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Ladders from Dark Places

This past Thursday, October 10th, was World Mental Health Day.

The ladder. Image by Dilovely
The ladder

Please, let’s talk.

Mental health, or lack thereof, is a subject very close to my heart. Several people who share my blood have struggled with depression and similar mental illnesses. So has my husband.

In fact, my Hubbibi was suffering from depression when we first got together. It had dogged him for a long time, on-and-off. I remember him explaining it to me like this: “You know how when you’re a kid, you get that feeling of euphoric excitement when you think about Christmas? At my worst moments, I would think about my own mortality and feel like that.”

Those words chilled me completely – partly because that was the love of my life talking, and partly because I’d never heard it explained quite so accessibly.

Fortunately for me, and for all of us who love him, Sean didn’t become a permanent victim of his illness. When I asked him what held him back from that terminal edge, he admitted that he would think about his mom. He knew he couldn’t do that to her.

Although I like to think that I (or at least our blossoming relationship) was somewhat helpful in Sean’s turning a corner, it is actually his mom who deserves the real credit – for literally putting the phone in his hand to call the doctor. He got back on his feet, with the help of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.

Obviously, the thought of Mom is not enough for everyone who considers suicide. I lost a friend to mental illness a few years ago, and although I know he loved his mom, the problems he faced – enlarged by depression – appeared insurmountable. Unsurvivable.

I don’t actually know how fine that line is, between enduring and evanescing. Personally, I have never come close enough to it to tell, although I can imagine situations in which I might. And I realize the precariousness of our intricate bodily chemicals, over which we have so little control. As a parent, it scares me to think of how easy it can be for someone – especially a young someone – to fall into dark places.

For Sean, it is well worth the hard journey back up the ladder. Not that you’re necessarily “home free” if you climb it; Sean has recently gone back on medication after several years off. But he’s learned to recognize warning signs in himself, and we talk about it openly.  We are both optimistic.

Just this past week, Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery – a wise woman who knows a LOT about dark places – posted an essay called 5 Things I Know About the Path. It’s really good. My favourite is #4:

“You always have enough strength and courage and wisdom. You always have exactly what you need for your daily trek. Sometimes you won’t believe this- because you will encounter stretches of the path that are treacherous and terrifying, but if you give up in the middle of those stretches – if you sit down permanently in them- then you have to live there. Don’t live in the dark, scary parts. Trust and keep moving.  There will be a clearing soon and you will feel the warm sun again. The One who created your path is outside of time, so your life is an epic movie that has already been scripted. Maktub – it’s already been written. You’ve already made it. So don’t plan or worry – your job is to Trust Your Path and participate fully and notice as much as you possibly can and keep on moving.”
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I have a request to make. Please, if you have ever known success against mental illness, either in yourself or in someone you love, I would really appreciate it if you could leave a comment to share your insight. What helped in turning the corner or climbing the ladder? What made the most difference?

Thank you. You never know when your hard-earned lesson might be someone else’s first rung.

***

P.S. Sean, thank you for your openness and courage. I love you jillions, honey.


 

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Why is parenting so effing hard?

I think I may have sounded, in yesterday’s post, like life with my kids is idyllic and wonderful and effortless. I was glad to have the writing to focus me on the parts I love about this parenting gig, because yesterday was actually a rather difficult parenting day.

How is it okay that the most intricate, least predictable, most emotionally draining, least perfectable job in the world HAS NO MANUAL? No training, no license – just do it. Just make it happen. RAISE THOSE KIDS.

I mean, people offer classes you can take. Experts have written books you can call manuals – but my daughter didn’t come with one for her. I read manuals I consider very wise and useful, and still, I’m full of questions every minute.

Like, why is my baby waking up when she’s still so tired? Why does she fall asleep and then her eyes pop open as if she’s ready to go? Why, when I can see that sleep-window opening, is it still so hard to get her to sleep sometimes? And even harder, the more tired she gets? SHOULDN’T SLEEPING BE ALL BUILT-IN AND WHATNOT?

And as it turns out, my three-year-old provokes even more questions… Why does he retain every syllable he hears about cars and Smarties and friggin’ leatherback turtles (if Diego talks about it), and then release to oblivion every word I tell him about the dangers of choking if you run around while eating? Why does he insist on the whiny voice even though it doesn’t get him good results? Why won’t he try just ONE TINY BITE of something OFF the list of thirty separate foods that must be consumed separately? Why does he wake up, baby-like, before he’s done sleeping? Why is he being a turkey and doing exactly what we just told him not to, when we RAISED HIM BETTER THAN THIS? Why is he not listening again?? IS THIS NORMAL???

If it seems like I’m overusing my caps lock all of a sudden, too bad. Those are the CAPS that go through a mom’s head when she’s trying to keep her voice reasonable, confident, and loving, so that the baby/three-year-old will think you know what you’re doing.

As I’ve said before, at least we know why they’re so cute-looking. Keeps us from stuffing them into small soundproof spaces that latch from the outside.

Let’s not forget the questions for – and about – myself. Why didn’t my maternal instincts cover this? Why wasn’t this technique part of my womanly intuition? Why did I sign up for this again? Why am I not better at this? How does ANYONE do this with MORE THAN TWO CHILDREN??

I know, I need to loosen up. Sean and I were discussing the other great primates and how they do things – they seem pretty laid-back about parenting. They go with the flow. They’re ALL instinct, and it works just fine.

gorilla_baby_sleeping-on-mother
Photo by bartdubelaar

Of course, they don’t have dishes to do, they don’t have to make sure they have a clean nursing bra, their older kid is fine by himself because he’s supposed to be a crazy ape anyway, there are no diapers, no toys underfoot, no grocery shopping… and no addictive NaBloPoMo blogs to read. (Darn you, you fascinating people.)

Maybe if I had a clingy-fingered baby and lots of chest and back hair, I could find a way to be supa-chill about this whole parenting thing too.

Of course, in that case, I’d probably have a few other issues.

Being human is so complicated.

***

P.S. Now my daughter is smiling at me, ridiculously fetching. …What was I upset about again?


 

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Talking about death with a preschooler

I know that birth and death are basically the two most universal things on the planet. Well – and sex, I guess, in its various forms.

That doesn’t make it easier to talk about them with a three-year-old.

E has been asking a lot about death recently, for many reasons. Last summer, he had his first exposure to death when our day care provider’s father died – he had lived with the family and interacted with the kids, but he was quite sick – and also old. Then, this summer, E’s great-grandmother (Gramma Sue) died in July, and one of my parents’ cats died in August. Both of them died of old age, which is relatively easy to discuss, though still sad.

Me: Sweetie, I need to tell you something. You remember your Gramma Sue? Well, yesterday, she died.

E: She died? Why did she die?

Me: Well, she was really old. Everybody dies eventually, and she was done with her life.

E: Oh. (pause) Is Grammie going to die?

Me: Someday she will, but not for a really long time.

E: I don’t want Gramma Sue to die.

Me: I know, honey. It’s sad when people die, because we miss them.

E: Yeah, we’re sad.

I was glad to find he didn’t actually seem very perturbed, emotionally. (He had many visits with Gramma Sue, but not spent a lot of time with her overall.) Later, we saw Grammie (my mom) and he gave her a big hug, as we’d encouraged him to do, to help comfort her. Then he announced, “Grammie, I gave you a hug because your mom died.” Nice tact, kiddo.

He has asked more about Gramma Sue, and Sabine (the cat), on several occasions, with different people. I’m glad that he feels safe asking questions when he’s thinking about it; I really want him to talk with us when he’s wondering about things.

The problem is, none of the reasons for those deaths applies to E’s baby brother. I have the feeling that the older E gets, the more confusing it is, especially now that we’re expecting his sister. I hate having to figure out how to enlighten him.

I didn’t even know what stillbirth was until I was at least seven or eight. I remember my parents were watching some BBC miniseries on TV – something I wasn’t interested in, but I happened to catch part of a scene explaining that one character’s wife had died in childbirth. The doctor said sombrely, “The baby was stillborn,” but of course I heard “The baby was still born“, you know, in spite of its mom dying. I remember thinking, Well, that’s good, at least he has a baby… but then it became clear that he didn’t, so I had to ask for an explanation.

Stillborn, born still.  Oh.

We have tried to mention Sebastian to E on a fairly regular basis, so that he is still part of our lives – and so that E grows up with the knowledge of his brother. He knows that Sebastian’s heart didn’t grow properly (we’ve been very careful, as the books recommended, not to talk about him being “sick” or “going to sleep”, because that can cause a lot more anxiety and confusion). He knows our salmon tattoos are there so we can remember Sebastian.

Sebastian salmon tattoo

But this concept isn’t without confusion:

E: Mommy, is my baby in your tummy right now?

Me: Your baby sister? Yes, she’s in there.

E: Where’s Sebastogen?

Me: Well, Sebastian was in there, and he came out, but he wasn’t alive.

E: Oh. (pause) And he was a fish?

Me: No, he was a baby. But we like to think of his spirit like a fish, swimming wherever he wants.

He also knows that Daddy and I each have a necklace that somehow contains something of his brother – but lately I fear that even this is too confusing, since we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to explain cremation to him. I don’t want him to think that his poor baby brother is actually stuck in there, but I don’t want him to have to think about dead bodies being burned either. Either way seems like a recipe for nightmares.

cremation jewelry - eternity circle, mother and child
Eternity Circle, Mother and Child

I’ve had to do a bit of further explanation there, but it’s trickier than I feel qualified to handle sometimes.

E: (pointing to my necklace) Who’s in there?

Me: Well, Sebastian is, but he’s not really in there. It’s more like something to remember him by.

E: Where is he?

Me: His spirit is in heaven, a really good place where he’s safe and he knows we love him.

E: What did you do with Sebastogen?

Me: (God help me. I clung to him as long as I could. After that, it was all up to the hospitals and the funeral home. Can’t explain about ashes right now.) Well… All living things, when they die, they go back to being part of the earth. That’s what happened to Sebastian.

E: I want to die.

Me: What? Why do you want to die?

E: I wanna go to Kevin. So I can play there.

I guess I may have over-sold “heaven” (or Kevin). I’m not completely comfortable with the term, because I think it has too many connotations that I don’t actually believe in (clouds and winged harpist angels and so forth), but I do believe we all go someplace beautiful when we die. My feelings about what happens after death come from what I’ve heard about people’s near-death experiences, and those are all positive: being free, in the light, surrounded by love, knowing that all is as it should be in the universe… I can get behind that.

So I do believe Sebastian is in a really good… dimension, somewhere. Apparently if you’re a three-year-old, it sounds like an awesome place to go play.

Sometimes I wonder if I should show him Sebastian’s scrapbook – specifically, the pictures of Sebastian himself. A real baby, who looks like he’s sleeping. But really, I think that would just be upsetting at this point, at this age. My little E can be a pretty sensitive soul sometimes.

Earlier this summer, there was an incident that made me think he “gets” death more than most little kids. We were in the backyard, and E found a snail shell, and said, “This one doesn’t have a snail.” After a moment, he asked, “Can I smash it?” We are aware of little boys’ need to smash things sometimes, and this seemed a harmless option. He crouched down and smacked the shell with his sand shovel.

I think all three of us realized at the same time, when the shell did NOT make the sound we were expecting, that it wasn’t empty after all. Daddy and I couldn’t stop the instinctive wince: “Oh, buddy… there was a snail in there…” Poor E dropped the shovel and stood up, looking stricken but trying to be calm… He walked over to Daddy without a word and climbed in his lap – at which point he gave in and started sobbing.

We did our best to comfort him, explaining that everything dies sooner or later, lots of snails get eaten by other animals, this one will too… But it took him a while to calm down. (I couldn’t help comparing this to the glee with which some JKs squished a big bug on the playground at school, not long after that incident.) And he still remembered this, and brought it up to talk about it, two weeks later. I still want to cry whenever I think about his little face as he tried to be brave, but was obviously full of regret at what he’d done.

I know the idea of mortality in general is beginning to sink in. He’ll ask me or Daddy if we’re going to die, saying, “I want to have a Mommy and a Daddy.” Of course, we rashly promise that it will be ages before we, or even his grandparents, die. It’s not exactly honest, but I can’t bear the idea of him worrying his magical, innocent head about us dying.

E really does seem happy about his baby sister… but he has said many times since last summer, “I want a brother.” We don’t tell him he already has one, even though he sort of does. I don’t think it would make him feel better, at age three, to think that his brother is in his heart, or looking out for him. He wants a brother to play with.

We talk about love a lot in our house. We are constantly telling E how much we love him, and sometimes it’s a little game (loosely based on the book Guess How Much I Love You): “I love you as big as that tree!” or, more recently, “I love you as green as your shirt,” or “I love you as stripey as this rock.”

The other night, at bedtime, E broke Daddy’s heart with this little conversation.

E: Daddy, where’s Sebastogen?

Daddy: Well, he’s in the afterlife, we think.

E: Is he at the hospital?

Daddy. No, not anymore.

E: Is he sick?

Daddy: No. He won’t ever be sick.

E: Daddy… I want him back.

Daddy: Oh, me too, buddy.

E: I want him back as big as this whole house.

Oh, sweetie pie. If we could trade this whole house to get your baby brother back for you, we would.

***

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right where i am 2012: one year

I first read the writing of Angie, of still life with circles, last summer, during my first tentative steps into the baby loss blogosphere. I was very moved by this post I read of hers at Glow in the Woods, a blog for babylost parents of which she happens to be the editor. Last year she created the “right where i am” project, to encourage bereaved parents to write about how they are doing on their grief journeys, and to remind them that wherever they are, it’s where they are supposed to be.

I’m grateful for this reminder. I don’t know why some of us humans worry, in the midst of grief, about whether we are grieving the “appropriate” amount for our situation… but it happens. In fact, it is remarkably easy to do. (It’s probably a subconscious emotional stalling/distraction tactic, right?) I know we have to grieve however we do. I’m sure it’s true that I’m right… where I am.

It has been one year since we were told that our son Sebastian no longer had a heartbeat. I feel lucky to know when that heartbeat disappeared – almost to the hour – and to be able to honour, in my heart, the day he died as well as the day he was born.

So where am I?

When I let myself go there, I feel like I’m in a place so complex that if I tried to tell someone in conversation, words would definitely fail me. Back in September, when I went back to work instead of going on maternity leave, my supportive co-workers would often ask me, “How are you doing?” and I know they meant it. They were so lovely about it, but school is not the place to take on that topic. While working, I didn’t allow myself to delve into how I was doing, so I’d condense it into, “Okay,” with a shrug-half-smile, or “Depends on the moment,” to which people would nod sympathetically.

Now, when people ask me how I’m doing, I assume they’re referring, with the best of intentions, to my visibly pregnant status – and I usually abridge my response in a similar fashion.

But where am I, unabridged, uncondensed? Bereaved and pregnant?

I am torn, every day, between joy and grief. Right now, I’m watching my abdomen ripple as my daughter does some kind of martial-arts-yoga in there, and I fiercely love every second of it. Equal in my mind are my eagerness to meet her, and my yearning to cherish everything in case it’s all I get. My husband reminds me that there’s no benefit to worrying that lightning will strike us twice, and I know he’s right. I do my best not to let stress get the better of me – for me, for the baby, for the family in general.

But I cannot avoid thinking about it. I really do believe that this baby will be fine – I have not just hope, but confidence – but at the same time… why shouldn’t lightning strike twice, if it can strike once? Every time I talk about when I go on mat leave, when the baby comes, when we will have a newborn, I’m qualifying it in my mind. Every time. (You can understand why I don’t do this aloud – what a bummer of a conversationalist I would be.) This is not me being morbid; this is me staying sane. I need to let myself remember that life doesn’t always make sense. Continue reading “right where i am 2012: one year”

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Non-Expert Thoughts on The Avengers

This is not an actual review, since I only (finally) saw The Avengers the other night, when all the true fans are on their second viewing (at least). Everybody who cares about superheroes and comic book lore already knows it’s the best movie in its genre and that Joss Whedon is a freakin’ genius. So I’ll just contribute my half-baked, semi-educated thoughts, since it’s not a movie that can go uncommented (right, honey?).

avengers poster

  • It was exciting to have a date night with my Hubbibi! Pad Thai + mango salad + adult conversation + movie popcorn + legendary superhero action = 🙂
  • Trailers for the new Spider-Man and the final Batman are pretty wicked. I didn’t think I was ready for a new Spider-Man already, but I have to admit I like the look of Andrew Garfield. Also, Anne Hathaway as Catwoman should be awesome.
  • Yay for Robin Tcherbat– uh, I mean Cobie Smulders! I was happy to see her as a SHIELD agent, although it was very weird to see her play someone other than her usual How I Met Your Mother character.
  • Agent Phil Coulson, I’m told, was in Thor and The Hulk and even a bit of Captain America… but this is the first time he was truly memorable to me. I credit good writing.
  • I was glad I had watched Captain America with Sean recently, in anticipation of The Avengers. Otherwise I would have been quite confused by his flashback montage when he arrives on the scene.
  • I was also glad I’ve seen Thor and The Hulk and most of Iron Man, so as to have some insight into those characters. Sean has trained me well. Who knows how ignorant I’d be without him?
  • I have to admit I prefer Mark Ruffalo to Ed Norton as The Hulk. Although I consider Norton to be the king of split-personality acting, I have a serious soft spot for Mark Ruffalo.
  • I was told Scarlett Johansson kicked ass as Black Widow – and boy, does she ever. CRAZY MOVES (both physical and psychological).
  • Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man takes the cake for best, most irreverent (Whedonian) lines – although there are lots for every character.
  • Thor takes the cake for best costume, with his armoured vest and luxurious cape. (I had a great chuckle at Tony’s line “Dost mother know thou wearest her drapes?”) Maybe I dig the cape so much because I learned the word “avenger” from Garfield, wayyy back when he used to tie his blanket around his neck and call himself “The Caped Avenger”. (In my mind, I pronounced it like “scavenger”, though.)

avengers-chris-hemsworth-thor

  • Loki, the villain, has a vest-and-cape combo too, but he can’t take the cake with those helmet-horns. I guess it’s not his fault he resembles a Matt Groening character.

tom hiddleston loki avengers

matt-groening-life-in-hell-genius

  • Tom Hiddleston, who plays him, actually has a great smile. I’ll have to see Midnight in Paris again to watch him as a good guy (F. Scott Fitzgerald).

tom hiddleston smiling

  • I know part of the point of the story is that the “Avengers Initiative” is risky, because the heroes are so disparate and volatile – will they be able to put aside their differences and work together?? But there were a few moments where I was just like, SIGH. Stop squabbling already, boys. Wake up and smell the deadly robots.
  • Those Leviathan creatures were a stroke of brilliance from someone’s herpetophobic brain. (How do you like my new word? I had to Google it. It means afraid of reptiles.)

Leviathan-Avengers

  • Do you ever watch a movie with battles in it, set in a real-life city, and think, Holy crap, how will they ever even begin to repair all this damage? And then does it occur to you that huge sections of Europe and Japan suffered even worse destruction during WWII, all at the same time?? It’s incredible to me that the human race finds the resilience to rebuild in the face of ruin, over and over again.
  • Although my mind wasn’t blown by this movie, as Sean’s was, I did find it very satisfying. Relishable dialogue, more epic moments than you can shake a giant hammer at, laugh-out-loud moments, and… the good guys win! Oops, I probably wasn’t supposed to tell you that.
  • And now, the most important point: WHO’S HOTTER?

Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow…

the-avengers-black-widow-scarlett-johansson

… or Agent Hill?

Cobie_Smulders_Maria_Hill-the-avengers

(I tried to find a good shot of Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts in her jean shorts, but wasn’t successful. Otherwise she’d definitely have a good shot.)

What about Thor…

Thor-Chris-Hemsworth-The-Avengers

… versus Steve Rogers/Captain America?

captain-america-chris-evans-avengers

And is it Dr. Bruce Banner…

Mark Ruffalo Avengers

… or Tony Stark?

robert-downey-jr_the_avengers-tony-stark

Time to weigh in, Di-hards! Thank you for playing.

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Who would you have been when the Titanic sank?

Last night at about 2:30 a.m., the wreck of the Titanic turned 100 years old. There were four of us talking about it in our kitchen yesterday evening, and again this morning – about how there were boats travelling to that very spot in the Atlantic Ocean, to commemorate the centennial… and about what an overwhelming story it is, no matter how you look at it.

bow of the titanic wreckage

Just before Easter weekend, I went with Skye to see the movie Titanic in 3D. I remember I saw it twice in theatres when it first came out, and maybe once on video since then… but it had been at least a decade since I’d seen it. Certain scenes I still remembered perfectly, so deeply did they affect me at the time. (I know a lot of people call it a bad movie, but I’m sorry. They are just haters, and they are WRONG. The dialogue may be banal, but it is an incredible, monumental story, portrayed with obsessive attention to detail and accuracy. It’s an amazing cinematic accomplishment.)

Titanic_poster_kate_winslet_leonardo_dicaprio

I think I can honestly say that, although I’d seen many movies involving death before, this was the first film that made me really confront the idea. So many different ways to die with the Titanic, most of them inevitable. It is such a mind-blowing moment in the film when Mr. Andrews, the ship’s designer, tells the captain and others that it is a “mathematical certainty” that the magnificent, so-called unsinkable vessel will founder. Very, very soon. With lifeboats to accommodate only half the people on board. Human brains do not want to believe such things. Continue reading “Who would you have been when the Titanic sank?”

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The Christmas Conundrum

When I first started thinking about the Santa Claus myth in relation to my own child, I wasn’t sure I liked the idea. A bit of a bleeding-heart “How can I lie to my child?” thing. Why would I bother with this farce, this deception?

Now that my child is old enough to start getting the concept… I’m starting to think that perhaps Santa Claus really does exist.

You see, I’ve realized that ol’ St. Nick is here, whether we bring him up or not. We haven’t really talked with E about Santa Claus, but he still knows about him – from books, from talking with the other kids at day care, from ubiquitous festive imagery.

Furthermore, there’s all this proof of his existence. He’s not just at the mall. The government is in on it, and we’ve gone way past the level of Miracle on 34th Street; now, not only can Canada Post deliver your letter to Santa, they can guarantee he’ll write back! And that’s just the beginning: you can Skype with Santa, you can email Santa… and the savvy chap is not just on email – he blogs and tweets!

So if I really wanted to NOT do Santa, it would involve one of two things:

a) revealing basically the entire population of the continent to be liars and co-conspirators, OR

b) engaging in far greater subterfuge and stress to avoid exposing our son to Santa. (We’d obviously have to move to the backwoods.)

I might do the former, if I had a good reason. Sean and I agree that we definitely DO NOT want to raise one of those little spoiler turkeys who chooses opportune moments to sneer, “Santa doesn’t exist, dummy! He’s just your mom and dad,” at kids who still believe. But we could find a way around that, if we had to.

But why fight it? It’s not such a horrible myth, if done right. Jolly magical guy who wants to make children happy – that’s kinda nice. Industrious, dextrous elves and flying reindeer with kickass names – pretty cool. Rewards for good behaviour, well – we parents do that all the time already. As long as we avoid sanctimony when it comes to the Naughty/Nice list. (I’ve seen kindergartners pass judgment on each other’s N/N status based on recess skirmishes.)

And does it destroy a child’s world to find out the truth? We discussed this very question in the staffroom the other day. There were a couple sad stories – one in particular where someone’s Grade 4 teacher told the whole class they were stupid if they still believed in Santa Claus – but for the most part, people remember just gradually figuring it out… and being okay with it. Simply outgrowing the concept.

More importantly, most of us loved believing in Santa, and so did/do their kids. There were lots of cool anecdotes about Christmas elves or bears who would show up every December and keep an eye on children; mysterious reindeer prints to be found in the snow; telltale bits of red to indicate a painted sleigh or a furry suit; even jingle bell sounds far off in the night on Christmas Eve. I have very clear memories of trying to stay up late, so we could even just hear Santa Claus arrive (I don’t think I wanted to actually meet him, just know he was there).

It was SUPER-FUN. Christmas was exceedingly thrilling, those years I believed in Santa.

Point being… I think E’s going to get a dump truck from Santa this year.

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