You’re not really exhausted until the hallucinations start: Droplets of mercury floated in my peripheral vision. A lemon levitated out of the fruit bowl. A streetlight at the corner of State and Garfield laid its long body down on the sidewalk. The cat looked up at me from the corner of my desk, twitched his muzzle, and said, “Libby, Libby, Libby.”
I experienced all these visions sometime during my son Henry’s first several months of life, after I’d gone back to work at the Wisconsin university where I teach English. The exact chronology escapes me. Tired people do not form accurate memories, and my personal journal from that time is sketchy and full of brief exclamations over my baby boy’s cuteness and developmental milestones. What remain in my mind are scattered recollections, like curled strips of celluloid on a cutting-room floor, trimmed from a movie about a woman in her midthirties who worked at a demanding job, who had a new husband and an even newer baby, and who was extravagantly tired.
One night, half hypnotized by the blue glow of the television while I nursed the baby on the couch beside my husband, Jon, I thought I saw a mouse skim across the living-room floor. I gathered my feet under me and pointed. “It ran from there to there,” I said.
Jon turned off Letterman, listened for the sound of mouse feet, looked behind the TV, got a flashlight to shine into the dark corners. Nada.
“Are you sure?” I asked, hugging Henry close.
Normally I was not much afraid of mice. During my itinerant single years I had lovingly guided several out the front doors of my apartments. I’d built hallways out of books for them, makeshift mazes that led to saucers of cheese, and to freedom.
Henry had changed my feelings for mice. He was such a beautiful, smart, personable baby — the best baby, the only baby, ever born — every bit of him perfectly formed. His big, espresso-dark eyes were lined with the kind of deluxe lashes that made me suspect he possessed latent Persian genes. It was hard to stop staring at them.
I did not want rodents around our baby.
Jon said if there was a mouse, he’d gotten away.
“There absolutely was a mouse,” I said. “I know a mouse when I see one.”
One of Jon’s most charming qualities is that he takes me seriously. So he trudged down to the basement to look for nests or droppings, a search that turned up nothing. Plus, Jon pointed out, our cat, George — a huge, Maine-coon-like beast — was just sitting there, doing nothing. “And we’ve never had a mouse before.”
“I saw it,” I said, my voice quavering, because exhausted people are often at the edge of tears. “What if the mouse bites Henry when he’s sleeping?”
“Honey,” said Jon, rubbing his temples with the heels of his hands, “Henry doesn’t sleep.”
He really didn’t sleep. He took ten- or fifteen-minute catnaps — a dozen of them throughout the day and night — but that was it. Only eyewitnesses believed me after a while, because everyone who has brought a newborn home has experienced nights in which the baby wakes constantly in need of soothing or feeding. But Henry didn’t wake up, because he didn’t go to sleep. Neither Jon nor I could believe that a human could live with so little rest. It couldn’t be good for him; could it? Friends and fellow parents — observing our haunted condition — gave us lots of advice, and we took it to heart. We drove Henry around in the car. We played Mozart, Enya, Raffi, and ZZ Top. We ran a fan for white noise. We darkened his windows. We bought him a night light. We sang, we bounced, we rocked. We swaddled and sleep-sacked; we unswaddled and un-sleep-sacked. We set him in his bouncy seat beside the running clothes dryer. We fed him a lot; we fed him a little. We let him cry in his crib until we felt our bones would break from the sound. We laid him down on top of us, between us, beside us. We imposed a rigid schedule. We lived organically. We exercised him, massaged him, bathed him, aromatherapied him. On a quiet winter morning Jon’s ragged voice echoed in the hallway: “All we are saaaaaaaaaaying / is give sleep a chance.”
Henry did not necessarily want to be fed when he resisted sleep. He did not want to have his diaper changed. He did not endure the acid reflux that afflicts many babies, nor did he seem to suffer unduly when cutting teeth. My impression was that he distrusted sleep. Whenever he did drift off for a few minutes in his stroller or sail off to beautiful Milkland as babies do after nursing, he always jerked awake, unnerved, as if wondering, Where did I just go? He distrusted his parents’ sleep, too. Sometimes, when I was holding him in bed or on the sofa or in the rocking chair, my eyes would close and my head would droop like a college student’s during an 8 AM class. Then Henry would let out a cry and scramble around in his blankets. Hey, lady! he seemed to be saying. Where did you just go? In bed with us Henry was especially active, smacking and kicking and prodding. Was he trying to keep us awake? When he was about eight months old, he started curling his toes into the waistband of Jon’s underwear and snapping the elastic again and again.
“This is impossible,” said Jon, sitting up and looking down at our son’s wide-eyed, happy face.
In the moonlight Jon’s hair glowed gray. A cold, early-spring wind yowled down the ice-glazed streets of our neighborhood. Henry beat his arms on the bed, wanting to join his father in full, upright wakefulness. “C’mon, little boy. Let’s go try the rocking chair,” I said. But I didn’t move. My brain had turned to tar.
“Did you know,” said Jon, “that Dick Cheney says sleep deprivation is not torture?”
A big black moth flapped in my peripheral vision. I turned. Nothing there.
“Dick Cheney can kiss my ass,” I said.
One Sunday morning, while I sat with Henry at breakfast, feeling wilted and as though I were wearing a stranger’s contact lenses, the phone rang. It was my mother, calling from her home near the ocean in Southern California.
My brilliant mother had been one of only two women in her medical-school graduating class in 1966, and all her adult life she’d practiced pediatrics. She’d been revered by colleagues and patients for her exacting professionalism, her photographic memory, and her aggressive approach to diagnosing and treating sick children. She and I had spoken many times about Henry’s sleeplessness, but today she worried over her own problems: a large tumor had rooted itself in her brain, too close to her optic nerve.
“All I can tell you,” she said, “is that if I go blind, I don’t want to live.”
“You’re not going to go blind,” I said.
“I’ll drive myself off a cliff and plunge into the ocean, and that will be the end of that.”
“You won’t.” I relied on my confident tone to mask the weakness of my own argument. Her neurosurgeon faced a challenge, having to remove the renegade cell growth without also taking away my mother’s sight.
“I just want you to know what to expect,” she said. “I don’t want you to be shocked.”
“You won’t be able to drive yourself off a cliff if you’re blind,” I said. I was holding Henry in my lap, watching him pick up Cheerios with his thumb and forefinger.
“I might as well kill myself right now,” she said.
Henry grabbed my fork, and I took it from him. My images of my mother’s fears — the surgeon’s saw, his instruments glinting under the lights, her own skull opened on the table, her brain lit by thousand-watt bulbs — were mere nursery rhymes, I knew, compared to what actually frightened her. She knew everything that could go wrong. She’d studied her own CAT scans and MRIs, had read the literature and memorized the probabilities. What she did not know was how it might be to wake up in permanent darkness — or to never wake up at all.
I held the fork above my head to keep Henry from grabbing it. “You could kill yourself,” I said, “and I guess if you’re going to do that, now’s the time for it. But you might come through this operation just fine. Right? There’s every chance you’re going to open your eyes and see your family beside you, first thing.”
“Don’t bother flying out,” she said. “Save your money in case you need to come for the funeral.”
I was suddenly, magnificently tired. I wanted to stretch out across the dining-room table, on top of the plates of mashed bananas and rice cereal, and sleep for days. Henry reached up with his chubby hand and pinched my cheek hard.
“Could you adopt more of a wait-and-see approach?” I heard myself say. “Could you do that for me, Mom?”
The first night I spent away from my son was when I traveled to California for my mother’s brain surgery. My plane landed in Los Angeles. Mom was already in the operating room. Still, my father came to pick me up at the airport. On the way to the hospital, he told me that she had not gone gentle into that good night of anesthesia; she’d fought with the admitting staff and had criticized the nurses who’d taken her vitals and started her IV. “I told her,” Dad said, “that under the circumstances she ought to be especially nice to these people. But you know your mother.”
My father is a physician, too, and so he did not say anything encouraging to me like She has one of the best surgeons in the country, or She’ll be all right. He is not a man of faith, and so he neither prayed nor suggested we put our faith in God nor told us to think of our mother as being “in God’s hands.” My recollection is that while we waited through my mother’s surgery, my father, my sister Tory, and I said very little. We each sat within our own heavy silence, in a waiting room with nothing in it but an information desk, four rows of vinyl chairs, and a baby-grand piano that nobody played. We tried to read. Sometimes we gave one another’s shoulders a squeeze. My sister bought a bag of cashews and a Diet Pepsi from a vending machine, and we passed those around.
Don’t suppose it didn’t occur to me that this was a perfect opportunity for a nap. I may have even tried to sleep, balling my jacket up under my head and closing my eyes against the threat of those hours. But I couldn’t. We three, however faithless, were keeping a vigil, a devotion that required, if nothing else, vigilance.
Finally the surgeon called my father’s cellphone to tell him the procedure had gone well, that he’d been able to remove the tumor, mostly. “We’ll know more when she wakes up,” he said.
At twilight a nurse told us that we could see Mom in the intensive-care unit, one at a time. My father went in first and came back several minutes later looking fully oxygenated for the first time all day.
“Perfect vision,” he said. “She knows who she is and who I am and who the goddamn president is.” He gave both me and my sister an enthusiastic kiss on the cheek. “Go see her,” he said. “Go.”
My sister went in next and returned weepy. “Oh, my God,” she said. “Mom’s nice. She’s being nice to the nurses. You won’t believe it.”
I don’t like intensive-care units: the barely breathing people in their dark rooms, the wheeled machines and warning placards, the nurses in face masks and blue sterile gloves. In my mother’s dim cell the monitor beside her bed cast red and green lights on her bandaged head. Mom was asleep, so I sat down beside her and took her hand. I cried a few grateful tears because really, for someone who had just been through brain surgery, she looked superb: clean and peaceful and very much alive, her breathing strong, her eyeballs moving beneath her closed lids.
She woke. “You’re here,” she said, and she smiled a tiny bit.
I nodded. “You’re here, too,” I said. “We’re both right here, and we’re nowhere else.”
The next evening I was back home in Wisconsin, eating pizza and recommending that Jon get some sleep. After thirty-six hours alone with our son, he looked like a man who, according to Dick Cheney, had not been tortured at Guantánamo Bay.
I bathed, diapered, and pajamaed Henry. Downstairs I put on a Charlie Chaplin DVD — our favorite — and we watched for a while. Then I laid a stack of blankets on the living-room carpet. “Let’s rest,” I said to Henry, who was almost a full year old by then and still had never slept for longer than seventy-five consecutive minutes. “Let’s lay our bodies down, honey. Let’s get us some shut-eye.” I took pillows from the couch and fluffed them. Henry was intrigued. He knew we didn’t sleep in the living room. Perhaps he thought I was playing a game as he got into my improvised bed. We lay there, face to face. “You close your eyes,” I said, “and when you open them, I’ll be right here. I’m not going anywhere. I promise. I’ll be right here with you and nowhere else.”
He closed his eyes and opened them. He closed them and opened them again. “Right here,” I soothed, yawning. He put his thumb in his mouth and closed his eyes for real. I waited, watching him sink into the darkness of his own sleep.
His eyes swam open.
“I will not leave you, little boy.”
The moonlight through the big front window made leaf shadows on the walls. My child’s heavy eyelids fell.
Lying there beside Henry, I felt worry unspool from my mind like a thread, and I closed my eyes, too.
Before we knew it, we were both asleep.