by Sheri White
When I was ten and my brother David was six, we were at a neighborhood kid’s house one summer afternoon. We all gravitated to one kid’s house almost every day; today it was John’s back yard. He was just a little older than I was, and we went to the same elementary school.
A bunch of us were running around, playing tag or just blowing off steam. I heard my little brother scream, and then cry. I ran over to David and found him sitting on a pile of old, dirty, brittle leaves. Blood puddles formed under his left leg, seeping through his fingers as he held onto his foot tightly.
David was finally able to tell me, in between hitching sobs, that he had stepped on something sharp. I looked around and spied a rusty nail sticking pointy-side-up through the leaves. I pushed them aside and found the nail in an old piece of plywood.
John had run with me to see what had happened to my brother. He looked at the rusty nail and my brother’s punctured bloody foot, then, with all the confidence of a doctor giving bad news, said, “Oh, man. Your brother’s gonna die.”
You see, according to Doctor John, the rust was going to get into my brother’s blood, infecting it, then pump up to his brain, killing him.
This sounded plausible to me, so I went into freak-out mode.
“How long will it take?” I asked.
“Well, he’s still a little kid, so it won’t take too long for the rust to reach his brain.” Doctor John tilted his head and looked my brother up and down. “Maybe a couple weeks?”
David was still crying, but quieter, without the hitching sobs. He never heard the conversation between John and me, thankfully. I loved my brother, of course, even though he could be a pain in the ass. What little brother wasn’t? Still, I didn’t want him to die.
However, all I could think about was how much trouble I was going to be in for. I mean, I was responsible for David while my mother worked. And I had been having too much fun with my friends to pay attention to what David was doing. Now he would be dead soon, and it was all my fault.
John ran into his house and brought me Band-Aids and wet paper towels. I cleaned and bandaged my brother’s foot as best I could, murmuring comforting words, my mind racing the entire time. Not only had I not paid attention to him, but I also let him run around barefoot because he didn’t want to put on his shoes and I wanted to go play with my friends.
I tried to figure out how to handle the situation. Getting a grown-up to help was out of the question back then, and most parents were working anyway. By this time, David was playing again, as if the wound never happened. But it did, and it was going to kill him, and he had no idea.
I wondered if I should do the brave thing and tell my mother how I failed the responsibility she had trusted to me and as a result she was going to lose her only little boy soon. If I told her, maybe she could somehow save him. Maybe take him to the hospital? She’d still be mad at me, and probably even more angry she had to deal with this after working all day. At the least, I’d have to listen attentively while nodding in appreciation as she used her fingers to tick off everything she did for me. That was familiar; I could deal with it.
This was bad, though. If David died, a lecture wouldn’t be punishment enough. What was the punishment for something like this?
Oh. Jail. The realization hit me in the pit of my stomach as I watched my brother like a hawk. I teared up thinking about it. Who would take care of my kitty? Would my mother get rid of my Barbie stuff and all my books so she wouldn’t have to look at them and think of the horrible thing I’d done?
Eventually the streetlights began to glow as it got darker, so we all went home.
David chatted the entire ten-minute walk home about how much fun he had. I didn’t pay attention (again—see, I really was an awful big sister!); I just got more scared every step closer to our house. We got to the front door, and I made the only decision I could—cowardice. I didn’t tell my mother what had happened that day. It was too much for me, only ten years old, to handle.
I decided I would just keep an eye on David and his foot. If he got sick or something, I could feign ignorance and tell my mother he should go to the doctor. I would call her at work, and she would be in such a hurry to get home she probably wouldn’t even think I had anything to do with his illness.
We went inside to greet her and ate dinner at our small kitchen table. Later I went to bed and fell asleep quickly, exhausted from the day’s events and knowing the next two weeks were going to be awful and stressful.
My brother didn’t die, of course.
As an adult I know about vaccines, and once I became a mom, I knew when children got them. David and I had been inoculated against tetanus and other nasty things all throughout our childhoods.
If I had known then about tetanus and vaccines, I wouldn’t have spent two weeks of summer break hoping David wouldn’t die.
But I still wouldn’t have told my mother that my neglect in watching my brother caused him to get hurt.
We were latchkey kids in the early 1970s, and it just wasn’t done.
Actually, I was babbling, “Don’t tell Mom! You’re fine! Please don’t say anything!" ↩︎
Sheri lives in Jefferson, Maryland with her husband Chris, their daughter Lauren, their three black cats (Lucy, Sadie, and Vlad), and two dogs (Dobie and Josie). Their other daughters Sarah and Becca fled the scene last year.