Right before going up for bed, Julian lamented that I don't like him (we'd had some conflict earlier, quite ordinary). Gabriel was there, so I pulled them both closer and said, "Listen guys...NO ONE in the WHOLE WORLD makes me MADDER than you two. No one makes me want to pick them up by their ankles and shake them up and down like you."
They laughed, so I continued, "Sometimes I get SO mad at you I want to smush a pie in your face! Sometimes I get SO mad I want to tear up pictures of you. Sometimes I get SO mad I want to dump a jar of peanut butter in your bed!" (more laughter). "But no matter HOW mad I ever get, I ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS love you both SO SO SO much," and started to give humorous examples of how much I love them.
Julian was laughing, he appreciates my amateur stand-up routines (moreso the effort than the comedic delivery). But Gabriel was crying.
Crying, Gabriel?! I changed my tone, hugged him and asked him why, and he said tearfully, "You tear up pictures of me?"
Oh my poor kid. I was only kidding! Tearing up pictures was a terrible example, but at the moment it was all I could think of, and I thought I'd recovered quickly with the peanut butter thing. I told him gently that of course I'd never tear up pictures of him, and that I look at pictures of him when I'm at work and that I think about him all the time. He was comforted, but still shaken.
My super-duper tough cookie, the one who so rarely shows sensitivity, who is virtually immune to social pressure, who navigates the usual childhood emotional obstacles with ease -- brought to tears by a joking mention of a parental unbonding gesture. It's not that he doesn't experience the same emotions that all kids do; they're just much better protected most of the time, with occasional breaches that go straight to the heart.
My own heart is still pretty guilty -- but a little warmed -- about it. He really does love me.