Missing Our Parents, Helping the Hurting

Fifty years prior, his WWII daily K-Rations had included just enough unfiltered Camel cigarettes to start a life-ending habit that would eventually rob us of our newly sober father.

None of his children were with my father when he died.  Earlier that same day, Mom had assured me that, although he was in an oxygen tent and probably wouldn’t come home from the hospital, death wasn’t imminent.  .  I should start looking at plane tickets and adjust my schedule accordingly for probably the next week.

I was in surgery just a few hours later when the call came; my back slid along the wall and I wilted to the floor as the news was relayed to me.

I vowed to drop what I was doing if I ever received such foreboding news about Mom.  And I was with her, but only because I took seriously the news that she had stomach pains and was in the hospital for observation.

I tried not to let her see my gasp of horror when I entered the room and saw her in that hospital bed.  Who was this old person, with her hair flattened and unkempt, looking so feeble and weak?  This face glowed and smiled as she looked up to see who was clenching her hand and leaning down to kiss her.

Only then did it really hit me, and I was absolutely terrified.  My beautiful mother was, for the first time, very mortal.  Until that moment, when I thought of her, she was 48.  I have no idea why that age, but I remember her being that age, and regardless of how many decades passed; that was the image I conjured up in my mind when I thought of her, spoke with her on the phone, or saw her handwriting.

Maureen Blanton Klein

At about age 48, this is the way Mom will forever live in my memory. Maureen Blanton Klein

That day is mainly a blur.  A surreal experience where nothing made sense.  A Chagall or Dali painting where something, or everything, was out of place.  I had spoken to my mother the day before.  She was 83, but the picture of health: vivacious, bubbly, energetic, the quintessential do-gooder volunteer.

She was supposed to live for another 20 years; in fact had I built an extra ground-floor bedroom with a walk-in shower for her to finally retire to, when she decided to join us in Florida!

Mom had hosted a dinner party that night in her home, cooking and serving to 10 of her close friends.  When everyone was leaving, she remarked that she had a bit of a stomach ache and so didn’t want anyone to stay to help clean up, she’d just do it in the morning, because she felt like she wanted to go to bed.  She had not been sick a day before this.

Who was this person in this hospital bed, writhing in abdominal pain?  As the sole medical professional in the family, I would take upon myself responsibility for her proper treatment, “Where is her medical record? What have you found, and what tests have you performed?”  The staff smiled at me sympathetically, and condescendingly assured me that everything possible was being done.  I would certainly be allowed to look at the medical chart, if the doctor approved it.

The problem was that there was no doctor.  Her primary care physician sent her here in the middle of the night.  The admitting doctor then turned over her care to the “hospitalist,” what-ever the hell kind of doctor that is.  I certainly wasn’t impressed with him, or the system at St Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, where Mom had been taken.  I’d now been there for over 6 hours and no doctor had even walked in the room to examine her.  I was “assured” that he had been by once and “saw” her, and was well aware of what was going on, because he had been on the phone with the nursing staff several times over the course of the day.  Finally, after my constant harassment, the nurse winked and told me he had consented to my looking at the chart, and that she’d be glad to “explain things to me.”

As we walked to the head nurse’s station she asked me a question that will forever haunt me, “You must take comfort that your mother is at least resting comfortably now, has this been an extended illness?”  When I told her, “NO! She hosted a dinner party just 9 hours ago, and hasn’t been sick at all,” she turned quickly towards me, and almost shouted, “REALLY?”

The medical record was astonishing.  The complete and total lack of any semblance of a medical workup was puzzling.  I remarked outloud, “She presented for stomach cramps and nausea, where are the blood profile results?  Why have a CT, or even a simple radiograph (X-Ray) not been taken?  The incredulous look from the nurse also haunts me. “Because, Mr. Klein,” the nurse now speaking matter-of-factly, she has a DNR request on her chart and on her wrist band.”

“Nurse, actually, I’m Doctor Klein, and I demand that you call the physician immediately.  DNR means (or so I naively thought) ‘Do Not Resuscitate,’ NOTDO NOT TRY!

“How can you possibly make a decision regarding whether or not to treat something, if you don’t even make a minimal attempt to diagnose?” I pleaded on the phone with “the hospitalist” (again, whatever the hell that is).  His condescending words also continue to haunt me, “Well what would you like me to do, doctor?”

I’ll leave this alone for now.  DNR is a blog posting all by itself.

Although Mom didn’t hang on for all of her children to kiss her goodbye, she did get to hear their voices on the phone.  She was fading in and out of our presence, and so we called two others, who were rushing to be with her.  Tears dripped from our eyes and off of our cheeks as this seemingly unconscious vessel opened her eyes and smiled when she heard their voices.  Her limp hand clenched mine firmly as my siblings told her how much they love her, and – goodbye.

I never got the time to grieve into closure.  I had lots of “moments,” holding my wife and children, as we wept together.  But mainly there was rage at this poor excuse for a hospital, and my own guilt.  Lots of guilt (probably more of that Catholic thing that seems to be a theme in my life), because I was the only one there with the medical knowledge to understand what was happening, and what was not happening.  And yet I did not stomp my feet, make a scene, and scream at the top of my lungs until a real doctor showed up.  (Clearly I realize a hospitalist is a licensed physician, my point being the system in this hospital, perhaps the entire state, is dysfunctional and absurd).

And then the unthinkable happened.  Much like a woman who later gets cancer in a second breast, a man who survives chemo only to die in an accident, or an amputee to later discover metastases.

The Christian band Casting Crowns seemed to feel our pain in Praise You in this Storm,

I was sure by now
God, You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining

and Natalie Grant also knows a continued hurt with Our Hope Endures

You would think only so much can go wrong
Calamity only strikes once
And you assume this one has suffered her share
Life will be kinder from here
Oh, but sometimes the sun stays hidden for years
Sometimes the sky rains night after night
When will it clear?

Just a few months later, in the middle of the night, we received the second call. Our beautiful, wonderful Cullen had been in an accident.

Clearly, there are some things we just aren’t supposed to understand.  I don’t understand.

As unfair as it seems at the time, life does go on, and others are allowed to continue on “as if nothing happened.”  We live our own lives, we walk our own Camino, even when we travel with others.

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom and Cullen

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Cullen Klein

Mom with Cullen

William Cullen Klein and Sharon Tidd Klein

Cullen and Sharon

Maureen Blanton Klein with William Lewis Klein

Our beautiful mother in 2007, on my wedding day

I wrote this post last year, but could never bring myself to hit the “publish” button.  It just didn’t feel right yet.  Things were too raw.  Those of you who have lost parents, siblings, or the unthinkable loss of a child know all too well these emotions.

Recently, I participated in training seminars focusing on end of life, grief and bereavement, and some concepts regarding how best to support those “left behind.”  The only thing that seems to consistently help is our “being present” when others are suffering from loss.  There are no correct words that always apply; in fact most of the cliche’s that are said are absurd and (however well-meaning) actually deepen the hurt.  But at least these people tried.  So many people pull back from those they care about, because they don’t have something profound or healing to say.  And so they say nothing.  They disappear.  They do nothing.  And that is the most hurtful of all.

Some of who I considered my closest friends haven’t spoken to me since my son’s accident.  And yet two acquaintances, whom I hadn’t spoken to in decades, reached out to me after Cullen’s accident, because they too had lost a child.  Their kindness will never be forgotten.

Being present means you know they are hurting.  Since they are loved and special to us, we hurt with them.  Just sitting together, hugging, and crying.  You are let in not because of who you are, but because who you are is formed by your history with the hurting, and your personal knowledge of loss.  Empathy.  It’s not something you read about, or something you do.  It’s who you are.

Its the age old question.  Its that which shakes our faith to its very core.  Why must we hurt?  Why does tragedy happen to good people?  Hurt is the price we pay for our love.  We truly wouldn’t know light without darkness for comparison.  Warmth without the chill of loneliness.  Compassion without our own hurt.

Rather, embrace your pain.  For this pain exists precisely because you feel.  You have not loved and lost, you have gained so much because you have loved, and have been loved.  To feel is a chance to live, and a chance to love.

Reach out to those whom you love, especially when they are hurting. And not just when they’re hurting, and not just to those you love.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one.”

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Election Day, August 2014

klein

Over the course of the past 2 months, I have fielded dozens of calls and messages from associates and old friends offering me support for my election campaign.  Of course, I’m not running for anything, despite the name on the ballot. I’ll repeat, I am NOT running for Brevard County Commissioner in District 4.

I did quite a double-take the first time I drove by one of “my” roadsigns.  I’ve waved to him numerous times as he stands at the intersections holding “my” signs in an attempt to garner support.   Sometimes I even honk enthusiastically, even though the likelihood of success in a field of seven is anyone’s guess.  I just hope we don’t get embarrassed, with like 3 votes.  And in the long-shot that I do win, I surely hope I’m not a crook!  Heck, I can make myself look bad all by myself!  I don’t need some other guy making it worse.  He probably thinks the same thing as he sees the lines of people waiting to see me on Saturdays.  “Crap, I sure hope that vet knows what he’s doing!”

I realize this is all quite silly, and my wife Sharon thinks I’m nuts. “Just last night, she said, “Babe, you do realize you’re not running, right?”

So what’s in a name, anyway?  What if your reputation really did depend on someone else?  I imagine Daddy looking down at me, with his brow furrowed much of the time, wondering just what the hell I think I’m doing.  He shook his head in bewilderment, and thought we were so different when he was alive.  Mostly, I hope he’s smiling because lots of my good stuff come from him, I think now he’s OK with those things we were so different on.  I hope he’s happy with how I’ve carried his father’s name, with the reputation, the image our family name is remembered with.

And of course, I was Mom’s baby boy, and so I could do no wrong in her eyes.  Now that she has her Beatific Vision” of Heaven, she sees right through me!  I’m embarrassed at the times I look back and did the wrong things.  I was so relieved that she didn’t know; I didn’t want to disappoint her!  Now she’s laughing out loud – of course she knew all along.  Somehow she pointed me in the right direction, guiding me to get back up and learn from my mistakes, without even letting on that she knew everything I was up to.

Good parenting requires knowing your children. An insightful father knows his children long before they know themselves.

And I’m quite sure my son Cullen also watches us.  You know that feeling you get when you’re “alone,” but you just feel someone watching you? I get that all the time.  Sometimes I lose my cool or get short with someone, or say something out of frustration,  and I swear I can hear him laughing at me, saying, “That’s my dad!”  But other times, when I find myself correcting someone’s close-mindedness or bigotry, I get really warm all over, and I smile.  I realize that I’m not the same man I was, and I hope he’s proud of me, because so much of what’s better in me is because of him.

I also think of my Heavenly Father looking down on us.  One of my contemplations involves the Trinity looking down at our globe, and discussing how things have turned out.  Are they pleased with us?  I’m unable to judge others through Their eyes, so I’m just talking about myself, and mine.  If I call myself a Christian, I’m representing Him in everything I say, and do.  Of course I don’t hold myself to this standard of perfection, but others may hold me accountable.

As a visible Christian, I am the only Christ some people will ever see.  In that context I carry a huge responsibility.  Of course I’m just a human with all human weaknesses and failings, but to many that I encounter, I represent Church, and all things Christ.

Regardless of whether or not Gandhi actually said the words, lots of people claim he said, “I don’t reject Christ. I love Christ. It’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ.”

I can only imagine Jesus looking down at us, shaking his head in frustration, at one time or another, in frustration.  Just like my parents.

So again, what’s in a name, anyway?  What if your reputation really did depend on someone else?

Which reminds me of a prayer led by a Jesuit mentor:

Most of all, Lord, Let nothing that I shall ever do, serve to keep any of my brothers from finding you.

Much Love.

Shared Birthday “A Parent’s Coming Out”

My birthday was actually in August and that was the date I had wanted to post here for the first time since walking the Camino de Santiago, but the emotional energy required just seemed elusive.

I’ve tried several times, but I seem to sit and stare at the keyboard, and type, and delete, and copy and paste, and delete, and stare, and just find myself not at all sure where to start, and what to feel comfortable sharing.  It’s been 3 months since I opened up on any of my blogs, and my shield must be back up and trying to protect my “me.”  I got up from my session, and exited without saving anything.

Finally, on my 90 minute drive to work yesterday I had my epiphany.  I got my introductory thoughts, my segue to what I really feel like I need to say out loud.

It’s funny how our childhood events stay with us over the years.  I’m over 50 and I still am moved by some of these experiences; many make me cringe.

I was never particularly athletic as a kid.  So (unless “captains” were best friends), yes I was typically picked last for sandlot baseball, football, basketball, and even pretty awful trying to do stuff like waterski or fish.  I didn’t know crap about how to do these things, I just hadn’t been taught.  My big brothers were much older and weren’t around much, nor was my dad. In fact, modern psychology would likely blame these experiences and their consequences on their father, or on his absence.  I suppose I should cross-post this to my blog involving him, and how the marriage counselor (who I saw as I desperately attempted to salvage my first marriage) had blamed all my faults and flaws on the absence of Jean Klein.  Not that I didn’t try.  I remember vividly climbing up in his lap to pretend I cared about Cardinal baseball or his one TV show, “Combat,” a 60’s series about life in the trenches during the battles of WWII.

We don’t usually see ourselves as others do, especially during childhood and adolescence, so I’m not sure if I was just a little guy and not very macho, or if I truly was the sissy that Paul Sherman referred to as he tried to beat the crap out of in high school; another time involving Sonny Riley also comes to mind.

The point is not that kids bully, or that I was bullied, but frankly, “Why are kids bullied?”
Today we tend to think bullying always involves a “gay” thing?”  Why else (as if that would have been a legitimate reason) would you pick on someone for being what you thought was a sissy?  Was it just to pick on someone who they perceived as weaker, so they could get away with it, ie. nature’s way to ensure the strength and longevity of the herd, by eliminating the weakest – survival of the fittest?

Or was it even more sinister?  Guess there’s no way to know for sure; I’d guess the perpertrators wouldn’t even know, or even remember that they had committed these horrible “hate” crimes so many years ago.  Probably just “boys being boys.”

I did my best to “push back.”  Although I didn’t even try out for the football team – I was just too tiny, and had no idea whatsoever about the rules or what most of the positions did – I did go out for the wrestling team.  I wasn’t very good here either but at least it was size appropriate.  I worked my butt off, and got into pretty good shape in the weight room, but still just wasn’t very athletic.

Not really sure what it was, but I must have put off some funny vibes too.  I remember getting a series of late night phone calls when I was about 14 from some anonymous boy, who was apparently attracted to me.  I was stunned that he agreed when I called him a queer, and kept prodding me to admit I was too!

Bear in mind that this was a small town in southeast Missouri in the 70s; I didn’t have a “odd uncle Donald,” nor did I even know that “homosexuals” even existed in the real world.  The closest I knew of such things was the reading the headlines of the Sikeston Standard Newspaper (as I rolled them for my paper-route) about a group of “perverted men” that were caught “running around naked at the rodeo grounds.”  I had (have) no idea what that even means – perhaps 2 were caught in the act in a car or the restroom, but it sounded to an eleven year old like a naked free-for-all where they were doing rodeo stuff like riding horses, or bulls, or even playing tag or some other worthy olympic endeavor.  Just wasn’t really sure why they wanted to be naked, or why it was against the law or newsworthy, or what a pervert even was, except something really bad.

Anyway, so this kid kept calling me late at night, and I remember getting really upset, and angry, and disgusted that I would be such a target.  He only stopped calling when I claimed that the police were involved, the phone was tapped, and I only needed to keep him on the line for 6 more seconds.  He never called back.  However, I did find these calls disturbing.  What signals or mannerisms had I been sending out?  I was clearly attrective to him, and never gave it any more thought that he (they?) might think I played for their side!

Clearly not.  I liked girls.  Alot.  Really. Perhaps too much, or perhaps it was normal to have my raging thoughts and fantasies about lots of girls.  I couldn’t even name them all without a yearbook, or a phone book.  Whew, what a relief.  I was normal, not a freak.  Hmmm… freak?  pervert?  queer? – what about – pansy?  sissy?  pussy?   Is this what the “bullies” were thinking?  When people were called these latter things, were they really thinking the former ones?

Have I been holding this crap in since I was getting “unsolicited” calls at age 14?  or since I got hit in the face batting in little league trying to bunt at age 11, or when I was laughed at when I ran onto the sandlot for a weekend 10 year old football game wearing my dad’s vintage helmet from his days?  Did they just think I was an idiot, or did they think I was a lesser “guy” because I didn’t have boy “stuff,” equipment or knowledge.  Was my lack of “skills” because my dad never showed me, or was I really some kind of a “borderline” sissy?

So this has perhaps been my lifelong shield – to overcompensate, to hide my “issues.”  Wow, the shrinks would have a field-day!  Hours spent in the gym, so I could look manly.  Dozens of girlfriends as “conquests,” again, proving what a “man” I was.  An embarrassing, phenomenal amount of alcohol (etc) abuse – was it to numb the confusion and frustration? or to be like my old man, so history could repeat itself, yet another generation?  Hundreds of weekends away, proving what a “great father” I was, at dance, gymnastics, and cheer competitions.  The only thing I’ve proven is that I can be a shitty husband too, since my first attempt resulted in her infidelity after 19 years, and immediate divorce.  I’m apparently pretty forgiving too.

So I’ve now spent a thousand words setting the stage, describing where I came from.  How could this crap really be relevant 40 years later?  Well thirty years ago, I became a father.  Certainly I wasn’t the first man thrust into this role without a guidebook, or even much of a role model.  Some of the finest men, strongest leaders, and successful athletes never even knew their fathers – or knew that they were a bum.  So I really and truly doubt that any of my faults were because my own father didn’t have much of a guidebook either.  His best friend, Mr. Dick Tongate, told us after Dad’s funeral that when they were kids together Papu would berate him and didn’t think he had ever told Daddy that he had done a good job (on anything), ever hugged him, and certainly never that he loved him or was proud of him.  Wow, my brothers and sisters were so moved to learn this.  So, would we kids be expecting too much from the old man?  I should expect him to realize that it was important to teach me how to throw, buy me football gear, take me fishing, watch my band concerts, little league games, wrestling matches, teach me how to tie a tie, jog with me, discuss the Lord with me, talk to me about love and sex, or even explain what was going on in the Cardinal baseball and the Mizzou football games?  To hold me with one hand, even if a Falstaff beer was in the other?  This is rhetorical, of course.

Perhaps Jean Klein really did do the best he could.  He had a rat for a father (had Papu’s father been inattentive and cruel as well?). Dad faced death in Belgium, France, and Germany.  I’m sure he saw (and did) horrible things during that war.  He had come home from that overseas hell addicted to nicotine and alcohol.  Mom told tales of war demons that would haunt him for decades, often through nightmares.  Life was frustrating also – as a farmer, he constantly pleaded for rain, or less rain, or less heat as his crops often failed, and his father berated his efforts for a bountiful harvest.  Yes indeed, Jean M. Klein may well have done the best he was “capable” of.

Anyway so I quickly fathered two daughters, and thought I was a pretty good dad.  Perhaps I was, but it was, in retrospect being a “pretty good mom.”  You see my parental role model was really Mom.  Maureen Blanton Klein was actually a bit of a supermom.  I can deal with that in a different post, but suffice it to say, her’s was really the role I was playing.

But, as I would later say in his funeral eulogy, “Although daughters are wonderful, and mine hung the moon, a man wants a son.”  So twentyone years ago, on my own birthday, I was blessed with William Cullen Klein.  Not only did we share the same first name and birthday, I’d soon find out just how much alike we really were; and how different.

Like me, Cullen had my daddy’s piercing beautiful blue eyes.  He was always so determined – it seemed like he could do almost anything he set his mind to.  Despite the fact that I really (or so I remember) tried to teach him to throw and hit a baseball, and throw and catch a football, or even shoot a basketball, he had about as many athletic gifts as I did.  I took him to Marlin and Dolphin and Cardinal games, and tried to explain the games’ rules to him, but he didn’t really care.  Regardless, he was incredibly intelligent, in the “gifted” program at Gemini Elementary School, honor society, and strait “A”s.  When I overheard a couple of his classmates call him a pussy, i flashedback to my own inner torment.  My beautiful son was me, all over again.  I saw a the proverbial “target” on the back of his head, and had to do something.  I enrolled him in Tae Kwan Do, and even went to classes with him.  He had his second degree black belt in no time, and we even went to the boxing gym together.  My son would NOT be bullied.

Not so deep down, just under the surface, I saw the writing on the wall, and when he didn’t act on the advances of an absolutely beautiful 12 year old neighbor girl, I knew for sure.  Cullen was gay.  It doesn’t take much digging to know that I knew long before then; its likely that’s why I tried so desperately to do those guy things with him.

Was it my trying to protect him from those hurtful words and fists that I had felt 30 years earlier?  Or was i actually continuing to protect myself?  Did those same taunts still keep me up at night? Would this prove them right, what a pussy I really am if I raised a gay son?

So this was my epiphany as I drove home.  Does this explain some of the pieces missing from the puzzle?

Of course I did the typical things all parents do when a child “comes out.”  This will be a later blog post, but here’s a snippet: I grieved the loss of MY OWN dreams – family name would not go forward, no grandchildren, no generational Christmas mornings or Easter egg hunts;  Fear for his physical and mental health and safety; Fear for his soul – as Catholics, we weren’t exactly “bible-thumpers,” but I certainly doubted this was part of God’s plan; We’d never do those things I had so longed to do with my own dad – football games, hunting trips, girl stories, grandchildren on the lap.  Yes, and as I’ve read, those are pretty typical selfish emotions for parents of a gay child.  But for me, there was much more, and I was just beginning to realize it.

So here it is.

To this day I have never posted on FB or even said to my social friends or employees, or even a single person on the Camino the words, “My son is gay.”  Lots of people know, of course, but I have never said the words, except to family and my closest friends.  This, in fact, makes me very, very sad.  I have lost my son and will never again on this Earth hold him in my arms, and yet I’m still too embarrassed to tell people.

I’ve always used the excuse that anyone’s (his) sexuality is a non-relevant detail – like blue eyes, or a big nose, or even whether or not they like asparagus.  These details don’t “define” the person; someone (Cullen) isn’t a “homosexual” or a “gay,”  they are not a noun, they are an adjective.  Instead, someone (Cullen) is a person that happens to be attracted to the same sex, and that’s ONE of many things about him, it certainly doesn’t define him.

That, in fact, is all true.  That’s what I often told him.  He wasn’t a “gay.”  He was a great kid who happened to have SSA, as well as all of his other attributes.  But has this all been a convenient excuse?  My belief set was clear – absolute unconditional love, and this one feature did not define him.  Although he didn’t choose this cross, he could certainly choose how to act.

But really.  Was all this rewording simply an exercise in semantics?  That’s the topic of a future blog.  But my point is, did this re-wording allow me to sweep under the rug this little fact?  When someone asked if he had a “little girlfriend,” I would smile and just say, “No.” Was I also obliged to share that his choice would rather be a “little boyfriend?”

Admittedly, there was a difference between asking Cullen to be discrete and not post “in your face” pictures of Tim and him embracing or kissing when Mom was alive and followed all her children and grandchildren’s every move on facebook.  But those days are past, so what’s my excuse now?

I just don’t know.  Hopefully simply expressing these feelings, and posting them, no longer so anonymously, is a first step.

Dear God, Thank You for this Family

Father’s Day, 2013

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My girls here with me.  We took up an entire row at Mass – the only thing I asked for today.

So much love and support from Sharon, Kayla, Noah, Camille and Emily.  What have I done to deserve this?  I am humbled by my gifts in this life.  I miss my son so much it hurts, but I would be selfish to ask for him back.

I have this warm faith inside that Daddy is with Cullen today, together with Mom; all in our Lord’s embrace, sending out love.  Actually makes me smile.

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I prayed for three things today.

Thanksgiving for all I have.  My family is the personification of Your love, supporting each other every moment.

That my God cradle and hug him, and let him know how much we love him.

For healing, faith, and consolation for my wonderful family.

We are sad for us, but so very hopeful in our faith and love that our God has him in His loving embrace.  This father’s day is so different than last year.

Perhaps it’s the Camino.  Perhaps it’s just time.  Perhaps it’s the Holy Spirit.

Thank you dear Lord for the confidence that my dear son is ok.  And that you allowed me to know him for 19 years. And that you inspired him to do so much good.  Much Love.

Happy Father’s Day 2013

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