The morning after Labor Day, I lay in bed in the darkness, listening to my husband sleep beside me. The lightbursts kept starting, I felt myself slipping into the luxury of meandering thinking, but again I pulled out of it, still reaching backwards towards the already fading blossom of sleep. I was awake—not because I couldn’t sleep—but because someone else couldn’t. I was suffering borrowed insomnia.
“I can’t sleep, Mommy. I can’t fall asleep.” He’d been up since 3:00, when he had to go to the bathroom, and here we were, 4:17, still awake. We’d already tried reading a little in bed, tried me curling up at the foot of the bed. I’d been up with Zachary till 10:30 the night before, calming his first-day fears, and now here I was, smoothing Benjamin’s hair.
“Don’t think about it, baby. Just think about something happy. Design me a city in the clouds. What would it look like? What would it feel like? Would there be rainbows? I’ll check on you in five minutes. Just think abut the city in the clouds.”
But five minutes later, “I can’t sleep Mommy. I’m afraid of school tomorrow. What if I have bad behavior this year?”
“Mr. M won’t judge you on the past. Even if you misbehave, he won’t think you’re a bad kid.”
“But what if I can’t control my behavior?”
“Don’t think about it. Think about the castle in the clouds. Mr. M is really interesting, and you always behave when you’re interested. Just think about the castle.”
Between check-ins, I went back to bed. Sometimes, it helps to stay in the room with him, but more often, he needs to settle down alone with the reassurance we’re coming back. I dipped into moments of sleep but roused myself in time to check back in. Still awake. Wide awake.
4:50. Another bathroom trip. “It’s too late.”
“It’s not too late. There are hours before you need to be up. Don’t worry if it gets light out. It’s summer. It gets light at night.”
“I just can’t sleep.”
“Let me turn on ‘Thunder Road.’ It’ll help you sleep.”
I turned on the CD, set it to repeat track 6. “Mommy, will you check in again?”
The night before, I had pre-mixed wet ingredients for zucchini bread and put them in the fridge, then mixed together the dry ingredients and left them on the counter, ready for the morning. Well, it was morning. I went down and preheated the oven, buttered the pans, and mixed together the batter, ignoring the escalating pleas from the cat in the basement.
5:06, I slipped it in the oven, scrawled my husband a note to take it out when he got up, and put the cat outside. Went back to check on my boy. Wide awake.
Slid back into bed for twenty minutes.
5:40, checked on Benjamin. Wide awake.
“How about I just lie with you? Don’t worry about sleeping, OK?”
That’s me and I want you only, Don’t turn me home again, I just can’t face myself alone again.
“Did you know that in Alaska, in the winter, night sometimes lasts for two months? It never gets light out.”
“And in the summer, sometimes it’s light for two months.”
“Then you couldn’t sleep for two months?”
“I think they just sleep when it’s light out.”
You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain. Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain.
His arms around his giant teddy bear, my arms around him. “Can you pull your arm out from under me? Just hold me with your top arm.”
If you’re ready to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat.
“I hear Daddy leaving for the gym.”
6:09. The zucchini bread out, my husband gone for the day. The school year would start in two hours, and the other two children were still mercifully asleep.
“Why don’t you find something to read, honey? I’ll be back in a few minutes with some zucchini bread.”
I turned on the shower, let the water do its best. Thought how, nine years ago, I was exhausted the day after Labor Day, lying in bed with a new scar across my abdomen, unable to get out of bed to the NICU. “Just go sit with the baby,” I had begged my in-laws when they came to visit me in the maternity ward. “Just go be with Zachary. He’s all alone down there.” Nine years, and this gig wasn’t getting any easier.
6:18, snapped off the shower, reached for a towel, started the day.
Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.