It’s been a tag free-for-all in my house tonight. Not the traditional run-hide-and-find kind but the keep-dad-awake version. One child goes off to sleep; the other turns his head a fraction off the pillow to say he is “starving.” I think immediately how little we know in a land of plenty about starvation, but decide not to enter dialogue with a 4-year-old about this important matter, especially when my bedside clock says 3:16 a.m.
Next thing, I am downstairs. I know I shouldn’t be but here I am, semi-comatose, boiling the kettle, throwing a bag of instant oatmeal into a bowl while my mother’s words from a quarter-century ago about no child ever needing to go to bed hungry reverberate in my head. Oatmeal and a spoon in one hand, a filled baby’s bottle in the other, I reach the landing, and Mr. Starving is fast asleep. I can eat the oatmeal or watch it coagulate like wallpaper glue since starvation got the better of him. He is sleeping so deeply I could swing him by his feet and he’d not waken. Not that I want to swing him by his feet, even though we’ve been through this routine a time or two before. I should be able to detect that “Dad, I am starving” might just as well have read, “Tag. You’re it.”
Now I lay me down to sleep and all I can see in the darkened room is the clock’s obnoxious florescent glow on the baby’s white bottle. It is ready and waiting for his next eruption of hunger. Have you noticed? Very young babies are never just a little hungry. It is never minor progression along a gentle continuum. It is never, “Oh. I think I will awaken now. I am feeling a little peckish.” Babies do not do “hungry” like that. Babies erupt when they are hungry. It is a full-volume announcement, a blast, an emergency directive in a train station or sports arena. It’s fire-alarm urgency satisfied only with a full gob of rubber and the slow release of Simulac With Iron.
I feel myself drifting off to sleep when Rhino the dog, with full knowledge of my condition, bumps the side of my bed. He smiles, tail wagging, to announce his need of a bio-break an hour earlier than usual. The clock is self-righteously announcing that it is 3:46 a.m. I prepare myself to stand in the yard watching Rhino do his thing in order to prevent his taking the opportunity to climb through the hole in the back of the fence, and visit a long list of neighborhood pals he befriended, when I have been more tired, less vigilant.
Man and dog enter the house together. I am relieved no neighbors were out at this hour walking their dogs. I did not have to run for cover lest I be seen appearing on my lawn in boxer shorts. Rhino bounds up the stairs and I go to the crib’s edge knowing that any minute the baby will awaken.
Nathanael is not stirring – not yet, anyway. So I tiptoe over the wooden floors, for the creaking has been known to awaken big brother, and ease myself into bed. I turn my head from the clock and its glib 4:06 a.m. and wonder what it is with the sixes tonight.
Grace has come and I will finally sleep. The baby, sensing the imminent presence of Mr. Sandman, reacts and now I am cuddling an infant who drinks deeply of the bottle while nestling against my chest. He searches for something in my eyes I hope he finds. At the very first burp, he has forgotten he’s hungry and drifted to sleep when big brother walks in, trailed by the dog. He asks, as he sees the baby asleep against my chest and climbs onto my lap, if we can have a “group hug.”
As we hug, sleeping children draped over me like throw rugs, I thank God for women, two birth mothers, who in the great and heavenly game of tag, unselfishly and unreservedly declared me “it.”