“Watch them,” she said. And so I did, kneeling down to get a closer look. As intently as I studied the Daddy Long Legs earlier in the day, moving from the shade into the bright sunlight diagonally splayed across the gray sidewalk, pausing only for a microsecond when the warmth touched it’s long spindly legs, I watched with intensity and purpose.
Three sets of long black eyelashes and one set of blond, four kids lay sleeping on the couch and love seat positioned around my vantage point on the floor. I sat and watched, stared, afraid to fail in my duties. Slow rhythmic breaths that only slightly moved their chests were the only indication that they were alive. I watched, trusting that the breaths would continue and I would not fail.
“Watch them,” she said, and so I did. Rotating my gaze from one to the next, I made my rounds watching for the slight motion of the breath to confirm that all was ok. No time to be afraid that I was in an unfamiliar place and it was well past midnight. I knew I couldn’t afford the luxury of allowing the unfamiliar noises to take on a life of their own, where I could hide under my covers and wait until the dawn. It’s a strange awareness that comes with knowing you’re it and there is no one else for whom you can depend. Like the first aid course that you’re sure you’ve forgotten and how it rushes back to you during an emergency, it’s an inner strength that’s always there. Knowing that we’re stronger than we think we are is key. It was my job to watch them and so I did, four babies, all under the age of five. My little brother, Jason was one of them, and although he was fast asleep like the others, it comforted me that he was here, close. He was a beautiful kid, one of the ones with the long black eyelashes. He looked so peaceful, asleep on the loveseat of this unfamiliar apartment.
Mom and her friends had started the night, drinking in the apartment and decided to head to the bars when the booze ran out. There wasn’t much of a conversation regarding me watching the younger kids, I was just instructed to “watch them.” I had plenty of experience watching Jason as I practically raised him, but had never been left with anyone else’s kids. It was surprising that the other four had fallen asleep with the music and rambunctious laughter, but I suppose we were all kind of used to it. Mom kissed me goodbye and said that they would be home soon.
At first the excitement of the responsibility kept me alert but soon I found that “watching” was much harder than I had anticipated. I remember having to get up and walk around to try and keep my focus. Every short trip to the bathroom or to get a drink of water was followed by a keen inspection of each child, making sure that the breath still moved each small chest. To stay awake I played a game and counted a set number of breaths for each child before moving to the next. My eyes were heavy but I was determined to do this job well and forced myself to stay awake until the mothers came stumbling in around 2:00 am.
I was so proud that I had stayed awake and watched the babies as I had been instructed, but the feeling was lost on the mothers who stumbled in. Mom gathered Jason in her arms to head back to our own apartment, one building down. The mothers each gave me $1 for my services and I closed the evening with some candy money. I thought of the Marathon Bar that I would buy the next day and how I could get enough for Jason and Jerry to have their own. What an easy gig, I thought. I offered to carry Jason as Mom was having difficulty walking and he wrapped his legs and arms around my body tight as I hoisted him onto my front. I was thankful to be heading home after a long night as I had school the next day- first grade.