Sleepy Time

We start at 7:30 when the winter darkness falls thick around our yard. We run hot water, peel off the clothes that have absorbed our warmth, spills, and smells, stuff them in the basket or, more likely, scatter them on the floor. We end at 8:30, or later if the story is very good, with the closet light on, bedside light off, door cracked exactly wide enough to let in the perfect amount of light and TV sound. In between, water slaps the sides of the tub, and we ask over and over: Have you brushed your teeth?

It is bedtime, the best or worst time of the day, depending on who you are, where you are, and who you’re with. If you are eight, like Cope, bedtime is merely a way station between daylight adventures and nocturnal ones, a place to check the map and supplies before diving back into the inspiring mix of familiar and unknown.

For my three-year-old nephew, bedtime is like being a wild leopard taken down by a friendly scientist bearing a tranquilizer gun. It only hurts for a moment and the next moment spreads out into a vastness much larger than the African savanna. In the morning he wakes reporting, “I dreamt of cantaloupe and limes.” For him, the night journey is difficult to begin, sometimes involving tears or a sort of shameful defeat that he cannot stay up with the rest of the world who is older. It is so unfair and yet by dawn he has forgiven us all.

I used to take sleep for granted. I was good at it. I blissfully skipped magazine articles proclaiming the secrets to a good night’s rest. Without hot milk, deep breathing, or counting sheep, I was a pro for eight hours or more. Then I was pregnant. The couch and I bonded in the dark as I waited for the Sleepy Time tea to kick in. My book said this was typical, to worry if the baby had extra limbs or if global warming would dry up the South and make our house worthless. I got superstitious about sleep. If I soaked in a hot lavender bath, did three of these stretches and two of those, if I read something slightly dull but uplifting (definitely not my pregnancy book!) and used two pillows here and one there and if Jim didn’t snore, then magically my ship would come in.

It wasn’t until I was the mother of a newborn did I know that sleep is more essential than food or water or wine or chocolate. Life is basically a random series of painful stimuli without it.

I should admit: I do not nap. If the magic does not happen between roughly the hours of 9 pm and 8 am it will not occur until nightfall. This brings limitations when I travel or am sick. Jim, however, is an excellent napper. He’s actually better at it than the overnight kind of sleep. If he is lying next to me and the sun is a bit warm but not too bright and his breath falls into an easy pattern, I may be lucky enough to be drawn down with him. The sun flickers through the curtains, the clock’s numbers boldly advance. I have tricked sleep for once, entering under disguise. But usually, Jim’s breathing sounds like a factory, emitting smoke and clacking noises that would wake any normal person. I pull out my book and read while he manufactures dreams.

Having been sleeping next to Jim the past thirteen years I’ve discovered I cannot do it alone any more. When I travel for work I stuff the extra pillows next to me in a Jim-sized lump and snuggle in. Where once I was an independent woman, able to meet friends at bars, exchange a glance with a stranger, and after a night of dancing and chatting, even sometimes bring that stranger home or enter their strange bed—I am now a creature of habit. I remember my grandmother who at eighty, ninety, and more took two flights for Christmas visits requiring only her Mylanta, proven protection from flavors foreign to her Iowa palate. Of course, she always slept alone, having never married. Perhaps her internal rhythm was less affected by travel or change because it didn’t depend on another’s warmth or breath.

I’ve heard that for good sleep you should not watch TV or read in your bedroom. During a recent home renovation, we moved our bed into a room with a nearby computer and spent one winter watching episodes of “Sex in the City” before we slept. It might not have promoted good sleep, but it gave our sex life a snap. I always read before I sleep, that and brushing my teeth are the only essential rituals. Even after a long flight on a recent business trip, I propped my book on my belly, visiting the same line over and over until it blurred into the rope that pulled me down from my strange hotel room.

Of course, I end up dreaming books. The other night I was stuck in the house where the Clutters were murdered in 1959, as depicted in Capote’s In Cold Blood. Or I trip into a repetitive loop—after doing our taxes I dreamt of a column of numbered lines to add up or subtract. After working daily with African American families displaced by the summer hurricanes, I saw endless lines of them shuffling by. I prefer to dream alone. Usually I am in a house or apartment building that is familiar yet new to me. I am walking through the halls or through rooms. I can recall the lavender carpet, the green bathtub. I sometimes dream of shopping, racks of clothes in the most beautiful colors, so soft to the touch.

I love the way you can hang out in that in-between state (if you don’t have small children), dabbling with one toe in the warmth of sleep while teasing your heart with desires. Get up now so you make that early yoga class! my racing heart whispers. Sleep doesn’t speak at all, it just tugs and if you are willing and still it wins. Recently, Jim helped nurse a very sick kitten (not ours this time, thankfully), holding it in a towel in his arms as it died. With its eyes still open but the breath gone from its tiny orange fluff, the kitten looked asleep, frozen, living in a place where time has stopped.

Death sounds like sleep to me, magical, foreign, sometimes painful, maybe also beyond pleasure. When I think of death, its presence in our lives, on the TV news, in the lives of friends’ families or our own, I do not want to fear it. The one way I can approach it is to think of it as a chance to lay down, start a new adventure, succumb to the peacefulness we always intended. I do not know if that is how it is, but for now that is my dream of it. And living, every day, is preparation.
Robin Bradford
, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in recent anthologies -- It's a Boy! Women Writers on Raising Sons, Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Send feedback to Robin at motherload @ austinmama.com (remove the spaces). Visit her at www.robinbradford.net