Abby: My friends are already on the field. No hugs.
Dad: Awwww, c'mon. Are we already at the point when parental affection is uncool?
Abby: Yup, and we've been here for a while.
Abby is the older one, nine going on ten going on twenty-seven, with a sublet in Carroll Gardens and a promising career as a fashion writer. Her sister, Hannah, is six. She'll still thread her arms around the back of your neck and nestle her cheek against your collarbone. Hannah is a professional cuddler, and she has a way of curling up in my lap that makes me doubt whether the past six years have even happened, because just this morning I was lifting her out of her crib.
As the older sister, Abby is already a few years into her semi-pro soccer career. She is active in fourth-grade social circles, with seats on the right boards, and next week she'll be "crowning" the Virgin Mary at her Catholic school, though she's non-sectarian at best and is most likely a closet Lutheran, like her mother. Neither Michelle nor I really know what this crowning ceremony is all about, though it has something to do with a wreath made of roses and the inventive pageantry of the Church, with which I am passingly familiar. When I was Abby's age and serving as an altar boy, there was a priest who preferred I balance the Bible on my head, rather than hold it against my chest, because he felt the presentation was more dramatic. I disagreed and once debated this point ratherly loudly in the middle of Mass, while the thick-necked deacon held the body and blood of Christ aloft over the alter, wondering what the hell to do next, since we'd only gotten as far as Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy....Jesus, what is that kid doing? Evidently, my objection to serving as a boy lectern temporarily arrested the miracle of transubstantiation and created something of a theological crisis at Our Lady of the Lakes.
Abby can be a handful, but she should still have an easier road than me. And Hannah, well, she's the who doesn't ask for much. Until tonight.
Freshly showered, she curled up in my lap as usual, but then collapsed into sobs.
I am so lonely, she whimpered. Abby gets to do everything and I am still six. If I had a puppy, he would jump in my arms and make me feel better.
If it were Abby crying these big, diamond tears, much as we love her, we'd be fishing around for the angle, because Abby too often plays chess while the rest of us are playing checkers. But a puppy is the one thing Hannah has ever genuinely yearned for, and it seems that, finally, the ache has reached her little six year-old heart.
We should have seen the signs. A few months ago, Michelle caught Hannah with her pink hand splashing around in the tiny fish tank on her bureau.
I am trying to see if Noel will let me pet him, she said.
To be clear, Noel is the fish.
Hannah's sobbing continued. Up the stairs, into her bed, out of her bed and into ours, then back into her room, her little voice cried out--I am alone, I want something to love.
After half an hour, the worry really set in. We'd just spent the entire day with family. Walked to get ice cream. Played at the park. Walked home. Read stories. Kisses and hugs, the works. Then it occured to me--Hannah is the caboose of the tenderness train. Even Abby, when she thinks no one is looking, will draw her sister close, smooth her hair, make sure she has her lunch and her water bottle for school. But since the only living thing smaller than Hannah in our house is Noel, the unaffectionate fish, where's she supposed to put all the love that washes down to her? She is too small a vessel, and she knows her cup runneth over.
Michelle and I--we're not dog people. But I don't think that matters anymore. It's a question of theology. Every kid deserves to feel the love flowing, not just toward her, but through her. What better way to teach compassion and sacrifice? And since a little brother or sister is categorically off the table, a floppy-eared slipper-chewer it is. Probably. Maybe. Not tomorrow, not next week. But perhaps, eventually. So the next time Hannah feels that ache in her heart, she'll be able to reach out her arms and laugh as Sparkle the Wonder Puppy, the name she's already chosen, licks away the loneliness.