Substitute Dad

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

Chapter 44

Christmas: A Family Together!

I woke up the next morning at six. I untangled myself from the still soundly sleeping Bryan, took a shower, dressed for the day, and headed upstairs. Outside was a brilliantly white winter wonderland. The night before, while we all slept, Jack Frost had paid us a visit and everything was covered in a nice fluffy blanket of snow.

I found Brutus sitting by the back door staring intently out at the newly whitened world. He heard me approaching and his tail began to thump the carpet.

"Hey Brutus, want to go outside?"

That earned me a head tilt and some frenzied tail wagging. We always let him out to do his business first thing in the morning. This morning was going to be special because Brutus had never seen snow before. I went back down to the apartment and grabbed my video camera as well as a handful of cheese cubes for Brutus and headed back upstairs.

I tossed the cheese to Brutus and then let him outside. I powered up the video camera to film the fun. At first he didn't know what to make of it. He pawed at it and stuck his nose in it. When he looked up at me through the glass door, he had a little pile of snow on his muzzle. Within moments, he was running around in circles in the snow and even started rolling around in it. It didn't take him long to start eating gobs of it either.

I chuckled to myself as I watched our big pup frolic in the snow for the first time in his life. It was clear that he was thoroughly enjoying the experience of it. Finally he decided it was time to come in and he shook himself off by the door just before I let him back it.

As soon as he bounded through the door, he jumped up and put his paws on my shoulders and began to madly kiss my face. He had grown tremendously since we had rescued him and his sister Daisy. He was big enough that he could now stand on his hind legs and reach my face.

I grabbed a towel from the bathroom and wiped the remaining snow and water off his coat and then went up to the kitchen to make sure that he had food and water. I figured that both Bryan and Josh would probably sleep for a while yet, but pretty sure that Mark would probably be up before long.

Just as I sat down and had my first sip of my morning coffee, I heard the upstairs shower begin to run and figured that Mark was probably getting up too. Being a morning person was something that he and I shared that neither Josh nor Bryan wanted anything to do with. I went and grabbed a carton of milk from the fridge and set out a bowl in front of the chair next to me and placed a box of Captain Crunch cereal on the table.

A couple of minutes after I heard the water shut off, I sensed someone coming up behind me and a second later Mark wrapped his arms around me. "Morning Tom," he said as he rested his chin on my shoulder and cuddled against my face.

"Morning kiddo," I said as I reached up to rub his arms and nuzzled his cheek. "I put some cereal out for you, but I can make you something else if you like,"

"Cereal is good," he said as he sat down beside me and began to prepare a heaping bowl of Captain Crunch. "Josh is still sound asleep."

"So is Bry," I replied with a chuckle.

"Hey it snowed last night," Mark observed as he glanced out the window for the first time. "Can we go tobogganing in Centennial Park?"

"Great idea," I replied. Centennial Park was a man made ski hill in the north part of the city that also provided excellent places for some really exciting toboggan rides.

"Thanks again for last night," Mark said. "I mean it. It was be best birthday I ever had."

"I'm glad bud. You deserved it. You and Josh are the most amazing boys that I've ever met and I love both of you to bits. When you're happy, I'm happy too."

"I finally know what it's like to be part of a family," Mark observed. "Even before my mom died, my father made things kind of miserable sometimes. It got even worse afterwards."

"It's really rough losing a parent that you're close to," I said. "I lost my Dad when I was about the same age as you were when you lost your Mom. Thankfully, I had my mom and my brothers to fall back on. You had Bryan, but he was in the same boat as you were."

"Yeah, but now it's nice knowing that I belong again," Mark said.

"You really do belong Marky. You know that both Bryan and I would move heaven and Earth for you boys."

"I know. Thanks for caring. You're the first one besides Bryan and my mother who did care."

"I'm glad I was there when I was needed and, like I told Josh, I'll always be there no matter what."

"Can I ask you something?" Mark asked after he had eaten a few spoonfuls of his cereal.

"Of course Marky, you can ask me anything."

"How did you find out that your father had died? Do you remember?"

"I remember like it was yesterday. He'd been working the night shift and when I woke up the next morning there were all kinds of people at the house. Somehow, before anyone told me anything, I just knew. I knew he was gone. I went downstairs and I saw my Mom and I knew she had been crying. My brothers were there too and they had been crying as well. I ran to her and she hugged me tightly and told me that he was gone."

"My father didn't tell Bryan and I about our mother for two days," Mark said bitterly.

"What!" I thought that was a low blow even for Callahan. I reached out and placed my hand on his forearm and gave him a gentle squeeze. "Mark you don't have to worry about anything like that ever again," I replied. "If anything ever happened to Bryan, I'd be on a plane in a second to come and get you just as I know that Bryan would be on a plane to come get Josh if anything happened to me."

Mark looked at me and smiled brightly. "I know. Belonging is a good thing," he said.

"It is indeed kiddo," I said with a smile as I stood up to refill my coffee. On my way past I leaned down and kissed his temple.

With my coffee refilled, I sat down and continued to read the paper while Mark munched his Captain Crunch and read the sports section. I barely hear the footsteps behind me before I felt a familiar pair or hands come to rest on my shoulders and begin to knead them.

"Morning Dad," Josh said from behind me as he briefly broke from gently massaging my shoulders and wrapped his arms around me in a warm hug.

"Morning Son," I replied and tilted my head back to rub noses with him. "Want some breakfast?"

"Sounds good to me," Josh replied. He then bumped knuckles with Mark before sitting down opposite him at the table.

"What would you like? You can have some Captain Crunch like your brother or I could make you something. Or you could do both," I chuckled.

"How about some pancakes? After I have some Captain Crunch," Josh replied.

"Yeah, pancakes sound good," Mark agreed.

I quickly whipped up some pancakes for the boys and made enough for myself and Bryan as well. There was a package of breakfast sausages in the freezer that I defrosted in the microwave and cooked them up as well.

Just about the time that I'd finished cooking I heard the downstairs shower start up indicating that Bryan was about to join us. I put his plate and mine inside the oven to keep it warm and served the boys.

I went back to my paper while waiting for Bryan and I took a moment just to watch the boys. What I saw warmed my heart and I couldn't help but smile broadly.

"What?" Josh asked as he noticed me watching him.

"Nothing really. I was just watching you two and thinking about how lucky I am to have two incredible boys like you two. You guys really are the light of my life."

"Well, we're lucky to have you too," Mark said.

"Totally," Josh agreed. He thought for a moment. "If we are incredible, it's because of you."

I reached out and put an arm on each of then and gently squeezed their shoulders.

Just then a very zombie-like Bryan stumbled into the room. "Is there any coffee?" he mumbled.

"Rough night Bry?" Josh asked with a big grin.

"Nah, he's like that every morning until he gets a couple of cups of coffee into him," Mark added with a laugh.

"Har-dee-har-har," Bryan deadpanned and accepted the cup that I'd poured for him.

"Mark had a great idea for something for us to do today," I said once Bryan had some coffee and in him. "Why don't we head over to Centennial Park and go tobogganing?"

"It snowed last night?" Bryan asked and then looked out the window for the first time. "I guess that answers my question," He said and took another sip of coffee.

"You should have seen Brutus out playing in the snow," I said and then showed the rest of the guys the video of Brutus experiencing his first snowfall. We all had a really good laugh at Brutus' snow antics.

"Daisy did pretty much the same thing the first time she saw snow," Bryan chuckled.

"She likes to try to bite snowflakes as they come down," Mark added.

"Brutus does that with flies. You should see him," Josh said. "Watch this. Brutus! Where's the fly?"

Brutus came bounding into the kitchen with his ears up at full alert and with his head moving back and forth scanning near the ceiling on the lookout for flies. His tail was wagging at about a mile a minute.

"Good boy Brutus," Josh said and patted his dog on the head.

Once we cleaned up after breakfast, we boarded the Jeep and drove the short distance up to Centennial Park. Josh had a GT Snow Racer and a couple of "flying saucer" type things in the garage and we took those along with us. On the way, we stopped at Canadian Tire and purchased an aluminum sled that would hold two of us. We took Brutus along for the ride as well. We figured that he'd have a great time playing in the snow with us.

We arrived at Centennial park in just under twenty minutes and I glanced at the digital thermometer in my rear-view mirror just before we got out. "I hope everyone dressed warmly," I said. "It's -10c out there."

"We dressed in layers just like you taught me," Josh said proudly.

"Way to go kiddo," I replied.

As soon as we exited the Jeep, Brutus began to run all over the place as far as his leash would take him. He was having a grand old time playing in the snow. Watching him romp in the snow was like watching a small child.

"That's going to be a heck of a climb on foot," Bryan remarked as we neared the base of the ski hill.

"Sucks to be old," Mark kidded.

"Watch it or you might never have that particular experience," I teased.

"Oh yeah, like you'd actually do anything to hurt us," Josh laughed.

"You got us there," Bryan conceded. "How about I spring for lift tickets?"

"Cool!" Josh and Mark said unison.

"I'd say that about settles it," I replied. "I guess we had better take turns waiting at the bottom with Brutus. I'll take the first shift."

"I'm riding my GT down the first time and then I want to ride the toboggan with you Dad," Josh said.

"Deal," I replied.

After Bryan purchased our lift tickets, I walked around to the tobogganing side of the hill with Brutus and watched as Josh, Mark and Bryan boarded the ski lift that carried them to the top of the hill in no time flat. The park used to be a garbage dump and the hill was actually a pile of garbage that had had dirt thrown over it and grass planted on it. It was actually a pretty remarkable use of the land.

I chuckled to myself as I watched Brutus run circles around me with his nose buried in the snow. When he stopped, he turned his head and looked at me and he had a pile of white snow on the end of his muzzle. He shook his head from side to side to clear it off, let out a happy bark and then dropped down and began to roll in the snow.

At the top of the hill, I watched as Josh climbed onto his GT Snow racer and Mark and Bryan sat down on the bright red flying saucer disks. My heart almost stopped as I watched the three most important people in my world hurtle themselves down the side of the hill at what looked like near highway speeds. I virtually held my breath as Josh's snow racer rocketed down the hill and came to a stop not far from where I stood. Brutus tore off immediately to smother him with doggy licks before Josh had a chance to get to his feet. After a little frolicking down in the snow at Brutus' level, Josh finally stood up with a huge grin on his face as he ran up to me and hugged me tightly.

We both stood and watched as Mark's disk hit a bump and launched him into the air briefly and we were both relieved when he landed safely. Poor Bryan somehow got turned around and ended up riding down most of the hill backwards!

Next was my turn. Bryan waited at the bottom of the hill with Brutus while Josh, Mark and I went back up on the lift. At the top, I sat down on the back of the toboggan while Josh climbed between by knees and sat down in front. He held onto the ropes and I held onto him. Mark, who was going to ride the GT Snow Racer down the hill, gave us a gentle push and in a flash, we were rocketing down the hill. Both of us were hooting and hollering like a pair of loons and when we hit the bottom we wiped out and ended up tangled up together in a snow drift.

"That was fun!" Josh crowed. He was face down on my chest and I had my head half buried in the snow.

Just then Brutus came yelping over with his tail wagging back and forth as fast as I'd ever seen it and he began madly licking us both on the face. "That was fast," I remarked as I hugged Josh briefly.

For the next two hours we went up and down the hill. We took turns riding in pairs on the toboggan as well as riding singly on the flying saucers and the GT Snow Racer. We barely even noticed the cold; we were having just a perfect family day at the park.

As the time wore on, we were getting a bit tired and the cold was starting to eek into our bodies, but Josh wanted one last run on his GT Snow Racer. We all agreed because we knew this was the one snow toy he enjoyed the most. At the top of the hill, Josh gave us a wave, then came screaming down the hill on the racer. With all the traffic that had been on the hill that afternoon, the snow was well packed and there was no resistance for the racer. For sure, it was the fastest run Josh had on the racer. Then he hit a patch of ice toward the bottom of the run. We could see the strain on Josh's face as he tried desperately to hold on. In an instant, unable to stop, he went rocketing straight passed the end of the run and onto the Etobicoke Creek. The thin ice couldn't hold his weight and he went splashing into the shallow water.

I'd been standing at the base of the hill with Brutus and immediately let him off his lead and said, "Brutus, get Josh!"

Brutus, who could run faster than I could, took off at full speed after his master who was already climbing out of the freezing water. I ran as fast as my injured leg could carry me and I ignored the pain that flared with each step with Bryan and Mark at my heels. I reached the bank of the creek just as Josh made his way out. Brutus had clamped his jaw onto the sleeve of Josh's coat and was helping him up the bank.

"Joshy," I asked worriedly. "Are you ok?"

"I'm fffffffreezing," he replied through chattering teeth and lips that were more blue than pink.

"It's ok son. We'll get you warm in a minute. "Take off your coat right away."

I unzipped my parka as Josh did as he was told. I then pulled him, wet clothes and all against my chest and zipped my coat back up. The cold from his wet clothes hit me immediately and added to my discomfort, but I needed to keep him as warm as I could.

"Are you ok?" Bryan shouted as soon as he arrived a second later.

"He's soaked. We have to get him out of these clothes and fast," I replied.

"I'll get the Jeep," Bryan said.

I tossed him the keys. "Thanks Bry."

Mark had arrived by then too. "Is he going to be ok?" Mark asked in a very worried tone.

"I'm ok. Just cccccccold," Josh replied.

I pulled my arms inside my sleeves and worked them up under Josh's soaking wet shirt and began to vigorously rub his torso. "We'll get you warm in just a few minutes Joshy. Hang in there kiddo," I said and leaned my head against the top of his to try to stem the loss of warmth as best I could.

A minute later Bryan arrived with the Jeep. He'd managed to get up the curb and drove along the cleared bike path to get as close as he could to where we were waiting. Mark opened the back door for us and I climbed in with Josh. By now he was shivering all over. I quickly put down the seats and grabbed the wool blanket that I kept on board for just such emergencies. Bryan had the heater going full blast and Mark got Brutus corralled and loaded into the Jeep.

I took off my coat and began to help Josh remove his clothes. "Let's get every stitch off kiddo," I said as I helped him undress.

"Good thing you have tinted windows," Mark laughed trying to bring some levity to the situation.

As Bryan began to drive us back to the parking lot, I took off my damp sweater and removed the t-shirt that I was wearing underneath. Once I had all of Josh's clothes off, I pulled him against me and wrapped the blanket around us. I turned Josh so that his back was against my chest and I wrapped my arms tightly around him. I had him fold his hands between his legs.

"I'm going to try to warm you with by body heat son. I don't want you to get hypothermia. It's important that you stay awake."

"Okkkkkay Dad," he said and nuzzled his head against my neck. "I'm feeling warmer already," he said. His teeth were still chattering and I could feel his body shivering against me.

I held him close and rubbed my hands up and down his body to try to keep his circulation going. After a while, he stopped shivering and his teeth stopped chattering, but I still held him as tightly as I could.

"How you doing bud?" I asked.

"Better," Josh replied tiredly. "Thanks Dad," he said.

"What are Dads for?" I asked him and then kissed the top of his head. I smiled to myself as I felt him nuzzle the side of my neck in response.

I thought to myself that this is what love is. I don't know why things aligned in the universe in this particular way, but somehow all of us were brought together and it all happened because of the indescribably close and loving bond that had formed between Josh and me. Josh may not have been my flesh and blood son, but I knew our bond went even deeper than that.

As if reading my mind, I felt Josh's arms move up inside the blanket as he wrapped them around my arms and held onto me as tightly as I was holding into him.

"We're almost home," Bryan said from the driver's seat a moment later. "You guys holding up ok?"

"He's warming up nicely," I replied.

"How are we going to get him inside given that he's naked?" Mark asked.

"I'll carry him in the blanket," I replied.

"OH NO YOU WON'T!" Bryan exclaimed. "Not with your leg."

I guess I'd been put in my place.

When we got to the house, Bryan backed the Jeep into the driveway. Susan was still at work, so we were able to get right up to the garage. I untangled myself from Josh and wrapped him tightly in the blanket before I climbed out and helped Bryan lift Josh into a fireman's carry. Suddenly I knew in part how Josh felt. The chilly air of the garage hit my bare torso and it went right through me.

Mark was holding the door open as Bryan carried Josh into the house and straight up to the bathroom. Still in the blanket, he sat him on the toilet and I began running a warm shower.

"Mark and I are going to get some hot lunch together." Bryan said as he and Mark left the bathroom.

When the water was just right, I stood Josh up and removed the blanket.

"You going to be ok buddy?" I asked warmly.

"I feel awfully weak. I'm kinda unsteady on my feet," Josh replied.

"That's ok. Want me to come in with you?"

"Would you mind?"

"Not at all kiddo," I replied. I quickly stripped out of my clothes, helped Josh into the shower and then went in after him. I helped to support him as he stood under the warm flow of water. The warmth of the water warmed him quickly and his normal colour began to return.

"That feels much better," Josh said as he leaned against me.

"I'm glad son," I replied. I gently massaged his shoulders and the muscles in his arms and legs as he continued to stand under the warming water.

"It's a good thing shrinkage is temporary," Josh chuckled as he examined his genitals. "I was afraid that I'd never see my nuts again!"

I laughed and shook my head. "Now I know you're really ok since you've got your sense of humour back!"

"Thanks for helping me Dad," Josh said.

"That's what Dads are for. Right?"

"Right," Josh said emphatically. "It would have been pretty awkward having Mom help me!"

I laughed again at that comment. "Well I guess since we have the same plumbing and we've seen each other naked more times than can be counted, it's not a really big deal."

We shut off the water and stepped out. I reached for a couple of towels and when I turned around; Josh hugged me tightly and rested his head against my shoulder.

"I love you Dad."

I smiled and returned his hug. "I love you too kiddo."

I handed him a towel and we both got dried off before I headed downstairs to get some clean clothes while Josh went to his room to dress.

"Tom, we got his wet stuff out of the Jeep and put it in the dryer," Bryan said as I streaked past still naked carrying my jeans, shorts and socks.

"Thanks Bry," I replied and headed to my apartment.

When I rounded the corner Mark startled me. He was sitting on my sofa watching TV. "Ahhhh my virgin eyes are shocked!" he kidded.

I paused for one moment and stared at him with my hands on my hips. "Why I oughta..." I replied, smiling, then turned and went to my room to dress.

"How's Josh?" Mark called in as I was dressing.

"He's doing fine," I replied. "He'll be down after he gets dressed. He said he was relieved about shrinkage being temporary."

"Shrinkage?" Mark asked.

"Not a Seinfeld fan?" I replied.

"Not really. So what's shrinkage?"

"Ever notice what happens to Mr. Willy and the crown jewels when you get out of the pool? Now imagine if you were swimming in ice water!"

"Yikes! Now I get it," Mark laughed as I came out of the bedroom.

"Did you have fun today?"

"I really did," Mark replied, "until Josh hit the water. I'm glad you weren't alone when that happened."

"I'm glad too Mark," I smiled looking at him. "It probably would have turned out a lot worse." I put my hand on his shoulder. He had a knack of saying what was needed to warm my heart. "Thanks Mark."

The two of us headed upstairs and rejoined Bryan, who was busy getting ready. Josh had just come down from his bedroom. While Josh and Mark busied themselves playing with Brutus and feeding him cubes of cheese from the bag from my fridge, I went to help Bryan with lunch.

"You did good getting the Jeep all the way to us," I said to Bryan.

"It was nothing. I'd hate to think about him having to walk that far in minus 10 weather while soaking wet. You did good keeping him warm."

"I think Mark was right about the tinted windows, otherwise Josh would have been giving quite the peep show!"

We both had a good laugh before calling the boys to come and get their soup and sandwiches.

After our late lunch, we headed out in the Jeep again to go to the local mall to finish our Christmas shopping. We ended up going to Cloverdale Mall, which was where the shooting had taken place earlier in the year. Without even thinking, I parked the Jeep in the same lot and the four of us walked in. It was the first time that Mark, Josh, and I had been back to this mall all together since the shooting and I think it hit each one of us as soon as we walked in and saw the bank.

"What's up guys?" Bryan asked noticing our hesitation.

"This is where it happened," Mark replied quietly.

"Yeah, we were walking towards the door from over there," Josh said as he pointed out the location of where the events transpired. "That's where we tackled the guy and over there is where Dad.... the shooting happened."

I walked over to a metal railing on the other side of the hallway and examined it closely before finding what I was looking for. On the lower side of the railing there was a groove. It had been made by the bullet that had grazed my arm – the one shot that Joe Chambers had managed to fire during the whole exchange.

I pointed it out to Bryan and the boys.

"That was a close one," Mark said softly.

"Too close," Josh agreed.

"It's amazing what a difference a couple of inches can make," Bryan observed.

"For sure. Six inches to the right and I would have taken it in my right lung, eight ot ten inches and it would have been in the heart."

I looked at Josh and he noticeably blanched when I said that. I reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "Don't worry. Nothing like that is going to happen again."

"Let's go," Josh said just above a whisper. As we got further away from the scene, his happy demeanour returned.

We sent the boys off to do their thing, while Bryan and I went together to get some special surprises for them. We spent the better part of the afternoon going from store to store and managed to get our shopping finished. Bryan and I wanted to make this Christmas special for the boys and we went all out on gifts for them and we purchased enough stuff to fill overflowing stockings as well.

We ended up finding Josh and Mark at the food court at the designated time. Both of them had a bunch of shopping bags around them and were smiling from ear to ear.

"You boys have been busy!" Bryan said as we sat down, surrounding ourselves with the parcels we'd gathered. "....and no peeking in our bags!"

"OK you two, what's so funny?" I asked looking at them suspiciously out of the corner of my eye. Their smiles hadn't quit and I wondered what trouble they may have gotten into.

"Oh Dad, it's nothing bad." Josh replied still smiling. "We stopped into Peoples Jewellers and I found a great broach that I wanted to give Shelley, but I knew it was too late to buy it and mail it out to her. The clerk was really great. She said it was no problem. They had a store in Vancouver and they'd take the order, and then fax it to that store and they'd gift wrap and deliver it before Christmas. Sweet eh?"

"Adorable!" Bryan answered with a big grin. "We forgot the Masons didn't we?" he asked looking at me.

""Yeah, you're right. OK guys, let's hit the flower shop." I reasoned that a remembrance of the season would be the most expedient gift we could give them on this short notice.

As with Josh's present to Shelly, they faxed the order for an elaborate Christmas centrepiece with three candles to the Burnaby flower shop together with a card that the four of us signed and included Susan's name.

Then I remembered Susan's artificial Christmas tree. Although it had been nicely decorated last year, I thought it could use a few more lights.

"OK guys, one last stop over at Sears." I announced. "I want to get a few more lights for Susan's Christmas tree."

A few more lights?! I didn't realize that I had unleashed a tiger in Mark and Bryan. By the time we left Sears, we had five hundred lights and more than enough decorations to fill the tree in addition to those that Susan already had. Bryan explained that he and Mark were experts at tree decorating – they used to love doing it for their Mom every year.

As soon as we got home, we pulled out Susan's artificial six-foot tree and Bryan went right to work with Mark as his assistant. They consulted with Josh about which ornaments and other decorations were special to him and Susan. Josh and I were allowed to sit back and criticize. Bryan was thorough in his organization before he started, but once he did, he didn't stop. Both he and Mark were perfectionists when it came to decorating the tree. By the time they finished, it was overwhelming – you could hardly find a green branch on the tree, but it was a work of art. With both of them working at it, it was done in just two hours and just in time – Susan had just walked in the door.

"OH MY GOD!" We watched smiling as she took in the whole scene. "OH MY GOD!" She exclaimed again. "It's so beautiful! It really doesn't need lights," she said.

"OH THE LIGHTS!" Bryan exclaimed as he went over and plugged them in. Suddenly the tree took on a great dimension that you would never find in any other tree – whether it was professionally decorated or not. She went over to the tree and examined many of the ornaments. When she turned around, she had a tear falling from her eye.

"Boys, I can't thank you enough.... you included all the special ornaments that I grew up with.... it's just beautiful."

"Well Mom," Josh said, "you have to thank Bryan and Mark for all this... they did all of it while Dad and I watched."

Immediately, Susan went over and gave Bryan a long hard hug, before giving Mark another one.

No doubt about it, Bryan and Mark gained a lot of points with Susan that day.

In addition to the gifts, it was going to be the biggest Christmas celebration that any of us had ever experienced. We planned to begin with a quiet Christmas Eve at home and spend Christmas morning with Susan. By around noon, my mom, Andy, James, Anne, and the twins would arrive as well and our whole crew would have Christmas dinner together.

We spent the remaining couple of days before Christmas wrapping gifts and mostly relaxing around the house. As the big day approached, the boys' excitement became more and more pronounced. We knew that this Christmas was going to be magical.

Christmas Eve arrived that Sunday and we were all looking forward to the festivities of the coming day. Once again we spent the day hanging around the house playing video games and even playing an epic game of Risk.

That evening we had a nice dinner with Susan. At our urging, Susan relaxed and had a nice glass of wine while Bryan and I prepared a nice Christmas Eve feast. We slow cooked a nice ham and served it with roast potatoes and mixed vegetables. We even had fresh shrimp cocktails for an appetizer. For dessert, we had a Dutch Apple pie that Mark and Bryan had brought all the way from Calgary with them and it was to die for.

"You boys did a bang up job or preparing dinner," Susan said afterwards. "I am truly impressed."

"Thanks Susan," Bryan said. "We figured that you deserved a break."

"We're going to watch 'A Christmas Story' and 'National Lampoons Christmas Vacation' tonight. Want to watch it with us?" Josh asked.

"I think I'll leave you guys to watch those movies on your own," Susan replied with a smile. "I've got a good book to curl up with. I'm anxious to see how it ends."

Since Bryan and I had done the cooking, Mark and Josh volunteered to clean the kitchen and load the dishwasher. That gave Bryan and I a chance to head downstairs and get things ready for our evening of movie watching. We popped four bags of microwave popcorn and put out several kinds of popcorn topping sprinkles. We also set out a large carton of eggnog as well as a couple of bottles of Coke. We had considered grabbing some beer from the Beer Store, but decided that we'd keep it "dry" for the boys.

A few moments later, the boys and Brutus came thundering down the stairs. The four of us piled up on the sofa. It felt so good to snuggle up to Bryan; his one leg on the sofa and the other draped to the floor. I did the same as Josh assumed his position next to me leaning against my chest. Mark stretched out in front of Josh; his head resting on his chest. We started the DVD player and watched the Christmas classic "A Christmas Story" first. Each of us munched on our own bowls of popcorn with our favourite seasoning added. Brutus scored pretty good too as we sent him jumping in the air as we tossed him the odd kernel. It was a truly funny movie that had become a cult classic over the years. Virtually everyone was familiar with the famous line: "You'll shoot your eye out."

Once that movie ended, we moved on to "Christmas Vacation" which was just as funny. When we came to the part where Chevy Chase rocketed down the hill on a flying saucer and crashed into a Wal-Mart, we all glanced at Josh, each of us giggling.

"Don't even go there," he said in a mock angry voice. "I was on a snow racer not a flying saucer and I went into a creek, not a Wal-Mart ice machine!"

That got us all roaring with laughter again.

"Josh, when you hit that ice further up the hill, I thought your eyes were going to pop out of your head," I said between the giggles. "You looked so scared, but I still thought you were going to be able to stop before the end of the run."

"I thought everything was fine 'til then too 'cause I was just going a bit faster than my first run down the hill, but when I hit the ice, it was like my speed doubled, but I still thought I had a chance."

"I thought you were going to sail right across the creek." Bryan said.

"Me too, but that ice broke up in an instant. Darn it!" he exclaimed, "I lost my sled."

"Hah!" Mark exclaimed. "Damn near lost your dick!"

Right away Josh grabbed Mark's waist and started tickling him. Josh was relentless and kept it up in spite of all the wriggling and contortions that Mark went through. Bryan and I were in stitches watching and listening to the banter between 'our' boys. Even Brutus got in on the act. At first, he wasn't sure as he cocked his head from side to side, then you could see the look of understanding as he wagged his tail, raised his head, and let out with a low happy howl.

"Uncle! Uncle! Uncle!" Mark finally shouted still laughing. "I gotta go pee!"

Josh relented and let Mark get up. "If you can find it bro." Josh deadpanned as Mark ran to the bathroom holding the crotch of his jeans. The three of us were still laughing when Mark returned from the bathroom with a relieved grin.

The whole evening was typical of our family time. We indulged in good natured ribbing of each other and for the most part, we always kept it light. In many ways it was a mirror of what I grew up with and it was a preview of what we had in store for us the following day. It was a wonderful feeling to be a part of a family where everyone felt comfortable enough to do that. Nobody ever felt bad as a result of the kidding and gentle ribbing that we engaged in because we all knew, loved, and respected one another enough that we never allowed any ill feelings to happen.

After we finished watching the movies, the boys headed off to bed, interrupting Susan's read of her novel just long enough to give her a hug. Bryan and I followed them up a few minutes later to tuck them in and say goodnight. Mark was still in the bathroom brushing his teeth and Josh was standing at his desk wearing only a pair of blue briefs shutting down his computer. He climbed into bed and I sat down on the edge next to him. Just then Mark walked into the room wearing an identical pair of underwear.

"What's with the matching undies?" Bryan asked.

Mark looked sheepish for a second and then replied, "I forgot to pack any underwear so Josh had to lend me some of his."

We all had a brief chuckle over that. Josh and Mark were very mature for their ages, but they were still nonetheless boys - and boys often forgot to pack things like that.

"Hopefully 'Santa' brings you some new ones," I said with a smile as Mark climbed into bed.

"Yes and Josh, don't worry about losing your GT Snow Racer.... Boxing day is coming and maybe we'll get another one on sale." Bryan added.

"Right on!" Josh replied. "That's one of my favourite trips with Mom every year. She's a fanatic about Boxing Day sales," Josh replied.

"Goodnight boys," I said and leaned down to hug each of them and kiss each of them on the forehead. "Sleep tight and we'll see you in the morning."

"Sleep well guys," Bryan said and repeated my hug and forehead kisses.

I paused at the doorway and turned back to look at Josh and Mark as I turned out the lights. I took a moment to once again consider just how lucky I truly was to have them adding such happiness to our lives.

With the boys tucked away for the night, Bryan and I went into the living room just as Susan put down her book with a big smile.

"That was a good story, but it didn't turn out like I thought it would. Happy ending though. I guess it's time for us to get busy right?" She asked.

"You bet!" Bryan and I were pumped; wanting to get all the gifts out of our hiding spots in the garage, Susan's bedroom, and my apartment. The three of us dove into the task of putting the mountain of Christmas gifts under the tree and filling everyone's Christmas stockings. By the time we were done, you could hardly get within five feet of the tree and the stockings were all overflowing. Mission accomplished, the three of us sat down to sip glasses of rum and eggnog.

"You two really bought a lot of gifts," Susan observed.

"We can afford it," Bryan said. "You know, this will be Mark's first real family Christmas and the first good Christmas that he's ever had since Mom died. We wanted to make is very special for him."

"He's doing really well," Susan replied. "He and Josh are so different in many ways and yet their personalities complement each other so well. They're a perfect match in many ways."

"I think they were meant to be brothers." Bryan added.

"I think Josh tends to bring out the best in everyone," I said. "Josh was the reason that I enjoyed camp so much and why people say I was such a good counsellor. I wasn't sure that I really wanted the job. I was depressed after leaving the army and I spend much of my time in pain. For some reason I saw a kindred spirit in Josh and it didn't take us long to become the very best of friends. His energy and enthusiasm helped me to forget about the pain in my leg and allowed me to let go and have fun that summer."

"Let me tell you.... every phone call I got from him, ever letter from him and every second word when he got home was all about this great guy Tommy!"

"Did Mark ever get a chance to go to camp?" I asked.

"No, not even once. It's too bad too." Bryan replied sadly.

"Hmmm..." I replied thoughtfully. "How much vacation time can you get next summer?"

"Uh oh...." Bryan chuckled.

"Uh oh is right!" Susan replied.

"Well, I was just wondering if maybe all four of us could go back to camp next year. You and I could be counsellors and the boys would get to be campers again or maybe with their maturity, even junior counsellors."

"What about your European vacation?" Susan asked.

We had previously discussed it with Susan and she had approved us taking Josh to Europe next summer for two weeks. It was a trip that we were all looking forward to.

"We can book that for the first two weeks of summer and see if Andy can arrange for us to work at Tonawonka for the rest of the summer," I said.

"That could work. I could probably get a leave of absence for the weeks above and beyond my vacation allotment."

"Would you be ok with that Susan?" I asked.

"Sure. Josh loves camp as long as you're there and it would give me the summer off," she answered.

"Well then, let's talk to the boys in the morning and see what Andy has to say about it," I suggested. I knew that if we could make it happen, it was going to be one of the best summers of our lives. The idea of having Josh and Mark together for a whole summer brought a smile to my face.

It was almost midnight before Bryan and I said goodnight to Susan and headed for bed. Undaunted by the hour, the magic of Christmas became surpassed by the tender love we needed to soothe our souls. As my eyes closed from the euphoric haze, I felt that nothing could compare to the happiness Bryan and I shared.

The next morning, Mark and Josh awakened Bryan and I at around 7:00 AM. I opened my eyes to see a pair of bright gray eyes staring right back at me. Josh was sitting on the edge of my bed with his nose pressed against my nose and with our foreheads touching. He had a huge grin on his face.

"Wake up Dad, it's Christmas morning," he said happily.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mark shaking his brother's shoulder trying to wake him up too.

"Hey Joshy," I said. "Merry Christmas." I reached my arms out from under the covers and hugged him tightly.

"Merry Christmas to you too," he replied as he leaned down and rested his head on my shoulder. "Now get out of bed!"

I untangled my legs from Bryan's and climbed out of bed and headed to the bathroom while Josh turned his attention to Bryan.

"Hey Marky," I said on my way by. "Merry Christmas," I added and held out my arms for a hug.

"Merry Christmas, Tom," Mark said and he hurried over to give me a good morning hug.

By the time I used the toilet, washed up and returned to the bedroom, Josh and Mark had succeeded in tormenting Bryan sufficiently that he was awake and ready for his turn in the bathroom. "Merry Christmas Bry," I said and hugged him.

"Merry Christmas," he slurred his sleepy reply and kissed my cheek. "I'm getting used this every morning."

Within a few minutes, the four of us climbed the stairs to the main floor and went into the living room. When we got there, Josh and Mark stopped and stood there gape-mouthed at the number of presents under the tree.

"Holy cow!" Josh exclaimed.

"Double Ditto," Mark replied wide-eyed.

"Good morning guys," Susan said as she came into the living room. "Merry Christmas."

After yet another exchange of hugs, we all started digging into our stockings. Bryan, Susan, and I had all contributed to the boy's stockings and we all cooperated to fill each of ours as well. Stockings were always a lot of fun and we made sure that they included both useful things such as socks and underwear as well as fun things and gag gifts.

"Oh cool," Mark exclaimed as he opened a package of Haines briefs. "I don't have to borrow Josh's anymore."

"What! No, no... T M I! I don't even want to know," Susan said with a chuckle.

"Oh Lord," I said as I unwrapped a heavy package from my stocking that turned out to contain a coffee mug shaped like a toilet. "I can probably guess who bought this one!"

"We both got it actually," Josh said.

"Yeah, we saw it and had to get one for you," Mark added.

Bryan burst out laughing as he opened a similar box that contained a coffee mug that looked like a banged up old trash can. "I should have guessed!"

"This is nasty!" Josh said with a laugh as he unwrapped a can that looked almost like shaving cream. "Look!" he said and thrust the can at me.

"Shit in a can?" I asked with a laugh. Susan and Bryan nearly spit out their coffee when I read the label. Mark was practically rolling on the floor laughing like a maniac. Brutus, who was sitting next to me on the sofa made grumbling sound and cocked his head from side-to-side.

"It's fake doggie-doo that sprays out of the can!" Mark said between bouts of laughter.

"Don't be spraying that on my carpet!" Susan admonished.

Both Josh and Mark tore open similar packages and then hoisted the contents into the air. Susan had bought each of them a pair of white boxer shorts with big red polka-dots all over them. Neither of them wore boxers regularly, but I knew that Josh occasionally slept in a pair or, if it was just the two of us around, wore a pair around the house.

Even Susan wasn't immune to getting gag gifts. She opened a package containing something called a "Mooney" and started laughing. A Mooney is sort of a doll with suction cups that you stick in your car window. Attached to it is a hose with a squeeze bulb and when you squeeze it, the Mooney drops his pants and moons everyone!

When we finished with our stockings, we gave Brutus his gifts. He ended up making out like a bandit. We bought him a big bag of dried pig's ears, which he absolutely loved, a new doggy bed with memory foam rubber in it, an assortment of treats, and a bunch of new doggie toys. We gave him a pig's ear to munch on while the rest of us began to open our gifts.

We really had pulled out all the stops when it came to buying gifts for the boys. The two of them would never go without as long as we had something to say about it and they certainly didn't want for anything that Christmas. Bryan and I had spent more than $500 on each of the boys and about the same on Susan and each other. We gave the boys an assortment of smaller gifts including video games, books, clothing, DVDs and sporting goods, but we also purchased a special "main" gift for each of them.

"Guys, we have a special gift for each of you," I said and I handed each of the boys a small wrapped box.

Each them tore open the small boxes to reveal small black velvet covered container inside. They opened their boxes and for a moment neither of them could manage a word. Inside each box was a solid gold ring embedded with each of our birthstones, a blue topaz for Mark, an emerald for Bryan and two amethysts for Josh and me. Engraved on the inside of the ring in small letters was the word "Forever".

"I hope they fit ok," I said. Both boys slipped their rings on and quickly we were in another of our famous four-way hugs.

"Thanks Dad, thanks Bryan," Josh said. "I love it!"

"Thanks Bryan.... Tom, it.... it's beautiful." Mark had an emotional hitch in his voice.

"You're both very welcome. We had them put 'forever' on them because we're linked together forever. No matter what happens. No matter where we end up." I said trying to smile.

"Josh.... Mark.... We're in this together forever. We both love you both more than words can describe." Bryan added.

"Those are gorgeous rings," Susan said as she examined Josh's ring. "You guys did good."

"I'm glad they fit. We did manage to size your fingers while you were sleeping!" Bryan said with a giggle.

"Boys, I have a special gift for each of you too. It's in the garage," Susan said to the two boys.

In an almost comical fashion, Josh and Mark looked at each other, and then ran for the door to the garage. The three of us adults followed them out and got there just in time to hear the happy shouts. In the garage was a pair of brand new Raleigh 21-speed Mountain Bikes complete with lights, water bottles, and digital speedometers.

"Thanks Mom!" Josh said and hugged Susan fiercely.

"Thanks Susan!" Mark added and hugged her as well.

After the boys finished admiring their new wheels, we went back to the living room and we gave Susan the main gift that all four of us had bought for her. It was a gift bag that included a new coat as well as gift certificates for a local spa and another one for "The Bay" department store so that she could purchase whatever she wanted.

"I figure that everyone can probably guess what these are," I chuckled as Bryan and I exchanged boxes identical to the ones we had given the boys. It wasn't exactly a surprise, but we gave each other rings that were identical to those that we had given the boys.

"Now all four of us have one," Bryan said as he slipped on his ring.

"One for all and all for one," I replied and slipped mine on.

"This is for you Dad," Josh said and handed me a box. "It's from Mark and me."

When I opened the box, I nearly jumped out of my skin when four spring loaded snakes popped out.

"Yikes!" I shouted in a startled voice. "You little monkeys are going to get it!"

Josh and Mark were rolling on the floor laughing as Brutus busied himself trying to subdue one of the "snakes". He gripped it in his mouth and was shaking it back and forth. One look at that and all of us were roaring with laughter.

When the excitement died down, Mark handed me another package. "This is the real gift from Josh and me," he said solemnly.

I tore open the gift and my breath caught in my throat for a moment. I stared at it for a moment without saying a word. It was an oil painting. Specifically it was a portrait of me in partial profile from mid torso up in my cadet officer's uniform standing at attention and saluting. The background of the painting was a Canadian flag that appeared to be flapping in the wind. "This...." I stammered. "This is incredible," I said with a huge lump in my throat. I turned the picture around so that Susan and Bryan could see it too.

"We gave the artist a picture that I took of you saluting on the Highway of Heroes," Josh said.

"I had the idea of having the flag in the background," Mark said.

"Boys.... this is incredible. I love it. Thank you very much. Both of you." I set the painting down and hugged both boys fiercely for a full minute before I let go.

"That's an amazing likeness," Susan said as she picked up and examined the picture.

"Where did you guys get it done?" Bryan asked.

"I went to that artist at the mall," Mark said. Josh sent me the picture and I went to the artist and asked him to do it.

"You guys are the best," I said as I dried my eyes.

"This one is for you from me Bryan," I said and handed him a small box.

Bryan carefully unwrapped the package and opened the small box that it contained. He then carefully lifted the sparking gold chain bracelet that it contained. Engraved on it were both of our names. Below the names was the year 2000 a dash and the infinity sign.

"Tom, this is beautiful," Bryan said as he unclasped it and snapped it onto his wrist. He then leaned over and kissed me firmly.

"This is from Mark and me," Josh said and he handed Bryan a package.

"Nothing's going to jump out of this is it?" he asked.

"I hope not," Mark replied.

Bryan gingerly unwrapped the package and looked inside. "Oh wow!" Bryan exclaimed.

Inside the package was an autographed Emeril Lagasse cookbook and a set of Emeril cookware. Bryan enjoyed cooking and considered himself to be somewhat of an amateur gourmet. "This is fantastic guys! Thank you," he said enthusiastically and hugged both boys.

Josh handed Mark a package next. Mark quickly unwrapped it and found two nice hardcover books. The first was a very thick volume of breathtaking photographs called "Canada's Air Force In Pictures" and the second was an even thicker book of photos taken during the Apollo moon missions called "From The Earth To The Moon".

"Thanks Josh! These are cool."

"You're welcome bro," Josh said and the pair bumped knuckles. Bumping knuckles had become their thing.

"This is your gift from me," Mark said to Josh and handed him a nicely wrapped box.

Josh quickly tore the paper off and shouted with joy when he saw that Mark had given him a new Digital Camera. "OH MAN! Thank's Bro!" Josh exclaimed and once again the pair bumped knuckles.

There were a few more smaller gifts exchanged and then Bryan handed me a package. "Merry Christmas Tom," he said.

I carefully removed the wrapping paper and opened the inner box. Inside was a gold chain with a small square medallion on it. On the medallion was a photo of the two of us together that had been taken in a photo booth at the West Edmonton Mall.

"I love it Bry! Thank you." I leaned over and kissed and hugged him firmly. It was wonderful that on this special day no one laughed or teased us when we expressed our love for each other.

After a few more gifts were opened, we were done. All that remained under the tree were the gifts for the rest of our family who would be arriving later that afternoon.

Susan winked at me with a slight smile. "Josh," she asked, "would you go into the hall closet and bring me my handbag please?"

"Sure Mom," Josh replied. As Josh left the room, Susan just kept smiling. When he returned, he handed Susan her purse and turned to look at the collection of wrapping paper that had strewn the floor. "Whew!" he exclaimed. "We've got-"

"Josh," Susan interrupted quietly causing Josh to turn back to her. "This is one very special gift, just for you." Slowly she reached into her handbag and pulled out a slender box wrapped in gold paper with a name tag on it.

Josh took the box from his Mom and read the name tag. "It's from Shelly!" He exclaimed. Slowly and gingerly, he unwrapped the box. Before he opened the box, he deliberately placed the wrapping paper on the coffee table. As if it was a reverent moment, Josh gently removed the top from the box and placed the lid under the box. With a big long smiling sigh, he said, "Oooohh!" He reached inside the box and turned a gold piece of medal over. A big smile came over him.

Without taking his hand from the box, he went over to Mark to show him the contents. Mark looked at the medallion and turned it over. "Cool! Really, cool bro. You're one lucky guy."

Then he brought the box over to me. As he held the box, I looked at the gold chain and the one inch by two inch gold pendant. On the side facing me, it was engraved with the words, 'From my heart'. On the other side, it was engraved with her name, 'Shelly'. I looked up at Josh's smiling face. "Wow!" I said quietly breaking the silence in the room.

When Bryan looked at both sides of the pendant, he commented, "Josh, love and trust will be with both of you always. Believe me, I can tell."

When he took the box over to Susan, Josh asked, "Mom, did you know what was in this box?"

"No Josh I didn't. It arrived a few days ago addressed to me, so I opened it and there was a note from Shelly asking me to hide the present until this morning." Josh held out the box so Susan could examine the contents.

"I gave her a fancy broach for Christmas. I've already given her a locket for around her neck on her birthday." Josh took the pendant from the box and handed it to Susan so she could clasp it at the back of his neck as he bent over.

"Josh, Bryan's right," Susan said. "I can tell that as the years come and go, you and Shelly are going to be very good for one another. You're going to find that Shelly's courage is quiet and a strong support that you're going to need to accomplish all of your life's goals. Trust her Josh."

"I do Mom.... I always will. I gotta phone her and thank her."

"Hey bud, not yet!" I said quickly. "It's only five in the morning in BC. Wait 'til noon, OK?"

"Right!" Josh smiled and then with a wink continued, "Darn ol' time difference. Can't forget about that.... can we Dad?" Josh was always ready with the jab about the incident on our summer trip where we forgot to change our watches one night when we crossed the time zone.

We all pitched in to clean up the wrapping paper and then we all put our packages away. Bryan and Susan shooed us all out of the kitchen and the pair of them worked together to prepare a wonder Christmas morning breakfast while me and the boys headed down to my apartment to hang my portrait.

We picked out the most prominent spot we could find and with the help of a hammer and a nail, we hung the portrait where all could see it. We then sat down on the sofa to relax.

I sat in the middle and I had Josh cuddled up against my right side and Mark snuggled up against my left. "Did you guys have a good Christmas so far?" I asked.

"The best ever!" Mark said. "I mean that too. For the past few years Christmas as just another day for me."

"What! Oh Mark, that'll never be the case ever again," I said and gave him a firm squeeze. "How about you Joshy?"

"For sure. The best Christmas ever," he replied agreeing with Mark. "I can't wait for everyone else to get here."

"We wanted to make our first family Christmas special. I'm glad we succeeded."

"This is the best present ever," Josh said.

"What is?"

"This is. Just being together. The presents are nice, but what's behind them is what counts the most."

I gave Josh and gentle squeeze as I once again marvelled at his maturity. "I wouldn't trade any of you guys for the world."

"Do you ever think about your life before?" Mark asked.

"Not really. Sometimes I think about the good times. We had a lot of those, but I don't look back. I don't wish that things had turned out any different."

"Don't worry bro," Josh said to Mark. "You don't have to worry about going back to the way it was for you. Like our rings say, it's forever."

"I know that now. It took me a while, but with such a great birthday party and now Christmas, I really know that."

A little while later we were called upstairs for breakfast. The food was fantastic and the company was even better.

As usual, it took less time for the five us to eat breakfast than it took for Bryan and Susan to prepare it, but Josh, Mark, and I were really appreciative.

Then Susan started barking out the orders for the day. "Josh, Mark.... I need you two to start cleaning up the table now and load the dishwasher. Tom, Bryan, and I are going to be busy in the kitchen for most of the rest of morning getting the turkey dinner ready. I want you two to stay out of the way until about noon. Then you two need to set the table. Deal?"

Josh immediately stood up, walked around behind Susan, and gave her a hug, nuzzling his chin on her shoulder. Mark, not to be outdone by Josh's actions, went over to Susan, knelt on one knee, took her hand in his, and kissed it. It was sweet to watch until Josh spoke.

"Aaahh Mom, do we haaave to?"

"Ohh Soosaan, do weee reeeaaally haaaave to?" Mark asked pleadingly as he looked up into her eyes.

I knew they were teasing Susan, but I still had to cover my mouth as I giggled at their antics. I thought to myself, 'Everyone's a target.'

"Whoa!" Bryan exclaimed as he started to stand.

Susan raised her hand and smiled. "It's OK Bryan, I can handle this." Looking at each of the boys in turn, she said solemnly, "Boys, neither one of you are guests in this house. While you're here, this IS your home and I'm the boss.... and what I say goes. If you don't believe me, I'll have Brutus convince you. Isn't that right Brutus?"

As if on cue, maybe because of his name being mentioned, Brutus let out a throaty, "Wooof!" However, his tail was wagging and we knew he wasn't a threat.

Susan glared at the boys. "Now get to it or you'll be finding out what else I've taught your dog."

Wide-eyed the boys immediately got into action. Susan sat there with a very satisfied grin on her face as she reached down and scratched Brutus behind the ear. Bryan and I were in stitches giggling and laughing at the magic spell Susan seemed to have over Brutus.

As soon as the boys had the dishwasher loaded, they donned their coats and told us they were taking Brutus out for a walk, that they had to spend some time with him teaching him a few new tricks and that they'd definitely be back in the house before noon.

Susan became the driving force for Bryan and I for the rest of the morning. While Bryan looked after getting the twenty-pound-plus turkey cleaned and ready for the oven, Susan had me grating carrots, and dicing celery and onions. She stayed busy cutting up the breading for the stuffing. Then she put all the ingredients together with her special magic seasoning in a big bowl and started mixing them by hand. Bryan brought the turkey over to the counter and Susan started stuffing it. Then she performed the sewing skills to close up the turkey and gave it a light basting before Bryan lifted it into the roasting pan and placed it in the oven. While that was going on, I wrapped the rest of the dressing into some tinfoil and placed it in the oven beside the roasting pan.

"OK Tom, you're in charge of peeling and scraping the carrots, and then you can clean the brussel sprouts. Bryan... you and I have the job of peeling potatoes.... it goes a lot faster when there's two of doing it." Susan was a real master in her own kitchen. There was no fooling around when she had company to cook for.

I'd finished with the carrots and brussel sprouts before Bryan and Susan were finished. "How about some yams or sweet potatoes?" I asked. "I have a great recipe for them that my Mom gave me."

Susan giggled. "Well then Tom, we won't be disappointed. Your Mom insisted that she cook them and bring them with her. Good thing too.... I'm going to be running out of stovetop space real quick. Anne's bringing over the salads... she said a Caesar salad and a coleslaw layered salad. It sounded scrumptious the way she described it. I think it's nice when everyone chips in to prepare a feast like this. It makes everyone proud of their contribution and they enjoy their meal that much more. Tom, you can start on the broccoli for that pot, then we have to whip up a cheese sauce. We'll have to cook it in the microwave."

"That's my job!" Bryan said with a grin. "I think I saw a special ingredient for in the back of the fridge."

"OK Bryan, go for it." Susan agreed. "Tom, I guess you get the job to clean and cut up the mushrooms for the gravy then."

Susan was certainly a take-charge lady when it came to preparing a big meal like this and she made the most mundane chores seem so easy and a pleasure to do. I knew this meal was going to be one to remember.

We were still buzzing around the kitchen when the boys came in with a rather tired Brutus.

"Mom, I gotta make a call to Shelly." Josh announced as they took off their coats. "I'll make it quick and then we'll start on the table." I looked at the clock; it was 11:30 and just gave him a nod as he took off for his room.

"Me too." Mark said as he looked at Bryan. Bryan just grinned and nodded his head, but his grin turned into a smile as Mark followed Josh upstairs. Then he continued to work on the cheese sauce.

My curiosity was peaked as I continued to look at Bryan, still smiling as he concentrated on the mixing of the sauce. He looked up at me still smiling. "Hey," I said softly, "what was that about?"

Still smiling, Bryan quietly said, "Mark has a boyfriend. He met him at the Air Cadets of all places. I guess it's just beyond the beginning stages and they're not 'in love' yet. I did see them kissing one night as I was walking down the hall. Michael was there on a sleepover, so I waited until he went home the next day to have a heart-to-heart with Mark. He's still not sure about the relationship, but I wanted to MAKE sure that they were taking all the precautions necessary. He said they haven't gone that far yet, but I did put a dozen condoms in his bedside drawer just in case. All I ask of you both is that you don't bring it up.... let him come to us if he wants to talk about it. Michael's a hell of a nice boy, maybe not as smart as Mark, but then, well.... what can I say? I'm prejudice."

"When it comes to Mark," Susan laughed, "we all are. Mum's the word."

"I thought Bill was his friend." I said.

"He is, but Billy's straight and mostly just a baseball buddy."

I walked behind Bryan and hugged him close. "I'm proud of you Bryan," I said quietly into his back, "You're a good Dad for your brother."

"A Dad's gotta do what a Dad's gotta do," Bryan said through a giggle as Josh came into the kitchen.

"That's right!" Josh exclaimed. "Now it's our turn. What's first Mom?"

"Get all the leaves out of the hall closet and stretch the table as big as you can. Somehow we have to get eleven people around there for dinner.... four on each side and one at the head and we'll double up the other end with two. Where's Mark?"

"He's still on the phone talking to his buddy back home," Josh replied as he left for the hall. The three of us stood there grinning at each other.

With everything on the stove ready to start cooking, another basting of the turkey, we finally left the kitchen. Somewhere in the middle of all the preparations, Susan had managed to make a plate of sandwiches. I had to sit down; my leg was starting to kick in again.

"Eat up quick gentlemen, we still have a lot to do." It only took Josh and Mark five minutes to finish off a sandwich and a coke. Oddly, they didn't say anything, but their happy smiles were truly evident. I'd guessed that Mark had had a good Christmas talk with his 'buddy' Michael.

"So what new tricks did you teach Brutus while you were out?" I asked.

Josh wagged his finger at me with a big smile. "Not yet, but we'll show you some time. It needs a bit of reinforcing yet."

"Uh Mark..." I said seriously between munches. "Bryan was telling me that you've never been to a summer camp."

Mark looked at me with a slight grin and shook head slowly. The anticipation in his eyes was priceless. However, Josh's face looked concerned. Once Bryan and I explained our camping plans for the summer after the trip to Paris, they were both grinning.

"OK boys, now that that's settled, let's get back to work in the dining room." Within moments, Susan was in the dining room supervising the boys and giving directions about the chairs and getting them to help with the oversized table cloth she had for special occasions.

Bryan came over to me with a look of concern. "You're leg's sore isn't it?"

"Yeah, it was all that standing in the kitchen. I'm going to have to get a pill." I replied.

"OK. Can I give you a hand downstairs so you can rest it properly?" Bryan asked.

"No, I'll be OK once the pill cuts in. I'll be right back and help you guys with the cooking."

"No... how about you stay down there.... sit at your computer and make up place markers with everyone's names on it for the table." Then Bryan reached down, pulled me up by the arms to a standing position, and kissed me. "I love you Tom," he finally said.

I grinned at the warmth of his voice and thought of Mark that morning and what I now knew about his new situation. "Double ditto Bryan," ....and I kissed him back before I went downstairs.

It really didn't take long at the computer to find a template, add a different Christmas icon to each name and print them out on some heavy bond, and by the time I had them printed, the pain pill had done its job. Within another five minutes, I had them cut and folded; ready to place them on the table.

When I arrived back upstairs in the dining room, I was astounded. The table looked beautiful with every conceivable dish and plate placed just so together with a wine goblet in front of each of the ten settings. Susan's fine English Royal Albert china with its gold rims was breathtaking.

"WOW! I exclaimed as Josh came over to me giving me a warm hug. I held out the place cards for Susan to take and place on the table.

"Did your leg quit hurting?" Josh asked.

"Yeah it's OK son. The pain killer did its thing while I made up the place cards." I replied.

"The cards look great Tom," Bryan said as he kissed me on the cheek.

"I had fun doing them," I replied as the front door opened. It was Mom and Andy.

Right away, there was a lot of Christmas greetings, kisses, and hugs. With their coats hung up, Andy handed Susan a nice bottle of wine, then went into the living room and piled two huge green garbage bags full of wrapped gifts under the tree. Mom, with her huge bowl of candied yams and plum pudding, went with Susan into the kitchen to add some magical touches to the dinner preparations.

I had a chance to ask Andy about our thoughts of the summer camp and he told us that he'd get back to us after he had a chance to talk with Rachel. It sounded encouraging and I knew Andy wanted us to be there to help. We didn't have a chance to reminisce about anything else before the front door burst open again and suddenly we had the twins excitedly wrapped around us.

We went through the ritual of hugs, kisses, and hanging coats again with Anne, James, and the twins. By the time Mark and Josh had taken their presents from them and placed them under the tree, the arrangement was much larger than the one we'd had that morning. Anne retreated to the kitchen with Susan and Mom with two huge salad bowls, a large Christmas cake ring, and a big box of homemade shortbread. James had another bottle of wine – the same as Andy's, that he took to the kitchen. The rest of us were relegated to the living room with strict orders to stay out of the kitchen.

The twins were drooling over the thoughts of more presents, but Brutus kept them busy with his playful antics. Again, I asked Josh to show us the new trick that he and Mark had taught Brutus that morning, but Josh shook his head quickly and said, "No Dad, not now. Not with the boys here, it's too serious."

That made me curious, but I let it go.

Then Mom, Susan, and Anne came into the living room. The three of them stood there, wide-eyed, mouths agape staring at the tree and the huge mound of presents.

 "Look at all those presents!" Susan exclaimed. "Josh, you're going to play Santa... we've only thirty minutes before we have to start eating dinner."

Right away Josh started reading nametags and handing out presents concentrating mostly on the twins. Ooohs, awhs, thank yous, hugs, and kisses were going all around the room in a bedlam of family love. As always, the twins lit up the room and had everyone smiling and laughing at their antics. There was one last present that Josh had be shoving out of the way throughout his distribution of presents until it was the only one left under the tree. Finally, very slowly he picked it up.

"OK boys, there's just this one present left and its for...." he slowly turned the parcel around to read the label. The twins were standing beside him, totally entranced by the suspense that Josh was slowly building up. "WOW! It's.... it's from Santa.... to me! It must be really something really special!" By now, everyone in the room had their eyes on Josh and the twins, even Brutus had moved into picture, sitting between the twins. Slowly, very carefully, Josh unwrapped the present holding everyone in the room in suspense. As soon as I saw the box, I knew what it was. Mark, Susan, Bryan, and I started to giggle as we watched Brutus' tail start wagging with anticipation. "I wonder..... hmmmm..... I wonder if someone's playing a trick on me," Josh said suspiciously as he put his hand on the lid of the box. The twins were shaking their hands in anticipation.

"Quick!" Richard begged, "open it up Josh."

"Yeah! Open it Josh. Let's see what's in it!" Matthew squealed.

In an instant Josh sprung the lid open and suddenly the snakes sprang out – one hitting Richard in the chest and another whizzing past Matthew's shoulder, one hitting the ceiling and the last one smacking Josh's chin. The surprised looks and squeals on the boys and our guests was really a Kodak moment, especially as it was emphasized by Brutus when he grabbed one of the snakes and chastised it, trying to kill it with his antics again.

When everyone had recovered a bit from the surprise, Susan went into her take-charge mode again. "OK boys," she began, "it's up to you to get all the wrapping paper cleaned up. Ladies we have to hit the kitchen, James... pour the wine please, Bryan.... kitchen, you and I have to do the gravy."

We'd no sooner picked up all the wrapping paper, when Anne came in and announced that we all had to get our hands washed before sitting down to dinner.

Everyone was awed by the table settings as they sat in their designated chairs. Mom was at the head of the table and Susan and Anne shared the other end of the table. I sat next to my Mom with Bryan beside me, Mark beside him and Josh beside Susan. Across from me, Andy sat with the twins coming next and finally James who sat next Anne. At Susan's request, Mom gave the blessing for the meal.

"May we join hands," Mom said as she bowed her head. "Lord you have blessed us with a bounty of love and sustenance for which we are truly thankful. This family has dedicated themselves to each other and the world in a hope to make it a better place to be for everyone. We are thankful for the strengths, love, and principles of justice that came from you and your Son, whose birthday we celebrate today. We thank you Lord for the rewards that You bestow upon us in our efforts to bring wholesome values to all we touch and may we always remain, humbling grateful for your gifts. Amen."

A chorus of 'Amens' followed Mom's blessing, then a moment of total stunned silence from everyone. We'd never been a serious lot of church goers during my years, however Dad and Mom had taught me about God and the creation as it relates to the world and our universe and I was always humbled by the concept of our insignificance sitting on our tiny speck of the universe.

James broke the silence. "Thank you Mom. That was beautiful."

Sitting next to James, Matthew said, "I know I'm thankful for the fishing and camping trips that Uncle Tommy and Josh took us on."

"Yeah, me too!" Richard chimed in, "....and to Uncle Andy for taking us to Newfoundland to see the ocean."

Andy smiled as he filled Richard's salad plate. "Well I'm very grateful for the chance to do that for you guys, but even more, I'm grateful to be able to help the kids at camp. Also, I was grateful to be able to help Tom in his time of need with the Chambers incident."

Mom smiled. "I'm grateful to Susan for bringing all my family together. Because of you Susan and your influence on Josh in his early years, my family has expanded to include you, Josh, Mark, and Bryan.... the four of you have done so much in this past year to make me a very happy mom. I'm also thankful that each of you came through the last year unscathed without too much hardship."

As I took the second bowl of salad from Mom, I said, "Mom, I think everyone at this table is grateful to you and Dad for the lives you've given us. Most important for me at this table, of course, is Josh.... a young teenager who calls me Dad, who enjoys all the guidance that I share with him..... all the guidance that you and Dad gave me when I was growing up. Almost equally important, I'm thankful for Bryan, my soul mate forever."

Bryan smiled. "I didn't think I would ever have the pleasure of family love again like I have with all of you. Your acceptance of Mark and me.... me as Tom's mate for life.... has not only restored my faith in mankind, but given me a hope for a future filled with happiness. I'm grateful to all of you and feel truly blessed."

I couldn't help myself – I put my arm on Bryan's shoulder and kissed his cheek.

Mark was beaming – his smile and sparkling eyes were just a humble precursor to his words. "Blessings.... love.... I never truly felt them in my life until my birthday. I knew that Bryan, Tom, and Josh loved me, but I didn't think it extended to all of you. I've never had a Christmas or a family gathering like this before and it feels so beautiful. For that, I'll always be thankful. I just hope that sometime in the future, I can give all of you the same feeling that I have right now. I have a very dear friend in Calgary... Michael. It's so good to know that if the day ever comes for Michael and I, that he too will be accepted by all of you, just as you've accepted Bryan and I into your hearts."

I was overwhelmed. I put my fork on my plate and started to clap my hands. I was truly proud of Mark at that moment. Everyone at the table followed my lead as Bryan grabbed his brother in a hug. Susan and Anne had to wipe their eyes with their napkins.

"I guess I can't pass eh?" Josh kidded. "All the wonderful things that have happened to me are mostly because of one man... my dad, Tommy. It's his love of giving, understanding, caring, encouragement, and amazing insights that have given me a steady platform to express what I want in this world...." Then he stood up and walked over to me and held me in a hug, "....a world that I wasn't aware of until he showed it to me. Thank you Dad!"

As Josh returned to his place at the table, Susan smiled, "That goes double for me Josh. Although there have been a few times when you and Tom have given me a few anxious moments this past year, I'm thankful that I always had the backbone of this family holding me up. I'm really thankful that all us are here in my home.... your home.... whenever any of you are here.... because it has restored my confidence in the values of family love and caring. I was a bit nervous about preparing a feast like this, but in addition to the salads, desserts, and vegetables that Anne and Mom brought, we all should give thanks to Bryan as he and Tom worked by my side to prepare the rest of it."

That brought another round of applause.

Once that faded, Anne stood up with a big grin on her face. James held her hand – both of them looked at each other – a glow about their demeanour. "I'm sure that you all remember that there are actually twelve us around this table today. The baby is due in February. Ultrasound results show that we are going to have another little boy" Again, the applause started up with cheers of congratulations and warm wishes The twins were ecstatic to know that they had a little brother on the way.

Once the salad course was completed, Josh, Anne, and Susan cleared those dishes away, and started bringing out all the dishes of vegetables, platters of turkey and dressing. Everyone at the table, except Anne, enjoyed a glass of wine with dinner. The twins didn't think it was that great tasting and screwed up their faces at it. When Susan took their glasses away, she returned with them filled with cream soda, which they enjoyed.

Our increasingly close-knit family enjoyed the best Christmas dinner that any of us could ever remember.

Considering that it was the women who had worked so hard preparing all the food, it was up to us men folk, except the twins, to do the clean-up. We ushered them all back into the living room.

I couldn't believe there were so many leftovers. Bryan took charge and started making up food baskets of turkey, dressing, and vegetables for everyone to take home with them. Josh, Mark, Andy, James, and I had a pretty good assembly line set up of scraping dishes, washing them by hand (it was the good china – no dishwasher for them) then drying and stacking them to get put back in the china cabinet. The pots and pans were another load. By the end of the ordeal, Bryan had the bird down to near bones, but after a little hunting around the kitchen cupboards, found a ten litre stock pot, and put the carcass in it together with a pile of water. I knew we'd be having a lot of turkey soup during the next week. Meanwhile, James had made two pots of coffee to go with dessert.

Our final course – dessert! Bryan filled eleven bowls with plum pudding and a special brown sugar and rum topping he'd concocted. I arranged a big plate of Christmas cake and others filled with shortbread, Nanaimo bars, rum balls, and other goodies that Anne had brought. James and Andy were quick to get each of the bowls onto the table, while Bryan and I took the other plates.

Josh went into the living room and announced, "Alright you bunch of starving females and little folk, it's time to get up to the old feed bag and fill your tummys. Dessert is on the table."

Mom, Susan, and Anne moaned. The twins were totally excited over the idea and rushed in right away. There was no doubt about it; we were still somewhat filled by the amount we'd eaten from the turkey dinner.

By the end of the evening, while we all gave and received piles of gifts, we all knew that the greatest gift of all was our family. It was a very unconventional family to say the least, but it was as close and loving as any family could ever be.

Later that night, with the extended family returned to their own homes and with the boys safely tucked into bed, I stepped out onto the porch to take a breath of fresh outdoor air for the first time today. I looked up at the night sky. It was a crystal clear night and the stars sparkled like diamonds in the heavens. As I gazed up at that night sky, I watched a shooting star streak across the sky and silently made a wish that there would be many more Christmases like this one. I didn't even hear the door open and my first clue that Bryan was behind me was when he gently placed my coat over my shoulders. Then he put his arm around me and looked up at the night sky with me.

"We really do have it all, don't we?" He asked.

"We sure do Bry. We sure do." I replied. "I wish every family were as lucky as we are."


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