Sleep dread; or, the yearning for absolute love

“I’m afraid to go to sleep.”

I sat beside Mia on her bed, running my hand through her hair. I couldn’t quite process what she’d said. It was nearly midnight, and she had school in the morning. It was well past time to be asleep.

“What do you mean?” I’d read something recently about “sleep dread”: an insomnia-related anxiety so acute that you actually dread the effort of going to sleep. Mia worries about everything anyway; it seemed cruelly natural that she would develop this affliction.

But if this was sleep dread, it wasn’t that kind.

“I feel alone when I sleep,” she said. “It’s like, nothingness. You aren’t anywhere. And you’re all alone.”

There’s not much you can do when your child comes to you with existential fear. She’s looking between the girders of existence and asking you to explain the darkness she sees there. Something like this happened when she was five years old; we’d just moved to Asheville, and along part of our regular daily commute we drove past a cemetery. She would ask me if I was going to die. Whether it would be soon, and what would happen to her when I did. What would happen to her when she did. My answers to her were geared toward a five-year old. They were simple, and unsatisfactory even then. Now she needed something more.

The problem is that there is nothing more. She’s too old for easy answers, and resents it when someone tries to give them to her. I don’t tell her I’m an atheist, and when she expresses curiosity about religion I encourage her to pursue whatever avenue she wants. But I won’t tell her fairy tales, either.

At least, not directly. What I do tell her is that she is never alone, because I am always in the next room. I can hear her in the night and I come in and check on her when she sleeps. She nods; she knows this. She accepts my minor consolations as a gesture of kindness. She doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by telling me what I already know: that none of this is what she means. That all of this is beside the point.

Because when she sleeps, she’s going back into that silence. And much as I might want to be, I won’t be there with her.

Mia is out of town this week. She’s gone to Alabama to visit her mom, and I’ve found myself in an empty apartment again. I’m reminded of the extent to which I rely on her to anchor me to the world. In the past couple of days I can probably count the numbers of words I’ve actually spoken aloud on both hands. There’s a deep peace in this — I am intensely solitary, after all — but there’s a fear, too. What will happen to me when she leaves for school? Will I be this strange old hermit, living in his isolated, book-lined cave? It seems quite likely, sometimes. And it has a kind of appeal. I don’t seem to do well with human beings. But it seems lonesome, too.

Sleep dread.

I found this video a little while ago and showed it to her. I didn’t mention it in context with the conversation we had that night, but I hope that she makes a subconscious connection to it.

“It’s so beautiful, Dad,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It really is.”

This, I think, is the final consolation. If we are all, finally, just chemistry, then this is love’s ultimate expression. It makes me happy to know that whenever some five-year old child casts a fearful eye at the earth where I’m buried, my busy ghost will be at work. That life will have made a city of me.

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10 Responses to Sleep dread; or, the yearning for absolute love

  1. What a lovely post, Nathan. :)

  2. Alexa Duncan says:

    That really is beautiful, Nathan. It reminds me of this part at the end of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, where two of the characters find out they won’t be able to see each other for the rest of their lives. They start talking about what will happen when they die,

    “Every atom of me and every atom of you. . . We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and in pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams. . . And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight. . .”

  3. Alexa Duncan says:

    I haven’t read them since college, but I absolutely fell in love with them when I did. I suspect you and Mia would both love them.

  4. Doesn’t Mia have them? Maybe I’m totally misremembering . . .

  5. Alexa Duncan says:

    She’s a pretty sophisticated reader. They’re the kind of books you can read at different ages and get different things out of them each time. You’re welcome to borrow my copies, if you want.

  6. carmella864 says:

    I must say, Nathan, that every post you write about Mia hits me straight in the heart. I appreciate so much you sharing these nuggets with us, it helps me see where things could be headed for me in a few years, as a single parent of a little girl. So so touching. Thank you again for such beautiful insights…

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