THE huge room is partitioned like a corporate maze, but the colors and sounds are different. Crying, shouting, laughing, and singing bounce off the bright red walls and green dividers. The volunteer coordinator guides me past children sleeping, playing, squabbling, and eating to Pod 2.
``Somebody here to help you with the babies this afternoon,'' she tells Rachel, who is changing a diaper, heating a bottle, and talking to a crying child in a nearby crib. As soon as one baby is clean, Rachel's assistant hands her another newly wakened child. I walk among the cribs as Rachel croons a different song to each child while she freshens them. I reach out to the groggy little ones, marveling at the silken surrender of their small hands, marveling that their cheerfully patterned clothes look like the ones my daughters, now teenagers, wore when they were young.
For weeks, I have been dreaming of rocking a child to sleep, of sinking into a chair with the comforting weight of a child resting heavy upon me. But these children want to play. I sit on the floor and acquaint myself with the sturdy colorful squeak, punch, bang, and twirl of toys. Hands clutch, noses run, mouths constantly need something to teeth on, and legs bend and buckle. I let myself be surrounded, climbed over, crawled up. I help wobbly legs stand. I hold the squirmy, sad children and distract the discontented ones. At first I feel the minutes moving slowly, and then I am submerged in a timeless world of crawling, touching, tasting, sitting, and falling, each motion an event, each child an individual to be known.
Latrelle moves only when Rachel is nearby. He crawls rapidly to her. ``You have to watch that you don't get them too used to being held,'' she tells me. ``Sometimes I have 10 at once and they all need something.''
Like me, Rachel has her own older children at home. Like me, Rachel has strong daughters who dart into arms for a quick hug, then are off in the world.
Rachel picks up Denise to change her, another of the 30 or so diapers she will change that day. She heats another bottle and says, ``When they get older, they move over to Pod 3. So I can't get too attached to them.''
Already, I am attached to Damon's impish sense of humor. I admire the emerald-colored earrings in Teresha's ears. Elizabeth grabs toys she can chew on. Conn watches everything, then pounces. Some of these children have a hard home life, Rachel tells me. Sometimes a social worker instead of their mother brings them to day care. ``Then I know they've had a bad night, and I take extra care of them,'' Rachel says.
I look at their freshness, their fragility, and don't want to imagine the details of that difficult life. Yet I can't escape their wide eyes and watchful ways. Why have I taken an afternoon off work to sit on the floor and play with babies? I want to nurture in a way I cannot with my own growing children.
In the field of mocha, tan, and ivory faces, among these children with wisps of long brown hair, red and fierce black curls, I shed my personas. I am merely someone to hold them, someone with a soft voice and loving hands, focused entirely on then.
Though I am different from these children - taller, more self-conscious, my words and movements more fluid, my needs more articulated and lofty - I am also the same. I hold these children tenderly, feel their power and their frailness. We are linked by the sounds of hunger, by tiredness, desire, and wonder. We are linked by our deep unspoken need to reach out and connect.