We have a happy little nuclear family, all things being equal. My husband and I had our son when we were past our rather exciting young adulthoods, and were married seven years before we heeded the call to breed. It allowed us to create a perfect 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 we were considering the question “One or More Than One?” we were really, 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 actually 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 the 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. He’s six now, and amazingly more amazing than when he started. We’re a nice group, us three, sleeplessness and all.
• • •
I’ve been trawling the pet listings at the Humane Society website for a couple of years now. It’s casual, like browsing the bookstore when I’m not really looking to buy. I check out all the critters to see what’s around. I write little cultural criticism articles in my head about where their names come from. I look at them all: old, arthritic pooches with seizure disorders, spastic pups who clearly would run circles around me and terrorize my family within a week. Really sweet looking dogs who just look like they need to catch a break.
I would like 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 four-year-old 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 pretty 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 pretty indulgent of both me and the boy, but he could have just as easily not had pets for a while.
I guess I’ve been trawling the pet pages sort of 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 goes in stages, too. Months of no dog trawling go by, and then something will tap my inner dog alarm, and I start looking again.
Most recently, my inner dog alarm was set off on the beaches on Sayulita, Mexico. So many Americans were walking though the little village with their dogs. Imagine! Trotting down the beach in a foreign country, and you’ve got your buddy, your pal. Not that I actually think I’m the sort of dog owner (in the hypothetical, of course) who is 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 little frail dogs of Sayulita, the stray wanderers and beggars who make themselves at home where-ever, whenever, and with whoever moved me. One sweet terrier adopted us on our patio (we all resisted feeding her, because we knew 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 can say with not 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. But I only looked at two dogs that day (I’m glancing at my browsing history, and browsing histories, when you're as lazy as I am, don’t lie) so it's clear I wasn’t feeding the fire yet.
But soon I was hitting the dog listings on the Humane Society website pretty often, and 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 around our tiny flock of chickens would be cruel to all parties involved. Papillons were awesome, an ancient breed which look like bats, which is a plus, but I worried about their frailty around our six-year-old, who, gentle soul that he is, is still six.
I could go on and on with what I know about dogs. I have been thinking about their training. I’m concerned about its canine instincts meshing in a house full of evolutionary adversaries or prey. I don’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 has made clear in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want a dog. He does not want a dog. He has 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 have I been doing for two years?
• • •
Our son is amazing. He’s this funny kid who at six has an uncanny ability to absorb historical and geographical facts and recite them as if he’s already writing the book. If you would like to know about the Lusitania or the Titanic, their similarities versus their differences, he can tell you. He’ll throw in the sinking of the Mary Rose if you’d like. He once used this stunning ability for car facts and figures, but he tapped out after we went to the LA Auto Show in December and decided he was ready to move on to disasters on the high seas. That was it. He was done.
He fits in this eccentric little family very well. 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.
And a lot of his friends have siblings. They not only channel all their six-year-old 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 who turned one last week. 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’ve 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, our son might be a mentor, but not necessarily a peer. It was that way 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 sort of 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 also 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 has been working deeply for the last two years on the conundrum of the great sibling debate, working itself out in the dog listings. Because 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 was a hobby.
But this is probably akin to people being curious about seeing a real live hooker for the first time, not to, you know, DO THAT, but just because, like, it’s so seedy and I want to see. Slumming it. Being a tourist through the underworld. So they ask someone where they can find one to look at, then drive by the streetwalkers, staring, and are thrilled in a weird way. How did she get there? What’s her story? Is she particularly gifted? This leads to Craigslist to look more deeply, just because, you know, they’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 actually 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 pretty 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, alert to greet me, and 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 which he was unwittingly bearing down upon. I explained myself. I knew he was completely taken off guard, since he thought I also didn’t want a dog. I mean, we’re cat people, right? But in the conversation was the admission that our ship has sailed, and it is without a sibling for our son. We’ve 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 anymore. 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 the 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've looked at the Humane Society website a few times since Rhea was adopted, but without any real enthusiasm. Once I realized that it wasn’t just a dog that I wanted, my heart broke a little bit. I’m mourning for what hasn’t happened.
Sometimes a thing is just a thing, and sometimes it’s some other thing altogether.