Returning from the bathroom, I glanced at Baby Susie* and smiled. Even at first light, the sight of the precious little princess warmed my heart. The remembrance that I’d dressed her in a sleeper that curled her tiny toes brought back the relentless anxiety of the night. I’d buy one that fit today.
As I watched, Susie started pushing against the sleeper’s feet. Oh, no. If she’s waking up, she’ll need a diaper change. Ugh. I had the crib in my room, but the changing table with all the diapers rested in the girls’ room. Can I slip in, retrieve a diaper and not wake either of the sisters?
The flash-bang events of the previous day had completely derailed my obsession for planning. I’d gone to work, expecting to plow into a stack of paperwork accumulating on my desk, but then the phone rang, affecting a major redirect. I’d begun the day as a single hospital administrator; I’d dropped into bed as the foster mother of three young children.
A sharp cry interrupted my stunned recollecting. Quickly moving to lift the baby out of the crib, I said, “Mornin’ little Precious. Shhhh. You don’t want to wake up your sisters, do you?”
Susie stopped crying. The way she looked into my eyes worried me a bit. Her expression flattened so quickly. I felt her stiffen as I brought her small body close for a cuddle. “It’s okay, Susie. I’m not going to hurt you. Your sisters are in the other bedroom. Let’s go take a peek, shall we?”
After crossing the threshold, I paused to let the baby glance around the bedroom. Deni* continued sleeping, but where had Jamie* gone? Her lower bunk hadn’t been slept in. Oh, my! Had I remembered to lock the doors? Could she have run off? Would she have run off? Fear gripped my heart. I had to change Susie and then I’d go in search of two-year-old Jamie.
Gently, I laid Susie on the changing table. The baby followed my eyes but made no attempt to speak or move. I continued smiling at Susie while my anxious thoughts raced in all directions.
Slowly, I unsnapped the sleeper and cautiously slipped it off Susie’s thin legs. To my utter astonishment, the baby’s legs began to pump the air. “I ain’t seen her legs move in a long time. What did ya do, Lady?”
One hand still holding onto Susie, I looked over towards the top bunk. The oldest sister had moved to a sitting position. “Good morning, Deni! Well,” I said with a nervous laugh, “I didn’t do anything—except put Susie in this too-small sleeper. I guess the slight pressure on her knees all night helped them remember how to bend.”
Deni crawled over to the foot of the bunk and looked down at the ladder. “You can come down if you want to, Deni. Do you need my—” The four-year-old’s bare feet hit the floor before I finished offering my assistance.
“Did you sleep well, Sweetie?” I said, with a quick glance down at the small red-head standing next to me. She nodded, continuing to watch as I finished dressing Susie in a summer outfit. “You can put on the shirt and shorts you wore after your bath last night.”
Suddenly remembering the missing sister, I said, “Hey, Deni, where’d Jamie go? Did you see her leave the bedroom? Do you think she’s hiding somewhere in the house, or could she have opened a locked door?”
The preschooler's eyes narrowed, followed by a slight tilt of her head. “Her’s not anywhere, Lady,” Deni said, giggling and shrugging her narrow shoulders. “Her’s right here like always.”
I moved Susie to my left hip and reached around to untangle the hem of the tee shirt twisted in the waistband at the back of Deni’s shorts. “Hmm? It doesn’t look like Jamie slept in her bed.”
“Her never does that. Her sleeps under the bed all the time.” I looked over at the bunk, beginning to move to the edge until I heard Deni’s warning.”Don’t go get her out. She’ll scream real loud, ‘member at the motel yesterday?”
“Yes, I do remember. Poor Jamie was so scared. What should I do now?” I couldn’t believe I was asking a four-year-old what to do. Boy, was I ever going to make a good mother—not.
“You go. I helps Jamie put her clothes on. Where does me ‘n’ her go then?”
Oh, good, that question I can answer myself. “Come on out to that big round table near the kitchen. Did you see it when you came in last night?” Deni nodded. “That’s where we’ll have breakfast. I’ll go get it ready while you help Jamie, okay?”
“We gonna eat already?” the surprise registered on Deni’s face; then she smiled.”Jamie gonna like that.”
I laughed and turned to make my way to the kitchen. I walked more slowly than necessary so that I could eavesdrop on Deni’s monolog with Jamie.
“Jamie! Come out quick! You’ll never guess what I saw. Susie. Her can move her legs again. You gotta get dressed right now. We’s gonna eat breakfast out there with that lady. Hurry.”
Before I’d finished setting the table, two smiling faces peeked around the wooden chairs at me. Susie soundlessly kicked her legs from inside the highchair’s restraining tray.
I grabbed up a couple of throw pillows to lift Jamie’s short body high enough to reach the plate. Deni pulled back her own chair as I settled Jamie in hers. Both girls stared at the glass of milk in front of them. “Go ahead and have a drink, if you’d like one? Can Jamie handle the small glass by herself, or should I help her?”
Deni had already begun drinking the milk. Jamie didn’t seem to have any difficulty holding the plastic cup. Both girls gulped the milk as fast as they could swallow. “Whoa, girls! We’ve got plenty of milk. Slow down so you don’t choke.”
When I set each plate of food before the girls, my heart broke just watching them. How painful their young lives must have been.