Dear Lily June,
To say I’m a light sleeper is an understatement. I sleep according to chaos theory: a butterfly bats its wing halfway across the world and a volcano erupts in my brain. A good deal of my inability to get solid rest stems from my deep anxiety. A dusk to dawn collector of the “what if’s,” I lay awake wondering, What if I fall asleep so deeply, I don’t hear you cry? What if you or your father stop breathing in the middle of the night?
To keep our ancestors alive, the brain evolved an ongoing internal trickle of unease. This little whisper of worry keeps you scanning your inner and outer worlds for signs of trouble.
An imminent loss of breath feels very real to me: Your father has a condition called sleep apnea which causes him to literally stop inhaling for short stints throughout the night. He wears what’s called a CPAP machine, a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure ventilator, to force oxygen into his lungs through a long hose. It’s a contraption that very much reminds me of the dream helm, a sigil worn by Neil Gaiman’s comic character Sandman, as seen below:
Likewise, because you are under one years old, the threat of SIDS or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome continuously weighs on my mind. I imagine going to lift you from your crib one day and finding your body, once so full of warmth and light, stony and cold. It is a crippling fear, my dear, but only because you are so precious to me, my life, and my heart. Imagine loving someone so much you’re afraid to let them sleep!
This background of unsettledness and watchfulness is so automatic that you can forget it’s there.
It was midnight the other night when I was awoken by the sounds of your dad coming back into the bedroom to lay your unconscious body in the bassinet next to my head. Then he lay his own body in the bed next to mine, put on his machine, and started the hose flowing which makes a sound sometimes like a moaning ghost, sometimes, a wailing banshee.
The brain’s default setting of apprehensiveness…wears down well-being, feeds anxiety and depression, and makes people play small in life.
That sound took me back, in my memory, to a time when there was more than fear paralyzing more than my mind. Once upon a time, at the very start of our relationship, your father had a migraine so bad, it paralyzed his entire left side. No more than six months or so into knowing him, I had to try and carry his half-limp body out to his car and drive him, in the middle of a What-If kind of night, to the emergency room.
It was a terrifying time for us both: The hospital couldn’t immediately diagnose what had caused the paralysis (though they did, thankfully, rule out stroke) so we were rerouted to other doctors–neurologists, sleep specialists–until it was determined that the apneas had been the cause all along. But before we discovered the reason was fairly benign, I thought this man–who I’d only just found, only just fallen so deeply in love with that I was willing to give him my life–I thought this man, your future father, was going to die.
In effect, that uneasiness in the background is continually whispering into your mental “ear”: You’re not safe, you’re surrounded by threats, you can never afford to lower your guard.
During that time while we waited on doctors and appointments and examinations and tests, your father slept almost all of the time. That’s not an exaggeration. There was one day where he slept for twenty-three hours straight, and I kept a vigil over his precious body, returning to his apartment bedroom what felt like every twenty-three minutes to kiss an unconscious arm, let my fingers drift over a sleeping thigh. And always the air was thick with the song of his nostrils rattling, his lungs gasping. He was so lost in the land of dream then, I had whole conversations with him that he never heard and probably still doesn’t know I had.
While he escaped the pain of waking migraines by turning and tossing and choking in his sleep, I made him the promise that I would never leave. I confessed how deeply I’d fallen and begged his body not to leave me. I told him that I would wait–for days, for months, for years, as long as it took–to find out what was wrong, and whatever it was, I would care for him, even carry him if I had to.
But take a close look at this moment, right now. Probably, you are basically all right: no one is attacking you, you are not drowning, no bombs are falling, there is no crisis. It’s not perfect, but you’re okay.
Sometimes, I would get so lonely for any company, I would leave his apartment for an hour at a time, walking the summer’s deserted streets in the college town where we’d made our life and listen for the calm dialogue of birds. Sometimes, depending on the hour, I would hunt for the man in the moon; sometimes he would point my way to the steps of a church where I would sit, not even knowing how to pray or what to ask for, seeing as I was never very religious and didn’t know the right ways to beg for a life I valued so much more than my own.
I couldn’t have even wished upon a star for so far into the future as you, sweet Lily, who are like a dream your father and I apparently were, though one of us awake and the other asleep, simultaneously dreaming of then. (Let’s be honest: We’ve been hoping for the dream come true of you our whole lives.) Even now, as we’re forced to get less and less time together, alternating as we do at waking and working and watching you then separately sleeping, so that most of our days and nights are spent apart from each other, we are held together by your burgeoning giggle, your newly acquired smile, our worries that you’re not eating or gaining enough, our worries that we just spend too much time worrying.
Look again at the thin slice of time that is the present. In this moment: Are you basically okay? Is breathing okay? Is the heart beating? Is the mind working? The answers are almost certainly yes.
Though I missed my rest after your birth, watching you breathe when you lay on me as a newborn sometimes made me think I spent too many years of my life practically sleeping. At two months plus, you make me feel more awake and alive, even when it’s driven by adrenaline from the fear that you are not thriving. I have to remind myself to breathe, too; I have to remind myself, laying awake at night, that everything is okay in this moment. That you and your father are, right now, at this minute, breathing. That I can reach across the bed to hold his hand anytime. That I can put a hand on your impossibly small chest and feel it rise and fall, rise and fall, fall and rise.
You’re not ignoring real threats or issues, or pretending that everything is perfect. It’s not. But in the middle of everything, you can usually see that you’re actually all right right now.
I lay awake, that other night, listening to the air pumping through the mask to my right. I lay awake, that other night, listening to the tiny chirps and burbles you make as air rushes through your still maturing lungs to my left. These are the moments I’m sure of what I’m living for. I have fallen so deeply in love, seemingly alone at night, with the sounds of my family sleeping all around me, even when I can’t sleep. Both of your little snores are proof that you are a part of each other. They are proof that if you are pushing your own breath out, I should not be holding mine.
The fear that bad things will happen if you let yourself feel okay is unfounded; let this sink in. You do not need to fear feeling all right!
I cannot save you–either of you–by worrying about you, Lily. I have to let you breathe on your own and choose to be enraptured by the sound each second it persists or miss its beauty because I am projecting into a future that may not ever exist, a future where I have to let go of the loves of my life because of something I could not prevent or fix. No one’s worries prevent these kinds of tragedies, or death would only take those who are abjectly unloved. Instead, the pumping hearts of wives and mothers all over the world threaten to break because their lovers and babies aren’t in their arms but are instead, perhaps, somewhere beyond the sunrise.
And then a butterfly flaps, and the picture snaps into focus for me, and I have to remember these are not my imagined hours of grief, but they could be my very real minutes of joy if I’d let them be.
Noticing that you’re actually all right right now is not laying a positive attitude over your life like a pretty veil. Instead, you are knowing a simple but profound fact: In this moment I am all right.
Portions in italics taken from Rick Hanson’s Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. The full text of that essay can be found here.
- “Heart-and-lungs” by Gray’s Anatomy – Gray’s Anatomy at http://www.bartleby.com/107/138.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Heart-and-lungs.jpg#/media/File:Heart-and-lungs.jpg
- Sandman’s Dream – http://www.comicvine.com/dream-helm/4055-55911/images/
- “Australian painted lady feeding” by Taken byfir0002 | flagstaffotos.com.auCanon 20D + Sigma 150mm f/2.8 + Canon MT 24-EX – Own work. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Australian_painted_lady_feeding.jpg#/media/File:Australian_painted_lady_feeding.jpg