I’m twenty-seven years old. I’m a married woman. I work at a university and write for several publications. I’ve got my life together and the frequent infections and crises that are part of living with illness do not faze me much at this point. And yet when I was sick last week and stuck in my house, my parents insisted on stopping in just to say hello. You know, just to make sure I was still breathing and all. Even though I spend weeks like this every year and I’m always okay in the end.
But I think I’m finally getting it, this whole protective parent thing.
Let me tell you a little story I’m calling “A Tale of Two Dogs.” Fear not, this is not ubiquitous pet-blogging, I am actually going somewhere with this, I promise.
Let’s call Dog #1 Shadow (as in, scared of her own). Shadow didn’t have the easiest start in life. She was bounced from kill shelter to kill shelter as a puppy and was conditioned to think being scared of everything was okay. Even after she found a home, Shadow went through a lot of crises and stress in her young life, and though her owners did everything they could for her, sometimes things happened that were out of their control and they couldn’t make things easier for her. So many things scared her: sounds, things that moved, strangers, voices, even her own darn tail when it hit the French doors by accident. Shadow is a loving, loyal girl. She loves parks and walks, running and chewing bones—that is, when her problems don’t overshadow everything else, when they allow her to do the things she loves.
And then there’s Dog #2, whom we’ll call Bull (as in, in a china shop), despite its gender inaccuracies. Bull is a happy-go-lucky kind of girl. She is fearless and playful, she leaps into life before she’d ever consider looking, and is the rough and tumble sort who enters a room and instantly makes herself at home. She flings herself into pools, she chases balls into walls and bounces off them without skipping a beat, and she wags her tail with such fervor that she knocks herself over in excitement on an hourly basis. It is a nice thing to see, this playful exuberance, this innocence with which she approaches life.
As a friend of mine would say, to boil things down into an executive summary, consider the following example: Bull and Shadow are frolicking in the yard. The sprinkler heads spring to life. Bull bounds toward them with glee, trying to catch the water in her mouth and batting at the spray with her paws. Terrified by the sound and the motion, Shadow lurches herself across the yard and scuttles under the porch, tail between her legs and ears pinned back. On this day, she cannot enjoy the simple acts of living that Bull can.
Bull is the new girl in town. I know that I will love Bull and Shadow equally, that I will appreciate their quirks and talents and funny little ways equally. No question about that. But I will always more about Shadow, will always be that much more protective and alert when it comes to her because we have been through so much and I know that life will always be a little bit harder for her. Bull is a grand girl and will be fine; with love and an endless supply of tennis balls, she’ll find her way in this world. She won’t need me the same way Shadow does. She is lucky in that way.
Maybe it’s a stretch, maybe I spent too much time in rescue shelters this week and the lack of air conditioning and the stench of panting dog and stale urine went to my brain or something, but I can’t help feeling that this must be a tiny little slice of what it’s like to be parents. Parents who have healthy children and sick children, who love them each without limit and love them for the individuals they are—and who will not ever be able to shake that instinctual urge to protect the one they’ve been through the trenches with, the one whose problems (physical or, like Shadow’s, emotional) sometimes make everyday life that much harder. It is not a greater love than they have for anyone else, and it is not a smothering love. But it is a love that speaks of a very different bond, one that cannot be replicated or truncated.
I’m twenty-seven, a married woman with a career and two dogs. And yet my parents flood me with “How are you feeling?” phone calls the minute a fever spikes. You tell me, am I onto something here? If so, maybe I can tone down the exapseration with which I reply, "It's just an infection. It's not a big deal."