when we came back from California, the kids – courtesy of their grandparents – met us at the airport.

it is a tiny airport, smaller even than Charlottetown’s. no pretense of gates: they were standing by the chain link fence as we descended on to the tarmac. i heard the shouts of Mommy! from the stairs of the Dash 8. i was moving toward them before my feet ever touched the asphalt.

they piled into my arms and held onto me, the two of them, longer than i ever remember or imagined happening. a minute, maybe. i was unprepared.

there is video, and i am grateful. i doubt that ever again i will have the privilege of holding their small bodies awake and present and yet so fully contented, simply with me. even as babies, they were squirmers, eyes on the elsewhere.

i ruined it, of course. unbelieving, still waiting for the other shoe, the clamour, the competition, i tried to draw their attention to the camera and their father. away. they held tight. i shut up and let them wash over me a second and for that one full beat i was full of grace.

then we came home.

they call this Old Home Week on PEI. our provincial summer holiday falls at its end tomorrow, out of sync with the rest of the country. my body is glad to be home, deeply pleased by the softness of my own worn sheets, though i does not yet sleep quite on Atlantic time as i should. yet i am content in this quiet, tactile, homing thrall. i lie awake in the wee hours alert but peaceable, in my right space, taking it all in. like the children in that fleeting minute at the airport.

for them, though, it has been back to daycare – for Posey – and off to art camp for Oscar.

it was a preschool camp when we first inquired, then switched to a big kid camp. at the university. ages 5 through 12. he is the youngest by two years.

i pack him a lunch, a first we will soon make daily practice. he goes swimming. he loves it. all my fretting and worrying about him being too young has washed away: he looked like a tiny Owen Meany that first morning when i dropped him off, a head or two shorter than everyone else in his group, but when i picked him up that afternoon he left to waves and goodbyes and i thought i saw a swagger in his walk. i asked him what art they’d made and he told me breathlessly, the boys’ group made a Rainbow of Death! with horns! that dripped blood! and i noted that perhaps hanging out with older kids was kinda…scary…and he shook his head at me and said, proud as punch, No Mom. it was MY IDEA. they liked MY IDEA.

well. let’s hope he’s not giving any of them nightmares, those poor gargantuan 7 and 10-year-olds.

he is managing. but it leaks from him, too, the stress of this leap. he wakes in the morning needy and whiny, and has lists of demands and wants whose tide he cannot seem to stem. my guess is at camp, all his energies go into reading the emotional cues of the people around him. he is learning to decipher cool for the first time. he is built for it: he has the requisite capacities.

but when he comes home, there is nothing left. and we were just gone for a week. and his not-quite-3-year-old sister is having her own somewhat fraught journey back from that separation and anxiety, and the result is that whenever the two of them are with me now each pulls out all the stops in an effort to commandeer my attention and My Love and every moment is a zero sum game of Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy.

when they are in my arms this week, i tend to feel as if they are both about three seconds from trying to crawl back up inside me and nest.

tonight, Posey wanted me on the couch and Oscar wanted me in the back porch to watch his beaded gecko – the first creative spoils of art camp – sample the feast of grass and water he had prepared for it. with my Tupperware. i wanted to unload the dishwasher, myself, but had given over to the couch entreaties because i try to tell myself dishes can wait. i don’t believe it, but i try. and i had worshipped and admired at the gecko oasis already.

can you see us? we are a hundred mothers and their children, torn by the hunger of the heart to be First. first world problem, perhaps. perhaps no.

i sit between them. each tries to paw me apart with want and love and unspeakable need. i wait for King Solomon to show up with a sword, to divide me in two.

Oscar, i am sitting and snuggling on the couch. here. with you. between you both. we will go to check on your gecko soon. but not now. please. stop whining.

You Don’t Love Me.

i love you, Oscar. i love you with my whole heart.

you love Posey more.

his voice is like a small knife, flat and cold. it is not so much that he believes it as that he is a consummate role player, and in that moment he believes it and has a head closed airtight to anything i do or say. he is manipulating. but he is also speaking the secret fear of his own heart, and i hear the trace of that wondering in the words and so i try again.

this time his tone is more dramatic, like the go on without me of an overwrought community theatre star, but the dialogue is the same.

then, in the same tone, with the same lashings of self-pity, i want DESSERT!

Dave – who has been sitting beside us, utterly ignored in this passion play – gives up and goes to unload the damn dishwasher. Posey curls – remarkably patiently, if pointily – under my ribs, picking at my thigh skin.

Oscar and i discuss love. who we love. the capacity of love to expand. that love for one person does not take away from another. i tell him it’s hard being the elder child.

she fidgets. i tell her it’s hard being the younger. she grabs my glasses and tosses them off the couch: in days of destabilization and readjustment, she is a tiny rocket waiting to go off.

i hug her, kiss her, make her get my glasses and apologize. i hold him tight.

or i try, but he has already moved on, his emotional denouement sacrificed to the pursuit of sugar.

we go to the park for ice cream, because it may be one of the last sunny evenings of the summer and we haven’t been there even once. he gets chocolate with brownies in it. she gets vanilla.

on the boardwalk when their cones are gone, i let Oscar run ahead a bit. now that he is sated and our trust re-established, he listens, and stops whenever i call ahead to keep him in view. Dave is bringing the car around to the playground area, because the road by the park is one-way.

Oscar waits ahead with the sunset behind him. he opens his arms to his sister. Posey! my heart leaps. i let go of her hand.

she runs to him, wraps herself around him. he lifts her and i beam. i am a few steps behind still, catching up.

she runs into the road.

the SUV is ten feet away, then eight, then…stops. it is a scenic drive, a leisurely road. my running feet are the slowest thing in the world and yet i am sure my arms are whirling like the scene and all the colours centered around that one small body grinning in the middle.

POSEY! he shouts it. i shout it. unison. he is a good brother, really.

and he is wrong. i do not love her more. for all i can see nothing but her and the moving vehicle, some part of my brain registers exactly where he is, too. his spot on the boardwalk, safe. hers on the pavement. two dots. me moving.

this is motherhood.

i did not slap and i did not swear, both of which i am unduly proud of at this safe remove. i shouted, though, loudly and scarily and making-a-scenily. there was a taste in the back of my throat like all the blood that poured from me when she was born and i thought i might choke on it. but i did not. i swallowed. we kept walking. she did not get to walk.

she did not get to play on the new pirate ship playground equipment, either. but Oscar did. then we went home, and bedtime, for the first time since we came back, was as quiet and easy as kisses and goodnight and close the door and collapse on the other side, exhaling.

i almost ruined it by not believing.

but i didn’t. i said nothing. i gave over. i slumped on the floor of my upstairs hallway and thought, they are in their beds. safe. both of them. quiet. both of them.

both of them.

and i was full of grace, and it spilled down my cheeks.