“Tween mode … ACTIVATED!” we shout, when Riley is acting moody or particularly argumentative. “My name’s Riley and I’m always right,” I say, through a pushed-out lower lip, my hands shoved deep into my pockets. “I’m twelve and I know everything.” John strokes his chin and acts gravely concerned: “Are you grouchy because your body is going through changes?” I dig out my phone and pretend to call 911. “Um, hi, we have a tween who, like, cannot even? Yeah he literally cannot. Can you send a wahmbulance?”

“Oh my god, STOP. You guys are the WORST,” he says, frustrated, fighting a smile.

:::

I turn around from the dishwasher and run smack into Dylan, who wraps his arms around my waist. “Unexpected hug,” he says, his voice muffled by my shirt.

:::

We all watch American Vandal, a Netflix mockumentary in the style of Serial or Making a Murderer. The story centers around a kid who’s accused of spray-painting a bunch of dicks at his school. We get into heated conversations about how the crime went down and whether this person or that person is guilty or innocent. “For the life of me, I just don’t understand what’s so funny about penises,” someone on the show says into the camera, and we laugh and laugh.

:::

Both kids have a Gizmo Gadget watch, they can send short predefined texts like “Yes,” “No,” “I love you,” “Where are you?” “I’m at school,” etc.

Riley rides his bike to school now, and texts when he arrives. I have a long string of one-button notifications:

I’m at school.

I’m at school.

I’m at school.

I’m at school.

I’m at school.

Sometimes I just open the app and look at those messages, wishing I had more insight into his day but deciding what I do know is enough.

I’m okay.

I’m safe.

Everything is all right.

:::

Dylan was joking around with Riley and for some reason he announced that his new name was Balange (Bah-laange) and to his eternal regret it stuck, instantly.

Dylan: “Stop calling me Balange!”
Riley: “Okay Balange.”
Dylan: “Seriously DON’T.”
Riley: “Classic Balange thing to say.”

Even I find myself saying it sometimes, usually when I’m exasperated about something.

Me: “Where’s your homework sheet?”
Dylan: “Um … I think I forgot it at school.”
Me: “BALANGE.”

Balange now seems like Dylan’s alter-ego, like the little Not Me! ghost that runs around in those Family Circus cartoons. Who dumped half a sleeve of Saltine crumbs on the floor? Balange. Who left his shoes right where I can trip over them? Balange. Who said pangolins were his favorite animal then got super mad because we kept thinking he was saying “penguins”? Balange.

:::

We finally got around to the painting the kids’ rooms. Riley chose a neutral grey with a denim-blue accent wall. Dylan chose an aggressive yellow that took on an orange tint as it dried. “It’s so much better!” he said, delighted.

Last night he spent some time cutting and taping a piece of paper to his door. It reads,

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On Labor Day I went to visit P. Such a familiar routine by then: park (away from the entrance side of the lot where once I’d been blocked in by a delivery van), clip on my name tag with the aggressively unflattering photo, stop by the front desk to sign in and greet the receptionists, walk down the hall with the tinkling music and tasteful corporate art to room one-forty-eight.

This time, something different. Her door was locked, and I just stood there for a while, uncertain. I’d already knocked and pitched my voice for a loud hello and her door was always unlocked, she can’t get up to let people in. You’d think I would have figured it out at that point, but no. An employee had to tell me that two days prior, sometime around 1 AM, P. had died.

Well. Hardly unexpected, and yet it felt like someone had picked up the world I knew and twisted it like a Rubik’s Cube. In one moment, I was going to walk into that room and pull up a wooden kitchen chair and spend an hour with my friend P., in the next I was never going to do that again.

The last time I saw her, she wasn’t doing well. She said she’d fallen the night before, and laid on the floor for some time before she could summon help. I couldn’t quite imagine it: without the strength to get out of bed, how could she have fallen? So many of the things she believed were growing fogged-over and indistinct. But she was clearly exhausted from something, her eyes kept closing. I held her hand — so fragile, like a sparrow — and told her to get some rest, I’d see her next time.

The obituary said she went peacefully. Maybe they always say that. I hope it’s true, though. I like knowing that it was one in the morning, it feels like a silent, still part of the night when the shape of things becomes malleable, when it’s possible for one breath to simply disconnect from the next.

She told me, more than once, how glad she was for her faith. She was so happy to know that she would be reunited with all her loved ones. She said she thought maybe God was keeping her alive for so long so she could pray for others, so she prayed for the people she saw outside on the bike path. I don’t know what else I can do, she said. All the things unsaid in that statement.

Her funeral was this past Sunday. At the end of the service there was a slideshow of images, and I got to see her as a younger woman, with dark hair and buttoned-up A-line dresses and those same twinkling eyes. In the very final photo she was in a car, scarf over her hair, a smile on her face and one hand raised to wave goodbye.

The Rubik’s Cube clicks back and forth: it was time for her to go, there is never quite enough time.

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