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I Remember My Children

by Michael Fischer 1995

Prologue - 1986
Chapter 1: And Baby Makes Five - 1987-88
Chapter 2: Abigail's Day - 1989
Chapter 3: Little Bug And Little Brick - 1990
Chapter 4: Three Little Happy People - 1991
Chapter 5: The Lost Year - 1992
Chapter 6: The Lean Year - 1993
Chapter 7: The Last Year - 1994
Chapter 8: The Week of December 19, 1994
Chapter 9: Afterward
Epilogue - 1995
...but life goes on

This is my children's story. I am telling it because I think it deserves to be told, and no one left alive knows it better than I do. It's also my story, because my children changed my life as surely as I affected theirs. To a lesser extent, it's the story of a marriage that failed, and a blended family that didn't blend. But I haven't said much about these things, because that's not why I wrote this book.

God gave me seven and a half years to be Abigail's daddy, and four and a half years with Joshua and Rebecca. In that time, I changed more diapers, spooned out more strained carrots, gave more baths, and dried more tears than I ever knew existed. I also laughed, gave horsey rides, shared my cookies, and received the honest, unconditional love of the three most beautiful children in the world. These memories are my treasures, and I cannot be so selfish as to keep them to myself.

As you read this, I hope you will come away feeling that, in some way, you have come to know my children, even though you never had the chance to meet them. But most of all, to you who are raising children of your own, I hope one message comes across, louder and clearer than any other:

Love them like there's no tomorrow, because sometimes, tomorrow never comes.

Prologue - 1986

Nora Marchand showed up on my doorstep in January of 1986. I was living in a community farm in rural New Hampshire with two couples, Dennis & Linda Anfuso, and Phil & Kate McFarland, along with three dogs, three cats, four sheep, four chickens, and a cockatiel. We had bought the farmhouse with an eye to helping people in need, and Nora was neither the first nor the last person who found a helping hand at what we called Easter Morning Community Farm.

Nora had been married ten years to her first husband, Danny. Following his accidental death a year and a half ago, she had joined a religious sect in Dorchester, but their strictly regimented life was not for her. She happened to meet Linda one day, and was offered one of our spare rooms so she could have a place to get her life, and the lives of her two young daughters, back together.

They joined us in the late afternoon of an unseasonably-warm January day, aided by Nora's brother John Giesselman, his wife Monique, and two other friends of theirs. Phil had warned us that, after enduring an abusive husband, dealing with his death from a drug overdose, and fighting free of the smothering influence of the Dorchester sect, she probably had little mental energy left for levity, and that we should refrain from our usual round of puns, quotes from Monty Python's Flying Circus episodes, and good-natured verbal jabs at one another. But as we all sat around the huge dining-room table, someone made a comment that roused a Monty Python line from John —

"And there was much rejoicing."

Everyone at the table made the appropriate response: a half-hearted "Yay!" Phil looked embarrassed.

Nora and I got along surprisingly well. She was on one of her health-food kicks at the time, and was drinking a tea she made from hops. She said it tasted bitter, but was good for you, and that one of its alleged side effects was to reduce the libido. I slipped a handful of green M&M's into her jar of hops one day. She had never heard of the alleged effects of green M&M's, but once Dennis explained it to her, she laughed harder than he did.

Sarah was about to turn six years old, and Rachel was days from turning four. I hit it off with them almost immediately. I made a fishing game out of sticks, string, clothespins for hooks, and cardboard fish. They would sit on their top bunk and dangle their lines over the side, and I would lurk on the bottom bunk, putting fish in the clothespins and tugging on the lines. Sometimes I'd clip on my car keys, my glasses, or a small stuffed animal, just to make them laugh.

Rachel was precocious, no question about it. She had inherited her father's super-genius IQ; Nora told me she was speaking in complete sentences at age one. One day after church, as we sat in a restaurant, she went around the table and told us the meanings of our names. "Sarah means 'princess,'" she began, "and Rachel means 'little lamb,' and your name is Mike. That means 'tasty beverages.'"

Sarah was more standoffish, but her affection for me was just as real at the outset. When one of our roosters scratched her leg, I grabbed a water pistol and a trash-can lid (to use as a shield), and chased that rooster all over the front yard, hosing it down with the squirt gun and getting it as mad as a wet — well, rooster. Sarah clapped and cheered.

In early February, Nora pulled me aside and, convinced I would reject her, admitted that she was very attracted to me. Me? The guy who hadn't been on a date in five years, the guy who had struck out with every woman I was ever interested in? I never stopped to consider exactly how I felt about her — her attraction for me made her incredibly desirable, and I was sure the rest would fall into place.

I proposed to her in the last week of February. I was 25; she was 30. It was probably the quietest proposal in history. My voice failed completely, and I could only mouth the words, "Will you marry me?" She didn't even try to answer, but nodded vigorously. We hugged and kissed, and then asked the girls what they thought. They were all for it.

That was probably the high point of our relationship. Nora was suffering from a seizure disorder at the time, and I put a lot her subsequent anger down to mood swings, which could hopefully be controlled by medication. We had several bitter fights about the children; she threw down her engagement ring and stormed off at least twice. I found it easy to forgive her as long as I thought it was all due to her seizure disorder.

We married on June 7, 1986, and left for a two-week honeymoon at Lake Winnepesaukee, NH. We didn't exactly start off on a high note: she came down with the chicken pox on our wedding night.

Somewhere shortly after the second week, we experienced what might politely be called a "contraceptive failure." As soon as Nora knew she was pregnant, she went off her seizure medication; the seizures disappeared at that time and never returned. That's when I learned that her anger wasn't all seizure-oriented. I had grown up in a subdued home where emotional displays were unheard of. I didn't know how to deal with this.

Our fights grew more bitter. I felt she was far too lenient with the children; she resisted any suggestions from me and accused me of spending all my time on my personal computer instead of with her. Sadly, we were both right. She was also catching flak from the other members of the community farm, who tended to side with me, and the pressure was too much for her. In August, after two and a half months of marriage and one fight too many, she called a cab, packed her things, gathered the girls, and left me to rejoin her sect in Dorchester. From then until the day the results of our contraceptive failure arrived, I saw her only twice.

Chapter 1: And Baby Makes Five - 1987-88

It was very quiet in my room on March 29, as it usually was. I was working on one of the many computer games I had written, which no one but me ever wanted to play. Then the phone rang. It was my sister-in-law, Monique, with the news I'd been expecting but wasn't quite prepared for.

"Nora had a baby girl this morning. Do you want to come down and see her?"

"Yes! Absolutely!" I exclaimed — did they really think I wouldn't want to see my own baby?

Monique went on to tell me that her name was Abigail, and that Nora would expect me around 10:00 the next morning, and that none of her family would be there, so there wouldn't be any unpleasant scenes in the hospital room. I thanked her for calling, broke the news to my housemates, and began planning my trip from Lyndeborough, NH, to Providence, RI, to see my daughter for the first time.

I picked up a mutual friend named Monica the next morning and headed for the highway. But I took a wrong turn and passed four exits before I realized my error. Afraid that Nora would be angry and turn me away if I was late, I pushed my little Honda Civic up past 80 mph in my attempts to make up lost time. I rolled into the parking lot of Women & Infants Hospital, left Monica to park the car, and sprinted for the elevators.

It occurred to me afterwards that, because I'd seen Nora only twice since the separation, I'd had no chance to follow the pregnancy. So when I walked into that hospital room, it was as though the tiny person in her arms had appeared out of nowhere, as if by magic. I felt as though I were standing on holy ground; I think I might have tiptoed in.

Nora looked okay, if a bit tired. Lying in her arms was an 8-lb 5-1/2 oz mix of her and me, sound asleep, her little feet sticking out from under the blanket. I fell totally, hopelessly in love with that baby on the spot, and I knew it. (Nora knew it, too. She told me afterward that the look on my face made her want to throw her arms around me and hug me, but she wasn't sure how I would have reacted.)

Nora made small talk, describing her labor and delivery. She said the first thing Abigail did after being born was to stuff her entire fist into her mouth, then pick up her head and look around. "Strong baby," the doctor had said.

I gratefully accepted an offer to hold her while Nora ate her lunch. I tried to adjust the receiving blanket to cover her tiny feet, but she was such a long little thing that she just wouldn't fit. I remember asking about the tiny white specks on her face; Nora said they were called "milia" and that they'd disappear in a few days. I also recall worrying that her hands were deformed somehow, because they stayed inside the blanket and I didn't get a chance to look at them. But mostly I just stared at her, marvelling at how tiny and beautiful she was.

The visit ended before I was ready; Nora's parents wanted to visit her, and she thought they and I wouldn't mix well. I handed my little daughter back to her mother and quietly left, not knowing when I'd be able to see her again. My heart was aching already.

- # -

I wasn't too keen on the name Abigail, and I told Nora so on the phone a few days later. "All the Abby's I've ever known were homely, chubby, and pushy," I complained.

"Her name isn't Abby, it's Abigail," Nora corrected me firmly. "The name means, 'source of joy,' and I'm sure that's what she'll be."

Either way, there was nothing I could do about it. My daughter's name was Abigail Elizabeth Fischer, and that was that. I later learned that her name could also be interpreted, "her father's joy." Both translations turned out to be perfectly accurate.

- # -

I was invited to John & Monique's house in Attleboro, Mass., to visit Nora and the kids — Nora had moved in with them after leaving the Dorchester cult again. Abigail was so tiny, and I think she slept the whole time I was there. Nora asked if I would want to reconcile. I said yes, most emphatically, I did want to get back together. She and the Giesselmans were looking for a larger place to live, and when they found one, that would be a good time for me to move to Massachusetts.

I visited them once more in that house. They had found a bigger house for rent at 12 Alden Drive, and had signed an agreement with the landlord to move there in a week or so. We toured the house and decided who would sleep where, then returned to the house in Attleboro. Sarah and Rachel played with me outside for a while, until it was time to go. I wanted to kiss Abigail goodbye, but she was sound asleep in her crib. So tiny, so beautiful, so helpless... I fell down on my knees next to the crib and cried out loud, "I don't want to leave!" Thankfully, I didn't wake her.

- # -

We all moved into 12 Alden Drive in April of 1987. My housemates in New Hampshire had agreed not to hold me responsible for my share of the mortgage on the farmhouse — they thought it was more important that I try to repair my family. (They bought out my share of the farm within a year, leaving me free and clear.) John and Monique lived downstairs, converting the living room into a bedroom by erecting a home-made closet across the entryway. Nora and I lived upstairs in one of the three bedrooms, with Abigail's room next door and the older girls in what probably was meant to be the master bedroom.

Nora and I still didn't know how to get along with each other. Her brother and sister-in-law tried to stay out of it, but that was difficult when we lived under the same roof, and staying neutral was impossible when their sister was involved. Their relations with me were polite but distant.

I tried again with Sarah and Rachel. It was an uphill battle, but I won a few small victories. I wrote half a dozen computer games for them, including one with a split screen so they could both play at once, but not compete against each other; it quickly became their favorite. Sarah was learning to ride a bicycle at this time, and once when she fell off and hurt herself, she wanted me, not Mommy, to carry her into the house. But they knew Mommy was mad at me a lot, and that meant I could never truly win their hearts.

Abigail's little personality was already emerging. For one thing, she was very curious. This meant that, when it was time for her to nurse, Sarah and Rachel had to leave the room, and sometimes I left as well, because the slightest sound or motion would distract her and stop her from nursing. But once she began in earnest, she would twirl her little foot back and forth; we took that as a sign that she was contented.

I couldn't nurse her, of course, but I did just about everything else that a daddy can do for his little girl. Under Nora's well-practiced eye, I quickly learned to change diapers with all kinds of things in them, run a bath at the right temperature, and get a squirming baby into a clean pair of pajamas. Nora didn't have to talk me into it — it seemed obvious that she was my daughter, too, and I ought to play a role in caring for her.

I vividly recall the day she discovered how to splash in her little tub. She was about four months old. Nora and Monique had gone out shopping together, and it was Abigail's bath night. I set her tub on the bathroom counter, as we had always done, and filled it. After shampooing her hair, I sat her up in the tub to rinse her off. She brought both hands down into the water, and was delighted with the resulting splash. She did it again. And again. And again. When Nora and Monique returned, the bathroom was almost awash, I was drenched from head to toe, and Abigail was still splish-splashing away, a very serious look on her face. From that day on, we put her tub inside the full-sized bathtub, and kept an extra towel or two on hand.

- # -

When it was time to get her up from her nap, we would open the door a crack and ask, "Is there a baby in here?" That was her cue to smile and perk up, because we were about to "rescue" her from her crib.

Nora discovered a game that we never quite understood. She would hold her and say, "Peep, peep, peep, peep, peep!" in a high-pitched voice. Abigail would break out in a huge smile and flop her head onto her mommy's shoulder, then sit back up and wait for Nora to do it again. She didn't do it for me very often; maybe she thought it was a game for mommies only.

She certainly had her own ideas about who was allowed to do what. The main rule seemed to be, "Mommy rocks, Daddy walks." I could not get her to sit still in a rocking chair with me, regardless of her mood, while she would sit and rock with Nora for hours. But when she wanted to be held and walked around the room, Daddy was the only one for the job. That suited Nora, who didn't have the endurance for the kind of walking I did. I wouldn't want to count the thousands of laps I took around the coffee table in the dining room with a little girl in my arms.

A small lamp was hung from the ceiling above that table, and I had to hold Abigail so she could look at the light. If I changed directions because I was getting dizzy, I had to shift her to the other hip so she was still facing toward that light. I walked her to calm her for naps; I walked her to relax her for bedtime; I walked her when she was sick; I walked her when she was cranky; and sometimes I walked her just because I wanted to hold her and walk with her.

She had her own way of being held, too. She'd grab a little fistful of my shirt in each hand, rest her head on my shoulder, and stick her big toe in my navel. Before her teeth came in, she used to gnaw on my collarbone, which was a very strange sensation. I quickly put a stop to that when she cut her first incisors.

To Nora, bedtime was a chore she rarely had the energy to tackle; to me, it was a special treat, a chance to spend time alone with my little one. After she had been fed and changed, I would take her upstairs, darken her room, and start walking back and forth with her. She would snuggle up tight against me, and would usually drop off to sleep within five or ten minutes. I'd keep walking for a few minutes after that, to make sure she was in a deep sleep before I laid her down. Her little face, shnuzzled into my shoulder, was so tiny and beautiful! Her love and her trust for me made me feel warm inside; it felt good to be needed. It also reminded me of the responsibility for her that I carried. I began to wonder how I could protect her when she started school, when she began to learn to drive, when she started dating — no, forget that one! No boy was ever going to lay a finger on my little girl!

I quickly learned how important traditions and repetition are to a small child, and I formulated Mike's First Law of Parenthood: "Don't do anything with a small child that you aren't prepared to do thirty times in a row." We had our set ways of doing things at mealtime, at bedtime, at bathtime, you name it; and Heaven help us if we departed from those traditions! She wouldn't eat without a steady procession of toys across the tray of her high chair. She wouldn't sleep without her blanket and without being walked for a few minutes. She wouldn't be bathed without a certain few tub toys. And when the bath was done, I had to wrap her up from head to toe in her towel, with just her face peeking out, and then exclaim, "Ooh, a papoose! I got a papoose!" and do a little dance in front of the bathroom mirror. I did it once, and she liked it, so I had to keep doing it. Okay, I enjoyed it, too — I'd do anything to see her smile.

- # -

Abigail's physical growth proceeded in very much the normal way, except that she remained big for her age. She crawled at around eight months, pulled herself up to a standing position in her crib at ten months, and walked at eleven. Before she learned to walk, she frequently pulled herself up to a standing position on furniture, and then cried for help because she didn't know how to get down again.

One day, the two of us were romping on the floor together. She was learning to walk, but still crawled when she wanted to get somewhere. I was lying on my back, picking her up, "bench-pressing" her, and doing other things that daddies do with their little ones. Suddenly she wiggled out of my grip, crawled up onto my chest, pinned my shoulders to the floor with her hands, stuck her grinning face right into mine, and said, "Gzh!" She probably meant "Gotcha!" I broke up laughing so hard that I think I scared her; she never did it again. But whenever I think of Abigail as a baby, I think of "Gzh!"

As her walking improved, she discovered a game that seems to be common to most little girls: leading her daddy around by one finger. If she wanted me to see something or get her something, she would grab me by a finger and take off, and she nearly dislocated a few knuckles when I didn't follow fast enough. Then she discovered the spin game. I would stand in the middle of the room, and she would hold a finger and orbit me at full speed. I would have to reverse the direction from time to time as I got dizzy. She never got dizzy, and would keep orbiting until I dropped.

Then there was the trusting game. That's the one where the child stands on a chair or other piece of furniture, and falls forward on purpose because she knows you'll catch her before she hits the floor. Abigail certainly trusted me, as evidenced by the dozens of times a week that she played this game. It certainly felt good to be trusted like that; it seemed to be a sign that I was doing something right as a daddy. But it got nerve-wracking to have to stand close by her every time she climbed up onto something, in case she felt like showing her trust without warning me in advance.

Another passion of hers was dancing with me. I'd hold her on my hip, turn on the stereo, and dance around the room like a whirling dervish on pep pills. The more leaps, spins and dips I made, the more she liked it. I'd usually work up a good sweat before she decided we were done.

She also loved being read to, long before she could really understand the words. "Hop on Pop" was an early favorite, and the inspiration for another game of hers. If she found me lying on the floor, she would step onto my stomach and grin at me. That was my cue to recite, "We love to hop/We love to hop/We love to hop on top of Pop." At that, she would start jumping up and down on me, until I finished, "Stop! You must not hop on Pop." And she would stop. Then she'd get down, run around me, and climb back on for another round. A good set of abdominal muscles kept me from getting hurt, but I had to make sure she outgrew that game before she got big enough to do damage.

We also played a head-shaking game together, usually when she was sitting in her high chair. I would smile and nod my head "yes" to her. She'd smile and shake her head "no." I'd nod "yes," and she'd nod "no"... and this could go on for five or six minutes without exchanging a word. Just smiles.

One night, her bedtime approached and I suggested to her, "I think it's bedtime. You must be sleepy." She shook her head "no."

"You look pretty sleepy to me." She shook her head "no."

"Are you saying 'no' to everything I say?" She smiled and nodded "yes."

Yet another "game," which she outgrew all too quickly, involved copying Nora's exercise videos. You haven't lived until you've watched your eighteen-month-old daughter lying on her side on the floor, trying to do leg-lifts like Jane Fonda.

And, like any child, she liked playing with blocks. Actually, I did most of the playing. Her role was to watch me make a block tower, and when it got high enough, she'd knock it down, at which point I had to say, "Boom! Down go the blocks!" and start again. For some reason, I felt driven to make elaborate towers with windows and turrets, knowing that their destiny was to land on the floor like all the others. But it made her smile.

- # -

Nora was on another of her health-food kicks at this time, and we both agreed it would be a good idea to avoid giving our toddler junk food. All of Nora's health-food friends told her, "If you never give it to them, they'll grow up without any interest in it."

Don't you believe it!

The first time Abigail got a whiff of fast-food French fries, she refused the dry cereal and raisins on her high-chair tray and reached for the stuff she wasn't supposed to have any interest in. She practically inhaled them; we couldn't put them on her tray fast enough. We called her the "fry girl" after that, because, once she knew fries were nearby, it didn't matter what we tried to tempt her with — she wouldn't touch a bite until the fries were all gone. We couldn't fool her by hiding them, either; her nose was too good for that.

- # -

With each of my children, there came one moment when they stopped simply copying Mama and Papa, and began anticipating what we were going to do. To me, that marked the end of the toddler stage and the beginning of childhood.

Abigail loved popcorn. She would drop whatever she was doing as soon as she heard the noise of the hot-air popper, run to me in the kitchen, and put her arms up so I could pick her up and hold her. Then, as the first few kernels popped out of the popper, she would lunge forward, grab them out of the bowl, and devour them. Once the whole batch was done, she'd wait patiently while I poured the melted butter and sprinkled a dash of salt, because we had a tradition: Abigail got her own little bowl of popcorn, and the rest of us ate out of the big bowl.

One evening, I asked her if she'd like to help me make some popcorn. She followed me into the kitchen, watched me set up the popper... and got a bowl out of the cabinet and brought it to me. I hugged her, kissed her, and praised her to the skies, making sure she knew that she'd done the right thing. Getting the bowl was her job from that day on.

- # -

As with any baby, the real breakthrough for her was learning to talk. Her first sounds were "Ba, ba, ba" and "Pa, pa, pa," but her first real word was "Mama," followed closely by "Papa." I had thought babies were supposed to say "Da-da," but Nora told me that the "P" sound was easier for little mouths to learn to say, and I'd have better luck going by "Papa." She was right, and I'm glad I listened.

Like any child, she learned by copying what she heard. If Nora had been yelling out the window for Sarah, Abigail would go to the same window and call, "Arah!" Her other sister's name always came out "Aiken," to Rachel's disgust.

One day, my little one was toddling around, saying "oikey." I was baffled; what did she mean? Usually, Nora could interpret her babytalk better than I could, but this time, she wasn't sure. I tried following her around to see if her actions would give me a clue. She wound up in front of the refrigerator. Then it dawned on me — she'd just finished eating a piece of sliced turkey from the deli.

"Turkey?" I exclaimed, excited at my discovery.

"Oikey," she agreed with a smile. I quickly gave her another slice of turkey, which she downed as quickly as she did the first one. That was a breakthrough for both of us; she learned a new word, and I learned the joy of communicating with my daughter. From that day forward, I listened very hard to her chatter, trying to pick out what she was trying to say. Sometimes it was just nonsense, to be sure, and I never did acquire Nora's knack for understanding small children's speech, but each newly-discovered word was like a treasure, a link in the growing chain that enabled Abigail to talk to me.

She had her own ideas about words from time to time. One of her favorite games as a toddler was for me to take her out on her big sister's scooter in the parking lot in front of our house. I'd plant her feet on the footboard, put her hands on the handlebars, and then climb on the scooter myself, putting my hands over hers and gripping her between my knees when I wasn't using one leg to push the scooter. Her face never failed to light up when she saw the prospect of a bike ride like this; she loved whizzing around the parking lot with me.

But she wouldn't call it a "bike". For reasons that we never figured out, she called it a "bop." Nothing we said or did could sway her from her insistence that this was its name.

"Abigail, say 'bike,'" Sarah would plead.

"Bop," would be the reply.

- # -

When we went shopping in department stores, Nora would often hand Abigail a toy to keep her busy. She'd sneak it away from her before we got to the checkout. It worked, as long as Abigail didn't chew on the toy.

But one day in Bradlees, Nora gave her a stuffed puppy. When the time came to sneak it away from her, Abigail would not let go. We tried to distract her, we tried to sweet-talk her — forget it. She clung to that puppy. We had to choose between breaking her heart and spending money we didn't have. Abigail got her puppy. It remained a favorite of hers for almost a year.

- # -

My daughter broke my heart one day. We had just returned from church, and I had unbuckled her from her car seat. I slung her up on my hip to carry her into the house, just as I'd always done.

But not today. She wiggled, pushed away from me, and protested, "Wanna walk."

I was crushed! My baby! I turned to Nora and moaned, "She doesn't need me anymore!"

Nora just grinned. "She's getting older and she wants to be independent. Do you still want to be carrying her when she's sixteen?"

"Yes!" I exclaimed. "And when she gets married, I want to carry her down the aisle." I knew she wouldn't stay a baby forever, but it was a bitter pill to swallow, nonetheless. I reluctantly put her down, and she clambered determinedly up the front steps without looking back at me.

- # -

Abigail wasn't always an angel. Like any child, she sometimes had to be brought up short. When she was small, our preferred method was the slap on the back of the hand, but it didn't always work.

One day, she was knocking books off the grown-up bookshelf. She had her own shelf with her books on it, and we were trying to teach her to play with those and not with ours. I walked over to her and said, "Abigail, no!" She ignored me and knocked another book off the shelf.

I slapped her hand, not very hard. She ignored that, too. I tried again, a little harder. But it obviously wasn't hard enough; she turned to me, with an annoyed look, and slapped my hand. That was the end of that lesson. I picked her up and carried her away from the bookshelf — holding her head beside mine so she couldn't see me holding back my laughter.

One day, she brought me a book about child discipline for me to read to her. I protested, "Abigail, I don't think you want me to read this book to you." She pushed it at me.

I tried again. "Abigail, this book isn't a kid's book. There aren't any pictures in it." Again, she pushed it into my hands. So I gave up, flipped the book open, and began to read.

"'As you begin to faithfully discipline your child, you set her free to be the person she was meant to be —'"

"Aww done!" she interrupted, snapping the book shut.

Then there was the occasion when she didn't want to turn off the light in her sisters' room. She was just tall enough to reach the light switch, but it was a strain, and she apparently didn't want to be bothered with turning this particular light off again. Nora wouldn't let her leave the room until she obeyed; Abigail began crying because she didn't want to obey. I stood nearby, ready to intervene if Nora asked for my help. Finally, she ordered, "Abigail, obey your Mama!"

Abigail turned to me, tears streaming down her face, and cried, "No, obey Papa!" Maybe she thought I would rescue her; I was sorely tempted. But I couldn't undermine Nora's authority. She finally took Abigail's hand and turned off the light with it. Abigail ran past both of us and hid until her mood improved.

In spite of these and other misadventures, it was clear that Abigail had a very deep desire to be pleasing to us. She almost never threw tantrums, and she rarely misbehaved the same way twice. She sailed through her "terrible two's" and three's, and well into her four's, before the usual childish rebellious streak began to appear, and it didn't have much effect on her behavior.

The downside to this was that she was overly sensitive to being wrong. All through her life, any time she got a scolding, no matter how mildly worded, she would run and hide for a time, and only reluctantly would she come out and play again. The few times she had to be spanked, she faced it with such reluctance, and such obvious desire to not repeat her offense, that I was tempted to skip the discipline altogether.

But I had always believed that a daddy should keep his promises, whether it was a good promise like, "You can have some ice cream if you finish your supper," or a bad promise like, "If you don't obey me, you're going to be disciplined." I always explained this to her before a spanking, and she seemed to grasp it. At any rate, her "spank-worthy" transgressions got fewer and fewer with the passage of time. We didn't stop corporal punishment because she was too big; we stopped because she just didn't need it.

- # -

John and Monique bought a mobile home and moved out during 1988. It was a good move for them. They needed space, and John was sometimes mildly annoyed when Abigail pushed all the buttons on his VCR. For me, it was a relief — there were two less people in the house to take Nora's side. For her, it was a mixed blessing. Although she could run the house her way now, she missed her sister-in-law's companionship and moral support. She began turning to Sarah and Rachel for help in her fights with me, which infuriated me beyond reason.

Abigail tried to be a peacemaker. She toddled into the middle of one fight, climbed onto the couch where I was sitting, and covered my mouth with her little hand so I wouldn't say any more mean words. It broke my heart to see her caught in the middle, and I let the argument end.

I wish Nora or I could have learned something from that.

Chapter 2: Abigail's Day - 1989

Abigail had probably always had a unique outlook on life. But it wasn't until she learned to talk that we began to see just how she thought about things.

To her, any animal that roared was called a "rah," because that was the noise they made. Lions, tigers, bears, dinosaurs — they were all rahs. We tried to help her break things down a bit more specifically, by explaining that there were two kinds of rahs: nice rahs, like the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz, and bad rahs, like lions in the zoo that she should never touch. She got the picture, loud and clear.

One afternoon, she and I were playing with Play-Doh in the kitchen, while Sarah and Rachel were playing Nintendo in the living room. Rachel did something displeasing to Sarah, who lit into her verbally. Abigail listened to this outburst for a few seconds, then, very seriously, informed me, "Sarah bad rah."

On another evening, I was giving her a bath. She asked me for a dry wash cloth to wipe some water out of her eyes. I looked in the cabinets, which were right next to the tub, and told her, "There are no dry wash cloths, Abigail. They're all dirty."

She considered this for a moment, then pronounced her verdict: "A bad rah did it." A moment later, she passed sentence: "Mama spank bad rah's bum!"

- # -

Most of our little rituals were things I did to be silly, which she liked enough to want me to repeat. But she created at least one of her own. One bath night, after I was done shampooing her hair and getting the rest of her clean with the wash cloth, she took the cloth and asked, "Papa, I wash your arm?" My arm didn't seem that dirty, but I rolled up my sleeve and held my arm out over the tub. She diligently rubbed it with the wash cloth, then asked for my other arm. This became a part of our bathtime rituals. It was very important to her to do this for me, and if I forgot, she would always remind me. It pleased her to know that her Daddy's arms were clean.

- # -

She learned a lot from her older sisters. Rachel was annoyed by her curiosity, and often tried to keep her out of her and Sarah's room. If Abigail tried to follow her in, Rachel would order, "Stay in this room!"

Abigail soon knew what this meant, and decided to try it for herself. She took me by the finger and led me into the dining room. "Stay in this room, Papa!" she ordered. "Stay in this room!"

I sat down obediently. "Stay in this room!" she said again, and turned to leave. Then, before I could so much as draw a breath, she turned and shook an angry little finger at me. "Don' you know 'stay in this room' means?!"

Around this time, I realized that, someday, I would want to remember scenes like this, and that I couldn't count on remembering everything. So I took to writing down the cute or poignant things Abigail said, filing them away in one of my notebooks. I figured that, years from now, when she was an obnoxious teen-ager, I could look back and remember when she was little and sweet.

- # -

My receding hair line wasn't a matter of great concern to me, because I never cared much about my appearance anyway. To Abigail, it was just another feature on my head, and she saw to it that, if I ever wanted to take my baldness seriously, she'd be there to take the wind out of my sails.

Nora and I were playing a tickle game with her one day. The two of us were sitting on the dining room floor. She'd dash in from the living room and run up to me; I'd grab her, tickle her for a moment, and let her go. She'd flee to the living room, then dash in again and run up to Nora, who would do the same thing. She took several laps back and forth like this.

Then she ran up to me. I grabbed her, but before I could tickle her, she gently slapped me on top of my head and crowed, "NO HA-AIR!"

Nora literally fell over on the floor laughing. I just sat there, dumbfounded, trying to stifle my own giggles and gradually failing. Abigail made a clean getaway, but returned to enjoy the hilarity she'd caused.

Like many children her age, she decided that, while she still needed some help getting dressed, she wanted to do it standing up like a big girl. This raised the problem of how to keep her from falling over when I put her socks on.

"Abigail, hold onto me so you don't fall down," I would instruct.

"Okay, I hang onna you bal' head," she would agree. Never just my head; always my bal' head. This went on for months, until she learned to put on her own socks. Maintaining my dignity was out of the question after that.

- # -

When we went to church, one of us had to keep her company in the toddlers' nursery, because she would cry without ceasing if we left her alone. We tried to break her of it, sneaking out for a few minutes at a time, but she wouldn't hear of it. I was usually the one who stayed, with the result that all my friends in that church were under the age of three.

As long as I was there, Abigail played contentedly, trying out new toys, learning to share. She liked to wiggle into a toy wagon that was far too small for her, and I'd pull her around the room. The other children thought that was a fine idea, and I'd wind up pulling them all, one after the other. For a man who once had no confidence when it came to handling small children, I had a ball.

One little boy took a real liking to me, and grafted himself onto my hip the moment I walked into the nursery. Abigail didn't mind that, because my other hip was free for her if she wanted to be walked. But one day, there weren't enough nursery workers to hold all the crying children, so I picked up a hysterical little girl on my free hip and tried to calm her down.

Her tears were just starting to dry when I noticed Abigail, standing against a wall, staring at me. Her eyes were wide with shock, and she was covering her mouth with both hands — the classic picture of the jealous woman who'd caught her man cheating. Then she ran into a corner and covered her eyes. I quickly put down both of my passengers and picked her up; after all, this was my Abigail! It took ten minutes of walking before she would even look at me.

- # -

She used to get up early in the morning to talk to me before I went to work. No matter how quietly I went about my morning preparations, I almost never got out the door without her knowing about it. I decided to make the best of it and prepare breakfast for her, so Nora would have one less thing to do when she got up.

At some point, Abigail noticed that my lunch bag always had a few chocolate-chip cookies in it. This pleased her very much, because she knew I had a hard time refusing her anything if it would make her smile. But these things had to be done a certain way.

"Papa, gimme hookie inna bag," she would ask. She wouldn't take the cookie unless I put it in a plastic sandwich bag, in the same way I made my lunch. She would take it out and eat it at the kitchen table, so the bag did her no good. She just wanted to do it like Daddy. After the cookie was gone, she would tell me what she wanted for breakfast — typically cold cereal with milk, a waffle with syrup, or an egg cooked in the microwave.

She asked for a waffle one day, and watched me pop it into the toaster. She tried to stand on tiptoe to see what was going on, but she wasn't tall enough, so I picked her up and held her so she could see inside the toaster. She looked, and described what she thought she saw: "Waffle takin' a bubble bath in there."

On another morning, she got up early enough to watch me make my lunch. I was making a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and she apparently had never seen chunky peanut butter before. She watched for a moment before asking, with great interest, "Ooh, Papa, you got eyeballs on your bread?"

Yes, I ate the sandwich anyway.

- # -

Her speech development was about average for someone her age, with the usual childish deviations from "perfect" English. She called herself "Baby" until she was almost two-and-a-half years old — "Baby want juice!" She also went through a period of confusing her pronouns, saying "my" instead of "I."

She was going through all her clothes one Saturday afternoon, putting on the outfits she liked and coming downstairs to show us. After the third outfit, Nora commented, "You're quite a fashion plate, you know that?"

Abigail laughed at her mother's silly mistake. "My not a plate!"

- # -

Possibly one of her finest moments came on a Saturday morning when I was in the basement, doing the laundry. The basement was unfinished, and while both ends were built on concrete slabs, the middle of the floor was nothing but dirt. Our washing machine was on one of the slabs, and I was stuffing dirty laundry into it when Abigail hopped down the stairs to join me.

She stopped short of the dirt floor, because she didn't have shoes on. The damp dirt floor seemed to intrigue her today; she began asking me about the mud.

"Is it clean mud? Is it nice mud? Is it dirty mud?"

The questions came so thick and fast that I knew she wasn't really looking for answers. But while she was asking me all this, she was energetically flapping her left arm. Now I was curious: had her hand fallen asleep? Was she waving to a bug on the wall? Was she trying to fly?

Finally, I asked her, "Abigail, what are you doing with your hand?"

She smiled at my innocence and answered, "I moving it up and down!"

- # -

Nora was a very cautious, protective parent, and I learned to follow her example. We never let the kids out of our sight when they played outside in the yard; this usually meant one of us was out there with them. When it was my turn, I often seized the chance to play with Abigail, or maybe she seized me. She had a game she played next to the house, which I called "up the hill, touch the wall, turn around, and come back," because that's what she did, and I had to say it in that order. If I didn't , she'd stop and wait for me to continue. I added a variation after a few months; when she came back to me, I'd grab her and toss her up in the air — but not too high, because she was afraid of heights. She didn't play this game with anyone else. It was good for my arm muscles, and it made her happy.

Another outdoor game involved a long, stiff board, probably a leftover piece of scaffolding from when the carpenters had covered the house in aluminum siding. I would position it with one end on a slight rise in the ground, so the center was suspended like a bridge, and Abigail would run up and down on it, enjoying the bounce in the middle. It bucked her off once or twice, but she got right back on and kept playing.

I got into the habit of rounding up the sticks that fell off our trees and throwing them onto a brush pile at the side of the yard, to keep the yard clear for fast-moving children who didn't always look where they were going. Abigail watched me do this a few times, and decided that she was going to be just like her Papa . The next thing I knew, she was toddling along behind me, a very serious expression on her face, carrying a twig in her hand, which she threw onto the brush pile. She always helped me with the sticks after that. She sometimes had to throw them two or three times before they made it onto the pile, but she was so adorable when she copied me...

- # -

My relationship with Abigail was going so well, it was tempting to ignore the fact that my marriage and my relationships with Sarah and Rachel were going downhill fast. The older girls ran to Mommy almost every time I asked them to do something, and they usually got a ruling in their favor. So I stopped asking them to do things, which meant Nora wound up doing their chores and resenting everybody for it. I resented her for undermining my authority as a stepfather, and the arguments grew increasingly bitter.

The only thing we agreed on in the summer of 1989 was that another baby would be nice. This was hardly a wise decision in a family on the verge of breakup, but wisdom was rather scarce in that house at the time.

As soon as we knew Nora was pregnant, Sarah began asking Abigail what kind of baby she wanted. It became a running gag, which Sarah would initiate to make her friends laugh:

Sarah: Abigail, do you want a baby brother?
Abigail: No!
Sarah: Do you want a baby sister?
Abigail: No!
Sarah: Do you want a million dollars?

Well, she didn't get the million dollars.

- # -

When Nora was expecting Abigail, she had left me when she was two months along. This time, she lasted four months before she ordered me out. I left on an afternoon in October, while Abigail was napping, so she wouldn't see me leave. I was fighting back tears as I carried out the last of my bags. Would I ever have a normal relationship with my Abigail again? How would she take it when she knew I was gone? How could Nora do this to me?

My only thought as I drove away was, "They can't take my memories away."

- # -

She filed for divorce almost as soon as I was gone. I didn't contest it, because I was so desperate for the fighting to end that I would have taken any way out. I certainly didn't think the consequences through. Nora permitted me three visits a week with Abigail, which dwindled to one a week as her pregnancy progressed and our relationship deteriorated.

I went to live with my parents in New Hampshire, driving down to Massachusetts to work (1-1/2 hours each way) and to see Abigail. I returned to my old church in New Hampshire on Sundays, and quickly found that the small children there adored me.

Caring for Abigail had taught me how to approach a little person. Some liked being tossed up in the air and being turned upside-down, while others (like Abigail herself) were terrified of such exertions and preferred tamer rides. I quickly made friends with most of the children in church, including one little guy who was notorious for refusing every adult except his parents. It made me feel better, cut off from my Abigail, to have other kids to play with. But they were a pacifier for me, not a substitute.

I cherished each visit with my daughter. One day, we were walking in the parking lot outside Nora's house. Abigail was hunting for treasures on the ground, and I was watching her and looking out for cars. She apparently wanted her hands free to do something.

"Here, Papa," she said, holding out her hand. "These are my rocks." She gave me two small white stones, no different from the thousands of other pieces of gravel at the edge of the parking lot. But I held onto them for her.

She forgot about them, but I kept them, in case she asked to have them back. I still have those rocks.

Chapter 3: Little Bug And Little Brick - 1990

In late 1989, Nora called me one day at my parents' home in New Hampshire. "Are you sitting down?" she asked. I said yes, even though I wasn't.

"I'm going to have twins," she said. I sat down.

She said she had gone in for an ultrasound because her weight gain didn't line up with her due date. She had tried to make small talk with the sonogram technician.

"Everything's okay, right?" she had joked. "I mean, it doesn't have two heads or something?"

"No, everything looks okay," agreed the technician.

"Good, as long as there's only one in there," she joked some more. The technician didn't respond.

"There is only one, right?" she asked, getting nervous.

"Don't you know why you're here?" replied the technician. "I'm not allowed to tell you —"

"TELL ME!" Nora had almost screamed. "It's my body, it's my baby — you tell me!" The technician had called the doctor, and they had reluctantly turned the screen so Nora could see it. The baby on top was definitely a boy; the one behind him was probably a girl.

What would this mean? I felt pretty confident that I knew how to take care of a baby — Abigail had been a good teacher. But two at once? It was hard to envision. And what impact would the divorce have on all this?

She called me again on February 9. "I'm going into labor," she said. I had already agreed to babysit Abigail while Nora was in the hospital, so I grabbed my suitcase (which I'd packed a week ago) and headed south.

The car developed engine troubles after twenty minutes. Screaming and pounding the steering wheel in frustration, I turned around, nursing the miserable hunk of junk all the way back to New Hampshire. I called to explain I'd be late; Nora said she'd try to wait for me, but of course she couldn't make any promises. I borrowed one of my parents' cars and broke the sound barrier all the way to North Attleboro.

Nora left for the hospital with her parents as soon as I arrived. For the next day and a half, I played with Abigail and took care of her. Most of the games revolved around the vinyl play tent I'd given her for Christmas. "Papa makin' tent?" she'd ask with a smile, and I'd tighten any loose joints in the tent frame and invent a game, like peek-a-boo through the door or window.

I finally got my chance to visit the hospital and see my new babies, about two days after they were born. I was told that Nora had carried them to term, but delivered by C-section because they wouldn't get their heads down. Joshua was first out, followed by his twin sister Rebecca a minute later. Both weighed over seven pounds at birth, which is a lot of baby to be carrying around inside. I brought a dozen roses for Nora, but asked Monique to deliver them to her room.

The twins were so big and healthy that they both went straight into the regular nursery instead of a special neonatal-care unit, a first for twins at Women & Infants Hospital. I peered through the nursery window, scanning the rows of clear-plastic bassinets for familiar-looking faces. I couldn't pick them out by appearance, but they had name tags, and the moment I knew which ones were mine, my heart went to mush, just like it had when I first saw Abigail.

I stood guard over the nursery window until closing time. If another new parent or relative paused at the window, I'd ask, "Which one is yours?" They'd point out a tiny person, and I'd smile and nod. Then they'd ask which one was mine, and I'd beam and point. "Those two." My little ones quickly became the stars of the show.

Nora wanted to talk to me at one point. I don't remember what it was about, but we didn't agree on it, and wound up in another argument. As a result, she changed Joshua's middle name from Michael (which we had agreed on) to Stephen. Except for official discussions, I never spoke his middle name again. Maybe that was petty of me. I thought it was petty of her to change it.

I was back the next day, thanks to John's willingness to watch Abigail for a few hours. Rebecca had seemed to be the louder of the two yesterday, but she was pretty placid today, looking toward the window where everyone was staring at them. Josh, on the other hand, was very upset about something. I guess he didn't like the view in the direction he was facing. So, slowly and deliberately, he picked up his head, turned it to face the other way, and laid it down to cry in that direction for a while.

"That's my boy!" I crowed, pumping my fist. My three-day-old son was physically ahead of himself already.

- # -

I first got to hold my babies, one at a time, about a week and a half later. They slept a lot, and they were tiny. Both were bald and blue-eyed, like Abigail. Josh looked much like Abigail, with his button nose and rosebud mouth, while Rebecca bore a startling resemblance to Sarah's baby pictures. I shot half a roll of film that day, taking pictures of sleeping babies.

It wasn't long before the load of caring for five children began to tell on Nora. I wasn't that surprised when she asked if I wanted to move back in. She said it was so we could work on reconciling and eventually remarrying. But her constant complaints about exhaustion made me suspect that she really wanted a live-in babysitter. I agreed anyway, for the sake of my children. I had no real affection left for her, and I didn't have a lot of hope that our relationship could be fixed.

Nora recalled the next few months as one our best times together. I have no memory of it at all, except for taking care of the twins.

- # -

People's reactions to our twins often amazed me. We sometimes dressed them alike, but in pink for Becca and blue for Josh. They didn't look alike at all — Josh's head was big and round, while Becca's was higher. Yet I'd rather not count the people who asked, "Are they identical?"

My usual response was, "He's a boy and she's a girl. Does that answer your question?"

At least one woman persisted, "Yes, but aside from that?"

Then there were the ones (always women) who gushed, "I wish I could have twins!" Our immediate response to that one was, "No, you don't." I would try to explain that twins were like three normally-spaced-apart children, because everything had to be done twice, and they often demanded simultaneous attention.

They rarely wanted to be fed at the same time, which was fortunate for Nora, because she was nursing both of them. The exception was bedtime at night. The older children would all leave the room, and Nora would turn off the light. She would nurse one twin while I diapered and dressed the other, working by the nightlight on the wall. Then we'd trade, and I'd try to change the baby who'd just eaten without getting him/her agitated. When both were done eating, we'd quickly lay them down in their cribs and run for the door before they started protesting.

Because of the demands they put on her time, and because Becca was a poor nurser, Nora rented an electric breast pump and we switched to bottle feeding. She still nursed Josh from time to time, because he was her little boy and she felt especially close to him. Rebecca made our task simpler by starting to sleep through the night at six weeks of age. All the same, Nora was hard-put to satisfy the appetites of two growing babies, and she was flat-out exhausted most of the time. By my math, she was producing almost half a gallon of breast milk a day.

We gave our babies nicknames, as all parents do. Nora came up with the names for Rebecca. As a newborn, she called her "little bug," because she was so much more petite than her brother, but changed to "sweetness and light" at around four months because her disposition was sunnier than Josh's. She finally settled on "Becca-Boo," or just "Boo," which stayed with her.

Nora never tried to come up with a nickname for the boy, which surprised me — she usually wanted to pick all the names. As an infant, I called him "butterball," "little brick," and "the monster baby" because, even though he was half an inch shorter than his sister, he weighed more. He was all muscle from the beginning, and when you picked them up, he felt denser than she did.

He won his most enduring nickname during a visit to the pediatrician's office at around five months. They sat him on an examining table, and he thought the table's sanitary paper covering was the greatest thing since the pacifier. He grabbed it, he kicked it, he pulled it, he ripped it, he threw the pieces everywhere, and all while screaming his favorite word: "Gah!" As a result of this and similar performances, I named him "the goon," and everyone else in the house agreed it was appropriate. Even the pediatrician concurred; during a later visit, she got so flustered at his attack on her office that she exclaimed, "Hold still, you goon!" I wish I could have caught it on videotape.

I also called him "the amazing boy," because he was so amazingly different from his four sisters. Many people want to believe there are no innate differences between boys and girls, and that any differences are the result of their upbringing. Forget that! Nora had brought up two girls, and we had raised the third together, to say nothing of Josh's twin sister; all we knew about was girls, and aside from dressing the boy in blue instead of pink, we treated them identically.

But his approach to life was fundamentally different. He had no interest in his sisters' toys — he liked cars and trucks. His sisters learned to walk around puddles; he stomped in them. If Abigail or Rebecca was unhappy about something, she would burst into tears. Josh's response was to sit in front of the toy box and start flinging toys over his shoulder until we fixed whatever his problem was, or until he ran out of toys. You had to be careful when he sent the toys flying. He had a good arm.

- # -

Rebecca wasn't nearly as snuggly as Joshua. She wasn't as demanding, she wasn't as loud, and she wasn't the only boy in the family. All of these facts combined to make sure that Josh got a disproportionate amount of attention. It worried me that she might fall between the cracks, so to speak. So I made myself a promise, which I told no one about at the time: that I would make up for the attention Becca wasn't getting from the others, even if I had to push Josh aside now and then.

Unlike many promises I'd made, I kept this one. Fortunately, I rarely had to ignore the boy to do so. Becca and I came to have a very close relationship; in some ways, she was closer to me than to Nora. I think this was the result of the extra attention I paid her as a baby.

- # -

Abigail did not show much sibling rivalry toward her little brother and sister. This is not to say she felt none at all.

When Becca was about two months old, I was walking her around the house, getting her relaxed for her nap. Abigail was contentedly playing with her toys in the dining room. But she happened to look up and see what I was doing. In shock and anger, she demanded:

"Papa, put that baby down! That's Mama's!"

Aside from that, she was very good about the sudden increase in the size of her family. She asked a lot of questions about babies, and often watched while we changed them, especially Josh.

One day when Josh was about five months old, he was trying to get comfortable in Nora's lap, but he wasn't quite sure what he wanted. He sat; he lay on his back; he lay on his stomach; he tried to climb up her chest; he sat down again; he lay sideways; he rolled over; and the whole time, he was crying louder and louder. Nora did her best to be patient, but she finally snapped, "Josh, you're getting too big for this! You've tried every position there is — I don't know what to tell you!"

"'Get off!'" suggested Abigail.

- # -

Josh, on the other hand, showed a lot of sibling rivalry. Abigail learned to "share the Daddy," and Becca would always step aside for one of her siblings, but the boy didn't get the message. In particular, he regarded his mama as his personal territory. If he noticed any of his sisters sitting in Nora's lap, he would immediately try to wiggle and wedge himself between them. As he got older, he got more forceful, and if he could shove the trespasser off, so much the better. Even on the rare times when Nora and I tried to snuggle together on the couch, he would determinedly make his way between us. He wasn't as possessive of me, but there were times when I had to slide Becca to one side of my lap and park the boy on the other side, and then hold him there so he couldn't push his sister off my lap and onto the floor.

- # -

I first tried to hold both twins at once when they were two or three months old. I had Josh in my lap, and I parked Becca on the couch next to me, cradling her with one arm. It took a bit of courage on my part; if one of them had a diaper disaster or started crying, I wouldn't be able to respond until I'd put the other one back in his/her bouncy seat.

They both stared at me, him with curiosity, her with a big smile. "I got the babies!" I exclaimed in a high voice, slightly amazed at my own audacity. He stared; she smiled. I remember thinking that this was one of the few benefits of having twins — how many other daddies could do this?

That phrase became one of my own traditions. Even when they were four years old, on the rare occasion when they both wanted to be carried, I would sling one child on each hip and grunt, "I got the babies!"

- # -

Nora tried to relax from the stress of parenthood in any way she could. For a while, she sought distraction in our Nintendo game, but that backfired. She thought she should be able to play as well as Sarah and Rachel , not realizing that they practiced for an hour or more every day. She would get furious at herself each time she lost; she'd cry, she'd call herself names, and she'd finally fling down the controller and storm out of the room, only to try again the next day.

One day, Abigail noticed her connecting the controller. Her big blue eyes full of concern, she walked over and asked, "Mama, are you gonna be mad an' sad an' stupid?"

It was easy to tell what she was thinking that time. At other times, we couldn't guess what was going through that little mind; a few years later, when she could talk well enough to answer, she didn't remember. But she must have been thinking some interesting thoughts, judging by her actions.

I was in the living room one day, keeping an eye on the twins, watching a kids' sing-along video with them, minding my own business. Abigail was in the kitchen with Nora. Suddenly she came racing around the corner, ran up to me, and stopped. She reached out and stuck a blue-dot sticker right on the tip of my nose.

"That's much better," she nodded, and ran out again. As I said, we'll never know.

- # -

Nora's exhaustion began showing up in some outrageous slips of the tongue. She was embarrassed to admit to any of them, and vehemently denied ever saying anything of the kind.

We had divided up the night feeding chores once we shifted to bottle feeding. Becca was sleeping through the entire night by then, so only Josh needed feeding. Nora took the late-night bottle, and I got the early-morning bottle. These bottles of expressed breast milk were kept in the fridge, and had to be heated in a pot of water on the stove to bring them to drinkable temperature without ruining the nutrients in them.

Early one morning, I heard Josh fussing in his crib. I figured I'd feed him before he started crying for real, and maybe he wouldn't wake Nora. But I wasn't as quiet getting out of bed as I thought I was. Nora came about one-fourth awake.

"What are you doing?" she asked dazedly, her eyes barely open.

"Josh is crying; I'm going to feed him," I explained.

"Did you put my breasts in a pan of warm water?" she wanted to know.

"Yes, dear, I'll do that right away," I assured her, and left before she could ask what was so funny.

On another day, Josh was playing in his bouncy-seat, and was getting restless. Nora figured that he needed to suck on his binky for a while — his pacifier always relaxed him. So she called to Sarah, "Could you hand me Joshua's dinky? It's hanging over his swing."

- # -

He never did outgrow his pacifier. We slowly worked him down to where he only needed it for bedtime and to calm him when he got upset or angry, but that's as far as we got. We tried to wean him off of it several times, but he when he wanted it, he wanted it, and he usually knew how to get it.

One afternoon when I was watching the kids, I decided that he was three years old and he didn't need his binky anymore. So when he put it down, I quietly grabbed it and hid it on top of the TV. He must have been watching me, because he immediately began reaching for it, trying all sides of the TV to see if one was lower than the others. When that failed, he didn't get upset. He just started stacking his toys next to the TV so he could climb the pile and get his prize. I gave up and gave it to him; he obviously wasn't ready to give it up yet, and that kind of determination deserved a reward.

- # -

One of my daddy chores was taking the kids for a walk after work. We had a double stroller, and we always put Josh in front and Becca in back; if we did it the other way around, Josh would pound on her head and make her miserable. He wasn't being malicious — he was just a goon. Abigail would walk beside us, and we'd go as far as a mile each night, three or four on weekends when we had more time.

Abigail loved to leave the sidewalk and walk on the stone walls we passed. She almost never stumbled, but I was a worry-wart daddy, and I always told her to be careful. Or maybe it was the other way around; maybe she was careful because I always reminded her. In any case, she got a lot of security from my frequent warnings.

One day, she stepped up onto the wall outside our house, then stopped and got down again. She turned to me and admonished, "Papa, you tell me to be careful!"

Another daddy chore, one I wasn't so fond of, was to be Nora's enforcer. Rachel was eight years old by this time, and she was going through a stage where she would cry for as long as an hour if she didn't get her way. Nora soon got sick of listening to this, and would order her to go sit in the car until the crying stopped. If Rachel refused, it was my job to pick her up and carry her to the car.

Abigail was watching and learning, as usual. Several times that summer, when Rachel was teasing her, she would run to me and order, "Papa, carry Rachel!"

- # -

Bath time became a team sport, because we bathed both twins at once while they were small. Two tub seats were stuck to the floor of the tub, and each baby was fitted into one. Their different personalities were clearly evident: Rebecca would pick up a tub toy as it drifted past her and examine it from every angle, while Josh would grab all the toys he could get his chubby little hands on and hoard them. I tried the papoose game with them, like I did with Abigail, but they didn't enjoy it as much as she did.

They graduated to separate baths after about seven months, which gave them the freedom to bathe in their own way. Becca's tub traditions were pretty sedate. For a while, she liked putting small toys on the edge of the bathtub, where I would fake a sneeze and blow them back into the water. She also smiled and stared when I squeaked a wet finger along the edge of the tub. But her real passion was toys with holes in the bottom, toys that sprinkled water when they were full. She'd fill and empty a sprinkle-cup repeatedly for the length of her bath, holding it up and watching the water coming out. Sometimes I'd pour water into her cup from a pitcher, so she wouldn't have to keep refilling it; sometimes this made her smile, but at other times she'd want to do it herself.

Josh had one thing very much in common with his big sister at bath time — he loved to splash. But while she had outgrown that stage after a few months, he stayed with it all his life. Like everything else he tried, he attacked the idea of splashing with energy and gusto. Kicking with his feet, bringing both hands down together, splashing with all four limbs at once — if there was a way to send the water flying, he tried it. Even when he splashed himself in the eyes, he just blinked a few times, grinned at me, and went back at it. I quickly learned to keep a towel in my hand, and to pull it up in front of myself when he started flailing; otherwise, I'd be as wet as he was when bath time was done. It became a game with him: could he get me wet, or could I get the towel up in time? He would splash like crazy for a few seconds, stop, and smile at me as I cautiously lowered my deflector shields; then he'd start again. Maybe he enjoyed the sight of me ducking for cover.

- # -

Josh was way ahead of his age physically. He crawled at six months, and this was actually a relief. True, we now had to baby-proof the house, and he put our baby-proofing to the test with his usual vigor. But he had not been a happy baby, because he wanted to do things for himself and couldn't. When he learned to roll over, his disposition improved, and once he could crawl, he got really happy. He also started to show how well he was thinking.

One day in his sixth month, Nora and I were watching him crawl around in his room. He was exploring every corner with great diligence, and wound up under his crib. He tried to take the shortest route out, but banged his head on the kick-bar that supported the crib side. Most six-month-olds would have stopped and burst into tears. But not Josh. Without a moment's hesitation, he lowered his head and crawled right under the bar.

Nora's jaw dropped. "Did you see that?" she exclaimed.

"We're in trouble," I nodded.

His crawling also ushered in a habit of his that puzzled us, even as we chuckled at it. When we laid him down in his crib, he would get up on all fours, rest his head against the mattress, and "bulldoze" into the corner of the crib, ramming his head into the bars with a bang. It didn't seem to hurt him — he'd grin all the way. We called him the "bulldozer baby," and we bought extra cushions to pad the end of the crib so he wouldn't bang his head. He dodged them. He experimented with bulldozing across the living-room floor, but one or two rug-burns persuaded him that this version of the game might not be a good idea.

Becca's crib-time habits were more sedate, for the most part. But she had a pink doll with mirrors and rattles in it, which was almost as big as she was. She loved to sleep with it as an infant. It seemed to us that she tried to wrestle with it every night. If so, she usually lost — we'd creep into her room to cover her up, and find the doll on top and Rebecca on the bottom.

- # -

Josh had the nicest head. It was big (a "melon head," Nora called it) and soft to the touch, although it was hard as a rock underneath. He liked to lie next to us while we stroked his head, and it got to be a habit with us. He never outgrew it, either. Even when he was four years old, one of the first things I did on visiting nights was to stroke his head a few times. He'd grin at me until he thought I'd done it long enough, and then pull away. It probably felt good to him.

- # -

One night when Nora was out shopping, I pulled both twins' bouncy-seats together on the floor and dusted off my guitar. Abigail and Rachel both sat and listened as I went through all the children's songs I knew. Josh didn't show any unusual interest.

But Becca was utterly fascinated. She was only a few months old, but her interest in the music was obvious. She got both arms and both legs wiggling, as though she were trying to boogie to the beat. That was the first time we saw her love of music. It was also one of my favorite memories of her as a baby.

- # -

Once they began eating solid food, the fun really began. Nora fed them breakfast and lunch; I handled dinner and some of the week-end meals. It was a real test of reflexes.

To feed these twins, we sat them as close to each other as we could. Sometimes this meant Josh could reach across and steal a toy off Becca's tray, but that couldn't be helped. We'd spoon one bite into Josh, and then, as quickly as possible, get another spoonful into Becca. When they were both hungry, it became a race to see how fast we could go without slopping strained carrots all over the landscape, because if we went too slow, one of them would either throw a fit or refuse to eat.

When they graduated from bouncy-seats to high chairs, they demanded to be entertained while they ate. We had to provide a constant supply of toys on their trays; when they threw one over the side, another had to take its place. It couldn't be the same toy, either. Toys that moved or made noise were the best; in a pinch, I'd move an inanimate toy around with my left hand while I got the next bite ready with my right. Unfamiliar objects, like a rubber spatula or my key chain, might hold their interest for a few bites. Josh had lots of fun with a metal bowl and a spoon, but he deafened the rest of us with his banging, so we had to try something else.

One day, they rejected everything I could put on their trays. In desperation, I grabbed two bungee cords intended to connect small children to their parents in public. I hung them from the suspended ceiling and affixed a rattle to the free end of each. That did the trick for that meal, and for several more afterward. They happily pulled and batted at those rattles while I slipped their food into them. Nora said it looked stupid, and it probably did, but hey, it worked!

Becca was usually as finicky as her brother, but she never refused a bite of strained bananas. I'd sing, "ba-naaa-na!", and she'd smile and open wide. I was sometimes tempted to trick her into eating other things, to sing, "ba-naaa-na!", and then slip her a bite of something she didn't like so well.

But I never did it. I wanted her to know beyond doubt, even as a baby, that Daddy meant what Daddy said. To me, that seemed more important than a few bites of strained squash.

- # -

We tried taking all five kids to my parents' summer cottage on Lake Winnepesaukee, NH, in August. The twins spent a lot of time in their walkers for their own protection — that cottage would have been impossible to make baby-proof. Josh delighted in how easily his walker glided across the hardwood floors, and in how many things he could bang into at high speed. My mother was soon calling him "Crash," to Nora's displeasure. He also enjoyed chasing my mother's yellow-Labrador mix around the house. Becca was more sedate, as we could have predicted; she was happy just to pat the doggie. The doggie was happier with that, too.

As for Abigail, never underestimate how well a small child understands what's going on. They see and hear everything, and they often draw surprising (and correct) conclusions.

For example, Abigail had visited my parents' year-round house in southern New Hampshire only once or twice. But that was enough to convince her that my father was a first-class packrat. Almost every room in the house had a pile of something in one corner, and the basement and garage were so full of tools, lumber, and clutter, they were almost uninhabitable.

I had taken Abigail to climb the Big Rock near the cottage, just as I had done when I was a child. (It seemed a lot bigger then.) On the way back, she wanted to see what was in our garage. So I opened the door and held her up so she could clearly see what was inside: two or three refrigerators, old automobile tires, assorted lumber, tools in various stages of rust and decay... I think there was a fourteen-foot power boat in there somewhere, but it was hard to tell.

Abigail just stared. "What a mess, huh?" I asked.

She solemnly replied, "This must be for Grandpa."

- # -

On the same vacation, she found my mother's little flower garden. She asked if she could pick some flowers, and Grandma helped her select which ones were good to pick. They soon had a vase filled with assorted flowers.

"What kind of flower is this, Daddy?" she asked, pointing at something that looked vaguely like a chrysanthemum.

"Is it a mum?" I asked, glancing at Nora.

"I don't think so," she replied.

Abigail beamed and cried, "Then it must be a papa!"

Chapter 4: Three Little Happy People - 1991

Some dates I wrote down, to give you an idea of the twins' growth rate:

It seemed clear that Josh was surging ahead physically, while Becca's triumphs were more in the thinking department. Typically, she would invent a new game to play with me, and he'd jump on the bandwagon and copy her.

The spin game, which Abigail always loved, was one of those Becca-discoveries that Josh also liked. Each one would grab a finger and run, almost always counterclockwise. I tried to make sure Josh held my right hand and Becca my left, because he ran faster than she did and he'd get behind me if he was on my left. He invented his own variation on the game, though — he'd run as fast as he could, then let go and tumble head over heels. Then he'd catch up with "his" finger (I'd still be spinning with Becca) and do it again. Becca tried copying him, but she wasn't a tumbler. She'd just fall to her hands and knees before getting up. She gave up on falling after a couple of weeks, long before he did.

Poor Abigail wanted to join in the game, but I was out of hands. She tried hanging onto my shirt, and she tried holding one of the twins' hands, but the only thing that worked was running just in front of Josh so he could chase her. He loved chasing his sister.

He also loved tackling her, and anyone else he thought he could bring down. He went through a long stage of clinging to Abigail's ankle, grinning, and expecting her to drag him around the room with her. If she lay on the floor, he'd sit on her. If she sat on the floor, he'd drape himself over her shoulder from behind and slide down her as though she were a playground slide, until she cried, "Daddy, help!" He tried similar things with Becca, Nora and me. We called it "gooning," and it kept us on our toes. Nora would holler, "Goon alert!" and I'd come running to rescue whichever sister he was persecuting, or sometimes just to rescue him from himself. We were especially vigilant when he flashed his "goony grin," a big toothy smile that usually meant he had an idea for escaping his bounds or dismantling something. He wasn't being malicious — there wasn't a cruel bone in his body. He was just a goon, and he was good at it.

He and Rebecca were watching a video one day. He was on one side of the room, she was on the other. They were oblivious to each other, as usual. Neither was bothering the other. But, apparently, Josh felt a sudden wild urge to goon somebody. He ran across the room, tackled Becca to the floor, then returned to his place and went back to watching the video. If Becca had been talking yet, I'm sure she would have said something like, "Wha'd I do? Wha'd I do?"

Nora, in particular, had to be careful when she stretched out on the couch. That was the boy's cue to climb up on top of the couch and jump on her, then climb back and do it again. If she sat up, he'd try to sit on her head. She still wasn't getting much rest.

As for me, I took a risk any time I lay down on the floor. Abigail had played "Hop on Pop;" Josh did the chest dance. He'd clamber up onto my rib cage, grin at me, and begin running in place. Nothing I could say would get him to stop, and if I didn't grab him and put him down on the floor, he'd keep going until he lost his balance and fell off.

If I was kneeling or sitting on the floor, he would either climb onto my shoulders for a piggyback ride, or he played the judo game. In this game, he ran up behind me and leaned over my left shoulder. I grabbed him and carefully flipped him over my shoulder, head over heels, so that he turned a full somersault before I put him down. He usually hit the ground running and circled around behind me for another flip. Becca tried to copy him, but she couldn't get the knack and always lost her balance when I put her down, falling flat on her dignity.

If he felt goony, but no people were in convenient positions, he'd practice his new indoor sport: rocking-chair surfing. He would stand in a rocking chair, stretch out his arms, and start rocking with his legs. We sometimes worried that he would tip the chair over, but that particular mishap never occurred. He once hit his twin sister in the head with the back of the chair and sent her sprawling, though.

He also liked the trusting game, which he discovered without Rebecca's help. He usually waited until I was looking at him before he fell forward. He didn't always wait until I was close enough to catch him, though, and I made at least one diving catch that any major-league baseball player would have been proud of. Becca tried the trusting game once or twice, but it wasn't her style.

One game both twins enjoyed was "Look how cute I am." To play this game, one of them would stand next to a couch and flop his/her head down on it, then grin and wait until Nora or I said, "Awww!" Then he/she would do it again.

Becca modified this slightly in the next few months. She would slowly reach for something she knew she wasn't supposed to touch, and stop when her hand was an inch or so away from whatever it was. She'd break out in a big smile, and then wait until one of us noticed her. Then she'd grab it if we didn't say, "No, Becca!" I don't think she wanted to grab the whatever-it-was; she just loved the attention.

Another attention-getter of hers was her squeal. I cannot describe the noise she would make, or copy it, for that matter. But to hear this sound coming from such a dainty little girl would make anyone laugh. Once she got a reaction from us, of course she'd do it again. But we couldn't induce her to do it; she squealed only when she felt like it.

She had one game that Josh never copied, and that was the Daddy's-face game. She never learned to say the names of the parts of the body, but she loved to point at them while we said their names. She especially liked to sit in my lap and touch the parts of my face, from bottom to top, as I named them: "Beard, moustache, nose, glasses, forehead, NO HA-AIR!"

- # -

Nora's verbal slips continued unabated, to Sarah and Rachel's delight. She once asked Sarah to "take their diapers out of the fridge so the babies will have something to drink."

On another occasion, when talking about what I had fed the kids while she was out, I mentioned peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.

"Did you use the tablecloth bread?" she asked anxiously. When she asked why I was looking at her that way, I told her what she'd said. She got embarrassed and left the room; I never did find out what she really meant.

After one particularly harrowing day with five kids at home, Nora tried to warn Abigail about her approaching bedtime. "Abigail, it's time for Daddy to put Mike to work... no, I meant it's time for Mike to put Daddy to bed."

"Abigail, it's bedtime," I finished for her. Nora hid her face in her hands and moaned, "Don't make fun of me — I'm tired!"

Her number-one prize-winner came at supper one night. She was on a diet, and we all knew it, because we'd had to hide our sweets so she wouldn't be tempted. She served pasta that night. She measured out her portion on her little scale, devoured it, then got up and helped herself to seconds.

Neither Sarah, Rachel, nor I wanted to say anything, but we were all watching her. She got self-conscious and exclaimed, "I know I'm having sex, but I'm still hungry!"

- # -

I was working long hours to support this bunch, and I could have used some rest, too. But Abigail often had other ideas. One afternoon, I staggered in the door after an eleven-hour day and collapsed sideways in an overstuffed chair; my head was on one arm of the chair, my legs were draped over the other. I closed my eyes and began to relax. But some parental sixth sense warned me to tighten up; half a second later, forty-five pounds of Abigail leaped onto my abdomen, knees first.

As I carefully drew a breath to see if anything was broken, she smiled sweetly and said, "Hi, Daddy! I wake you up!"

When I got good and tired, I sometimes tried to wiggle out of playing with her, even when she came and asked me to. But when she smiled and tried to sweet-talk me, I usually gave in. How could I say no when she said things like, "C'mon, it'll be fun!" or, "It's okay, I'll be your friend!"

- # -

Josh was a strong little boy. When he played the spin game with me, I had to be careful — his grip could hurt my finger if he grabbed me the wrong way.

Abigail climbed into her toy shopping cart one day. She could barely fit, and I was amazed that her weight didn't break the cart. I was even more amazed when Josh grabbed the handle of the cart and pushed his big sister across the room, then tried to drag her back.

- # -

I first took Abigail to work on a Friday night in the summer of 1991. All seven of us had been out on some kind of errand that evening, and we stopped at my office so I could start a lengthy computer program running over the weekend.

The twins were snug in their portable bouncy-seats, so they caused no problems. Sarah and Rachel were singing and running in the halls; I was thankful no one else was working late. But Abigail was intrigued by my office, my swivel chair, my computer, everything.

Most of the lights were off in the building at that hour. She apparently thought that was the normal state of things, and she was concerned that I had to work in darkness. She made references to "Daddy's dark work" for at least a year.

She knew I went somewhere every morning and came back at night, and she'd seen people working on Sesame Street, but that visit tied the loose ends together for her. Now my work was part of her universe, and fair game for her imagination.

I was sitting on the couch one day, watching the twins, when Abigail skipped into the room. She plopped down next to me and held up her bare foot.

"Daddy, lookit my foot!" she exclaimed.

"What do you want me to do with your foot?" I countered.

"I want you to take it to work with you."

She still liked her cookie in a bag for breakfast, but one morning, she woke up too late to do anything but wave goodbye to me. So she stood in the open door and called, "Bye, Daddy! You go' work! You work on compooter! You talk onna phone! Then you come home!" So that's what I did.

- # -

She was now old enough, and her attention span was long enough, that I started reading her a story from her children's Bible every night. She listened attentively, and it became part of our bedtime ritual: we'd lie on my bed while I read the Bible story, she'd go to the bathroom and brush her teeth, then she'd return to my room. Usually, I'd pray with her, kiss her, and carry her into her room to tuck her in. I carried her like a baby, and she would reach out to open the door to her room. Sometimes she'd want to put herself to bed without help, but those were the exceptions.

One night's story was about the Tabernacle, the tent of worship that the Israelites carried while they wandered in the wilderness. Abigail's Bible had a good illustration, so I pointed at it and explained, "Now, this is called the Tabernacle."

She pointed at part of it and copied my tone: "And this is called the door." That lesson was cancelled because I couldn't stop laughing.

- # -

I took to wearing a light-blue baseball cap during my walks with the kids that summer, mostly to protect my head from sunburn. The twins soon learned what it meant when I put on that hat. They'd run for the door, jumping up and down with excitement — Pavlov would have been proud. If someone was throwing a fit, a glimpse of the blue hat would usually calm them down. I called it "the walking hat," and I didn't try to leave home without it. Even in the winter, I wore that hat under the hood of my jacket on the days when the weather was clear enough to take the little ones out for some fresh air.

- # -

Nora came up with one more good slip of the tongue at Christmas. The mess and commotion had her a little flustered, and she thought it would help if some of the debris could be put away. So she instructed Sarah and Rachel to "put all the twins' toys in the toy box, and put Abigail's toys in the dumpster."

She helped the girls make Christmas presents for me out of dough. Rachel made a paper-clip cup, painted neon-pink. Sarah helped Abigail make me a paperweight. It was just a flowery shape cut out with a cookie-cutter and painted blue, with the word "DAD" in orange. I took them to my office. They're still there. They have both cracked badly as they dried out, but Rachel's cup still holds paper-clips, and Abigail's paperweight still says, "DAD."

Chapter 5: The Lost Year - 1992

My memories of 1992 are few and hazy. It was not a good year. I made almost no notes about what the children did that year.

I do recall one family shopping trip in the springtime. We were heading home, and Abigail wanted to stop and get lunch at McDonald's. Nora told her she didn't have any money to eat out.

"Daddy?" she asked me expectantly.

"No, I don't have any money, either," I shrugged.

She got flustered and exclaimed, "Well, somebody has to have money!"

- # -

She went through a defiant stage in the summer. We didn't sweat it. It wasn't severe, and it didn't last long. Besides, it was so unlike her, even unnatural for her, that her attempts to rebel seemed comical at times.

It was getting late one night, and Abigail was showing no awareness that bedtime was approaching, in spite of several warnings. I finally switched off the TV and said, "I think I'll put you to bed now, Abigail."

"I think you won't," she retorted.

- # -

Becca and I began a new tradition, one that occurred after bedtime. She and Abigail had been moved into the same room so her restless brother wouldn't keep her awake. Becca went to bed first, and we always hoped she'd be asleep by the time Abigail's bedtime rolled around, half an hour later. It rarely happened that way. I'd enter the room with Abigail in my arms, and Becca would stand up in her crib, her eyes sparkling, so happy to see me... It broke my heart to ignore her and walk out. But all the experts, including Nora, said that if I talked to her or paid attention to her, it would get her excited and keep her from falling asleep.

Phooey! How could I reject my littlest girl when she smiled at me like that? I began picking her up and walking her around the room for a few minutes after I tucked Abigail in. She loved the extra attention, and you can't convince me it had any impact on her sleep schedule. I loved it, too. Becca wasn't a very affectionate child at this time, and if she wanted to snuggle her head on my shoulder for a few minutes, that was just fine with me.

- # -

The twins still weren't talking. They certainly understood some of what we said to them, and they were occasionally learning a word here and there, but it wasn't normal development. We were reassured by friends that "twins always learn more slowly than single children," and "boys take longer than girls." We decided not to panic unless they turned three years old and still didn't talk.

Josh had even managed to learn his big sister's name — "Agga-nay," which was pretty close to "Abigail." I was so proud of him! But somewhere during the year, both of them stopped developing mentally. Josh froze at a one-year-old level, and Becca at about two years.

- # -

Rebecca did reach her "end-of-toddlerhood" milestone, like Abigail did with the popcorn bowl. With Becca, it was her high chair. We learned to park their high chairs in front of the TV set at suppertime, and play their favorite videos while they ate. It was easier than endlessly supplying them with toys during supper, and they would keep eating as long as they were entertained.

Becca watched me drag Joshua's high chair through the dining room to the living room one night, then darted into the kitchen. I heard a scraping noise and ran to see what she was up to. She was trying to drag her own high chair to the living room! I scooped her up in my arms, hugged her and kissed her, and praised her for being such a smart girl. I don't know if she connected this with what she'd just done, but she ate up the attention.

- # -

We took the kids to Lake Winnipesaukee once more that summer. The twins were still sleeping in cribs, so my father found an old crib for Josh and my mother rented a porta-crib for Becca. The latter was a mixed success. We honestly thought she wouldn't try to climb out of it.

But one afternoon during their nap time, their nursery monitor went silent. No static, nothing. So Nora went upstairs to see what had gone wrong. What she found was Becca ambling down the hall, a huge grin on her face and the monitor in her hands. She handed it to her Mommy, very pleased with herself. Nora put her back in the porta-crib, but we couldn't relax and assume she was safe anymore, which cast an unexpected damper on our vacation. The older girls enjoyed tying ropes to their inner tubes and letting me pull them behind the rowboat, but other than that, I don't remember much about that vacation trip.

- # -

In September of 1992, after one too many fights, Nora informed me that I had to find someplace else to live. Once again, I had to leave Abigail behind, and my twins as well. When we came back together in 1990, Nora had promised Abigail that Daddy would never leave again. How many more promises to these kids were we going to break?

In October, a month after I left, Nora became engaged to Ken Fontaine, someone she apparently knew from years ago. They married in November. I hadn't even had time to get used to the fact that I was really divorced now. I think the combined shocks took their toll on my memories of what happened that year.

Nora had asked for a flat rate for child support, instead of the customary percentage. All she wanted, she said, was to be able to stay in the house so the kids could have a decent place to live and grow up. I thought that was all right, especially because I had moved so frequently during my own childhood, and had hated it. Besides, whenever I got a pay raise, the increase would be mine, and my standard of living would slowly improve over the years. But her flat rate was over half of my take-home pay.

I moved into a rooming house, paying $60 a week for rent. I got one room, with a common kitchen and bathroom shared among three men; having the kids for sleep-overs was impossible. Nora granted me five visits a week, though — one night out with each of the twins, two with Abigail, and a visit with all of them at Nora's house.

Those in-house visits were horribly stressful to me at first. After all, this had been my house, my wife, my family, and now this Ken character had walked in off the street and taken my place! But I wanted to spend time with my children as a family, in familiar surroundings, as well as one on one.

To be fair, Ken never tried to usurp my place in my children's hearts. He was a good stepfather, far better than I had been. (When Abigail approached me one day and exclaimed, "Aren't I lucky to have two daddies?" it turned out that Rachel had put her up to it.) And it speaks well of him that he allowed me, his wife's former husband, into his home every week to play with the little ones. Under different circumstances, I probably would have liked him. Abigail and Becca certainly did.

Josh didn't like him, not one little bit. He wouldn't let Ken change him, dress him, or feed him, and forget trying to play with him. It wasn't anything Ken had done; it was just a personality clash. To my knowledge, Ken was the only person Josh ever tried to hurt on purpose. It got so bad that Nora would call me or Monique if someone had to babysit when the boy was home, rather than forcing Ken into a confrontation no one could win.

The situation was somewhat similar to my clashes with Sarah and Rachel. Maybe Nora had learned something from my mistakes, and didn't try to force husband #3 into a no-win situation like she did with #2.

- # -

For Christmas, Abigail gave me a screwdriver set she'd bought for a dollar. They were made of soft steel, and I knew they'd never hold up under any heavy use. But I wanted to use them, because it would make her happy.

My job provided the answer. In addition to computer programming, I was also saddled with all the computer maintenance for our department. My Abigail-tools, as I called them, became my tool kit at work. This was something she could understand, because I was always fixing broken things when I lived with her, and to a lesser extent afterward.

I still have my Abigail-tools, and I still take them out regularly to unscrew various cables and connectors. I think of her whenever I use them.

Chapter 6: The Lean Year - 1993

I slowly adapted to my new condition as a divorced man. Finances were the hard part. I didn't begrudge my children a penny, but that didn't leave much for me. For example, my grocery budget worked out to $15 a week. There was just nothing left for entertainment or other expenses. Nora wasn't exactly living high off the hog, either, so I couldn't blame her for taking all my money. I simply hadn't done the math before I agreed to the support arrangements.

When Nora asked if I could feed the twins during my visits with them, I agreed — if she would chip in on the cost. I figured I was giving up more than half my paycheck to support my kids; shouldn't that include their meals? She didn't see it that way, but she wound up sending $2 and a juice cup out with each twin when I picked them up. I added $1 of my own, and that just covered the price of six chicken nuggets and a small order of fries, a reasonably large supper for a three-year-old, if not perfectly nutritious. I paid for Abigail's meals myself, in part because, on Friday nights, I would buy a burger and eat with her. It was worth it to me; I didn't want to sit there, staring at her while she ate. I wanted to do things with her.

- # -

The first time I took the boy to the mall, he didn't quite know what he wanted to do. We spent the first fifteen minutes riding up and down the escalators — as soon as we got to the top, he'd drag me around to go down again. The mall employees who were handing out flyers at the foot of each escalator were soon smiling and waving to us as we passed them again, and again, and again.

Then he spotted the food court. Evidently, he thought he would find his mother there, and he began searching for her. He began running after a few minutes, dragging me along by one finger, and I started having trouble keeping up with him. Also, he was starting to get upset. I finally called a halt and tried to lead him someplace else. He didn't want to go, so I picked him up and carried him on my hip. He burst into tears.

"Ah-gn, gah-gn!" he cried, reaching back over my shoulder. Was he calling for his mother? He just couldn't communicate! I had no idea what he meant, so I just tried to soothe him. He wanted no part of being soothed; he bunched his fingertips together and hit me.

"Oh, no, Josh!" I exclaimed, trying to convey dismay rather than discipline. He gave me a long look — he must have been weighing his chances of winning this confrontation — and unbunched his fingers. I got him calmed a bit and took him home.

He never tried to hit me again. But I'll hear that anguished "Ah-gn, gah-gn" as long as I live.

- # -

Josh was visibly upset when I returned him from some of these early visits. Nora was concerned that he might not be enjoying his nights out with me, that he might prefer to stay in a familiar setting. I think she also worried that I was mistreating him somehow. He settled those questions himself one day.

I pulled into the driveway to pick him up. Nora usually sent him out with Ken, but today, she brought him out herself. The moment he saw my car, he broke out in a huge smile and went into a little dance, running in place on the front steps. Then he grabbed Nora's finger and took off at full speed — he practically dragged her across the parking lot to the car. She never again worried about how my kids felt about their visits with me.

- # -

For her birthday, Abigail wanted a toy called an Awesome Toss'em. It was a plump, neon-yellow stuffed kitty, with a sound box inside that meowed whenever the toy was moved. I bought it for her, and she was happy. Unfortunately, the first time we played catch with it, she got bonked in the nose with the sound box, and she lost enthusiasm for her new toy.

But Becca loved it. I mean that literally — she took that kitty into her heart. It went everywhere with her: meals, playtime, bed, rides in the car, everywhere. She patted it every five or ten seconds to make it go "meow, meow, meow," and she'd smile. The sound drove Nora crazy, to the point where she removed the sound box for a few weeks. I have never seen a child love a toy the way Rebecca loved that kitty. Abigail said she could keep it, which I thought was very generous of her. As for me, I was a little sad that Abigail didn't like her birthday present, but Rebecca's smiles more than made up for it.

The toy got so dirty, from being constantly used and loved, that even laundering it didn't help. Nora bought her a new one later that year. If Becca knew the difference, she didn't show it. It remained her absolute favorite toy.

- # -

We began to get concerned about the twins' not learning to talk. Josh, in particular, was stuck in a baby-talking rut.

He had left his "Gah!" behind, aside from occasionally screaming, "Ga, ga, gah!" at passing cars. Now, his word was "Ah-gn gah-gn." This could have been an attempt to say "goony guy," which is what we were calling him. Or maybe it was just baby talk. Sometimes he'd get excited and cut loose with a long "Ah-gn gah-gn gah-gn gah-gn gah-gn..." that would last until he ran out of breath, or until he'd said whatever was on his mind. Regardless, he found a number of uses for the word.

When playing with trains on the floor, Abigail would make a "chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga, choo choo" sound. Josh also liked playing with trains, and he copied his big sister as best he could. It came out, "Ah-gn gah-gn, ah-gn gah-gn, ee-ee."

A much better use of the word, in my opinion, was in the only song he ever learned to sing. It was from one of his sing-along videos, and the words to the chorus went like this:

"Oops! Oops! Oops! I'm always spilling,
"Oops! Oops! Oops! I'm always dropping,
"Oops! Oops! Oops! Do I have to pick it up?
"I don't WANNA pick it up!"
He liked that a lot, and sang along, sort of. His best performance came in the town park, while I was pushing him on a swingset. I started singing the song to him, and he joined in at full volume, his little voice ringing across the park:
"Vvts, vvts, vvts, n-gah-gn,
"Vvts, vvts, vvts, n-gah-gn,
"Vvts, vvts, vvts, ah-gn gah-gn,
Nora once called me at work and told me that he had stood next to a bookshelf that morning and sung the song. With each "vvts," he knocked a book off the shelf. She couldn't decide whether to stop him from making a mess, or let him go because it was so cute to watch.

- # -

My phone rang at work one afternoon. I picked it up and said, "Hello."




"Oh, hi, Josh! How are you?"


The next time I saw Nora, I asked if she had called me and put him on the phone to talk to me. She had no idea what I was talking about. Our best guess was that I was the last person anyone had called from that phone, and he'd been playing with the receiver and hit the "redial" button by accident. We'll never know for sure how he called me up.

- # -

His gooning reached new heights when he decided to emulate Samson and push over the decorative wooden columns in the living-room entryway. He didn't succeed, of course, but it was quite a sight to watch him pushing on the pillars with all his might and screaming at them. He tried the same stunt outdoors, on trees two feet thick. He couldn't push them over, either. But he apparently thought he could, and it was hysterical to watch.

He tried it one day when I had Nora's camcorder pointed at him. Every parent knows that children will never do something cute when the film is rolling. But Josh forgot that rule, and he performed brilliantly. That video of him screaming at the tree was one of my absolute favorites.

- # -

Becca continued to show an interest in music, but it had to be on her terms. Sometimes she'd smile when I sang her a song, and sometimes she'd scream and try to stop me. I confess to trying different songs, experimenting with what upset her and what didn't, until I finally figured out what her rule was.

If she was accustomed to hearing a song sung by children or women, I wasn't allowed to sing that song. If it was a "man's song" in her mind, that was okay for me to sing. It helped to understand her pattern; now I could indulge her love of music (and mine) without causing any more tantrums.

I would sometimes bring my guitar over during visits. I'd sing songs from the kids' sing-along videos, and Abigail would request a church song or two that she knew. Becca would watch and listen and smile, but she kept her distance, in case I sang a song she didn't want me to sing.

Josh's approach to my guitar was, well, unique. He'd stand next to me, rest his head against the body of the guitar, and walk underneath it, sliding his head along its curves. I'd laugh and ask what he was doing, and he'd grin and do it again. After a few of those, he'd start playing the guitar as if it were a drum. Becca would join him, but she wanted to pick at the strings. I'd form chords with my left hand so she'd make a pretty sound — if it could be heard over the boy's banging.

- # -

She saw me operating my calculator-watch one evening, and decided that that was the thing to do. Playing with my watch became one of her rituals. She would guide me to a place to sit if I wasn't sitting already, curl up in my lap, and grab my wrist. Regardless of whatever handicap she might have, she learned to operate the tiny buttons to turn on calculator mode and clear the display. Then she'd sit for half an hour or more, pushing buttons to fill up the display, then clearing it and starting over. The number 7 seemed to be her favorite.

She sometimes bent my wrist at painful angles, but I tried to accommodate her. It was so neat that she had learned how to make something work, just by observing her Daddy. And I was sure she didn't play this game with anybody else on the planet.

- # -

Becca was learning to count at this time. I first realized it when I saw her climbing up and down off a child's wooden rocking chair. With each step, she would say, "Un, hoo, fwee, fo'." I watched, wondering what she was doing. Then it hit me — she was imitating her mommy's step-aerobic exercise videos! She looked puzzled for a moment when I started laughing, then returned to her exercises.

Somewhere around this time, she learned her first complete sentence. It was the sentence she heard most often around the house, primarily because of her brother:

"Stop it!"

- # -

Josh wasn't talking, but there were plenty of signs that there was nothing wrong with his thinking gear. It was just a problem with communicating.

Becca was ignoring her supper one night. It was a waffle, cut up in pieces and left on the coffee table in the living room. She was playing the run-to-Daddy-and-get-picked-up game, and I wanted her to grab a bite between runs. She just wanted to play.

I walked over to her plate, pointed at it, and called, "Becca, take a bite!" Josh was in the dining room; he could not possibly have seen what I did. But he came barreling into the living room, stopped next to her plate, and pointed at it, using the exact same gesture I had just used. Then he looked up at me, mugging for approval. If my falling on the floor laughing was approval, he got it.

- # -

Nora and I began taking the twins to various specialists, trying to find out what the problem was. The doctors were extremely reluctant to draw any kind of a conclusion. Josh's first diagnosis boiled down to, "he's aggressive and he's a boy." No kidding?

They thought he might have a problem with his hearing, brought on by the many ear infections he had as a baby. But we knew there was nothing wrong with his ears. He could hear the crinkle of a candy-bar wrapper from two rooms away!

Nora began doing a lot of homework, and sharing the results with me. She became increasingly convinced that Josh, and possibly Becca, suffered from autism, a birth defect that affects the way the brain processes information from the senses. I didn't like the thought that my children might be mentally handicapped, but what else could it be? Everything Nora read pointed toward autism.

Because she made her diagnosis long before the doctors could make up their minds, we got an early start on treating them as though they were autistic. Nora made picture boards — placards with Polaroid photos of different aspects of their day, like food, juice cups, the TV, and their beds. The idea was that, if Josh or Becca wanted something and didn't know how to ask, he or she could point at the appropriate picture. She arranged them chronologically, from the start of their day to the end. At least one doctor was amazed and impressed by that idea. To Nora, it was just common sense.

She also began learning sign language, in case Josh would respond to that form of communication. I learned a few of the most frequently-used signs, like "silly" and "stop it." He never got the idea; I don't think he ever used his picture board, either. Becca would point to the picture of her bed when she was ready to go night-night, and she learned to point at different pictures and name them, but when she wanted something, she would either try to say the word, or take one of us by the hand and lead us to what she wanted.

- # -

I started to get really upset about one aspect of the situation: if Abigail wanted some small something, I never had enough money to buy it for her. Whether it was a Happy Meal or a visit to a small travelling carnival, it seemed that I always had to deny her. It didn't help that, now and then, Nora and Ken could get her those things. As summer approached, I determined that I would have enough money to take her to the New England Fair, even if it meant eating spaghetti for a month.

That's when I discovered that money could be made by collecting and cashing in cans and bottles for deposit. I took to prowling the streets on weekends, hunting for discarded cans, and redeeming them in $5 increments. When the big day came, I had enough to give my daughter a decent night out.

She preferred tame rides for the most part, although she did ride one kiddie roller-coaster. Trains and merry-go-rounds were more her speed. We went into a fun house together, and she laughed out loud at the distorting mirrors and what they did to us. At the end, I tried to win a stuffed dinosaur for her by throwing darts at balloons. I failed, and it would be hard to say which of us was more disappointed.

Two weeks later, I found a similar dinosaur at a friend's yard sale and bought it for her. That red Dimetrodon with the little smile became one of her favorite stuffed toys. She slept with it every night for months, and it was still in her bed two years later. Again, I had picked a toy that made a difference. It made me feel like I was doing something right.

- # -

When we ate together at McDonald's, I made a point of not eating the long French fries, because she liked the long ones. She knew I was picking out the small ones, and I think it concerned her that I wasn't getting any of the "good" fries.

She picked up a long one and offered it to me one day. "Oh, no, Abigail, you eat the long ones, and I'll eat the short ones," I protested.

"No, you'll eat what I give you," she retorted.

- # -

At the start of one visit, she offered me a twist of aluminum foil, about seven inches long. "Here, Daddy — this is for you," she announced.

"Thank you, Abigail," I said hesitantly, not wanting to hurt her feelings. "What is it?"

"It's an aluminum-foil pickle," she replied very seriously. "And, Daddy, this is much better than a real pickle, because if you ever forget what a pickle looks like, you can look at this one, and then you'll remember."

I thanked her and put it in my briefcase so it wouldn't get lost. It wouldn't fit in the folder in which I kept the pictures she gave me, so it wound up on my desktop in my room. Every now and then, I would pick it up, look at it, and chuckle.

- # -

Although she was getting older, she still had some strong opinions of how things ought to be done. She once corrected my penmanship, insisting that I was starting my letter "b" from the wrong end of the letter.

I surprised her one Sunday afternoon by taking her to the mall to see a live-action Disney show, with characters dressed like Roger Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, and Minnie Mouse (her favorite). She sat on my shoulders so she could see over the crowd, and she was overjoyed to see all these beloved characters dancing and singing on the stage. But after Roger Rabbit had failed twice to pull a rabbit out of a hat, he pulled himself out of a giant hat. Everyone else clapped and cheered for him. Abigail yelled, "Cheating!"

- # -

There was still no sign of rivalry or resentment against her little brother or sister. But she had enjoyed being Daddy's queen-bee for three years, and that wasn't something she'd surrender easily.

One night, I wound up putting Abigail and Rebecca to bed at the same time. Abigail sat on her bed, watching me walk her sister around the room before laying her down. When I came to tuck her in, she held her arms up instead.

"Will you walk me, Daddy?" she asked, her big blue eyes wide and hopeful.

She weighed over fifty pounds, and her feet dangled down to my knees when I held her. But I picked her up and walked with her. She laid her head on my shoulder, sighed, and relaxed. All was well with her world.

- # -

One thing was certain about Abigail: she had no shortage of self-confidence. I think that was because she felt so secure in her mommy's and daddy's love, and because we tried to encourage her in everything.

While baby-sitting for Nora one Saturday, I took all three kids for a stroll. It was a typical walk for us: Abigail was walking on walls and asking questions about everything she saw, while Josh and Becca just sat in their stroller and watched the scenery go by.

We passed one house that had two bright red rocks in the front yard. "Abigail," I asked, "how do you think those rocks got red?"

"Somebody painted them," she answered matter-of-factly.

"How'd you know that?" I inquired.

"Mommy told me," was the response, which satisfied me. But on the way back, we passed the same rocks, and she altered her answer a little bit.

"I changed my mind — Mommy didn't tell me that. I'm just smart about everything."

- # -

Abigail proved that she was her mother's daughter in a number of ways. To my mind, the proof was in her own slips of the tongue.

Her best one occurred one cool evening when she hadn't brought any gloves with her. On the way out of the mall, she stuck her hands in her pockets and complained, "My horns are cold!"

- # -

In the autumn, the learning-toy store at the local mall put a Brio wooden push-train set on display for shoppers to play with. All three of my children were drawn to it like magnets, and I knew what their big Christmas present would have to be. All summer and fall, and into the winter, my can-and-bottle fund grew until I had almost two hundred dollars set aside. My parents contributed to the project, and I was able to buy most of the tracks at a discount, but it was still a whopping big expense for someone on my budget.

I never made a better investment. On the day I gave them their presents (a few days after Christmas), they played with that set for hours. In addition to the big "shared" gift, I'd given each of them a little gift of their own, but the girls quickly forgot those. Josh liked his gift because it was a wooden Thomas the Tank Engine that ran on the wooden train tracks. He took that little engine to bed with him for weeks. It was one of the few toys he really bonded with.

I kept the trains with me, bringing them over on visiting nights and on baby-sitting days, and taking them with me when I left. In part, this was a favor to Nora — she had plenty of toys and building sets to pick up already. It was also for my benefit; I'd worked so hard to acquire those trains that I didn't want the pieces lost and scattered all over the house. Either way, it meant that the trains weren't an everyday toy, and their novelty never wore off.

Once or twice during the next year, I found I had a little extra money to spend on more tracks or accessories for the train set. One addition was a pair of engines from the Thomas series. I handed the red James to Josh because he seemed to be fond of James on the TV show, and Becca got the green Henry because I had to give her something. I had meant to make them additions to the set, not separate gifts to the kids, but I should have realized the twins would take it their way.

Becca always thought of Henry as hers. When I arrived for a visit and opened the train box, she would stand next to me and wait, smiling, until I handed her the green engine. She sometimes used it to re-enact scenes from the TV show, which was more interaction than she showed in many other areas of life.

Abigail's interest in the trains waned after a few weeks. She would occasionally want to play with them, but it was hard for her to get a train away from her little brother. Her principal interest was in rearranging the tracks to make her own layout, after the twins went to bed.

Becca never lost interest, but she had problems getting Josh to relinquish a train for her to play with. I took to confiscating an engine and a few freight cars from him and explaining to both of them, "Becca's train!" She would couple them together into a train, struggling with the magnetic couplers now and then, and set off down the tracks. Her favorite part of the set was the drawbridge, which went up and down when she turned a crank.

As for Josh, the train set was his favorite toy ever, bar none. The moment I walked into the house, he would rush into the room, almost ignoring me, looking for the train box. He learned to put the sections of track together long before Rebecca tried it. He also enjoyed the drawbridge, but not like Becca did: he liked to raise the bridge and then push his train off the edge. His favorite part was definitely the tunnel. He would lay his head on the rug so he was at eye level with the tracks, and push his train back and forth, in and out of the tunnel repeatedly. "We won't ask Freud what he'd make of that," I remarked to Nora one night; she laughed.

Given a chance, he would grab every car and engine and make the longest train possible. If Becca left her train alone for more than a minute or two, it was gone, absorbed into the Josh-train. He would play with that set from the moment I walked in until it was time for bed. Or longer.

One night, he was busy with the trains, and he totally ignored my repeated requests to let me change his diaper and put on his pajamas. This wasn't like him; he was usually very cooperative at bedtime. So Nora tried, in her pleasant Mommy voice. "Josh, it's bedtime. Let me change your diaper."

Autism or no autism, he could communicate some things loud and clear, and the look he gave Nora was as blatantly defiant as if he'd said, "Forget it!" Then he went back to his trains. I had to hide a smile. She finally picked him up and carried him upstairs to get him ready for bed.

Chapter 7: The Last Year - 1994

When Nora and I took Josh to the Child Development Center at Rhode Island Hospital in March, we both knew that there would be no good news. Her research had convinced her that both he and his sister were autistic; all the hospital could offer was a firm diagnosis, so we could start hunting for special-needs education for them.

I had brought a small section of his wooden train set to keep him busy while we waited to see various specialists. It turned out to be even more useful than that; the doctors wanted to watch him play, so they could assess his abilities, and he refused to touch the hospital's toys. If they hadn't seen him assembling the wooden tracks and playing with the train's magnetic couplers, they never would have had a clue as to what he was capable of.

They wanted to check his hearing, so Nora took him into the hearing-test booth. Did they seriously expect my goon to wear earphones? He tore them off, and did his best to dismantle the booth before they decided his hearing was okay.

After about three hours, they finally brought the three of us into an office and confirmed the diagnosis: autism. It was a relief to finally know, but it was also a hammer-blow to our dreams for the little guy. Nora had envisioned him going to college and getting married; I'd dreamed of taking him to baseball games and visiting the old warships at Battleship Cove together. Now, none of this would ever be.

Nora took Becca in for her appointments two weeks later. I stayed home with Josh because he and Ken still couldn't get along. Nora returned after lunch, exhausted, with the same diagnosis. She said somebody would probably want to do a study on our children, because it was extremely rare for fraternal twins to both suffer from autism. "Big deal," I thought.

- # -

Nora threw herself into learning about autism with a zeal I'd never seen in her before. She read everything she could get her hands on — books, magazines, flyers from the Autism Society, you name it. She soon decided what each child needed most in special-needs schooling, and set about getting it.

I took a lot of time off from work that spring and summer, baby-sitting my kids while Nora went to bat for them. She took on entrenched bureaucracies — the North Attleboro school board and several private home-care organizations — and won, helped only by one advocate from the Association for Retarded Citizens. If one group didn't follow through on their promises, she'd find another. It was probably the first time in her life when her natural stubbornness and determination to get her own way could have a positive impact, and she made the most of it. I went along for a few of the twins' evaluations at various schools, but mostly I stayed in the background.

I did almost no homework, as far as autism went. I read a book or two, and I studied all the papers Nora gave me. But the work she was doing seemed so complete, I didn't see the point in trying to keep up with her. I just listened to everything she said, and remembered the parts that seemed to apply to Josh or Becca.

The books all agreed that autistic children often love to be spun, bounced, or otherwise moved around — they need extra stimulation of their sense of balance. That explained why my boy loved his piggyback rides, horsey rides, crab rides, etc., so much. They weren't just gooniness; they were meeting a real need. I tried to make his rides last longer after that, even if I was tired.

- # -

Nora and I had pretty well made peace with each other by then. We were in agreement about almost everything pertaining to the kids, which was a real change from the past. I cleared a major hurdle when I was able to admit to her my deepest fear: that I wouldn't love my children if they were handicapped. She cleared a biggie of her own when she was able to apologize for losing her temper at me one night. I wish we could have grown like that when we were together; now it was too late for anything but cooperating on parenthood.

- # -

I soon realized that the twins behaved quite differently with me than they did with Nora. For example, she warned me not to say, "No!" to Josh, because he would either cry uncontrollably or throw a tantrum. I couldn't accept that — if he could learn to recognize the word "no," surely he could learn a better response to it!

I worked on training him what "No!" meant. I'll never know if Nora had changed her mind and was doing the same thing, or if I taught him this alone. But he did learn. By the summer, if he started to act up in public, I could say, "Josh! No!" He would stop whatever he was doing, give me a long look, and then find something else to do. No tears, no tantrums.

We also had a variation, "No gooning!" That meant, "Don't you dare take that [fill in the blank] away from your sister!" He understood that one, too, and obeyed it, although he'd snatch the item in question the moment she put it down.

Nora hated taking Josh out in public because he would take all his clothes off, grab things off shelves, and scream. He almost never tried that stuff with me. I guess he knew that Daddy wouldn't stand for such nonsense. The few times he acted up, I just slung him over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes and carried him out of whatever store we were in. I always took him to fun places, and he hated to leave; the message got through, and his behavior with me in public was almost always perfect. When other people's children acted up, I praised him — "You're the best boy, and I can take you anywhere! I'm so proud of you!" He never responded, of course, but it felt good to say it.

- # -

Becca could parrot almost any words she heard, but she wouldn't say anything on her own. If you said, "Hi, Becca," she'd answer, "Hi, Becca." If you called her "Becca-boo," she would copy you as best she could: "Ba-ba-boo."

On February 7, I came to the house to help Nora get Josh ready for his visit. Becca was playing on the dining room floor. "Hi, Becca," I said.

She looked up and answered, "Hi, Dad-dee."

"Becca!!!" I virtually threw a party on the spot — I scooped her up, I hugged her, I kissed her, I praised her, I cried out to Nora, "Did you hear that? She said, 'Hi, Daddy!'" Nora had no response, which may have meant that Becca hadn't said, "Hi, Mama" yet; she was usually quick to tell me when one of my "discoveries" was really old news.

I think I made it clear to Becca that she'd said the right thing, because she never forgot that one. I could always count on a "Hi, Daddy!" when I saw my little girl.

On the 16th of that month, the two of them were playing with their wooden trains while I tried to stay out of the way. Apparently, Becca, didn't want me out of the way; she caught my eye and asked, "Daddy, you play wi' me?"

"Of course I'll play with you!" I exclaimed, and got down on the floor and played with my little girl.

- # -

Josh still wasn't talking, but he was getting goonier. On Feb. 10, when I dropped Becca off after our visit together, Nora related the following story:

At some point that morning, Josh had climbed out of his crib. Then he had pulled his mattress out of his crib and thrown it on the floor. Then he had pushed a heavy oak rocking chair across the floor and up onto the mattress. And then he had climbed up and started rocking-chair surfing. It wasn't until he was on the chair, yelling "Gah!" that Nora had heard anything. We still don't know how he did it.

He did learn to say a word from time to time, but he'd forget it a week or so later, and look at you blankly if you coaxed him to say it again. For example, a key phrase in our vocabulary with him was "bye-bye in the car," which meant a shopping trip, or a visit with Daddy. One Monday, Nora asked him, "Josh, do you want to go bye-bye with Daddy?"

"Inna cah!" he exclaimed. Nora told me about it, and he said it for me in the car. We were thrilled — perhaps he was starting to make some progress! But by the following Monday, he'd forgotten his phrase, and he never said it again.

- # -

My visiting schedule with the children was:

I had originally had another visit with Abigail on Sunday afternoon, but it made it hard for either of us to do anything useful with our weekends. In mid-summer, Nora and I moved it to Wednesday night by mutual agreement. I thought it was good that we could agree on something without fighting over it.

I once tried taking Abigail and Josh out at the same time. It was a disaster — I nearly lost Josh twice and Abigail once. I took my children out one at a time after that, because I couldn't keep track of two rambunctious kids at once, and also because the one-on-one attention was good for them. In a family of seven, they didn't get much one-on-one with anybody.

There weren't too many places I could take them, due to my limited finances. So we pretty much went to one or two of the same set of places each week, repeating if one of the kids really liked it and going elsewhere for a while if someone got bored.

Supper came first. I always fed them at McDonald's or Burger King, because it was cheap and because most of them had playgrounds for the kids to play on when supper was done.

I made Abigail finish her food before we'd go anywhere else, but that was almost never a problem because she had a hearty appetite. I'd usually buy an adult-sized combo burger meal with an orange drink (her favorite), and six chicken nuggets for her; I'd eat the burger, and we'd share the fries and the drink.

Josh wouldn't sit down for a meal, no matter what I did. I had to order his nuggets and fries "to go," and slip him bites as he played. Sometimes he'd eat in the car, but I couldn't count on that.

Becca loved to pick out where we'd sit. Once I had our food, she'd grab my finger and head for the tables; she usually seemed to know exactly where she wanted to go. If we ate at the mall, she would finish her meal and throw the trash into the wastebasket; but if we were in sight of a playground, she'd eat half her nuggets and a few fries, say, "Aww done," and I'd have to feed her the rest like I did with Josh.

One McDonald's had a little electric three-seat merry-go-round, which made feeding the twins easy. I'd sit on a bench next to the merry-go-round and hold out a piece of nugget or a french fry, and Josh (or Becca) would grab it on the way by, like an express train catching a mail bag. Two or three rotations later, they'd be done chewing and ready for another bite.

Our usual destination after supper, especially on cold or rainy days, was the local shopping mall. There were a few stores there where I could take them any time without fear of boredom.

One of these was the pet store. Both Abigail and Becca liked to reach a finger through the bars of the kittens' cage and pet them. Abigail also liked the puppies. She went through a Dalmatian fascination, thanks to the Disney movie about Dalmatians, and always checked the rows of puppy cages for something white with black spots. One day, they actually had a Dalmatian in stock; I asked one of the pet-shop employees if my little girl could pet it. The employee brought it out of its cage and held it at small-child level. I wish I could describe the joy in her eyes! She patted it and stroked it and talked to it... she didn't want to leave.

She also made a point of checking out the birds and the rabbits. One night, a cockatoo was courting a parrot in the next cage, and was energetically bobbing up and down and from side to side.

"Abigail, look at the dancing bird!" I exclaimed. She laughed out loud, and kept giggling until the bird gave up and stopped bouncing. "That's the funniest thing I've ever seen," she decided.

For the twins, though, the real attraction was the rows of aquariums. One of the first words Rebecca learned from me was "fish." She'd walk from tank to tank, point, and say, "Fish!" She also learned "turtle," "lizard," and "bubbles." I even got her to count the turtles. She taught herself to say, "Bye, fish!" when we left. As for Josh, he was perfectly happy just to sit on the floor in front of a big tank of goldfish and watch them swim back and forth.

Another popular visiting spot was the educational-toy store. They kept a wooden train set out for kids to play with, and boy, did my kids play! You'd never think they got to play with a much bigger set every Wednesday. The store also had two rows of computers set up so shoppers could try out some of the educational software for sale. Abigail's favorite "games" were the drawing programs. Some of her creations showed real creativity, like the time she pasted pictures of faces from the program's library, and then drew bodies for them freehand.

Like any kids, they loved elevators and escalators. I required that Josh and Becca hold my hand on the escalator, for safety. Abigail was allowed to take two steps away from me (I was going to make it three steps when she turned eight years old). She always took those two steps, and counted to make sure she hadn't gone too far. If she had, she quickly stepped toward me to get back within her limits, without my having to say anything. She derived a lot of comfort from knowing where her limits were.

Becca had a special fondness for the elevator. Perhaps its vertical motion met some need in her mind; autistic children often enjoy motion for that reason. When we were within sight of the elevator, I'd let go of her hand (the only time I ever did so), and she'd dash over to push the button. Once inside, she'd relax and smile. In the autumn, she began running over to me in the elevator car and throwing her arms around my knees in a spontaneous hug, something she never did for me anyplace else.

Abigail's favorite place, without question, was the play room, an empty store filled with large toys donated by the mall's toy stores. It was meant to be a place for parents to bring their kids to unwind during long shopping trips, but I used it as a free-play area. Abigail used it as whatever her imagination dictated at the time. The fact that she was too big for most of the toys didn't bother her.

She would always ask if I'd play "Three Little Pigs" with her. I would agree, but only for one game, because I'd be too winded to play twice. I'd chase her into one of the play houses, stick my head into a window, and rumble, "Little pig, little pig, let me in!"

"Not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin!" she'd shout back.

"Then I'll huff and I'll puff and I'll blow-w-w-w your house down!" I'd roar, shaking my jowls vigorously on the "blow," like it was done in a cartoon I saw once. Then I'd blow on her, and she'd run to another play house. On the third blow, I'd do something silly, like sneeze, or collapse out of breath. Sometimes one or two of the other kids in the playroom would join her in fleeing from the "big bad wolf," but usually they just stared at us.

Abigail was almost painfully shy when I tried to introduce her to my friends who bumped into us, but in that playroom, she was another child. She quickly made friends with other children, usually those younger than she. Then she'd seek out her new friend's parents and cast caution to the winds.

"Hi, my name is Abigail Fischer. I'm seven years old, and I'm in the first grade. That's my daddy. He's silly all the time." For a while, I was afraid she'd start giving out her phone number. I finally had to give her a little Daddy-lecture about talking to strangers. She didn't really understand, because everyone in the playroom seemed so nice, but she obeyed me.

All three of the kids liked the giant plastic building-blocks, especially when I built kid-sized furniture out of them. Abigail would actively help, while Josh or Becca would scour the room and bring me more blocks. Josh would sometimes add a few blocks to our creation himself; I'd point to where I wanted them, and he'd put them someplace else.

He had a ritual of sliding down every slide in the playroom before he would consider playing on anything else. Sometimes that was all — he'd slide on each slide, take my hand, and head for the exit. But he usually made a point of leading me into the playhouse that looked like a log cabin. I would have to sit on the floor, and he'd close all the plastic shutters, then curl up on the floor with me for a minute or so. His smile could have lit up the whole room.

Becca almost always wanted to play as long as she could, especially if she could get one of the foot-powered kiddie cars away from the other kids. She'd take laps around the room, stopping to make faces at herself in each of the many mirrors that lined the walls. But she'd take a wide detour around the entrance to the rest rooms. She always had a terror of public bathrooms; we never knew why.

- # -

In good weather, the place to take the kids was one of several town parks and playgrounds. The twins, especially, loved the chance to run around and stretch their legs. They played just like any other kids; no one ever knew there was anything different about them unless they tried to start a conversation with one of them.

Josh had a special liking for a wooden elementary-school playground called the "Jazzy Jungle Gym." The ground was covered with pea gravel, and he loved to let handfuls of gravel roll down the slides, watching it go and listening to the noise. He would carefully pick up all the pieces of gravel that had gotten tracked onto the wooden walkways and throw them over the side. "Yep, you're your mother's son," I'd remark — he sometimes showed signs of Nora's neatness streak.

One afternoon, he tried to climb an inclined ladder with rungs that were a bit too far apart for him. He missed the last rung, swung underneath the ladder, fell to a platform two feet below, and bounced off it, landing flat on his back on the ground after falling another two feet from the platform. Not only was he unhurt, but he was very annoyed that I ran over and picked him up! He wanted to try it again, and I tried to be ready to catch him, but he fell again, missed me, and landed face-down. This time, he cried, and he didn't protest when I decided it was time to go home.

Rebecca's favorite playground was at Capron Park in Attleboro. The wooden play area there was huge, with four or five ways to climb up and three or four more to get down again. She'd try them all before deciding which one was her favorite for the day. As for me, I liked the "shaky staircase," because it had ten steps, and if I counted from one to ten as she climbed them, she would count out loud with me — "Un, hoo, fwee, fo', fi', sis, stepeh, aik, nye, heh!" She'd be ever so pleased with herself, and I loved to hear her talking.

As for Abigail, she'd rather visit the WWI Memorial Park than anyplace else, because it was littered with boulders, and she was a rock-climbing girl. She made me nervous with some of her choices of "mountains" to climb, but she never fell, and she never let me help her unless she was trying a new rock for the first time. The goats, donkeys, and other farm animals in cages interested her only if we could find a carrot to feed to them.

She also liked Plainville Park because it had a small stream running through the middle of it. We would have leaf races — we'd stand on a bridge over the stream and drop leaves into it, letting the current carry them and waiting to see whose leaf got to the waterfall first. She usually won. Like any kid, she also liked throwing rocks in the water, and if I could find a flat one to skip across the pond, that was a real treat.

There were two other places she liked to visit. One was my office at work. She would play computer games there — I kept a few loaded on my PC for her benefit. One of her favorites was an alphabet game. The computer would show a picture of something, and if she pressed the first letter of the object's name, it would move around or make a noise. "J" for "Jack-in-the-box" was our favorite because, when she pressed "j," the jack-in-the-box would play "Pop Goes the Weasel," and an oversized gorilla would pop out. The first time we saw that, we both laughed for five minutes.

We also played a game on a chalkboard near my cubicle. She would draw a cow, and we'd take turns drawing silly tails on it. We started fairly tame — fish tails, squirrel tails, monkey tails. Then we moved up to kite tails, apple-tree tails, letter-"A" tails, volcano tails... free association was the rule, and the sillier, the better, as far as she was concerned.

The other visiting spot was my room in the rooming-house. I always had to go in first, to make sure the guy who lived in the next room wasn't running around in his underwear. She would wait patiently at the foot of the stairs until I called, "It's safe, Abigail!" Then she'd dash upstairs.

I would cook her supper from my meager rations; she always asked for hot dogs and twisty fries, and root beer to drink. We'd eat together, listening to the classical-music station on the radio. She liked Beethoven, because of the cute movie of that name, and thought every piece sounded like something written by Ludwig Von.

Then I'd turn on my own computer with its fine selection of Abigail-type games. She liked games where she could explore strange landscapes and caverns, but she usually wanted me to play them while she watched, because she didn't want to lose. She also liked a computerized aquarium, where she could choose how many fish, snails, and bubbles would be in the fish tank. She got a lot of pleasure out of adjusting that aquarium just the way she liked it.

- # -

My children's love of their wooden train set sparked my own latent interest in trains. I had dabbled in model railroading as a young teen-ager, and decided to take up the hobby again. I had taken a computer-consulting job to bolster my sagging finances, and had some money left over that would just about cover the costs. To justify the expense, I told myself it was partly for the kids, that I would let them watch the trains go around, and give them a turn at the controls when I thought they were ready. So I bought some tiny freight cars and engines, and built a loop of track on a two-by-four-foot table.

Abigail was ready from the word go. We set up the table on my bed during visits, and I would step aside and let her control the throttle. She especially liked to throw the switches and make the train go where she wanted it to go. I called her "my junior engineer," and made her an offer few kids could refuse.

"If you tell me your favorite color," I said, "I'll buy you your own freight car in that color, and that will be your special car."

"Pink!" she exclaimed without a moment's hesitation.

I shook my head. "I don't think there are any pink freight cars, Abigail. What's your second-favorite color?"

"Yellow!" That was more like it. On our next visit, we went to the hobby shop, where she picked out a little yellow tank car. That was her car, and she made sure it was in every train she ran.

Three weeks later, to my disbelief, I stumbled across a pink freight car in another hobby shop. I had no spare cash left, so my parents bought it for her. Now she had two special cars, and she was a very happy junior engineer indeed.

- # -

Most of the McDonald's and Burger Kings in the area had their own playgrounds, and my children loved all of them. Abigail especially liked them because they were small and uncrowded. She made friends quickly there.

One afternoon, she and a newly-found friend of about four were playing happily together when the friend looked down from the top of a slide and got a bird's-eye view of my pate. "Hey, man," she called in a concerned voice, "you got no hair on top of your head."

I gave my usual response, which was to stroke my beard and reply, "I know — it's all on the bottom of my head now, see?"

She wagged her finger at me and scolded, "You put your hair back on top of your head — rightnow!"

- # -

The visits in Nora's house eventually lost their stressful air. Nora, Ken, Sarah and Rachel pretty much stayed in the living room and left me alone while I played with the little ones in the dining room. That was a pretty good trick on their part, considering that the wooden train set often blocked off the whole room.

We'd sit and watch TV sometimes, especially when Ken and Nora had gone out for the evening. They loved their sing-along videos from Disney and other places, and they went through phases of liking different movies. Josh always loved the Weather Channel; the moment he heard the jazzy background music, he'd dash into the room and stare at the red-and-blue screen until I changed the channel. Becca liked the introduction and theme music from the new Star Trek episodes. As for Abigail, she'd snuggle next to me on the couch and watch cartoons with me until it was her bedtime. We agreed that the old ones were better. One oldie was about a cat chasing a bird, which was chasing a worm. The bird thought the worm was hiding in a pond, so it picked up the edge of the pond like a rug and looked beneath it. It would be tough to say which of the two of us laughed harder.

Sometimes, like when Nora had company, I'd take them all up to Abigail and Becca's room to play. Becca would lead me to Abigail's bed and, gently but firmly, make me lie down. Then she'd play contentedly with toys on the floor, checking on me from time to time to make sure I was still lying down. Josh would climb onto the bed and walk around me five or six times before he began emptying the toybox in search of the perfect toy. Abigail quickly got bored with the toys in her room, unless I made up a voice for one of her stuffed animals. That never failed to make her laugh, and it held her attention for as long as I kept doing it.

- # -

Becca utterly amazed me one night. We were driving to McDonald's for her supper, and the classical radio station was playing Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. I began whistling the melody absently. Suddenly Becca began singing along, making up her own syllables, but following the melody in almost perfect pitch. I stared at her, then broke out in a smile (which she returned) and resumed whistling. She joined in with me. Once we arrived, I turned off the radio, but kept whistling. She still stayed in key, and she was still smiling, as if she knew she was doing something pretty impressive for a four-year-old.

She did it again once or twice during the summer and fall. Her musical talent must have been considerable. I wish we could know where that might have led.

- # -

Josh had to have a buzz-cut every seven or eight weeks, because his hair grew so fast and because Nora liked it short (it was easier to shampoo). She would hand me money and ask me to take him to the hairdresser's at the start of a Monday-night visit.

He would sit in my lap in the hairdresser's chair, not at all happy with the situation, but not willing to fight me. I would shade his eyes with one hand to keep the falling hair out of his face, and he would sit still, slowly turning his head from side to side, and sort of growling at me. He was always very relieved when this ordeal was finished and he could get down and run around again. I began calling him "my fuzzy-headed boy," or just, "my fuzzy boy."

This may not seem like an earth-shattering detail, but it became quite significant in the autumn when he and his sisters needed blood tests for school.

- # -

For the sake of culture, and because I couldn't stand the music her older sisters were listening to, I was trying to acquaint Abigail with classical music. I'd made a tape of an old children's-guide-to-the-orchestra album I'd loved as a child, and given it to her. She said it was her favorite tape, and it was obvious she listened to it. I'd turn on the radio in the car as we were riding together and ask, "Abigail, what instrument is playing?"

She'd think real hard for a second and hazard a guess. "The flute?"

"That's right!" She almost never missed.

One day, my favorite classical station played a modern-sounding, discordant cello concerto. "That's awful," I groaned, and turned off the radio. Then I had a thought.

"Abigail, what did you think of that music?"

"I think it's beautiful," she answered. Wasn't my daughter entitled to her own opinion? I turned on the radio again and let her listen.

We got stuck in traffic on the way to the mall one evening. I switched on the radio, which was playing the overture to "The Barber of Seville." Abigail knew that piece — it was the soundtrack to one of our favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons. So, while we waited for traffic to move, we acted out the cartoon with each other. Far from being frustrated by the wait, she was a very happy Abigail.

- # -

She had also developed an appetite for her own exploits as a smaller child. She would pump me for "funny stuff I did when I was little," and would laugh out loud at stories like "waffle takin' a bubble bath in there." The hand-written notes I'd been keeping came in very handy, because I just couldn't remember it all. Sometimes I would find something I'd written long ago, that had totally slipped my mind. If anything, I started taking more notes, even though she said fewer and fewer "cute" things as she got older.

I also gathered all the pictures she had drawn for me, and filed them in a manila envelope so they wouldn't get wrinkled. I certainly didn't save every single drawing — otherwise, there would have been no space in my room for me. But I kept samples to show her development, and some of her cuter works.

She gave me a stack of water-colors one day. Most of them were of her favorite subject — a landscape with a tree, a flower or two, a rainbow, and the sun. But one picture was just four squiggles of different-colored sparkly paint. She went through the pile of pictures, telling me what each one was.

When she got to the four squiggles, she matter-of-factly explained, "These are just pictures of different-colored slugs." I kept that one.

I also kept her map of the world, with an oversized Massachusetts smack in the middle, and almost all of the hearts she drew with "I love you, Daddy" written on them.

- # -

She drew me a picture of a pig one day. Most seven-year-olds draw four-legged animals with the four legs equally spaced under the animal's belly. But this pig had two legs in front and two in back, with one leg of each pair drawn behind the other. She also drew me a bird perched on a branch, feeding a worm to its baby. The mother bird's feet were wrapped around the branch in a very realistic manner. I was impressed, and I told her so.

She asked me all kinds of questions about how Looney Tunes and Disney animated movies were made. She said she wanted to be an artist when she grew up, making cartoons like those. She showed signs of real talent in that direction.

She also wrote some surprising stories. When her older sisters were seven years old, their stories all followed the same pattern: a little girl wants a kitten, the little girl finds a kitten, Mommy says the little girl can keep the kitten, the little girl is happy. Abigail's work, on the other hand, included character interaction and plots with realistic solutions. She couldn't write well enough to get the words down, so she dictated to her mother, Ken, or me. But she drew her own pictures to go with the stories, which ran four or five pages. Her best works were "The Girl Who Found the Cigarettes" and "The Fighting Apples."

- # -

In the last week of July, Abigail and I drove up to Lake Winnepesaukee for our summer vacation together. She'd been looking forward to it for months. So had her Grammy. As for me, I'd been saving every penny since her birthday so I could take her to all the fun places she wanted to go.

She took her first train ride there, in a swaying coach behind an old diesel engine that ran along the lakeshore. There wasn't much for a child to see or do, but she said she liked it.

We went to the town beach a few times; she waded, floated in the giraffe-shaped inner-tube Grammy gave her, and built sand castles while I watched from the shade of a nearby tree. We visited a make-your-own-sundae place, and we spent a few hours in a large model-railroad museum display (more for my benefit than hers, I admit, but she liked parts of it, like the grass-covered flat car on which two figures were playing golf). We also bowled a few frames of candle-pins, in an alley with bumper lanes for small children to keep them from throwing gutter balls. I tried hard to let her win, but missing on purpose went totally against my nature, and I kept knocking down the pins. At least her scores improved from game to game.

Her favorite place was the water park. It was with a bit of trepidation that I let her go down the water slide alone — that kind of ride isn't my style, and she really wanted to go. She was thrilled, and ran back for several more fast downhill trips. We rode in the wave pool together for almost an hour, fighting the crowds and getting splashed, before we decided it was time for a change.

I wanted the Crazy River, a relatively slow water-slide on vinyl inner-tubes. She wanted the Twin Boomerang, an enclosed, high-speed slide that wrapped around itself, and that had been Sarah's favorite ride in years gone by. I wasn't comfortable thinking of my little Abigail as a thrill-seeker.

"Abigail, you're crazy!" I said.

"Please, Daddy?" she begged. I relented and watched her climb the ramp to the top. A minute later, she whipped out of the downward-sloping tube and splashed to a halt.

"That's the best ride!" she grinned. "Can I go again?"

And so, for the first time ever, we had fun separately. I rode the Crazy River, and she rode the Twin Boomerang. Repeatedly. We met each other once or twice on the ramp that led to the top of both rides, but for the most part, we did our own thing. I felt a twinge of nervousness at her being out of my sight — I knew Nora would never have done it. But I thought she was old enough to have a smidgen of freedom. She loved every moment of it. And she was thoroughly exhausted when we finally came home.

- # -

On Saturday, September 3, Nora had to attend a meeting of some kind; I think it was about Sarah. I had to be at the house early, so I could take over before Nora left. Josh looked so forlorn as he watched his Mommy leave. He stayed at the window until her car was out of sight.

I left Abigail in charge for the half-a-minute it took to run to my car and bring in my electric train table. Abigail had played with my trains already, but for the twins, this was something new. Josh perked up when he saw the cardboard box full of engines and cars, although he probably thought it was the box of wooden trains. No matter; he was totally fascinated once I got the train rolling. He got right down on the floor so the tracks were at eye level, and watched the train go around, and around, and around. Becca was also intrigued; she tried to keep up with the train by walking around the table, and I had to tell her to sit down before she tripped over something, or somebody. Abigail lost interest after a few minutes and went upstairs to play Nintendo.

After an hour or so, I decided it was time to do something different. Josh watched, expressionless, as I packed the trains away. I thought I could leave things in the dining room, but he was soon climbing onto the desk, poking into the box with my $70.00 engine in it. I moved everything into the kitchen and closed the gate to keep him out.

That did it. He hurled himself against the gate, crying and screaming. When I pulled him away, he flung himself to the floor and wouldn't budge. I figured that his tantrum wouldn't last, but this time, I guessed wrong. I played cartoon videos on the VCR, I rolled balls to him, I tried hugging him, but he would not be comforted. I retreated to the living room, where Becca was enjoying the video.

A few minutes later, L., the home health aide, arrived. I had never gotten close to any of the home health aides who helped with the twins for a few hours each day, but I was grateful for the help they gave Nora. L. seemed very uncomfortable with Josh's crying. I explained what had happened, and then brought him into the living room to get him dressed. He fought me all the way.

Nora returned around lunch time. Josh flew across the room to her; she picked him up and asked me what was wrong. I explained.

"He's not used to being kept out of the kitchen," she stated. "You shouldn't have shut the gate."

"If I'd known he was going to get this upset, I wouldn't have," I replied as I was putting my jacket on.

That Monday, Nora called me at work, clearly agitated. "L. has filed a child-abuse complaint against you," she said. "They're doing a full investigation, and there's a restraining order against you — if you come near the house, they'll arrest you. A nurse is coming this afternoon to check the kids for bruises."

Her words hit me like a ton-weight. Abuse? Me? Not my own children — no way! Nora told me some of the allegations against me: that I had held Josh upside-down by the ankles; that I had picked him up and dropped him; and that I had called Josh and Becca "the twins from Hell."

I had knelt and held him upside-down by his tummy, with his head against my legs, while I was dressing him and he was squirming away. I had hoped that being upside-down would make him laugh like it usually did, but no luck. To have held him by his ankles from a kneeling position, I would have needed the arms of a body-builder. As for "the twins from Hell," I had made an offhand remark to L. about Josh being "the evil twin" in hopes of lightening the atmosphere, and she must have heard me wrong. Where the part about dropping him came from, I have no idea.

And while I was doing all this abusing, why hadn't L. lifted a finger? "Because she thought you were out of control and was afraid you'd attack her. Mike, I don't know what to believe. They told me not to even talk to you about this."

My confusion boiled over into utter rage at L. How could this woman have fabricated these lies? Hadn't she been in the same room, watching the whole thing? And now, with no due process except her say-so, I was cut off from my children for who knew how long. State-supervised visits seemed likely, a permanent cut-off of all visits could happen, and a jail sentence wasn't impossible. It was my word against hers, and she was a licensed social worker.

Nora, Ken and I met with my pastor two days later. I was advised to get a lawyer (I'd already begun hunting for one). Nora repeated how she didn't know who to believe, but the fact that she'd called me, against expert advice, showed that she was giving me the benefit of the doubt. For that much, I could be thankful — any opposition at all from her would have been fatal to my chances of seeing my children again.

The next few days were miserable. I had to take my supervisor aside and explain what was going on, so she'd know why I was so distracted and edgy at work. I found a lawyer who would take my case, and met with her; she seemed to feel that, if I just told them what had really happened, my chances should be pretty good.

A meeting with L.'s supervisor in the Department of Social Services was arranged for that Friday morning. My attorney was late, and I'd nearly worn a hole in my shoes from pacing by the time she finally arrived. Then we hit a bridge-closed detour on the way to Social Services, and toured the streets of Attleboro for several minutes until I took a lucky guess and found the right street. My hands were shaking as we waited in the lobby.

The meeting was surprisingly low-key. The supervisor explained what I had been accused of. I explained what had happened, getting right down on the floor to demonstrate how I'd held my boy upside-down. The supervisor seemed to believe me; she said she would recommend that the allegations against me be "non-substantiated," and that she would file the papers that afternoon. Nora would be notified as soon as everything was legal. My lawyer told me, on the way out, that I had done fine and that there shouldn't be any further problem.

But the paperwork didn't go through. I called Nora in the afternoon to confirm that she'd gotten the word; she had heard nothing. A call to Social Services revealed that the supervisor had gone home at 3:00 without filing the papers. Without an official okay from somebody, Nora could be held liable if she let me take the kids out. No visit.

Instead of taking Abigail to McDonald's on Friday night, I met Ken at my church parking lot and handed him the child-support money.

The supervisor called me the following Monday to tell me about the non-substantiation and that the papers were going through. No apology for her broken promise, though. It took three more days before Nora finally felt legally safe enough to let me take my children out again.

To be completely cleared, by an organization notorious for splitting up families, and in only two weeks' time, was nothing short of miraculous. As far as I was concerned, the only real child abuse was that three innocent children had been cut off from seeing their Daddy for two weeks, for no reason. It took a long time before I could even look L. in the eye.

- # -

After all this was settled, Nora asked me to meet Josh when he got off his school bus in the morning — she had to be at a meeting about Sarah's future and wouldn't be back until the afternoon. I agreed and scheduled the time off from work. This would be a treat, because the autumn leaves were thick enough on the ground for me to make a leaf pile for my kids, something I'd done every year, even after the divorce.

As always, I had no rake, and so I did most of the work by picking up armfuls of leaves and dropping them where I wanted them. By the time Josh got home, my back was killing me, and my leaf pile was fully eight feet long and at least two and a half feet high.

Josh hardly seemed to notice that it was Daddy and not Mommy who had boarded the bus to claim him. He held my hand and led me straight into the house, barely giving me time to grab his backpack from the bus driver on the way out. As we walked up the front walk, he slipped and fell, filling me with visions of more abuse-and-neglect charges; but the bus driver apparently didn't think slipping and falling was a serious crime.

After I had changed his diaper and offered him some juice in a cup, I put his jacket back on and led him outside. He hadn't noticed the leaf pile on the way in, but once I pointed it out to him, he didn't need to be told what to do. He took off at a run and plowed straight into it, climbed out, threw some more leaves on, and ran into it again.

Then I noticed his plastic playground slide in the back yard. Nora and Ken had made a smaller pile a few weeks ago (I'd been a bit jealous to hear of this) and had parked the slide next to it. Nora had told me how cute he was when he slid headfirst down the slide into the leaves. Maybe he'd do that for me, too! He watched me intently as I dragged the slide over to my pile.

He scrambled up the ladder, which was as tall as he was. He stood at the top for a moment, and then, with a huge grin, he leaped into the leaf pile.

I held my breath until his head reappeared — still grinning. "Josh, you... you... you BOY!" I sputtered in relief. He took my own smile for approval and began climbing and leaping in earnest. Once I was sure the leaves were thick enough and he wouldn't be hurt, I started to enjoy the performance, eventually laughing out loud at the fun he was having. "Your sisters never did this stuff," I mock-scolded him. He probably didn't even hear me. He was busy.

When Nora returned around lunch time, he was picking up the leaves around the edge of the pile and throwing them into the middle, making it taller. I tried to encourage him to jump once more, but he was tired of that game. She never got to see him in one of his finest, funniest, gooniest moments.

- # -

As the first day of school approached, all three children had to have a blood test. Abigail had the first appointment. Nora asked if I would be willing to take her to the doctor's, and I accepted — I knew Nora couldn't abide the sound of her children crying, whereas I could be matter-of-fact when I had to.

Abigail was terrified. We started into the medical technician's office once, but she backed out in panic. I tried explaining that it would feel like a pinch on her arm, but I realized afterwards that she didn't know what a pinch felt like. I picked her up and walked her, like I used to when she was a baby, except now her feet hung down past my knees; this made her feel a little better, but her tears kept rolling down her cheeks, and she said over and over, "I don't want it to happen!" Finally, I put her down, prayed with her, and guided her into the office.

I sat in the chair and put her in my lap. I held her legs still by wrapping my leg around them, and held her right arm with mine. One nurse held her left arm still while the other tried to draw blood, but in spite of our best efforts, Abigail was still fighting us with all her strength.

In a moment of inspiration, I covered her eyes with my left hand. That took all the fight out of her. She sat still, shaking and crying quietly, while the nurse filled up the little vials. Abigail got a bandage on the inside of her elbow, and a sticker for her shirt. On the way out of the office, she looked up at me reproachfully and complained, "I thought you said it was gonna hurt!"

I took her out for ice cream afterwards, as I had promised. On the way home, she offered, "Daddy, do you know why Mommy wants you to take us for our blood tests? Because you handle us kids better than she does." It felt good to hear that.

A few days later, it was Josh and Becca's turn. I decided to take Becca first, because I anticipated a real fight from the boy, and I wanted to see how Becca would take it first. Well, she didn't take it. Covering her eyes, which I thought would make everything okay, had no effect. She fought us every inch of the way, screaming, "No! No! Mommy!" The moment the nurse put the bandage on, Becca ripped it off and threw it on the floor. As I carried her out, I warned the nurses, "If you think that's something, wait a few minutes — I'm bringing her brother!" If gentle Rebecca flipped out like this, what would her goony brother do to us?

I don't think he knew he was being bled. I sat him in my lap and covered his eyes, like I did at the barber's, and he may have thought it was just another haircut. He didn't even flinch when the needle went in. He just sat there, turning his head slowly from side to side, growling at me. When it was over, he looked at his bandage curiously for a moment, then forgot about it. I'm sure the nurses thought I was out of my mind.

- # -

One of my saddest memories of the kids came about on a Monday afternoon in autumn. I drove up in front of the house and tooted my horn to get someone's attention inside — it was Josh's night out, and someone had to get his shoes on, fill his juice cup, and bring him to the car. If I went up to the house, Becca would see me, and would be heartbroken when I left without her; it had happened before.

After a few seconds, Josh came to the window. Apparently, no one else had heard my horn. He saw me, and his face lit up. Then he looked over his shoulder; then back at me. He obviously wanted to tell someone that I was here.

But he didn't know how! His autism had blocked out the concept of communication, and he had no idea how to make my presence known. I honked again; still no response from inside. As he looked back and forth from me to his family in the house, I had to fight back tears. My poor son! If Nora and Ken had taken much longer to realize I was there, I would have gone into the house to get him myself, and hang the consequences.

- # -

One afternoon in November, Abigail called me at work. "Daddy, I have a question," she began. That was a sure sign that she'd been thinking hard about something and hadn't been able to figure it out herself.

"Go ahead," I said.

"If six is one more than five, and eleven is one more than ten, then how come six plus six isn't eleven?"

Yikes! How do you explain the foundations of arithmetic to a seven-year-old? I thought fast and answered, "Well, the answer has to be two more than ten, because you add the one-more two times."

"Oh. Now I understand. Thank you, Daddy!" she answered. We chatted about this and that for a few minutes, and then she had to go.

As I hung up the phone, I suddenly realized — here was a seven-year-old child, trying to puzzle out the basic rules of mathematics! I shivered slightly, even as I rejoiced at the thought. Where was that amazing little mind headed next? I reflected that my parents had never tried to quench my own curiosity as a child, and was thankful that I'd made a point of encouraging Abigail to ask me anything.

- # -

Both Abigail and Josh were still fascinated with trains. Rebecca might have been, too, but it wasn't as obvious.

As a change of pace from the usual mall visits, I took Abigail to the local commuter station one evening to watch some trains go by. Our timing was perfect; we stayed less than an hour because of the cold wind, but we got a good close look at three trains going by, including a fast-moving Amtrak that was Abigail's favorite, even though the noise made her cover her ears. She was beaming as I took her home, planning to tell Mommy all about what she'd seen.

I tried the same thing with Josh a few weeks later. He had never seen a real train before, and when a commuter train stopped at the station, he was amazed! He broke out in a huge grin, then began looking back and forth from the engine to the last car — he probably couldn't believe how big it was.

After the train left, he got restless, so I found an abandoned stretch of track and let him walk on a rail. He held my hand, and his balance was so good that he fell off only once in almost a hundred yards of walking. He, too, wore a smile all the way home.

- # -

Starting in the fall, Abigail went through a lying stage. But she still wanted to be pleasing to Mommy and Daddy, and the inner conflict made her a very poor liar. She always paused for a telltale interval to get her story straight before opening her mouth. I often warned her, "Abigail, I can tell when you're lying, so you might as well not even try." I don't know if she believed me.

As we were leaving the mall one Friday night, I observed, "Abigail, your shoe's untied. You better tie it."

She paused for that telltale five seconds, then answered, "Daddy, you do it. I don't know how."

I looked her in the eye and said gently, "Abigail, I taught you how to tie your shoes. I thought sure you'd remember."

She looked away, hung her head, and said, "Okay, Daddy, you caught me."

"Tie your shoe, Abigail," I said, and tried not to let her see me smiling.

- # -

My own financial situation was slowly improving. In November, I felt confident enough with my budget to have a telephone installed in my room. My first call was from Nora, telling me that Josh was sick and wouldn't have a visit that night. I never got another call after that. My mother said she had tried several times, but got no answer. The possibility that the ringer was defective didn't cross my mind — the phone was brand-new.

- # -

Josh was famous (or infamous) for making remarkable recoveries from illness. He would play so energetically in the afternoon that Nora would sometimes call Rachel or Ken into the room to be her witness that Josh had really been sick that morning.

One Monday, when Ken brought him out to my car, he warned me that the boy wasn't feeling well. I figured that meant a cold or something, so I kept him warm, but I didn't do anything else differently. He ate most of his supper at McDonald's before going out to play on the playground there. After twenty minutes of playing, he threw up all over the place.

I asked for paper towels and began mopping up the mess, which was considerable. As I made repeated trips back and forth from the mess to the trash can, he began chasing me, grinning. I turned in disbelief and cried, "Can't you at least act sick?"

He came down with pneumonia in late November. It was bad enough that Nora cancelled my Monday-night visit with him (as I mentioned in the part about my telephone) and took him to the local hospital for chest X-rays. But he made his usual quick recovery, and was back to normal by Wednesday, except for a slight wheeze.

Nora told me that, on Wednesday morning, he had walked up behind Abigail with a toy in his hand and whacked her on the head with it. Through her tears, she'd called to her mommy, "He's feeling better."

He invented a new game for himself one Wednesday night. He made me lie down on the floor, pulled off my shoes and socks (with a little help), bent my legs as if I was sitting in a chair that had fallen backwards, and hung from my calves by his knees and one arm, playing with my toes with his free hand. He wouldn't do it until I was barefoot. It became his favorite game in late autumn and early winter. Somewhere inside that mind of his, it meant something to him. I never figured it out.

His speech was changing a bit, too. Instead of "Ah-gn gah-gn," his word was now "Iggen-giggen." He always said it with a big grin; I couldn't tell if he was sassing me, saying he loved me, or challenging me to a duel. Or maybe that was what our speech sounded like to him, and he was just trying to imitate us.

At the mall, he would sometimes look over the balcony and yell, "Ha, ha, ha, HAH!" at the top of his lungs. I figured he was trying to make an echo. (Abigail used to do that, too; in the mall's vestibule, she would exclaim, "Hi, Da-dee!" very staccato, to hear her words echo.) It was a little embarrassing when he sounded off like that, but while I did try to distract him from it, I never shushed him — I wanted to encourage him to talk any way he could. Perhaps, some day, the light would go on inside, and he would understand what communication was.

- # -

Rebecca was notorious for refusing help if she thought she ought to do something herself. When putting on her coat, for example, she would need my help to get her zipper started, but she wanted to zip it up herself. If I pulled the zipper up half an inch, she would quickly undo it and make me start over. If she couldn't do something, like unbuckle her car seat, she would keep struggling with it until she was hysterical. If I intervened, she would scream, hit me, and try to run away. It got very frustrating for me; I can't imagine how she must have felt.

But starting around late October, she began to loosen up a bit. Instead of fighting with a zipper or her car seat until she was in tears, she'd try for a few seconds, smile at me, and ask, "Daddy help?" Of course I helped. I was overjoyed to see her laying aside some of her rigid "this-is-how-things-have-to-be" thinking.

It was also a delight to see her starting to really talk. If I beeped her on the nose, she'd laugh and say, "Silly Daddy!" If she wanted her juice cup refilled, she would hand it to me and ask, "More juice?" During our visits, I would ask her, "Are you happy, Becca?" "Happee!" she would exclaim with a huge smile.

I tried to get her to slap my head and say, "No ha-air!", but she did it to herself instead, so I taught her "pretty hair!" I was also trying to teach her to say, "I love you, Daddy," but she had a little trouble with that one. She may have said it to me once or twice, but it wasn't part of her day-to-day vocabulary. I figured it would happen in due time.

- # -

Josh had done something antisocial in his diaper one Wednesday, and Becca ambled over to watch me change him. "Yuck, Josh!" she commented.

"Yes, it's pretty yucky," I agreed.

"Yuck, Josh!" She said it again. I realized that this was probably all she had to say on the subject, so I stopped responding to her after the third or fourth "yuck." I finished changing the boy, dressed him for bed, and carried him up to his room.

As I was preparing his bed, I heard a knock at his door. "Come in," I called, thinking it was Abigail.

In came Becca, as determined as ever. "Yuck, Josh!"

I explained that Josh was going to bed; she understood that. "Ni-night, Josh!" she said cheerfully, and left, closing the door behind her.

- # -

Even though my children were no longer babies, I still did well with the other little people I met from time to time. To be frank, I got a bit prideful about it.

In early December, one of my visits with Becca was cancelled because she was sick. I used the evening to finish my Christmas shopping at the mall. There were babies all over the place — in carriages, in snuggly-packs, in their mommies' arms. It made me wish I had a baby of my own again.

I finished my shopping quickly and decided to do some browsing. As I walked along, I found myself behind a woman pushing a stroller. The stroller's occupant was a very upset little girl of five or six months.

"Let's see if I've still got the knack," I said to myself. I caught up with the stroller and gave the little girl a look. She went from distraught crying to wide-eyed fascination in less than three seconds.

"Yep, I've still got it," I thought. I said out loud, "I think she likes me."

The mother, whose face had changed just as quickly, grinned, "Could you walk next to the carriage while I finish my shopping?" I walked half the length of the mall next to that stroller. The little girl never took her eyes off me.

"Thank you, Abigail," I thought as we went our separate ways. "You're a good teacher."

- # -

Abigail seemed to be enjoying the first grade, but she was having problems making and keeping friends. I suppose it was just immaturity, but I had had similar problems as a child, and my heart went out to her. It especially hurt one night at McDonald's, when she told me about how the other kids were teasing her.

I explained to her that kids always make fun of anyone who's different, and that they were teasing her because she was so much taller than they were, and because she didn't fight back. "But I love you, no matter what," I finished.

"You mean you love me even if I'm so tall?" she asked, her voice breaking.

"Even if," I nodded with a smile.

Without another word, she got up from her seat, ran around the table to me, and threw her arms around me. I hugged her back, thinking how easy it was to have said the right thing. It was just what she needed to hear. Yet it had seemed so obvious, I almost thought it wasn't worth saying. I will never regret saying it.

Chapter 8: The Week of December 19, 1994

Monday, December 19: this was my night to take Josh out, from 4:30 until his bedtime at 6:00. Ken brought him out to the car; I latched his car seat shut, stroked his fuzzy head a few times (he grinned at me), and thought about where I'd take him. Visiting the mall was out of the question — it would be far too crowded this close to Christmas. Instead, I took him to The Seasonal Store, a shop that sells Christmas decorations in the winter and swimming-pool equipment in the summer. Their winter specialty was an array of animated displays in a winter setting — dancing snowmen, teddy-bears on a see-saw, elves decorating Christmas trees, and a big LGB electric train running around the whole thing in a huge loop. I'd taken him there the previous week, and he'd loved it.

We stopped first at McDonald's and got his usual Monday-night supper, six chicken nuggets and a small order of fries. I cut up the nuggets and offered them to him in the car as we rode; he pushed them back at me. That was an improvement for him — he used to swing at food he didn't want, or throw it on the floor. The fries were more graciously received, and were almost gone by the time we got to our destination.

But Josh didn't want to get out of the car. Nora had warned me that he was going through a stage of not wanting to walk, and I'd seen him do this once or twice in the past two weeks. I tried to coax him out, but he just yelled, "Neeh!" and kicked the dashboard each time I spoke or gestured. (He probably meant "No!"; if so, it was his first word.) After five minutes of trying, I took him by the forearms and lifted him out. I wasn't sure if I was going to have to carry him into the store, but he walked willingly once I got him out of the car.

He stood at the entrance, entranced, staring at the lights and the moving displays. "See what you almost missed?" I chided gently. Of course, he went straight for the electric train as soon as he got his coat off. He found two vantage points that suited him; as soon as the train passed one, he ran to the other and waited. I stood nearby, slipping him pieces of chicken nugget every minute or so, and making sure he didn't charge headfirst into some other shopper when he changed vantage points. I tried pointing out other moving displays, but my train-boy had a one-track mind, and was not distracted.

The train took about four minutes to complete a circuit of its track, so he was doing more waiting than watching. I led him by the hand to the back of the displays so he could watch the train disappear into a tunnel and run under some of the scenery. He liked this very much, and promptly forgot about one of his vantage points. Now he led me by the hand, as fast as I could go, from the front to the back to the front so he could watch the train — he wouldn't willingly leave my sight. I had a hard time fitting between some of the store's other displays in my bulky winter coat while trotting at Josh-speed, but neither of us paid this any mind.

It was 5:30 before I knew it, and time to take the boy home. He understood what I meant when I held out his coat. On the way out, I saw a little brass-plated train-engine ornament, and decided to buy it. But he wanted none of that — if his coat was on, it was time to go, and that was that. The whole time I was paying for the ornament, he was pulling on my hand, zigzagging from one side to the other like a hooked fish. We were both relieved when I got my change and we left the store.

He refused to drink his juice cup on the ride back, which surprised me; I'd never seen him refuse juice before. When we stopped the car in front of Nora's, he made another defiant face at me, so I just picked him up and parked him on my hip as I carried him to the door, taking the opportunity to kiss him on his cheek. He squirmed, but not much.

Rebecca was having a tantrum when we got inside, refusing all help in getting ready for bed, even to the point of wanting to rub the anti-rash ointment on herself. I tried to offer Nora suggestions for handling her, but she gave me an earful about how she'd been dealing with it all day, and how I didn't know what I was talking about. Abigail was trying to show me a new dance she'd invented, but things were so chaotic that I couldn't pay her any attention. I tried to get Josh ready as quickly as possible, but had to stop several times to help Ken and Nora deal with Becca.

The boy cooperated with me willingly, as he almost always did. I gave him his blanket and binky, found his big plastic Thomas-the-Tank-Engine toy that he had to sleep with, and carried him upstairs. Usually, I had to pick him up, put him in bed, and lie next to him for a minute or two until he settled down; otherwise, he would leap out of bed and sit on the floor. But tonight, he lay down by himself, and pushed me away when I tried to lie down — I guess he was leaving that stage behind. So I started his music box, kissed him on the forehead, told him I loved him, and closed the door.

Rebecca was still hysterical when I came downstairs, but she stopped screaming long enough to say, "Bye, Daddy!" when I said good-night to her, then immediately went back to her tantrum. Abigail had holed up with her Nintendo game and barely nodded when I told her I was leaving. Nora was very flustered by Becca's actions, a stage which apparently had started several days ago; she called me at work on Tuesday and apologized for the way she'd snapped at me the night before.

- # -

Wednesday, December 21: this was the day I visited Nora's house from 5:00 until the twins went to bed, then took Abigail out for a little extra time with Daddy. Normally, I would bring the wooden train set and let them play with it, which really meant letting Josh play with it. Becca's interest in the trains ebbed and flowed; recently, she'd shown more interest in rolling marbles along the tracks, which I thought was wonderful — it showed that she was breaking out of her rigid thinking and showing some creativity.

But Nora had called me at work and asked if I could arrive half an hour later than usual, because she was meeting with our state Senator to ask for greater financial help for families with handicapped children, and she wouldn't be back in time for a 5:00 visit. I said that was okay, and left the wooden trains in the car, knowing full-well what this would mean: without the trains to distract them, the only other game my children would play was "pig-pile on Daddy."

When I walked in, both twins were in the living room. Josh ran in, saw no train box, and checked the entire dining room to make sure the trains weren't there. Becca ran to meet me; I picked her up, hugged her, and spun around and around, changing directions several times to "unwind" and to avoid getting too dizzy. She just laid her head on my shoulder and smiled — she loved being spun.

Abigail heard the commotion from upstairs and ran down to greet me. "How do you like my new hat?" she grinned.

"That's a bathrobe!" I retorted with a grin of my own. "You can't wear a bathrobe on your head!"

She took the balled-up robe off her head and put it on. "Mommy bought this for me a long time ago, and it still fits me," she said seriously. "She bought it when I was seven, but now I'm seven-and-a-half, and that's the difference."

I broke up laughing. "What's so funny?" she demanded.

"You are — you're just a cute kid," I answered.

"And I say funny things sometimes?"

"Yes, you sure do."

That seemed to satisfy her. She returned to whatever chore Nora had given her, skipping lightly down the hall and bouncing up the steps.

Then the games began. I sat in a chair near the front door, Josh ran to the hallway door, and Becca took station near one of the living-room couches. Each, in turn, would jump and bounce across the floor to me, where I would pick them up, throw them up in the air as high as I could (which wasn't far, since both twins weighed more than forty pounds), give them a hug and some kisses, and put them down. Each time Becca jumped, I had to say, "Jump!" If I didn't, or if I was too slow, she'd go back to where she began and start over.

When my arms got tired, I tried lying on the floor. This, evidently, turned on the invisible sign on my forehead that said "TRAMPOLINE." Josh would run up to me, step onto my chest for a moment, then leap off. Then Becca would walk between my knees and sit down on my stomach, then roll off and make room for her brother.

My ribs couldn't take much of that, so I tried sitting up. Becca immediately ran over and sat in my lap, pulling at my arm so she could play with my calculator watch. Alas, that watch had gone on the fritz a month ago, and all I had was an old Timex with hands and no buttons. That was no fun; she got up and retreated to the living room, watching a new videotape of old Christmas cartoons that her Grandma Olive had given the twins as an early Christmas gift.

As soon as she was gone, Josh came up behind me and climbed onto my shoulders, using my belt as a step. I stood up and gave him a piggy-back ride around the dining room and living room. He lost interest in the ride when he saw the video, so I put him down.

I joined them in the living room, and tried several times to get their attention, but they were fixated on the video. So I made small talk with Nora. She talked about Becca's recent behavioral problems, and about her meeting that afternoon. She was frustrated that the Senator hadn't shown up, but had sent a staff member instead. She obviously enjoyed telling the part about how they had been kept waiting in an office so long that Josh had gotten bored and started demolishing the office. Now the staff knew exactly what life with an autistic child could be like.

She also showed me a booklet of Polaroids from the special-education group's Christmas party for the children. They had Josh dressed like a fireman in one photo, in a rainbow clown's wig in another.

"He'd never stand for stuff like that at home," I remarked.

"I know," agreed Nora. "They're really starting to make some progress with him."

As soon as the video ended, it was bedtime for the twins. Becca was much better-behaved tonight than on Monday. She let me put her diaper on, then pulled away to dress herself. I knew better than to try to help her. Nora got the boy changed and dressed. As soon as he was ready, he ran over to Ken and put his arms up to be carried to bed. I recalled how badly he and Ken used to get along; it was good to see that he'd come around and had some affection for his stepfather. I was also slightly put out that he hadn't chosen me, but I knew I'd have plenty of chances later.

As soon as Becca was ready for bed, I made as though to follow her upstairs. She held up her hand, pointed at the couch, and said, "Daddy, sit down!"

"You want me to sit on the couch? Okay, Becca," I responded, sitting where she'd pointed. She smiled, turned, and dashed upstairs to put herself to bed.

As she went up, Abigail came down. She gave me a picture she'd drawn with crayons — a tree, a pink flower, a rainbow in the sky, and the sun. I thanked her and put it in my briefcase so it wouldn't get wrinkled.

We went to Burger King, because she wanted one of the Disney "Lion King" toys included with the children's meals at that time. She had already gotten five of them, all villains from the movie, and was convinced that, tonight, she would get one of the good characters. I tried to caution her, to no avail.

At the counter, I asked if I could pay a little extra and get five or six chicken nuggets instead of the four that usually came with kids' meals. Abigail wasn't getting any smaller (she was at least four-foot-six), and four nuggets weren't enough to fill her up any more. The girl behind the counter said she couldn't do that, but she slipped a fifth nugget into the bag. "Don't tell the manager, okay?" she asked quietly. I thanked her profusely and followed Abigail to the table of her choice.

Sure enough, she got another villain. This one was a plastic hyena that laughed (squeaked) when you moved its leg up and down. She squeaked it two or three times, obviously disappointed. I tried it, and made it squeak fast enough that it almost sounded like laughter.

"How'd you do that, Daddy?" she asked, suddenly all curiosity.

"I just did it very fast," I answered.

"Let me try," she begged. She did her best, trying again and again throughout the evening, and while it never sounded like laughter, she was improving. "See, Daddy, I'm doing it!" she beamed. She was in much better spirits when I dropped her off at her home.

- # -

Thursday, December 22: this was Becca's night out with me. The Seasonal Store had worked well with Josh, so I decided to take Becca there tonight. I was a bit nervous, though; if tonight was a short-attention-span night, she'd get bored within five minutes, and I would have to come up with someplace else to take her.

We went to McDonald's for chicken and fries. As usual, I let her choose where we'd sit. This was one of our rituals, and she always smiled as she hunted for just the right seats. We sat on the same side of the table (another ritual); she felt unusually cuddly, and spent about ten minutes leaning against me, one of my arms around her, while she munched her supper. She made it halfway through her cut-up chicken nuggets before she decided she'd had enough.

When we pulled into the parking lot at the Seasonal Store, the first thing she looked at was the night sky. I'd taught her the word "moon" a month or so ago, and she almost always looked for it when we were outside at night. But tonight was too cloudy.

"No moon," I observed.

"No moon," she agreed.

So I led her inside. "Daddy hand," she said as she held my hand, with the pride of one who had learned her lesson well and needed no reminding.

"That's right, hold Daddy's hand in the parking lot," I nodded.

I needn't have worried about boredom. From the moment she entered the store, Becca stood in wide-eyed amazement at all the moving dolls and flashing lights. Her favorites were a teddy bear that played peek-a-boo behind a large gift-wrapped box, and two smaller teddy bears on a see-saw. Unlike Josh, she was willing to wander around the store and look at other things, but she kept coming back to those teddy bears.

After we'd been in the store for a few minutes, someone put a tape in the store's stereo and began playing Christmas music. The first song was a children's choir singing about a teddy bear. The last words of the song were, "Teddy bear, when I'm with you, everything's okay."

As we checked things out in the back of the store, I smelled something suspicious from my daughter's direction. A quick diaper-check confirmed that she needed to be changed. I hated to leave — we still had half an hour before our time was up, and Becca was having so much fun... But she didn't fight me when I told her it was time to go. As I was putting her coat on, she noticed a clown doll that did slow somersaults over a revolving metal bar. She hadn't seen it on the way in, and she was fascinated. I let her watch it flop over two or three times more before I finally led her to the car.

I didn't bother knocking on Nora's door. Becca always knocked, and then opened the door for herself without waiting for an answer. As it swung open, I gave my "signature" knock — one long, two short — to let Nora and Ken know I was coming in. Nora was sitting on the couch; Ken wasn't in sight. "Diaper disaster," I shrugged, to explain why we were home so early. Nora nodded in understanding.

Becca let me change her, but putting on the sweatsuit she wore for pajamas was her job and hers alone. Once I was satisfied that she was doing okay and that Nora wouldn't need any help, I put my coat back on and left.

- # -

Friday, December 23: Nora had called me at work and asked if I minded picking Abigail up at 7:30 instead of the usual 5:00. She and Ken wanted to take all the kids to see the Christmas light displays at the La Salette shrine. I said that was fine. I'd wanted to take Abigail the previous week, but she didn't have a winter hat and, with a brisk wind blowing, I didn't want to bring her back frozen solid. I was glad they'd get a chance to see the lights after all. Maybe I could take them there after Christmas.

But it started raining that afternoon, and didn't stop. I knew the La Salette trip had been rained out, but Nora didn't call back, so I stayed with the 7:30 time.

When I pulled up in front of Nora's at 7:30, Abigail charged out. "Why are you a half an hour late?" she demanded.

"I thought your mother said 7:30 — I'm right on time," I answered. Had I gotten it wrong? I'd been known to make such mistakes, especially when I didn't write things down. As Abigail ran back to the house with the child-support money in her hand, I tried to remember my phone conversation with Nora that morning. I thought I'd gotten it right, but the possibility of having missed half an hour with Abigail bothered me.

Our first stop was the gas station. I asked her if she wanted to help me pump the gas, as she'd done the last two times we'd gotten gas together, but she declined. It was a wise move. Even though the pumps were under a roof, the wind blew the rain sideways under it, and I was half-drenched by the time I'd finished pumping five gallons of economy-grade into my Honda.

Our next stop was the local grocery store, where I cashed in my recycled cans and bottles for deposit. I had four bags full in my back seat, and I planned to pay for our meal with them. I pulled up next to the curb and said, "Abigail, I'm going to drop you off here so you don't get wet, and then I'm going to park the car. You wait right here and don't move until I tell you to." She seemed a little nervous — I didn't usually leave her by herself like this — but she climbed out and stood under the overhanging roof, watching me. I parked as fast as I could, grabbed my shopping bags full of cans, and dashed through the rain to the automatic door. Abigail didn't wait for a signal, but ran to meet me at the door as soon as she saw me heading that way.

We changed our cans for cash without incident, then ran back to the car and drove to McDonald's, which was only two minutes away.

"Can I have a Happy Meal?" she asked.

"No, you had a kid's meal at Burger King on Wednesday night, remember? One kid's meal is enough for one week. Besides, you need six nuggets to fill you up, remember?" The McDonald's was fairly busy, and I didn't think I'd have much luck asking for special treatment like I'd gotten at the Burger King.

Abigail was disappointed, and a little bit petulant, but her good spirits returned after we started eating. We blew our straw wrappers at each other, aiming below the neck — that was our tradition, and the "below-the-neck rule" rule kept it safe.

"Hey, Daddy, I've got a joke for you," she suddenly said.

"Okay," I responded, and waited. When she borrowed jokes from other sources, she always said so, so I assumed this would be a home-made joke. Some of her home-made jokes were okay, but she hated to hear me say, "I don't get it."

"What kind of dog can count to nine?"

I had no idea. "I give up."

"A canine!" I groaned and buried my face in my hand. "You get it, don't you?" she grinned.

"Yeah, I get it. That was a good one!" I nodded.

"That was a good bad joke," she agreed, and returned to eating her supper. I never did find out if she had borrowed that one or made it up herself.

When we were done, she asked, "Okay, now where can we go?"

"Home," I said. It was close to 8:30, her appointed hour.

"Home?! I thought we're always supposed to go someplace," she protested. I explained that her Mommy had asked me to come late, so we had to have a short visit, and our time was up. She understood, but was clearly unhappy about it.

Her mood improved a bit as I drove her home. She was very excited about Christmas, which was Sunday, and also about the following Monday. That was the day my mother and I would visit Nora's house and give the kids our presents. Abigail loved her Grammy and couldn't wait to see her.

The rain had abated slightly by the time I dropped her off. She wrapped her arms around me as I prayed a quick prayer over her, as I always did. Then she hustled for the front door. I stayed and watched to make sure she got inside safely, as I always did. Ken's car wasn't in the driveway, so I knew he and Nora were out for the evening and Rachel was baby-sitting. Rachel rarely broke any speed records when it came to letting her little sister in.

Then all the lights in the neighborhood went out.

My first thought was to figure out what had happened; I decided that the rain had seeped into a transformer and caused a short. Then I saw Abigail, still at the door, pounding on it in a panic and screaming, "Let me in!" Abigail was afraid of the dark.

I left my car running and ran to the door, both to comfort her and to shelter her from the rain. She crouched and huddled under my arm until Rachel finally got the door open. She had a lit candle in her hand — that explained her delay in getting to the door. Accompanying her was a friend whom I'd never seen before. Abigail darted inside without another word. I asked Rachel if she'd be okay without power; she said yes.

As I drove away, I wondered if I should have stayed, to provide an adult's presence until Nora and Ken returned. I decided that wasn't necessary. But when I got back to my room, I called their house to talk to Abigail a bit more.

"Are you scared in the dark?" I asked.

"A little."

"Well, they'll fix the blackout in a little while. Do you think you can sleep without a night light?"

"Yes, I'm not so scared anymore," she quavered, not very convincingly.

"Always remember I love you, okay? Can you be brave?"

"Uh-huh," she said in a small voice.

"Good. Now go get ready for bed, and remember I love you, and Jesus loves you."

"Bye, Daddy. I love you too."

"I'm glad. Okay, be brave. I love you." I blew her a kiss through the phone, and said goodbye.

Chapter 9: Afterward

On the morning of Saturday, December 24th, I was preparing for my role as Homer Hayseed, a costumed character in my church's Sunday-school program. I heard what I thought was the telephone of the building superintendent, two doors down the hall. It was a quiet rattling sound. But as I walked around the room, it got louder. On a whim, I picked up my receiver.


"Mike?" It was my oldest and closest friend Ed, calling from New Hampshire. There was something wrong with his voice. "Are you all right?"

"Sure, but I think my phone's defective. What's up?"

"Everybody's been trying to reach you all morning."

"Why, what's going on?" I asked.

"Oh, God..." He took a deep breath. "There was a fire..."

"Where???" My first thought was that something had happened to my parents.

"At Nora's..."

And I knew, with a terrible, sick certainty, what he was about to say. I reached for the door frame to steady myself.

"...and they're all gone." He broke off, unable to continue. My vision started to blur around the edges. I held tighter to the door frame.

Ed tried to continue. "No one knew where you were, no one could find you. They thought maybe you were in the house too... oh, God, I wish it wasn't me who had to tell you this... you'd better call your mother and your pastor."

"All of them gone?"

"Yes, all of them." (Sarah hadn't been home that night, so she also survived.)

My mother was almost unintelligible with grief. Pastor Harold asked if I would come to his house. I agreed quickly. I didn't want to be alone.

On the way over, I forced myself to drive past the house. I knew I'd never accept it as true until I'd seen it. The parking lot was filled with fire trucks, police cars, and reporters and cameramen. The light-blue house where I'd lived for five years, where I'd dropped off Abigail the night before, was a burnt-out shell, with blackened scars around where the windows used to be. I tightened my grip on the wheel and drove on.

Why did they all have to die? Why in such a painful way, scared, in the dark? And why didn't God take me with them?

The next few days were a nightmare that wouldn't end. I'd be fine for an hour or two, or even longer; I even went through with my Homer Hayseed routine on Sunday morning. Everyone told me I didn't have to do it. My response was, "I have no blessing this Christmas. If I can't bless someone else, I have nothing."

Changing into my farmer's costume was like taking off all my problems. It felt like becoming another person for fifteen minutes. People said I did wonderfully. Then I put my church clothes on and became myself again.

Every few minutes, a memory would arise, or I'd look at one of my children's pictures, and the tears would flow uncontrollably. My friends from church tried to comfort me, but all they could offer me was a shoulder to cry on. I slept at various friends' houses all week, and stayed with them during the day — I couldn't face being alone.

Through it all, the song they played at the Seasonal Store during my last visit with Becca kept going through my mind. "Teddy bear, when I'm with you, everything's okay."

What does a grown-up do when he needs a teddy bear?

- # -

John, Monique and I went to the house on Monday and searched through the piles of stuff that the firemen had shoveled out the doors and window frames. We found a few toys and stuffed animals that had survived the fire, including the puppy Abigail had loved so much as a baby. We also found some of Sarah's and Rachel's books, and — miraculously — two photos of Abigail, as a baby and at age 4, almost unscathed, even though the baby picture was in a wooden frame that was scorched on both sides. The frame was inscribed, "God's Little Angel." I also found two home video tapes, intact, in the middle of a pile of melted plastic. One was the tape of Josh screaming at the tree.

There were reporters and cameramen in the driveway. We ignored them. John and Monique had declined to be interviewed earlier, and they had guessed (correctly) that I wanted nothing to do with the media as well; they hadn't revealed anything about me. The fire and its aftermath were on national news, but no one had any idea who I was. That suited me just fine. My grief would not be not a spectator sport.

- # -

On Tuesday, the immediate family members met at the funeral home in Wrentham. John and Monique were there, as were Nora's parents, John and Maude Giesselman, who had driven up from their home in Florida; Olive Fontaine and Gail Woods, Ken's mother and sister; myself; and Pastor Noel Sherry, who had been Ken and Nora's pastor at Foxboro Baptist Church and who would be conducting the memorial service. The community had poured out their support to us; everything, from caskets to burial plots to flowers, had been donated already. We just had to supply the full names, birth dates, occupations, etc., of our loved ones, and agree on how the service would proceed.

There was no disunity among the three families. All six would be laid to rest together. The veiled hostility that had hung between me and Nora's family for seven years was nowhere to be seen; we all took turns comforting each other from time to time.

What hurt me the most was hearing that Josh and some of the others had been burned beyond recognition, and had to be identified by dental records. That wasn't what I wanted to hear.

- # -

On Wednesday, I walked to the ARC, the Association of Retarded Citizens, to get information on where the twins went to school. I didn't know if I would have to notify them that my children were dead, and I also wanted to claim any pictures or crayon doodles that might be kicking around their classrooms. When the receptionist heard my name, she guided me to a back office. There, talking to a woman I didn't know, was L., the home-health aide who had filed the abuse allegations against me. She turned to face me, red-eyed, haggard.

"Hi, L.," was all I could manage. She threw her arms around me and cried on my shoulder for several minutes. Any remaining anger I felt toward her was gone by the time she stopped.

"I'm so sorry," she said, and left. The other woman, who had handled Josh and Becca's cases, gave me the information I needed about their schools. She also told me that L. hadn't heard the news on Saturday. She had driven over to Nora's, expecting to help the family with their Christmas Eve preparations, but had found only charred walls and ashes.

That afternoon, I called the North Attleboro fire chief. The papers had been saying there was only one smoke detector in Nora's home. I'd lived there for five years, and I knew there were at least four detectors, more likely five. When he realized I'd been in the house so recently, he asked all kinds of questions about furniture and appliances. I asked if a floorplan of the house would help; he said yes, I could mail it to him. I got the impression he wasn't able to face me yet. The firemen were taking this whole thing very hard.

I walked from my church, where I was passing the afternoon with my friend the pastor, to 12 Alden Drive, a stroll of barely half a mile. I walked around the outside of the house with pen and paper, roughing in the house's outline and drawing in where the interior walls would be. The smell of burnt wood was everywhere. Blackened timbers, ashes, clothes, and other debris surrounded the foundation. Pieces of aluminum siding dangled from the walls, creaking in the cold wind. I didn't stay long.

- # -

Foxboro Baptist Church held an impromptu prayer service on Wednesday night, in memory of the dead, but for the benefit of the living, and for the community as a whole. I was one of the few family members who attended; the Giesselmans had gone to visit Sarah. I didn't get a lot out of the service, but I was astonished at the number of people who remembered me from the days when Nora and I attended church there. Several dozen people hugged me or shook my hand. Many stayed for a minute to look at my photos of the kids, which I'd brought with me in case anyone wanted to see them.

When I left, the church parking lot was almost deserted, except for a TV satellite relay truck about forty feet from my car. The media still didn't know who I was. I left the church unmolested.

- # -

On Thursday morning, I drove to Foxboro Baptist Church to meet with the funeral director. Alone together in the pastor's office, I opened my briefcase.

"I'd like my children to be buried with these," I asked. He agreed to place my three little items in their coffins.

Josh got the little wooden Thomas the Tank Engine he would have gotten for Christmas. His first one had gotten lost at school one day, and I'd bought him another. The wooden train set had always been his favorite toy, and he especially loved his Thomas. I wanted him to have it.

Becca got my calculator-watch, the one she used to sit in my lap and play with. That watch had made her happier than anything else I had shared with her, except for her yellow stuffed kitty, and that was lost in the fire.

Abigail got her ring, the $10 pink zirconia ring that she had wanted so desperately for Christmas. Every time we went to the mall, she'd dragged me to Sears to try on that ring. She was so disappointed when it vanished off the shelf; I couldn't tell her I had bought it. Three more days, and I would have given it to her, and her smile would have lit up the world. Well, it couldn't do her any good now, but I gave it to her.

None of these things could do them any good; they had no need for toys in Heaven. But I had to do it. It was one last chance to say, "I love you."

- # -

The wake was on Thursday night, from 2:00 to 9:00 PM. I stood with the four Giesselmans, shaking hands, accepting condolences, extending a comforting hand to each other. I felt so grateful for the number of people who cared that I felt I owed them the chance to share their pain (and mine). Hundreds of people came. It seemed that more than half were Ken's family and friends; many more were teen-age friends of Rachel. There were also a surprising number of my co-workers there, along with many friends from church.

My friend Ed Christiansen made it down from New Hampshire, as did my parents, several of my teachers from high school, and half a dozen other friends. Ed stayed pretty close to me; I appreciated his support.

Perhaps the saddest group was the North Attleboro firefighters. This had been the first fatal fire the town had seen in fifteen years, and the worst in its history. The firemen were so distraught at their inability to save anyone that the Red Cross had had to bring in special counselors to help them cope.

They entered in a group, mostly in uniform. Few shed tears, but their eyes told the story. The fire chief, whose photo had appeared on the front page of the newspaper trying to revive my Becca, could barely look at me. "I'm so sorry," was all he could say.

When the crowds dwindled, I took a moment to rest a hand on each of my children's coffins, forcing myself to do it, knowing the tears would flow. I still couldn't believe that my children were lying so still inside those boxes. I said a final goodbye to Rachel at this time, apologizing for having treated her so poorly.

Two or three times during the evening, I was sure I heard Abigail's voice, very distantly. Each time, I heard her say the same thing: "I'm okay now, Daddy."

Pastor Sherry called me aside and asked if I could give him some details about the kids for his eulogy. I spent half an hour, relating some of the anecdotes I'd written down and describing their personality traits. He said there would be a time of remembrance, when people who knew the family would share their memories with everyone. Would I be willing to speak?

I thought for a moment. I certainly wouldn't be in very good shape for public speaking. But if I didn't tell them about my children, who would? Most of the mourners knew the adults, not the children; I was almost the only keeper of their memories. If I didn't say something, no one would know anything about them except that they were "the kids." Yes, I would speak.

But what would I say? How could I possibly sum up my children's lives, to people who had never met them, in only five minutes?

On Friday morning, as I was dressing for the funeral, my eyes fell on Abigail's aluminum-foil pickle.

- # -

Ken's and Nora's coffins were mounted on the floor in front of the church, head-to-head. Ken's was brown, while Nora's, like all the others, was white. Abigail, Joshua and Rebecca were in a row above the adults, with Rachel behind them. They were surrounded by flowers, and by two rainbows that Ken had requested. To the right was a bulletin board with photos of the family, and three drawings that Abigail had made — I'd untacked them from my office wall after the Wednesday-night service and brought them in.

The Giesselmans sat in the front row, with Ken's mother and sister. Sarah came in late, just before the service started. I was glad she'd decided to come; Nora had once told me that, when Sarah was small, she hadn't been able to make herself approach her natural father's coffin and had never said goodbye to him.

I sat in the second row with my parents, with Jaye Christiansen (Ed's wife — he couldn't get the time off from work) and three other close friends, Albert DeMello and Dave & Brenda Matte, behind me. I felt justified in saving "family-only" seats for my friends, because my family was so small and because I needed all the support I could get.

Pastor Sherry stopped next to me and asked if I would be able to speak as planned during the time of sharing. I said I would shake my head or give a thumbs-down if I thought I couldn't go on.

We sang some hymns, and the pastor spoke a message of encouragement for the families, the firefighters, and the community in general. The whole service, for me, was a series of losing my composure and regaining it, over and over. Another hymn, and the time of sharing began.

First, one of Ken's lifelong friends spoke movingly of his many memories of him. Then a worker from the Autism Society of America spoke at great length about Nora. I couldn't help recalling how Ambrose Bierce defined a saint: "a dead sinner, revised and edited." But her commitment to her children could never be denied.

Rachel's and Abigail's school teachers shared a bit about each girl, and then it was my turn. Noel glanced at me, apparently expecting me to back out. But I nodded to him; I was ready. He introduced me and stepped aside. Shaking slightly, I stepped up to the microphone, looked out across the hundreds of mourners, and took a deep breath.

"About a year and a half ago, when I picked up Abigail for a visit, she gave me this." I pulled the aluminum-foil pickle out of my breast pocket and held it up. There was a rustling as people looked up to see what I had.

"And I said, 'Thank you, Abigail. What is it?'"

"And she said, 'It's an aluminum-foil pickle.'" A murmur of surprised laughter floated across the church. Someone told me later that even some of the firemen had smiled.

"And she said, 'Daddy, this is much better than a real pickle, because if you ever forget what a pickle looks like, you can look at this, and then you'll remember.'

"I thought that is just so appropriate, because it just symbolizes so much, both of Abigail, and of the twins. For one thing, she was always giving little gifts to everyone she knew — Mom, Dad, sisters, teachers, health aides — everybody. She was always making little presents. And it wasn't just a pretty rock she'd found. It was something she made, something she drew, something she thought up. And there was always that creative streak in her, as well, sometimes to the point of something as unusual as an aluminum-foil pickle — certainly not something that most people would think of. But that was her — always giving, always thinking, always trying to imagine something new, something better.

"Rebecca was never so eloquent. For a long time, her speech was limited to simply echoing what she had heard, and being unable to actually interact with someone. And perhaps the greatest present she ever gave me was the day I walked into the house and said, 'Hi, Becca,' and instead of saying, 'Hi, Becca,' back, as I expected, she smiled and said, 'Hi, Daddy.'

"Joshua never did learn to speak with words. He spoke with actions. I have never known anyone with a greater joy and zest for life than Joshua Stephen Fischer. He attacked every situation he found with a pure zest that... we could all learn something from. I had made him a leaf pile this fall, and pulled his plastic slide up to it so he could slide down the slide into the leaves. He climbed to the top of the slide, stood at the top, and leaped into the leaves. And that joy was his gift to us all.

"Imagining, giving, loving, joyful — that was Abigail, Joshua, and Rebecca. And if any of you ever forgets what they were like, please call me, and I'll let you look at my aluminum-foil pickle.

"And then you'll remember."

I stepped down, drained but relieved. They all knew my children now.

It occurred to me later that this was the first time I had ever voluntarily spoken Joshua's middle name. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to make peace with Nora, setting one last disagreement to rest.

After the time of sharing, we stood and sang some of the family's favorite songs, accompanied by the quiet guitars of the church worship team. I held myself together through most of them. But the last song was one I had requested: "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know." Every time I'd brought my guitar over to Nora's, Abigail would ask me to play that song. Every time. I had asked that it be sung without instruments, because I didn't want any guitar playing it except my own, and I knew I'd never make it through the song. Just singing it brought the tears to overflowing, and I had to sit down, sobbing, while Albert, Jaye, and my mother tried to comfort me.

Pastor Sherry never did give his eulogy; he later told Monique that he didn't think he could have added to what the friends and family had shared. If I hadn't spoken for my children, no one would have.

- # -

I rode to the cemetery in a limousine with Jaye and Albert. I'd expected my parents to join me, but their car had been parked in line with many others and they couldn't leave it.

The six caskets were lined up in front of a red granite marker. Folding chairs were set up for the immediate family, and we tried to keep warm against the cold night air. Ken's former pastor said some words, and it was done.

Two reporters caught up with me and asked if I had any final comments. My mouth opened once or twice, but nothing came out. I finally stammered, "Could you come back in five minutes?" They said yes, and left in search of other prey.

I huddled with Jaye and Albert for a minute, then said, "I need to say goodbye to my children. Please wait for me here." They waited silently while I rested my hand on each little white coffin, mentally giving them my last thoughts. I don't remember exactly what I said, but what I've written here is pretty close.

"Becca, now you can finally understand... I wish you knew how much I loved you. Maybe you did. You're in a better place now, and I'll see you someday. Lord, if they have calculator-watches in Heaven, could Becca sit in Your lap and play with Your watch for a while, since she can't do it with me any more? I did the best I could for you, Becca. I love you. Goodbye, Becca."

"Josh, now you can talk, now you can understand like the rest of us. You got the better end of this deal... I don't know how much you understood, but I loved you, and I think you knew that. Lord Jesus, please be patient with my little guy — he's got a lot of catching-up to do. Josh, I couldn't have done more for you. Be good. I love you. Goodbye, Josh."

"Abigail, I think I miss you most of all. There's so much I wanted to tell you, so much I wanted to share with you... You know I loved you, and I'm so glad I had the chance to be your daddy. I'll be with you someday. I wish I could hug you one more time... Jesus, please give her a hug for me. Oh, Abigail, I miss you so much! I couldn't have loved you more. Goodbye, my Abigail."

I stopped at one other casket as well.

"Nora, I'm sorry for all the grief I caused you. You had so much to offer me, and I totally missed it... You and Ken, enjoy Heaven together. I'll see you someday. Goodbye, Nora."

By that time, I knew I couldn't be coherent for the reporters, so I let Albert and Jaye escort me back to the limousine. Once inside, I buried my face in Jaye's shoulder and completely fell apart, crying like a lost child.

Epilogue - 1995

It is very quiet in my room. It's been weeks since I heard, "Ah-gn gah-gn," or felt someone's little arms around my neck in a spontaneous hug. The box of wooden trains has a thin coat of dust on it, as does the aluminum-foil pickle. The flow of sympathy cards has all but stopped.

For the first time since the Giesselmans' children were born, I've been able to have a relationship with them, and to call myself "Uncle Mike." The veiled hostility that marked my relations with my former in-laws is gone. Little Emily and Jesse have taken a great liking to me, like most small children seem to do; their affection has helped lift me out of a few depressed moods here and there.

I count myself fortunate in this: I can look back on my seven and a half years as a daddy with no regrets. I never missed a chance to tell my children I loved them, or to prove it. If I'd known that the week of December 19 was the last time I would see them in this life, I wouldn't have done anything differently. I couldn't have spent more time with them than I did. I couldn't have done more for them than I did. I could not have loved them more than I did.

Abigail was my firstborn, and it was she who taught me how to be a daddy. Because she was the only one of the three who could speak, my relationship with her was closer than with the twins. She thrived on security, and in spite of the many changes in our lives, I always tried to make her feel secure in my love for her. And she knew it.

If I loved any of my children passionately, it was Josh. My little goon's natural exuberance always made me feel better about things; just being around him lifted my spirits. He was the most challenging of my little ones, but God gave me the strength to meet most of his challenges. We'll never know how much he understood, but he knew that he was loved. Ah-gn gah-gn, big guy.

I always felt especially protective toward my Becca-boo. Abigail got big and needed some independence here and there, but Becca was always Daddy's littlest girl. Like her big sister, I think she wanted to be pleasing to the people she loved, and she enjoyed making us smile or laugh, even if she didn't always understand why we were laughing.

The story of Abigail, Joshua and Rebecca isn't that different from the stories of most other children, except that it ended so suddenly. What made them special was the love I had for them, and the love they had for me. I had never given or received such pure love, and I revelled in every moment of it. I hope that you who have children will understand.

If you don't, today is the day to make changes. Listen to your children's silly stories; look carefully at the crayon drawings they give you. Save some of their little gifts, and write down the cute things they say, because ten years from now, you won't remember a bit of it. Take your children in your arms and hug them, and tell them you love them, and then prove it by your actions. Make sure they know they are loved and valued above any career, or golf game, or hobby, or TV show. Do it while you can. Do it today.

You may never get a second chance.

...but life goes on

It is now the year 2003, almost ten years after the fire. I remarried in 1998, to an older woman who didn't want any more children. Aside from that, she's perfect for me. Our relationship isn't flawless, but we love and respect each other; the rest is details. Her young grandchildren enjoy playing with the wooden trains.

To this day, I am strongly drawn to babies and small children. And they're drawn to me; I'm sure they can sense that I'm confident and comfortable with them. Our church has its share of teenage girls who like to hold other people's babies, but our girls are out of practice because I seem to get to the babies first. I feel like I never got to finish what I started, and other people's kids help me feel better.

The wound will never fully heal. I can go for months without feeling the pain, although I think about them (especially Josh and his "Gah!") every day. With the passage of time, the unpleasant events fade from memory and the good ones seem to get better, like in the old Barbra Streisand song:

Memories may be beautiful, and yet
What's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.
So it's the laughter we will remember, whenever we remember
The way we were.
I wrote this story as part of my grieving process, and to get all the memories down before they faded. I submitted it to a publishing house that specializes in grief, but they said it was too long. I made copies and gave them to people as Christmas gifts in 1995; everyone said they were blessed to read it. Now I'm putting it on my web site so that you can read it, too. If you have lost a loved one, maybe something I've written will help ease the pain.

I want to add one thing to my story. Life is short and uncertain. Ken, Nora, and the children went to bed on December 23 expecting to finish their Christmas preparations the next day. I don't know why it didn't happen that way. But if their deaths make one person think seriously about eternity, then December 24, 1994 was not meaningless.

They are all in the presence of Jesus; of this I am certain. The adults, Rachel, and Abigail had all asked Jesus to be their savior, and the twins were still babies in God's sight. If I had been there that night, I too would be in Heaven, without a doubt. If you can't say the same — if you have doubts about where you will spend eternity or how you will get there — then please go to my How to Get to Heaven page, and take it to heart.

— Mike Fischer

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