Long ago, I used to be a daytime person. I went to bed early and rose early. That pattern lasted until I was in my mid-thirties. I liked being awake by myself. Then I had a kid who didn’t sleep through the night for his first five years. Initially that drove me crazy. But like everything other unexpected event in life, you either adapt or you make yourself miserable. I’m an adapter. In fact, one of my go-to phrases is adapt or die. Maybe that’s too brutal for some people. It works as a motivator for me.
Michael was a night guy. Over all our years together, we both gradually edged a little closer to each other’s favorite bedtime. By the time his cancer forced him into retirement, we were pretty much on the same schedule. However, during the last months of his life, when cancer had sneakily infiltrated his brain, his circadian rhythms vanished. He was up and down all night, confused about time. As his caregiver, I stayed with him through all his changes, effectively trashing my rhythms as well as keeping up with his. Now, four and a half years after his death, I’m left with that upside-down legacy. I’m not exactly thrilled about my new routine. In the past several months, I’ve dialed back from heading to bed between 4 and 5 am. These days my goal is to be asleep by 3 am. Not great but workable. The thing is, I’ve learned to enjoy the quiet and the darkness. I read, I write and I binge-watch television, preferably comedies or old black and white movies. I let my mind wander. Sometimes I drift into sleep for a short time, or into that space between sleep and awake. I have marvelous reveries and vivid dreams that jolt me back to consciousness. Often, I write down all the random thoughts and feelings that emerge. At the end of this incredibly challenging year I thought I’d share a few, from the banal to the sublime. At least for me.
1) I have no logical explanation for the deeply intense sensations I feel when Michael shows up in my wakeful state or in my dreams. All I know is that the feelings are powerful and often physical. I think the best description of these moments is warm flood. Sometimes my heart pounds. My exercise tracker on my wrist often shows an increased heart rate when these events occur. They’re so wonderful that I try conjuring them every night. Nothing works. I have to hang around, hoping for another “visit.” What does it mean? Who knows? My mom used to talk about these night moments with my dad after he died. She would always preface her stories of him sitting on the edge of her bed with, “I know you won’t believe me.” I’m glad I never told her I didn’t believe her. I’d just say I didn’t know what was happening. I still don’t but as she did, I’ll take these moments forever.
2) Every person I ever dated on a regular basis was the second born child in a two child family with an older sister. Every single one. Apparently birth order is a significant thing for me. Michael’s older sister is Betsy.
3) Some places in the world, the places I read about and dreamed about, filled me with powerful emotions when I was lucky enough to finally experience them, to stand in them, or on them in real time, instead of solely in my imagination. Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris. City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Little Round Top, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The approach to the Lorraine Motel at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Jefferson’s garden, Monticello, Virginia.
Standing in front of Monet’s water lilies exhibit at Chicago’s Art Institute. Hearing Sir Georg Solti conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at the Krannert Center. Swaying on the whale-viewing excursion boat in Monterey Bay at the exact moment a mother and calf humpback breeched the water.
Walking through Sunnybank and Terhune Memorial Park, home of Lad and the other collies of my childhood, which I once thought to be fiction when they were truly alive. Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Bryce Canyon. The Badlands. Ocean, ocean, ocean.
4) Then there is the stuff of the senses, the images, the scents, the feels that are seared into me and which drift to the surface of my mind in no particular order during the soft, quiet, dark nights. The smells of summer that waft by, even though the air is chilly. Bain de Soleil with its orange sheen, Coppertone, my go-to smell of summer, and Sea and Ski, the one with the blue-green color. The particular aromas in my grandparents’ hallway on 78th and East End in Chicago, chicken soup and peppery spices. The smell of a corned beef sandwich that hits you in the face when you walked through the door of the Carnegie Deli. The first time Danny held my hand. The heart-pounding excitement of seeing The Beatles perform in the Chicago Amphitheater. The remarkable fluttering sensation of my babies’ first discernible kicks. The physical agony of receiving the phone call informing me that Fern was dead. The surge of heat that coursed through my body the first time that Michael accidentally kissed the corner of my mouth in the kitchen as we did the dishes together. The palpable peace and sense of belonging I felt when lying entwined with him, simply staring into each other’s eyes.
When the sun goes down, I am flooded by this stream of consciousness, my companion, when the books are closed, the television is off and the music subsides. I am endlessly entertained by what sensations or thoughts surface unbidden, when I least expect them. I’m not exactly sure whether I’m processing something important or if I’m just passing time. I imagine that the quiet hours are conducive to releasing what is otherwise buried by the sounds and activities of daylight hours. I find solace in the company of these visceral memories. They’re a wonderful distraction from Covid, politics and climate change. I think they renew the energy I need to navigate these challenging days. For now, the nocturnal life works for me. I’m sticking with moonlight.