The Job of an Insomniac

As an insomniac, I puzzle through the night while my family sleeps: why am I not sleeping, too? There are definite rhythms to my need for sleep, and these have changed as I have aged. I find myself compelled to sleep in the late afternoon, which is a dangerous thing in a home-bound commute. I don’t recall the late-night wakefulness I experience these days being a problem when I was younger. I think of my younger self as somebody who worked long hours and slept easily. I can even recall those summer evenings when I held the fort at the Cenex plant, waiting for semi loads of wheat that were being transferred from a glutted terminal to our available storage. I was never tempted to sleep as I waited. I stayed up, reading old western novels somebody left laying around the shop and listening to late-night renditions of At Seventeen by Janis Ian. It was Janis Ian, wasn’t it?

Of course, in those days, I wasn’t allergic to eggs either.

So why is it that our sleeping patterns change as we age? I haven’t the foggiest. Except my speculations. Insomnia, perhaps, serves a social role.

We cavemen work our days away by hunting and gathering, all the while being aware of imminent dangers that stalk our tribes. We range the prairies and the hills, seeking food and hoping we won’t be eaten by anything bigger or smarter than we are. It’s young men’s work, of course. The old men sit back at camp, drowsing beside the fire or cackling at the sight of young women doing their own jobs. Old men, say forty years old…they’re nearly worthless.

But then comes night. Those of us who ranged and hunted, who fought off the enemies and the wild beasts, who found nut groves or fields of camas roots–we have collapsed near the fire on our beds of fern leaves, snuggling close to our mates and our offspring. So who tends the fire that keeps nighttime marauders at bay? It is the old ones who nap in the daytime and who cannot sleep at night. When danger comes at night, it will be those old ones who raise the alarm and who form the first line of defense.

Today, we descendants of the cavemen carry the physiological remnants of that antique survival strategy. Old ones  wake at night, to sit up late, to watch the televised fires of our civilization. We tend to the locks and the drapes, gather information and wisdom to pass on to our active youths. It is our job to detect the danger that comes in the dark.

So maybe it is our job to be awake at night, although our civilization doesn’t encourage it today. Our schedules require wakefulness during the day, for the most part. We need to be alert and active (like our young hunters and gatherers) throughout the day and we need to be able to sleep on demand during the night. Even in retirement, we expect our aged to keep to a regular schedule of meals and activities, for the benefit of the people who look after them.

But maybe insomnia is meant to play a part in today’s home after all. Maybe somebody is meant to be awake to meet the dragons of the night. In that case, pity the families who have nobody to take the night watch.

We lost our ten-year-old daughter during the night almost exactly a year ago.

She was a diabetic, dependent on insulin and on the good thinking of the parents who were her caregivers. I was her primary caregiver, because she wanted it that way. My own doctor had pronounced me “pre-diabetic,” a term another doctor compared to being “almost pregnant.” When the disease struck her, Rosie looked to me for her routine, which made sense: I was present nearly all the time, because I was a teacher at her grade school.

I won’t go into the pain, the torture, the daily hell of her death. That’s not the topic of today’s diatribe. But Rosie died in the night. That night, as in so many other nights, I was awake. I had watched a movie with her mother, but after my wife fell asleep I lay awake and unable to sleep. I got up, crept down the creaking stairway outside Rosie’s room, and sat at the computer for a couple of hours, researching, ordering movies, cruising the sites. If I thought of her at all, I merely hoped to slip past Rosie’s room without waking her: she was a light sleeper in general. But that night, she slept into eternity.

The lion approached the camp in the middle of the night. The watcher, unaware, never heard the lion take his child away.

Do I blame myself for Rosie’s death? In so many ways, yes. It was I who measured out her final dose of insulin and pricked it into her arm. It was I who chose to slip past her room silently as possible, to avoid having to deal with her wakefulness. I never checked to see if she was breathing. It was I she trusted.

Yet I cannot fall to the snare of remorse, for what good would that do? There are survivors: her mother, her twin brother, even me. We need something more than remorse.

Now, nearly a year since she died, I am not immune to the hopeless regret of her passing. Not a day passes without my feeling failure, sorrow, grief. Not a moment passes without me thinking of something she would have been so enthusiastic about: the new colt, the puppies, our new garden, the color pink, sparkles, fairies, fishing. I see her red hair, her eyes, her smile. I hear her songs and arguments. I pass her empty room, cluttered with the paraphernalia of her life and the odds and ends we find it necessary to store there.

I miss her.

I taught her classmates this year, a mixture of challenges and awe. These were her friends, the girls who were invited to her birthday parties and who I bought gifts for when they invited Rosie to theirs. I did so well, until that last week of school, when the fifth-graders got their yearbooks. Now I had no excuse for maudlin behavior. It was I who had provided the paragraphs and the picture of Rosie scratching somebody’s dog on the belly. But when it came, the awful reality of the hard print drove home the message: Rosie will never graduate to Middle School. I spent a terrible afternoon being brave and being an emotional noodle. It was worse for her brother, of course. Even though I tried to warn him by sharing the page with him before his classmates saw it, when the annual arrived in class, he had to flee.

It is now past 1:3o AM. Upstairs I hear my wife stir. Our old computer drones behind me, while I compose this post on the quiet new computer. Our dogs: Lizzie and her puppy (that Rosie never got to see)–the dogs are moving about in their nighttime abode, the laundry room. There is not a hint that Gus is here. He has always slept well. His sister’s room is silent, and I know I won’t have to place my feet carefully on the steps outside of it to avoid waking her up. The night is peaceful and our fires are stacked with wood. The chill of the air tempts me to the warmth of my sleeping wife’s side.

I have done my job this night.

Copyright 2009

Mark E. Danielson

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