The Joy Menu #29: Sleep
Your author trains his eyes on memories of unslept nights.
I have an image of my father from the early mornings of my childhood. He’s sitting on the edge of the big bed in the morning dark, his large back exposed.
He’s just woken up. He’s awake but not but attentive, not ready to stand, or speak, or move into the world. He looks down, toward the fringe of the carpet, blinks. He is still.
I watch him take slow, quiet breaths. I know he’s somewhere I’ve never been. Some in-between adult place which seems heavy, distant, difficult to be roused from. I watch him pause before he enters the day.
When the light breaks sharply through the crooked slats of the blinds, and the birds begin chirping (first a stray few, then a wild chorus), he pulls the comforter aside, stands, takes two steps toward the closet door and grabs his glasses. He’s up.
His day—shower, clothes, breakfast, tea, car, traffic, meetings—begins. But I won’t see it. My eyes are already closed. I’m already back to sleep.
My father never slept. Not really. Not fully. Maybe four hours a night.
The joke was if you said his name from anywhere—in his room, outside the door, down the hall—he’d say “Yes?” and be perfectly awake, waiting for what you needed to say.
When he was sleeping (lightly, barely) he was never annoyed to be roused from his rest. It was if he lived poised to re-enter the waking world. Always at the ready for your needs, your questions, your requests.
In the dark, nearing his bedside, you knew his eyes were already open. His voice was always clear. “What’s up, boychik.”
As a child, for years, I’d tap his forehead with a finger to wake him. And I woke him every night. I’d launch from my top bunkbed to stand by his side, where I’d press the tip of a finger on the warm folds of his brow.
That’s all it took. He’d rise, cross the room with me, pull out the heavy futon—it lived at the foot of his and my mother’s bed and doubled as a couch during the day—until the fat mattress landed flat with a thump, pushed right up against the desk where the family computer sat. (There wasn’t room enough to walk past).
After I was tucked in, he’d climb in next to me, and while his breath drifted into the dry air, I’d fall back asleep. Calm in the knowledge that he was there, warm, and at the ready.
I’m 29. I’ve moved home to write a novel and instead have fallen into a pit. The novel languishes at page 70, mocks me with its mediocrity, its un-fleshed scenes, its rigid dialogue, stalks me into a dank depression.
I come in at night, after tacos with an old friend stuck in an unhappy marriage, or a drive with one who’s career has never taken off, or pizza with one who’s divorce is being finalized. The carved wooden doorhanger (a pineapple strung with guitar strings) makes its tinkling music and even though I walk as quietly as I can manage up the hardwood stairs—barely breathing, avoiding the spots that creak—I know he’s already awake, his eyes open in the pitch dark.
I stand near his door. From the black, his voice: “How was it?” or “Home now?” or “Heading to bed?”
I walk to his bedside, put his hand into mine. I feel the warmth of his fleshy fingers, see he’s lifted one leg out from beneath the sheets. “Tickle,” he says. When I do, he sighs.
“Ah,” he says. “That’s it.”
He never lets us sleep in on weekends. Something about the wasted time insults his constitution.
I don’t have a single memory of seeing him yawn.
There is no discomfort in his never sleeping. Never an annoyance. No sense of what he’s missing. (Though it might explain the quantity of tea.) No complaints. It’s just how it is.
At 20, a month before moving to England, I break my leg jumping off the back of a dorm couch. I call home. In the dead of night, my mother answers. Put dad on.
“Come home,” he says. By the time I arrive, hours later, groggy from the morphine, the fear, the 5am flight, he’s already booked a consultation, found a surgeon, and set a time. My mother, just waking, doesn’t know why I’m there.
I wonder: what dreams are offered when sleep is short?
I never asked; I’ll never know.
He wasn’t one to tell us stories, nor did he offer insight into what he saw at night.
As for the depth of my own sleep—so unlike his—I’m aware that such disconnection is a gift. One he did not often receive. When we didn’t interrupt him with our voices, our hands, our needs, I wonder if he just lay there. Quietly. Waiting for light.
Today, I wake and pull my legs from beneath the comforter, let them fall onto the carpet, press my flat feet against the ground. I yawn. I rub my eyes. I stare at the wall and tell myself it’s time to get up.
I understand now, as much as I ever will, that transition is the hardest part. That it’s the in-between places. The moment before the light.
In his last months, he spends entire days sleeping. It’s as if he’s being given back what he never had before; makeup rest; replacement hours; abundant sleep as recompense for a lifetime of restlessness and lack.
We’ve pulled the electric hospital bed next to his and my mother’s queen on the top floor of the new addition. I lay next to him, across the barrier between one bed and the other. I watch his chest fill and deflate. His useless eyelid hangs slightly open, the eye behind it the color of a split grape. His working eye is closed; it doesn’t even flutter.
I touch his forehead. It’s still warm, still clammy. He doesn’t wake.
Under the quilt my mother has lain over him, he’s lifted his leg out to find the fresh air. It’s thinner now, almost gawky, but in its movement, its shape, its still undeniably his.
I find his hand. I thread my fingers through his.
As he sleeps, I watch the sunlight fall behind the trees. The porch doors are glass, and through them I see soybean fields, a horse coral, a quiet country road.
Night comes slowly but without hesitation. Night comes, and then it is dark.
May you find your way onward
toward creative joy,