"My initial reaction was, 'Wow, that's scary,'" Shep says. 'She's gonna be my responsibility.' But it was also exciting, because I was alone, basically. I had made the decision early on, when I decided to become emotionally involved with the kids, that I didn't want them coming out every summer seeing a different woman in my life—which fit well into my fear of attachment. It became very convenient."

Amber enrolled in school on the Big Island, taking a puddle jumper back to Shep's house on weekends. "I was doing parents' day, going to wrestling matches—she was a wrestler," Shep says. "It felt so good to be part of a unit. And she gave me so much love. As soon as I really started parenting Amber, I realized, 'This is what I want to do. This makes me happy.'" Soon after, Keira moved to Hawaii, too.

There was a learning curve—like the time Amber said, "Can you take me to the drugstore? Please don't come in." "I had no idea what she was talking about," Shep says. "But with Keira, I was ready: 'Oh, you're buying Tampax?'" The facts-of-life talks were pretty much a bust; while he was driving the girls somewhere, he remembers saying, "'One of my duties is to talk to you about safe sex...' And they just sort of laughed at me." When it was time to shop for school supplies, he'd simply tell the girls they could get whatever they could fit in the cart in 20 minutes. "You should have seen them tearing around," he says with a laugh. "The mall became very important, and there were a lot of trips to Taco Bell."

Now Amber, 23, sweet-faced and joyful, lives with the Coopers while attending Arizona State, where she's a senior. "Clearly, you can look at us and know we're not the norm," she says of her exotic family. "Everywhere Shep and I go, especially in L.A., everyone thinks I'm his young, trashy girlfriend and he's an old creep. We laugh about it. But I am so grateful and blessed. Every girl dreams about her wedding, and I know the day I get married, Alice and Shep are walking me down the aisle."

In some respects, Shep is still feeling his way as a father figure. Recently, Keira, the one who called him Poppy Shep when she was a baby, who spent the better part of her toddler years in his arms, found herself questioning their closeness. Now 20, attending community college in Hawaii, she even wondered if Shep really loved her.

When he heard this, Shep was shocked. "I called her and said, 'Listen, I understand that I'm a horrible communicator,'" he says. "'I'm just not good at human connection. But my intentions are good.'" They talked through some particulars—"and once I heard what she had to say, I understood it completely. Because I don't express myself, and I'm not physical. But we had this beautiful breakthrough, and now we text each other ten times a day."

Photo: Courtesy of Winona Williams


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