A Note From the Author, Castiel Shurley:
Life is messy, and difficult, and often leaves you wishing you could hit the reset button—start again fresh with your perspective intact. We can’t hit a magical reset button, though, and we can’t undo the things that have happened to us, or the things we’ve done to others. What we can do, however, is try our best to learn from the events of our past so that we can work toward creating a better future.
It took me a long time to realize that.
I was 19 years old when I met the man who would become my husband. Daniel was intense and passionate, outgoing and strong and brave, and all of the things I knew I could never be. We were drawn to each other instantly. I fell hard and fast, and fortunately, he fell right along with me.
We moved in together and exchanged rings in a time before that kind of thing was widely accepted. Adopting in the late 90s was difficult for single fathers and downright impossible for gay couples. My brother’s wife agreed to be our surrogate. Daniel was the biological father. Our first daughter, Emma, was born in 1998. She had olive skin and light brown hair, just like her daddy. Looking at the two of them together, I wondered how I could ever possibly be happier.
We had two more babies, this time fathered by myself—Claire, two years later, and Lea, four years after that—and the happiness just intensified. Those two took after their biological mother, with blonde hair and stormy blue eyes that were thankfully just like mine.
They were perfect. Our family was complete.
The cancer came out of nowhere, in 2012. Pancreatic cancer. The kind you can’t treat. They found it at Halloween. Daniel was gone by Christmas.
And just like that, life was... imperfect. I was alone for the first time in twenty years. Our family incomplete, the girls and I struggled to maintain a sense of normalcy. But things were just never the same.
- Excerpt from Fix My Family, by Castiel Shurley
The sound of my alarm blaring was a familiar nuisance. I shot an arm out and fished for my phone on the nightstand, stubbornly refusing to open my eyes. I silenced it with well-practiced fingers and tossed it down next to me on the bed. Ten minutes later when it sounded again, I threw the covers off in a huff and sat up in my queen-sized bed, empty but for the two pillows. I slept with both of them, these days.
Lea was already awake. I passed her empty bedroom on my way to the bathroom to freshen up for the day. The door was locked, and I could hear a hair dryer going. I suspected Claire.
I knocked. “Honey bee, twenty minutes,” I called over the electric hum. She didn’t respond.
“Morning,” I said to my eldest, Emma, as I passed her bedroom door. She was sitting with an open book in her lap, pausing her reading for a brief moment to smile up at me.
My eleven-year-old, Lea, was making sandwiches for everyone. “Hey, little bee,” I said, stooping down to kiss the top of her head. “Whatcha making?”
She rolled her eyes in an affectionate way. We played this game most every morning. “Peanut butter and honey sandwiches,” she said. I dreaded the day, surely only a few years from now, when she’d tack on a “Duh, dad,” or an "Obviously," just like Claire would say. For now, though, she smiled and continued humming, and I sipped my coffee for a minute, content to just watch her work.
Claire ignored my half-hearted protests as she swooped in to grab a mug of coffee. She was wearing a tank top and the shortest pair of jean shorts I’d ever seen. The pockets were peeking out the bottoms. I stopped her as she reached for the pot.
“What exactly are you wearing?”
She rolled her eyes. She and Lea looked so much alike that it just reinforced my earlier fears. “They're called shorts, Dad,” she huffed, reaching around me to grab a mug out of the cabinet.
“Those are hardly shorts,” I said. “They’re barely denim underwear. Where on earth did you get those? There is no way those are in dress code."
Claire gave me a disgusted look and stormed from the kitchen. “Change into some actual pants, please!” I shouted after her. She nearly shoved Emma in her haste to leave the room.
“What’s up?” Emma asked. I just shook my head.
I helped Lea quarter the sandwiches while Emma picked a few ripe bananas from the bunch. I checked my watch and called out for Claire, knowing we’d be late again if she didn’t hurry. A minute later, she brushed past me out the door wearing a pair of too-tight, but blessedly long, skinny jeans.
“Happy?” Claire called over her shoulder.
Emma gave me a look, but she and Lea grabbed their bags and headed for the door. I sighed and downed the rest of my coffee.
Emma was sitting in the driver’s seat when I got to the car. “No,” I said, leaning into the window.
“Pleeease?” She drew the word out, steepling her hands as if in prayer.
“No, baby, I’m sorry,” I said. We’d had this discussion before. She was seventeen now, but she still didn’t have her license. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, you know that,” I said. “It’s—”
“—everyone else on the road you don’t trust,” Claire and Lea droned from the backseat. I sighed.
Emma unbuckled the seat belt and threw the door open, slamming it shut before I could get in.
The car ride was silent save for Lea’s humming in the front seat. At a red light, I turned a bit to watch her, happily kicking her feet, hugging her Harry Potter backpack.
In a year, Emma would be leaving to go off to college, and Lea would be starting her last year of middle school. I tried not to think about Claire starting her junior year of high school, having friends who could drive, going to proms and parties, making out with college-age boys and getting pregnant before she’d even hit eleventh grade.
Pushing away all thoughts of my rapidly maturing daughters, I zoned out to the tune of Lea's little tapping feet and the hiss of a whispered conversation between her sisters in the back seat.
It took me ten minutes to wrangle all of the dirty laundry from the mess on Claire and Lea's bedroom floor. I shook my head when I found Claire's hastily-discarded, barely-there denim shorts. I wadded them up with the rest and tossed them into the family hamper, along with Emma’s and my clothes.
I went about starting my daily ritual—beginning the first of three wash cycles before cleaning up the mess in the kitchen from Lea's sandwich-making this morning. I washed the dishes, drying them all by hand and setting them in their respective cabinets and drawers. Keeping the kitchen organized and clean, the way Daniel had always kept it, felt like a sort of connection to him. He’d always been the cook in our family, so the kitchen had been his domain. After he died, I found myself unable to touch things there—found that I could do little more than unwrap freezer packages and warm them in the microwave. After a time, the girls began helping me cook things, and most days they were responsible for making meals. I still insisted on making them personalized lunches, though. Just as Daniel had always done.
After making myself a lunch of tuna on white bread, I finally sat down at my desk and opened my laptop. I had six questions to answer for the column—more than usual, because I wanted to get a whole week's worth done before the vacation we'd be taking this weekend. The Annual Shurley Labor Day Weekend Family Gathering started tomorrow. We'd be heading out to Rhode Island this afternoon. I added make sure the girls are all packed to my mental checklist, and set to work.
'Communication is key, dear reader,' I typed. A mother was having trouble getting through to her teenage son, who would apparently rather play video games all day than interact with the family. 'Open up a dialogue with your son. See what it is that he's missing. I think you'll find that his needs are the same as yours.'
Around 2:00, just as I was preparing to wrap up and get Lea from school, I got a call from an unknown number. "Mr. Shurley?" a woman asked.
"Speaking." I tucked the phone between my cheek and shoulder, closing down my laptop and reaching for the keys to the Station Wagon.
"Hi, Mr. Shurley. This is Tessa Mortdecai from Home and Families. How are you?"
I stilled, my hand hovering on the door handle. "I'm very well, Ms. Mortdecai, how can I help you?"
"Well, Mr. Shurley, my father and I are looking for a fresh monthly column for the magazine, and were looking at a few different candidates for syndication. Your Fix My Family column was brought to our attention, and I've got to say, Mr. Shurley-"
"Castiel," I replied automatically. I winced, realizing I'd cut her off. She went with it, though, tone as smooth and friendly as before.
"Castiel, your column is so refreshing. So honest. So wholesome. It's exactly what we're looking for."
I could feel my heart thudding down to my toes. I cleared my throat, taking the second or two to even my breath. "That's- that's wonderful, Ms. Mortdecai, that's just. That's wonderful."
"Please, call me Tessa," she said. I stifled a noise, somewhere between a laugh and a nervous scoff.
"We'd love to meet with you in person," she said, and then lower, conspiratorially, "To tell you the truth, you're my clear favorite. But my father wants to meet you and your family, get a sense of your dynamic, you know. He wants to be sure you're the right fit."
I cleared my throat again. "Well, that's, um. That's perfect. We uh, we'll be gone this weekend, visiting family in Rhode Island, but-"
"Oh, perfect!" she interrupted. "My father actually lives in Rhode Island. He commutes into the city when he has to, but I'd prefer it if he didn't have to travel so much. Would this weekend work for you?" Her voice was full of excitement. I could barely contain my own.
"Absolutely, Ms. Mort- Tessa. Absolutely. I so look forward to meeting both of you."
We ironed out the details, and I pocketed my phone. When I got to the car, I had to sit for awhile with my face in my hands, cheeks sore from how wide I was smiling.
Daniel had been my number one fan, my biggest supporter, even before my relative success in writing. I wished he could have been there to share in the moment with me. I knew he’d be proud.
Lea had a skinned elbow and ripped pants from falling while playing chase at recess. She showed off her pink camo bandaids with pride. I added make sure Lea puts on a new pair of pants to my mental checklist, wondering how many wardrobe changes the family would have to go through before day's end.
Emma was sitting on the front steps outside the high school, engrossed once again in her book. Lea leaned over me to call out to her through the open window.
"Where's your sister?" I asked Emma.
She just shrugged, gesturing vaguely behind her.
"Well, could you find her, please?" I asked. "We have to stop home and get Lea a change of pants before we leave."
Emma dropped her bag in the backseat and walked away, skirting the front of the building. I watched in my side view mirror as she stopped beside a large tree, where Claire's wavy blonde hair was just barely visible around a dark-haired boy. "Oh, no she doesn't," I said, throwing the car in reverse.
I pulled around the side of the pickup loop and stopped in front of them, honking loudly. Claire and the boy both startled, jumping apart. "Claire," I called out the window. "We've gotta hit the road, honey bee. Say goodbye to your friend."
Her nostrils flared in mortification and she turned, head shaking, to say her goodbyes to the boy. "Have a nice trip, Mr. Shurley!" he called, waving politely. I gave a nod and brief raise of my hand in return as my two girls approached the car.
"Are you kidding me?" Claire huffed, tossing her bag into the back seat and leaning in to glare at me. "Literally everyone is looking at me like I'm some kind of freak right now, thanks to you."
I peered around, noticing a few wayward glances, but nothing too life-ending.
"You're fine," I told her. "I'm sure your boyfriend will understand."
She sighed. "His name is Marcos, and we're just friends.”
“I’m sure. Get in the car.”
Claire tossed her hair and sat, slamming the door shut.
Emma had come around to the driver's side window, where she stood holding out her hand and smiling as if nothing had happened.
"Long trip," she said. "You don't want to do it all alone, now do you?"
Her face fell instantly. "Dad, come on! Please? I’ll never learn if you don’t let me drive."
"But, if I let you, you may not live,” I said, trying for a joke.
She rolled her eyes and stomped around to the back passenger side. I tried to make eye contact with her as I pulled away, but she and Claire sat staring out their respective windows in bitter silence. I pointed the car toward home.
“I think your sisters are mad at me,” I said to Lea, meeting her eyes in the rearview mirror.
“Duh,” she said.
“Why do you think that is?”
Lea seemed to consider it a moment. “You’re a good father, but sometimes you’re a bad dad.”
I frowned into the just-setting sun ahead of us. “Who told you to say that?”
“No one, I thought of it myself,” she said. Her little feet stuck out between the front seats, and she began kicking them irritably.
“You can tell me,” I said. “Was it Emma or Claire?”
“I thought of it myself!” Lea insisted, emphasizing her point with a hard kick to the center console.
“I thought of it myself! I thought of it myself!”
All three girls sat in the back during the five hour drive to Rhode Island. They didn't speak to me the whole way.