It was the middle of the night and there was crying. That’s all I knew in the instant that I was wrenched from sleep and propped myself up on an elbow, listening.
It took me a second to remember where I was: in the spare bedroom at my parents’ house, my mom asleep in the next room, dad away on work and my niece and nephew in the room down the hall.
I had stopped at their door before going to sleep, stood with my ear nearly touching the wood, listening for signs of discontent and ready to swoop in if needed. Fyodor coughed feebly, but did not seem to wake up.
Now they both wailed.
I threw open my door and bounded down the hall. I was at their door in a hurry, but by the time I turned the handle, Fyodor’s little hand was on the other side. He looked up at me expectantly with tears streaming down his face.
I gathered him up in my arms and looked over the edge of Anastasya’s crib to see her laying flat on her back with big, crocodile tears on both cheeks, awake and upset, but not upset enough to get up.
Sitting Fyodor on the bed, I said, “I’m going to go pick up your sister.” As I approached the crib, my mother, finally roused, came in to provide reinforcement.
“What’s going on in here?” she asked, rhetorically.
Mom picked up the baby while I went back to Fyodor and set him in my lap. Anastasya was still crying and this made Fyodor want to cry more. So he did. A high keening wail escaped him unceasingly and, as my mother tried to change Ana’s diaper, she began to scream. I mean really scream. Which made Fyodor cry harder. The diapering finished, Mom attempted to give Ana a bottle, hoping it would soothe her, but the screaming continued.
“I’m going to take him in the other room. I think they’re feeding off each other,” I suggested and carried Fyodor, wrapped like a monkey around my body, to the bedroom I had minutes before been sleeping in.
“Here we are. In Aunty’s room,” I lilted into his ear. I sat down on the bed and he pressed one ear to my chest. I covered the other with my hand so he couldn’t hear the still crying baby in the other room. “Did you get scared, Fyodor?” He shook his head no, but he couldn’t stop whimpering.
As he clung to me, I rubbed his back up and down with my flat palm and kissed the top of his head, doing my best to chase away whatever monsters he was battling in his dreams or in the dark.
It occurred to me then, as I waited for Ana’s moaning to subside so that I could take Fyodor back to bed, how deep and ingrained and inescapable my instinct to protect and settle these little ones was. The idea of having my own children entered my mind, followed swiftly by a wave of relief that I had decided against it. I couldn’t imagine this feeling amplified by the directness of parenthood, unbuffered by an extension of family. If they were mine, the worry would never let me sleep.