ben but they’re okay but out of the giant egg crawls…”

Quinn says, “A baby dragon….”

And I say, “TWO baby dragons.  They’re twins.  Just like you and Rory.  So the Little Girl Baby Dragon chases the elephant and goes chomp-chomp-chomp!  And the Little Boy Baby Dragon chases the hippo and goes chomp-chomp-chomp!  And Brittany kicks her heels into the sides of her elephant and she shouts, “Let’s ride!” and she disappears into the darkness with the Baby Dragons right after her.  Now remember, these are baby dragons but they’re very, very, very big!  Their egg was the size of our house so these baby dragons could eat a whole elephant!  Miss Brittany rides through the darkness and on her neck she can feel hot breath chasing just behind her and Nadia and Ben ride through the darkness and they can feel hot breath just behind them and everyone can hear the chomp-chomp-chomp getting closer and closer and closer and then in the distance they can see the light!  They can see the exit!  They race towards it and they burst into the sunlight but The Purple Dragon isn’t there to let them down from the mountain cliff!  The Purple Dragon is up in the sky wrestling and fighting with that naughty Red Dragon!  The Baby Dragons run out of the cave – chomp-chomp-chomp – and our friends are all trapped!  CHOMP-CHOMP-CHOMP!”

Quinn says, “Daddy, stop chomping on my ear,” and I say, “Oh.  Sorry.  Okay.”

“The Purple Dragon says, “JUMP!  JUMP AND I’LL CATCH YOU!  TRUST ME!” and so Miss Brittany and her elephant and Nadia and Ben and their hippo and Maximus all run towards the edge of the cliff and they fall and fall and fall and fall and fall and The Purple Dragon tries to break free from the much smaller but still very scrappy Red Dragon but can’t!  Our friends continue to fall, end over end, head over feet, over and over and over again.  They break through the cloud cover and the ground is getting closer and closer and closer!  The houses and the castles and the roofs are getting bigger and bigger and The Purple Dragon is still wrestling with The Red Dragon.  The Red Dragon laughs, “HAHAHAH!  HAHAHAHAH!  AHHAHAHAHAHAH!” and then, with a loud CRASH everyone smashes into the ground and dust and dirt flies everywhere and the earth cracks and there is nothing but silence.”

Quinn stares at me.

“The Purple Dragon and The Red Dragon stop wrestling and they just float in the air and stare downwards and The Red Dragon says, “Did they die?” and The Purple Dragon says, “That was a long fall…” and down on Earth… Brittany’s eyes slowly open… and slowly…. slowly…. everyone stands up.  You see, everyone had bits of dragon egg stuck to them from when the egg exploded… and everyone knows that as long as you hang onto a piece of a dragon egg, you can’t die.”

Quinn says, “Ohhhhhhh…”

I conclude, “That night, all of our friends had The Purple Dragon over for dinner and, Quinn, do you know what they ate?”

Quinn says, “They ate eggs.”

And I say, “That’s right.”

 

The End.

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No Concern of Danger

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I’m sitting at a friend’s house, at a Superbowl party.  The game is on but, like most people at Superbowl parties, I’m not really watching it.  Like most people, I come for the queso and stay for the deep fat fried turkey.  Everywhere I look are close friends, good acquaintances and strangers who, judging by their honest faces, have the strong potential to someday be either.

The man next to me, Curtis, is one of my closest friends and is currently holding my youngest daughter on his lap, letting her spittle and saliva run over his thumb and down the back of his hand.  This is the sign of true friendship.  At my feet his daughter, three, plays with my twins, also three.  I am grateful to avert my eyes from The Big Game to focus instead on their little one.  Rory picks up a green truck and begins to slowly push it across the polished wooden floor, making noises that sound like the imaginary driver is grinding the imaginary clutch.  I slide off the couch, reach forward, grab him by the foot and pull him to me.  He squirms and laughs and fights me off and says, “NO!” but I say, “Play with me!” and I take the green car and he crawls away.  I roll it across the ground and Rory retrieves it for me.  I give him a hug and kiss him on the cheek and say, “Thanks for bringing this back.  I love you…” and he wipes off my kiss and runs away.

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Later, I’m standing outside as our host lowers a turkey into a deep fat fryer.  The oil rises, the turkey sizzles and the smell of cooking bird immediately fills the air.  The Host clinks his beer against my coffee cup and says, “I hope I don’t burn my house down,” and I silently nod in agreement.  The front door opens and Rory pokes his head out, looking from side to side.  He lays eyes upon me and says, “Daaaaaaad?” and I say, “Yes, Rory?”  He walks out the door, leaving it hanging open, walks down the steps, makes his way across the driveway, approaches me, standing toe to toe with my person, looks up into my face and says, “I want a cupcake.”

A reasonable request.  I say, “Okay… let’s go get you one.”  He leads me back across the driveway, up the steps, through the door, past the TV, to the table and points at a tray of frosted pastries.  He says, “That one.  The green one.”  I grab it, put it on a plate and, just as I’m getting ready to cut it up for him he says, “No… I can do it.  I can eat it.  By myself.”

He’s growing up and it pains me.

Sitting down on the floor I convince him to let me hold the cupcake and feed him because it’s so messy.  When we’re finished, his lips, chin, teeth, fingers and hands are covered with green frosting.  Without thinking he wipes his face on his shirt and asks for another cupcake, a request which I deny.  Instead I take him into the kitchen where I begin to press a wet a paper towel against his face and hands.

How much longer will this be acceptable?  When will he push me away, embarrassed?

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The game ends and the slow murmur and shuffle of people gathering their items begins; jackets, car seats, tupperware, car keys.  My wife puts shoes on the kids and packs Bryce away while I wander through the house aimlessly, saying needless good-byes to people.  We both thank our friends for hosting the party and then walk out the door, into the light drizzle.  In my right hand I carry Bryce’s car seat and in my left hand, Rory and I grip each other tightly.

Having to have parked on the street, we make the long walk down the driveway of the gated community, through the gate, and into the wet street, the neighborhood being one of these places that simply doesn’t have sidewalks.  The van is about a block and a half up and the street is fairly isolated so there is no concern of danger.

The group of us walk and talk and we praise the children for playing nicely and for sharing and for being so good.  We walk and talk and say that we had so much fun.  We walk and talk and I turn around and say, “Here comes a car,” and all of us push to the side of the road until it passes.  We continue to move towards our car, twenty feet away, so close, which is nice because I’m starting to feel the weight of the baby seat on my right arm.

Rory begins pulling at my hand and I say, “Rory, we’re walking in the street.  You need to hang onto Daddy’s hand,” and he says, “I don’t want to!” and I say, “You have to,” and I say, “We’re almost to the car,” and then I turn around and see another automobile coming towards us.  I holler behind me, to Jade, and say, “Another car, step aside,” and we push ourselves towards the side of the road, in between two parked cars.

Rory tries letting go of me again and I say, “Rory, stop it,” because now he’s just being naughty and he knows that he needs to hold my hand.  He jerks once, twice and then screams, leaning backwards.  I say, “Rory.  Rory!  RORY!” and then he gives one final scream and then everything else happens fast.  Too fast.

Rory jerks his hand free from mine and I feel him slide out of my grip.  His little body stumbles backwards, foot behind foot.  The dark road suddenly goes bright with headlights and I cry out and Jade shouts, “RORY!”  He takes two more steps, out past the parked cars, into the street, and my stomach turns into a knot.  I reach out but he’s gone, too far away.  I drop Bryce and try to move but I know I can’t make it in time.  He steps on his shoelace and his body tumbles to the ground.  The car – a large black SUV – comes up on him and my breath catches in my throat.

Rory shuts his eyes and I want to but can’t.

The SUV blasts past him no more than a few feet away.  If he hadn’t stepped on his shoelaces… if if if… the possibility hangs in the air like a vampire.

I take three large steps towards my son, grab him by the collar and lift him into the air, his feet dangling, and I forcibly drag him back to the curb while he still, to my great amazement, continues to attempt to pull out of my grasp.  I drop him on the hard concrete, squat down, grab his face in my hands and squeeze his cheeks so he can’t look away from me.  I say, in the absolute angriest tone I can fathom, “Rory!  You do NOT let go of Daddy’s hand when we’re in the street!  You were almost run over and KILLED by the car.  That car almost RAN YOU OVER.  You almost DIED.  You do not ever, ever, EVER let go of my hand EVER AGAIN.  Do you understand me?!” and, instead of confirming with me he simply begins to scream and pull at my hand saying, “LET GO OF ME!  LET GO OF ME!”

I grab Bryce and begin to march to our van at double speed, dragging him behind me, scared, angry, furious.  I open the back door and say, “Get in your seat,” and, instead of listening, he says, “NO!” and so I pick him up, throw him into the car, crawl in after him, pick him up and throw him into his car seat.  He screams, demands candy, which totally baffles me, throws his hands in the air and screams again.  I thrust his arms through the straps of the car seat and say, “Candy?  Candy!?  You’re not getting candy!” while in my head I’m just thinking, “Thank you God thank you God thank you God that I get to buckle him in tonight kicking and scream I love him I love him I love him…

On the way home all I can think about are small coffins and cemeteries that I can’t bring myself to leave.

I almost lost him.

I could never forgive myself.

We get home and I put pajamas on Rory, put him to bed, kneel down next to him and whisper prayers in his ear, prayers that only he can hear.  I say, “Dear God, thank you for Rory, thank you for giving him to me, thank you for protecting him tonight.  Thank you for everyday I have with him.  Thank you for blessing me with another night with this beautiful little boy,” and I pull back and I look upon his face and I see him in a new light.  I see how blue his eyes are.  I see the swirls of designs in them.  I see how little and how white his teeth are.  I see the perfect gaps between them.  I see his blonde hair, pieces sticking up in the back, his little fingers poke over the blanket and I see that his fingernails are filthy with perfect dirt.

Everyday with my children is a beautiful gift that makes me sick with despair and anxiety.

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GLIMPSE: Rory & Quinn

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I sit in restaurants, at booths, looking at the patrons around me and I can’t help but wonder what conversations are happening at their tables. I walk through the mall and I see the people passing me and I wonder what they’re buying and why. Maybe it’s a gift for a boyfriend… and then I wonder how their relationship is going. I sit on the freeway, stuck in rush hour traffic and I watch individuals all around me driving from Santa Monica to Hollywood to Van Nuys. I watch cars merge onto the freeway, swerve and exit. I watch car accidents and I watch people text and drive, wondering who they’re speaking with.  I walk to the grocery store and I look through open windows that I pass on the sidewalk; a woman making dinner, a couple watching Law and Order re-runs, a man playing guitar…

The mundane fascinates me.  The minutia.  The moment-by-moment of everyday life.  I watch and I wonder what they’re doing and where they’re going and I wish, often times, that I could sit next to them; listen, watch, observe… follow them and… confession time; on several occasions I actually have. Twice I’ve followed a car for well over 15 miles just to see where they ended up. It was completely out of my way but I had nowhere to be so I just turned on some music and… this is actually sounding significantly creepier than it did when I chose to do it.  When it was happening, I assure you it was all very organic and natural and… innocent?  Is that the right word?  Probably not.

If I were ever granted the power of invisibility I wouldn’t go into the girl’s locker room or rob a bank… I’d just follow people around at the grocery store or sit in the passenger seat of their car and I’d listen to their conversations and I’d smile and, well, be creepy and invisible.

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Some fifteen years ago The Real World on MTV tried giving us a glimpse into what this was like. They tried to be the fly on the wall and they tried to let the average joe see what it was like to be an average joe.  The only problem was this… reality TV is not reality TV. It’s not reality. It’s not real. It’s moments that have been fabricated first by a producer and then manufactured by an editor using music, sound effects and specific sound bites from interviews taken out of context.

As an editor that has spent a little time in reality television, I can tell you with complete honesty that my favorite part of the job has never been viewing the final “designed” product but rather in sitting in my edit bay and watching the raw footage play out. I have spent literally hours watching strangers sit around a dinner table and chat or families getting prepared for their day by brushing their teeth and talking and just spending intimate moments together. All of these interesting and unique human moments are forever chopped up, cut into garbage and destroyed. You’ll never see them but… it’s all I want to watch. It’s all I want to see. I want to see TRUE REALITY TV. I want to sit as a fly on the wall and watch an evening in someone’s life. I want to walk in their shoes, see through their eyes, exist as they do for a few hours.

Keeping up with the Johnson’s? I want to keep up with the Kirkman’s, the Brady’s, the Morgan’s and the Chu’s. I want to know what four hours in the life of a man with triplets is like or a Seattle DJ or an internet spokesman. What does their work look like? Their commute? Their home life?

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I want to see this… so I’ve created, what I would consider as a pilot episode to this experimental project. It’s currently (appropriately) called “GLIMPSE” because it is, by definition, just a little peek, and the first episode is about my two oldest children. I’ve chosen to follow them from the moment they awake from their naps around 4:30pm until they go to sleep around 8:30pm.  The footage is completely unedited and plays out in real time save for a few spots where my camera’s memory card fills up and I had to switch it out.

I’d love for people to be able to turn on an episode of GLIMPSE and just play it in the background. Watch one minute or five minutes or 1 hour or 4 hours. Watch the beginning, skip the middle and watch the end. Watch only the middle. Skip around. It makes no difference. Just… catch a glimpse. See a moment. Experience life through the eyes of someone else.

This is episode 1. GLIMPSE: Rory & Quinn.

Enjoy.

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The Best Recipes in Oz

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Darkness is shining in through both of my bedroom windows when I finally retire for the evening.  Bryce is already in her crib, sound asleep while my wife sits in the dark manually breast pumping.  I just hear a squish-squish-squish noise as a I navigate over mounds of laundry and sharp furniture.

I set my book down with a thud, I set my phone down with a tink and I set my clothes down with a sluff, my belt latch hitting the wood with a piercing ting!  I look up and Jade is staring at me – squish, squish, squish – and says, “Could you make any more noise?  And, with completely impeccable comedic timing, I fart.

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For reasons unknown to me, I’ve been nursing a Monster Energy Drink for the past two hours and now, preparing to lie down, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to sleep.  I’ve  been sitting on the couch for the past hour reading The Wizard of Oz, hoping to bring on The Drowsies but to no avail.  I crawl into bed… my head hits the pillow… who am I fooling?  I dream about things both vague and nonsensical; things that make no logical reason in the waking world.  People I know play new roles in my dreams; my boss is my cousin, ex-girlfriends are my boss, South Dakota is Los Angeles.  I accept it all without question.

A shriek pierces through the dream clouds and I look towards the sky… open my eyes… I’m in bed.  The baby is crying.  Panic shoots from my brain to my heart and out my limbs.  I throw the blankets back and sit up, completely positive that something horrible is happening but completely positive that I have no idea what it is or how to remedy it.  Everything is moving slow and stupid, myself included.  Instead of turning on the light I just sit in the dark and stare at my toes trying to decide what my next move should be.

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Jade says, “Are you going to get the baby?” and I say, with just a hair too much anger in my voice, “Yes.  Yes, of course I’m going to pick up the baby.  You think I’m just going to sit here and let it cry?”  and she says, “Let her cry.  She’s a girl,” and I look down at my hands, still unsure about just what is going on.  I’m stuck in that horrible, horrible, terrible place where I’m not asleep but not awake, where hallucinations are possible and everything feels like you’re floating along in a drug induced coma.

Jade says, “JOHN,” with just a hint too much anger in her voice and I say, “Lay off!  I have no idea what’s happening! and I sit up and pick up the baby, stand up, set her on the changing table.  I unwrap her swaddle, unbutton her pajamas, pull out her feet, prep the new diaper, prep the wipes and open the old diaper.  This is the part that’s always like the worst game show of all time for parents.  What’s behind door number two?!  It’s……. JUST A BUNCH OF PEE!

Not tonight.  Tonight is a smear of yellow dookie that looks like someone power sneezed it into a Kleenex.  I wipe, clean, dry, replace old diaper with new diaper, put the squirming legs back in the pajamas, button them up, set the baby in the swaddle, take the left side over the right and then the right side over the left, tying her up in some weird cloth burrito that seems to me to be a complete claustrophobic nightmare but the baby seems to love it.

I hand her to Jade, turn and head to the kitchen to throw away the diaper and then to the bathroom where I pee and wash my hands.

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Back in the room I’m sitting on the edge of the bed and Jade says, “She’s asleep.  Here.  Take her.  Be gentle.  Don’t wake her,” and so I take Bryce from her and, instead of placing her back in the crib, I just hold her in my arms and bounce her and stare at her and say, “Jade… it’s absolutely incredible that your recipes are so…” and the other words I’m about to say are, “widely used in the land of Oz,” but I stop myself because I realize that this is somehow wrong and ill-timed and not meant for this world and just what is happening in my brain?

Jade says, “What?” and, me, still convinced that the first half of that sentence is a fairly factual statement and, thinking I can somehow slide by the fact that I have no idea what is happening I say, “Your recipes, babe.  Your recipes.  It’s incredible that they’re so…” and she says, “What are you talking about?  Put the baby down.  Shut up.  Go to sleep,” and I set Bryce down in her crib and then suddenly, a darkness lifts from my vision and I can see the world around me.  I say, “Jade,” and she says, “Yes?” and I say, “I’m really sorry.  I’m really tired.  I have no idea what I’m saying right now,” and she says, “Why are you so tired?” and then I get panicky because maybe my brain is still screwed up.  I say, “Because… it’s 3am.  That’s normal, isn’t it?”

Isn’t it?

I just don’t know anymore.

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ABOVE: BRYCE IMITATES THE POPE.

The Baby is sleeping.  I lie on my back and pull the covers up to the bottoms of my eyeballs.  I turn on my side, then my other side, then my stomach and Jade says, “Can you make any more noise?” and then, with impeccable comedic timing, Bryce farts so wet and loud that she wakes herself up.  She farts again and I would bet that it’s really more of a shart.  She sharts again and that diaper is full.  I shut my eyes, but not to sleep.  It’s more in that resigned way that one might do after accidentally sending an email to a person who isn’t suppose to receive it because said email is full of insults you’ve written about them.  You know it’s too late.  You know it’s futile.  You know you have to deal with the consequences.

I turn on my light and say, “Bryce, stop picking on me.”

Jade begins to snore.

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Second Life

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For the last six days I’ve felt a bit like a con man existing with a dual identity.  The feeling was birthed on Monday, the same day my new daughter, Bryce Allison, was born.  It began as sort of this second life feeling that I was living in the hospital with my wife and daughter; the three of us quietly lying in a room, eating soup that tasted like dirty bath water and toasting our new addition over Diet Cokes.  It was this strange and private moment that existed just between the three of us; no grandparents, no siblings, no children.

Then sometime on Tuesday, my wife still in the hospital, I went home to watch my son and daughter so my mother-in-law could spend some quiet one on one time with The Baby at the hospital.  Back at home, while my kids napped I sat in front of my computer, working on a few projects, feeling like an impostor in my own home, like I were somehow hiding a piece of me from the children.

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Back in the hospital several hours later, I sit on the edge of the bed and stare at the sleeping baby in my arms and wonder how these two worlds will collide.  I’ve heard horror stories about older siblings not acclimating well to new and younger children; striking out and hitting them or covering them in pillows or trying to pull their eyes out.  Gasp, I hate to even consider it.

I spend hours thinking about it, hoping we’ve introduced them thus far properly; trying to decide how I can stitch these two existences together.  For anyone that’s never tried to integrate a new child into their family, the best way to describe it is to say that it’s like stitching a new limb onto an already completely functioning body.  You’re not sure how things are going to respond or work.

When we bring the baby home the children are both napping and so we take this opportunity to set up a large toy kitchen set (complete with food and utensils) as well as a wooden toy train set (complete with sliding doors) in our living room.  When they finally arise with blurry eyes and pillow creased faces, Jade and I say, “HI!  HELLO!  WE’RE BACK!  LOOK WHAT BABY BRYCE BROUGHT YOU!  LOOK WHAT BABY BRYCE GOT FOR YOU!  SHE KNOWS YOU LOVE TRAINS!  SHE KNOWS YOU LOVE TO COOK!  WASN’T THAT NICE OF HER?!” and we pause uncomfortably to see if the rabbits have taken the bait and, slowly, large (albeit shy) smiles spread across their seraph faces and they each go to work, Quinn making burgers and Rory wheeling in the beef.

Later that night Quinn is begging to hold the baby.  The next day Rory is clawing at my face, demanding his turn with Bryce.  I set the baby gently on his lap and prep myself for anything; the best, the worst.  He slowly bends down and, while I debate whether he’s going to gently kiss her or bite off her ear, he presses his lips against her forehead and says, “That’s my sister.  That’s Baby Bryce,” and then he smiles and I know everything will be okay.

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From 9am until 8:30pm I lead my first life; the life of a Father of Three.  I play with Rory and Quinn, pushing trains around on the floor and chasing them around the house, cradling a baby in one arm.  I growl and hiss like a monster, threatening to snare them in my grasps, the baby barreling along with me, bored and asleep, a piece of the game without even knowing it.

I take Roar & Quinnie to the park, I walk with Quinn to the grocery store, I read a book about shapes to Rory.  I change diapers and the children watch; Rory hands me wipes and Quinn hands me a diaper and they both ask, “What is thaaaat?” and point to Bryce’s shriveled up umbilical stem sticking out of her belly button like a dried root and… quite simply, it’s really difficult to describe what its purpose is, exactly, in a language a 2 year old will grasp.  I say, “That’s her… belly button… uh… umbilical cord.  It’s where she was getting food… she, uh… she ate out of it when… she was inside mommy’s tummy…”  I stop talking.  The whole thing sounds way too crazy to believe.  Both kids stare at me like I’m trying to address the Sasquatch mythos.  I try to change the subject by I telling Rory to pay attention because, “Someday you’ll be a Daddy and you’ll have to change diapers,” and he stares at me, looking kind of horrified but then lifts up a wipe and says, “I help you.”

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We dress the baby, which, by the way, is tantamount to dressing a kitten in a sweater, it’s small limbs pushing the exact opposite way you’re trying to manipulate them, contracting and stretching at just the wrong time.  We walk back out into the living room where Jade tells me that she and her mother are leaving me alone and I’m suddenly outnumbered three to one.  Knowing the odds are against me, I fire up He-Man and The Masters of the Universe and curl up on the couch with the oldies but goodies.  We watch He-Man save the day again and again, simply punching his way to success.  When evil has been thwarted and the likes of Skeletor, Beastman and Trap-Jaw have been sent running, he transforms back into boring old Prince Adam until next week when fate calls on him to unleash his secret identify – his Second Life.

Bryce wakes up during He-Man’s second adventure and I lift her up and put her on my lap and stick my pinky in her mouth because I don’t feel like picking up breast feeding this late in the game.  Quinn reaches over and pats Baby’s chest and says, “Shhhhh,” and Rory says, “Baby cryin'” and I say, “That’s alright.  That’s what babies say,” and Quinn says, “Stop crying, Baby,” and Bryce does… then she sneezes and Rory says, “Say excuse me, Bryce,” and I actually look down at her to see if she’s going to respond, leaving me with a tale so bizarre no one would ever believe.

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The episode ends and I walk into the children’s bedroom, find their pull-ups and their pajamas and say, “Okay… I need you two to really help out Daddy tonight,” and I look at their pull-ups and I look at the baby in my arms whose screams are only being subdued by my finger jammed in her gob.  I say, “Can you guys put on your underwear alone?” and they both say, “Nope,” and I say, “I KNOW YOU CAN!” and I try to pump them up, “LET’S SEE YOU DO IT!  JUST TRY!” and they both pick up toys and begin examining them.  Rory pulls off his pants and says, “Daddy, help.”

I put the baby down and she immediately starts to grunt and grumble and so I act as quickly as I can while the children act slowly and distractedly, more interested in the gurgling pink blob than in getting their jammies on.  “HEY!  PAY ATTENTION!  HEY!  RIGHT HERE!  FOOT IN HERE!  HEY!”

I get the two Walkers dressed and now we’re all prepared; the three of us ready to take on the night… if only I had a breast filled with leche… or if this baby were eating from a bottle yet…  I text Jade and say, “Baby freakin’ like a Mohican,”  She texts back and says, “On way!”  I sit in the living room with the three of them, my tribe, as we watch Prince Adam do what needs to be done in order to keep Eternia together.  I have my left arm around Quinn, my right arm around Rory, buckled back over his chest and my pinky stuck in Bryce’s mouth, my body bent and jarred at an odd angle to try and keep my own city peaceful.

Jade returns with her mother and we put Rory and Quinn to bed and this is The Moment wherein my life typically splits.  The first half of the day I am a noisy monster, a troll under a bridge, a hide-and-seek master and commander but then, from 9pm-8am, I have a second life wherein everything is quiet and calculated and meticulous and delicate.  I sit on the couch and I hold the baby and we stare at Bryce and listen to the house settling and distant traffic.  Everything is calm and reflective like a pond’s surface.

We go to bed and, while our children and any current guests sleep soundly in beds and on couches throughout the house, we fall asleep knowing we’ll be up in a few hours with the moon still hanging high in the Western sky..  I shut my eyes and dream about a forest.  Jade nudges me and says it’s time to change the baby.  I sit up and turn on the light, turn on my phone, turn on music.  Pearl Jam plays, Bush plays, Soundgarden plays.  I’m standing in my baby blue boxer briefs and a white t-shirt, singing Black Hole Sun to a six day old while I change a diaper.  This is what it looks like when Grunge Grows Up.

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The baby pees on the changing table and I clean it up, pat her butt, put her diaper on, put the onesie on, put the jammies on and then think to myself how strange it is that I am genuinely and unabashedly unashamed that I just used the word “jammies”.

I lie back down in bed and place the baby between us, fall back asleep, dream of forests and… my bedroom door opens and Quinn enters.  She’s completely naked save for a bib with a pouch on it that’s been filled with gold fish crackers.  She squeals and says, “MY BABY IS AWAKE!!” and lunges onto the bed.  “I WANT TO HOLD HER!!”

Slowly, slowly, my two lives are merging into one.  The limbs and the body are uniting.  Life is moving forward.  Everything is coming together.

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DEAR BABY 3

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Baby 3,

It’s currently 8:20 in the morning on a Sunday, exactly one day before you will be born into this universe.  Your mother lies next to me, still sleeping and me, feeling her belly, I seem to think that you are sleeping as well.

Two nights ago I laid my face on her tummy and hummed a song to you before lying my finger on her belly button, pressing, and saying, “BEEEP”.  You shifted quickly and some part of you bumped hard into my cheek.  Your mother said, “The baby just slapped you!”

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I kiss you and think, “You’re right there.  You’re right there.”  I lie my hand on you; your hand, your back, your head; and I wonder what you’ll look like; blonde hair, red hair, black hair; blues eyes, brown eyes, hazel?  Will you strongly resemble Rory and Quinn as they strongly resemble one another or will you stand out all on your own?

There is nothing in this world like the anticipation of a parent wanting to meet their child for the first time and these days just cannot seem to pass fast enough.  Tomorrow we see you.  Tomorrow we hold you.  Tomorrow we name you.

We don’t even know if you’re a boy or a girl!  It’s a big day for all three of us.  Listen, the very first thing you’re ever going to do when you enter this world, is change my life.  That’s your first act!

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I’ll be straight with ya, kid… we’ve got a really solid girl’s name picked out and we’ve got a couple options for boy’s names but no middle names paired up with them yet.  We’re sort of hoping that you’ll just let us know when you show up.  But, this is how it was with your brother and sister as well.  We knew we’d use Rory but Quinn was still up in the air between that and Harper.

It’s the night before Christmas, Disneyland, space travel!  Those are just three things that really excite me… the third a hopeful possibility for the near future… We’ve got a place all ready for you; a bed right by us, warm hearts and big arms.  Your brother and sister are excited for your arrival as well.  Last night, an hour after going to bed, Rory opened his bedroom door and said, “Dad?” and I said, “Yes, Rory?” and he said, “Baby’s comin’ soon,” and I said, “That’s right!  Are you excited?”  and he said, “Yes.  Excited,” and I said, “Good boy.  Go back to sleep,” and the door shut.

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Your Aunt Theresa texted me this morning and said I’d better not keep them waiting tomorrow.  She demands that I send out all information on you just when you arrive!  Your Grandma June is here now, patiently awaiting your stage call and your Grandma Kathy will be here in just a few short weeks to take second shift.

Baby Boy or Girl, I already love you with more tenacity than I could’ve thought possible.  Tomorrow morning, in a cold white room, I’ll hold you in my arms and kiss you on the cheek and say, “Welcome to the Universe,” and you will answer all of the long thought questions I’ve pondered over the last nine months.

I love you and will see you shortly,

Dad

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KID COUNTDOWN: DAY 0

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Dear Rory and Quinn,

I remember a day, not that long ago, when your mother and I were sitting on our kitchen floor together late, late at night, staring at our photo wall and reminiscing over various trips, adventures and explorations we’d gone on together.  This was back before she was pregnant, back before I had cancer, back even before the thought of children was something “real”.  This is back when we simply spoke of these things in thoughts that mostly began with, “Imagine when…” and, “Could you ever imagine…”

She asks me how many kids I’d like to have and I ask her if she’d rather have a boy or girl first.  She tells me she’s always wanted a daughter with bright red hair and I tell her I want to learn to camp and be an “outdoors” family.  I lie down and she puts her head on my stomach and I run my fingers through her hair and I shut my eyes and try to imagine what our child would look like; a game I’ve never been very good at; like staring into a crystal ball, all I can make out is fog and blurry figures.

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She asks, “What if we can’t have kids?” and I say, “We’ll steal one.”  She laughs and my eyes float over pictures of me with Kaidance and Jade with Clementine and the four of us – two humans and two dogs – driving down some unmarked dirt road with cows and pasture in the background.  Jade asks me if I think it’ll be weird and I say, “I don’t know,” and she says, “Like, this… what we’re doing.  What we are.  This dynamic… Will it be gone forever?” and again I say, “I don’t know…”

She sits up and looks at me and says, “But it’s kind of exciting, isn’t it?  It’s like, Hi, welcome.  Welcome to our weirdness.  Bring your own special brew and add it to the mix,” and then she mimes stirring a cauldron.  She says, “Our kids are probably going to be kind of weird, huh?” and I say, “Hopefully.”

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She sighs happily and lies back down and the two of us stare at that photo wall for the next five years while pictures come and go and people come and go and friends come and go and disease comes and goes and then you’re here, infiltrating our home and our hearts and our photo wall, taking over everything, one frame of existence at a time.

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I remember Quinn rolling over for the first time in the living room.  I remember her rolling over for the second time on the changing table and me thrashing out blindly in the dark and catching her halfway to the floor.  I remember teaching Rory to walk on our Christmas vacation in Montana; me on one side of the room and Grandma June on the other, Rory waddling and weaving back and forth.  I remember the first time Quinn walked all the way to the grocery store and back all by herself… I mean without assistance.  Obviously, I didn’t send my one year old to the store alone…

I remember when you both started sleeping through the night and I remember teaching you your colors and how to count to ten and basic animal noises.  I remember when you each started properly pedaling on your tricycles and climbing up and down stairs and jumping off of furniture and brushing your own teeth and potty training and speaking in complete sentences.

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I have had so much fun with the two of you over the last two and a half years and I cannot wait to see what the future holds for us.  You two are the absolute coolest people I know and you make me laugh every single day and bring more happiness to me than I probably deserve.

Thank you for reminding me of compassion and humanity and kindness.  Thank you for showing me how to accept those around me without asking questions.  Thank you for showing me a renewed sense of adventure and for challenging me to be the best man and father I possibly can be.

Thank you.

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Now, I need you to do it again.  I need you to help me.  Tomorrow a very special package is being delivered into our care and I need the two of you to help your mom and I make sure that he or she feels welcomed into The Weirdness.  I need you to show The Baby everything you’ve shown to me.  I want the four of us – two adults and two children – to lie on the kitchen floor and stare at that photo wall and watch a new invader populate the frames with us.

Tomorrow, our lives are changing forever.  Together.

Tomorrow is an enormous day.

Shut your eyes… can you picture their face?

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KID COUNTDOWN: DAY 1

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Lying in bed last night, Jade and I staring at her belly, we watched The Baby shift and move under her skin.  With only two days to go we’re in The Zone wherein her belly most resembles something out of a cheap sci-fi movie.  Her guts shift and move, maneuver with liquid ease.  The right side is solid with ridges and divots; running my palm over her stomach feels like she’s swallowed a handful of oddly shaped rocks.

In the other room Quinn screams.  I ignore it because… well, this is what Quinn does sometimes.  She doesn’t necessarily want or need anything… except to see if one of us will appear at her whim.  When Jade and I still owned Kaidance (our large Rhodesian Ridgeback for any first time readers) we could hear her bark and know what she wanted or needed.  If there was someone in our yard, coming through our gate, she had a very aggressive, violent sound.  If she wanted to go outside or eat, she had a very high-pitched yip.  If she was happy that we’d returned from a long day out, she would just have this very middle of the road bark, neither aggressive nor naggish.

Don’t be fooled.  Infants and toddlers are no different than your run of the mill domestic canine.  When they cry, they tell you exactly what they need and you either give it to them or you don’t.  And sometimes, in my opinion, what they need, is to be ignored.  If I go running in there in the middle of some fit they’re having, the only thing I’ve taught them is that if they cry long enough and loud enough that it is I, and not they, that will finally break.  No, thank you.  This is MY house!

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Now, I can already hear the rustling in the seats and the hands going up and the objections being raised.  Listen.  I’m by no means suggesting you fully ignore your child.  Children are small creatures who need our help to survive but… I’m just saying that we, as adults, should just make sure that they need our help before we go in and smother them in it.  Baby bird needs to learn to fly on its own.

In fact, even as I write this, Rory sleeps while Quinn sits in their room saying, “Dad!  Moo!  Dad!  Dad!  Dad!  Moooooooo!” and I can’t tell if she’s hoping to genuinely garner my attention or if she’s mocking my weight, hoping to lure me in with insults.  In any event she does not need me and if I ran to my children at the first fart they made, I’d spend all day chasing smoke.

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Quinn and Rory have been sleeping through the night since they were six months old and we have people approach us on a regular basis and say, “You guys are so blessed to have kids that were born such good sleepers,” and we just smile and nod but let me say this now…  These two kids showed up at my front door with a predisposition for screaming and full moon parties.  In fact, for the first few months we owned them, we were sure they were at least partly feral (and in most regards, they were).  Children are wild animals – I say this with complete sincerity.  They run on instinct alone and it is our job to train them, not the other way around.

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The Belly twitches and adjusts itself, sending ripples and waves over the surface.  I lean down and place my face on her stomach and kiss her taut skin.  I hum a song; just random notes that I think sound soothing.  I place my finger in her belly button and say, “BEEEEEP,” and something hits me on the cheek.  A fist?  A hand?  A foot?  An elbow?  A buttocks?  I have no idea.  The Baby just slapped me across the face with a tiny brick and Jade says, “You just got slapped!” and Iaughs.

Quinn screams again, louder, same tone.  I roll over onto my back and ask Jade if she thinks it’s a boy or a girl.  She says, “I don’t know.”  Quinn screams one more time and then nothing, silence.  A moment later I hear her little feet march back to bed, I hear springs squeak under her weight and then, truly, silence.

I say, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if it just had completely jet black hair?  Just totally left field from The Children of the Damned?”  Jade nods and The Baby shifts again.  I say, “AH!  I’m so flipping excited!  I just want to cut you open and take a look!” and she says, “Uh… don’t, though.”

She says, “Are you going to watch the C-Section?” and I say, “I hope so!  I want to!”  I say, “Let’s put a smile on that belly!”  Jade says, “Are you ready for this?” and I say, “It doesn’t matter, does it?”

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I pick up a book and Jade tinkers on the laptop for a bit and my eyes start to get drowsy, heavy, sleepy.  The words on the page start to blend together and I read and reread and reread the same paragraph two, three, four times.  Just get to the end of the chapter, I say to myself.  One… more… page…

Everything goes dark and then Quinn is screaming.  Screaming.  Not crying.  Her voice is in full tilt wailing, red faced, most likely.  The world comes back into focus and the blurry edges turn crisp and everything is sharp.  I hop out of bed, certain that someone has finally actually broken into my house to steal my children.  I open the bedroom door and jog down the hallway, reach out to push open the door and…

…Quinn is lying in bed, chest down, holding her head up and howling (again, picture a feral wolf) while Rory is dead asleep.  I stand in the doorway and say, “What are you doing?  What’s wrong?” and she says, “My leg!  My leg is stuck!  Dad!” and I imagine a coyote in a bear trap sounding not dissimilar.  I swing open the gate, saunter over to the bed and, assuming she’s somehow entangled her foot in the iron bars, I give her a tug but… no, she doesn’t move.  She truly is stuck.  Rory, still sprawled out on the bed, doesn’t even stir when I jostle the mattress getting up and down.

I lean back, grab the head board and pull once, hard.  The bed slides across the floor a few inches, scraping along the fake wood, and I reach down, grab her by the waistband on the back of her PJs and lift her into the air, free of danger.  I say, “Are you okay?” and she says, “Yeah,” and I say, “Good.  I love you.  Go to bed.”

Rory still sleeps.  Neither of them make another noise until morning.

I go back into our bedroom and lie down next to Jade.  I put my hand on her tummy and say, more to the baby than to my wife, “You see that?  Take note.  You’re next, little fella.”

I kiss the baby and go to sleep, thinking about the restless nights that await me later this week with midnight feedings.

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KID COUNTDOWN: DAY 2

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I put the kids in pull-ups and dress Quinn in her jammies before chasing Rory down, pinning him to the ground and wrestling him into his footies.  He screams and laughs and swats at me the entire time while I do impressions of Macho Man Randy Savage and say, “I’m gonna come at ya from the top rope!  And I’m gonna give you the elbow!  And I’m gonna drop you to the mat, see!  I’m gonna pin you down for the big ah-1-ah-2-and-ah-3-count!  The ref is going to ring that bell and I, NOT YOU, will be the reigning Heavy Weight Cham-peen of the World!” and Rory stands up, clothed in black and white stripes and points at me and says, “………..NO!” and then me, in my regular voice, I say, “Roar, you gotta work the crowd a little more.  They came for a show.”

Quinn jumps on my back and I spin her around my body like a swing dancer, dropping her onto the wood floor.  I grab her by the feet and say ONE-TWO-THREEEEE! and then I push her as hard as I can, sending her sliding across the room.  Rory shouts, “MY TURN!” and lies down.  I say ONE-TWO-THREEEEE!” and I slide him as hard as I can even though he only travels about half the distance since he weighs about twice as much.

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Quinn comes back, Rory comes back, Quinn comes back, Rory comes back, Quinn comes back, Rory lies down and points under the couch and says, “I put that there,” and I say, “What’s that?” and he says, “Look.  I put that there,” and I lie down on the floor and stare under the couch.  I see a bunch of dirt, a couple of toys, an old string cheese wrapper and a container of sour cream.

I say, “You, uh… which one did you put under there?” and he says, “Blue one,” which, of course, is referring to the sour cream and I say, “When did you do this?” and he says, “Don’t know.”  I shudder at the thought of what could be inside the container.  I grab the lid and pull it out, leaving a streak of wetness in its wake.  Jade gags and says, “Just throw it away,” but I say, “No… we should look.  We need to look.  We need…. to know… what’s in here,” and she says, “No.  No we don’t,” but I say, “Could still be good,” and then I rip the cap off and wish I hadn’t.

Rory says, “Is that gross?” and I say, “Yes.  Very,” and I throw it away.

When I come back Rory is playing with Clementine and I sit down and then briefly look away to watch Quinn when he suddenly screams and starts weeping with such force that I’m certain Clementine has finally bit him.  I look.  No blood.  Clementine slowly walks away (human emotions make her very uncomfortable).  I say, “What’s wrong?” and Rory says, “AAAAHHHH!” and I say, “Did you poke yourself in the eye?” and Rory says, “NOOOOOO!” and I say, “What happened?” and Rory says, “CLEMENTINE….. LICKED……MY EYE!” and sure enough, his eye is all red and irritated from the dog’s rough tongue.

I say, “It’s okay.  She was probably just trying to drink your tears.  They keep her young”.

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I push Rory across the floor again and I push Quinn across the floor again and then Rory lies down but says, “DON’T THROW ME IN THE FAN!” (referring to a box fan on the floor with no cover and spinning blades exposed) and I say, “Uh…. okay….” and I wind up to slide him but he twists his head at the last moment to look at the fan and then his whole body sort of follows suit and he just kind of rolls instead of rocketing out and I say, “You can’t turn your head when I’m doing this – you have to – you have to just stare at the ceiling,” and he says, “No…… no….. don’t throw me in the fan,” and I say, “Rory.  Why would I throw you in the fan?” and he says, “No…..” and I say, “Besides, even if I WANTED to throw you in the fan-” and Quinn lies down in front of me as I say, “I couldn’t.  Watch, I’ll even try to throw Quinn in the fan – I can’t push you guys that far,” and then Quinn is standing up and saying, “No!  No!  Dad, no!  Don’t push me into the fan!” and I say, “I’m… okay, I’m sorry I said that.  I’m not going to push you into the fan.  I was just making a point that if I wanted to, I probably couldn’t – or rather – couldn’t.  Watch.  Quinn, lie down.”

She does so and I say, “ONE!  TWO!  THR–” and she tilts her head to look at the fan and I stop because I’m just going to send her rolling head over heels if she does that and she says, “Dad?” and I say, “Yes, Quinn?” and she says, “Don’t throw me into the fan.”

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I stand up and say, “It’s bedtime.  Let’s get outta here,” and Rory runs into the kitchen and opens the fridge and says, “I want this,” and he holds out a bag of small peppers.  I open the bag and hand it to him, watching as he examines each color in turn, finally settling on a fat orange one.  “THIS one,” he squeals, handing me the bag back before running off.  Quinn enters the kitchen, stares at Rory with his pepper, stares at me holding the bag of peppers and I’m of course expecting her to ask for one so I sort of freeze but instead she just runs off.

I zip up the bag, open the fridge and put them back… just as she runs back in all alone and says, “Dad!  I want a pepper!” and so I pull the bag back out and open it up and hand it to her and she examines each color in turn before fixating on a specific red one and then vanishing into her bedroom where I follow closely behind.

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Inside, I tell them to get in bed and that we’re going to say our prayers and then read a book and they both get very excited about prayers when we’re going to read a book afterwards so they curl in very close to me and repeat everything I say with equal measures of earnest and enthusiasm.

After prayers are over I read a story about The Bernstein Bears trying to find a place to have a picnic while constantly being plagued by garbage trucks, school children, mosquitoes, rain, lightening and locomotives.  At the end, in case you were wondering, they have a picnic at their kitchen table.  Full circle.

I close the book and say, “THE” and both children in unison shout, “END!” and then I pick up Quinn’s cabbage patch doll and I cradle it in my arms and I say, “Shhh…. shhhh,” and I bounce it up and down and rock it back and forth and say, “Baby wants to sleep.  Are you both ready for the new baby?” and I say, “Rory, do you want to hold the baby?” and he says, “Yeah,” and so I hand it to him and he cradles it and says, “Shhh…” and then throws the baby at Quinn and I say, “We probably shouldn’t do that.”  Then, while I pick up the doll and begin to cradle it again, Rory strikes out at it and I wonder if this is going to be a recurring theme over the next few weeks.

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I hand the doll back to Quinn and I grab Rory and say, “I’ll cradle you!” but he’s not very happy about it and starts screaming and thrashing about so I just start chewing on his ear and he starts laughing and hides under his blankets.  I give Quinn eye kisses (left eye to left eye, right eye to right eye, butterfly kisses) nose kisses, (nose to nose, eskimo kisses) and then kiss kisses and then do the same to Rory before turning their music box on and saying goodnight and walking away.

For the next 30 minutes I sit in the living room, rubbing Jade’s back while we watch Parenthood and listen to the gentle noises of the children not sleeping.  Eventually, I stand up and walk back into their bedroom to find them both sitting on the floor playing with toys.  They both scurry under the covers like gophers but, instead of instructing them, I kick off my boots and lie down, curling them both close to me, Rory at my side, snuggled in the crook of my arm and Quinn on my chest, listening to my heart.

I rub their backs and I think, “This is it.  We’re in the final stretch now.”

And, like the finale of a great drama, it is the perfect way to end things.

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