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Receiving Bella

The real menace in dealing with a five-year-old is that in no time at all you begin to sound like a five-year-old. —Joan Kerr

Bella approached the refrigerator with cautious curiosity. “Are you thirsty, honey?” I asked. The little blond head at my hip nodded. I opened the fridge, and Bella scanned the shelves for something familiar.

“Do you have any juice?” she asked.

“No,” I said, thinking, At least not any that hasn’t been fermented. On the top shelf were two cans of Guinness (leftover ingredients from David’s “Guinness Punch,” a Jamaican drink he’d made for St. Patrick’s Day — Guinness, sweetened condensed milk, and cinnamon), a bottle of rosé frizzante, and… I perked up when I noticed the red-and-white carton of milk. I looked to my charge. “Here’s the deal — I can offer you water or milk.” Bella opted for water. I asked, “Chilled or room temperature?”

“What’s room temperature?”

I opened my mouth, but, realizing I didn’t have a ready answer, let it fall slack for a moment. “It’s, like, well, you know how it feels in the room right now? That’s room temperature. You can have water that feels like the room or cold water from the fridge.” I cringed at my ineloquence, but Bella didn’t seem to notice. When I finished blabbering on about the spectrum from warm to cold, she selected room temperature, probably because she liked the way the words sounded.

I chose a DVD from a box set of Looney Tunes and popped it into the player. “You sit right here, Bella. I’m just going to check on something real quick.” While Bella giggled at Daffy Duck’s beak being blown off by Elmer Fudd’s shotgun, I fetched my laptop from the other room.

On the few occasions I’d watched my niece in the past, it had been at my sister’s place — where Bella’s toys, costumes, and books live, a home in which the possibilities for play are endless. Having the child at my place was as awkward as Bill O’Reilly at a gay-pride festival. A few minutes before my mother deposited Bella in my living room, I’d hopped onto Twitter and asked for suggestions for how to entertain a five-year-old. Now, after ten minutes of showing her the terrace, allowing her to run up and down the stairs, and pointing out the hundred or so things she could not touch, I needed those responses. Reading the first reply, my brows furrowed: “Candy Land. Ponies. Sticker books.” Not here. The second one seemed more plausible: “Dress up.” But Bella had not been interested in my feathers. One tip — printing coloring pages from the web — sounded perfect until I remembered I didn’t have any crayons.

I was just about to break out my makeup collection when Bella, already tired of Bugs Bunny’s shenanigans, skipped over to the counter and picked up my iPhone. “Can I take pictures, Aunt Bob?”

“Sure, honey. You know how? Oh, wait, never mind, that’s right, Uncle David showed you.” I turned on the phone, pressed the camera icon, and handed it over. “Just give it right back to me if it rings, okay? Mommy might try to call.” I could have kicked myself for that last sentence.

Bella’s entire demeanor changed. Her shoulders slumped forward, and her little blond brows came together. Finally, she looked up at me. “Olivia had to go to the hospital. What’s wrong with her?”

“Olivia’s fine, sweetie,” I said. “It’s just that, well…” I wasn’t about to explain “febrile seizure” to a five-year-old when I barely understood it myself. Comprehension may not have been attainable, but comfort was. “Some babies, when they get fevers, react differently than other babies. The same thing happened to Aunt Jenny when she was your sister’s age, and Aunt Jenny is just fine now. Olivia will be too.”

Bella nodded and set off on a photo-taking expedition. As the artist captured every nook of my condo, I considered how horrific it must have been for Jane when her feverish two-year-old had a seizure in her arms. I imagined the distress on my sister’s face when Bella refused to get in the ambulance, the agony over having to make a snap decision between forcing Bella to come along or leaving her with one of the handful of neighbors who, upon hearing the sirens, had rushed over to see what was going on.

My father was 31 when his baby girl (my sister Jenny) had a seizure in his arms. At the time, we lived on a tiny island 1200 miles out in the Aleutians, off the coast of Alaska. My mom, who was 28, had to choose with whom to leave three daughters while she and my dad accompanied their two-year-old to the mainland. Jenny had slipped into a coma and would not come out of it for two weeks. While all this was going on, my biggest stress was being forced to eat peas and drink milk, resenting my parents for leaving me with “monsters” who insisted on a balanced diet. Now, as an adult, my heart goes out to the young parents who had to leave most of their children behind in order to save their youngest.

I was relieved that my niece’s condition was less critical than my sister’s ailment had been (encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, as the result of a mosquito bite). From the ambulance, Jane had called Mom, who called me, after which I’d called Simon, who left work to join his wife and daughter at the hospital. Mom was on her way to a meeting and had just enough time to collect Bella from the neighbor and bring her to me. I’d have gotten her myself, but David had the car.

Bella returned to my side and handed me the phone. “Are you hungry, hon?” She nodded. Again, I opened the fridge, and she stood beside me. Hummus, jam, eggs, canned tuna, yogurt, jars of condiments, and something in a plastic bag. I picked up the bag. “Have you ever had Hungarian sausage?” Bella shook her head. “Well, you’re in for a treat!” I laid out four crackers and cut four slices of the skinny sausage. Bella took a seat, and I placed the food on a napkin before her. “And as dessert, you can have this very special dark chocolate that you get to unwrap yourself.”

Bella daintily laid a slice of sausage on a cracker, took a bite, then sat back in her chair and looked around the room. Nothing, I would think, to hold the attention of a child — sharp edges and hardwood, things hanging on walls that you’re not allowed to touch. Finally, Bella’s eyes came to rest on my face. “I like coming here,” she said.

“That makes me happy, Bella Boo.” I realized, once the words were out of my mouth, what a gross understatement it was. Truth was, I couldn’t remember a time I’d felt so relieved.

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