The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Every morning except Tuesdays, I have to open the diner. I roll out of bed before dawn and jump into the shower. On the way to work, I often have to turn on my headlights to see the road. When I get there, I unlock the door, turn on the grills, fill bowls with sugar packets and coffee creamers, make two pots of coffee, and wait for the cook and the other waitress to come in. I’ve worked here for five years, ever since I graduated from college.
Nicole, the other waitress, is small and skinny. Before she ties on her apron, she pours herself a cup of coffee and wraps both hands around the cup to warm them up. She has the chills from being hung over; she and her boyfriend go out drinking a lot. She’s invited me to go with them a couple of times, but I’m always too tired.
In college, I used to go out to bars, come home, eat pizza after midnight, watch the late show, and maybe smoke a joint before crawling into bed. Now it’s been years since I’ve stayed up past the eleven o’clock news. I can’t keep my eyes open. It took me four long months to read John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat at the rate of two pages a night. Countless times I’ve awakened on the couch at three in the morning, having fallen asleep in front of the TV. Last month, I watched half of five Alfred Hitchcock films on the old-movie channel.
My sister said I might be depressed, and I said yes, now that she mentioned it, I thought I could be a little down. Perhaps that was the cause of my heavy eyelids. I went to a doctor, who prescribed an antidepressant, but a sticker on the bottle said, MAY CAUSE DROWSINESS, so I never took it.
Tonight, an old friend from college who’s on his way to California dropped by to see if I still live here. I do. Now it’s 5:30 in the morning, and we’re sitting on my roof wrapped in a sleeping bag, laughing at the crows cackling below us. I’m holding an empty bottle of Scotch, and the sky has a gold-and-pink glow to it I’ve never noticed on my early-morning drives to work. The air is damp and cold, but not oppressive. In fact, the chill is uplifting. The world has never looked or felt this way from behind the windshield of my car as I make my way to the diner.
“So, what have you been doing since I saw you last?” my old friend asks for the first time since his arrival.
I laugh loud enough to drown out the noisy crows below.
“Sleeping,” I say.
He laughs, too. We laugh all the way through town, past the diner, up the interstate ramp, and into Ohio. We make it to California the next day.
Old Forge, New York
My years of being a midwife are catching up with me. It’s getting harder to stay awake through the nights of contractions and deep breathing and back rubs. Recently, I fell asleep over the belly of a woman in labor.
The other night at the hospital, I delivered a crying baby boy just before midnight. I was about to head home when one of the nurses stopped me. Her patient was eight months pregnant and giving birth to a dead baby. The doctor had instructed the nurses to induce labor, but he wouldn’t come in to be with the woman through the night. Hearing there was a midwife on the floor, the family had asked if I could stay with them, even though they’d never met me. The insides of my eyelids burned, my muscles ached, and my stomach churned from exhaustion, but I listened to my heart.
When I walked into the birthing room, the bedside table was littered with tissues. I was soon crying with the couple as they wondered how this could be happening — they’d done everything right. We talked about what they’d want to do when the baby came: dress her, hold her, take pictures? When the mother asked for pain medication, we gave her enough to let her doze. We could give nothing to the father to ease his grief.
Finally, these hands, which have eased so many newborns into this world, caught a tiny, perfectly formed girl who didn’t move. It seemed impossible that she wasn’t breathing. But instead of her wail, I heard the parents’ sobs.
I’d attended stillbirths before and knew that parents do whatever they must to cope with their overwhelming grief. Some keep their babies for hours. Others never touch theirs. This family quickly cleaned and dressed their little girl, gave her a name, took footprints and photographs, and then were ready to sleep.
I wasn’t. I couldn’t relinquish this child yet. Carrying her in my arms, I spoke to her and showed everyone how beautiful she was. Only when the sun rose at the edge of a turquoise sky did I fold the blanket over her closed eyes and say goodbye.
My father had Alzheimer’s and a worn-out heart. Though he remained sweet natured and helpful right up until the end, he was completely dependent on my mom. When I stayed with them, I would sometimes wake to hear her talking to him at two, three, or even four in the morning.
A couple of months before my father’s death, my daughter and I stayed at my parents’ house so Mom could get away for an overnight visit — her first break in more than a year. My daughter had spent the past few months in a swamp of adolescent anger and depression that had nearly killed her. We were both under a lot of strain, and on top of it all, I had to prepare for a broken night’s sleep.
Every forty-five minutes or so, my father would get up, shuffle to the kitchen, and then return to ask me if I knew where Mom had gone. Over and over, I explained while he listened patiently with a desolate expression that broke my heart. Once, he asked if she had left because he had done something to make her mad.
Well after midnight, I heard his shuffle again, only this time he didn’t come back. In a sleepy haze, I debated what to do. Could he have fallen without my hearing? I worried he might have locked himself in the bathroom or turned on a burner and then lost track, but I was so tired that I fell asleep without checking.
When I awoke, I headed straight to the kitchen, my stomach churning with guilt and dread. As I approached, I heard murmuring voices. To my astonishment, I found my angst-filled teenage daughter chatting amiably with her demented grandfather at 3 A.M. My daughter’s voice, which lately had been either sneering or sobbing, was relaxed and pleasant.
After that, we all slept until daylight.
As a locomotive engineer, I am on call twenty-four hours a day, 354 days a year. I receive a phone call an hour and a half before I have to be at work and must be prepared to spend anywhere from four to forty-eight hours on the job. I never know for sure when I will be called; the advance work schedule is accurate less than 30 percent of the time.
The company is required to allow train crews eight hours of rest time between trips. This means that, with the hour-and-a-half lead time before the next shift, I have only six and a half hours to take care of any personal obligations and be fully rested for the next trip. I might get home at 10 A.M. after working all night and be called out again at 4:30 P.M. Sometimes I get less than twenty hours of sleep in a five-day period. As a result, my circadian rhythm has been permanently disrupted. I never know what day it is or when I should be sleepy.
Engineers use different methods to stay awake, ranging from the logical to the desperate. If my train is not moving due to gridlock, I read for as long as I can focus on the words. Sometimes I get out and look at the stars and walk up and down the track. The world seems surreal and uninhabited. Often I step out on the nose of the engine and brush my teeth. This tricks my mouth into thinking that it’s morning, and I’m fully awake for about thirty minutes.
When the train is moving, I stand up at the controls and open the window. Sometimes I hang my head out at fifty miles per hour, even when it’s twenty below zero. I’ve watched other engineers eat or chain-smoke for twelve hours straight, or tear their guts up with round-the-clock coffee drinking. They kill themselves to stay awake.
To keep engineers from dozing, the company has installed a safety feature called the “alerter.” Every two minutes, the alerter beeps, and if I don’t press a button to turn it off, the train will go into an emergency stop. But I’ve seen some engineers push the button in their sleep.
Inevitably, I reach a point where I start to experience microsleep: my eyes stay open, but my mind checks out. When I come to, it feels as if only seconds have passed, but my train is miles farther down the rail.
I have one last resort for staying awake. Late at night, when my conductor has fallen asleep and my whole body yearns to give up consciousness, I cry.
Hot Springs, South Dakota
Just after her forty-fourth birthday, my mother was reaching inside her bra to scratch a mosquito bite when she discovered a small, hard lump the size of a chickpea. A month later, her left breast was gone.
Before that, my only memory of my mother’s being sick was the time she’d had the mumps for a week. Now she lay in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of every orifice, her skin a grayish shade of white. Unprepared for the sight of her like this, I left the room and promptly fainted. The nurse found me slumped against the wall outside her door.
Later, the doctor informed us that the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes; with adequate treatment, my mother might survive two and a half years, he said. I lay awake that night and tried to comprehend this new world. I was sixteen — too young to lose my mother.
Nine years later, shortly after my youngest sister graduated from high school, my mother died. In the months prior to her death, we experienced many sleepless nights as her body slowly shut down. For all the pain and grief, those nights were oddly peaceful. I would sit up with my mother and talk about death and about our family’s life together. We would speculate about the future and whether or not we would be able to communicate after she was gone. Those nights were a gift. They infused me with a sense of both God’s infinite love and our own finite nature.
I spent all but an hour and a half of my mother’s last night awake. We had moved her bed into the living room, and a family friend had covered every surface with cut flowers. My father lay beside her with his arm draped over her. She slept peacefully for the first time in weeks. At dawn, my father opened his eyes and looked at me, and as he did, my mother’s last breath escaped with a sigh.
Since then, there have been other times when I have stayed awake all night: a night of dancing and love with the man who would become my husband; a couple of nights when my infant son was terribly ill; the night my daughter was born and I was told that one of her heart valves was not closing up properly; and the night before I was scheduled to have my own lump removed. Such nights remind me to stay awake to life and to savor each and every moment. I am most grateful if I can remember this lesson at five in the afternoon, when the kids are melting down and dinner needs to be made and I am ready to pull my hair out. At those times, if I can, I grab hold of the moment, take a deep breath, and give thanks.
Cheryl Elkins Manter
South Hamilton, Massachusetts
My brother and I shared both a voracious appetite and a propensity to stay up late, so it wasn’t unusual to find us cooking dozens of chocolate-chip cookies or a plate of spaghetti at around midnight.
Our night-owl habits served us well in college, when studying for exams often meant being up all night. I was halfway through my undergraduate degree when our father began chemotherapy. By then, food no longer tasted good to him. Even the smell made him nauseated. He had to force himself to eat.
Late one Saturday night, while procrastinating on our college term papers, my brother and I decided to try a recipe for orange duck. Never mind that we hadn’t made orange duck before, or that it was close to two o’clock in the morning. One trip to the twenty-four-hour supermarket later, and we were lost in the pleasure of preparing an elaborate meal together.
At around 4 A.M., our parents descended the stairs dressed in their pajamas, roused by the aroma of roast duck and vegetables. The four of us savored that meal in the warm kitchen, feeling a stronger sense of communion than we did at our regular meals. It was one of the few times during his three-year ordeal that my father enjoyed his food.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
One of the side effects of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome is the ability to stay awake. Like most people with CFIDS, I have no trouble keeping my eyes open at any hour. A B-movie at 2 A.M.? Bring on the popcorn. Early-morning meteor showers and comets? Pull up a lawn chair. War and Peace? No problem.
I would give up all the movies, meteors, and great literary works, however, for the ability to sleep normally. I long to feel drowsy again, to experience that seductive veil sliding over me and pulling me toward temporary oblivion. I pine for uninterrupted, restorative sleep. I want to awaken after seven hours — seven! — and feel ready for anything, to rejoin the great majority who take for granted this basic human function.
As a Marine Corps infantryman in Vietnam, I spent most of my days on exhausting patrols, carrying a heavy load and hiking long distances in search of the enemy. On patrol, we had to stay aware of any sound or movement, but lack of sleep made this difficult. We couldn’t sleep at night because then, too, we might be caught off guard and killed. We always seemed to get attacked when we were the least prepared for it.
We had to be settled into our night positions by dusk. As darkness fell, everyone memorized the terrain directly in front of him. This way, bushes would not be mistaken for people after it became completely dark. It was also important not to stare directly at an object in the dark, because it would appear to move. You had to look slightly to the left or right to tell if it was really moving. The main rules were: stay awake; always listen for movement; take only catnaps; sleep in two-hour shifts; and don’t let your guard down even for a minute.
These nights, when I go to bed, I lie awake and listen to my wife’s breathing and the night sounds. Sometimes I have to shut the bedroom windows to keep from listening for the sound of footsteps in the jungle or a tin can clanking on barbed wire.
I learned my lessons well in Vietnam. I only wish I could forget them now and sleep like a normal person.
At three in the morning, I’m awakened by the neighbors’ dogs yapping beneath the bedroom window. Before long, they’ve got all the other dogs in the neighborhood going. Even the coyotes are yipping up in the hills, sounding like babies wailing. I feel as if I’m living inside a kennel. Jesus, I need some sleep.
I toss and turn in my lonely king-sized bed, listening to hear if my husband has been disturbed in the other room. He is awakened easily by my snoring, which is why he moved to a different bedroom— three years ago. But his benadryl seems to be working this morning, and he doesn’t stir.
Lying here, I think of my husband’s impotence (Viagra hasn’t worked) and our long separation of sorts. We are like brother and sister living together in the same house: good, dear friends, but . . .
I remember my first boyfriend, and how we used to drive off on a date sitting so close we were like Siamese twins: his sporty red car speeding past Illinois alfalfa fields that smelled like heaven, my hair (not gray, but burnished red) flying behind me, and his strong farmer’s arm around my shoulder, fingers reaching toward my breast.
I count the barks of the yappy dog two houses down. I love dogs, but at this very moment, I would like to shoot all the barkers dead.
I could do a rosary while I’m lying here. My priest friend gave me a rosary he brought back from the Holy Land, right after I told him I didn’t feel very Catholic anymore. I’m fed up with the Church’s male-chauvinist, patriarchal attitude — the way it won’t let women read the Gospel during Mass, much less become priests.
I could read the book on my nightstand: Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde. Now that my husband and I have separate bedrooms, I can read anytime I want, turn on the lights, dance naked — he wouldn’t know. Not that he’d care, anyway.
I should get up and write. I’m in the middle of a dark short story I’ve been thinking about all summer. Now summer’s almost over. Another teaching year looms: more college kids to nurse through four major essays. They do all right on the narratives, but when it comes to the argumentative essay, they backslide. They don’t know much about the world, don’t even listen to the news. Most of them wind up arguing that if they’re old enough to go to war, they’re old enough to drink. I should give it up, quit teaching. Life goes by so fast — except right now, with the dogs.
I wonder what it would have been like to be on the Concorde that crashed in France. Now, that was fast. The news said it took two minutes. I count to sixty twice; it takes a surprisingly long time. My chest tightens, and I break into a sweat. I push off the blanket. I imagine being happy one moment and part of a pile of smoldering rubble the next. What would go through my head as the plane went down?
I should adopt a child. I know I’m too old to adopt and my husband would never go for it, but I can’t stand to think of those Russian children in those nasty orphanages. I picture an emaciated little skeleton of a kid with lonely eyes, shriveling in his horrible crib. I want to reach down and whisk him away from that stinking place. My heart hurts.
Will I ever be a grandmother? My daughter is a lesbian who wears black lipstick and dyes her hair purple. My son is a cynic who says he’s for zero population growth, and his wife agrees with everything he says. Both my kids are thousands of miles away. My daughter cleans houses. She says her employers love her when she first comes into their messy homes; then they begin to take her for granted; then they start to resent paying her. My son’s in computers and makes tons of money, but he can’t come for a visit because he’s “too busy.”
When they were both teens, I’d lie awake waiting to hear them come home at night. Every siren I heard till they returned cut me to ribbons. Then, once they were asleep, I’d check for the tops of their heads sticking out from the covers and think how like eggshells they were.
My girlfriend and I lived on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac and stayed awake for days and weeks at a time, absolutely out of our minds on crystal meth. Between the drugs and the sleep deprivation, we soon slipped into paranoid delusions.
We kept our curtains shut tight, thumbtacked at the corners so that nobody could peek in, and rarely turned on any lights, if ever. The heat-and air-conditioning ducts were stuffed with blankets and newspapers, in case the feds dropped a microphone into the house that way. I even taped over the digital clocks on the VCR and the microwave so that a sniper wouldn’t see them wink out when my body passed in front of them.
One evening, as I was peeking around the curtains into the backyard, I saw a cop sneak over the fence and peer at me from behind some foliage. My gut wrenched, and my eyes jigged around in my head like pinballs. Part of me knew there wasn’t anyone there, but he seemed so real. I could even see the star sewn on his cap. He watched me for a while, then crept back over the fence.
Filled with an animal rage, I got out my shotgun and loaded it. Outside, I crept around the backyard and looked over the fence. My neighbors were having a barbecue on their back porch: Mom, Dad, and their two young children. I leveled my shotgun at them and said, “I know you motherfuckers are working with the cops, and if I ever see you on my property, I’ll kill you.” I truly meant it. My neighbors never called the cops or said a word to me about the incident.
Another night, I stood in the middle of the street watching about thirty different figures moving all around me: cops peeking out from behind cars, FBI agents behind bushes, spies on the rooftops, SWAT teams in the trees. On some level, I knew that my mind was deceiving me, but a deeper voice told me that at least one of those shadows had to be real.
My girlfriend began to fear me. She hid the gun. I got long butcher knives from the kitchen instead. They were better anyway, because they could kill without a sound. At three or four in the morning, I’d creep across my front lawn toward the bushes. I’d crouch in the darkness, feet apart, knife held low, and wait for one of the five or six cops in the bushes to move. I could stay like that for hours. I thank God nobody was really there, because I would surely have killed someone. On many occasions, I’d still be there at dawn when my neighbors came out to warm up their cars. After they saw me standing on my lawn with my knives, I would have to go back inside.
Crescent City, California
As a teenager, I used to stay at my father’s run-down apartment on weekends, before he moved out of state and out of my life. He’d cook for me — pork chops with Heinz 57 sauce, or cube steak with Heinz 57 sauce, or grilled chicken with Heinz 57 sauce — and we’d watch B-movies late into the night. I loved those times we spent together, just the two of us, before my father became the man he is now.
I got my first glimpse of that man when I was fourteen. My father went out for the evening and left me at home watching TV. Ten o’clock passed. Eleven o’clock. Midnight. I had to get up to sell Sunday papers at the church the next morning, but still I waited for him to return.
At two o’clock, I started imagining what might have happened to my father. I pictured car accidents and parking-lot stabbings. I saw my father’s bloody body laid out on a gurney in an emergency room. Alone and terrified, I began dialing every hospital in the county. No one had seen my father. I called the police department, but they couldn’t help me either.
When my father staggered in the next morning, he found me at the kitchen table in a terrible state. He chuckled, put on some coffee, and drove me to the church. He didn’t understand why I’d worried. It would be another fifteen years before I learned to stop.
My watch said 4:38 A.M. as I drove into a forty-mile stretch of woods: no farms, no houses, no stores — nothing but black forest between me and the restaurant I was scheduled to open.
Three nights before, I’d left my husband of sixteen months, and now I was staying with a friend, Abigail, who lived forty miles from my home — and my job. For two nights in a row, Abigail and I had stayed up all night talking. Nevertheless, I’d gone to work the day before, and now, after a shower and a Coke, I was doing it again.
My eyes stung as if a thousand needles were stabbing them. I’d been awake so long, I’d stopped yawning. (I never knew that could happen, but it did.) I knew that deer often jumped into this road, causing serious wrecks. But I never expected anything like what I saw next.
I was going about sixty when a huge black box appeared in the middle of the road. I slammed the brakes and skidded. I could still smell burned rubber when I realized the “box” was actually a flat patch of black asphalt on the faded gray road. I took a deep breath and kept driving.
A few minutes later, a man jumped in front of my car. I screamed and hit the brakes, sending my back end fishtailing. The “man” turned out to be a bush growing into the shoulder.
After poking along for a few miles, I accelerated again and relaxed my death grip on the steering wheel. My vision went in and out of focus. I shook my head to clear it. I should’ve stopped driving, but I was terrified of sleeping alone in my car. Driving back would’ve meant covering just as many miles of black woods as driving forward. I saw no alternative but to keep on.
I slammed on the brakes for another box — and another, and another. I knew ten-foot-tall boxes scattered on the road were an unlikely proposition, but somehow I couldn’t force myself to keep driving when I saw one. Three more “men” jumped in front of my car. Would my brakes survive this trip? Would I?
The most frightening apparition of all was of a baby scrambling under my tires. Seconds after I stopped, the “baby” turned back into a dead raccoon.
I didn’t feel safe until I pulled into town and was surrounded by lights, stores, buildings — and real people. I worked at the restaurant until three. By then, I was dizzy and sick to my stomach. The adrenaline I had been living on was all used up. I quit my job and set out on the return trip to Abigail’s apartment.
I didn’t want to drive back over the same road, but with less than sixty dollars in my pocket and no job, a motel was not an option. My own bed, only five miles away, was not an option, either. Not anymore.
To stay awake, I sang every song I could remember, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I fell asleep at the wheel just as I got into Abigail’s town. One moment, I was driving in the left lane, and the next thing I knew, I was in the right lane several miles farther down the road. That scared me enough that I got to my friend’s house awake and alive. I slept for seventeen hours. I’d made it.
I was raising two babies, going to graduate school in the afternoons, and working third shift at an answering service. By the time I sat down to work at 10 P.M. on Saturday, I could barely muster enough energy to put on my headset. I worked alone, and by 2 A.M., I was often taking catnaps between calls. Luckily, whenever a call came in, the computer would beep loudly and startle me awake.
Most of the service’s clients were psychiatrists, many of whom had psychotic or disturbed patients who called the service repeatedly throughout the day, seeking help from their doctors. One such patient was known to our staff simply as “Mike.” A young professional pianist, Mike had attempted to kill both his mother and himself by various bizarre means and was now on Dr. P.’s “never call me for this patient” list.
One night at 2:45 A.M., a call came in on Dr. P.’s line. It was Mike. I advised him that his doctor was not available, and Mike calmly advised me that he was holding a handful of sleeping pills and would ingest them if I didn’t contact Dr. P. immediately. Unconvinced, I stuck to the doctor’s instructions, hoping that Mike was merely being melodramatic — again.
At 4 A.M., Mike called back, his speech considerably slurred this time. Believing he had indeed taken the pills and would soon be dead, I panicked and called Dr. P., who thoroughly reprimanded me for having disturbed him at home about Mike, even under such circumstances. The doctor hung up.
Alone on the line with Mike, I began to talk with him: about his life, his music, his girlfriends — anything to keep him awake. He seemed to respond positively. Whenever another call came in, he made me promise to come back on the line. After a few hours, Mike walked to his piano and played a song he said he had just written. I was impressed and wondered how such a talented person could also be so tortured.
Mike and I talked until my shift was over at 10 A.M. Before we hung up, he thanked me for helping him make it through to morning. I’d had no trouble staying awake that night.
Judith E. Smith
When I was a child, one of my greatest pleasures was reading. I joined reading clubs at the library and read as I walked to and from the school bus, tripping the whole way. On Saturdays, I stayed in bed with a book straight through into the afternoon. Late at night, I lay on the side of the bed that received light from the hallway and held the book just so, staying awake to read even after my parents had gone to sleep.
Now I’m a parent myself. My oldest is seven, and this summer she gave all her picture books to her younger brother and announced that she would read only chapter books from now on. The other night, she was immersed in a book at bedtime and asked my permission to continue reading. I left the light on but admonished her not to stay up too late. Then I went to bed with my own book and read for several hours.
Around 11:30, I was startled by the sound of footsteps in the hallway. My daughter peeked into my bedroom, looking tired but happy. “Look how much I read!” she said triumphantly, holding her book out to me.
“You’re still up?” I said. “It’s late! You need to go to bed.”
“But this book is so good,” she told me. “Can’t I keep reading it in your room?”
Of course I consented. She climbed into my bed and settled in next to me, and we stayed awake reading, side by side. I consider it one of my finest moments as a parent.
At the monastery in Thailand, the daily regimen began at 3 A.M. and alternated between periods of silent sitting and walking meditation until 11 P.M. — only four hours’ sleep! I was determined to stay awake and keep to the schedule.
At night, I lay on a thin woven mat in my elevated meditation hut in the jungle. Even with my entire stock of robes wrapped around me, the cold penetrated to my bones. The shrill hooting of owls and the occasional chatter of the foot-long gecko behind my shutters interrupted my sleep.
When it was light enough that I could see the lines on the palm of my hand, I formally donned my robes and wandered barefoot along the forest paths and then the dirt roadway to the nearby village to beg for my daily meal. The poor villagers near the Kampuchean border offered me taro, sticky rice, ground-up meat with flecks of green in it, and the occasional black, barbecued frog, splayed out as if it had been run over by a truck. I ate as much as I could. It would be my only meal for the next twenty-four hours.
By 8:30 A.M., I had finished eating, and the sun was scorching. For the next couple of hours, to ward off dozing while my stomach digested the heavy meal, I stood in the shade under my elevated hut. The flies crawled along my bare calves and feet, and whenever their movement distracted me, I flicked them off with a small hand towel. The discomfort of standing for hours kept me barely awake.
Once, distracted from my inner terrain by an unfamiliar sensation, I opened my eyes to discover a fat, four-foot-long snake gliding over my feet. Needless to say, I was instantly awake, and my drowsiness didn’t fully return until I reached Bangkok some months later.
I could never stand to hear my babies cry when I put them down to sleep. Instead, I chose to let them suckle at my breast until they dozed off; only then did I leave their sides. I kept up this bedtime ritual over the years, and now I’m tickling the backs of two small boys while they nestle into their pillows.
It’s hard to stay awake until the kids are asleep. By the end of the day, I am so tired that sleep beckons me like a lover, whispering in my ear. But I can’t give in: the happiness of my marriage is at stake. After the children go to bed is the only time my husband and I have to be together — to talk about our day, watch movies, or make love without having to lock ourselves in our room. And so I shake my feet, drum my fingers, blink my eyelids, sing songs inside my head — anything to stave off sleep.
Sometimes I lose the battle and leave my husband waiting impatiently in the living room. In the morning, I awake feeling guilty, hoping that he will not be irritated. Before we had children, I could never have imagined that his biggest competitor for my attentions would be sleep.
Gianna De Persiis Vona
When I jerk awake, my first thought, even though I have dozed for only a couple of minutes, is that she has died. Then I hear my mother’s soft snore, the familiar rattle she emits with each breath, and I know she is still with us.
On the floor a few feet away, my brother Frank is snoring, too, curled up in a fetal position on top of his sleeping bag. For the past two nights, Frank and I have slept — if you can call this sleeping — in the living room where her bed is set up. Now, somehow, I know that this is the night she will leave this world, and I cannot bear the thought of her dying with no one awake to witness it. So I am sitting up in her orange swivel chair, hoping a vertical posture will keep me from sleep.
I glance at the clock on the mantel above the imitation fireplace: 3 A.M. My eyes feel like sandpaper. I prop my forefingers under my eyebrows to help me stay awake. On the floor, Frank shifts position. I wish he would wake up and talk to me. But he is exhausted, too. I let him sleep.
At four o’clock, she starts to moan: an eerie uh, uh, uh that raises goose bumps on my arms. Is she hurting? I pull her nightgown away from her chest and place another Fentanyl patch on her. Then I wet her lips with a sponge and rearrange the blanket around her legs. She is so thin that her knees look like doorknobs. I mentally count the days she has been without food: Five? Six? This bothers me, even though Lisa, the nurse, has assured us that she no longer desires food. I begin to cry — out of frustration and fatigue. “Please take her,” I whisper in the darkened room. “She’s only suffering now.” I pull her nightgown back up around her shoulders, slip my hand into hers, then lean back in my chair. Only when I feel her hand begin to slip from mine do I realize that I’ve dozed off again.
It has been raining throughout the night. I hear raindrops tap against the air-conditioning window unit. Frank said last week that he intended to take it out — or was it yesterday? I can no longer think, I’m so exhausted. Frank stirs again. This time he wakes. It is five after seven. Certain that he is going to get up, I close my eyes — just for a second.
Frank’s deep voice wakes me. “Lyla,” he says, and I hear the urgency in his tone. When I get up, he is pulling the blanket up under her chin, tucking it there, as if she is only sleeping. “It’s over,” he says. “Let’s go sit on the porch.”
I walk numbly out to the stoop. Frank sits down on one of the broken concrete steps and lights a cigarette. Then, remembering that Lisa asked us to note the time of our mother’s death, he checks his watch: “Seven-ten.” I start to tremble. Soon I am crying — deep, wrenching sobs that consume my entire body. I fell asleep for only five minutes. That’s when she slipped away.
Mourning doves started singing at 3:50 this morning. Then the robins, chickadees, and wrens joined in. Now dogs bark, a bike whizzes by, a train rumbles and whistles through the quiet of dawn. The air is crisp and delicious. I sit in bed, propped up on pillows, and surrender to the forces that pull me from my rest night after night. What was I fighting for? What a beautiful time to be awake!
And then I ask myself: When isn’t it a beautiful time to be awake?
Stevens Point, Wisconsin
My wife, Lori Irving, wrote but did not send the following letter. The health problems she speaks of led to her death on April 29, 2001. Our baby was born by Caesarean section that same day, but died one day later. I came across Lori’s letter while going through her computer files. I am sending it to you here to let you know how much The Sun meant to her.
I read the Readers Write on “Staying Awake” [February 2001] during an all-night stay at the emergency room for “idiopathic atrial fibrillation” (irregular heartbeat of unknown origin). I am six months pregnant, and, needless to say, it was frightening to be alone and to ruminate on what was wrong with me and how my health problem might harm my baby. Lying amid delirious accident victims, asthmatics with hacking coughs, and cancer patients with oozing surgical scars, I found it hard to keep my mind from wandering to terrifying places.
In the midst of all this chaos, I read The Sun. After finishing “Staying Awake,” I clutched the magazine to my pregnant belly and felt thankful to be connected to this unique community of readers and writers. Over the years, The Sun has become more to me than just a magazine. It’s an umbilical cord linking me to others who think about and embrace the entire range of human experience — joy and sadness, hope and despair, love and heartbreak, aloneness and connectedness.
I am not writing to thank the editor or acknowledge a particular writer, but to reach out to this community of souls and say thank you — for keeping me company, and for helping me to feel good about the beauty and the ugliness of lying alone in the fluorescent light of an emergency room at four in the morning. I was frightened and alone, but with The Sun in hand, those feelings were tolerable, even desirable, as they are a part of the experience of being fully human.
Since Lori’s death, I have begun to read The Sun, and I enjoy it very much. Not only do I appreciate the contents, but it reminds me of her.