I suppose the question started forming in their little minds sometime in preschool when these sort of questions started being put to them: What's your favorite color? What's your favorite food? Favorite number? Favorite friend? Until, eventually, each one of them came home to ask, "Mommy, who's your favorite?"
I handled it the way my own mother did: "You're my favorite girl," I said to Sunshine. "And you're my favorite boy," I told Hollywood.
And this worked for a time.
Then The Storm came along to make me revise my answer. I took another cue from my mother's book: "Sunshine's my favorite big girl. Hollywood's my favorite boy. And The Storm is my favorite little girl," I said.
And this, too, satisfied them for a time. Enough so that whenever one asked, another would answer for me: "Sunshine's her favorite big girl, Hollywood's her favorite boy, and The Storm is her favorite little girl."
I imagine it's a question that all mothers encounter at least as many times as they have children. It waits, posed to be posed, right there in the wings of a mother's life. It never goes away. And just like the children who ask it, the question grows more complicated. So that now that they are eleven and fifteen and seventeen years old, my loyalty-inspired strategy has grown weak, flawed and it's failing miserably.
"No, really," Sunshine said, a few months back, "You can tell me. I won't mind. Who's your favorite?"
She's sure that it's not her. She believes it's Hollywood, because he's the one I've worried for most in the past few years. And she's sure that Balthazar favors The Storm. "They have the soccer thing," she says.
Plus, for as long as she can remember, she's been on her own, like on family bike rides when Hollywood rode tandem with me and Balthazar pulled the toddler-trailer with The Storm buckled inside, while our big girl managed her own two-wheeler. I can't recall many other examples, but Sunshine could list off an earful if you asked her. She started to, one time, a couple of years back, when the question arose again.
As for Hollywood, he too feels left out, particularly when Balthazar travels for work and he's the only boy in a house full of girls. He doesn't ask about favorites anymore. He's a teenage boy, he doesn't ask about much, anymore. But, like his older sister, I'm pretty sure he doesn't believe he's made anyone's final cut.
The Storm still asks, though, and she does so with all the fresh enthusiasm of her age. Her eyes still grow bright, optimistic, while she waits for my answer. Her brow lifts. Maybe this time she'll tell me I'm her favorite, she's thinking. Hoping.
"You're my favorite little girl," I say, again.
"But...," she throws me a curve, "I'm not a little girl anymore. You've said it yourself."
"You're growing up fast, that's true. But you'll always be my little girl." Then I wrap my arms around her and squeeze, poor compensation for failing her, for my unwillingness to choose her above the others.
"But...," she says, again.
"There are no buts about it. I love you all. Equally," I say, a bit defensively.
But..., she's thinking (I'm sure of it, I can see it in her eyes,) but your favorite color is yellow; your favorite flower is the daisy; your favorite food is spaghetti; and your favorite man is Daddy. So, surely, you must have a favorite child.
How could she know? How could anyone who isn't a mother know how much I love each and every one of them? How could she know that I would die a thousand brutal deaths for each and every one of them? A thousand brutal deaths times three.
And how could they know that loving differently isn't necessarily loving more. Or less. Just differently.
Because I do love them differently. And the differences in the way I love them are as obvious and as subtle as the differences in each of them: Sunshine's infectious smile; her clever, clever wit; the curve of her baby finger; the surprising firmness of the cartilage that intertwines her delicate ears, ears that I loved to touch while she slept as an infant, before those first curls arrived to drape them; and the way Hollywood's eyes hold histories and worlds, histories of worlds; the irony of his jawline, still delicate and smooth but holding the strength and promise of all the man that he is growing into; the pitch of his sudden laugh; the softness of his heart; and the way The Storm wraps herself around you to hug with her whole being; and the way she loves with her whole heart, like her siblings, but differently, with more abandon, I think, I fear; the deep brown tone of her summer skin pulling taut across her slender back and shoulders; the deep dip of the cleft above her lip, below her nose, that's deeper still when she's just woken and her face is as cottony-full as her voice .
Yes, I love each of them differently. And differently everyday, still. They are complicated. I am complicated. It's complicated.
But The Storm's inability to comprehend this isn't really the issue. The real issue is that I'm failing her. Me. Her mother. That in trying to be fair to all my children, her included, I'm breaking her heart.
The issue is that hope, unfulfilled, eventually dies.
The issue is that those beautiful brown brows may not lift in optimism the next time she asks.
The issue is that Hollywood no longer asks at all; that, having endured enough heartbreak outside the home, he knows better than to come looking for it inside, from his mother.
The issue is Sunshine's recent approach to the question. Her bravery: "You can tell me." And the desperation beneath it. Please, tell me. Please, tell me it's me.
The issue is that my unbending loyalty to all of them is failing all of them, individually.
The real issue is that each and every one of them wants desperately to hear that they are special, the most special. They want me to love them the most. And, of course, I do! Love them the most. Each of them. The most.
So, why not say it? "I love you the most!"
Because it's absolutely true: "I love you the most! And I love you the most! And I love you the most!"
So, I'm revising my answer, again. Staunch loyalty isn't working. Loyalty that twists and reaches and bends over backwards; loyalty as flexible, all encompassing, strong and complicated as a mother's love, that's the loyalty needed to answer this most serious and delicate of questions.
"You, yes, you are Mommy's favorite!" I'm going to say, the very next time I'm asked. And the time after that, and the time after that, and the time after that.
Because they need to hear it.
And because it's so very, very true.