When he was younger, Child Two often asked which I loved more: Alpha Dog or Beta Dog. He would pretend to ask innocently enough. But I knew why he was asking. I knew that he thought I loved Beta Dog more. In his little boy mind, he believed that it was inevitable that love was measurable and could only be accounted for when put in order. If I loved Beta Dog the most, then I couldn’t possibly love Alpha Dog the most. Love, as he understood it, was counted in percentages. And if that were true, then the human heart must have a limited amount of emotion to parcel out in order of preference.
Of course I knew what he was really asking – what he really wanted to know. He was asking if I loved Child One more than I loved him - if I loved the dogs more than I loved him and his sister. And on a deeper level, what he really wanted to know – what haunted him – was the idea that if he loved me just a little, did that mean he loved his mother less? It broke my heart every time he asked. And every time he asked I was always careful to answer, “I love them the same.” Of course it isn’t true. I don’t love Alpha Dog the same as I love Beta Dog. Just as I don’t love him the way I love his sister or love Sig Other the way I love any of my two or four legged children. I love them all differently.
Beta Dog is needier – he follows me around and watches my every move. He wakes me every morning at 5am by standing at the side of the bed and staring until I wake. Grudgingly I open an eye and give him a nod which is all the invitation he needs to lumber up onto the bed, circle endlessly and plop down into an awkward swirl, half on top of me, front leg thrown randomly on my chest and head on the pillow, eyes staring into mine like a forlorn lover. Alpha Dog, meanwhile, sleeps blissfully until called. She rises grudgingly with a half open eye but an enthusiastic wag. Stretching her way to the bed, she wiggles and loves herself up in between me and Sig Other before burrowing deep between us, thrilled to be invited to the party and consistently grateful and happy. How could anyone be asked to choose between these two? So yes, I love them differently. But not one more than the other.
So it is with the children. Child One is lovely and smart and seemingly uncomplicated (and here I emphasize the “seemingly” lest one assume Child One is simple and shallow which could not be further from the truth). Child Two presents as more complicated and darker and more difficult. In the past, it seemed the sun shone on him less often, that his heart and brain were more inextricably connected to one another and that one was often paralyzed by the other. Child Two thinks Deep Thoughts and those thoughts make it appear as though he is haunted by something remote and untouchable.
But as time passes, Child Two becomes lighter and more accessisble. And as he grows more accessible so does his understanding of love. Sometimes I wonder if he is some sort of divine, enlightened being. Now, in the great wisdom of his eleventh year, he mostly understands that he and Child One are different from one another. But that one is not better than the other - that one is not loved or more lovable than the other. This understanding – this cellular acceptance – has made a noticeable difference in Child Two. He is growing more confident. He is more secure. He is more present.
Still, he hesitates to vocalize his love for me. And I understand that to say “I love you” to me would be a betrayal of his mother. I understand that as much as his little boy brain can wrap itself around the notion that the love I have for him and his sister is separate but equal, he does not believe he can love me and still love his mother. After all, he loves his Corgie more than he loves the Weims. So it must be that love comes in finite amounts and if he gives too much to one he will not have enough for the other. Child One suffers from no such fear. Love, to her, is seemingly limitless. She professes it aggressively and often. And even though he cannot say it, I know that Child Two loves me. Its in the way he talks to me, in the way he lets me hug him and in the way he sometimes, just a little bit, hugs me back.
When I was growing up, I was probably much more like Child Two, believing that love was finite – that there was only so much to go around. And I believed for most of my life that I was fourth. My father came first. Then my sisters. And then me. That was the list in order in my mother’s heart as far as I knew. And my mother would say we are all equal and unique. Now that I’m an adult, I finally believe her – finally understand the vastness of the human heart and its ability to expand exponentially as need be given the circumstance.