January 18, 1997, 6:04 AM-Roger and Holly's House
Roger was awakened by the sound of a pen scratching against paper, then, only seconds later, the paper being torn from its pad and savagely crumpled before being dropped almost noiselessly into the wastebasket under the nightstand. He opened his eyes and looked to his left to find Holly propped up beside him, absently chewing the cap of the ballpoint pen in her hand and frowning at the blank notepad resting on her bent knee. He watched her for a moment then softly said, "You've been agonizing over this for the past week, Hol. You're putting too much pressure on yourself. It will come to you."
Initially surprised to hear Roger speaking, she looked over at him, still sleepy-eyed, a switch from their usual morning routine of Roger waking up when the alarm went off and then kissing her awake, loath as she was to get up in the morning. The alarm was a good fifty minutes from ringing, and here lately, Jack got them up before the alarm, around 6:30 every morning. Of course, this wasn't just any ordinary morning. "I've been struggling with this all month," she admitted. "You think I have such a way with words-"
"Compared to me, you do," Roger interjected, sitting up and scooting closer to Holly under the covers, draping his arm across her waist.
Holly went right on speaking. "-but now, when it's so important, I can't find the words to say what I want to say."
"It will come," Roger repeated confidently. He lowered his head, laying a trail of kisses down her throat, letting his hand drift down to slowly caress down her thigh, and she hummed happily, setting her pad and pen on her nightstand so that her hands were free to tangle in his hair and giving herself completely to one of her two favorite ways to wake up. Roger lifted his head from the base of Holly's throat to look into her eyes and said, "Today is a day for celebrating, for all of us."
She smiled, brushing a hand through Roger's hair. "Jack is one year old today," she marveled. "A whole year."
"A wonderful, amazing year," Roger agreed, smiling back at Holly. "We have a healthy, smart, handsome-"
"Sweet," Holly interjected.
"-sweet," Roger echoed, "son."
"We're very blessed," Holly agreed.
Roger skimmed his hand up her thigh to her belly, resting his palm there. "One year ago today at this time, he was still in here."
"Not for much longer," Holly reminisced. "I was so scared when Dr. Sedwick had to take him by C-section, but you...you were wonderful."
"My job was the easy part," Roger said. "And I just...I had faith that we hadn't come that far to be denied at the last second."
"And we weren't. None of us were." Her expression softened as she gently stroked Roger's cheek. "I never imagined our life would be like this, but I'm so glad it is."
Roger rested his forehead against Holly's. "I am too," he said. "Thank you for making me a father again."
"Thank you for making me a mother again," she replied before her lips found his.
Just as their kisses were growing heated, a tiny voice echoed through the speaker on the nursery monitor. "Mama! Dada!" Jack was awake for the day.
Jack's mommy and daddy broke their kiss, both breathing heavily, and touched foreheads for a few seconds as they caught their breath. "We're being paged," Roger said huskily.
Holly chuckled as she let go of Roger and got out of bed, reaching for her robe. "Maybe when the birthday boy goes down for his nap later, we can get back to what we were doing a second ago," she said.
"I'll hold you to that," Roger said as he got out of bed and donned his own robe. Holly gave him a saucy grin over her shoulder as she tied the belt of her robe, and then they headed across the hall to Jack's nursery.
Jack was standing up in his crib, both hands clutching the railing, and he greeted his parents happily and excitedly. "Mama! Dada!" he exclaimed, bouncing up and down.
Holly had opened the blinds and then went to the crib, staying Jack's bouncing with a firm hand on his rump. "Whoa, there," she said. "That's not a trampoline, sweetheart." Then she swept him up in her arms and covered his tiny face with kisses, making him giggle. "Happy birthday, Jack!" she exclaimed as she carried him over to the changing table.
"Brr!" Jack exclaimed, latching on to the first syllable of the word his mommy emphasized.
"Yes, it is cold outside, because it's January," Holly said as she changed Jack's diaper.
Roger was rummaging through one of Jack's bureau drawers, looking for the special outfit Blake had bought for him for today.
"Are we putting him in this now or later?" he asked, holding up the light blue long-sleeved t-shirt that said "My First Birthday" and had a big royal blue candle in the shape of a number one with a small tongue of flame protruding from it next to the words written in multi-colored capital letters and the matching light blue pants.
Holly considered for a second before saying, "Later. He needs a bath, and we have breakfast and lunch to get through. We can put him in that when he gets up from his nap after lunch, before everyone gets here."
Roger nodded. "Right," he said, putting the birthday outfit back in the drawer and pulling out another outfit for Jack, a tiny pair of khaki pants and a long-sleeved white shirt with a smiling elephant balancing on a multi-colored beach ball on the front. He went into another drawer for socks, pulled the tiny sneakers from their place on the floor beside the dresser, and carried everything over to the changing table.
Roger and Holly dressed Jack together, and, as was quickly becoming his custom, he giggled and squirmed all the while, to exaggerated comic protests from both of his parents. After Jack was dressed, Roger went and got dressed, then took over baby care duty while Holly quickly showered and dressed. Holly was still struggling with what to say in the letter she wanted to write, was determined to write, before this day was over, but she still couldn't come up with anything that felt right.
When Holly entered the kitchen, Roger was at the table with Jack strapped into his high chair, feeding him his cereal. "Coffee's ready," Roger announced before spooning more cereal into Jack's mouth, "and I was thinking I'd make omelets if you can finish feeding the birthday boy."
"Sure," Holly said as she poured herself a cup of coffee. Roger surrendered his chair to her after tousling Jack's hair, dropping a kiss on the top of Holly's head as he headed to the refrigerator to get the ingredients for his and Holly's omelets.
After they'd all had breakfast, when Holly had washed Jack's hands and face and taken him out of his high chair, he toddled over to the front door, stopping by the coat rack, then turning to look back at his parents. "Baa bye?" he asked, puzzled.
Holly went over and picked Jack up. "No," she told him. "No bye bye today. At least, not for daycare," she quickly amended. "It's Saturday, Jack, and it's also your birthday. Your first birthday, yes!" She rubbed her nose against his, making him squeal with glee. As she carried him over to the couch, Jack babbled happily to her, and Holly just looked at him, amazed and proud and so happy that this incredible little boy was her and Roger's son. Filled to overflowing with a wave of pure love for Jack, she sat down on the couch, Jack perched in her lap, looking at her with his big, bright, brown eyes and winsome baby smile, which reminded her more and more of Roger's smile every time she saw it, and overcome, she hugged him tightly, closing her eyes and breathing him in as he snuggled into her lap, content to be in his mother's arms and chattering excitedly to her.
Roger finished the dishes and then joined them, smiling. "Genius," he said proudly as he sat down beside them on the sofa, draping his arm across the back of the couch, behind Holly. "Jack is a genius."
"He's a very smart boy, I agree," Holly replied as Jack held out his arms to Roger, wanting to get in some snuggles with Daddy now too. "But I think this is more that he's used to leaving for daycare after breakfast."
"Possibly," Roger allowed as he took Jack from Holly and stood the baby up in his lap, holding onto both of his hands. "But I still say he's a genius. We have a future member of the National Honor Society here, Holly."
They were interrupted by the ringing of the doorbell then. "Everyone knows the party's not until this afternoon," Holly said, puzzled. Since Jack was in Roger's lap, she went to answer the door.
Jack and Roger remained on the couch, Jack sitting in his daddy's lap, both looking at the front door to see who it was. When Holly opened the door to reveal Maureen and Michelle Bauer, Jack pointed at them and, recognizing Maureen, blurted, "Moe!"
Maureen smiled, her eyes on Jack, as Holly invited her and the squealing Michelle inside. Maureen was carrying a large present wrapped in paper covered with balloons in many different colors. "That's right, Jack," she said. She looked at Roger now. "I think you and Holly have a genius on your hands."
"I was just saying the same thing," Roger said as he stood up with Jack.
"Can I hold him, Mr. Thorpe?" Michelle asked eagerly.
"You can try. He's very into walking these days," Roger said as he carefully handed Jack to Michelle.
"Gosh, Jack, you're getting so big!" Michelle exclaimed as she settled Jack on her hip. "You remember me, right? Michelle. Can you say 'Michelle'?"
"Moe!" Jack exclaimed again, looking past Michelle to Maureen, standing behind her daughter, holding that big, colorful box that Jack had zeroed in on with a laser focus.
"Yes, Jack, this is for you, from Michelle and Ed and me," she said. Maureen looked to Holly and Roger. "Is it all right if he opens it now? Ed would have been here, too, but he got called into the hospital for an emergency with a patient."
Holly and Roger looked at each other. "Sure," Holly said. "It'll be good practice for later."
Jack didn't take his eyes off the package as Maureen set it on the coffee table long enough to set down her purse and take off her coat. Michelle handed Jack back to Roger and shed her own jacket, draping it over her mother's coat on the chair. Roger sat down on the sofa with Jack on his lap, and Holly retrieved the camera from the living room desk, where it rested by the computer. "I can take the picture for you, Holly, so you can be in it with Jack and Mr. Thorpe," Michelle offered.
"Thank you, Michelle," Holly said as she quickly showed Michelle which button to push.
At last Maureen picked the package up from the coffee table and held it out to Jack. "Happy birthday, Jack!" she exclaimed. Michelle echoed her mother's words exactly.
Jack slapped at the package, then looked at Holly, and babbled his confusion. "Like this, sweetie," Holly said, reaching out and gently tearing a small corner of the wrapping paper.
Jack liked the tearing sound the paper made, and, being a quick study, began to tear at the loosened paper himself. Seeing that he could tear and shred the paper with his own hands made him chortle with glee, and he jabbered excitedly as he ripped the paper off, flinging bits and scraps of the crumpled wrapping all over the floor, his own lap, and both of his chuckling parents, as Michelle snapped several pictures of Jack happily demolishing the wrapping paper to get at the present inside it. At last, Jack had most of the paper off. Holly helped Jack remove the last big piece of wrapping paper to reveal a set of wooden blocks with the letters of the alphabet on them in red, yellow, blue, and green. "Wooden alphabet blocks!" Roger exclaimed. "I had these when I was a boy."
"Me too," Holly said. "Mine were inherited from Andy and Ken, though, so there were a few letters missing."
"Thank you, Maureen," Roger said.
"Yes," Holly said. "This is a wonderful gift."
"Well, they had some really cute outfits, but I figured the birthday boy would enjoy these a lot more," Maureen replied with a smile.
Jack was pounding on the box and jabbering away. He pulled his attention from the box to look up at Roger. "Dada! Pay!" he exclaimed.
"Sure, Jack, Daddy'll play blocks with you," Roger said. "Can you say 'Thank you, Maureen'?"
"Moe!" Jack exclaimed, looking and pointing at Maureen again.
"You're very welcome, Jack," Maureen said, reaching over and tousling Jack's hair.
The doorbell rang then, just as Michelle was in the process of returning the camera to Holly after having taken a few pictures of Jack opening his birthday present from the Bauers. Roger rose from the sofa, juggling Jack and the box of blocks he'd just opened and crossed to the front door to open it, revealing Hope and Faith Spaulding standing on the front porch, both holding brightly wrapped packages obviously meant for Jack.
"There's the birthday boy!" Hope exclaimed brightly.
Roger stood aside to let the women in, the thought occurring to him that he had never expected the Bauers and Spauldings (though his long-standing friendship with Maureen made her and Michelle's visit and accompanying birthday gift for Jack understandable) to be showing up at his front door with birthday gifts for his and Holly's son. But Roger had changed enough, and learned enough about himself and about the Bauers and Spauldings, to be gracious in accepting their well wishes and their gifts for Jack.
Although if Alexandra showed up with a gift for Jack, Roger was taking it straight to Cedars to have it x-rayed, just to make certain it didn't contain a bomb or something.
He and Alex had an unspoken agreement to ignore each other as much as possible, and his life had gone so far in the other direction from all things Spaulding that he no longer even felt the need to poke at the Spauldings. At least, not unless they poked at him first, but Alex and Alan had both been very well-behaved, and Roger had been focusing on Holly and Jack and Chrissy and his grandsons and Ross and his friendship with Ryan Greenberg and his wife and son, and his work, so several months had gone by without any kind of attacks from either side. Besides, Roger reflected now, sticking it to the Spauldings had nothing on playing with Jack and watching him grow and change day by day, getting down on the floor to explore with Kevin and Jason, closing a great deal at work with Chrissy and Ryan, and best of all, evenings with Holly, after Jack was sleeping peacefully in his crib.
And Roger would never do anything to jeopardize the life he had now, a life he had never even dared to dream could be his in all the years he spent pining and longing for, even obsessing, over Holly and Chrissy and being a family with them.
Hope and Faith both made a fuss over Jack. "He's really getting big," Faith said.
Jack jabbered away, noticing the brightly wrapped packages both women held in their hands. "And he's such a smart boy," Hope cooed. "Yes, Jack, these are for you, for your birthday." Hope looked to Holly. "Is it all right if he opens them now?"
"He already opened his present from Maureen, Ed and Michelle," Holly said. She took Jack from Roger's arms and addressed him directly. "You ready to open some more presents, Jack?"
"Ba da bee!" Jack exclaimed.
"Can I take your coats?" Roger offered then.
"No, thank you. I can only stay a minute," Hope said.
"Me too," Faith chimed in.
Holly had Jack sitting on her lap on the couch, and Roger sat down beside them. Hope and Faith were playfully bickering over whose gift Jack would open first. Finally Faith said, "Let's just let Jack decide. Jack, which one do you want first?" Both of them held their gifts out to Jack, and he slapped at Hope's gift with a happy screech. When Hope smirked at her daughter, Faith muttered, "Of course he chose yours. It's bigger than mine."
"Not one word," Holly murmured to Roger in an undertone. He met her gaze, seeing that she was teasing him, and he just grinned back at her before they both turned their attention to their son. Hope set her gift in Jack's lap, and Holly helped hold it in place. Jack needed no help this time, and he gleefully ripped the wrapping paper off to reveal something called a Roll 'n' Swirl Ball Ramp. "It has five tiers of ramps, and three spinning activity balls that have little beads and shapes inside and make fun little noises when they roll down the ramps," Hope explained as she pointed at the picture on the box. "And it's so bright and colorful, every tier a different color, so I thought Jack would enjoy it."
"It's wonderful, Hope, thank you very much," Holly said.
"Yes, thank you," Roger echoed.
Hope then dug into her purse, removing an envelope and holding it out to Roger and Holly. "And this is from Dad. He asked me when he and Elizabeth were here at Christmas when Jack's birthday was, and after I told him, he left this with me to give to you for Jack. It's a savings bond."
"That was very thoughtful of Mike," Holly said, touched that Mike Bauer had remembered Jack. "I'll be sure to call and thank him later tonight."
Roger set the Roll 'n' Swirl Ball Ramp on the coffee table next to the box of wooden alphabet blocks from Maureen, Michelle and Ed. Faith handed over her gift next, with a smile and a "Happy birthday, Jack!" Jack tore into it to reveal a farm-themed See 'n' Say that played "The Farmer in the Dell" and "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" and also played counting games and taught animal facts, including the noises the various animals, which included a sheep, a duck, and a cow, made.
"I didn't know they still made those!" Hope exclaimed. "You used to drive Alan-Michael and Phillip crazy with yours."
"Dad too, as I recall," Faith said with a mischievous grin.
"Thank you, Faith," Roger said, only slightly surprising the women. He and Faith had long ago come to an understanding, and Faith was perhaps the only Spaulding and Bauer, aside from Maureen, that saw the depth of the changes in Roger since marrying Holly and welcoming Jack, and Blake's sons, and knew they were genuine and sincere.
"You're only one once," Faith replied. "Gotta make a big deal out of it."
The Bauer and Spaulding women left shortly thereafter, and Roger carted Jack's birthday presents into his room, then collected Jack from his playpen and spent the rest of the morning playing with him with his new toys. Holly peeked in on them a few times while getting things ready for Jack's birthday party late that afternoon, and felt a soul-deep warmth as she watched Roger and Jack play with Jack's new toys. She wasn't sure who enjoyed the ball ramp more, Roger or Jack. Father and son built block towers together, and Jack gleefully knocked them over, chortling happily when they fell, which made Roger laugh to see this little boy that was part him and part Holly and his own little person already at the age of one so happy.
After Jack had his lunch, it wasn't long before he went down for his nap. Roger tucked him into his crib, then drew the blinds partway closed to keep the sun from waking him up. When he returned to the kitchen, he found Holly closing the refrigerator door before heading to the sink to wash the dishes. He stole up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, nuzzling the back of her neck. "Birthday boy asleep?" she asked, her smile evident in her voice.
"Out like a light," he replied.
Holly dried her hands on a kitchen towel, then turned into Roger's arms, resting her palms on his chest. "The way you two were playing, I'm not surprised. You wore him out. I don't know which of you had more fun."
Roger wrapped his arms around Holly's waist, pulling her closer. "I think it was a tie," he said. "Do you need any help with anything out here?"
"No, I just finished cutting up the bananas and the strawberries for the boys for later," she replied. "We're having mashed potatoes and corn off the cob and meat loaf for dinner. Blake and Colleen are bringing jarred baby food for Kevin and Jason and Sam. We don't need to put up the banner and the balloons yet."
"I should probably go and pick up the cake," Roger said.
"You don't have to," Holly told him.
"They deliver?" he asked, surprised.
"No. I designated Blake to pick up the cake. And she insisted on getting some ice cream too, although I don't know how much of that the boys will eat." She ran her hands up his chest, clasping her arms around his neck. "So we can get back to what we were doing this morning when Jack woke up and interrupted us."
"What was that, again?" Roger asked, his eyes twinkling as he purposely played dumb. "I need you to refresh my memory."
"If I recall correctly, I think we were right about here," Holly said. She stretched up on tiptoe, closing her eyes a split second before her lips captured Roger's. He pulled her closer to him, wrapping his arms around her more tightly as he deepened the kiss, and one of her hands found its way into his hair while the other tightly gripped his shoulder.
Somehow they maneuvered their way over to the couch, tumbling onto it all tangled up in each other, their kisses growing more heated and their hands wandering, rumpling each other's clothes as Roger's hands found their way beneath Holly's sweater to stroke the bare skin of her back, and Holly's fingers nimbly unbuttoned several of Roger's shirt buttons to run her hands over his bare chest.
Their passionate interlude lasted until they heard Blake say, "No wonder I had to use my key." They pulled apart quickly, both breathing heavily, and looked up at their smirking daughter in shock. "I rang the bell, I knocked, but there was no answer. I knew you had to be here, because both your cars are out front. I take it Jack's still sleeping. We need to get ready for his birthday party before he wakes up, so if you could straighten your clothes and hair and help me unload the car, I'd appreciate it."
Holly smoothed her hair with her hands and straightened her sweater. "Where are Ross and the boys?" she asked, half afraid they were just waiting to pop through the front door.
"Still at home. They're coming over as soon as the boys wake up from their naps," Blake replied. Blake regarded Roger then. "You're gonna want to button up and grab a coat, Dad. It's cold out there. Chop chop." Then she spun on her heel and headed back outside snickering.
"One of these days, we should walk in on her and Ross like this," Roger grumbled as he buttoned his shirt again and headed for the closet to get his winter coat.
"I've walked in on Blake and Ross like this," Holly reminded Roger. "Trust me, that's not something you want to do." She glanced at the clock on the mantel. "We do need to get moving, though. Jack will be waking up soon, and we have to give him a bath, we have to haul the rest of his presents up from the basement, and knowing Blake, we'll be hanging streamers and various other decorations all over the living room."
"Did you tell her we have a banner and that Ryan and Colleen are bringing balloons?" Roger asked as he buttoned up his overcoat.
"Do you remember what she did at my baby shower?" Holly countered.
Roger grimaced. "Maybe this time, we can actually talk her down," he reflected.
Blake returned then, balancing the bakery box containing Jack's birthday cake and a gallon pail of Neapolitan ice cream, which she set on the kitchen counter. Just as she handed her car keys to Roger to get Jack's birthday present out of the trunk, Jack called out, "Mama! Dada!"
Blake hurriedly shucked her coat and dropped her purse on the coffee table. "I'll help you give him a bath, Mom," she offered as she made a beeline for the nursery. Holly and Roger exchanged a look before Roger put the ice cream in the freezer and then went outside to get Jack's birthday present out of the trunk of Blake's car, and Holly followed Blake to Jack's room.
Jack was standing up in his crib and he grinned when he saw his mother and sister. "Bake!" he exclaimed as Blake approached his crib.
"There's my Jack!" Blake exclaimed, sweeping Jack up in her arms, spinning him around, and then carrying him over to his changing table. "It's your birthday, big guy! Time to get you all cleaned up and dressed for your party!"
"Baff?" Jack asked as Blake removed his outfit.
Blake looked at Holly. "Oh yeah, he's your son, all right," she said fondly. "He's going to have the vocabulary of a fifth grader by the time he starts preschool."
"They're like little sponges," Holly agreed as she got Jack's birthday outfit out of his dresser drawer. "I see it in Kevin and Jason too."
"They are starting to babble more and more," Blake said as she picked up Jack, now clad only in a diaper, and headed for the bathroom. "Ross and I are already wondering what their first words will be, 'Mama' or 'Dada.'"
"Jack's was 'Dada,'" Holly said as she turned on the bathroom light and then began to fill Jack's baby bath. "But he said 'Mama' the very next day."
"And with Sam Greenberg, they're their own little Gang of Four," Blake said as she stripped off Jack's diaper. "I'm so glad my sons get to grow up with my little brother. And Sam makes four. They'll get to go all through school together, get into scrapes together-"
"Not too many scrapes, hopefully," Holly said. "And nothing too major."
"Of course not," Blake replied. "Although you and Daddy saw it all with me, so nothing Jack does should surprise you. He won't cause you nearly as many problems as I did, will you, Jackson?"
"Ba!" Jack exclaimed, splashing in his bath and then giggling.
While Holly and Blake bathed Jack and shampooed his hair, then dressed him and combed his hair, Roger hauled all of Jack's birthday presents (Barbara, Adam, Tangie, and Andy and Paloma had all shipped gifts for Jack's birthday, and he and Holly had stored them in their bedroom closet along with their own gifts, and Roger also hauled in the large box containing the Marlers' birthday gift for Jack from Blake's car) into the living room, except the biggest, most special present, which he left in his and Holly's bedroom with the door closed. He had just finished stacking the gifts on the floor by the fireplace when the doorbell rang. Roger opened it to reveal the Greenbergs standing there, Colleen holding Sam in his car seat and his diaper bag and her purse, while Ryan held two huge bunches of balloons and a wrapped gift for Jack's birthday. Not five minutes after the Greenbergs' arrival, Ross arrived with Kevin and Jason.
Holly, carrying Jack, and Blake emerged from Jack's room then with the birthday boy freshly bathed and dressed. "There's the boy of the hour!" Ryan exclaimed heartily. "Happy birthday, Jack!" Colleen and Ross echoed the sentiment, and then Blake took charge, directing Ryan and Roger in the hanging of the large, colorful banner proclaiming "HAPPY FIRST BIRTHDAY, JACK!" above the fireplace, while Colleen and Ross arranged the balloons on either side of the mantel, where they touched the ceiling, and Holly kept an eye on the boys, holding Jack on her lap as he jabbered excitedly at all the action and so many of his favorite people all in one place.
Then Jack noticed the stack of brightly wrapped packages by the fireplace and began bouncing up and down on Holly's lap. "Mama! Mama! 'ook!" he exclaimed, pointing at the stack of gifts.
"Get the cameras, quickly!" Holly exclaimed to the room at large. "Jack has spotted his birthday presents, and there's no way we'll be able to hold him off."
Roger had already gotten out the video camera and the 35 mm camera. Ryan grabbed the video camera, and Blake drafted Ross as the official photographer for the party.
Holly lifted Jack off her lap and set him on his feet on the floor, and he toddled as fast as his little legs could carry him over to his birthday presents. Roger was already sitting on the floor next to the presents, and Holly joined Roger and Jack on the floor. With Ryan filming, and Ross ready to snap pictures, Jack pulled the top box, which was from Andy and Paloma, off the stack of gifts and tore into it. It wasn't long before Roger and Holly's living room was a mess of torn wrapping paper and crumpled bows, with his new toys in their boxes sitting by the coffee table.
Andy and Paloma's gift was a Fisher-Price Light-Up Lion Stacker that played music and lit up when he stacked the rings (and they also included the necessary batteries). Tangie sent a bead maze, its smoothly sanded squares, circles, rectangles, and triangles in red, blue, yellow, and green able to be moved across the different wires. Ryan, Colleen, and Sam gave Jack a big box of books, ranging from Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry to The Poky Little Puppy and Harold and the Purple Crayon.
Barbara's gift was a large activity table, and Adam sent a toy learning computer.
The Marlers' gift was the Fisher-Price Rollin' Tunes Ride-On Zebra. Jack worked himself up into a squealing frenzy of joy at each new gift. Blake, unable to resist her baby brother once Roger had the zebra out of the box, picked Jack up, rained kisses all over his little cheeks, then plunked him down on the zebra. "Just remember, it was me, your big sister, that got you your first set of wheels." Jack scooted across the floor on his zebra, which played music when he rode on it, for a few minutes while Ryan filmed him, and Holly and Roger looked on happily and proudly.
When Jack stopped riding on his zebra, it was time for him to open his gifts from his parents. Roger and Holly's gifts for Jack to open were a Baby Einstein Take Along Tunes music player that lit up, played seven different melodies, and had a colorful caterpillar handle, and a Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Piggy Bank that included ten colorful coins and promised to teach Jack about counting, colors, animals, and sizes.
And then Roger excused himself, disappearing into his and Holly's bedroom and emerging a moment later carrying a large toy piano with a big red bow on it.
As soon as Jack caught sight of the piano, even before Roger had set it on the floor in front of him, Jack got to his feet, his eyes as big as dinner plates, a happy squeal that reached a decibel level only dogs could hear escaping his little lips before he charged at Roger, throwing his arms around his daddy's leg, then looking up at Roger, then at the piano, then at Holly, and then exclaiming happily, "Panno! Panno! Panno, Dada! Mama, panno!"
"It's easy to see what his favorite birthday present is," Blake said then.
Jack let go of Roger's leg and plopped down on the floor in front of his new toy piano, and, as he had seen Roger do on his own baby grand in the basement so many times over the past year, he placed both of his hands on the keyboard and began playing, trying to imitate what he'd seen his daddy do on the big piano. After a couple of minutes of tuneless pounding, Jack looked up at Roger again. "Dada, pway!" he exclaimed.
Roger instantly got down on the floor and, after taking the big red bow off the toy piano and setting it aside, began to pick out part of "Heart and Soul" with his index fingers. Holly and Blake were both instantly whirled back in time to the night years ago when Holly had surprised Roger with the piano he'd grown up on in this very living room, when Blake had begged off of joining her father in playing "Heart and Soul," and Holly had settled herself beside him on the piano bench and they had played the whole song together while Blake looked on. Mother and daughter exchanged an emotional look as everyone listened to Roger picking out part of "Heart and Soul" on Jack's toy piano, with Jack hitting random keys as he sat on the floor between Roger's bent knees.
Seconds later, Holly was kneeling in front of the toy piano next to Roger and Jack, picking out the same part of "Heart and Soul" she had played with Roger on that winter's night all those years ago. Blake surreptitiously swiped at her eyes, earning her a concerned look from Ross, but she mouthed "I'm fine" to him, so he was content to let it drop for the moment.
Ryan was filming it all, and murmured to Colleen, Blake, and Ross in an aside, "You think this is how Billy Joel got started?"
"He's only one. It's a bit early to be predicting his future, don't you think?" Ross said.
"You should see the amount of University of Michigan clothing in Sam's wardrobe," Colleen replied.
"Hey, Sam doesn't have to go to the University of Michigan if he doesn't want to," Ryan retorted. "He can go anywhere he wants...as long as it's not Ohio State." At Ross's blank look, Ryan said, "That's Michigan's biggest football rival."
Kevin, Jason, and Sam, not wanting to be left out of the fun, were crawling around, looking at Jack's other birthday presents. Jason had picked up the copy of One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish in his little almost-six-month-old hands and was gnawing on the spine of the book. Sam, now almost ten months old, half crawled and half scooted over to Jack's ride-on zebra and, not being able to scale it, gripped the seat to pull himself up and used it as a walker to move across the floor. And Kevin made a beeline for the bead maze and began pushing and shaking it.
Seeing the potential for anarchy about to erupt, Blake said, "If that's all for the presents, we should probably get going on dinner," so Ryan and Ross set aside their cameras. Jack fussed a little when Roger lifted him up off the floor and away from his beloved "panno," but once he was strapped into his high chair with a plate of banana slices and strawberry slices and Holly spoon feeding him some mashed potatoes, he settled right down and devoured his birthday dinner.
After they all enjoyed dinner, Jack remained strapped in his high chair as Blake made a big show of bringing out his birthday cake, a chocolate layer cake with "Happy 1st Birthday, Jack!" written on it in blue frosting, and a candle in the shape of the number one in the middle of the cake. She lit the candle, and with Roger standing on one side of Jack's high chair and Holly standing on the other, all of the adults sang "Happy Birthday" to Jack. Roger and Holly helped him blow out his candle, and Jack triumphantly smashed his hand into the cake and then licked the gooey chocolate frosting from his fingers. He was more interested in the frosting than the cake. Sam Greenberg had a little bit of the cake and frosting. Being not quite six months old, Kevin and Jason were too little to eat the cake, although Blake snuck each of her sons a taste of frosting, and they both liked it.
Blake, Colleen, and Ryan insisted on helping with the cleanup after the party, which left Roger, Holly, and Ross watching the kids. Roger got down on the floor with the kids, and Ross sat in the chair while Holly sat on the couch. Ross was watching Roger with the four boys, and Holly was cutting her gaze back and forth between Roger and the kids, and Ross watching the quintet. "You put the camera down too soon," Holly finally said to Ross.
Ross chuckled. "I was just thinking the same thing," he admitted. He focused on Holly now. "I think this is the part where I say what a long, strange trip it's been," he continued.
"I'll second that," Holly agreed. "In a million years, I never would have pictured myself as your mother-in-law...or the grandmother of your children. Most of them," she added hastily, thinking briefly of Dinah.
Ross leaned forward in his chair. "Roger was never one for telling the truth...at least not unless he got something out of it, and usually that something was some measure of revenge against the Spauldings or Ed or even me once upon a time. But all of that changed about four years ago, when you and he found your way back together.
"I've watched you over the past four years, Holly. You and Roger together, you and Roger separately. I never believed there was any best in Roger to be brought out, but it turns out there was. He just needed you to bring it out of him."
"Partly," Holly agreed. "He needed what we all need: someone to love, someone who loves us, someone who will be there for us through it all, no matter what."
"It turns out there was one thing Roger was telling the truth about all along, through all these years," Ross said. "His love for you, his wanting to be with you, to be married to you. That was the one thing he never lied about. His love for you and his wanting to be with you is the most profound truth of Roger's entire life. And the scary thing is, I understand that, because that's how I feel about Blake, and that's the most profound truth of my entire life." He looked at Roger, laughing on the floor as he held Jack high in the air above his head, blowing raspberries on Jack's stomach, making him laugh hysterically as Kevin, Jason, and Sam Greenberg crawled and flopped around Roger's legs and feet, speaking their baby language to each other. Then he looked back at Holly. "Who knew there was a normal man inside Roger...a man who could be a law-abiding citizen, a devoted husband and loving father and grandfather? Besides you, I mean, on some level."
"And here I thought that you thought I was a masochist all those years," Holly remarked dryly.
"Back then, I thought that," Ross agreed. "But not anymore. He really loves you. And you really love him. And here we are, one big, mostly happy family."
"The long, strange trip," Holly said.
They were both silent for a moment, then Ross said, "I just wanted you to know that I get it, Holly. I didn't for a long time, but now I do."
"That's good to know, Ross," Holly replied.
Blake and Ryan and Colleen had finished in the kitchen by now, and the Greenbergs and the Marlers said their goodnights and headed home. Roger hauled all of Jack's new toys into his bedroom, except the toy piano, which was still in the living room by the coffee table. Holly got Jack into his pajamas, and then Jack wanted to play his "panno" with his daddy.
Holly sat watching them at the toy piano as Roger patiently talked to and played with Jack and showed him different notes, though it was a toy piano. After a few minutes of watching them together, she went into her and Roger's bedroom and retrieved her pad and pen. Returning to the living room, she began to compose the letter she had wanted to write to Jack on the occasion of his first birthday, without any of the difficulty she had had when she was trying to write it that morning.
January 18, 1997
My Dearest Jack,
Today was your first birthday. One year ago today, you came into the world, and your daddy and I fell in love all over again, with you, our precious son.
As I write this, you and Daddy are sitting on the floor, playing with the "panno" you got as a birthday present. Daddy was the one who saw it and insisted we had to get it for you. Judging by how much you love it already, he was right.
You are surrounded by love, not just from Daddy and me, but from Blake and Ross and Kevin and Jason, and the Greenbergs, Maureen and Ed and Michelle, even your Grandma Barbara and Grandpa Adam and Uncle Andy and Aunt Paloma. And you will always know how loved you are. Daddy and I both promised you that on the day you were born, and it's a promise that we will keep all of our lives.
Because you see, Jack, love is the number one, most important thing in life.
You are a part of both your daddy and me, Jack, and you're becoming your own little person, too, and it is an incredible privilege, watching you grow and change every day. I am so proud to be your mommy, and I always will be. And Daddy and I will always be there for you, no matter what..."
"Holly," Roger said softly. She looked up from the letter she was composing to see Jack slumped over his toy piano, resting his cheek against the keys, sound asleep. Ross had left the 35 mm camera on the coffee table, and Holly set down her pad and pen, grabbed the camera, and took a picture of Jack sleeping at his piano keyboard, Roger sitting behind him with one hand splayed across the center of his back. After Holly set the camera back down, she bent and picked Jack up. Roger got to his own feet and followed her down the hall to Jack's room, where she was already expertly getting him changed into a fresh diaper and warm pajamas. He snuffled softly as she settled him in his crib with his favorite blanket and his teddy bear. Roger made sure Jack's nightlight was turned on, then joined Holly at Jack's crib, looking down at their sleeping son. "Seeing the world through his eyes is amazing," Roger said softly. "The best moments of my life are the ones I spend with you and with Jack, and with Chrissy and her boys."
"I feel the same way," Holly replied just as softly, leaning against Roger's side. "Just being with my two boys, the two great loves of my life...watching Jack becoming his own little person. I never could have guessed we'd come to this place, but I'm so very glad we're here."
"Me too," Roger said. He leaned over, brushing Jack's downy dark hair off his forehead, then pressing a gentle kiss to his forehead. "Sweet dreams, Jack. I love you so much."
Holly followed suit, pecking a kiss to Jack's mouth before she and Roger left their son sleeping in his crib, exiting the nursery hand in hand. When they returned to the living room, Roger let go of Holly's hand and said, "I'll give you some time to finish your letter. That is what you were working on before, right?"
"Right," Holly replied.
She picked up her pad and pen once more as Roger went into the kitchen. Reading over what she had written, she realized that she had said exactly what she wanted and needed to say.
She concluded the letter, "You fell asleep over your little piano, and Daddy and I just put you to bed. You are the joy and light of our lives, Jack. Happy birthday again, sweet boy.
Love and hugs and kisses forever,
She had just finished the letter when a glass of red wine appeared in her line of sight. She looked up to find Roger standing there, holding the glass of wine out to her, with another glass for himself in his other hand. She set down her pad and pen and took the wine from Roger. He gently clinked his wine glass against hers and said, "To our beautiful, amazing son, and his beautiful, amazing mother."
Smiling up at him, Holly replied, "To our beautiful, amazing son, and his wonderful, handsome, sweet, incredible father."
And then they drank to their son, to each other, and to their family.