by Jim Bates
I’ll be the first to admit that I should probably do a better job staying in touch with my siblings. I’m the oldest after all, and Mom instilled in me from an early age that I should, as she put it many, many times while we were growing up, “Always watch out for your brothers and sisters. They look up to you, you know.”
Well, maybe in Mom’s world they did, but in real life there was not even the faintest pretense of looking up. We fought most of the time and didn’t have a lot of love lost between us. Something that has mitigated only slightly over time. So, I might be excused when it comes to staying in better touch with them.
But my littlest brother, Russ, well, there was something there. We are close. It’s a bond that’s stayed with us our entire lives. Maybe it’s because I once almost killed him.
Not on purpose, of course, but I take full responsibility for what happened. That summer I was eight and Russ was a two-year-old bundle of energy getting into everything and making life challenging for my mom and dad and a pain in the ass for the rest of us.
“Make sure you watch out for little Russ,” she told me time and time again.
“Right, Mom,” I said, feeling I should snap a salute. I was already looking after six-year-old Allie, five-year-old Jarvis and three-year-old Gwen. What was one more?
But it was summertime and I was a kid. When was I supposed to have any fun? At least I had my coin collection. I’d been collecting nickels ever since I’d gotten a collecting book from my uncle that previous Christmas. It was blue and had slots for nickels that you’d fill. It was fun. I’d go to the bank with my hard-earned money made from shoveling our neighbor’s sidewalk during the winter or mowing their lawn during the summer, hand over two dollars, and bingo! I’d come home with a roll of forty nickels to add to my collection.
I usually kept it hidden under the mattress of my bed, but on that day, I must have inadvertently left it out.
I heard Mom screaming all the way from the backyard where I was playing on the swing set with Allie and Jarvis and Gwen. “My, god! Russ ate the coins!”
Oh, oh. I knew right away what she was getting at. I wanted to run away, but made myself run inside instead.
I burst into the kitchen,” What’s up?”
Mom slapped me on the back of the head. “Don’t play ‘what’s up?’ with me, young man. Why weren’t you watching your brother?” She pointed at Russ, sitting on the kitchen floor, grinning and patting his stomach. He looked fine to me. “Russ swallowed your coins,” Mom repeated.
I made a snap decision not to argue with her about he was supposed to have been taking a nap in their bedroom. He must have gotten up and started wandering around the house. How was I supposed to know? But right now didn’t seem like the right time to debate the issue.
Instead, I went for conciliatory. “Geez, Mom. I’m sorry,” I told her. I really was. I didn’t mind my little brother all that much. In general, he was pretty easy to take care of. He’d apparently toddled into the kitchen grasping a handful of my coins. Mom had pried them out of his fat fingers and assumed the worst; that he’d eaten some. That’s when I’d heard her screams.
I knelt down, smiled, and said, “Hi, buddy.” He seemed fine to me. He was barefoot, wearing a pair of red shorts and a white tee-shirt with Bugs Bunny on it. He grinned at me and sputtered something. Then he frowned and started coughing. Then he threw up.
Mom picked him up and ran of the kitchen yelling over her shoulder, “You take care of the kids. I’m taking him to the hospital.” She gave me a withering look. “Don’t screw up!”
I was horrified at what I’d done and actually felt like I was going to throw up. But I didn’t Instead, I watched as she loaded Russ into the baby seat of the old Plymouth and pealed out of the driveway. I ran back to the swing set where my brother and sisters were still playing and herded them inside. None of them had any idea of the tragedy that had just occurred with Russ, but I certainly did. I kid you not, the two hours between when Mom left and when she came home were the longest of my life. I thought for sure he’d die. And if he died, I thought for sure I’d go to jail, at least, if not prison. I got my siblings playing in the living room while I sat glued to the front window. Along with watching my brother and sisters, of course.
When Mom pulled into the driveway and carried Russ inside, I started crying. I’d never been so happy in my life. I wasn’t going to jail!! Oh, yeah, I was happy he was still alive, too.
Mom set Russ down at the kitchen table with a bowl of ice cream. “It’s for his throat,” she told me. “They had to pump his stomach.”
She gave me a bowl as well and sat down with me and Russ. “I know it’s hard,” she told me, mussing up my hair. “Thank you.” I have to say, that ice cream tasted good on my throat, too.
The image of my brother lying on a table in the hospital with a thick rubber hose jammed down his throat while someone pumped a bellows of some sort has stayed with me my entire life, even though I’m pretty sure it was less invasive. Pretty sure. Honestly, I never asked.
I paid special attention to Russ from then. Probably initially from guilt, because, like Mom continued to remind me, my little brother easily could have died. But then I got so I liked him. He had a good sense of humor and was pretty funny. He had a pleasant disposition and was easy to be around. I did things with him like play catch, and when he was older, I taught him to ride a bike. He liked to read and so did I.
So, it didn’t turn out too bad. In fact, a few years after the coin incident we started collecting stamps together. They were a lot safer than coins, and Mom was all for it.
“Eat as many as you want,” I’d tell him, sitting at the kitchen table sorting out a new bundle of stamps. We’d laugh.
But the day of the coins will always live on in our family. When Russ tells the story, he always makes sure to add, “To be honest, they didn’t taste too bad,” he tells anyone who will listen. “Kind of metallic, though. If you know what I mean.”
Sometimes, I’m the only one who laughs at his joke. Maybe people are getting tired of it. After all, it happened twenty-eight years ago. Or, maybe it’s from a long-held sense of relief that things turned out okay that day when he swallowed those nickels. All I know is that he’s alive and we get along great and that’s what matters. Plus, no matter what anyone says, I still think he’s kind of funny.