September 01, 2011
We have a happy little nuclear family, all things being equal. My husband and I had our son when we were past our exciting young adulthoods, and were married for seven years before we heeded the call to breed. It allowed us to create a good landing spot for parenting: we had fulfilled our craving for adventure in the outside world and we were more than happy to start an adventure in our house, no regrets.
And parenting, despite the fact that parents like to complain, a lot, is the best thing on earth. No amount of sleeplessness, poop, puke, peculiar interests, illness, or chaos theory personified can take away the fact that you love the little dickens beyond any amount you ever conceived. (Well, we do, anyway. I suppose there are plenty of families where love is not the over-arching theme, but I’ll continue as if that inconvenient fact isn’t true.)
But when considering the question “One or More Than One?” we were really tired. Skull crushingly, crazy-making, profoundly tired. This remains true, but we’ve either learned to operate under war-time sleep privations, or we were even more tired then than we are now, which makes my brain hurt. But since I’m really tired, I’m not sure which it is.
Regardless, the decision: One or Two. Do we have the one remarkably awesome kid, and carry forward in our happy little triad, lovey and schmoopy and trinity-ish? Or do we take a chance on the sperm roulette wheel and see what happens? We discussed this when we were tired, as I said, but also in the realm of the expiration date: I was in my late thirties and my husband was in the brilliant age of sagacity.
But we never made any plans. Time passed. We slept little. Suddenly, we had an older boy, and it seemed we had made our decision by not making any decision at all: we were going to have a singleton, an only child, and remain our little triad. We’re a nice group, us three, sleeplessness and all.
I’d been trawling the pet listings at the Humane Society website for a couple of years. It was casual, like browsing the bookstore when I’m not looking for anything in particular. I checked out all the dogs to see what was around. I wrote cultural criticism articles in my head about their names. I browsed old, arthritic pooches with seizure disorders, spastic pups who would run circles around me and terrorize our family within a week. Really sweet looking dogs who just look like they needed to catch a break.
I wanted to give them that break, but I’ve never been a dog person. I grew up with cats, every last one of them strays until our last two girls, which we picked up from the pound. Our young son had just experienced the death of our two cats within five weeks of each other, and I felt we couldn’t wait for new cats to stumble into our lives like all the other ones had. He should be exposed to the lively, fun beginning of cats, not the depressing, sickly end of kidney failure. I was finished with having a pet at the time, but the house was lonely without our critters, and we felt disconnected without them. Plus, happy young cats rescued from the pound: makes you feel snuggly in your inner bits.
My husband wasn’t really interested in the cat thing anymore, either. Sometimes you’re just tired. And as I’ve mentioned, being tired is the one thing we are almost all the time. Plus, no cat was going to measure up to the cat he had just lost to kidney failure; she was his cat made in heaven, one of the weirdest animals we ever had the pleasure of knowing. So he politely tolerated my reasoning for getting the new cats, and agreed to it because he’s indulgent of me and the boy, but he could have just as easily not had pets for a while.
I guess I’d been trawling the pet pages on the sly. It’s not like I announced that I was stalking pooches in my off hours. I mean, I cruise Amazon too, when I’ve already exhausted all the other stupid internet novelties I’m accustomed to, and just need to fill in that last half hour before bed when I’m watching some crappy police procedural out of one eye.
It went in stages, too. Months of no dog-trawling would pass, and then something would tap my inner dog alarm, and I’d start looking again.
The latest dog alarm was set off on the beaches on Sayulita, Mexico. So many Americans were walking through the little village with their dogs. Imagine! Trotting down a beach in a foreign country, but you’ve got your buddy, your pal. Not that I thought I was the sort of dog owner (in the hypothetical, of course) who was going to pack a dog in a box and bring him to a foreign country, but there they were, tourists out for a jolly walk with their pooches.
And the frail dogs of Sayulita, the stray wanderers and beggars who make themselves at home where ever, whenever, and with whoever moved them. One sweet terrier adopted us on our patio (we all resisted feeding her, knowing she’d never leave) and then walked with us through the town, until some other person caught her fancy and she left as unromantically and pragmatically as she came. But we walked three whole blocks together, and I thought it was pretty cool.
Once we returned from Mexico–I cannot say with 100 percent accuracy but a pretty good educated guess–that the first dog I looked at was a Pomeranian named Baby Carrot. I’ll admit I’m partial to the name. I only looked at two dogs that day, clearly not feeding the tiny fire residing within.
But soon I was hitting the dog listings on the Humane Society website pretty often, then cruising PetFinder to widen the search parameters. I was researching breeds on DogBreedInfo.com, to see what breeds (in the hypothetical, of course) might suit our family. Nothing large. No herding dogs, because to break them of their herding instinct in a small yard would be cruel to all parties involved. Papillons were awesome, an ancient breed which look like bats, which was a plus, but I worried about their frailty around our son, who, gentle soul that he is, is still all boy.
I could go on and on with what I know about dogs. I’d been thinking about their training. I was concerned about its canine instincts meshing in a house full of evolutionary adversaries or prey. I didn’t want a Jack Russell terrier because I think they’re smarter than me.
I mentioned in passing to my husband that I had been thinking about a dog.
Seriously, he should have known.
We’ve been together long enough that he should know that if I’m saying it out loud, something is in play. Something big, like an iceberg. Something not particularly interesting on the surface, but huge and ponderous, the relatively benign sentence, “I’ve been thinking about a dog” deceptively innocent, while there’s this lurking, hulking beast waiting quietly, submerged in a placid open sea.
My husband had made clear in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want a dog. He did not want a dog. He told me many times, has itemized all the reasons thoroughly and completely, in triplicate, and delivered the message to all parties. No dog.
So what had I been doing for two years?
Our son fits in this eccentric little family very well. He’s bright, funny, and interested in completely arcane historical facts just like his parents. But he’s just a kid, and we can’t debate the finer points of history all the time; there are plenty of opportunities for him to mouth off, be a pain, jump on us like a monkey, run into us like a tiny Brahma bull, and smack our butts as hard as he can because he’s completely impressed with all the other kids at school who do it to their parents. So we have the onerous job of correcting his behavior and trying to foster a certain civility, membership in the world, and detracting from his continued descent into Lord of the Flies. He has a lot of friends who he can tumble with, smacking their butts while they chase him and drag him through the dirt. All the stuff he wants to do with us, but we’re too boring and old to get behind it.
But a lot of his friends have siblings. They not only channel their exuberance toward my kid, but each other in this super-sibling-y way that I’ve never experienced. And it’s great; often our son is a unifying force between the siblings, or he’ll bond with one while the other wanders off for a while, and then with the other in an interesting exchange. But the siblings so clearly have each other that even when they’re ready to kill each other, it makes me sad for my kid who only has us, the grumps who don’t want their butts slapped.
And we’re intense. We’re interested in things in deep, intense ways, we love intensely, we debate intensely, we laugh intensely. We don’t mean to, but we protect him intensely too. And we probably have intense expectations because the little whipper snapper is so damned smart. But there are two of us grown-ups, and one of him. Sometimes all our intensity is focused on him alone, two beams of parental interest impossible to distract.
It must be rough staring up at us sometimes, feel a little lonely.
We went to a birthday party for our best friend’s son where their big, sweet dopey dog Otis played endlessly with our son, tossing a slobbery disgusting ball back and forth, back and forth, Milo giddily happy to have the undivided attention of someone so energetic, someone so easily pleased to do exactly what he wanted to do. Otis never tired of the game, and neither did our son.
I told Lars that I had in no way set this up ahead of time.
I’d been cruising the dog listings about two years, around the time when I realized we weren’t going to have another kid. In any case, the chance for our son to have a sibling close in age was gone. Now any sibling would be so much younger that our son might be a mentor, but not necessarily a peer. It was the same with both my husband and myself, our own siblings years and years behind us. We never shared friends, never shared schools, never shared secrets in the watches of the night under the covers, giggling and bitching about how much our parents sucked.
We also never fought with the ferocity of siblings, and never had to learn the necessity of negotiation, sharing, compromising. We were pretty much on our own, but also autonomous. I’m not sure complete autonomy is a good idea; people need people, and we learned how to go it alone.
Our relationships with our siblings are solid, but not like that bond that develops from going through the war together. I love my brother more than anything, but we didn’t have that kind of relationship. (I know there are those sibling relationships which suck almighty reams of giant donkey ass–but again, I’m going to continue on as if that inconvenient fact isn’t true.)
Apparently my subconscious had been wrestling with the great sibling debate, working itself out in the dog listings, despite the fact it was clear we were never going to get a dog. My husband made sure I knew that he was not interested in that at all. It became a hobby.
But this is probably akin to people being curious about looking at a real live hooker for the first time, not to, you know, DO THAT, but just because, like, it’s so seedy. Slumming it. Being a tourist through the underworld. You ask where the streetwalkers hang out, then drive by, staring, being thrilled in a weird way. How did she get there? you wonder. What’s her story? Is she particularly gifted? This leads to Craigslist to look more deeply, just because, you know, you’re intrigued. And some of the ads are really, like, super-specific. And interesting. And, wow, just…wow. I mean, it’s all right there in front of you, all the weirdness you never knew existed explained in vivid detail; not only that, ON OFFER. So, like, um. Why not?
Yeah, that’s me.
So when I mentioned to my husband that I was thinking about a dog, he had no idea of the enormity of the iceberg underneath the surface. He didn’t know that I knew more facts and figures about dogs than most people I know who own dogs. He had no idea that I had narrowed down selections, that I was interested in rat terriers, that nothing over 25 pounds would be making it through the door. That I had found a number of very interesting possibilities. That I was particularly fond of a dog named Rhea, a spaniel mix who won me over with her cream colored coat, bat-like ears, and two pictures on the Humane Society website which worked their way into my heart just like a flesh-boring-insect, one where she was lying down with her head between her paws looking up at the camera as if waiting for me specifically to come to her rescue; the next one where she had hopped up to greet me, so excited that she was finally going home.
In an alarming epiphany I realized that I was planning on going to the Humane Society just to, like, you know, visit. I also discovered that I had not even discussed this with myself much less my husband, that I had been operating on the purest instinctual level. I had been searching and trawling and looking high and low for a companion for my son for two years, and I didn’t even know it. I had been looking for a sibling analogue, an animal who would unconditionally love him no matter what, who wouldn’t reprimand him about his potty talk, who would hang out with him when everyone was tired, who would play catch with him and run with him for hours, with whom he could find solace when Dad and Mom were just being too damned intense.
I finally showed Lars the depth of the iceberg upon which he was unwittingly bearing down. I explained myself. He was completely taken off guard, since he thought I also didn’t want a dog. We’re cat people, right? But the subtext of the conversation was the admission that our ship has sailed, and it is without a sibling for our son. We’d never marked the passage of that milestone, and it’s very sad. We were too tired and we let time decide for us. Now, no sibling.
Rhea got adopted soon after I revealed the iceberg. I looked up the Humane Society website again, and she wasn’t on it any longer. I cried. I cried because she was gone, but I also cried because we hadn’t realized the importance of bringing our son a companion into this world, who was his friend and adversary, his partner to rumble with, a person with whom he could collaborate against the two bigger people running the show, even if it was just under the covers at night, giggling. The adult in an unknown future who he could bond with over the struggles of dealing with their nutty parents when we’re too damned old or sick to be anything but a pain in the ass.
We’re a trinity: The Father, The Loon and Holy Smokes. But I wish we had had the foresight to realize that quadrangles are more stable.
I looked at the Humane Society website a few times after Rhea was adopted, but without any real enthusiasm. Once I realized that it wasn’t just a dog that I wanted, my heart broke. I was mourning for what hadn’t happened.
Sometimes a thing is just a thing, and sometimes it’s some other thing altogether.
This is Part 1 of a series of three, two which are written, the third drifting in my brain pan. Hopefully I’ll write Part 3 before I get senile and have forgotten it.