Here are the people that Andy loves the most. Mommy. Emily. Daddy. Then there is a long pause in which Andy sets his mouth into a defiant straight line. "What about Alex?" the astute observer might reply to this list. "I only love Alex a little bit," Andy will say back. "He pretends to snore at night and keeps me up. He's always breaking my Lego buildings. He bothers me. And he gives me kisses. I DON'T WANT HIS KISSES."
Oh, it is hard to be the older sibling. On one superficial level, I sympathize with my older boy. The plight of an older sibling involves constantly trying to dodge and outwit the peskier younger sibling. It's a war that must be constantly strategized, a battle that can only be won by deflecting the unconditional adoration that emanates like sweet rays of poison from the younger sibling. It's not easy to be so loved and bothered. And it is true that Alex bothers Andy. It is also true that he loves him so much, possibly more than Mommy / Emily / Daddy, possibly even more than You-Tube Surprise Egg videos or Hulk Hands or being unsupervised in Daddy's office. "How much do you love Andy?" I idly asked Alex once, just to make small talk. And the answer came bouncing back instantaneously, without thought. "Infinity!"
Infinity! And so while I sympathize with Andy, I feel for Alex. He loves his older brother in a way that he loves no one else. He deserves to be loved back, even if he pretend snores at night, breaks Lego buildings, is bothersome, and gives unwanted kisses. I had all of you kids for each other. Each of you was a special gift to the other two. Well, that's kind of disingenuous. I had Andy for me. I had Alex for me. And I especially had Emily for me, that last sweet little baby. Also for Daddy, but mostly for me. And now that you guys are all together, every once in a while I will pretentiously proclaim that I had you for EACH OTHER, to be the kind of gift that single children dream achingly about. What a wonderful mother I am, to give you guys the other two. So altruistic.
Yesterday, Andy did his list of who he loved the most, leaving out little Alex and crooning like a crazy person into Emily's wryly amused face. My response was my typical one. Of course, you love Alex the most as well. He's your brother. You only have one brother. I had you for each other. And he loves you so much, Andy. Infinity, remember?
Andy tromped off, unconvinced, and sat down on the couch next to Alex. They were watching some movie together, but Alex had obviously heard our little conversation in the next room and decided to demonstrate some of that love (and bothering) by laying a big, fat juicy kiss onto Andy's unprepared face. And Andy- he screamed and yelled and just plain lost it. Andy does not cry easily. Andy was crying pretty hard. "I DON'T WANT YOUR KISSES," he yelled to Alex. I waited a beat, decided I should probably intervene, and went into the family room. Pausing the movie, I sat before the two boys with Emily perched on my lap, Emily who has absorbed all of the boy drama for the past six months (and the nine months in utero beforehand) through her big gray eyes. Emily, who seems to be repeatedly wondering just what she has gotten herself into by being born into this family with its uneven love lists and Lego building breaking and sloppy, unasked for kisses.
I don't even remember what I said. I try to keep the punishments and proclamations somewhat even, and that doesn't seem to be working for me. The messages get mixed. Andy, Alex only kisses you because he loves you. Alex, don't kiss Andy any more. Andy, try not to be so sensitive. Alex, look how upset Andy is. Back and forth, back and forth. One day, I may perhaps just pick a side and stick to it. "Andy," I will say. "Lay down on the floor. Alex, go ahead and cover his face in kisses. And jump on his stomach while you're at it. Go ahead. It's all in the name of infinity love. I'll be in the other room eating cake."
Then, I remembered something from earlier that day. We had been at the library, where the librarians had been handing out candy canes in exchange for finding the hidden elf in the library. Alex had found the elf with my gentle prodding. Alex, look over here. Look in this area. Look at the tree. See anything? How about you look up? No, look up and to the right. Right there? Do you see the elf? Right there? The elf? Okay, go find the librarian and tell her you found it. The elf. Not the tree. The librarian handed Alex a candy cane for his hard work, and Alex's immediate question for her was, "Can I have one for my brother?" That is classic Alex, right there. Always getting an additional whatever for his brother. She agreed, and Alex happily stuck the extra candy cane into the diaper bag to bring home for Andy.
"Andy," I said now as I sat before them, Andy wiping tears and kisses off his face and Alex gazing off into the distance thinking about surprise egg videos and already forgetting why everyone was so upset. "Andy, Alex loves you so much that he got something for you today. Alex, what did you get for Andy?"
Alex's face lit up as he remembered, and he snapped out of his reverie and ran off to retrieve the candy cane. Andy followed, intrigued, and as Alex proudly handed over the candy cane, everything was once again right with the world. "This is for you, Andy!" Alex declared. And Andy, suddenly feeling the sort of kindness that arrives when somebody gives you something you really want, was instantly and generously forgiving of the kissing.
"Thank you, Alex!" Andy said. "Wait!" I could see that Andy was going to grant Alex a rare hug as a sort of grateful peace offering, but then it happened. In his great haste, Andy did not pay attention when he tried to set down the candy cane in order to free his hands and arms for the hugs. The candy cane smacked onto the edge of the counter top and then dropped to the floor, landing with the kind of ominous crack that one hears when an iPad screen shatters into a million pieces. Oh, and also when a candy cane shatters into a million pieces, too. I'm familiar with both sounds, and they're roughly the same.
"Uh oh. Maybe the candy cane is fine," I thought to myself, averting my eyes from the situation. A soul crushing howl alerted me to the fact that the candy cane was NOT fine. Andy was sobbing again, holding the broken chunks of what had just moments ago been a glorious, sugary hook of delight and now was just sadness personified. Andy was crying so hard, and I knew just how he felt, the way you feel right in that moment when everything has gone wrong and you just want that last half second back in order to make things right again. That moment in which everything has turned from good to irretrievably bad. How you feel when you rear end the car in front of you. When you drop something on the floor and it gashes the wood. When you carelessly slice your hand in the kitchen. Why? Why? WHY??
Andy's sorrow was palpable. He stared at his broken candy cane and sobbed so hard, and there was nothing that could be done to change what had just happened. We had no extra candy canes. A candy cane is not the same when it is broken from its cane shape. And it was all because his brother loved him and he had tried to overcompensate for his earlier ill feelings and repay the favor with a hug.
What is the lesson that we learned yesterday afternoon, sitting at the kitchen table and crying into the bits of candy cane that didn't quite taste the same? I didn't know if there was one. I rubbed Andy's back and promised that I would buy another candy cane next time I went to the store. I did not say anything more about the kissing and the generosity and the sometimes difficult, sometimes easy love between two brothers. Candy canes cannot be repaired, but siblings will have their ups and downs and ups. Today I have two new, perfect candy canes sitting on the kitchen counter top waiting to be enjoyed by the two boys tonight, together.
Dear baby Jesus, please do not let one break.