Sunday, January 10, 2010
Running In The Night
I was a sleepwalker. It's a family affliction. At least one in every generation.
We are selective, though. We don't always walk in the night. We pick and choose. The truth is I always have believed the places where we don't rest through the night in one spot are haunted in some way.
I have settled down, at least. I can't remember the last time I woke up in the pitch, holding my breath, knowing that once again I was not where I was supposed to be. Holding perfectly still, listening for just one clue, hearing only the decimating clanging of my own heart. Straining to see the smallest shimmer of light. Shaking with cold even in the heat, holding tight against the panic. Where am I? Where is this wall my hands are tracing?
I think, I hope, those days are long over.
We have certain characteristics, the night restless. My sister, when she was taken for several years, mainly talked, frantic, upset about something drastic that had gone wrong or was about to go bad. Her husband would question her about her fears, which made her furious. In her sleep.
One night when he was in his early 20s, Uncle H. tried to climb from the second floor window onto the roof of the porch of the farmhouse, but his mother caught him. She screamed for my father and his brother to help her. They ran to the hallway and this tiny woman had her oldest by the ankle, holding on for his dear life.
I roamed. My father found me one night sitting on the carport, legs crossed, silent and still, looking out into the rural South night. I had unlocked the front door, opened the storm, and walked around the house, through the grass and onto the flat concrete. Where I perched. And waited. For what? He woke up and had a notion and went into the living room, finding the door open. He knew something was amiss. Generational memory.
From then on, relatives were on alert. My favorite aunt had her husband build what he laughingly called "an idiot gate" for the stairs leading to the basement. He insisted it was for my grandmother, not me. I don't remember ever sleep walking in that house, although he said he heard me one night, as a middle schooler, shouting from my bed and went to see about the commotion. I was sitting up, my hand raised in the air: "I voted for you Mr. Kennedy, I voted for you!" A reference to our doomed president, John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated a couple of years earlier.
When I was grown, my brother told me he got up early and went into the garage one day. The dog slapped her tail on the concrete floor in greeting. Odd, he thought, Daisy stayed prone on the ground in a corner, lying next to a doll, instead of running over to say hello. He walked over to check on the dog. He was startled. The "doll" was his daughter, 3, holding tightly to Daisy. The little girl was fast asleep.
He picked her up and she started to cry. She said she woke up in the garage, and couldn't get back in, the door was locked. I asked my brother, "What in the world happened?" And he said, "You're asking me that? You know what happened." And, I said, "Oh yeah. I'm sorry."
She's a physician now, married to her longtime prince charming, a Navy helicopter pilot, who keeps her grounded at night. But, at least one in every generation.
I seemed to have been the longest walker, duration-wise. Then I married JO, a light sleeper. When I moved at night, his arm would clamp down like automatic prison bars. If I needed to go to the "ladies," for instance, I had to argue my way out of the vise, prove I was awake somehow. In the early years, he was the sleepwalking police.
After puberty, my son became the sleepwalker in the house. An athlete, one night he ran in his sleep, swiftly from his bedroom, down the stairs, to the back door and out. In my sleep I heard him, somehow, the mother in me overruling my sleeping self, moving silently from the bed, fast and light on my feet, down the stairs I followed, calling his name before I was fully awake.
"Stop. Stop! Right now, you need to stop this second and turn around and come back in the house."
Finally, he stopped. "What?" "Come in, you're asleep." I took his arm. His sleepwalking self is ephemeral and smaller, somehow, almost as though he could slip through my hands into the ether unless I hold on tightly. He's there and he's not. Like some of the molecules making up this boy now towering over me are somewhere else.
So he's easy to guide once I have my hand on his arm, once he hears my voice. He does not resist. "Okay," he says, moving back into the direction I lead him. Then awake, he's fully there, all molecules present, dense, like me.
He has settled down too, lately. But the sleepwalking reappears when we visit his Iowa grandmother. She lives in a tiny cottage on the grounds of a huge old assisted living facility, where we stay. This is a wonderful service provided for the families of the people who live in these units. Rooms for guests are provided free of charge.
But my son tries to leave the room in his sleep all night. So I can't allow him to stay in a room alone. One of us, my husband or I, have to sleep in one of the twin beds to keep him in the room, keep him from roaming the halls.
Because an hour or so after lights out, it starts. He argues, gets up and rushes for the door, fast. Other times he'll slip quietly from the bed and sneak, trying to get out before I can wake up. He's urgent, upset, and he argues. All in his sleep. He is desperate to get out of the room, out of the building. This has happened everytime we have stayed there since he went into puberty.
The last time we were there, I was fed up after multiple escape attempts. Finally I said to this sleeping boy, "Okay, what are you going to do if I let you leave this room and the building? In the middle of the night in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere Iowa? How are you going to get out of here, out of Iowa, get back home?" Or words to this effect.
Quietly, calmly, in the dark winter night of the Midwest, he told me matter-of-factly, "Sarah will help me."
"Go to bed," I said. And he did. We don't know a Sarah, or we haven't since fifth grade, five years ago. This huge old, gothic nursing home/assisted living facility is full of ghosts. That's what I think.
Because at my mother's house, D. sleeps peacefully, all night long, not a peep from him. And always has. Mother built this house a year after my father died. No one else has lived there.
So many questions. No real answers. I used to bring up the sleepwalking to doctors. Who have no answers, no response, no solution. So I don't talk about it anymore. I have read and read. No real answers there either. Contradictory information. We generally grow out of it anyway. Eventually.
At least one in every generation. Calm and collected in the daytime, happy, well-adjusted. Yet desperate in the deep, dark night. Trying to escape a nightmare we don't remember, recognize or understand in the light of day. Which would be very upsetting except for the stories about the generations of us affected by this. We've heard them as long as any of us can remember.
At least one in every generation. Restless in the night. Running from something never seen and rarely remembered.