Thursday, February 28th
Aggie Milliken collapsed onto the disheveled bed, her energy sapped. With silent wicked glee, her alarm clock, “Sarge,” taunted her with the approach of midnight. Stifling yet another yawn, she muttered to herself, “Two weeks ago, I had Grisham and Letterman. Now sleep is my best friend.”
Aggie struggled to shift the tangled covers into some semblance of order. Fatigue won over comfort, and she kicked aside all but the stale top sheet. “Lord, I can’t pray, You know what’s in my heart. I just can’t…”
Friday, March 1st
Aggie stirred restlessly as the wails of a hungry baby tugged at, then peeled away the cozy blankets of sleep that wrapped her like a cocoon. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter; she wished desperately that baby Ian would find his thumb. For the fifteenth morning in a row, Aggie struggled between guilt and frustration that her sister never taught the baby the satisfaction of sucking on a pacifier.
She risked a one-eyed glance at her arch-enemy. Sarge promptly announced the time of 4:34 a.m. as if Reveille played in the background. “Four hours? I’ve been asleep for four hours? I got more sleep than this during finals week!” She rolled over and covered her ears with her pillow, while groping, one-armed, for the silent commanding officer of her life. Swiping at Sarge, she knocked it off the headboard and toppled a glass of water in the process.
“Good. I hope you get electrocuted, you vile thing.” With some satisfaction that the clock couldn’t mock her while hanging from its cord in a puddle of water, Aggie sat up in bed. She fought to unwind the covers from her body, as Ian’s wails grew more insistent. She focused every ounce of her will power on climbing from her warm comfortable bed. Each eye, gritty with sleep, strained to stay open as she rummaged for her slippers.
Shuffling down the dark hallway and past the baby’s door, Aggie forced herself to hurry. Ian would wake the neighbors if she didn’t hustle. She stumbled down the stairs, occasionally tripping over what she prayed were shoes and toys. Skidding through a pile of marbles made her thankful she’d found her slippers. “Lord, is that where I left my brains? I knew I was hard headed but…”
She felt blinded by the light as she snapped on the kitchen switch. Instantly, she flipped the switch off again and reached for the nightlight. Food encrusted dishes and unopened mail littered the counters, but Aggie found a clean bottle in the dishwasher. Deftly, she mixed the proper proportions of powder to warm water from the open can of formula on the counter and shook it thoroughly.
As she dragged her feet back up the stairs, Aggie considered the feasibility of a self-feeding crib. Her inventive thoughts came to a screeching halt once she reached Ian’s door. His screams, now at an unbearable decibel level, spurred her to swifter movements. She changed his diaper, zipped his sleeper, and scooped him up in a football hold with the practiced confidence of someone with much more child-minding experience. Several steps later, she kicked off her slippers, shivered into the now cold sheets of her bed, and tried to resume a comfortable doze as Ian contentedly sucked his bottle.
Approximately thirty minutes later, bleary-eyed and cotton-headed, Aggie moaned and stirred, as she patted in the general direction of the baby’s bouncing back. One sullen eye glanced at Sarge’s usual post before she remembered that she’d sent him MIA. Ian rolled and tumbled like a gymnast and barely kept from bouncing off the bed. Aggie, certain that his high-pitched giggle was going to ensure her a nice, softly padded room in a lovely “house” with green grass and men in white coats, wrestled with the temptation to whine as she tried to quiet him. “What’s gotten into you, kiddo?”
Ian responded with his one-toothed smirk and threw himself backwards, making the bed bounce again. Aggie pulled the cord of the clock until Sarge’s face came into view. Five o’clock. She sighed. Seeing the wet spot Sarge made on the corner of the bed, Aggie jerked the cord from the wall. “It’s a wonder that I didn’t burn the house down or something.”
She glanced back at her nephew. The enormity of her responsibilities seemed to smother her again. Ian probably had a better idea than she did of what she should do next. He usually slept until seven after his early morning bottle. This crazed energy was a new and unwelcome development. “Well, Ian, I suppose we’ll get up.”
With a sense of déjà vu, Aggie sighed and shuffled down-stairs with Ian, hoping his odd, yet gleeful, noises wouldn’t wake his siblings. She wondered how she was going to survive another day without sufficient rest. As she dragged herself back into the kitchen to make a cup of her favorite flavored coffee, Aggie stopped and burst into tears. On the counter, where Ian’s formula generally sat, was the still opened can of designer coffee— and the liners for his little bottles. “This child will never sleep again after this,” the young woman groaned.
Aggie wondered, for what seemed to be the thousandth time in the past two weeks, if mothering was something she could learn or if it was infused somehow into women’s neuro-wiring during pregnancy. Most mothers had children one or maybe two at a time and with at least nine months of careful preparation in between. Aggie, never one to do things the conventional way, inherited hers. She was now the mother of eight lively children. “Not bad for twenty-two and barely out of college,” she sighed to herself in a weak attempt at humor. Aggie’s tears overflowed, and Ian played with the streams coursing down her face. “Will I ever stop missing Allie, sport?”
Aggie sat the baby in his Bumbo and grabbed what was left of the clean Tupperware, wondering where she’d lost the rest.
“Ok, kiddo, I guess you’ll be up for a while, so you play with these, umm, ‘toys.’” Shaking her head, she handed the bowls and lids to the baby. Ian instantly began banging them together with vehemence that only drummers can appreciate. Glancing at the open coffee can, Aggie reached for a dirty cup, sniffed for the least-sour dish cloth, and turned the hot water on full blast.
As the water for her coffee bubbled merrily, Aggie took inventory of the kitchen. There was enough work to do to keep her busy for hours. The path of dirty laundry started at the back door and sprinkled itself across the house, all the way upstairs, and into each bedroom. Aggie had few pet peeves, but one of them was walking on dirty laundry. She had not yet learned that walking on clean laundry is even more obnoxious and irritating. The stress of the past two weeks stretched her in every direction until Aggie’s nerves snapped.
She transferred the baby and his Tupperware into the playpen for safety, stormed into the well-equipped garage, and searched frantically for a screwdriver. With an exultant cry of victory, she punched the button to the garage door opener and waited impatiently for it to rise. Resolutely, Aggie charged out of the gaping hole left by the door only to return moments later for a ladder. This posed a bigger problem than she’d anticipated. There wasn’t a ladder in sight. She searched corners and behind cabinets. In sheer exasperation, she threw her hands into the air and looked up as if to say, “I can’t take much more, Lord,” but the sight of a ladder hanging horizontally from the rafters halted her internal ranting. Now, she spoke aloud, her voice tinged with disgust. “Who would put a ladder up so high that you need a ladder to get the ladder down in the first place?”
After a moment’s pause, she dashed into the kitchen and banged around the room, searching for the step stool. Ian squealed his slobbery encouragement as Aggie dragged the stool through the room, ruffling the few ruddy curls atop his bald little baby head. She teetered on the step stool, barely avoiding a collapse, and finally managed to jerk the ladder from its hooks. Hauling her prize out the garage door, Aggie surveyed the tattered basketball net she had remembered hanging deserted over the garage.
The uncooperative ladder fought her at every step. After several frustrating minutes, where every swear word she’d ever heard filled her brain and threatened to overtake her self-control, Aggie realized that the ladder was upside down. Righting it, she climbed to the mounting bracket, the ladder teetering with every step. She eventually managed to unscrew one side of the apparatus and then the other. With a few jerky movements, the backboard lay on the ground beneath the swaying ladder, hardly worse for the fall.
Aggie felt like a housekeeping genius as she wobbled through the house carrying her conquest upstairs to the wall above the hamper at the end of the hallway. The backboard was heavy and cumbersome; she found it difficult to hold in place and screw it into the wall at the same time, but several minutes later, she stood back and surveyed the results of her efforts. Though nearly satisfied, the lid on the hamper mocked her brilliant idea. Undaunted, she gave a swift jerk and ripped the cover off the offending hamper. “There. That’ll work,” she muttered as she trudged back downstairs, fighting the compulsion to pick up all the dirty laundry herself.
Allie, her obsessive-compulsive sister, would be horrified, could she see the effect of the dirty basketball hoop on her perfectly papered walls, but Aggie hardly noticed. At least she’d accomplished something. Surely, any child would feel compelled to put their dirty clothes in the hamper when they could make a bank shot in the process!
Aggie wondered if her sister’s mother-in-law’s objections to her being named the children’s guardian were valid. Was she truly the best person to mother her sister’s eight orphaned children? Could she really step into Allie’s shoes? The confidence she’d originally felt was slowly melting into a puddle of despair. She had been certain that she was capable, but after a short time in her sister’s home, she realized that she’d woefully underestimated the work involved in caring for a large family. Allie’s shoes now felt enormous.
Once again, she wondered how she would ever learn how to get five children dressed, fed, groomed, paraphernalia gathered, on three different buses at the same time, and on time. Getting them home, fed, bathed, de-stressed, their energy exhausted, and then “homeworked” before it was too late to bother sleeping, was a seemingly impossible task, but mornings were much worse. Aggie keenly felt the lack of sleep this morning, drowsiness hovering and making itself a nuisance as she dragged through her still-unfamiliar duties.
She heard a voice call from the cavernous depths of the stairwell, “Aunt Aggie, I’ll never be ready in time. Can’t you drive us?”
Doubling her efforts to gather possessions and materials, she shouted her reply to no one in particular, “My car does not hold everyone illegally, much less legally. Hustle!”
Her sister’s large van was a twisted pile of metal awaiting the final word from Allie’s insurance adjuster. There was no doubt that the vehicle was totaled, but the insurance company seemed to be taking its time in coming to the obvious conclusion. Without a larger vehicle, Aggie could not take all the children anywhere at the same time. Her little VW convertible Beetle only held four passengers and even that was a squeeze. “That’s it. If I do nothing else today, I’m buying a van. Forget insurance adjusters. I need transportation,” she muttered to herself.
“Ten minutes and counting. Who is not ready? Ready or not, out you go!”