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“Mom and him are obsessed with each other. They met when they were eighteen. And they’re always hugging, and kissing, and dancing in the kitchen. So we grew up around a lot of love. But Dad has always been more of the ‘Acts of Service’ type. Every night at 8pm, he’d come to all our bedrooms to collect dishes that needed to be washed. And he always took the morning shift. It was his job to wake us up, and make us breakfast, and pack our lunches for school. He’d use a little brown paper bag, and draw a heart on the front with our name inside. He made thousands of these bags, and they always included a stick figure drawing. It might be a picture of me scoring a soccer goal, or joining a club, or getting a part in a school play. Sometimes it would be an inside joke of some sort. He especially loved to quote Disney movies. Mulan most of all. But we were never embarrassed. Our friends loved the bags too. Everyone loves our dad. When my sister’s friend decided to become a baker, he’s the one who tasted everything she made. And when my best friend got benched on our soccer team, Dad wrote her a letter to build her confidence. That’s how he is with everyone. And he’s still that way, even with everything that’s happened. We began to notice the shaking at the end of last year. Then there started to be long pauses. And difficulty remembering. He was diagnosed with ALS, and the doctors have given him 2 to 5 years to live. He didn’t even cry when he found out. But he’d tear up every time he had to tell another friend or family member. Because he knew how much we’d hurt. It’s such a devastating disease. It’s really painful to watch someone we love so much go through this. He still runs every morning—he wants everyone to know that. But that will go one day. And so will his voice. And so will his hands. I know he’s really scared of that. He doesn’t want to lose his hands, because that’s how he’s always shown his love. When my youngest brother graduated from high school this year, we made my dad his own brown paper bag. We drew a picture of the three of us holding him up. And we wrote our favorite quote from Mulan: “The greatest gift and honor-- is having you for a father.”
“I was raised by my grandmother. And any little thing could trigger her. One time I got mad and told her: ‘You’re not my mom.’ I was only six years old. But she put me on an airplane to go live with my mother for a month, who I didn’t even know. My grandfather James had to drop me off at the airport-- and both of us were sobbing. But he didn’t have any say in the matter because he wasn’t my biological grandfather. James was my grandmother’s second husband, and she abused him as much as me. He had been given two medals during World War II, which he kept in his dresser-- but he wasn’t the ‘alpha male type.’ My grandmother walked all over him. But James was the only source of kindness that I ever had. When my grandparents got divorced, we moved into a small apartment together. He became more of a roommate than a father. During the week he’d go to work. And I’d go to school. Then on Saturday nights we’d get dinner together. There wasn’t much guidance. We didn’t have critical conversations. He was just a nice guy— that was it. James always seemed a bit two-dimensional to me. But right before I graduated high school he was admitted to the hospital with chest pains. And I was fishing around in his wallet for an insurance card, when an old black-and-white photo fell out. It was a picture of a young man in uniform. I asked James if it was him, and he said: ‘No, that’s Leatherwood.’ He then told me a story about how he’d fallen sick during the war, and a young man named Hilliard Leatherwood had taken his place. Soon afterward Leatherwood was captured by the Germans and executed. My grandfather always felt like it should have been him instead. He felt like he owed Leatherwood a debt, and he’d been carrying that photo for 50 years. For a brief moment I was given a window into a whole different man. One that had lived an entire life before I was born. My grandfather passed away on Thanksgiving Day 2002. He’d been the only adult member of my family that hadn’t rejected me. And without him I don’t know where I’d be today. I keep that picture of Leatherwood with me, to remember the man who saved my grandfather. And to honor how my grandfather saved me.”
“My mom said: ‘Val has something to say to you.’ I was sitting on the stairwell, crying. And he knew right away that I was pregnant. He didn’t yell. He didn’t say anything. He just started pacing. But I knew what he was thinking: I was eighteen years old, I was his only daughter, and he thought that having a child would ruin my life. When he finally stopped pacing, he told me: you can either get an abortion or leave the house. I knew then that I’d be entirely on my own. I started saving money from each paycheck to spend on clothing and supplies. But I had no idea what I was going to do when the baby came. My father wasn’t speaking to me. There was no eye contact. No nothing. Not that he’d ever been good at expressing his emotions. His mother had died when he was a baby. He’d had a tough life. From the outside like he didn’t care, but my mother told me that he was crying himself to sleep every night. After a few weeks he began to soften. He asked to see the sonogram. It wasn’t exactly a celebration—but at least he asked to see it. On the day of my C-section, dad spent that day drinking alone—which he rarely did. He was pretty drunk by the time I left for the hospital. He didn’t say a thing. My mom just looked at him and shook her head. But I was in the hospital for five days after my son was born, and every day my dad would visit. He’d bring us food. He’d hold my son for hours at a time. And when I came back home, there was a letter waiting for me on my bed. I’ve only read it twice in my life. Because it makes me cry too much. But he apologized for his behavior. And he said that we were going to be fine. My son is eight years old now. And whenever it’s Father’s Day at school, he brings home art for Papa. The two of them are inseparable. They’re always playing something. My son is always giving him hugs, and kisses, and saying ‘I love you.’ And Papa says it back. It’s the only time he ever says it to anyone. With my son he has no choice. It’s not in Papa’s nature to be affectionate. But it’s my son’s nature. He’s so open and natural with his emotions. He’ll give love for no reason at all, and his Papa has no choice but to accept it.”
“We were flying to Acapulco on the day after our wedding. There was another couple sitting in front of us, and I pointed them out to my husband because the woman had a huge rock on her finger. Later we saw the same couple at our hotel check-in, so we decided to introduce ourselves. It turned out that they’d also gotten married the day before. The woman introduced herself as Dee, and we hit it off immediately. The four of us ended up spending our entire honeymoon together. There was a lot of alcohol-- so it’s kinda a blur. I think we did the cliff diving thing. And I remember Dee getting sunburned so bad that she soaked her feet in the hotel ice bucket. But mainly I just remember a lot of laughing. At the end of the trip, Dee and I agreed to keep in touch. We went on more vacations together. We raised our kids together. Our marriages didn’t last, but our friendship did. It’s been thirty years since Acapulco and we’re closer than we’ve ever been. I probably spoke to her five times yesterday—just about nothing. Every Friday and Saturday we have happy hour on the phone. We usually drink Cosmos, unless we’re drinking wine. Because recently Dee turned me on to white wine. She also got me into Birkenstocks. And birding. But I’m the one that got us into yoga. And body pillows. She still thanks me for the body pillows because they’ve done wonders for her shoulder pain. Last month she came to visit and we took up puzzling together. We did an entire puzzle featuring sixteen different types of succulents, then I took her to Big Lots. Dee’s always been snobby about discount stores, but she left with an eight-pack of hot sauce and an entire set of Christmas placemats. So I think I’ve turned her on to Big Lots. I don’t know—it’s nothing special. But Dee is the closest female friend I’ve ever had. She’s my soulmate. And we’ve both agreed that if neither of us meet a man, we’re going to retire together. We’re going to find a place in Asheville, and hike all day. And have a Cosmo every night. For the longest time we celebrated our anniversaries together on October 8th. But now we celebrate our Friendversary instead, on October 9th-- which is the day we met.”
“We took a belated honeymoon to Paris on our second anniversary. And we thought it would be sweet to mark the occasion by purchasing a book for our future child. We visited the Shakespeare and Co bookstore, and picked out ‘Madeline in Paris’ for a girl. Then we chose ‘The Little Prince,’ in case we had a son. The bookstore stamped our books, we wrote the date beneath, and we kind of forgot about them. We weren’t ready for children yet. We didn’t have the money and wanted to focus on our careers. But completely by accident—right after I turned thirty, we found out I was pregnant. I was more excited than anything. I’d always been such a planner. And now those plans were being disrupted. It felt magical, almost. Like my life was being guided by something bigger than me. My mom had me when she was thirty, so it felt like a sign. I thought: it’s going to be a girl, and we’re going to have this really close relationship. But my happiness didn’t last for long, because a short time later I suffered a miscarriage. It hit me hard. Harder than I would have expected. I’d always sorta felt that things happen for a reason, even bad things. But there was no reason to this. There wasn’t a silver lining. It was just sad—nothing else. I felt ashamed for being so depressed. Like I was making too big of a deal about it. But I think I was dealing with more than just the loss of a child. For the first time I’d lost my sense of control over life. I went back to focusing on my career, and three years later we decided to try again. This time we were ready. We had some savings. We had a small house, with an extra bedroom. But there was still a cloud over the entire pregnancy. It felt like something could go wrong at any time. But a few days after our eighth anniversary—I gave birth to our son. We brought him home. We set him up in his new nursery. And late one night, while I was trying to feed him in a rocking chair, I noticed his copy of ‘The Little Prince’ sitting in a basket. I picked it up, opened to the first page, and saw the bookstore stamp. Beneath it was the date, written by hand: July 16th, 2012. It had been exactly six years to the day of my son’s birth.”
“I lost a close friend to suicide during my senior year of high school. It was a really dark time for me. I kept thinking that I must have missed something, and that I could have been more supportive. The day after his funeral was particularly hard, so I drove out to the cemetery after school. It was the beginning of March. It was freezing. His grave didn’t even have a headstone yet, but I sat down on the ground and started to cry. After a few minutes I felt a hand on my shoulder. It freaked me out at first, because I’d thought I was alone. But I looked up and saw a man in his eighties. He told me his name was Jack, and asked me if I was OK. And I don’t know why—maybe because he was so much older, but I ended up telling him everything. He listened quietly, then he told me not to blame myself. And that the best way to honor someone was to live your life to the fullest. It was nothing too profound. And it was nothing that I hadn’t heard before. But it was something I needed to hear in that moment. Afterwards Jack told me that his wife Anna was buried at the cemetery. He told me that he visited her every day, and could still feel her presence, and he couldn’t wait to see her again. Then he asked if I’d like to visit her grave. From the way he’d spoken about her, I assumed that Anna had just passed away. But when we arrived at her marker, I saw that she’d been gone for sixteen years. We said our goodbyes, and Jack told me that he’d visit my friend’s grave whenever he stopped by the cemetery. And I promised to do the same for his wife. For years I kept that promise. I’d often find the same bouquet of flowers at both graves, so I knew that Jack was keeping his promise too. After I moved away for college, my trips to the cemetery grew further and further apart. Then a couple of years ago I went for a visit, and I couldn’t find Anna’s grave anywhere. I started to panic. But there were a lot of fall leaves on the ground, and it wasn’t an upright stone. So I thought maybe it was hidden. After a few minutes of searching, I finally found it. In the same place it had always been. Only this time there was a completely new gravestone-- and Jack’s name was on it too.”
(8/8) “Nancy doesn’t want to go. She’s freaked out. The whole thing feels like an episode of The Twilight Zone. But we get in the car and follow Vicky back to her house. And it’s getting weirder and weirder. Because we’re turning down all the same roads that we take to our country house. And we arrive at a driveway right down the street from where we live. My daughter has been growing up 1.5 miles from our house. That’s like your next-door neighbor when you’re living in the country. We walk in the door and this beautiful, beaming twelve-year old girl comes running down the stairs. She looks like me. She has my personality. Right away we hit it off. Vicky lets me take her ice skating one afternoon, and after that we start spending a lot of time together. She comes over to the house almost every weekend. She meets her little brothers. And she becomes a big part of our lives. She still is. But the whole time I never really confronted Vicky. I never asked the hard questions. Because I was too afraid of losing my daughter again. But over the years I slowly figured it out. First-- Vicky is a little bit crazy. No explanation works without that fact. But other than that, it wasn’t some grand thing. It wasn’t some blue blood conspiracy to keep a Jew out of the family. Vicky just didn’t want me. Or need me. And she had the power and the money to keep me away. But what about Blanche? Why did she play along? That one took me a lot longer to figure out. But remember that Blanche could see the future. She knew that Vicky was a control freak. Why else would she be dating a 21-year old kid? She chose me because I was weak. Blanche knew I would have spent my entire life under Vicky’s thumb. I wouldn’t have grown up. I wouldn’t have become my own man. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with my wife or had my kids. Blanche knew I needed to break away, but didn’t have the strength to do it on my own. At least that’s the story I’m telling myself. That’s the version that helps me sleep at night. Blanche and Jesus and The Universe were working together for the greatest possible good. But who knows? Maybe I was bamboozled. Maybe the whole thing was a con job from the very beginning.”
(7/8) “There were maybe six tables in the entire diner. Nancy and I sit down at one of them. We start looking at the menu. I’m thinking about the blueberry pancakes. Maybe the hash browns. When I look over at the two-top next to us, and right there. Right fucking there. It’s Vicky. A few extra gray hairs but clear as day. And I fucking flip out. The hair stands up on the back of my neck. My knees are shaking under the table. I get up and rush toward the exit. Now I’m out in the dirt parking lot, pacing around, waving my arms at Nancy, trying to get her to come outside. But she’s not moving. Because she’s pregnant with twins, and she’s starving. And she thinks I left the table because I shit my pants. I’ve never shit my pants in my entire life. But she thinks I shit my pants. After three minutes of waving like a lunatic she finally comes outside to see what’s going on, and I tell her: ‘That’s Vicky. That’s fucking Vicky.’ And now Nancy is freaking out. She tells me: ‘Start the car. Let’s get the fuck out of here.’ But I told her, ‘Nancy—I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to confront her. I’ve been waiting my entire life for this.’ By this time I’m thinking that I might actually shit my pants. I’m pacing around in small circles. Eventually I decide to wait right outside the exit of the diner, so Vicky has no chance of getting by me. I pull up the hoodie up on my sweatshirt. I’m watching through the window as she finishes her meal. My heart is about to beat out of my fucking chest. Now she’s paying the bill. She’s standing up and gathering her stuff. She walks toward the exit and opens up the door. And there she is. Right in front of my face. I said: ‘Vicky?’ She looks at me and says: ‘Oh, Hi Brett.’ In the calmest possible voice. Like none of the last fifteen years had fucking happened. ‘I knew I’d be seeing you,’ she said. ‘Because Blanche told me in a dream. Would you like to follow me home and meet your daughter?”
(6/8) “Vicky completely disappeared from my life. Along with my daughter. And the mystery of the whole thing nearly drove me crazy. I racked my brain for anything I could have said, or anything I could have done, that might have caused Vicky to turn on me. But I couldn’t figure it out. Over the years I invented all kinds of theories. At one point I decided it must have been Vicky’s grandmother-- that damn stuck-up WASP who never tasted a slice of pizza. Maybe she pulled Vicky aside one night, and told her: ‘If you marry this Jew actor, you’ll be cut off from the family.’ There was no other explanation. So for the longest time that’s what I believed. But what about Blanche? Why would she participate? That’s what really kept me awake at night. But I had to give up. I had to move on with my life. I found a good therapist. I fell in love with a wonderful woman named Nancy, and we got married. Five years later we were pregnant with twins. I still thought about my daughter all the time, but things were going good for me. Then one day I heard through the grapevine that Blanche had passed away. By this time I’m in my early thirties. Twelve years have passed since my daughter’s birth. I’m working in the city selling advertisements for the teen version of Elle Magazine. It’s just another Friday afternoon. I’m about to log off my computer for the weekend, when I come across one of those internet advertisements: ‘Find anyone for $9.99.’ So I decide to go for it. I enter my credit card number. I type in Vicky’s name, and it comes back with a phone number. I write it down on a sticky note and tape it to the top of my computer. That night I go home and say to my wife: ‘I’m not scared anymore, I’m a grown man. I’m calling that number first thing Monday morning.’ Then we packed all our stuff in the car, and headed to our country house in The Catskills. We’d been planning this trip for weeks. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. It was the same trip we’d taken a million times before. Only this time we decided to stop for lunch at a place off the interstate. Just a random, greasy spoon diner called Twiggy’s. On some random mountain. In the middle of fucking nowhere.”