In The News

6 Nov

There’s a reasonable chance you’re here thanks to recent news articles and segments regarding the memorial video we made for our sons Rudyard, Desmond and Oscar.  If that’s the case, thank you for your interest. It does mean a lot to my wife and me.  In interviews, we’ve tried our best to represent our own experiences and the feelings of those of us in the grief community who’ve chosen to celebrate and remember our loved ones’ lives in the form of online media.

If you’re looking for the video, you can find it here.

Or, if you’re curious about the illustrations I drew of the boys, you can see them in this post.

Or, if you want to know a bit more about the circumstances of our sons’ birth and passing, please refer to the FAQ.

Thank you again.

- Jeremy Bear

The Daily Beast article – Stillbirth and YouTube

4 Nov

daily_beast_logoThis morning, our story is featured in a Daily Beast article about parents of stillborn children and the growing trend to grieve publicly through the use of online media, like tribute videos and blogs.

It was clear from the start of my conversation with journalist Brandy Zadrozny that she had a heart toward presenting the matter well and sensitively and I’m grateful to have been part of a penetrating article, executed beautifully.

You can read the story here.

daily-beast-article-graphic

Thanks to Ms. Zadrozny and all of the grieving parents featured in the piece.

“As Easy As 123?” – An Audio Documentary

5 Jun

Yesterday I made reference to a documentary project about having and raising triplets that contains an interview with me and, with the producer’s permission, I’m posting it below.

It was produced by Andrew Parkinson (a triplet dad himself) through the University of Sussex in England and, frankly, I think it’s great. The material that has specifically to do with Tips On Triplets / our family begins at around 21:40, but the whole thing really is worth a listen.

(Also, be aware of some frank language in parts, as this is the uncensored version of the production.)

Thanks, Andrew.

Where The Fire Began

4 Jun

Last night I dreamed of a fire. I don’t remember everything about the context, but I was outdoors and it seemed to be a fire that sprang up quickly. And it’s hard to say how, but I knew it was a fire covering the whole world.

People were running, shouting “This is it! This is the end!” And a sort of Clint Howard-looking guy pointed to a very specific spot near a tree line that was consumed in flames and said “There! That’s where the fire began, so that’s where it’ll burn out first! It’s our only chance! Go to where the fire began!”

And, listen, I’m the last guy to pull faux-inspirational instruction out of dream logic, but today is a day for trying to make sense out of the senseless, so I guess I’ll follow Clint’s advice.

Today is my boys’ second birthday.

Honest, it was never my intention to turn this blog into an annual affair, but that’s sort of how it worked out. I was interviewed for a documentary project about triplets a couple of months ago and the interviewer asked if I regret writing this blog, what with how things ended and all.  I told him no, I really don’t, because it’s the best chronicle I have of what it was like to anticipate them, to meet them and lose them.  It’s the piece of my sons that’s still out in the world, meeting new people from time to time and occasionally peeping their heads out on page five of a Google search or wedged between pictures of other babies on a Facebook news feed.

In the early days of grief, I spent a lot of time wondering how Future Me would feel about all of this.  Painful as it was, one of my biggest fears was that the pain would go away.  It makes sense, I suppose.  Pain defined my short time with them and if that disappears, well, does that mean they go away too?

But pain is still there.  I have more of a choice than I used to, I guess, about when and how I access it.  I’m of an age where my friends tend to be wrapping up their baby-having and are focused more on child-raising and it’s inevitable: there are lots of stories.  From potty training to homework trouble, there’s an inexhaustible stream of precious moments and with every story, I’m making choices.  Other grieving parents will know what I mean.  We make choices about how deep to let it cut us, whether we’ll be happy for you or bitter for us.  The thing is, by and large, we want you to have your good life and your beautiful children. For the most part, it makes us glad to see things going well, particularly if you love your kids and you’re doing your best to do right by them.  But understand that “happy-for-you” is sometimes a choice and it’s not always a natural one.

Anyhow, that’s a digression.  If today’s theme is Going To Where The Fire Began, it’s easy to see that the fire began in our little hospital room.

A year ago today we made the mistake of… eh.  We made the choice, put it that way, of visiting the hospital to bring hellos and flowers to some of the staff that had helped us in our darkest time. And I guess it sort of caught us by surprise because, after an absent left turn or two we realized we were standing right outside of our old room.

And like a wrecking ball, it came back, too much, all at once.

I’m guilty of romanticizing our small hours with our boys when the truth is it was the opposite of romantic. It was tears and confusion and hesitation.  It was pain and it was awkward fumbling with rushed eulogizing and shaky cell phone pictures, trying to figure out whether or not it was appropriate to wear a smile while posing.

And while the memories I have of our morning with our boys are maybe the most precious memories I have, I feel the need to be honest about it.  Truthfully, in those moments, more than anything, I remember wanting it to be over.

I wanted to be anywhere but there, doing anything but that.  I’m ashamed and embarrassed to say it because it’s so contrary to the sort of man I want to be, but looking at my wife’s anguish, watching Desmond and Oscar trying to grab air into their little pecan lungs that weren’t quite strong enough… I just wanted the pain to stop.  I knew I should be cherishing the time, but instead I wanted to be designing a web site or playing Angry Birds or driving to the grocery store.  I wanted to be at my boys’ memorial, remembering this time instead of right there, right then, actually living it.

I wanted no more pain for Carey, no more pain for Rudyard, Desmond or Oscar.  No more pain for me.

And now I look back at it and I hate how I remember feeling almost as much as I hate what happened.

Anyhow, that’s what I live with.  I wish it were prettier.  The fire began in other places too.  Our living room where Carey’s water broke.  Our room where the doctor gave us the odds.  In the bassinet where we said goodbye to them the morning following their birth.

But this year, two years into grief, if I’m grateful for something, it’s that the pain is still there.  It hurts because it should hurt.  And whatever stupid thing I felt in that little room in those moments, my pain today, right now, reminds me that I love them.

If you’re a reader of this blog and have been waiting a year for an update, thank you for your patience. Particularly if you’ve left a comment or offered love or encouragement to our family over the past couple of years, I can’t tell you what it means to us.  Our story is our boys and our boys is our story.  Following along with us makes all the difference.

Birthday

4 Jun

Today is (well, would’ve been) (well, is) the boys’ birthday. A year ago today, we met them and lost them.

I think nearly every parent of a dead child has the same epiphany about the anniversary of their child’s birth and/or death: let’s do what we can to associate the day with something positive. Let’s, I don’t know, have a party or take a trip or open up that champagne we’ve been saving. We’ll toast/sing/pray/light a candle/release a balloon/plant a garden/buy a puppy/recite a stirring passage from Whitman. It’ll be a day we’ll actually look forward to someday. We’ll flip it. We can do that, can’t we?

Sure.

And we’re doing some of those things. Not really because we want to turn the day into something cool or happy and not really because we want to make ourselves feel better. I suppose I don’t really know why we’re doing it. Maybe because we have to do something.

It’s hard to know how to describe the past year. 12 months later and I’m still trying to figure out what grief is, how it works, how to do it correctly. Frankly, I felt like I was better at it in the weeks immediately following than I am now. When those certain moments come, the Red Moments I call them, when they hit like a cinder block to the chest, there’s really not much to be done. Breathing exercises, hasty trips to the stalls in the office men’s room, mini mantras… they don’t really help as much as they should. You sort of have to wait them out. I thought I’d eventually get used to the Red Moments, that they’d hurt less and less as time goes by, but it doesn’t work that way. I suppose they come a little less often, which is something, but the bite is still strong as ever.

“I miss my boys,” I say often. Usually it’s when I’m alone in the car or maybe just into my hand, under my breath at work. Or the shower. I say it a lot in the shower.

And it’s not just ‘The Boys’ I miss, as if they’re one kid with three heads. It’ll be a different son on different days. I had a lot of Oscar days in the beginning. Then, for awhile, it was Rudyard almost nonstop. Only in recent months has my focus gone most often to Desmond. I don’t know why, I’m sure there’s some sort of science to this, but I’m not privy.

And you’d think, a year in, I’d quit making mental plans with them. “I can’t wait until the boys are old enough for Shel Silverstein.” “I wonder when I should start thinking about parental control stuff for our internet.” And then: “oh, right.”

Carey and I have met a lot of grieving people and we’ve both, at this point, been exposed to a truly formidable assortment of grief strategies. For example, when I hear someone refer to our kids as “Angel Babies”, I don’t know. It’s usually fine and I know that sort of thing helps a lot of people, but I sometimes can’t stop myself from wanting to drive my car through the wall of a Pizza Hut.

“Does it help to know they’re with God?” Not as much as you’d think.

“Are you trying for more?” Not at the moment, no.

“You do know that, in the short time you were with them, you were a wonderful father, right?”

No. I guess I don’t know that.

But, a year later, I just mostly want to talk to them without feeling like a fucking lunatic. If there was one thing my old man was never short on, it was advice. And is it so ridiculous that I really want to be able to do the same thing? That’s a man’s right, isn’t it?

Well, boys, for your birthday, that’s what I think I’d like to give you. Trust me, I’d rather this were something more along the lines of Tonka Trucks or clever T-shirts, but it is what it is. I realize this has much more to do with my own neediness and very little to do with your edification, but, today only, I’m not going to sweat it.

So here it is. Words of wisdom from your old, broken dad.

A Few Things I Wish I Could’ve Said

Rudyard:

When I was growing up, my own dad was full of advice for me and I didn’t always want to hear it. He seemed to have ideas on how I should be doing just about everything, from the sort of language I used to how I spent my Saturday afternoons.

But there was one piece of advice your granddad always gave me that’s stayed with me the most. Maybe it’s what he said most often or maybe I’m only remembering it that way. Anyhow, I’d mention something about being pushed around or ridiculed by the other kids. Or he’d overhear me repeating something vulgar or telling a particularly tasteless joke. His response was almost always the same:

“Son, rise above it.”

There were times that I hated “rise above it”, but I couldn’t deny it was a good thing for me to hear.

Rudyard, there are things you can’t really change about yourself, however much you might want it and one of those things, I’m proud to say, is that you’re a leader. I know it’s hard for you to remember, but kids look to other kids when they’re trying to decide who they are and how to act. They’re looking around for someone to imitate, someone who’s in on some sort of life secret. And you may not realize it, but other people your age, your brothers included, are looking to you.

You won’t always want to be an example, but those are the breaks, bud. I wish I could tell you that you get to coast sometimes, but that’s just not how it works. And, fair warning, there’ll be times when you’ll want to use your powers for temporary popularity. You’ll be tempted to reduce yourself for an easy laugh or a fast friend.

But remember who you are, what you’re about. Pettiness and cruelty: rise above it. The easy way out: rise above it.

Keep in mind that you have a family who loves you, who wants to see you become the best version of yourself. But mostly, remember that when you do mess up (and you will), I’m always proud of you.

Love you, Rudyard. Deep breaths, you’ll be fine.

Dad


Desmond:

When I first met your mother, there were two things I noticed: first, she was a very, very pretty lady. Second, I could tell right away that she was the most big-hearted individual I’d ever encountered.

It’s not so easy being the way she is, but you already know that. To a truly big-hearted, compassionate soul, the world can start to look awfully mean and cynical. Others don’t always understand why it’s so important for you to go to such ridiculous lengths to help those who can’t help themselves. They’d rather you were more like them: head down, unquestioning, self-serving, status quo.

But Des, the world doesn’t really work without people like you and your mom. It’s very difficult to be the person who stands up for others, who reminds us that it’s better to be selfless and good. It’s tempting to trade in your compassion for something quick and easy and fun. But there’s a tiny voice in the back of your brain telling you The Truth, no matter how loud the world gets. “Be kind,” it’s saying. And maybe that’s all it’ll ever say.

Don’t ever let anyone convince you that compassion and understanding are weaknesses. In fact, it takes more courage than just about anything. And it doesn’t stop when you’re a grown-up. Everyone everywhere will seem to have all sorts of reasons why compassion is silly or naive or inefficient or even intolerant. Don’t ever believe it.

You’re true blue, my big-hearted boy.

Your family loves you. Your dad, no matter what, is always proud of you.

Love you, Desmond.

Dad


Oscar:

Like you, I was not a very big guy growing up and I remember: it’s frustrating. You have people twice your size and half your intelligence making your life extremely difficult. And there are days when it seems like it’s never going to end. But also like you, I had something that most of the other kids didn’t. It was equal parts blessing and curse, but I decided early on to become very clever.

It’s fun being quick with a comeback. That bruise on your arm from the bully in your class will heal in a few days and, I know, it hurts. But the wisecrack you fired back at him about his crooked teeth? That’ll stay with him for years.

The fact is, Oz, you have to be careful with people. It’s often the little guy with the big brain that winds up intimidating everyone. Believe it or not, bullies bully because they’re scared. I know it doesn’t seem that way, but you’ll have to trust me on this. On the inside, bullies are smaller than everyone, so they tend to puff out their chests, ball up their fists and try their best to destroy everyone around them because they’ll do anything to keep people from discovering their secret.

You’ll be tempted to cut these fellows down to size, to expose them, to make them cry with your clever remarks and your sarcasm. And, okay, sometimes they should cry a little. But whether it’s them bullying you with their fists or you bullying them with your words, well, what’s difference?

You’re going to find, my man, that being funny is one of the best things in the world. It’s a gift and, just like Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility. Being able to make someone laugh means that, every so often, you get to be the right guy at the right time who makes someone feel good instead of feeling awful. Isn’t that the perfect sort of person to be?

I know your brothers are bigger than you, Oscar, so this will probably sound a little strange: but go easy on them. You’re able to say and do things that they can’t. You can think of things they’ll never consider. Use your powers for good.

Make us all laugh, guy. You’re good at it.

Your family loves you. Your dad is so, so proud of you.

Hang in there. Love you, Oz.

Dad

Anyway, if you’re reading this, thanks for indulging a brief dad and his ramblings on a particularly difficult day. Your grace and understanding is appreciated.

And Happy Birthday, my boys. Your dad misses you terribly.

Heaven for Beginners

7 Sep

While Carey was pregnant, I began writing an essay about my ideas on Heaven.  If you know me, you won’t be surprised that it has little to do with clouds and harps and (as Schwyzen puts it) chucking Hosanna-propelled crowns at the resurrected Christ.  Heaven, for me, was easiest to think about using geometric concepts and maybe a quantum mechanic thrown in here and there.

It’s been just over three months since the boys left us and these ideas are more precious to me than ever.  People have asked me about where I think they are and whether they’re able to see me and hear me.  “I think they can,” I tell them.  “In fact, I think they can see and hear everything.”  My wife has asked me if I think they miss us as much as we miss them and I told her I didn’t think so because I think we’re with them.

Anyhow, thanks for reading.  I’m still deciding how to use this space.

Dissent/discussion welcome.

HEAVEN FOR BEGINNERS

1 (Line)

To understand One, grab a pencil and draw the number one itself, which is to say, draw a line. It can be as long or as short as you like. One has no depth or thickness, only length. It’s a single axis, a way to describe point A’s relationship to point B.

That’s really all there is to say about One.

2 (Plane)

Two is a plane, a flat surface. It’s circles and squares, length and width. It’s the Mona Lisa or a page of Brahms’ Cello Sonata in F.

But Two has no depth, so if you want a Two representation of your own life, they best you can do is a photograph. For example, take a look at that snapshot of you from Heather’s wedding. Beautiful reception and everyone remembers that gorgeous flower arrangement at the head table. But what kind of flowers were they? The photograph isn’t telling because your shoulder’s in the way. Turn the photo over if you want, look underneath it, or zoom in on the image as hard as you can, lose yourself in the grain of the pixel blur… you’ll still never know. The information, like the photo itself, is flat.

Color, shape, length, width.

That’s Two.

3 (Depth)

Three is length plus width plus depth; the x, y and z axes. If Two is a circle, Three is a sphere. 2D is area, 3D is volume.

We live in a Three world and it’s here we can crane our necks and see over your shoulder and, yes, chrysanthemums.

Perspective, thickness, dimension, atmosphere. Board a ship, sail around the planet, end where you began.

Three.

4 (Time)

Ask a friend to locate the Eiffel Tower on a world map. If they’re reasonably educated, they’ll find Europe, then France, then Paris. “There.”

Maybe they’ll give you precise coordinates, latitude and longitude, distance above sea level. It’s conceivable they’ll tell you how far it is from the Earth’s core or the nearest tip of the Crab Nebula.

Now ask them to locate The Olympics.

Four is when.

We may be living in a Three world, but we’re coasting through a Four reality, one moment at a time, so casually and consistently that we forget what a marvel it really is, like fish who only know Wet.

We exist on an earth that’s hurtling around our sun at a breakneck 18 miles per second, which is attached to a solar system traveling even faster. “Where” changes so fast and so often that the concept itself is borderline useless if we don’t couple it with “when”.

We die, then we make babies together, then we fall in love, then we’re born, then we’re married, then we meet. (Not necessarily in that order.)

Three is space. Four is time.

Onward.

5 (AllNow)

If you could step outside your own body and observe your activity for one day, it may or may not be all that remarkable, but imagine consolidating all your comings and goings into a single, 3 dimensional, long-exposure image. A you-shaped blur that begins in your bed, curls into the shower, the kitchen, your car, into your workplace, eventually snaking back into your home, and ending in bed. Depending on your routine, that single you-caterpillar would likely stretch for miles, if straightened out end-to-end, a perfect map of everything you did, everywhere you went that day.

Now think of the Earth itself, winding around the sun for centuries, millennia, as a single image. A solid blue ring around a little yellow star.

Now imagine all life, everywhere, all activity and every event as a single, literal object. The entirety of time and space, every birth and death, every asteroid collision and every cup of coffee drunk. The blurs of human history, overlapping and intersecting, piping through the cosmos, as the earth spins round the sun spins round the galaxy spins round the universe.

And not just everything that’s happened, but everything that will happen. All time, start to finish.

This is Five, what Morrison refers to as the AllNow.

For us, “today” is everything. In fact, it’s all we have. Your maximum point of influence in the universe is the instant you’re experiencing at this precise moment. But look: that moment’s gone and now you’re in a new one. And look! A new one.

Et cetera.

Not so in the AllNow, the time/space object where we all exist, but can’t perceive it properly because we’re forced to experience it one moment at a time.

Your life story will conclude; it’s a fact. As surely as it began, it’s going to end. If you could see your Three/Four life from a Five perspective, you’d understand and you wouldn’t be afraid, because there it is. No more surprises.

That’s Five.

6 (Possibility)

You’re in a coffee shop, you accidentally knock your spoon off the table. He notices, gets you a new one. You begin talking, get married and live out your days together in Walla Walla.

You’re in a coffee shop, you bump your spoon, but catch it just in time. He buys his coffee and leaves. You move to the Dominican Republic to volunteer at an orphanage.

One happened, the other didn’t. There’s only one you, only one destiny, only one fifth dimensional time/space object. Right?

Six: possibility.

Schrödinger proposed a simple scenario in which a cat is trapped in a box with a radioactive atom, a Geiger counter and a poison flask. The cat’s dead, unless it isn’t. We can’t know for sure until we open the box and observe it. It’s conceivable there are two realities operating simultaneously: one in which the cat is dead, the other in which it’s very annoyed.

What if time and reality are constantly forking and branching, accommodating every possibility, every permutation of every event that ever was? What if the time/space Five object we’re inside is simply one option, one strand of infinite realities?

Somehow, somewhere, you did get the job. You did wreck your car. You did quit smoking.

He does love you.

What if every story ever written, ever dreamed, however outrageous, really is happening?

AllOccurs in AllNow.

Six.

7 (Heaven)

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

That’s Leibniz asking the question from the 17th century, and he wasn’t the first.

To recap: a time object supercontext, infinitely versioned to allow for every possibility of every event in the universe. 3D worlds inside 4D realities inside 5D timespaces inside 6D possibilities.

At last, Seven. The omega level, the authority, the governing dimension, the place of souls.

Seven is Heaven.

If you’ll allow that only the eternal can contain the infinite, that we’re, all of us, being prepared for something… there must be some method of building, containing and nurturing all that is.

It’s here the iterations of time and space are nakedly displayed, where we’re there to see it and understand it. As e. e. cummings describes:

everything which is natural, which is infinite which is yes.

It exists because it has to, because it’s the only Somewhere that makes sense. If Five is AllNow and Six is AllOccurs, Seven is, must be, AllIntimacy.

Your ambitions and purity and the completion of the You project is Here. Your dead ancestors and friends and even your descendants: they’re not just fond memories and they’re not simply with you “in your heart”. Even your loved ones and your enemies and everyone you’ve never met, who are still living now in the “present”.

They’re HereNow.

And you. The Real You, not the moment-to-moment crash test dummy you’re riding now, where the past is memory and the future is unknown. The Authentic You. The 7D You:

You’re HereNow.

AllIntimacyOccursNow.

“Why is there something rather than nothing?” (Yes.)

“God is Love.” (Yes.)

Heaven is here. We’re in it unknowingly.

Deep breaths, friend. You are loved infinitely. Take comfort: One is a line.

Heaven is Everything.

Best Possible

23 Jul

It’s been nearly a month since I’ve posted, but I’ve thought of my blog and those who read it often. This post isn’t so much an update as a, well, a Something. A couple of weeks after the boys were born and passed, I began writing a short piece without any sort of idea where it was going or who would be likely to read it. Maybe it would be just for me.

Tonight finds me at an open mic night at Seka Coffee House in Long Beach. I’ve been given 5 minutes to do whatever I want with a captive audience and I’ve decided to read what I wrote. Due to time, I’m only doing an excerpt, but the full text is below, if you’re interested.

It’s called Best Possible and it was inspired by my sons.

It’s after sundown. I’m in my car and I’m driving somewhere, only I don’t know exactly where because that’s up to my passenger, who’s giving directions, calling out the turns and the exits, the merges and the yields. I ask him about the destination and he says “trust me” and I’m not altogether sure I do, but I will.

He’s in his 40s, maybe even 50, and his hair’s starting in with the gray, but mostly he’s pretty thin up top. He’s paunchy and pale, with a voice like my father’s, only a little deeper, and a profile like my mother’s, only a little more beaky and it’s been a few days since he’s shaved.

Point of fact, he looks exactly like me. Or anyway, exactly how I’ll look in 10 or 15 years. Truth is, he’s my future self and he’s returned to his past, my present, to tell me to stay on the 710 south.

“How many kids do you have?” he asks me and I tell him he already knows and he says, “humor me, would you?” and I tell him the truth, which is to say I had 3 boys, but now they’re dead.

He shakes his head and winces. “I’m sorry,” he tells me. “You’re one of those. Two of my sons also passed, but the third, Oscar, he made it. He starts high school in the fall.”

The place we arrive, it’s sort of a little studio, the kind where they teach children karate, only it seems to be closed. My passenger, the future me, says, “go ahead in.” I cut the engine, undo my seatbelt and hesitate. Finally, I ask him if he has any, I don’t know, advice or something. He itches his nose and rakes his fingers through his hair the same way I’ve done since I was a toddler and eventually says, “oh, sure. You should exercise more.”

I leave Future Me in the car and head inside. The door’s unlocked and the lights are off, except for a little desk lamp on a tiny, wooden table in the center of the room, between a couple of chairs. In one of them sits Future Me, who I could’ve sworn was in the car just a second ago. He’s slightly older, or maybe younger. Something’s different and it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what, but he’s focused on his paperback copy of The Brothers Karamazov, the one collecting dust at home on my shelf in my office, and if he notices me, he doesn’t say anything.

I sit in the opposite chair and eventually break the tension by telling him I’ve tried to make it through Karamazov three times and I always fail miserably. He looks up and chuckles and says, “this is attempt number five for me and it’s a real climb. Would it kill these people to have a regular conversation once in awhile? Page 170 and I’m ready to murder all three brothers.”

We spend a few minutes talking about books we like and books we don’t and he mentions Ayn Rand and I tell him she’s one of Carey’s favorites and he says “who’s Carey?” I’m not sure if he’s joking, but I say, you know, she’s my wife and he closes his eyes and smiles. “Carey, right. From college.”

I’m for mystery as much as the next man (and in this particular case, that’s me too), but I eventually ask him who he is, what this is. He points to a little door in the back of the studio that reads STAFF and says, “you’re going to have to go in there, sooner or later.” Then he hands me a raffle ticket with a number hand-written on it and says, “I’m you. The you that gets you ready.”

I open the door.

The STAFF room is less of a room and more of an indoor arena. Not exactly a stadium, but it’s in the neighborhood. There seems to be a big event going on in the center, on some kind of red platform, complete with concert-style lighting.

Also, the place is, well, packed. Old men, young men, everything in between. Some in outrageous outfits, some in understated suits. A handful seem to be drunk or high and others still are handicapped. But the big thing they all have in common is they all look exactly like me.

“We’re waiting,” says a voice next to me, who turns out to be a very pained-looking, mid-twenties me, propped against a wall, clutching his sides. “You’ll want to get comfortable, most of us have been here awhile.” I ask what we’re waiting for and he says, through gritted teeth, “we’re all waiting for some one-on-one time with the guy on stage. The one in the center.” I ask who’s in the center and he says, “it’s me. You. All of us. But he’s the Best Possible Version.”

I thank him and begin making my way down the aisles. But before I do, I ask him if he’s having kidney stone trouble. “How’d you guess,” he says and I tell him to try a shot of lemon juice each morning. He says, “no kidding?”

Every 10 or 20 minutes, the sound system barks out a number. I take a look at my raffle ticket and it looks like I have a few thousand ahead of me. I do my best to get situated.

Hours turn into days turn into months. I spend a lot of time talking to other me’s, listening to my life story over and over, sometimes with only slight variations from my own experience, sometimes wildly different. Since we all have the same name, we refer to each other by our numbers, which is kind of cool and makes us all feel like Patrick McGoohan.

It’s the old versions of myself, the guys who are 80+, that really flip my shit. They don’t seem in any hurry to convince any of their younger selves of anything and they’re mostly short on words of wisdom. It’s all Que Sera Sera, which is the opposite of the frantic teens and reckless 20s.

I hear stories of me’s that were and others that weren’t and others still that were, but maybe not quite in the way I remember. For example, I attended Samford University, met and married a girl named Molly, and began art directing video games. I also sold my first play when I was 18, which was called Whatever Gets You Through The Night and divided my 20s between trying to get stage shows off the ground in New York and living with my dad in Hartville when money was tight.

I had an affair with a coworker when I was 31, divorced Carey for her, and turned to getting high when that ended in tears. In high school, I was screwing around with Matt Brainard and wound up getting hit by an icicle, which took off my left leg. At 52, I published a book on 15th century Spain that less than 100 people bought and at 25, I lost my life to a drunk driver.

There are a few trending themes. Carey’s in a lot of the stories, the lives, maybe even half of them. Art and writing, in some form or another, are in nearly all of them. I tend to wind up with at least one child. I’m typically either Christian or agnostic, but sometimes Buddhist and in one case, I’m even a Scientologist, if you can believe that.

The only thing I’m consistently sure of, with each story I hear, is that I’m simultaneously inspired and disgusted by what I’m capable of.

Finally, my number’s up.

I head up the stairs to the red platform, head buzzing with all the conversations of recent weeks and months, trying to keep straight which me I am. At the top, on a small, tan couch, sits the Best Possible Version of me. He’s older than I am, significantly older, with silver-crazed eyebrows and leather suspenders. He looks tired. Ready for whatever I have to throw at him, but still tired.

He stands when I approach and shakes my hand. “It’s your time,” he tells me. “What would you like to talk about?”

We sit. I tell him I’ve been thinking about that parable where everybody puts all their problems in a big pile and winds up taking back their own problems for themselves when given the choice. I tell him the story’s bullshit, as I see it. I’ve met a lot of me’s recently and there were quite a few of them whose life I’d choose over mine. I miss my sons. I want a life where I get to see them grow into men.

Best Possible nods. “What do you want to ask me?” he says.

I tell him I want to know what he did so differently from the rest of us. Was it faith that made him better? Or adversity? Or was he just born with a better soul? How did he avoid all the mistakes the rest of us seem to make?

“I avoided nothing,” he says. “I’ve probably made more bad choices than anyone here. Not just because I’ve had time to make them, but because I’ve been terribly, terribly stupid with my talents and my relationships. If there was something to screw up, I screwed it up. I could tell you my story, but you’ll have to take my word for it: it’s a real heartbreaker.”

I ask him what makes him the Best. Did he cure cancer or something?

“No,” he says, “you need to listen to me, here. I haven’t led a good life and I spend my time choking on regret. But I look around and I see all these versions of myself and I ask every single one the same question: how do you feel about the men assembled here?”

I say I love them.

“Yes,” he says. “So do I. And they all love you, too. They’d do anything for you, because they know you from the inside. Isn’t that the perfect way to feel about someone else?”

I say Yes it is.

“I doubt any reasonable person would call me the best version of anything,” he says, “but I sit up here because one of us has to and I thought it might ease the burden of a life that didn’t turn out how I’d planned. You already know what I’m going to say next, don’t you?”

I nod and say You’re going to offer me your seat.

The old me slings an arm over my shoulder: “Yours if you want it.”

And if this is a dream, here’s where I wake up.

And if this is what it’s like to be dead, here’s where I find out What’s Next.

And if this is just a story, here’s where I clue you in about the sort of story you’ve been taking in.

And no matter what I decide, the numbers will continue to bark from the sound system and the long procession of me will continue up and down the stairs, maybe some staying in the Best seat, others not wanting to bear the weight. The artists, the husbands, the leaders, the abusers, the addicts, the fathers, the heroes, the professionals and the basket cases, everything I ever could have been and ever could be are waiting their turn.

Like Patrick McGoohan, though, I’m not a number. I’m a free man.

And while I may not be the one who decides how my life turns out, how my story goes, I do have a say.

Today I say Continue.

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