Sometimes in the night…
February 10, 2011 § 11 Comments
My ability to go from deep sleep to fully awake without transition is an artifact of waking many times a night when my baby cried, or even stirred. A new mother, I erred on the side of caution, sure it was my watchfulness that kept her safe.
My daughter is long grown but I still go, from deep sleep to wide awake in the time it takes to open my eyes.
Sometimes wakefulness is prompted by a sound. It is no longer the cry of a baby, but the sound is often similar, the cry of a train, and I wake with a smile. Trains are big in my family’s mythology. The West Shore Railroad ran behind my father’s house. He was known as Pop North’s boy, as one engineer by the name of North would stop the train and pick up the towhead kid standing by the tracks, dropping him off on the return trip.
Most of my own childhood was accompanied by the whistles of the trains that rattled through the station at Princeton Junction. Here, on the south side of Tallahassee, that familiar sound unfolds those memories.
Last night the rain fell hard, and a quiet voice in the yard behind ours called in the German Shepherds that range along the dividing fence. On moonlit nights the dogs get collectively restless, and edgy, barking their alerts, but as the rain pelted down I imagined the draggled dogs slinking into the kitchen and shaking the water out of their coats. Constructing stories all day long I continue to find them in the small sounds of the night.
Sometimes I wake and a looping litany of things I must do immediately ambushes me. As a kid I had a hamster named Oregano who slept all day, and ran all night in his squeaky wheel. Those gotta-do wakeful nights are just as repetitive and unproductive and I have to make a conscious effort to stop revving a motor that can’t be put to use for hours.
But most of the time I lie quietly, and like Scrooge with his ghosts, the wraiths come. One night I had stayed up late to finish reading a book about a boy during the Civil War. The last thing I’d read was a short afterward in which the boy, grown old, returned to the graveyard to visit the parents and siblings I had just spent many pages and hours with, characters I cared about. That blink-of-an-eye transition from boy to old man awoke me breathless. Life is so short! It is the only panic attack I have ever had. In the dark the meaning of things has a sharper edge.
Emotions I ward off in the daylight find me at night. I awoke one recent night from a dream about my father who died in 2007, and felt as crushed and bereft as I had the day he died. I realized my waking mind runs a shell game. It shields me from the damage of loss by hiding what is too painful to face. It cons me into thinking I’m over it.
Conversely, when the worst has just happened there is a blessed waking moment when I don’t remember—and then the terrible news drops into my mind, weighing twice as much for having blindsided me.
But those nights of sorrow are rare. Most wakeful hours are among the best of the twenty-four.
Sometimes I catch my husband awake too. The other night he woke from a dream about making a music video. “The title,” he said, “was ‘Unprotected Sax.’” We laughed in the dark. One deep breath and he was asleep again.
I listened to him breathe, a steady descant to the small night sounds, and I thought so slowly it might not have been thought at all–just being. The air in the room was cold, but cocooned in a pocket of warmth, the weight of the blankets was as comforting as a friend leaning against me.
I wrapped my arms around my pillow and felt myself grow heavy as sleep filled me like warm grains of sand.