This summer evening is still sultry after sundown. A familiar sense of sadness wafts through me: another day, already nearly gone. I lift my nephew Owen from his highchair, cringing. How is there yogurt in his armpits? Never mind how it coats his soft hair. When I hold his sticky body far from mine, he playfully kicks his pudgy little feet toward my chest, trying to climb me. They are black with driveway scuz from playing outside this afternoon. Bath time! I announce. He mirrors the face I show him, wide-eyed, broad-smiled. Baf! he yells, alerting the troops.
Above us, his sisters hear and begin shrieking. By the time we climb the stairs and reach the bathroom, they are both running up and down the hallway completely naked, chanting: Bath! Bath! Bath! Bath! Owen squirms in my arms, wanting to get down and join the parade. No way, Little Man, I apologize as I grasp his sweet, pliable ribs a bit tighter, You’re too gross. He yells, struggling: I gwoss! I gwoss! The naked hooligans in the hallway alter their war cry: He’s gross! He’s gross! He’s gross! He’s gross!
I draw the bath. While the tub fills, I strip him down. I test the temperature. I plunk him onto the ceramic, butt-first. Immediately, he sticks his hands into the powerful flow from the faucet, spraying water everywhere. When I wipe droplets from my face, they form an oil slick with the layers of sunscreen and sweat already resident there. Buddy! I implore him, pulling his hand from the stream and sliding him in one swift motion to the far side of the tub. His response is the giggle that lights my darkness, that high-pitched, uncontrolled, Owen-flavored mirth.
His laughter and splashing draws the girls. They snake around me and clamor in. A year ago all three of them fit comfortably in this tub. Now he is two, his sisters four and six. The bath is crowded with tangled arms and pushing feet and thrown elbows. Owen pours cups of water over his own head, leaving himself breathless with thrill: one, two, twenty times. Ryenne and Evi chatter and sigh, poke and holler. They clutch the side of the tub until the beds of their fingernails whiten, pretending they are in danger of drowning, theatrically wailing: I can’t hold on much longer!
Nor can this time, when all three of them can be in here together and split eardrums as well as my heart with their collective joy. I will look back on these Saturday nights of babysitting as the sweetest times of my life. The cartoon pajamas, fresh from the laundry. Tooth-brushing and diaper-changing and rolling on the floor laughing over nothing at all. Tiny fingernails, missing teeth, and the change in their breathing as they drift off to dreamland. Another brother, halfway between zygote and arriving to join the party. The contrast of the endless, grinding effort of keeping them alive versus their overwhelming, spontaneous silliness, too stark to fully register in the same frame. I will not have children of my own, for a dozen reasons that could fill a book. Foremost: I am terrified I cannot survive feeling so much love when everything is temporary. Barely past each moment, I already mourn the loss of it.
After the bath, they want to watch part of a movie before they go to sleep. All four of us pile into my sister and brother-in-law’s bed and burrow between the sheets. The room is dark, flickers from the television lighting their perfect faces. Owen comments in excited, garbled sentences we cannot understand. Ryenne leans over and kisses the top of his lovely smelling head. Evi clutches my arm like a blanket, occasionally squeezing me and rubbing her head into my shoulder. The scene on screen cuts from a bucolic field of horses to the heroine of the story, sitting inside with her aunt. They speak of her dreams and longings and secret fears. Evi looks up at me, smiles knowingly, and says: WE have a big, giant aunt.
I feel tenderness leaking from every valve, pulsing painfully out of bounds. How is there love in my armpits? Never mind how it coats my whole soul. I am stained red, the color of caring and pain, wanting this moment never to end. Knowing: the only certain thing is that it must.
Lindsey Clark’s writing has previously been published in magazines such as The Shanghai Literary Review, Newfound, and Reservoir Road Literary Review, as well as the Africa anthology “Memories of Sun.” She also has a poem forthcoming in The Elevation Review and is the author of a travel memoir, “Land of Dark and Sun.”