Sleeplessness accompanies father and son on all the rites of passage
My son can’t sleep. So I won’t either. Not at first. But then that changes, because things always change. They have to.
His breath slows. Long. Steady. Full of pauses. I lie there cradling the phone by my ear. I listen for a break. Words. My name. A sense of panic or disruption. There is nothing though, just his breath, and what may just sound like sleep.
One minute then two. I do not breathe. Or move. Three minutes becomes five, then ten, and I decide fifteen, that’s the magic number, if I can make it to fifteen minutes then I can go to sleep myself.
Twelve minutes. Thirteen. Fifteen. Nothing.
I hang-up the phone, I lay my arms across my chest, breathe in and out, and close my eyes, focusing on being calm, and taking a moment to savor this victory, though only for a moment, can’t jinx it, the phone could ring again, and then what?
I don’t want to think about it.
I also try to ignore the fact that I know the monster that falling sleep itself can be, that my father referred to sleep as the enemy, and that maybe it’s a family trait.
I have always preferred to quote NAS when it comes to sleep, as in, “sleep is the cousin of death,” but that may not be so accurate. I don’t fear sleep, and I don’t worry that sleep is too similar to death to embrace or befriend it.
I didn’t think much about death until my father died and I began tussling with his ghostly presence at every turn. Or before I became a father myself and started trying not to think about death and all the irrational ways my children might face it, Leukemia, porch parties, school shootings, errant cabdrivers, IEDs, and on and on and on.
The issue of sleep started early for us as parents. We decided to cry our son out. The family bed wouldn’t work for us, I who didn’t sleep for so long, and wasn’t going to add any additional hurdles to that battle. Not more than necessary anyway.
The first night he cried for one hour. We lay in bed, both of us staring at the ceiling.
“Can he die from this,” my wife says, “can you cry yourself to death? Do you think he’s hurting himself?”
“No, no to all of that,” I say, but I don’t know, you never know, you trust, and you hope you’re right.
“Should we hug him?” The wife asks. “What if he gets traumatized?”
“He won’t,” I say, and I believe this, but do I know for sure, I do not, not exactly, or not at all really.
So we continue to lie there and this is now on me as it has been once before.
In the beginning, he had colic. He could cry fifteen to twenty hours a day. He sometimes passed-out from lack of breath. He could not be soothed, would not be soothed. And he did not nap. Not ever. He might fall asleep on one of our chests from time to time, but that was only as good as our ability to not move or breathe, not at all, at any time, which was never, so he did not nap.
He would eventually fall asleep though, and when he did, he would sleep for four to five hours at a time during some murky stretch in the middle of the night.
“Lay him on his stomach,” our Yoda-like pediatrician told us. Assuming Yoda was female and had a short, tight Afro.
You don’t lay babies on their stomachs, SIDS yo, come on. Not that we said that, we just thought it, that’s all. But even thinking it was enough.
“It’s okay,” she said, “promise.”
“But couldn’t he die?” we practically squawked.
“The odds of that happening compared to what you’re going through is worth the trade-off,” she said. “Lay him on his stomach, he will feel relief, and he will sleep, promise.”
We didn’t do it though, couldn’t, until we did. Or, I did anyway.
It was so late, and he was so up, crying, purple, and sweating.
Babies sweat you ask? They do. It’s amazing, though so much preferable to discuss long after the fact and from a comfortable distance.
My wife was asleep.
I wondered if I should ask her what she thought about laying him on his stomach. I also wondered if I should just lie him down and allow her to not be complicit in his likely death.
I didn’t wake her.
I lay him down. There was movement, not much, a hitch and a jump, but no tears, none, nada, nothing. The silence was massive, and ear-shattering.
For the next hour I checked his breathing, never sure he truly was breathing, nor trusting he would continue to.
At some point I dozed-off.
Four hours later I awoke. He was still asleep. He was not dead. I savored it for the 30 seconds I was allowed to do so. Then he was awake and he was screaming.
He cries for an hour as we lie there in bed, but then he stops, like he’s supposed to, and he sleeps. The next night he cries for only thirty-two minutes, and yes I remember the exact amount of time, I have to, it’s been burned into memory for all eternity. The third night he cries for four minutes, and then not again, like they promised, whoever they are.
I don’t think my parents had to cry me to sleep. I never got brought into their bed or ventured into their room. And later, when I could not sleep, at all, anywhere, at home, at my grandparents’ apartments, or on sleepovers, as the dread would build, and the endless thoughts were swirling around in my head, I never tried to find them, or call them. I’m not sure I thought it was unwelcome, I just didn’t think I was allowed to. Bedtime was bedtime. There were rules, even if I did live in a home without any.
We had a year of sleep. But then he stopped.
A colleague once told me that as soon as you get accustomed to your child’s patterns they will change them. She is divorced now. Her husband left home and married someone younger who from what I can ascertain doesn’t want children.
But that’s an aside, so don’t feel you need to read into it. Or do. It’s cool.
He stopped sleeping though, done, totally, and he could get out of bed now, and wander the house, murmuring to himself, defiant, sleep the enemy, his and ours.
Another colleague of mine told me this was a sign of genius. She also told us to get a child lock for the inside door knob in his room. It seemed cruel, bad parenting writ large, like those kid leashes you see people using at the mall or zoo.
Which is not to say those parents don’t look less stressed than everyone else, it’s just that they are using child leashes, which doesn’t sound or look right, does it?
Please feel free to discuss that amongst yourselves.
We held off for a month, then two, then we lost our minds a little, well at first we lost our nights, television, conversation, the ability to walk around the house, or breathe, because either he was up, or we were at risk of waking him up, which is like a kind of death as well, or at least an episode of The Walking Dead.
We got the lock.
He cried. He cajoled. We grimaced. We cried. Sleep returned. The lock disappeared, hidden, but saved, just in case.
For nine months we were glorious. There was pattern. Peace had returned to the land. That ended though. It had to. The lock re-appeared, more quickly, and with less grimacing.
We sat on the couch and prepared for the tears.
Instead he walked into the living room, lock in hand, and threw it at our feet in disgust. He then went back to his room.
Winter had come.
My father didn’t sleep. I didn’t know this when I was little, but later in high school, and some of the way into college, whenever I came home, he was always there, on the couch, reading Art Forum or CINEASTE. Sometimes we spoke. Other times not. And when I saw Running on Empty and the scene where River Phoenix comes home to find Judd Hirsh sitting on the couch, not sleeping, pensive, but welcoming, I felt I had come home as well.
We soon entered what shall now ever be known as the “Gumpy” Era.
No door could hold him. No tears could be cried out. But there was pattern. At some point every night, he would lie down on the floor at the foot of our bed with a pillow and his Disney “Grumpy” blanket, which he had started leaving on the floor in our room.
We were generally asleep when he joined us, but not always. Regardless, I was never quite asleep enough, waiting as I was for him to say, “Where’s Gumpy?”
He wouldn’t lie down until the Grumpy patch was on the right corner of the blanket near his head. But he could never find it, ever. Some nights he might repeat the phrase “Where’s Gumpy” fifteen to twenty times before one of us moved.
There was no sleep until the blanket was right. And after that there was only sleep for him, well him, the ex-husband of my friend and his new younger childless wife.
There is an episode of One Day at A Time where Ann, the single mom, and Schneider, the quasi-dashing handy man talk about sleepless nights, how they both stay up and count the tiles on their ceiling in their rooms. It is moment of connection, a communion even, they have this in common, and because of that they can bond if for no other reason, but that.
The thing is though they cannot sleep because they are alone, sleep is not the enemy, isolation is, the lack of touch, love, and intimacy, something I didn’t understand at ten when I thought we all had something in common.
We don’t though, my son and I, however, that’s different.
“You are in charge,” the therapist says.
He is white-haired and rumple suited. His waiting area is post-card sized, but as required by New Yorker stories everywhere, always playing NPR. We are seeing him because we cannot reclaim our room and we are broken.
His message is clear. Our son is in charge not us, and we need to correct that.
Which we will over many months, then years, by marching him back into room at all times of night, and repeatedly at that. We will also learn to somehow stay relaxed when he storms out of his room, full of rage and performance, his head spinning, the thoughts and anxieties bouncing around his brain so rapidly they are going too fast to control or corral.
We will sometimes help him manage this with patience and love, striking the right combination of words and firmness. Other times, many times, not so much, but it will mostly stop, just as these things do, as new patterns form and un-form, and new challenges present themselves.
When my father was sick, or more accurately, when he got close to death, he began sleeping all the time, full of fatigue and poison, his body, then mind deserting him. At the very end, he slept uneasily for days, agitated, and full of grimace of twitch. And then he died, and the heavy breathing that had dogged him for his final days, was now calm, silent, sleep no longer the enemy.
My son goes on sleepovers now, not often and not without fear. What if he can’t fall asleep, or worse, what if the other kid, or kids, who vowed to stay up with him, go to sleep and he is alone with this thoughts and no parents or anywhere to storm around available to him?
So far, despite the anxiety on all sides, the sleepovers have mostly worked, but not tonight, tonight is different.
Tonight he calls at 1:30am.
“I can’t fall asleep, what should I do?” he asks calmly.
“Turn on the T.V.,” I say.
“I can’t, I’m sitting here in the dark, and I’m not sure where it is,” he says, still sounding calm.
“Can you turn on the light?”
“No, I don’t want to wake anyone up,” he says, now slightly agitated.
“Do you want to wake up the mom?” I suggest. “She’s cool.”
“No, are you kidding,” he says, no longer so calm.
This goes on for twenty minutes and several calls and I come to realize that there is no piece of advice I can give him that will work, much less that he will listen to.
I also realize that I can’t talk him off of the ledge. All I can do is talk to him until he can’t talk any longer and the ledge itself becomes a reasonable place to sleep. So I talk about the X-Men, The Hunger Games, Modern Family, and RENT, all things he loves and endlessly has questions about. And I keep talking and talking, until finally there is breathing, no words, just breathing, and I can hang-up and go to sleep myself, fitfully, but dead to the world and without battle.