Substitute Dad

© 2006 - 2010 By Scribe1971 (scribe1971@hotmail.com)

Chapter 43

A Tragedy and a Great Honour

Josh's stay in the hospital was as frenzied as it was brief. Somehow, word of his condition got around at his school and a steady stream of his friends showed up to visit. Even a few of his teachers took the time to appear and wish him well. Before long his hospital room was filled with balloons, get well cards, and an assortment of stuffed animals.

"How are you feeling bud?" I asked him shortly after official visiting hours ended and the last of the kids from his school were shooed from the room by smiling nurses.

"Not too bad at all. Still a bit sleepy. I'm hungry too, but they won't let me eat anything except Jell-O or custard until tomorrow," he replied.

"Look at this room," Susan said with a smile. "It's amazing how many people care about you."

"It's hard to believe, but it's great," Josh smiled wanly.

In the corner of the room was a huge hand made get well card that had been made by the kids at his school and signed by just about everyone.

"What are we going to do with all this stuff when you leave the hospital tomorrow?" I asked.

"I was thinking about that and I have an idea," Josh said mysteriously.

"I'm sorry that I wasn't here to bring you to the hospital sweetie," Susan said.

"It's ok Mom, Dad looked after me."

"I know he did," Susan smiled and patted me on the shoulder.

Just then my phone rang. I looked at the number and knew who it was right away.

Before I had a chance to say 'hello', I heard, "How is he?" Mark asked in a worried tone.

"He's ok bud, want to talk to him?" I asked and handed the phone to Josh. "It's your brother," I said with a smile.

Josh talked to Mark for a few minutes and reassured him that he was fine. It was quite heart warming to see just how close the two boys were. Although they had quite different personalities and somewhat different interests, over the years they had bonded and during the past year their bond had truly made them brothers. They were as close as I was with any of my brothers.

After a few minutes, Bryan took the phone from Mark and spoke to Josh for a few minutes as well. Listening to Josh's side of the conversation, I knew that I'd never have to worry about there being someone to look after Josh if I wasn't able to. I knew that Bryan would step up in a second if need be. Josh knew it too.

"Dad, Bryan wants to talk to you," he said as he handed me the phone.

"Bry, how are you doing?"

"Better now," he replied. "I was worrying non-stop since you called earlier."

"You and me both," I replied.

"He sounds like he's doing well," he observed.

"The doctor says that he's as fit as a fiddle. He'll probably be discharged tomorrow."

"I really wish we lived closer for times like these." Bryan said apologetically.

"I know...." I said, "and you know that I'd be there in a flash if the shoe were on the other foot, fortunately, it wasn't necessary this time."

I spoke to Bryan for a few more minutes before hanging up. "Joshy, I need to go home for a few minutes to look after Brutus and get some clean clothes to wear tomorrow. I'll be back, I promise."

"I'll stay here until you get back," Susan said. "I'll leave you boys on your own tonight."

"Thanks Mom," Josh said.

As I left the hospital, I could feel a bit of a pang in my heart from leaving Josh, but I knew he was healthy and in good hands. I knew that Brutus would need to be fed and walked and that I'd need some clean clothes to wear the next day. I also wanted to email my professors and let them know that I wouldn't be in class for a day or two so that I could stay home with Josh and look after him.

When I opened the door, Brutus was right there waiting for me. His happy barking and frantic tail-wagging brought a smile to my face. I spent a few minutes petting him and playing with him before letting him out to relieve himself. Before I had a chance to go downstairs, he was back at the door barking to be let in. Then I started heading downstairs to my apartment. When I reached the top of the stairs, I turned to see if he was following me. Not surprisingly, he was sitting at the door as if waiting for his master to return.

"Brutus," I said.

The big pup turned and looked at me.

"Josh will be home tomorrow. I promise," I said.

At the mention of his master's name, his ears perked right up and his tail started wagging again. As I spoke to him, he tilted his head from side to side.

"Want some cheese?" I asked.

That got an immediate reaction from Brutus. We had learned very quickly that Brutus' most favourite thing in the world, besides all of us, was cheese. We all swore that his nose was somehow tuned to detect the presence of cheese anywhere within the house. As soon as anyone took cheese out of a fridge, Brutus seemed to magically appear. The big pup jumped up and ran past me down the stairs to wait near my refrigerator.

I caught up with him and took a Zip-Lock baggie containing cubes of cheddar cheese from the fridge. Knowing how much of a cheese fiend Brutus had become, I'd purchased a block of cheddar cheese and cut it into bite sized pieces for just this purpose.

After feeding the very appreciative puppy a handful of cheese cubes, I went and gathered a few clothes for the morning and sent out the various emails that I had to send. Finally, before leaving, I snapped Brutus' collar on and took him for a walk in the park. I was always amazed at how well behaved Brutus was on the leash. He didn't pull or try to take off in all directions. He trotted along beside me and occasionally followed some scent that he picked up before doing his business.

After about fifteen minutes, we returned home. I topped up Brutus' food bowl and gave him some fresh water before heading out the door.

When I arrived back at Josh's hospital room, he had just finished speaking to Shelly on his cell phone.

"Hi Dad," he said happily when he saw me.

"Hey bud, how are you feeling?"

"Same as before, he said. I could really use a trip to the Mandarin right about now,"

"If the doctor says it's ok, we'll go as soon as you're discharged," Susan promised.

"Brutus really misses you," I said. I described how he waited at the door expecting Josh to come home.

"I'm glad you gave him some cheese," Josh said.

"It's amazing how attached dogs can become to their owners. They really are part of the family," Susan observed. "I'm glad he'll be there when I get home."

A little while later, Susan hugged and kissed Josh and wished him a good night before leaving for home. She'd have been more than happy to stay with him, but she figured that having me there would be a better idea.

"Thanks for looking after me today Dad," Josh said.

"That's what I'm here for bud," I replied and gently tousled his short spiky hair.

I pulled a chair up next to Josh's bed and we turned on the television. I rested my arm on the edge of Josh's bed and he wrapped his arm around mine and grasped my hand.

"Have you ever gone hunting, Dad?" Josh asked after a Canadian Tire commercial advertising hunting gear ended.

"I did a few times with my Dad a long time ago. I shot a deer once. I wouldn't mind going again sometime."

"I'd like to try it too. A friend of mine at school just got his youth firearms license an his apprentice hunter license and he's going to go moose hunting with his Dad this fall and turkey hunting in the spring."

"That might be fun. We should definitely get you your youth firearms license anyway. Do you think your Mom would be ok with it?"

"I think so. Especially if we can fill up the freezer with all kinds of meat!"

"Let's do it then," I replied.

I'd been thinking about getting my hunting license and this would give Josh and I a chance to take the course together. I also decided to get my restricted firearms license, which would allow me to purchase handguns. I made a mental note to make a call the next day to book the courses with the instructors that I had used for my non-restricted license.

Getting into hunting would also give me a reason to make another purchase that I had been contemplating for some time – a shotgun. I had looked at a nice Remington 870 Express pump action that came with a smooth bore barrel for waterfowl and turkey and a rifled cantilever barrel for firing slugs to take deer.

I had no doubt that Susan would be ok with Josh taking up hunting. He'd be fully trained and licensed and he'd be under my supervision the whole time. It would give us something else that we could do together and it would provide a source of healthy tasty meat.

Our experiences with shooting handguns in Edmonton had turned me onto the idea of getting my restricted license and purchasing a pistol. I enjoyed target shooting immensely, but I also had another motive.

In the back of my mind was the thought that maybe one day Bob would eventually get out of prison and if he ever came calling again, I wanted us to be ready regardless of where we lived. I figured that Josh and I would try to talk Susan into coming out to the range with us and we'd teach her the basics of using a pistol. I didn't think that it would be all that likely that any of us would have to use a gun to protect ourselves from Bob or any other fool, but I figured it was a case of "better safe than sorry".

After a while, Josh drifted off to sleep and I reached over and turned off the television. The chair that I was in was not all that comfortable, but it would have to do. I sort of leaned forward and used the edge of his bed as a cushion for my head and Josh continued to cling to my arm as he slept. It wasn't long before I was sleeping soundly too.

That night I had an interesting dream. Again, it seemed to be a dream of the future. We were in a rustic sort of cottage or chalet. All of us were there except for Mark and there were a number of dark suited men and women with ear-pieces in their ears standing around near the doors. Josh, the woman, and children from the previous dreams, Bryan, me, and a few other people were gathered around a big screen television. We seemed to be sitting on the edges of our seats watching something important unfold. A crackly voice that sounded strangely like Mark's could be heard from the television saying, "Tycho base here, Unity has landed." At that, we all broke into cheers and the dream faded away.

I awoke bright and early the next morning and found that I was in pretty much the same position that I had fallen asleep in. Josh was still sleeping and he still had my arm wrapped in his own. I took a moment to watch him sleep before gently removing my arm from his grip and after a few stretches to get the kinks out, I headed to the bathroom.

I glanced at my watch and saw that it was only 6 AM, but decided that I was up for the day. I took a few moments to wash myself down in the sink and to shave and brush my teeth before heading downstairs to the hospital cafeteria for a cup of coffee and a muffin. I grabbed a newspaper while I was at it and then returned to Josh's room.

Josh was still sleeping when I returned, so I sat down near the window and read the newspaper by the sunlight that was filtering into the room. The headline caught my attention right away. It read:

"Canadian Soldier Dies in Mine Blast."

The secondary headline read:

"Soldier was member of local regiment."

I felt a palpable sense of dread as a read the article and that sense of dread quickly turned to grief when I read this:

"Local soldier Warrant Officer Robert Phillips, Age 31, died last night in Kosovo when his armoured vehicle struck an anti-tank mine. Warrant Officer Phillips was a reservist and a member of Toronto's storied Queens York Rangers regiment had only been posted to the Kosovo region three weeks."

Rob Phillips had been my sergeant. He'd been the man who had helped me when I was injured. We'd only just spoken to him back on Labour Day and now he was gone. Suddenly the turmoil of my thoughts hit my stomach. I dropped the paper and ran to the bathroom. I barely made it before I threw up the muffin that I'd eaten along with the coffee. Nothing stayed down. I was leaning on the toilet with the dry heaves when I felt a hand come to rest on my shoulder.

"Dad?" Josh said worriedly. "Are you ok?"

I turned and wrapped my arms around him tightly and began to sob on his shoulder.

"What's wrong Dad?" Josh asked softly as he nuzzled my cheek and gently rubbed my back.

I couldn't answer him right away. It took me a minute to compose myself. Josh held me and continued to try to comfort me the whole time. Finally, I was able to tell him what happened and show him the newspaper.

"I'm sorry Dad," Josh said. He was a little teary-eyed himself. He once again wrapped his arms around me and held me tightly.

"I hadn't seen or talked to him in over a year, but knowing that he's gone really hurts," I said.

"I know Dad, but everything's going to be fine.... I'm here for you," Josh replied and kissed my cheek.

I hugged him harder for a second. "I know son. Thank you."

We both composed ourselves - brushed our teeth, the second time for me - by the time the nurse arrived to check on Josh and to deliver his breakfast. Until he was cleared by the doctor, all he could eat was custard and some apple sauce.

Josh ate his breakfast in about two minutes flat and then went to use the bathroom. By the time he returned, doctor Wilson was waiting for him.

"So how are feeling this morning Josh?" He asked jovially.

"I feel fine. My side is a little sore where the staples are," he replied.

"That should start to feel better in a few days. I'll give you a prescription for some Tylenol 2's that will help with any tenderness. Is the mail moving ok this morning?" he asked.

"The mail?" Josh replied puzzled.

"You know.... number two?" Doctor Wilson asked with a chuckle.

"Oh that! Josh laughed. Yeah, I just took a.... I mean I just went number two and everything was fine, but I couldn't push too hard." He replied sheepishly.

"Well that's good," Doctor Wilson replied. "Hop up on the bed and let me have a quick look at you."

Josh climbed back onto his bed while Doctor Wilson did his examination.

"Well Josh, you seem to be as fit as a fiddle. How would you like to go home?"

"I'd love to!" Josh replied smiling.

"Good. I'll sign your discharge papers and you'll be on your way. Now I want you to stay off school for the rest of the week and see your own doctor next Wednesday or so to get those staples removed. You can eat whatever you want, but for the next week or so, I'd suggest avoiding stuff like corn that is hard to digest."

"My Mom said we could go to the Mandarin tonight if you said it was ok," Josh said hopefully.

"I think that'll be just fine. The procedure was textbook simple and you're in terrific shape."

"I better call ahead and get them to make extra food," I said and managed a chuckle.

"Just wait until my staples are out and then I'll get you," Josh laughed.

Doctor Wilson left to finish his rounds and to take care of getting Josh discharged from the hospital while Josh called his mom on his cell phone to tell her the good news. There was no answer at home so he tried her cell phone.

"That's wonderful news honey," Susan said. I'm almost at the hospital and I have someone with me who really wants to see you."

"Who is it?" Josh asked.

Susan must have held her phone near Brutus because the next sound over the phone was the sound of Brutus' happy bark.

A few minutes later, the nurse arrived with Josh's prescription and told him he could get dressed and go home. Josh hurriedly got out of the hospital gown and put on his clothes. He had to move carefully to avoid pulling on the five or six tiny staples that held his incision closed.

By the time he was dressed. Susan had arrived.

"Can we go to the Mandarin now?" Josh asked

Susan chuckled. "I don't think they're open at 10 AM, honey. How about we go for lunch?"

"Sounds good to me," I said as animatedly as I could.

"We had some bad news this morning," Josh said. I noticed that he said "we" and not "Dad" and I loved him for it.

"Oooh, what happened?" Susan asked in a concerned tone.

Josh told her about the death of Warrant Officer Rob Phillips and what he had meant to me.

"I'm so sorry Tom," Susan said and then hugged me.

"Thanks," I said. "Josh was my rock when I found out."

"I'm sure he was. You two are good for each other."

"Where's Brutus?" Josh asked.

"He's in the car waiting for you. I didn't think they'd like the idea of me bringing a dog into the paediatrics ward!" Susan replied.

"Before we go, I have something to do," Josh said. He then went around the room and gathered his cards and letters and all the stuffed animals and balloons. All told, there were about two dozen stuffed animals of various types and sizes and a good number of helium balloons. He loaded both Susan and I down and then told us to follow him.

We left his hospital room and then headed down the corridor. Just before the door that would take us towards to main reception, we turned left into another corridor marked "Paediatric Oncology" It was the children's cancer ward.

Accompanied by the astonished but very happy duty nurse, Josh, Susan, and I visited each and every room and handed out each of the toys that Josh had received. It was so sad to see so many children who were that sick, but it was heart warming to watch their faces light up when Josh handed them a stuffed animal and took a moment to talk to them. He offered encouragement and tried to make them laugh. He even shared stories about Shelly's miraculous recovery. He tried to give each of those children a little bit of the hope that he had given Shelly.

Although it was obvious that he was tired and hungry and that his incision was still pretty sore, Josh stood tall through it all and did his very best to brighten the day of every child on that ward. In more than a few of the rooms, the children's parents were there and they recognized Josh from his various media appearances of late. Sadly, some of those children would eventually lose their battle with cancer, but others would prevail. All of them would remember that visit and that simple gift for the rest of their lives.

With all the stuffed animals and balloons given out, we headed out of the hospital. Josh was quite obviously relieved to be going home and both Susan and I were once again left to marvel at the maturity and generosity of that special boy that we both loved so much.

When Josh arrived at Susan's car, Brutus was barking his head off and wagging his tail at maximum speed. He was comically jumping around the inside of the car going from the front seats to the back seats and back again over and over again. As soon as Josh opened his door, Brutus was on him, madly licking his face and letting out happy yelps and barks. I couldn't honestly remember ever seeing him that happy before.

I followed Susan, Josh, and Brutus home in my Jeep. They stopped at the local drug store to fill Josh's prescription while I took a detour to the local MacDonald's and picked up two of Josh's favourite breakfast sandwiches along with a large orange juice and a couple of large coffees for Susan and me.

We all arrived home at pretty much the same time and I had to laugh when I saw Josh's eyes light up at the sight of the MacDonald's bag. Susan and I watched in amazement as he devoured both McMufffins in record time!

We spent a quite morning mostly watching television. We called Bryan and Mark to let them know that everything was ok and that Josh was home and to tell them about Rob Phillips.

"God Damn it," Bryan said over the phone. "I just read about that in the paper and I thought the name sounded familiar."

"I couldn't believe it either. It hit me like a ton of bricks," I replied.

"I wish I'd been there for you," Bryan said.

"It's ok Bry. Josh had it covered."

"I have no doubt of that." He laughed.

I told Bryan about what Josh had done with all the stuffed animals and things and although he wasn't surprised in the least, he was impressed.

"What an incredibly sweet thing to do," he replied.

We spoke for a few more minutes before turning the phones over to Josh and Mark.

After eating the MacDonald's breakfast, Josh actually only felt like eating a small lunch. By lunchtime, my stomach had returned to normal and I enjoyed our light lunch. We ended up relaxing for the rest of the day and heading to the Mandarin for dinner.

During the afternoon, I made some phone calls to find out when Rob Phillips would be returning to Canada.

I found out that he'd be arriving back the next day at around 10 AM through the usual route. Whenever a Canadian soldier falls in the line of duty overseas, his/her body is flown back to Canadian Forces Base Trenton and then driven along Highway 401 with the family and under police escort to the Coroner's office in downtown Toronto, a distance of about 100 miles.

For that reason, it had been proposed that, that stretch of the 401 Highway be named "The Highway of Heroes". An online petition had been started and within two days had more than 500,000 signatures on it. It was presented to the provincial government and they responded.

A tradition had begun following repatriation ceremonies for fallen troops. It began with firefighters who would park their trucks on top of all the overpass bridges between Trenton and Toronto and they would stand on their trucks and salute the motorcade as it went past. They were soon joined by ambulance crews and paramedics and police officers who would stop their cars along the highways and on the bridges and stand and salute the fallen soldiers.

Before long, ordinary citizens began to appear on the bridges and soon every single highway bridge along the route would be crowded with people paying their respects. It happened each and every time one of our finest fell in the line of duty overseas. Josh and I decided that we'd join the crowds on the bridges the next day when Rob Phillips made his final journey home.

Again, Josh managed to out-eat all the patrons at the Mandarin. I think the staples from the operation incision were stretched to the limit that night.

The next morning, Josh and I dressed in our full dress uniforms. We both wore our medals and we both looked immaculate as we headed out the door. We drove east on the 401 until we came to Whites Road. The overpass already had a bunch of people standing on it including a fire truck and a couple of police cars. We parked the Jeep and walked back to the bridge and joined the crowd. Aside from the police officers and firemen, there were around forty people. Some wore military uniforms and some wore Royal Canadian Legion uniforms but most were just ordinary people. Some waved flags and some carried signs and banners.

I glanced at my watch and figured that we probably had about twenty minutes before the motorcade passed our bridge.

"How are you holding up Dad?" Josh asked

"I'm ok bud," I replied. "How are you doing?"

"Still kind of sore, but I'll manage. Remember, just like you're always there for me, I'm always here for you no matter what."

"I know bud. Thanks."

We stood mostly in silence as we watched and listened for the approaching motorcade. I had just leaned on the railing when I felt a tap on my shoulder.

"Sir?" an unfamiliar voice said from behind me.

I straightened myself up and turned around to see a middle age man with grey hair standing in front of me. Beside him was a boy who appeared to be a bit younger than Josh.

"Hi there," I said.

"My name is Denis," the man said and offered his hand. "I'm up here from Portland Oregon on business and I saw all this going on and I had to check it out. I was driving past with my grandson Jeremy."

I accepted the man's hand and smiled. I then explained what was happening and why. "I knew this man personally when I was in the army full time," I added when I was finished.

"I'm sorry to hear that," the man said. "War is a hell of a thing. This...." he paused for a moment. "This is amazing. I'm not Canadian, but I am moved by this," he said.

"Thank you," I replied solemnly.

"Is this just because he was a local boy or does it happen every time?"

"Every time," I replied. "They even named this highway 'The Highway of Heroes'"

Denis shook his head for a moment. "I'm sure it makes a difference for the families," he said finally.

"I hope so," I replied.

"My grandson lives up here with his parents. My son is his father. I notice that the young fellow with you is wearing a uniform too. How could get Jeremy involved with this?"

I took a few more moments to explain the cadet program to Denis and suggested that Jeremy speak to Josh to hear about it first hand.

A minute later, traffic suddenly dropped off and we could hear horns honking and the sound of approaching sirens. In the distance, I saw a line of police cars with lights flashing coming towards us on the highway. By now there were other police vehicles blocking the entrances to the highway as the motorcade approached. Cars and trucks in the eastbound lanes also slowed down out of respect and some drivers honked their horns.

Behind the line of police cars, we could see a hearse followed by two limousines and a number of marked and unmarked police cars. As the hearse approached everyone in uniform, Josh and I included, snapped to attention and saluted. Many of the civilians on the bridge began to clap their hands.

Just like that, it was over. As fast as it had started, the whole thing had come to an end while the last row of police vehicles passed below and traffic resumed its normal flow. The people assembled on the bridge began to depart.

"Thanks for taking the time to speak to us," Denis said to Josh and me.

"Not a problem at all, Sir. Thank you for stopping by," I replied.

Josh and I walked back to the Jeep without saying much until we were strapped in and driving home.

"You ok Dad?" Josh asked.

"I'm doing fine kiddo. You?"

"I'm a little sore, but ok. I'm more worried about you than anything."

"I'm really ok son. Being here helped a lot. You've helped a lot too. This really reminded me of my Dad's funeral."

"That must have been awful," Josh observed and then quietly added, "I can't imagine having to go to your funeral."

I reached over and pulled his head towards mine and kissed his temple. "I'm not going anywhere bud. I promise."

We spent the next few days in relative peace and quite. Susan and I doted on Josh constantly and he had a steady stream of friends and well wishers coming to visit. Not surprisingly, he also kept up his efforts for the Student's Council and continued his campaign for a National Student Exchange.

We took the time to attend Rob's funeral that Monday. He was buried with full military honours in the massive veterans section of Toronto's Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

On the drive home from the funeral, Josh said, "Dad, I thought that the tribute that everyone made for Mr. Phillips on the highway was amazing, but I didn't expect the funeral to be that large. You'd have thought he was the mayor or prime minister."

"Well Josh, he was almost in the prime of his life and he had a lot of friends who respected and admired him for the person he was," I replied. "Many folks nowadays think of a funeral as a celebration of life, whereby they get together and talk about all the happy times they had with the deceased. For most families, I'm sure that takes the edge off the sadness from the ordeal of putting their loved ones to his or her's final resting spot. In the case of a soldier or other public servant that loses his life in the field of battle or law enforcement, the celebration is more somber and respectful because the individual made the ultimate sacrifice.... a sacrifice that influences and saves the lives of so many other people.... people that will be given the opportunity to contribute to the welfare of society through whatever means available to them. People who make that ultimate sacrifice deserve the ultimate expression of respect."

"You're right Dad.... just like Terry Fox. Another hero Dad.... just like you," Josh commented. "Your Dad too, but we also have our silent hero.... he's always there."

"Our silent hero?" I questioned.

He smiled. "Yup.... Bryan."

I smiled at Josh. I knew he was right as a chill of passion ran through my mind and body. It was moments like this that I wished Bryan were here to share the happiness I had because of Josh.

The following week, I took Josh to see his regular doctor who removed the staples from his side and cleared him to return to school and to Air Cadets. His incision had healed nicely and he was feeling no ill effects from the experience aside from a bit of muscle soreness in his side. Other than avoiding heavy lifting for a few weeks, he could do pretty much whatever he wanted.

Once back at school, Josh went gung-ho to catch up with his studies and the activities of the student council. In addition to his thoughts about the National Student Exchange program that he was trying to set up, Halloween was fast approaching – and he was a part of that committee too. The principal decided they would allow the student council to organize a chaperoned dance on the Friday night before Halloween – Halloween wasn't going to be until the following Wednesday. Josh asked if I'd be a chaperone. Naturally, I agreed.

"I wish Shelly could be here for it," he said. "I guess I'll have to go stag."

"I take it that there will be a disc jockey?" Susan questioned.

"We think we have that covered Mom," Josh replied. "One of the girls at school said that her father has all the equipment and she'd find out if he would help out."

"And what will your job be?" I asked.

"I've been asked to be the master of ceremonies. My only problem is, I don't know what to wear as a costume."

"Tell you what bud," I said, "You've got so much on your plate right now, how about you let me look after that little detail?"

"Well OK Dad, I'll trust you...." he said with a giggle, "...just don't make it anything gory, ghoulish, or girlish. I don't want to get into all that make-up thing."

That night after Josh had gone to bed, I hit the internet and did a search for costume outlets in the Toronto area. Fortunately, I only had three classes the next day, so I was able to go scouting. I went to the biggest outlet first. BINGO! What a fantastic variety they had.

After I explained the role that Josh was going to play at the dance, the clerk showed me a costume I couldn't resist. Actually, it was more of a body suit than a simple costume. It included putting on a pair of orange sweat pants and an orange T-shirt with long sleeves. Then came the body of the 'costume'. It was about a three-foot diameter by about four foot long pumpkin made of a styrofoam core, and covered with a tear-resistant coating, an eighteen inch opening in the top with a wider open bottom. It was an easy chore for the clerk to slip it over my head when I bent down, sticking my hands through the arm openings, and then it rested on my shoulders. Topping this whole thing off was a smaller smiling pumpkin sculpted in a traditional fashion with missing teeth, a nose hole, triangular eye openings and eyebrows, which the clerk slipped over my head and rested on top of the bigger body pumpkin. I went to the mirror and had a look – remembering that Josh was maybe two inches shorter than me.

Then the clerk followed me over to the mirror and showed me the astounding part of the costume. Inside the pumpkin head was a circle of LED lights that were battery operated. When he turned them on from the switch at the side, my whole face showed up and the entire head glowed lightly. Although I didn't have the orange T-shirt and sweat pants on, I wondered as I looked in the mirror, if this would be a costume that the MC of a young teen dance should wear. It wasn't gory, ghoulish, or girly. When the clerk told me I could bring it back tomorrow if Josh didn't like it – it was a sale – maybe more than I wanted to pay, but for Josh, I sure didn't mind.

I had thought of getting myself the same costume, but when I thought of the two of us trying to rig each other up, I decided I'd better have something a bit simpler. I opted for an overly done pirate suit, complete with false eyebrows and goatee, a black eye patch, swashbuckler's hat, shirt, trousers, a hook for a hand, and sword. I declined on the peg leg attachment. I figured I had enough problems in that department.

I got home early that day, thank goodness, and put both costumes in my bedroom and closed the door. After supper, I went downstairs and pulled out the sweat pants and T-shirt, then called up the stairs for Josh.

"Yeah Dad," he said as both he and Brutus came into my living area. I decided it was time to do something I'd never done before.

"Josh!" I said sternly. "Go into my bathroom right now and take your clothes off!"

"Huh!?" No doubt about it, he was perplexed.

"You heard me! Do it! AND I want you to put these on!" I demanded as I handed him the T-shirt and sweat pants. Brutus looked up at me with his head slung low. He let out a low throaty, growling whine. Oh, oh, I hadn't counted on that.

"Dad," he almost whispered, "Have you been drinking?"

I couldn't do it. I smiled and started laughing as I grabbed him into a hug. "No, no, no Josh. Darn it all, I just can't get mad at you no matter how I try. Just go in there and change and I'll show you the rest of the costume."

Josh smiled, and then looked at Brutus. "Watch him Brutus, he's gone goofy on us." With my change of attitude, Brutus was now his old familiar happy self with a wagging tail as Josh headed for the bathroom. I went into the bedroom, brought out the body of the costume, and set it on the floor in the living area. Brutus took a step back when he saw the size of the pumpkin body, then approached it cautiously before giving it a good sniff. Fortunately, he didn't lift his leg to it.

When Josh came out of the bathroom all dressed in orange, I'll have to admit he did look ridiculous – and completely disgusted.

"This is STUPID!" he exclaimed. Then he looked at the big pumpkin on the floor and said, "What the..." I had a hard time to keep from laughing at how silly he looked just standing there.

"OK son," I said giggling as I picked up the pumpkin body, "bend over...." Then I did start to laugh. "P... put... your arms up above your head."

Fortunately, laughter is contagious and considering the privacy of the basement apartment, Josh started laughing without embarrassment too, although I'm sure he understood the innuendo of my request. With bouts of giggles and laughter, I showed him the arm holes and at last he did bend over so I could slip the body over his head. When he stood up, I took a step back and realized that with the orange arms and legs, it was a pretty good outfit. However, without the head, it still looked rather unfinished.

"How does it feel?" I asked. "Is it comfortable enough? Not too heavy?"

"Well, it's OK dad, but..." he started laughing, "I feel pregnant!"

"OK son, I know what you mean. Come on over to the mirror on the bedroom door and have a look." I went into the bedroom and picked up the head. Brutus was full of wonder as he watched the commotion going on and especially the change in Josh's appearance.

Josh looked in the mirror and just said, "Ohh Shit! Dad! It still looks stupid!"

"Well Josh, you haven't got the head on yet.... just keep looking in the mirror." I reached up and lowered the pumpkin head over his head, hoping I had it in the right direction for him to see.

He adjusted it slightly and then took a step back, tilted the head a little this way and that, and finally said, "Yeah! That looks good for a master of ceremonies at a Halloween party."

I said, "Keep looking," as I turned on the LED lights in the head gear.

"WHOA!" he shouted. "That's impressive! Mom's gotta see this!"

I went over to the stair and called. "Susan can you come down. Josh wants to show you something!"

Once she was at the bottom of the stair, I turned the lights out before she had a chance to look up. The sight of Josh's get-up was very eerie as he came out of the bedroom. To add to the imagery, as soon as Brutus saw the spectacle, he howled like I'd never heard before. It looked like Josh's bright pumpkin head was floating in mid air, and supported on a pale glow of his shoulders. In the dark, as he moved from side to side, it really was spooky.

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to our little Halloween get-together." Josh croaked out in a cackling voice.

"OH MY GOD!" Susan exclaimed. "That's a fantastic illusion!"

I turned on the lights so she could see the whole costume. "WOW! Josh, that's a great get-up. You should get a prize for that at the dance."

"Ahh no Mom, I'll make sure I'm disqualified from entering any of the contests. That belongs to the kids who buy tickets to the dance. Hey Dad," Josh asked, "What's your costume like?"

"Oh it's nothing special Josh.... I was thinking of getting another pumpkin like yours, but with all the work it takes to get into it, I thought just one of us should have one. I'm going as a pirate. With your pumpkin, we won't be able to put it on until after we get to the school. You sure won't be able to sit in the Jeep with it on."

I grabbed the camera and took a few pictures of Josh before we disrobed him of his pumpkin pieces. Then Susan got the giggles as she looked at Josh in just his orange sweat pants and orange T-shirt.

On the night of the dance, I got dressed in my full pirate regalia. Susan insisted that it was great costume and almost made me unrecognizable. Naturally, she had to get a few pictures of that. With Josh dressed in his orange sweat pants and T-shirt, we loaded the rest of his costume, my video camera and my digital into the Jeep. Apparently, I'd been elected to take all the pictures for the evening. Once we left the washroom at school with Josh fully attired, we headed for the gymnasium. Right on the dot of six, Josh climbed onto the stage and stood before the microphone.

"GOOD EVENING.... gremlins, goblins, princesses, princes, Robin Hoods, pirates of all kinds, ghouls, Draculas, farmers, presidents, and all you other folks. Thanks for coming to our little soirée for this night of fun. I'm Josh Chambers, your MC for the festivities and as you can see, something strange happened when I went by the pumpkin patch on my way here."

At that very moment, he turned the light switch on to illuminate his head and everyone applauded.

"I'd like to thank our principal, the teachers, and the parents who have all participated to make this event happen. We have a lot of games and dancing lined up for your pleasure this evening, but first a special thanks to our disc jockey, Mr. Jeferton for providing the music for tonight." When another round of applause subsided, Josh announced, "OK! LET'S DANCE!"

Once the music began, although maybe not the style I favoured, it was great for the young teenagers. There was no shyness displayed in the whole crowd, just a lot of kids laughing, dancing, and having fun.

I began to pan the gymnasium with my camera, taking it all in, occasionally focussing on some couple or another. For sure there wasn't a surplus of boys in the gym, so there were a few girls that danced together. One couple of girls stood out from all the others – one dressed as a great looking Cher with the long black hair, sallow cheeks and just the right amount of make up for realism – and her partner was an exquisite, truly exquisite, girl dressed up as the angel princess from the Wizard of Oz.

Once I had made it all the way around the gymnasium, the fourth song was about to end.

I climbed onto the stage and started taking additional shots of all the kids and chaperones. It truly was a spectacular sight. I lowered the camera and went over to speak to Josh.

"How are you holding up son?" I asked. "You want me to get you something to drink?"

"Doing fine Dad.... it's a success. Yeah, a glass of punch would be great, but I'll have to drink it in the wings with my head off while the music's going. Excuse me, it's time to announce the games."

And so it was, the evening progressed with a few simple games, more music, more dancing, and the smashing four large pumpkin-shaped piñatas in each corner of the gym, then more music and more dancing. I thoroughly enjoyed watching and taping all these people having fun. The principal had approached me while I was making the rounds and asked if I would be a judge in picking out the best costumes. I already had my favourites in mind, so I had to say yes.

It was about 8:30 when Josh announced, "I'd like the pirate gentleman with the camera to join me on stage."

Right away I headed from the refreshment table and went up on the stage with another drink for Josh. "Shiver me timbers Mr. Pumpkin," I shouted so everyone could hear, "Whaat kin ah be doin' faar ya!"

Josh nodded to Mr. Jeferton to start the next set of songs before he covered the microphone with his hand. I suppose timing and a bit of misjudgement counts for something in an instance like this. The music hadn't started, and Josh allowed his hand to slip from the microphone pick-up.

Clear as a bell, his voice proclaimed for all to hear, "Dad I gotta go pee!"

Naturally there was uproarious laughter and applause as the music began while Josh and I rushed from the stage, down the corridor to the boys washroom. Suddenly I realized that the two inches difference in our height made a big difference when we had this costume on. Once I had him disrobed of his pumpkin helmet and body, he rushed into one of the stalls.

All I heard was, "WHEW! I made it!"

I was really enjoying a good giggle while he emptied his bladder. When he came out, I apologized.

"I'm sorry Josh, that had to have been very embarrassing for you." I said still grinning as I helped him on with his costume again.

Josh laughed, "It's OK dad, I've got it covered."

By the time we got back to the gym, the principal corralled me over with the chaperones for our judging of the costumes. Our decisions were easy and without any complication – actually quite unanimous.

When Josh went up to the stage again, there was more whistles and applause. Josh announced, "Hey there's no sneaking around when you have a costume like this one, so I thought it would be a good idea to tell everyone. Who would have thought that a pumpkin would have a problem with a thing as natural as that?" With more giggles and applause, Josh then announced, "It's now time for the judging committee to announce their decisions for best costumes."

As the principal went to the stage, I was taping Josh. I was awed in spite of the pumpkin costume; of the maturity he used to excuse his sudden departure from the stage. He handed the microphone to the principal, then stepped back.

"The judges decided to break up the costumes into the following categories," the principal began, "the scariest costume, best female costume, best male costume, and then the best overall costume. I have the privilege to announce the scariest costume.... it goes to," he paused as he stared over the crowd, "to that ghoulish young man with the hunchback over in the far corner. Come on up here son, tell us your name, and accept your prize."

Actually his costume and make-up was scary. He scared a number of people unintentionally when they would just catch him out of the corner their eye.

With his acceptance speech over, the next category was announced for the best female costume. We judges all had agreed that the princess costume (my choice from the beginning) was the overall best, but we couldn't give her two prizes, so we went to the second best – the girl dressed as Cher. Surprising, when she accepted her prize, her voice didn't come close to that of Cher's, but it was the costume we judged.

The best male costume went to a boy who was dressed up as Robin, the Wonder Boy. He looked every bit as good as Burt Ward in the costume. When asked, he said he'd helped his mom with the sewing and put the suit together.

When the princess was announced as the best overall costume, there was spontaneous applause and cheers from everyone. With all the grace of a princess, she made her way daintily up the stairs to the stage, then went over to 'Cher' and held her hand as they went over to the principal and the microphone. After the principal handed her the first place prize, she took the microphone to give her thanks, still holding hands with 'Cher'.

"I can't thank all of you enough...." Right away the whole audience gasped, including me! It was the deep voice of a boy! "I can't believe that no one here recognized me," he continued as he gingerly pulled off his wig, "after all I am Billy Parenny, the soccer team captain, and especially when I spent the whole evening dancing with Melanie. We both worked hard on these costumes and it was nice that our efforts were appreciated. Now to steal an embarrassing line from Josh Chambers here, I have to say, I GOTTA PEE and I'm going to use the boy's washroom!"

The crowd roared with laughter and applauded for the most extraordinary performance of the evening. For the most part, everyone, still scratching their heads and laughing at Billy's performance, started cleaning up tables and stacking chairs so the janitors wouldn't have too much to do over the weekend. About twenty minutes later, Billy came back into the gym in his regular clothes, devoid of all make-up, still holding hands with Melanie still dressed as Cher. Again, we all stopped what we were doing and started applauding again. Together the couple took another bow in the middle of the gym before digging in to help with the clean up. For sure, he was the hit of the evening. For many of us, we were sending comments to each other about the movie 'Tootsie' with Dustin Hoffman.

The actual Halloween night the following week was anticlimactic. Of course Josh and I got into our costumes again and handed out candy to the trick-or-treaters, much to the pleasure of everyone who came to the door. Never had I experienced a Halloween like this one.

By the time November arrived, Josh was getting some real traction on his efforts towards getting a National Student Exchange up and running. For about a week, he'd arrive home a little later than normal because of the meetings he'd been having with the student council, teachers, and the principal. At dinner each night, he was very excited as he told Susan and me the progress he'd made that day. Susan and I didn't really believe that Josh's National Student Exchange was going to reach fruition for some time to come – maybe in the spring if he really stuck with it and didn't get discouraged, which was why we continued to encourage him with all the enthusiasm we could muster.

However, at the end of the first week of November, we were wowed when Josh received a letter asking him to appear before the Ontario Legislature's Education Committee in order to promote his idea before the provincial parliament.

Susan and I accompanied Josh to Queen's Park on the appointed day and we sat in the public gallery and watched him. Josh was dressed to the nines in his suit and was wearing the same navy blue tie that I'd given him more than a year earlier. We had taken his suit back to Moore's in order to get it altered to accommodate his growing stature and it fit him like a glove.

After he was introduced by the committee chairman, who was also our local provincial Member of Parliament, he requested that Josh make his opening statement.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to you today about something that I am very passionate about. This summer, I travelled the entire country with my Dad and I got to meet hundreds of people from every single province and territory in Canada. I witnessed first hand the things that make every part of this country unique. That experience gave me a healthy respect for the things that make each of us different, but also the things that make us the same.

"As we were driving those thousands of kilometres, I came up with my idea for a national student exchange. We already have International exchange students to give young people the opportunity to meet people from other countries and other cultures, but we don't have a similar program to allow young Canadians to meet other young Canadians from other parts of the country and to learn about the different cultures and ways of life in the various provinces and territories.

"Make no mistake, each province and each territory is different from every other province and territory. Each has its own unique values, sometimes its own language, and most definitely its own outlook on life and on the world. Most of our provinces are larger than the majority of the countries of the world and yet we are together as one country.

"I'd like to see a national student exchange that will cross all provinces and all territories in order to bring young Canadians together to learn about each other, to learn to respect each other and to build a stronger country for the future. People like to talk about national unity, but don't do much about it. This exchange program is a way to do something concrete to create a more united country."

Susan and I looked at each other as the gallery and the committee itself broke with protocol and applauded Josh's words.

"He truly is 13 going on 30," Susan whispered.

"I know. I can't believe he's the same boy that I first met back in camp."

The committee members, including both government and opposition members, were very interested in Josh's concept and each one of them complimented him on this thoughtfulness, his maturity and his dedication to his country and his fellow students.

"Josh, I want to thank you on behalf of the whole committee for that articulate, well thought out, and passionate speech. It's clear that you're a very mature and intelligent young man who has a lot to offer. You've experienced more of this country of ours than, I'd bet, anyone on this committee and you are to be congratulated," the committee chairman said.

"Thank you Mr. Chairman," Josh replied.

"I'd like to open the floor to questions now," the chairman continued. "We'll start with Mr. Edmund, the member from Hamilton-Mountain."

"Josh I'd also like to take a second to compliment you on your appearance here today. It's not often that we get to actually hear from a young person such as yourself and when we do have that chance, it's refreshing to get to meet someone as intelligent and well spoken as you. We've heard many well educated adults make far less impressive presentations than you have today. My question is related to the selection of students who would be involved. How would you see that happening?"

"Well sir, I'd like to see at least one boy and one girl from each school become involved. I'd really like to see each paired with another student from a different province. For half of the school year, the out of province student would stay with the family of their in-province partner and go to school with them attending their classes. For the second half of the year, they'd switch. That way each student would get a personal experience in their partner's province and get to experience their home life and to become friends with that person."

"That's a reasonable plan and I think given the number of students that would be involved each year, it would go a long way towards meeting the stated goals of the program," Mr. Edmund replied.

At the end of their meeting, they voted unanimously to take up the cause and begin discussions with their counterparts in other provinces and in the federal government in order to get the ball rolling.

Josh was absolutely ecstatic. I was so proud of Josh. Susan didn't stop smiling for the rest of the day. His presentation was unbelievable for a thirteen-year-old. It wasn't a done deal yet, but he had managed to get his idea in front of people who could make it happen and he had impressed them so much that in a rare show of political unity, they all agreed that it was a fantastic idea that should be pursued.

From that day on, Josh's plan began to take on a life of its own. The Ontario government voted to extend funding for the program and they began talks with the other provinces and territories.

I found the whole scenario exhilarating. I was able to join Susan and Josh in their enthusiasm. All together, it helped to make Remembrance Day less somber that it had in other years – especially with the recent death of Rob Phillips.

Over the coming weeks, high-level discussions took place between provincial and territorial governments as well as the federal government and various school boards. It all culminated during the annual First Minister's Meeting (a meeting of all provincial and territorial premiers along with the prime minister) in Toronto during which an agreement in principle was signed that committed each provincial government and the federal government to develop and introduce a National Student Exchange program beginning no later than the 2001-2002 school year.

As the driving force behind the program, Josh was invited to the meeting to witness first hand the signing of the agreement and none of us could be any more proud of him than Susan and I were that day as we watched him share the stage with the leaders of the nation.

The speed with which Josh's idea became a reality wasn't the last surprise that was in store for us as Christmas approached.

Mark's birthday was on the 20th of December and he and Bryan were going to be flying into Toronto on that day to spend a whole two weeks with us. The whole family would be together for Christmas and we were all on cloud nine counting down the days.

Just a few days before Mark and Bryan's arrival, I returned home from school and as usual, I was met by a very excited Brutus and an equally happy Josh.

"Hey Dad!" Josh said happily as he pulled me into my customary home from school hug. "How was class?" He asked.

"The usual," I replied with a grin.

"Something came in the mail today. I haven't opened it yet though. I wanted to wait until you and Mom got home." Josh said.

"Oh yeah? Who's it from?" I asked.

"It's in a real fancy envelope and it's from the Governor General's office."

"Really?" I replied. "That sounds like something important. I'll bet your dying to read it."

"I am, but I wanted to share it with you and Mom. Mom's already home. She's making dinner. Let's go see her so I can open it," Josh said and pulled me by my arm towards the kitchen.

"Hi Tom," Susan said pleasantly as I entered the kitchen.

"Hi Susan, sounds like we're in for a bit of excitement," I chuckled.

"That's not unusual around here," she chuckled.

"Go ahead kiddo," I said. "Open it."

"Ok," Josh said as he grabbed a knife from the drawer and carefully slit open the envelope. He removed the letter and began to read. I watched his expression carefully. It very quickly changed from curiosity to astonishment and then happiness. Josh pulled out a chair and sat down hard still staring at the letter.

"What does it say honey?" Susan asked.

Josh cleared his throat and then answered, "It says...." he paused. "It says.... Her Excellency the Governor General of Canada acting on behalf of Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada is pleased to inform that you, Joshua Michael Chambers, has been appointed as a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of your extraordinary efforts towards bettering Canada for young people and for all Canadians. You are invited to appear at Rideau Hall on April the 25th 2001 in order to receive your insignia and to join the Her Excellency the Governor General along with others being appointed on the same day for a formal dinner."

"Oh my God!" Susan exclaimed.

I stood there absolutely speechless for a moment. "Joshy," I said, "Do you know what that means? That's the highest civilian honour that they can give you. It's like a knighthood in England."

"Honey, I am so proud of you!" Susan said.

"I am too kiddo," I added.

"I can't believe this," Josh said finally. "This is amazing! We've got to call Mark and Bryan and Shelly! It says here that I can bring a guest to the formal dinner. Do you think Shelly would want to go?"

"I don't doubt that she would love to go, kiddo. I've got to check, but I think that makes you the youngest person ever appointed to the Order," I said.

Inside the envelope was another piece of paper, this one was a photocopy and it had a post-it note stuck to it. The clerk at Rideau Hall who sent it, had written a note on it.

"Dear Mr. Chambers, usually nominees to the order never find out who nominated them, but I thought you would like to see this."

The photocopied piece of paper was a letter requesting that Josh be considered for the order and there were fourteen signatures on it. Each of the ten provincial premiers, three territorial premiers, and the prime minister had signed the letter putting Josh's name forward.

Josh raced off to phone his other loved ones while I made the calls to my mother and brothers. There was no doubt that the visitor's gallery in Rideau Hall would once again be filled with the members of our large, complex, and loving family.

That Tuesday before Mark and Bryan arrived, we had our final Air Cadet training night for the year. With all the kids' minds focused on the Christmas holidays, we decided to go with a very light training schedule. I was teaching the new recruits a course in basic aeronautics and I did my best to keep it as light and interesting as I could. I managed to cover the material pretty quickly and I decided to use the last fifteen minutes of the class as a "get to know me" question and answer session.

"That about covers the basics of aeronautics," I said at the end. "This might seem a bit boring now, but believe me, if you want to earn your wings and become a pilot, you need to know this stuff. What I'd like to do now is something a bit unusual. I'm the newest officer here and I'd like to give you a chance to get to know me better. If there's anything that you'd like to know about my background or my qualifications, I'd be happy to answer."

I answered a few easy questions about my flight training and about my military experience before the expected question popped up. A cadet who was a nice enough kid, but who qualified as sort of the class clown asked me about the ribbon on my uniform.

"That ribbon represents the star of courage. Cadet Chambers also has one. It's a bravery medal awarded by the Governor General," I took a few minutes to tell the class about the circumstances under which Josh, Mark, and I were awarded the medals. When I finished explaining, there was silence for a moment before the same boy responded with a new question.

"What's it like actually shooting someone?" he asked.

At that moment, Josh turned in his seat and glared at the boy. If looks could kill, Cadet Brown would have been taken out in a pine box.

The boy, realizing that he had stepped on a land mine stammered out an apology with a somewhat worried look on his face. "Sir.... sir, I'm sorry, but.... well, it's something that I think I need to know..... 'cause...."

"Don't worry about it Cadet Brown," I interrupted. "It's a valid question and I will answer it."

Josh looked at me questioningly and I could detect a bit of worry on his face that perhaps this would upset me all over again.

"It's a terrible thing," I began. "It's a God-awful thing that takes a lot out of you and it takes a long time to get over it. It's not like a war where it's impersonal. I was face to face with that man when I pulled the trigger and it hurt like hell to do it. Did I do the right thing? You bet I did. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat, but it was a terrible experience. If it hadn't been for the support of my family and loved ones, I don't know how I'd have dealt with it."

"Thanks for answering me," Cadet Brown responded softly. "My Dad's a policeman and he had to shoot someone once too, but he'd never talk about it. He started drinking a lot after that too."

"Cadet Brown, I'd be happy to talk about this with you privately if you prefer." I wrote down my phone number and cell phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to him. "Anytime you want to talk, just call me."

"Thank you sir," he replied.

On the way home, Josh mentioned the incident. "That was a nice thing that you did for Cadet Brown," Josh observed. "I was really mad at first when he asked you about the shooting."

"Yes Josh, I saw the look that you gave him. It looked like you were about to shoot lasers out of your eyes!" We both had a good laugh about that. "But you know Josh," I added, "We have to reach beyond the hurt and well.... I figured that a lot of people helped me out, so the least I can do is try to help out someone else too."

"I'm glad you didn't tell him it was my uncle." Josh said quietly.

"That wouldn't be up to me to say that Josh and I don't think it's something you would've said either," I explained. "I know that if you had told him that in front of everyone there, it would be in anger, and that wouldn't do you or him any good."

"Dad, I'm glad you're always right. I would've gotten angrier and maybe we'd have never known about his problem. Do you think there's anything you can do for him?"

"Yes I can Josh, if he's willing and well.... it might depend on the circumstances with the rest of his family." Actually, I was thinking out loud. "We don't know how his mom might be dealing with the problem. We don't know if he has any brothers or sisters and how they're being affected by the situation."

"Are you thinking about Alcoholics Anonymous and Ala-non?" Josh asked.

"Yes that's one way. By the way, there's Ala-Teen as well, which might help if Cadet Brown is the only one affected in the family. More important than anything though, is for him to have a friend and a buddy he can talk to.... someone that understands what he's going through."

"I could do that." Josh said with a grin. I just grinned back. After a moment of thought, Josh exclaimed, "Daaaad! Did you just set me up?" I didn't reply, but just glanced over at him once in a while, still grinning. I knew if anyone could, Josh would be the one to gain the confidence of Cadet Brown because of his background with his father, his uncle, and Mr. Callahan. Every so often, Josh would catch me grinning at him and with a grin of his own, would just shake his head. By the time we got parked in the driveway our grinning had turned to giggles and then into uproarious laughter. Cadet Brown would be in good hands and between the two us, I felt he might become a happy cadet.

The last couple of days before the arrival of Mark and Bryan seemed to drag on and on. I'd finished my classes until the new year and Josh's school shut down the day that the rest of our family was to arrive.

We headed excitedly to the airport to meet them and as often is the case with easterly flights, the plane had arrived early due to a good tail wind.

"Tom! Josh!" I heard as soon as we entered the terminal. In virtually an instant, Mark was on me and I was wrapped in a very loving and very familiar hug. Josh joined in and so did Bryan when he managed to catch up to his highly athletic and energetic brother.

It was those airport moments that we all enjoyed immensely. We took a few minutes to savour our four-way hug before we headed out to the Jeep and headed home.

"I can't believe that Christmas vacation is finally here," Mark said from the back seat.

"I've been counting the days," I said as I smiled and reached over to grasp Bryan's hand.

We approached the turnoff to our street, but I kept on driving past it. "Did you just miss our turn?" Mark asked.

Josh snickered while Bryan and I glanced at each other. "What makes you think that?" Bryan asked.

"That was the street that Tom and Josh live on wasn't it?"

"Imagine that. I must be getting soft in the head in my old age," I said as I exited the highway and pulled onto Dundas Street and headed west towards another of our usual destinations.

It only took Mark a second to realize that we were heading to the Mandarin. "I think I know where we're going," he said.

"We figured you'd be hungry after that long flight from Calgary," I replied.

"I'm famished," Bryan said.

"I'm hungry too," Josh added with a knowing grin. "I could eat at the Mandarin every day."

We pulled into the parking lot and Mark still wasn't suspecting a thing. He was used to people not paying attention to his birthday and that was something that we all wanted to change right away. This was to be Mark's first birthday away from the clutches of his vile father and we wanted it to be very special.

We entered the restaurant and Bryan had a quick chat with the hostess who smiled and led us to a back room. She opened the door for us and a wall of noise hit us.

"Uncle Tommy and Uncle Bryan are here!" Matthew shouted.

"Josh and Mark too!" Richard added.

Along with the twins, Anne, James, my mother, Susan, Andy, and Darren were all seated around a big table wearing party hats, blowing noisemakers and clapping for Mark. There was a huge banner on the wall that read:

"Happy 14th Birthday Mark!

From all of us who love you"

We had all signed it.

Mark was speechless for a second as Josh put his arm around his shoulder and cheered him on. I reached down and squeezed his other shoulder and whispered, "See how much we all love you, Marky?"

He looked at me and smiled like I had never seen him smile before. His eyes were moist as he entered the room and hugged everyone thanking them profusely.

Bryan and I looked at each other and exchanged a wink. Everyone knew what was going on except for Mark. We had to make this birthday special for him because most of his previous birthdays had been so lousy. As we watched him interact with our extended family, it was obvious that he'd finally turned the page on his former life and finally accepted that not only did we love him intensely, but that he was completely worthy of all that love.

We ate a huge buffet dinner and, as always, spent our time as a big happy family kidding with and gently ribbing each other. It was almost non-stop laughter during the whole three hours that we were there. After everyone finished eating, the waiter brought a large black forest cake with fifteen candles on it and Mark blew out every one on the first try. The cake was absolutely delicious and there was very little to take home by the time we were done.

With the food out of the way, it was time for presents. Mark received quite an impressive haul of gifts that easily rivalled anything that he had ever received before in his young life. The twins gave him a new aluminium baseball bat, Anne and James gave him some games for his computer. Andy bought him some DVDs of baseball movies including a documentary on the Blue Jays 1992 and 1993 World Series wins. My mom bought him a really nice jacket. Susan gave him some new Khaki pants and a couple of shirts. Darren bought him a subscription to Sports Illustrated Magazine.

From Josh he received some new fishing gear and from Bryan he received a new flight bag that he would use to carry his charts and other flight gear when he went flying.

He opened my gift last. I gave him a pilot emergency kit. It's a compact kit that you take with you when you fly – especially in remote areas that gives you critical survival equipment and supplies that will help you to survive a crash.

When the party broke up and we all headed home, he looked like the happiest boy in the world. Seeing him that way warmed all of our hearts.

"Thanks Tom," He said later that evening as I was tucking him and Josh in. "That was the best birthday I ever had. I love you."

"I love you to kiddo," I replied and hugged him fiercely.

"Goodnight Dad," Josh said. "You did really good today," he said as he hugged me and then kissed my temple.

"Love you son," I replied and kissed his forehead.

Bryan repeated pretty much the same actions as I had and then, after pausing to pet Brutus who was sleeping next to Josh's bed, we both retreated to my apartment for the night.

I've said it before – love makes the heart grow fonder – even more so when you get to sleep with your soul mate! You betcha!


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