“Quail-eee! Quail-eee!” her small chants echo down the hall as I carry her from the bedroom in the morning light. During the week Zuzu and I are gone by the time Sugarplum wakes up. On the weekends though she and I are usually the last to rise. The older girls wake before the sun most days and if I’m lucky, Lovey does too and corrals them in the front of the house. Grasping the ancient glass doorknob leading from the pantry into the dining room, I feel it thread loose and come out of the door into my hand as I try to open the swollen rectangle from its frame. Swearing under my breath I hand the knob to the baby who promptly drops it with a clank to the wood floor. As we ease through the rooms where the other children sit, it’s unclear who is more delighted to see whom. The girls jump up and start hollering each other’s names with enough gusto that one would think they had been separated by weeks and miles rather than soft snores and blankets. It is clear however that I need coffee and I attempt to hand the baby over the girl’s clamoring hands into the lap of Lovey. They pounce, Zuzu leaning in too close to press her hands into Sugarplum’s solemn face. The baby protests the release from my hip, reaching for me and hollering over the Quail’s approximations of the words describing her morning:
“Momma. Sleep. Sug. Sleep.” She signs sleep as she says it and pats the air down with her hands indicating they were trying to be quiet while mom and baby slept.
“Maddie. TV. Me. Paa” Indeed, Netflix is set to Zuzu’s latest obsession, My Little Pony and the Ipad shows a handwriting app open to the letter H. Lovey puts aside his laptop and stands up with the baby heading into the kitchen to warm a bottle for her. We trail after him the Quail chanting, “Eat. Drink.”
Sugarplum peeking back at us starts chanting again over his shoulder, “Quail-eee! Quail-eee” now safely up high on perch in his arms to call to her sister without risking being sat on in excited response.
The relationship between these three is something to watch grow. As the baby becomes more verbal, she has managed to learn the Quail’s name before Zuzus. Yet, she often seems understandably more comfortable with Zuzu’s handling of her than her exuberant four-year-old sister’s attempts to “mother”. I would guess it stems from the fact that the two younger girls spend their mornings together when Zuzu and I head out into the day. She physically hears the Quail’s name more frequently than Zuzus, so it comes more easily to her.
Yet there is no denying the bond that threads the triad together. When the Quail first moved into the one-year-old room at her pre-school she started spending her recess time out on the sandy playground just a fence away from her idolized big sister. In turn, Zuzu would frequently bring her own gaggle of girls to the fence and holler for the Quail if she wasn’t immediately there. This group of girls would keep their eye on the Quail and were loud and quick to flag down a teacher at the impending threat of a big kid snatching the Quail’s toy or playing too roughly with her. Often when I would arrive at the end of the day to pick them up my heart would be warmed with stories of how they would hold hands through the fence during their recess-time.
Then one day one of the gaggle girls approached me at pick-up eyeing my very pregnant belly.
“Ms. Cole- what if Zuzu likes the new baby better than the Quail?”
I stared at her silently, reminding myself that this was an innocent only-child’s question. Not something to be read into with a deeper meaning and concern regarding sibling relationships when a disability is involved. This was not a question of the Quail’s worth in our family, the community, our home or this school.
She simply wanted to know if it was possible for one sibling to like another more.
“I don’t know dear. Zuzu loves the Quail AND she’ll love Sugarplum (Zuzu had already named her this by my third trimester). Sometimes sisters get along and sometimes they need some time apart.”
My voice trailed off as the friend raced back to the swings that had opened up and Zuzu came running towards me letting me know which of the therapists visited the Quail that day at school and how she had said hi to them and wanted to know when they could come to babysit her.
This past week though, a new chapter in their story started to unfold mirroring the past. As I stood holding Sugarplum to have her face wiped down her teacher told me how Sugarplum now comes to the fence and hollers “Quail-eeee!” AND “Zuzu!!” until she catches their attention and they run in tandem to her to reach their small hands through the metal into hers.
These girls, they love each other. Their relationship is tender and volatile and intimate and easily taken for granted for now. They don’t question who loves whom best and who can do what. They slow their own pacing naturally to catch each other up in their play. They carry one another, physically and emotionally. They fight. They resist. They love. They depend.
They just are.