Don’t Turn Around

For ages I’ve dreamed about these two things:

The day I could kiss my son goodnight, leave the room, and count on him to fall asleep without me.

The day my son could read fluently enough to entertain himself with a book.

Those days have arrived–they are the same day in fact–and I am surprised to discover that my feelings of pride and relief are coated in a sticky layer of grief.

It all began when Kellie and I decided it was time to move Stump, our two-year-old, out of our bedroom and into the lower bunk in Smoke’s room. This meant that Smoke would have to move to the top bunk. Such transitions in our house require incentives, and so I offered to buy Smoke a headlamp and any comic book he wanted. I pitched that he could read with the headlamp while Stump slept down below.

I thought it would be a hard sell. When Smoke was three he went through a phase of waking at 2 am and demanding a snack. It didn’t matter that I never once gave in. “We don’t eat in the middle of the night,” I told him every time. Still he’d wake up every night and ask over and over.

Bedtimes have gone about the same way. Before this week, on a good night, I might be wrapping up our bedtime reading at 8:40. “Just one more chapter?” he requests. By that time of night he is insistent, and I am so very tired. I always cave. And then he needs a cold drink of water, and then he needs to poop, and then he needs another drink of water, and then it’s 10:05 and I snap at him “Oh-my-god-go-to-sleep!” and then I say “Sorry, it’s just late and I’m really tired.”

But not anymore. On the first night he climbed into his top bunk with his headlamp and his How to Train Your Dragon comic book. He was silent. Ten minutes later, I poked my head in. “Are you able to read that?” I asked him. So far he had been reading books with a sentence on each page, and always out loud with Kellie or me on hand to coach. “Not really,” he answered. “I’m just reading the words I can read.”

“That’s called reading,” I told him.

Ten minutes later, I poked my head in again. “Is your light off?” I asked him.

“Yeah,” he answered. He sounded apologetic, as if I might have wanted him to stay up all night. “I just got a little tired.”

I didn’t return until I had finished my own business and was ready to go to bed myself. I turned on the nightlight and stood on my tiptoes, but I could see nothing but the edges of his blanket. I knew for sure that he was sleeping only by the sounds of his breathing. I wondered if it was too late to reconsider. The sight of Smoke sleeping has been one of the deepest joys of my life.

Sleep3But of course, there’s no turning back. Isn’t that what Orpheus taught us when he looked behind him at his wife Eurydice and, in doing so, cast her out of the mortal realm forever? You must not look behind you, you must not turn around, or you will learn that the thing that you once loved has already transformed.

Meanwhile, Stump has not taken to the lower bunk. He’s taken instead to waking in the middle of the night and screaming for twenty minutes at a time. He won’t let me console him. Smoke seems to sleep through it just fine, but I’ve moved Stump back into my own room.

Stump’s final two-year molars are coming in, and so I use the pain of teething to explain his midnight screaming, but of course I can’t be sure what’s causing his distress. I can only be sure that it’s a phase, and it will pass in one month or two, and when he’s finally truly sleeping through the night away from me I will feel strange, like the way I would feel if I lost an appendage not to frostbite or amputation, but if I simply misplaced it, if I left it in a drawer in some rarely-used room. I would wander around wondering Where did I put that? and Didn’t I need that for something? and I will wonder why it’s so hard to be needed, and why it’s so hard to not be needed.

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15 comments

  1. That last sentence in your piece is life’s ultimate conundrum as far as I can tell. I got to read to Collin at bedtime through his 10th year. At the end, we were taking turns reading school assigned books out loud to each other. As an only child, he had no one bringing up the rear to spur him to bedtime independence. But he got there anyway. I cherish and miss the closeness, and even the inevitable annoying stalling, that were part and parcel of putting him down for the night. Of all Collin’s childhood rituals, I miss bedtime reading and chatting the most.

    1. Aw. I’ve just got to figure out a way to get Smoke to sleep somewhere where I can see him. Or maybe I need to put a step stool next to the bed so that I can easily look at him. (Climbing up the bunk ladder is not ideal.)

      1. I know it’s hard, but if you could somehow regularly separate their bedtime unwindings I think you could buy more precious close Smoke time. (As a mother of one, I’m only guessing.)

      2. Last night he fell asleep on the couch while waiting for me to warm up a rice pillow for him. One minute he was awake and the next minute he was snoring. I got to watch him sleep. So sweet.

  2. Poignantly rendered — your observations via Orpheus/Eurydice and the image of the misplaced limb are both exceptionally effective. Thank you for sharing. And good luck to both your young sleepers!

  3. Loved the pull and tug of wanting to let go and celebrating what’s becoming while dancing with the sadness that comes along with it. I love how you told your son “that’s called reading.” And I especially loved this: “you must not look behind you, you must not turn around, or you will learn that the thing that you once loved has already transformed.” I’ve been notorious for trying to hold on or turn back only to find that even if it’s just me that is different- that which I wanted to keep constant is already transformed. Lots of lovely layers here, Jenn.

    1. Thank you, Diahann. There’s no avoiding change, I guess. I’ve been asking Smoke for months: Can’t I just put you on pause so you can be 6 for a few years?

  4. Only thing in life that is constant is change itself. I enjoy being the parent and a person that loves my son, while in my son’s life. Each day is different and each day I do the best I can to embrace the whatever and where ever it may be, it changes every day. He is 15 now… and he will continue to change as I do. Life is pretty good.

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