Growing up as an only child, I often “took sides” between my biological parents. Whichever “side” I chose at any given moment had nothing to do with forging a permanent alliance and everything to do with meeting my needs.
When we went out to dinner, I always slid next to dad. Dad held me rapt with stories and lessons about life. He demonstrated centrifugal force by swirling the last drops of coffee in his cup and explained that it was this same force that kept him from falling down the steep banks of the velodrome when he raced his bike. He poured specks of salt and pepper onto the table and pushed them together in a display of nuclear fusion. When the meal came, he shook a sprig of parsley and told me that its tiny leaves breathed life into the atmosphere.
But it was mom who breathed life into me when the heavy brass doors of the department store elevator closed and I gasped thinking that the world had forever disappeared. It was mom’s hand I held while standing on the downward escalator because I was convinced that the collapsing steps would shred me like parmesan cheese, then swallow me up. It was her waist I wrapped my arms around when astronauts blasted off into space to draw rings around the world, then fall back to earth hanging by the threads of a billion silkworms.
My folks split when I was 10. Mom and dad each each found a new spouse, triggering a host of personal conflicts over to whom I owed allegiance. Only after many decades, did I freely decide to pledge allegiance to all in my extended families.
My wife’s and my doggie daughter, Lilly, the Boston terrier, is an only-child. But she’s not the least-bit conflicted about “choosing” between my wife and me. She can live without the laws of physics and has no irrational fears to be quelled. She knows that mommy makes great food and daddy roughhouses and both of us love to cuddle.
Lilly seamlessly drifts back and forth between us the way a shadow shortens and stretches along opposite sides of a tree as daybreak lifts to noon and noon sways into sunset. As Lilly’s human mommy and daddy, we are her “tree,” anchoring her safely to the earth, letting her dart playfully from sun to shadow and offering exploration and refuge in our myriad of branches.
At night, Lilly usually sleeps between us, her back pressed against one of us, her legs stuck straight out, touching the other’s shoulders and her head sticking out of the covers (who knew a queen-sized bed could be so small with a 20-pound dog in it!). For the past several nights, my wife and I have slept apart because I’m sick. I’ve fallen asleep on the living room couch with Lilly tucked up against my hip only to find her gone when I’ve rolled over a few hours later.
Mommy’s hip needs warming, too!
Lilly has come a long way since that first night we weren’t all able to sleep together because our temporary accommodations had twin beds that could not be pushed together. Lilly sat in her plush bed on the floorspace between us, swiveled her head back and forth between mommy and me and whined. It appeared that she didn’t want to “take sides.”
We casually turned out the light and let Lilly figure things out on her own. She jumped on one of our beds, furiously dug out a little nook, flopped down for five seconds, stirred, jumped down, hopped up on the other’s bed and repeated the process. After about a half-hour of ceaseless rustling, she settled into her own bed. During that night, each of us woke up to find Lilly nestled in the hollows of tucked knees and elbows or pressed against the small of our backs.
Lilly never takes sides without giving back. I hope my parents felt that I gave a little back to them, too.