The Leaving Sleep
?As a little girl, I loved to sleep with my parents, routinely leaving my bed to seek theirs. I’d stand at my mother’s bedside in the inky dark room, feigning nightmares. Did you have a bad dream? she would ask. YES I SURE DID, I’d tell her, whipping my pillow from behind my back and climbing directly over her body to lie beside her, knees curled up, an arm draped over her face. I slept deeply this way. Safely.
Childhood injuries were soothed with sleep. Once on a still cold early spring day, my father drove our family to a lakeside boatyard, dreaming of boats we didn’t own and the promise of summer. We snuck onto a dry-docked sailboat. My brother, checking out the gear, released the tension of the locked up boom. It whipped around, caught me by the gut, and swept me overboard. I bellyflopped seven feet down onto a gravel drive where I thought I might die. Actually, I thought maybe I would live, but when I heard my mother clamoring down off the boat screaming AUTUMN!! JOSHUA!! AUTUMN!! JOSHUA!! I knew for sure that one of us was in serious big trouble and one of us was definitely dying.
Following a long trip to the ER where doctors examined my beat-up chin and surprisingly not concussed head, I surrendered completely to sleep, falling heavy and slack against my mother in the backseat of our yellow and black station wagon. As comfortable a spot as the downiest of beds, there with my mama, in our buzzing bee of a family roadster.
Holidays were rich with buttery sleep. Each winter, sometime just before Christmas, our mom would send my brother and me on our annual “frozen tundra” adventure. She’d stuff us into a hundred warm layers, give us a plastic sled, and put us outside in the snow. This was the game: my brother would pull me around in the sled and call me “Stanley,” and I would let him pull me around in the sled and call him “The Boss.”
The goal of the game was for Stanley and The Boss to stay alive crossing the vast tundra of vacated dorms with their empty dark windows agape in silent foreboding. The Nice Old Lady with pretzels and hot chocolate (aka our mom, in full method-acting character) would pretend not to recognize us once we finally returned home again, nearly dead from laughing and soaked with cold. The cold was so good then, a deep slumber elixir, forcing our exhausted forfeit. We slept with an abandon those nights, in a pile of blankets on the living room floor, in front of the stereo playing Gordon Lightfoot, or BB King, or if my mother had her way with the crackling turntable, Barbara Streisand. A tune-throwing fireplace of warm music.
Later in college, with a burning fever, exams looming, and a raging Strep colonizing my tonsils, my mother drove two hours to my apartment at the end of her already long day of nursing. She arrived in a flurry, insisting I go straight to bed and emphatically explaining that I wouldn’t learn ONE GODDAMN THING ANYWAY trying to study like this. I went to bed. Of course. She made me tea. Of course. The best tea, followed by a thick and dreamless fever-sleep. When I woke the next morning, she was gone again to work. A note beside my bed, half of the words nearly invisible, read:
My Precious Child,
I love you so.
Have more tea.
This pen sucks.
?I slept near her, with her, across from her on the couch. After break-ups, break-downs, and babies, there was no better sleep to be had anywhere than with my mother. Even as she grew ill, even as the last months of her life drew to a close, even as she fought to be always the caregiver, and never cared for. Even then. Even as oxygen pumped into her lungs from pressurized tanks labeled DANGER NO SMOKING and we laughed out loud about how she planned to smoke anyway, because you might as well go out like the 4th of friggin July. Even then. Even there in the little room where we knew - both of us - that she would die. Even then, with her near, sleep would come easily and always. Milky-sweet and ever-safe.
When the nurses called from hospice to tell me it was time, I remember they said that at dinner she had closed her eyes, dropped her head to her chin, and would not lift it up again. But I remember nothing of driving to her, of parking the car, of entering the building. I remember only that I was, of a sudden, at her bedside, watching her sleep.
I stood for a minute, or maybe an hour, listening to her breath throttle and downshift. Rising and collapsing, rising and collapsing. Grabbing a pillow from the couch, I climbed directly over her into the bed. It would be most of the day before my brother could make it back. And she would wait until then to die. We would wait. And sleep. My arm draped across her, knees curled behind her.
Sleeping this together sleep. This knowing sleep, this lifetime sleep, this loving sleep. An inventory and an adjournment. This leaving sleep.