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November 15th, 2018

It was a family joke. Most families have some sort of running gag, and this was theirs. It had taken hold early and hung on for decades. Through his childhood and into his adulthood.

No one had traced it back to its root, taken the DNA of it and examined it to see who it was related to, who resembled it most, who must have carried it down through eons of ancestors. It didn’t matter. His mother thought it had begun when he was just a little guy in dress-up cowboy clothes; fringed leather vest, boots, and plastic hat, and a holstered cap gun on a belt tooled with stickers. But when pressed, she couldn’t shake loose a story.

It was funny when he was younger, then became a word salve, a mental game, as he grew older. As they all grew older.

This ain’t my first dead hamster.

Not my first bowling tourney.

Not my first sleepover party.

This ain’t my first failed marriage.

By then it was just him and his pops, no one else seemed of a mind to join in, try to solve the equation of it, dredge it for humor.

Not my first prom first high school graduation first time away at college.

He had been tempted to tell his first date, this ain’t my first kiss, afterward. But he refrained.

This ain’t my first DUI, he tried on his pops. It best be your last then, was all he answered.

This ain’t my first grandchild, the morning he drove his wife and brand-new son straight from the hospital over to his father’s place and Pops was waiting outside on the porch in the cold but acting casual about it until he placed the swaddled baby in his arms. His first and only grandchild.

This ain’t my first retirement.

Not my first assisted care facility, Pops said on that awful day of moving him in, sitting with him as the sun set and the room remained unlit.

In the hospital, after conferring with the specialist in the hallway, he walked back into the room, and his father told him – This ain’t my first cardiac event. He smiled but it didn’t come easy.

Later, the exhausting chore of sorting and packing and giving away his father’s belongings, slowly erasing a life that should have been longer, he found the lock-box with all the legal papers and set on top of the pile was an envelope with his pop’s scrawl across the front, This ain’t my first journey into the dark.

A few nights later, standing in his backyard, looking up at the sky as though stars were something new and novel, he whispered, Not my first time taking a long, hard look into the abyss.

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