Sleep—desired, yet elusive, and so utterly necessary. All my life I have had a conflicted relationship with this mythical entity. If there is such a thing as a “sleep debt that must be repaid,” as a book on neuroscience argues, I will always permanently be in the red. I need more than the giraffes’ 30 minutes a day of sleep to be refreshed, and unlike a dolphin, I am not able to turn half my brain off, resting myself one hemisphere at a time.
Yet for years as a youth, I would spend much of the late night hours awake in my house while the rest of its inhabitants slept. I would sometimes read, sometimes write, sometimes listen fearfully to the creaks and moans of the house that my tired, adolescent mind interpreted as the footsteps of someone who wasn’t meant to be there. I can remember times in junior high and high school when by myself, or with friends, I’d walk through the park in the middle of the night, or run down the asphalt, sometimes in the middle of the street, from my house towards the city mall a quarter mile away. I remember the time too that my brother, I, and our two friends had barely arrived back at the house before the phone rang and my brother picked it up, eavesdropping on the conversation on the other end of the line, before confusedly putting it down and saying he thought our cousin was dead. I remember too the time when an officer encouraged me rather sternly to drive myself and my companion home for being out past curfew, the time in high school that I circled the city streets for hours sobbing in my car knowing no one knew where I was, and more importantly that no one had even noticed I was missing. On sleepless nights, I could find many things—freedom, failure, fear of insignificance—but very rarely a full night’s sleep. Indeed, in the last twenty years, I have had only one night where I have slept the entire night through without waking. I was fifteen and had influenza.
But what I remember most about those nights of little or no sleep when I was young is how quiet everything was at two in the morning. I remember thinking that the middle of the night felt like another world entirely. As if civilization had gone, leaving me only steadily blinking street lights turning predictably between green, yellow, and red for cars that weren’t there to drive through them. I felt invisible—sometimes powerful, sometimes powerless—but always unseen.
Now in my thirties, in my nights of no sleep it is never quiet, and I am never invisible. Last night I listened to the loud breathing of the tiny toddler determined to sleep as close to me as humanly possible, to sleep in any one of a number of awkward looking positions, to sleep anywhere, except alone. Hours before he kept crying in his crib, not only unwilling to be alone, but unwilling to be in a room where he wasn’t being touched, my hand on his arm, his back pressed into my belly, his head near my shoulder. After three weeks of this, when the effects of sleep deprivation have firmly taken hold, rooted into all fibers of my being, exhausted and awake at three in the morning yet again, I wanted again to feel my feet pressing into the asphalt as I ran down the middle of that dark and empty road, to feel the rush of air in my lungs, to feel the world as if suddenly mine only, the lights blinking through all their colors for neither passengers nor other pedestrians. And I wanted, for a second, just a second, to be seventeen again and be circling those streets, unnoticed. To not be missed. But instead I held the tiny hand, rubbed the tiny back, listened to the tiny lungs move up and down, set myself, large and imperfect, as sentinel for his tiny body’s sleep, waited, just waited, for the long, long night to pass.