THE MEANING OF FAMILY

As the police officer looked at the two vehicles, he felt genuine sorrow for the families of the occupants. After seventeen years on the force he had worked hundreds of serious auto accidents, but he had never seen cars so completely demolished. The head-on collision had occurred when the large sedan crossed the center line at an extremely high rate of speed. Since there were no skid marks, apparently neither driver had time to react and the sickening pile of twisted steel in front of him was the result.

Because he had just arrived on the scene, he had been spared from witnessing the human carnage. However, he was informed that it had taken 45 minutes to extract the dead woman from her crushed vehicle. An older man who had lost control of his car had been taken by helicopter to a nearby trauma center, but it was doubtful he would survive.

The officer stepped over to the passenger side of the woman’s sub-compact and glanced around what remained of the blood-stained interior. Something on the floorboard caught his attention, and he leaned in through the broken window to get a better look. Amidst the broken glass and debris, he recognized the logo of a local supermarket printed on a torn bag, and just visible inside it, the crushed container that had been purchased. Because he saw no other groceries, he assumed she must have gone to pick up just that one item.

The innocent woman had paid the ultimate price for a quick trip to the store. Shaking his head in sadness, the officer walked away.

***

FIVE YEARS LATER

The bedtime ritual had begun.

Colin York’s eleven-year-old son, Dylan, who was born with Down syndrome, could be very sneaky regarding the subject of dental hygiene. As he walked down the hallway, his dad came around the corner, fixed him with an earnest parental look, and asked, “All right young man, did you brush your teeth?”

Dylan always had trouble hiding anything from his dad. “Well – not all of them.”

Colin knew what that meant. When left to his own devices, his son had a tendency to only brush the teeth in front. He reasoned they were the only ones that showed so they were the only ones that mattered.

“Sorry, but that’s not good enough. I’ll come with you, and we’ll give it another try.”

It seemed that he was not going to get away with his deviously clever plan after all so Dylan reluctantly agreed. “Okay.” They marched back to the sink where, under Colin’s close supervision, the task was attempted again. Once all of his teeth had been brushed, they went to his room, and his son hopped into bed.

Colin sat down on the edge next to him. Tonight he needed to talk to Dylan about something serious, but first, he wanted to mention an important event that was looming on the immediate horizon. “Your birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks.”

With mixed emotions his son said. “Yeah, it is.” His birthday was a difficult time of year for him.

“Malorie will be here to celebrate it with you.” Dylan loved his older sister, and Colin didn’t know what he would have done without her after his wife was killed. Malorie had stepped up and been almost like a mother to Dylan. She had been out of college for a year now and lived in an apartment just a few miles away.

Colin shook his head. “It’s hard to believe you’re going to be twelve years old.”

“I’m almost grown.”

His dad made a face. “I wouldn’t say that. But in one more year, you will officially be a teenager. God help me.”

Dylan’s eyes brightened, and he asked eagerly, “So when I’m a teenager can I watch R-rated movies, and stay up until midnight, and eat junk food, and just drink pop, and brush my teeth the way I want, and -”

“Hang on there, buddy. I barely get to do some of those things myself. You won’t be a teenager for another year, so we’ll deal with all of that when we come to it.”

“Okay.” Dylan realized his father always thought he knew best, but he was so old. He probably didn’t even remember what it was like to be a teenager.

Colin took a deep breath and tried to ease into the conversation he had been dreading. “Before you go to sleep we need to talk for a minute.”

Dylan’s eyes narrowed with suspicion. Anytime they needed to talk, that meant his dad was going to tell him something he didn’t want to hear. He asked cautiously, “What do you want to talk about?”

“We need to talk about Katie.”

So that was it. Katie was definitely not Dylan’s favorite subject. She had suddenly appeared out of nowhere almost a year ago, and he didn’t like her any better now than when they first met. “What about her?”

Colin shifted positions. He had been practicing this exchange for several days, but he now realized it had been a waste of time. A delicate subject like this had to be discussed openly and honestly. It couldn’t be rehearsed because it had to come from the heart. “I know how you feel about Katie.”

Sitting up in bed with his arms folded across his chest, Dylan avoided looking at his dad. He wasn’t going to make this easy for him.

Rubbing his forehead, Colin decided to jump in. “As you know, Katie and I have been dating for a while now, and I think you are aware of how much she and I care about each other.” He paused for a response, but there was only stony silence. “And she has tried to show, in every way she could, how much she cares for you.”

More silence.

Although it was frustrating, Dylan’s unwillingness to interact with Katie was understandable. Tragically, the sudden death of his mother five years earlier had changed his life forever, and his son still struggled to cope with the loss. But it was the horrific fact that she had died on Dylan’s birthday that had intensified the pain. What would typically be the happiest day of the year for someone his age was instead forever colored by overwhelming sadness.

“Son, I know that my relationship with Katie bothers you, but I’d like to find a way for you to be comfortable around her.”

Still avoiding eye contact, Dylan asked, “Why does it matter? I don’t have to be around her that much.”

For Colin, the moment of truth had arrived. He hesitated and then said softly, “That is about to change.”

Suddenly, the conversation had taken an alarming turn. “What do you mean?” Dylan didn’t like the word change.

Trying to keep his nervousness from showing, Colin knew there wasn’t an easy way to break the news, so he said simply, “Katie and I are thinking about getting married. That means she would move in and live with us.”

It took some time for Dylan to react. Not being prepared for such bad news, it felt like he’d been punched in the stomach because his worst nightmare was coming true. Losing his mother had been awful enough – but now this woman was going to try to replace her.

Experiencing an unsettling mixture of apprehension, and anger, Dylan protested, “But why do you have to get married? Why can’t things stay the way they are?”

With the hard-earned patience he had spent eleven years acquiring, Colin explained, “We want to be together, and that means we want to share our lives with each other.”

Dylan looked at his dad in confusion and asked, “Why do we need her? Aren’t the three of us a family?”

“Of course we are…… but Katie wants to be part of our family too.”

“Why can’t she get her own family?”

“It doesn’t work that way. People meet, get married and share a home.”

Dylan was not convinced.

Knowing that attempting to reason with him so soon after delivering upsetting news was probably futile, Colin still felt compelled to try. “Katie thinks the world of you. She wishes you could find a way to accept her.”

His son doubted he would ever be able to do that. In Dylan’s mind, the woman was going to ruin everything. “Why do you even want to marry her?”

Colin said, “I love Katie. After we lost Hallie, I never thought I would fall in love again. I didn’t plan any of this.”

Desperately grasping at straws, Dylan asked, “Can’t you marry her without letting her move in with us?”

“No. She is going to live here.”

Dylan thought of his sister. “Does Malorie know about this?”

“Yes, she does. She is happy for us.”

Great. Everyone was happy but him. Dylan briefly wondered if he could go to his sister’s apartment and stay there, but that wouldn’t work because he would miss his dad too much.

Colin knew this was a tremendous shock, but it was something they were going to have to work through. “We’re thinking of having the wedding three months from now, during the summer.”

Suddenly it dawned on Dylan that this was really going to happen, and there was no way to make it stop. His expression gave away his feelings.

His father wished there was some way he could convince him to give Katie a chance. It would make all of their lives so much better if his son could approach their marriage with an open mind. But for now, he decided the best thing to do was to give Dylan time to get used to the idea.

Colin stood up. “Please think about what we’ve talked about, and if you have any questions -”

Dylan interrupted and asked, “Why does that woman have to use a cane?”

“When she was younger, Katie had a health problem.”

“She got sick?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

“How? How did she get sick?”

“You need to ask her yourself. She will discuss it with you.”

After considering that prospect, Dylan said, “Never mind.”

“I believe you could ask Katie almost anything, and she would be willing to talk to you.”

Dylan climbed under the covers, turned, and faced the wall, clearly indicating that as far as he was concerned the discussion was over.

Colin knew how stubborn his son could be, but he also knew that he was good a person with a kind heart and that made him believe that somehow this would eventually all work out.

“Goodnight.” Colin turned out the light and closed the door behind him. Walking down the hallway, he knew he had to speak to Katie face to face, and soon.

But he was not sure how to give her the discouraging news.

***

The next day, the weather was beautiful. A cloudless, blue sky allowed the warm sunshine to brighten everyone’s mood – except for Colin’s.

Unsure of what to do about Dylan’s negative reaction to their big announcement, he wanted to ask Katie if she any ideas. They met for lunch at one of their favorite restaurants, and then took a leisurely stroll in a nearby park. Even with the support provided by her quad cane, the weakness on Katie’s left side gradually took a toll, so they decided to stop and rest. Sitting down on a bench under a large maple tree, they spent a few minutes watching the ducks and geese that lived around the lake in the center of the park.

For a while they chatted effortlessly in the intimate way that people do when they are devoted to each other, but then Katie beat Colin to the punch by bringing up the delicate subject of his son.

With some trepidation, she asked, “Have you told Dylan yet about our plans?”

Colin grimaced. “Yes, we talked last night. I think it’s safe to say that it could have gone better.”

Katie tried not to be discouraged. Despite the constant rejection she had faced from Dylan, she had grown quite fond of him, and, more than anything, she wanted them to make a connection.

As his father, Colin felt it was his responsibility to help his son find a way to accept Katie, but he wasn’t sure he could do it. “I’m not trying to make excuses for Dylan, but he’s just not ready to accept somebody new in his life. The problem is, I don’t know if he will ever be ready.”

“Maybe he thinks that I’m trying to take the place of his mother.” Katie was concerned because she didn’t want to make things more stressful for Dylan. “I would never expect him to accept me as any more than a friend. But I would like for us to be as close as possible.”

“Of course you would. Unfortunately, since Hallie died, he has become resistant to any kind of change. I think it’s how he copes. Losing her was a complete loss of control, and, consequently, I think he fears anything new or different. What I’m trying to say is that it has nothing to do with you. It wouldn’t matter to Dylan who the person was. It’s just that you represent dramatic change, and right now that seems to be difficult for him to handle.”

Katie believed Colin was right, and she did her best not to take it personally. “I just hope he will be able to accept the idea of us getting married or it is going to be an impossible situation.”

Colin said, “But the thing is, this is not just about Dylan, it’s also about us. We deserve to be happy. We deserve to be together.”

“That’s true,” Katie said. “But we can’t just focus on ourselves. This has to be about all of us or it won’t work.” She reached over and stroked the side of his face and said, “I love you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you, but I don’t want to disrupt your home. The three of you have struggled so hard to overcome your grief and sense of loss. I don’t want to upset that.”

“I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but the ideal solution is to help Dylan find a way to let go of the past, so he can begin to live in the present.” Colin looked around the park and said, “I know if he would only give you a chance, he’d stop seeing you as a threat, and then he could enjoy being around you…… But I admit, I’m at a loss about how to make that happen.”

Katie had an idea she had been considering for some time, but she had been reluctant to bring it up because she didn’t want to overstep her bounds. However, it looked like they were running out of options. “What if I spoke to Dylan? Alone I mean. It’s worth a try. I could do it tomorrow night since I’m coming over anyway. If you don’t mind, I’ll talk with him, just the two of us, with no distractions.”

That might work, but Colin was still cautious. “I can’t promise that he will warm up to you. The news of us getting married took him by surprise. This is a huge adjustment for Dylan, and he needs time to work through it.”

Katie took hold of his hand. “Well, I’m not going anywhere and neither are you. If we have to wait to change my name from Miss Wightman to Mrs. York then that’s what we’ll do.”

Colin put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. The park was peaceful this time of day, and it was easy to let your problems drift away. Turning his face to the sun, he relaxed for the first time since the conversation with his son.

Suddenly the stillness was shattered by the sound of a large flock of honking geese taking flight in mass. As he watched them spread out in a V formation and slowly disappear over the horizon, Colin thought about how free they seemed. They were unburdened by the worries and cares that weighed so heavily on human beings.

For one brief moment, he felt envious.

***

The next evening, Katie came over, and after an extremely quiet dinner of takeout, Dylan beat a hasty retreat to his room. Katie and Colin then moved to the couch and discussed a few details about their future, but soon the conversation drifted to the issue of his son.

Katie was temporarily disheartened and felt the need to apologize. “I’m sorry it’s so awkward when the three of us are together. I just feel like I’m in the way, and I don’t belong.”

Colin knew her discouragement was only momentary. His fiancée was a fighter who would never give up.

True to form, Katie took a breath, refocused, and said, “Okay. That’s enough self-pity. I think I will go have that chat with Dylan right now. I’ll be as positive as I can, and I’ll do my best to help him see that we can make this work.”

Her upbeat attitude had been one of the first things that had attracted Colin to Katie. She had a way of looking at life that made you feel good just to be around her. He brushed a strand of hair from her face and said, “Good luck.”

Trying to bolster his spirits as well as her own, Katie said, “I’ve thought about this a lot. Maybe Dylan just needs the chance to express his feelings. I’m going to be as honest and as straightforward as I can, and I will give him the opportunity to do the same.”

Suddenly, Colin remembered. “I almost forgot. He’s going to ask why you use a cane. He’s curious about that.”

Katie shrugged. “That’s okay. I want him to understand everything about me just like I want to understand him. There is no reason to have any secrets.”

She got to her feet and began to head for Dylan’s room. As Colin watched her walk away, he hoped she would be able to connect with his son – but he was doubtful.

Dylan was sitting on the edge of his bed playing a handheld video game when Katie knocked on his door.

He looked up and said, “Yes?”

“It’s Katie. Can I come in?”

There was a pause and then he mumbled,  “Okay.” The woman had never been in his room before, and he had no idea what she wanted, but Dylan had known she was walking down the hallway because he heard her cane striking the hardwood floor. He thought she was just passing by, but no such luck.

Katie opened the door and stepped into a teenager’s cluttered room. Dylan tossed the console on the bed.

“I’m sorry I interrupted your game,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve been stuck on that level for a while.”

In the corner, there was a small desk with a rolling office chair. Katie walked to it, carefully stepping over discarded clothes and assorted other objects. “Okay if I sit down?”

Believing he had no choice, he said, “Sure. Go ahead.”

Avoiding the odds and ends on the floor, she pulled the chair closer to Dylan and settled in. Her cane stood by her side. Impressed, she said, “This chair is comfortable.”

“Yeah. That’s where I sit when I do my homework.”

Katie asked, “Do you like school?”

“It’s all right. Sometimes it’s hard, but the teachers are nice, and they help me a lot.”

“That’s good.” Katie knew it was up to her to keep the conversation going, so she asked, “Do you have a favorite subject?”

“I have a class called living skills, and this semester we’re learning to cook.”

“Wow! That’s great. Do you like cooking?”

“I love cooking. My dad sometimes lets me help him in the kitchen.” Then lowering his voice, Dylan said, “Don’t tell anyone, but he’s not a very good cook.” To emphasize the point he opened his mouth and took his index and pointed at it and made a comical gagging sound.

Katie covered her mouth as she giggled.

“On the weekends my sister comes over, and she is a much better cook than my dad.” But Dylan didn’t want to be too tough on him. “He tries his best though.”

“Cooking can be fun. I enjoy it too.”

Surprised, Dylan said, “You do? I didn’t know that.”

Katie didn’t want to push Dylan too much, but she thought it was worth taking a chance, so she made a suggestion. “Maybe you and I could cook a meal for everyone.”

Dylan tapped his fingers on the video game controller, considered it, and then said, “I guess we could do that.”

“What kind of food do you like?”

“I love pizza, and hamburgers, and tacos.”

“What about desserts?”

“I love chocolate cake, and all kinds of cookies.”

“Do you like ice cream?” Katie watched as a stern look came over Dylan’s face. He answered firmly, “No, I don’t. No ice cream.”

“Okay. Got it. No ice cream.” Katie had never met someone Dylan’s age who didn’t like ice cream – but he was adamant. In an effort to get back on track, she asked, “What about restaurants. Do you like to eat out?”

“Yes, I do. But it makes my dad mad when the waitress asks him for my food order instead of me. He always tells them to ask me what I want to eat. And sometimes people stare at us in restaurants. I don’t know why.”

Knowing how that felt, Katie could empathize. But she believed it would be better to return to the subject of disabilities later. For now, she sensed that food might provide a small connection that could open the door to a meaningful conversation, so she asked, “What is your favorite homecooked meal?”

Dylan’s eyes lit up and without hesitation, he answered, “Spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread.”

“Yum! That does sound good.” Katie paused before asking, “What about this Saturday night? Malorie can join us. You and I could fix spaghetti for the whole family. Would you like to do that?”

Suddenly feeling embarrassed, Dylan looked away from Katie and asked, “Why do you want to cook with me?” Before she could answer, he turned back to her and admitted, “I haven’t been nice to you on purpose.”

Impressed by his honesty, Katie answered, “I know that having me around makes you uncomfortable. But perhaps you’ll get used to me. However, I realize that might take some time. You, Colin, and Malorie have been through a lot, and being sad can make a person feel alone. I just thought that because I needed a friend, you might need one too.”

Dylan was still suspicious. “Why do you want me to be your friend?”

“Well, for one thing, I like you. You are an interesting person.”

Katie wasn’t sure if he would respond favorably, but she was caught off guard when Dylan asked innocently, “Did you know I have Down syndrome?”

She answered respectfully, “Yes, I was aware of that.”

Dylan said matter-of-factly, “It’s no big deal. Some of my friends have Down syndrome too.”

Katie nodded in agreement. “I know what you mean. Some of my friends use canes or wheelchairs. That just proves that anyone can be your friend.”

She watched Dylan’s expression change as he worked up the courage to ask her a question he had been wondering about. “Why do you walk with a cane? I asked my dad last night, but he wouldn’t answer me.”

Katie believed his curiosity was only natural, and she had no qualms about talking about it. “It’s kind of a long story, but I’ll make it as short as I can. When I was just a little bit older than you are now, I got sick, and something bad happened to me.”

“And that hurt your arm and leg?”

“Yes. That’s right.”

Dylan had never heard of anything like that before. “What kind of sick?”

“There was an issue with my brain. I had what’s called a tumor.”

“So being sick changed the way you were?”

Katie said, “That is a good way to put it. My body was one way before I got sick and then it was this way after I got better.” Dylan looked confused, so she tried to clear things up without going into a lot of unpleasant details. “I had to have surgery on my brain so they could get rid of the tumor, and it left me with weakness on my left side – but that surgery saved my life.”

Because he had not known what Katie had been through, it scared Dylan to think she could have been so sick. With a lump forming in his throat, he managed to offer the first glimmer of hope regarding their relationship. “I’m glad you didn’t die.”

Katie struggled not to show too much reaction, but his words touched her soul. It was the first time in eleven months that he had shown even the slightest affection or concern for her. “Thank you, Dylan. That is so sweet of you to say that.”

Since his attitude toward her had softened slightly, she thought this was an opportunity she shouldn’t pass up. Ready to discuss the most powerful thing they had in common, Katie said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to ask you a question. Do you ever have trouble learning things?”

Dylan answered truthfully. “Yeah. Sometimes.”

“Me too. Learning can be hard for anybody. After I had my surgery, I had to learn how to walk all over again.”

“You did?” Dylan was amazed. “Really?”

“Yes. I couldn’t walk at all. I didn’t have any balance, and that made me fall. I even had difficulty speaking, and I had to relearn that too.”

“But today you talk okay.”

She laughed. “Yes, I probably talk too much.”

A brief silence hung over the room as Dylan thought about everything Katie had told him. Slowly he was beginning to form a new opinion of her. It turned out she had problems just like him. 

Katie decided that if she was going to reach Dylan tonight, it was now or never. She believed that what she was about to say could help them bond in a very special way. Without any unnecessary drama, she said calmly, “Being sick wasn’t the worst part though.”

He couldn’t imagine what could be worse than not being able to walk or talk, so he asked. “What was the worst part?”

As gently as she possibly could, she said, “I didn’t have my mom to help me.” She watched as a look of surprise swept over Dylan’s face.

“Why not? Where was your mom?”

Katie gazed into the face of a person who had suffered a terrible loss and revealed her own painful truth that changed their relationship forever. “My mom had passed away. I lost my mother just like you did.”

Stunned, Dylan waited for a few seconds before asking, “She really died?”

“Yes. There was something wrong with her heart. She died about a year before I got sick. I missed her so much back then, and I still miss her now – just like you miss your mom.”

His shoulders slumped. “Yeah, I think about her every day.”

“I know. It hurts because we love them so much and they loved us – and no one can ever replace them.”

Dylan fidgeted with his hands for a few seconds and then pointed at a photo on the wall behind her. “That is a picture of me and my mom.”

Katie turned and saw a picture of a woman holding her young son over her head as he laughed. It looked like they were on a beach with the surf behind them. Hallie looked so happy holding Dylan that it was troubling to Katie knowing the fate that awaited her. But she did her best not to show her feelings. “Your mother is beautiful. And look how cute you were!”

Dylan blushed. Although still concerned that his dad wanted Katie to replace his mom, everything seemed different tonight. Finding out more about her made him see that they had a lot in common. But while it was true they had both lost their mothers, there was one terrible secret about the death of his mom that Dylan didn’t dare give away. He was going to keep that to himself because he was afraid if Katie found out, she would stop liking him.

However, he put that out of his mind for now because there was one more thing he wanted to ask her about. “I don’t know if you know this or not, but I will always have Down syndrome…… Will you always need your cane?”

“Yes, I will, but that’s okay.” Katie hastened to add, “There are some people who think I should feel bitter because my arm and leg are not as strong as they used to be. They think it’s bad that I use a cane to help me keep my balance. But you know what?”

“What?”

“Those people are not seeing the real me.”

Dylan’s face wrinkled. “What do you mean?”

Katie did her best to make a critical point. “It doesn’t matter how others see you. It’s how you see yourself that counts. When I pick up my cane and walk, it’s proof that I survived a serious health problem. Although I need that support to move around, I am alive, and my life has meaning. It is the same for you. The fact that you are in school, and even learning to cook proves that you can accomplish many things, and you should be proud of yourself. I’m proud of you.”

“You are?”

“Yes, I am. It may not be obvious, but you and I are quite a bit alike. We’ve both had to learn things that were challenging for us, and we both lost our mothers. And we know how much that hurts.”

Dylan stared at the floor for a long time and when he raised his eyes, she could see he was blinking back tears. For five years, Dylan had been tormented by his secret. Only his dad and the therapist knew about it, but now he was sitting with someone who might understand. It was risky, but he decided to confide in Katie. In little more than a whisper, he said, “I’m sorry you lost your mom – but it’s not the same thing…… You didn’t cause her to die.”

Katie was completely lost and wasn’t sure how to respond. “What are you talking about, Dylan?”

The young man sniffed and did his best to hold back the tears. “It’s my fault that my mom was in the car wreck.”

Katie knew that his mother had tragically died on his birthday, but she didn’t see how a car wreck could possibly be his fault. With complete certainty, she said, “Dylan, it was just an awful accident. You had nothing to do with it.”

Slowly the tears began to streak down his face. With his voice quivering, he said, “It was my fault. The only reason she went to the store was to buy ice cream for my birthday party. I wanted to go with her, but she wouldn’t let me. If I hadn’t been born she would still be -” He stopped and began to cry softly.

His words hit her with breathtaking force. Katie immediately stood up, swung to her right, and dropped down next to him. She reached around his shoulders and hugged him.

They sat for several minutes rocking back and forth as all of his pent-up grief and remorse spilled out in sobs. During that time, not a single word was spoken because Katie was providing the support and compassion he needed just by being with him. When he did begin to relax and regain his composure, he pulled away and looked at her with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. It just makes me sad to think of what I did to her.”

“You don’t have to apologize,” Katie said. “There are times when I think about my mom and get upset. But please believe what I’m about to say. Sometimes bad things just happen. That wreck was the result of another driver losing control of his car. It was just a horrible accident – but it had nothing to do with you.”

In a voice filled with anguish, Dylan pleaded, “Do you really think so? Do you really think it wasn’t my fault?”

With complete assurance, Katie said, “It was absolutely not your fault.”

Dylan felt drained from the outpouring of emotion, and in an unsteady voice said, “My mom just drove away like always, but that day she never came home.”

Katie patted his hand and said, “When we lose someone, we keep them alive in our hearts and minds. You think about her every day – and you always will. She is part of you. And no one can ever take her place.”

Still unsure about their wedding, Dylan asked anxiously, “But if you get married, does that mean you have to be my new mother?”

“No. No. Hallie will always be your mother. I can be what is called a stepmom, but I could never replace her, and I would never try. But there are many ways to have a relationship with a person. More than anything, I want you to be a part of my life. And I’d like to have the chance to be part of yours. You are already very important to me, and I would like for all of us to be together- but, Dylan, we will never ever forget Hallie. She will always be your mom.”

Dylan thought long and hard about it, before he said, “Okay. I just don’t want to forget about her if you move in with us.”

“We won’t let that happen.”

“Cross your heart?”

With two quick motions she crossed herself, and that made Dylan smile. Then he surprised her by asking, “Have you ever been married before?”

“No. I haven’t.”

“Why not? Aren’t you old enough?”

Giggling, Katie said, “Oh, I’m more than old enough. But the reason is, I never fell in love with anyone – until I met Colin.”

“And you are sure you love my dad?”

“Yes, I do.”

Dylan was still worried. “But what if after a while you decide you don’t want us as your family anymore?”

Katie looked intently at the young man who was now showing signs of accepting her and said, “I can promise you, that will not happen. You and Malorie are two of the sweetest people I’ve ever known. And I love Colin more than any other person in the world.” Then with a mischievous grin, she added, “Even if he can’t cook.”

Dylan couldn’t help but laugh. “You should see how funny my dad looks in an apron.”

“I can only imagine!” Thrilled that they had talked and taken the first step in understanding each other, Katie asked, “So, are we still on for spaghetti and meatballs Saturday?”

“And garlic bread?”

“You got it.” And then Katie said, “And what would you think of chocolate cake for dessert?”

“Yes! Please!” Dylan smiled and said, “I guess you’re right. We are a lot alike.”

Katie agreed. “Yes, we are. And one of the most important ways we are alike is that we both deserve to be treated just like everyone else. You have Down syndrome, and I have muscle weakness that affects how I walk. Does that make us less than other people? No, it does not. We matter just as much as they do, and we have the same rights as them. That includes the right to be happy, and that is what I want for you, Dylan. I want you to be happy, and I hope you’ll give me the chance to be a part of your happiness.”

Dylan looked down at the floor and said, “Okay. I’m sorry I’ve been mean to you. If you still want me, I will be your friend.” And with that, he turned and hugged Katie as her heart melted.

“I would love for you to my friend!” Katie said when the hug ended.

With both of them pleased about their newfound friendship, they talked a bit longer about the spaghetti dinner they would be preparing, and then Katie left Dylan to his video game and returned to the living room where Colin was waiting on pins and needles.

He looked at her with worry written all over his face and asked urgently, “How did it go?”

Katie sat down next to him and tried to remain calm about the breakthrough that had just occurred. In a relaxed tone of voice that disguised the incredible joy she was feeling inside, she said, “Dylan is a remarkable young man. You are blessed to be his father.”

Colin nodded. “You’re right, of course. I know I’m blessed. He is a wonderful son. But how did the talk go?”

Katie sighed and said, “Before we go any farther, please tell me about the day that Hallie was killed. I know it’s not something you want to dwell on, but I want to make sure I completely understand the entire situation and the aftermath.”

Colin and Katie had been dating for 11 months, and in that time he had never fully explained Dylan’s reaction to his mother’s death. Now as they approached the anniversary of her accident, he knew he owed it to Katie to tell her the truth. However, thinking back to that afternoon stirred up memories that Colin had fought hard to suppress, but he wanted Katie to know all of the details, so even though they had on occasion discussed his wife’s death, he started at the beginning.

“It was such a wonderful day. Dylan was turning seven, and Hallie had prepared everything for his birthday party, but somehow in all the excitement, she had forgotten to get the ice cream. The grocery store is only a couple of miles away, so she decided to run over there and pick some up. Dylan wanted to go with her, but she said no. Hallie told him she would only be gone for a few minutes, and he needed to change clothes and get ready for the party.” With his voice shaking, he added, “Thank God they weren’t together.”

Katie took hold of Colin’s hand as he continued. “Just a quarter of a mile from our house an older man in a large sedan had some type of medical crisis, they suspect it was a heart attack. His foot must have slipped down on the accelerator because his vehicle crossed the centerline at a high speed, and they collided head-on. My wife was killed instantly. The other driver survived several hours before he died. I actually remember hearing the sirens off in the distance before I got the phone call.”

Even after so much time, Colin still shook his head in disbelief. “One moment Hallie was standing in the kitchen, laughing and hugging Dylan, and minutes later she was dead. I’ve tried to point out to him in every way I can that it was just an accident, that it wasn’t his fault. The man became ill, and that is why they crashed. But because his mom was making the trip to get something for his birthday, Dylan believes he caused it. He’s gone through therapy, but it is still a huge issue for him. Especially this time of year.”

Katie could not begin to imagine what Dylan had endured. In a voice aching with sadness, she said, “He told me pretty much the same thing.”

For an instant, Colin wasn’t sure he had heard her correctly. “Wait just a second! Are you telling me that he actually talked about his mother?”

“Yes. He told me about that day and how guilty he feels about it.”

“That is incredible!” Colin was bursting with excitement. “Dylan usually shuts down anytime his mom is mentioned. You must have gained his trust to get him to open up about it!”

“I hope so.” She didn’t want to be overconfident, but Katie did believe that Dylan now understood that she was not a threat. “I certainly think our relationship is in a better place than it was an hour ago.”

“That’s wonderful! I never dreamed it would go so well.” Colin was ecstatic.

Katie’s face broke into a huge grin. “Saturday, Dylan and I are going to cook his favorite meal for everyone. Please invite Malorie for me.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” Now Colin was truly amazed. “Dylan is going to cook with you in our kitchen? Just the two of you together?”

“That’s right.”

“If you’re cooking his favorite meal that has to be spaghetti and meatballs.”

“And garlic bread.”

“That’s perfect! He loves to cook. And for his age, he’s good at it too.”

“Which is more than he could say about your culinary efforts,” she said sweetly.

Colin hung his head in mock shame. I’m afraid it’s true. I am basically useless in the kitchen.”

Katie lifted his chin and kissed him on the forehead. “That’s okay. If I’m lucky enough to join this household, me and my assistant will take over some of that responsibility.”

And, over time, that is exactly what happened.

***

Every Saturday night for the next three months, Katie and Dylan worked side by side preparing the evening meal. Their menu ranged from exotic gourmet dishes to hotdogs and everything in between. In keeping with the newly acquired family spirit, after dinner was over, Dylan and Katie would move to the living room to play video games together while Colin and Malorie cleaned the kitchen and did the dishes. It was truly a group effort.

During those twelve weeks, Katie and Dylan developed an even stronger bond than she could have ever hoped for. He began to sit by the window and wait for her car to pull into the driveway, and he was thrilled when she called him on his phone just to check in and see how he was doing. She treated him with the dignity and respect he deserved, and that made him feel great.

Colin watched with astonishment as Dylan slowly changed before his eyes. After living with so much guilt and pain, his son was finally turning away from the past because Katie, in her own way, had helped him release his grief just by being herself.

For Dylan, Katie represented someone who had faced challenges in life just like he had, and, having so much in common, they enjoyed a lot of the same interests. Because he had grown comfortable around her, Dylan was amazed by how fast the time went by, and before he knew it, their wedding day had arrived.

The couple had chosen to get married on a Saturday. With a lot of hard work, all of the preparations had been meticulously planned and were now flawlessly executed. Every detail was in order, and the majestic church was filled to capacity. Friends and relatives considered this union particularly heartwarming because of the circumstances surrounding the people involved.

Standing at the front of the sanctuary, Dylan could not remember ever being so nervous. Malorie was radiant as the maid of honor, but it was Katie’s soon-to-be stepson, cutting quite the dashing figure in his tuxedo, who stole the show as his dad’s best man.

When the wedding march began, everyone stood and turned to see the entrance of the bride. Dylan had not seen Katie since the rehearsal dinner, and when she walked down the aisle accompanied by her father, he could hardly believe how pretty she looked.

The ceremony itself was beautiful, and it proceeded smoothly with the bride and groom reciting vows that they had written themselves. Then when asked, Dylan produced the rings and drew smiles and soft laughter because it was obvious to everyone that he was enormously relieved to no longer be responsible for them. The ceremony concluded with the traditional kiss, and just like that, Katie officially joined their family.

Next, dozens of photos were taken, during which Dylan was repeatedly reminded to smile. However, he didn’t need to be prompted. For the first time in the last five years, he felt like himself again. He couldn’t help but smile just knowing that Katie would be moving in with them.

Soon, they moved to the reception, and when Dylan saw the size of the cake he was shocked. It was bigger than any he had ever seen, and he couldn’t wait to try a slice of it. Just down from all of the food was a long decorated table filled with elegantly wrapped gifts. Later when they were opened, the thoughtfulness of so many would touch Katie’s heart.

The wedding was being catered, and the food was delicious, but it was difficult for Dylan to enjoy his meal because of what was coming. Sure enough, once everyone was finished eating, it was time for speeches to be given, and as the best man, tradition dictated that Dylan speak first. After worrying for days about this moment, it had now arrived. A lot of careful thought had been given to what he wanted to say, and there had been a significant amount of time spent practicing in front of the mirror, so although scared to death, he figured he was as ready as he would ever be.

When he stood up, Dylan saw every head in the room turn in his direction. With so many eyes staring at him, he wished he could just sit back down, but he wanted to say something about his dad and Katie, so he gulped nervously and in a halting voice began to deliver the message the way he had practiced it. “I’ve never given a speech before because I’ve never been in a wedding. But I’ll do the best I can. For a long time, it has not been easy for my family, but no matter what, my dad always took care of us. He did all he could to make things better, even when it was really bad. Malorie and I, she’s my big sister, used to worry about him because he was alone. But now he won’t be alone anymore. And that is why today is so important. I just want to say that my dad is my best friend, and I love him.”

He paused for just a moment and then said, “I don’t know if any of you have ever made a mistake – but I did. When I first met Katie, I was mean to her. I didn’t want her to be around. But that was wrong. It turned out she is not nearly as bad as I thought she was.” He had to stop and wait as people laughed, then he continued. “I just didn’t give her a chance. I made up my mind about her before I even got to know her. I think maybe we do that to people all the time, and that is a sad way to be. But Katie waited for me to learn my lesson. And she was nice the whole time she waited. That shows you she is a good person. I’m glad my dad met her, and I hope they will be married my whole life. Thank you.”

Before Dylan could sit down, his father stood up, hugged him, and whispered. “Thank you, son. That was wonderful. I am so proud to be your father. I love you.”

When they were seated, Katie leaned over to stepson. “Dylan, that was beautiful. You’ll never know how much it meant to me.”

Dylan appreciated her kind words, but mostly he felt relief that he was no longer the center of attention. But he was pleased that his dad and Katie had liked what he said.

The remaining speeches were followed by toasts to the couple and once everyone was done expressing their good wishes, a band on the far side of the room started to play. Katie and Colin made their way to the center of the large hall and began their spotlight dance. Dylan watched them and wished this day would never end. He liked it when everyone was happy, and it hadn’t been that way in a long time. When their dance was finished, other couples joined them on the floor, and the band played on. Dylan loved music and these particular musicians were very talented. He thoroughly enjoyed listening to them.

It wasn’t too long before Colin and Katie returned to the table, and people began stopping by to offer their congratulations. For the next half hour, the conversation was nonstop. Malorie and Katie were seated on either side of Dylan, and Colin was, of course, next to his new bride, which meant the best man was in the middle attempting to listen to multiple voices at once. Dylan tried to keep up with all of the good things that were being said, but it wasn’t easy.

The band continued to play a few more up-tempo numbers, and then the lights were lowered as they switched to a slow ballad. Dylan was deep in thought wondering about when they would get around to cutting the giant cake when Katie smiled at him and said, “You look so distinguished in your tuxedo, would you please dance with me?”

Dylan wasn’t sure what ‘distinguished’ meant, but it had to be something good. Katie was too nice to say anything bad. But then he remembered the weakness in her leg. “I’m not as strong as my dad. If you dance with me, will you still be able to do it without your cane?”

“Yes. Just like I did with Colin, I’ll put my arm across your shoulders while you hold my other hand. That way I can support myself.”

“Okay, but I’m not a good dancer. I mean, I haven’t had much practice. I hope no one laughs at us.”

Katie assured him, “That won’t happen. I think people will be polite.” But she had no idea what their reaction would be. Carefully she stood up, placed her arm on his shoulder, and they made their way to the center of the dance floor. Dylan held her hand in his, and they began to sway slowly to the music. Realizing what a special moment it was, other couples gradually drifted away until Katie and Dylan had the floor to themselves.

It did not take long until there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Everyone knew of the tragedy that had occurred years before, and they were aware of how it had affected Dylan. To see his recovery filled all of their guests with pure joy.

But the two people who were touched the most were Colin and Malorie. They sat with tears streaming down their faces as they watched an embrace of understanding and acceptance.

As the couple danced, it was hard for Dylan to remember that only a few months ago he wanted nothing to do with Katie. Now she had become one of the most important people in his life, and he felt lucky to know her.

It was the same way for Katie. Through marriage, she had gotten more than just a wonderful husband, she had been given three people to love, and to her, it was the greatest blessing imaginable.

She could remember a time when, due to her health, it seemed highly unlikely she would ever experience a day like this. But she had beaten the odds, and now that Katie was actually dancing at her own wedding, more than ever, she felt thankful to be alive.

When the song came to an end, the room burst into sustained applause as Dylan’s face turned a shade of red that briefly gave him the appearance of having a bad sunburn. Embarrassed that everyone was watching, he walked Katie back to the table where, being the perfect gentleman, he pulled her chair out for her.

She sat down and looked at the person who had opened up his life to her. “Thank you for dancing with me, Dylan. That was lovely.”

“You’re welcome. I didn’t know everyone would watch us. I’m glad I didn’t step on your foot.”

Katie laughed and said, “They were watching because we are such talented dancers!”

Dylan grinned at her and exclaimed, “This is the best day ever!”

“Yes, it is!” Katie agreed wholeheartedly.

But at just that moment, Dylan thought of something important he wanted to say, and his expression quickly grew serious. Needing to emphasize how he felt about his new stepmother, he spoke in a soft voice that could barely be heard over the noise in the room. “I still miss my mom, but I’m glad you and I are related now. You are part of our family.”

Then, after a slight pause, he said the words that Katie would never forget. “If you really do love us, please don’t ever leave.”

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