-for moms who get it.
Insomnia is rough, not only because the middle-aged body needs the restoration of slumber, not only because the list of tasks ticks past the mind’s eye in restless censure, not only because of the suddenly imagined and creative retorts we should have used ten years ago when arguing with a fool – no, it’s not only those or dozens of other things that keep the mind and body tormented. For Rachel, insomnia is an unreeling horror show, a chance to wallow in the worst in what might have befallen in the past, but didn’t. Because it almost did.
Joey was a precocious infant, the kind of baby who locked eyes on an adult unabashedly. When the warm, damp creature was placed in her arms moments after birth, he studied Rachel’s face intently. She knew he technically couldn’t see much – all the books say that babies are mostly blind at first – but there was such an expression of curiosity in his expression that she felt certain his flat, slate-blue eyes were seeing keenly. This intensity, this curiosity, never faded, even as his eyes settled into a golden-brown color.
A photo flashes in Rachel’s mind as she lies in bed, breathing deeply, trying to relax herself into sleep. It’s a photo she took of her husband Tom on Christmas morning many years ago. He’s sitting in the recliner, holding up a pair of holiday novelty socks. He’s wearing pajamas and a robe, his smile sarcastic and happy. What’s significant isn’t the photo’s subject, however. What’s important is the background. There, behind his recliner, is toddler Joey, his sweet eighteen-month-old body clad in red, onesie pajamas. His chubby hands are gripping a power cord near a wall outlet, trying to tug it out. His face is turned toward the camera, his expression captured forever in the flash of the camera: mischievous, sneaky, gleeful. In reality, she didn’t know about his subterfuge, hadn’t realized it until the photo was developed weeks later. In reality, he probably emerged from behind the chair, toddling happily toward her as she told him he could open another present. It’s the photo of what could have been that haunts her and keeps her up at night.
The movie in her mind reveals Joey growing frustrated that the cord wouldn’t come out. He leaned forward and bit the plug, gripping it in his new front teeth, pulling with his head, saliva dripping on the outlet. Suddenly a flash happened, a loud pop, and the smell of burning filled the air as the Christmas tree lights turned off. The next sound was the thump of his little body hitting the hardwood floor, unconscious.
Rachel’s innards tense and her heart rate increases until she feels the thumping in her chest. She sits up in bed, trying to breathe, trying to calm herself. Her muscles twitch with tension.
She lies back down in a new position, re-ordering her many pillows. Tom had long since given up sleeping next to Rachel. Her insomnia, moans, restless legs, and constant repositioning keep him awake. He gets better sleep in the guest room. It’s no wonder she had no further children after Joey, not in twenty-five more years of marriage.
But Joey was enough, always enough. Joey was a spirited, brilliant, energetic child. Joey was almost too much.
On another night, she thinks about the piano.
It’s an antique, studio upright, sturdy and plain, but it served them well through the years. Many pianos couldn’t have taken the beating that Joey provided. Rachel remembers the piano with delight, mostly. As a preschooler, Joey often banged on the keys. She would train him on a few notes, but he would grow restless and simply pound his little paws anywhere, creating a cacophony of violent noise, his adorable grin absolutely maniacal. When he wanted to bang, she would step away and let him have at it. The piano could always be re-tuned. She can see in her mind’s eye that she was only six feet away. Only six feet. But he stood up on the bench in his glee, banging and laughing, until he lost his balance because he was in socks only – no shoes. He slipped and went sideways during the exuberant playing, and his face banged on the edge of the keyboard.
One, two, three seconds silently dragged on, and then his scream arrived.
She carried him to the kitchen and put a clean, damp washcloth on his forehead, and then she called 9-1-1. She couldn’t fix it. The gash was too big. After the EMT wrapped his head in gauze, he was safe to be transported by Rachel to the Children’s Hospital.
What she remembers is the paper barrier they laid across his face with just a hole to keep the wound exposed. Joey was calm by that point, not in much pain, and he watched them through the small gauze opening.
“I seeee you,” he playfully said to the plastic surgeon stitching his forehead closed. He needed four stitches in the lower tissue and 24 stitches on his skin. And so Joey earned his first scar.
Rachel tosses and turns in agony over that moment, castigating herself for stepping six feet away. The noise was so loud, though. The banging of the piano shook the house, it seemed. She waited three seconds before she ran to her beloved child. Her legs now twitch. Her muscles cramp. Breathe, she tells herself. Breathe. He could have lost his whole face. He could have broken his eye socket. Again and again, the movie plays in her mind, a series of ever-worsening outcomes. He never complained about the scar. Even as a young adult, he jokes that he got it in a knife fight, or a shark attack. He says it impresses the ladies.
The insomnia doesn’t happen every night. It comes when she’s especially tired or stressed out from her job, where she seems to spend more and more hours. She’s in her fifties, and the tasks take longer than they used to. She knows she should go home to her husband and 25-year-old son, but days that used to end at four o’clock now sometimes stretch to six o’clock or even later. She’s determined to make the “hand’s free exit,” as she calls it. She’d rather leave the paperwork at the office where it belongs. That’s why she stays late. That’s the only reason.
But the insomnia still hovers.
Each night it’s something different: the time Joey almost swallowed a mouthful of marbles, only she doesn’t intervene on time; the time he fell off the playhouse in the back yard and broke his clavicle, except in her late-night imaginings, he broke his neck; the year they went to Disney World and she wouldn’t let him on a particular water ride because in advance of the trip she’d had repeated nightmares of him drowning, and in her late-night imaginings, he does drown. He slips out of her grips, he falls away every time, he is lost to her in so many ways.
To be fair, Rachel believes she probably has post traumatic stress disorder from the endless sights of blood, broken bones, stitches, and recuperations that Joey’s had. Even when he sleep-walked into a Scout campfire, burning both his hands in the dying embers, he was such a dear, sweet angel at age twelve. He slept in her room that week so he could wake her when the pain returned. She would run his hands under cold water, apply the salve, wrap his hands like they were part of a mummy costume, and give him his pain killer. She would soothe him in bed until he fell back asleep, his giant golden-brown eyes staring at her trustingly until the lids dropped heavily. And he would wake three hours later for his next treatment.
She’d learned of Joey’s burns in the middle of the night when Tom called from camp, telling Rachel to meet them at the hospital. She learned of his broken ankle the same way: a late night call. It’s no surprise she tosses and turns, legs twitching, heart racing. What will happen next? What does she have to fear now?
When Joey became a teenager, Rachel began to realize he wasn’t exactly normal. She observed his friends, other boys who rarely had injuries, boys who looked away shyly when she asked them if they’d like to stay with Joey a bit longer and have dinner. Their eyes didn’t lock on hers, demanding attention, studying intently. When Joey turned sixteen and wrecked three cars in the first year, she felt relief when his friends opted to drive instead. When Joey began slashing her leather purses or cutting up the curtains in the middle of the night, she had new things to fear and dream about. Sometimes, she would be woken from a deep slumber by the sound of her bedroom door clicking shut, as if someone had just left the room.
“Were you in my bedroom last night?” she asked Tom over coffee.
“I was going to ask if you were in mine,” he replied.
So perhaps her insomnia is a defense mechanism, a way of always keeping one eye open, a way of watching over things. Because she’s awake, she imagines fiery car crashes, although Joey never had a crash involving fire. She can clearly see him jumping off a rocky outcropping into a lake thirty feet below, sure he will land wrong, sure he will drown, sure he’s drunk or on drugs and will pass out in the water, or that he’ll smash his head against a rock on the way down. None of these things happen, but her nerves vibrate with fear when her mind conjures it. She imagines him being beaten by a group of fellows bigger than he, fellows who hear only his insults but can’t recognize the playfulness in his expression. She has to hug a pillow against her face to muffle a scream when she imagines him falling off a tall building downtown; he’d taken up the hobby of skyscraper photography for no reason at all. He didn’t want to be a photographer. He just liked the thrill of exploring urban landscapes from all angles.
Rachel’s belly finally develops irritable bowel syndrome, so there’s more to keep her awake at night. Sometimes her own moans wake her up, just after she’s fallen asleep. She says a prayer of thanks every night for her en suite bathroom. She says a prayer of gratitude when she hears Joey arrive home after the bars close. She’s grateful that his weeklong stint in a rehab hospital scared him enough that he doesn’t pursue street drugs anymore.
She thinks about her lady friends, all clucking advice at her. They don’t understand. They don’t know how hard she’s worked, all the things she’s tried, all the sleepless nights, all the expense, all the therapists. They don’t know any of it. None of it. They can’t possibly understand.
At dinner one night, Joey tells his parents he’ll be moving out.
Tom laughs, then stops. He asks, “How will you do that?”
Rachel waits in silence.
“I met a girl, but she lives out of town. I think I’m going to move to her city and get a job. We want to start dating,” Joey says simply. His big golden-brown eyes watch Tom for a moment and then shift to Rachel.
“What city?” Rachel asks. She knows she should first ask about the girl, but she doesn’t.
Her fork hovers mid-air. New Orleans is far away from home.
“Who’s this young lady?” Tom asks.
“I met her online, through a game chat. We’ve been face-timing. Her name is Kelly. She goes to school in New Orleans.”
“And she can’t find a college boy in town to date?” Tom asks, ever the smart aleck. Rachel wishes Tom would reel it in, but he continues. “What does she want with you?” Oh, he is so cruel. So cruel. Rachel wants to cover his mouth with her hand.
“The fuck you think of me? Like I’m some kind of loser?” Joey is angry now, quick to temper.
Rachel tosses and turns less, though.
Joey does indeed move south, loading up his most recent car with enough items to get himself started in an efficiency apartment. He makes good on his word to find a job, for he does. He even starts dating Kelly in person, God bless her. These are the things he explains to Rachel when she calls him every Sunday. She’s proud he’s growing up. She wants him to do well.
There are still the vivid film reels of endless accidents, and she watches them behind her closed eyes, watches as Joey gets eaten by an alligator while on a nature walk in the swamp, or gets mugged in the French Quarter – shot in the head for his meager earnings. She can imagine him befriending the homeless people, watching them with his big eyes, listening intently as they share their stories of woe. She can see Kelly in her imaginings; she’s met the girl virtually and looks forward to getting to know her in person. Of course, Rachel’s interior film reel shows Joey broken-hearted, tossed aside, angry and self-destructive, but a break up doesn’t seem imminent. Maybe things will become more placid for Joey, more normal.
“How dare he just leave us like this,” Tom complains during one of their quiet dinners together. “I miss him, dammit.”
She nods in agreement, but really, she’s a little bit relieved.
She’s happy her sleep is improving.
Lisa Ebert, Associate Professor at Jefferson College in Missouri, resides in St. Louis. Her poetry, fiction and non-fiction have appeared in many publications including River Styx, The Riverfront Times, St. Louis Magazine, Controlled Chaos, and Flood Stage: An Anthology of St. Louis Poets. Lisa can be found online at https://lisaebert84.wixsite.com/collage.