Thursday, December 22, 2011

One of these things is not like the other: July 15, 2007

My sons won't hate me for this, right?

I keep breaking the rules, comparatively speaking
    There are rules. Here are some of them: Don’t wear tan pants and a red shirt when you shop at Target unless you want to be asked every two minutes where to find the dog food, diapers or scented candles.

    Don’t tell your friend who just dumped her jerk of a boyfriend that you never liked him anyway; they will get back together, and it will be agonizingly awkward.

    Don’t drive backward while looking forward.

    Don’t cackle when the AARP sends your husband an invitation to join.

    Don’t compare your children to each other.

    I have broken every single one of these rules. I didn’t mean to break them, but I have the shattered taillight and annoyed husband to remind me of my transgressions. The rule I break most often, though, is the one I really always swore I never would: I cannot resist comparing my sons to each other.

    I know it’s bad. I know it’s wrong. I know they’ll be griping about it to their therapists in 20 years. But I do it as unconsciously as slipping into my favorite khaki pants and red T-shirt as I head out to do my shopping at Target.

    When my son Ben was born in January 2005, the doctor who delivered him held him aloft so I could admire my baby in all his squalling newborness. I remember touching his fuzzy little head and thinking, 'Wait, I already have this baby.'

    Ben arrived looking for all the world like the second coming of his older brother Jack. I have photos of my husband cradling each of his sons on their birthdays, gazing moonily at their little faces. Except that my husband is five years older in one photo than the other, the shots are indistinguishable. Those children looked exactly like each other.

    But things changed, and they changed fast.

    Ben was a voracious, enthusiastic eater where his brother had been picky, nearly impossible to feed. Ben grew into a sturdy, curvy baby while Jack is all angles and elbows and pipe-cleaner legs. As he toddled out of babyhood, Ben did the usual stuff at the usual time, walking just after he was a year old, talking some, still eating plenty, pinballing his way gleefully through life.

    Jack remained durn near impossible to feed, didn’t walk until he was nearly 2 years old but knew the difference between a hexagon and a pentagon at 20 months, spoke beautifully at 2 and read fluently at 3.

    Jack was an intense little kid, scared of dogs, loud noises, crowds, other children and vacuum cleaners. He refused to put his face in the water at the pool until he was 5.

    Ben thinks the appropriate response to dogs, crowds and other children is to run straight for them and try to hug them. He’s not crazy about loud noises or vacuum cleaners any more than his big brother, but at 2 years old, he already jumps into the deep end of the pool with abandon, bobbing to the surface on his arm floats, swimming for the ladder and hauling himself out unaided.

    They are a sweet study in complements, filling in each other’s gaps, reveling in each other’s quirks. Ben draws his big brother out, Jack reins his little brother in — with their mutual dislike of vacuum cleaners acting as a rallying point — and all the time I am breaking the cardinal rule of raising these people: I am comparing them to each other.

    I have company in my comparing: My mother does it; my husband does it; my friends do it. It’s irresistible. These boys of ours still look a lot alike, but they’re so vastly, fascinatingly different. It’s a constant source of surprise and interest to all of us.

    I really don’t know why we’re surprised, though. My younger brother is over 6 feet tall, red-haired, fair-skinned and profoundly gregarious. I am short, dark and generally solitary.

    My husband is wiry and lean, with a face made up mostly of straight lines and right angles. His older brother is big and solid, with a cheerful, round countenance.

    My mother is a skinny English professor. Her brother is a mountain of a man who teaches Harley-Davidson repair.

    When you roll the genetic dice, the possibilities are beyond endless. It’s one of the most interesting things about all of us. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my sons are so vastly different — any more than I should be surprised by the irresistible impulse to compare them.

    Any more than I should be surprised when people at Target keep asking me where the shampoo is.

    I really need to get rid of that red T-shirt.

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