Sunday, August 06, 2006

Essay: "Lights Out. Let's Talk" by Karen Knowles

Lights Out. Let's Talk.

Karen Knowles
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It's another night of getting my ten-year-old daughter to sleep. We read together, and talk, and snuggle. Her favorite classical music is playing, I've kissed and hugged her twice and, finally, I'm heading out the door.

"Mom! Leave the door open a little, okay?" Her voice crosses the darkened room, slightly edged with anxiety.

"Okay, okay," I whisper, "just try to sleep now. You don't want to be tired in the morning."

At last, it's adult time or so I hope. The possibility lingers that she'll appear in 15 minutes just to check on me, unable to tough it out in the dark in her bed.

I empathize. When I say "lights out" and my daughter says "let's talk," I usually indulge her. I remember exactly how it feels to be young and unable to fall asleep.

The winter I was eight I begged my older sister to talk me to sleep every night. She obliged, and I took her patient storytelling for granted, believing it was one of her required older sister roles. We'd start off whispering word games. "I'm going on a trip and I'm packing…" and then she would tell me sedate tales until I dozed off. If she paused even for a moment, I'd stretch out one leg and jiggle her bed to make sure she was still awake.

My fear of the night began a few weeks before Christmas that year, when I last saw Theresa, my 16-year-old Brownie troop assistant. I adored Theresa; she was kind and attentive and made me feel incredibly special. At our Brownie troop meeting, she helped us string green and amber beads onto gold yarn to fashion long, sparkling necklaces. To show us how it was done, she created a necklace of her own and wore it around her neck while she helped untangle our yarn. The amber beads looked beautiful against her dark hair. We told her so, again and again, until it turned into a contest of compliments. When Theresa took off her necklace and gave it to another girl, I burned with resentment.

I was still in a sulk over this breach of affection the following Sunday morning at church. As Theresa's family filed past our pew, I turned my head and refused to greet her. Although I had hoped to deprive her of my affection, I was the only one to suffer for my rudeness. As I left church that day I knew I had behaved horribly.

The next morning, a dark, rainy Monday, I started the day like any other school day, eating cereal and toast at the kitchen table and listening to the radio—always tuned to WBZ, Boston. I mechanically munched and watched my mother's quick hands whip together sandwiches. Her sudden attention to the announcer and her stilled hands alerted me that something important was happening. I tuned in: there had been a fire in our town. It was so unusual to hear a Boston station report on our small New Hampshire town that at first I was excited just to hear us mentioned on the news. The announcer's brisk, no-nonsense voice told the story. Suspected bad wiring of an electric heater had caused a fire that killed seven family members: Theresa's family. And then the report was over. Brief, objective, factual.

Although I recognized the names at the center of this tragedy, I seemed unable to grasp the fact that Theresa had actually died. Days passed before I understood I would never see her again.

That's when the nightmares began. I dreamt of a mysterious woman, dressed in a silky purple-and-black-striped robe with her face hidden behind a black mantilla, the very same clothes we played dress-up in during the day. She sat next to my bed on a chair that did not exist during my waking hours, and asked me questions about school and everyday matters. If I refused to talk with her, she'd pinch my leg. I'd wake with a start, my heart kicking against my chest.

These dreams scared me so much I began to stay awake at night. If my mother left the house in the evening to go Christmas shopping, I'd kneel before my bedroom window to watch diligently for her return, my hands clasped upon the windowsill, my forehead resting against the cold glass frosted over with ice. The radiator beneath the window clicked and cracked and blew soft warm air toward my face. In the darkness, the street shone with a film of ice over crunchy snow. I'd stare at that road and pray for my mother to appear, afraid now for my own family's safety. When her VW's headlights rose up over the hill, my anxiety would vanish in a rush of relief. Only then would I end my night vigil and return to bed.

What must my sister have thought when she woke to find me kneeling at the window, or shaking her awake, demanding to know if she could smell a fire? She never said, never ridiculed me. Instead, she saved me from my fears by comforting me with her voice. Her light-hearted stories and word games, night after night, distracted me enough that gradually my anxieties and nightmares disappeared.

Now that I'm a parent, I'm even more impressed with my sister's ability to calm my night terrors with such grace. As a mother with a restless child, I know it's not an easy job.

When my daughter gets out of bed two or three times and comes to find me, I think seriously about making the bedtime routine a lot stricter but then I remember how my sister comforted me. Somehow, no matter how tired or impatient I feel when I hear "Mom, I can't fall asleep," I'm immediately cast in the same role of bedtime soother. Although we have tried several relaxation methods, including meditation, some nights she's just got more on her mind and the only solution seems to be to let her talk it out. So I tuck her back into bed and sit beside her, waiting for her to tell me what's on her mind.

Sometimes our bedtime chats deal with the lingering anxieties of her scarier, post-9/11 world: a lockdown drill at school or the reports on war and terrorism that she's glimpsed on the news. Other times she's got innocent, ten-year-old concerns: why have some of her friends started wearing bras and will she have to wear one, too? I've answered basic questions about menstruation and had philosophical discussions about death and the idea of an afterlife. I've learned not to be surprised by her questions; they're the tough questions she doesn't feel comfortable asking after school or at the dinner table. But under cover of darkness, when her anxieties grow large and beg for attention, she's ready to talk.

I have discovered that the darkness itself encourages candid conversation—on both our parts. In the twenty minutes it takes to square away a worry or a question, we end up sharing experiences that might not come to light during the day. Although I cannot remember the first day I wore a bra, I can recall vividly how it felt to be out of sorts with my best friend. We discuss life lessons and challenging situations. I always come away from our conversations amazed by her strength and insight.

I know, given time, my daughter will outgrow her need for this bedtime routine, just as I did. On those nights she still needs comfort I pass along my version of the gift my sister gave to me. After lights out, I talk with her in the dark and listen to her talk herself to sleep. When she relaxes and gives me the signal —- "I'm sleepy now, Mom" -— I'm released from my role as bedtime soother.

Some nights I stay a little longer, just for the quiet pleasure of it.
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Karen says:

Besides being a mom of two daughters, I am a freelance writer and editor. My recent publications include fiction on www.LiteraryMama.com (May 2006) and a personal essay broadcast on Northeast Public Radio. I am also the editor of the anthology Celebrating the Land, Women’s Nature Writings.

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