I have a new hospice patient, her name is M. We were visiting yesterday and chatting about this and that, and she said she tries to drink at least three refills of her oversized hospital mug throughout the day. I mentioned that I found it hard to stay hydrated in the winter because drinking water makes me feel chilly, and she stopped me right there. “Who says it has to be just water?” she said, craftily, and dug around by her bedside. I was absolutely positive she was going to pull out a flask and my head briefly spun at the ethical quandary of a patient with hidden booze (she can’t have that, with her health situation and all her medications, someone must be informed! Then again … she’s on hospice, maybe she should be able to have whatever the hell she wants?) but she produced a box of Twinings tea. “It tastes like a dessert mint,” she said. “And if you put a Stevia or two in there? Oh.”

This is a wholly different situation than it was with P., who was in a care facility. M. lives at home, and it is a very busy household. Adult grandchildren live there, a tiny 2-year-old runs around, M.’s daughter comes and goes and seems burdened with managing just about everything. In the midst of it, M. moves laboriously from bed to chair and back again. She keeps all sorts of things within reach: notebooks, hand towels, snacks. A cup of that sweet minty tea.

It’s hard not to feel like a stranger who’s arrived wielding a dubious skillset, which is exactly what I am.

One of the notes in her file included a vague warning about a cat: “The grey cat does not always appreciate being petted.” The family also told me to watch out for him, that he was known for attacking people out of the blue. As a result I have been downright terrified of this cat, greeting him with a quavering voice whenever he slinks nearby, breathing a sigh of relief when he moves on.

Yesterday he suddenly jumped into my lap and sat there for nearly half an hour, purring heavily as I nervously scratched his ears, and I thought: HE CAN SENSE MY CARING NATURE. NO NEED TO DOUBT MY ROLE, MY SOOTHING POWERS ARE FELT BY ALL! Then he leapt down, started to leave, reconsidered, and sunk his teeth into my ankle. As if to say, It’s not about YOU, asshole.

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“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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