Sleep: Loss


(Originally published in the NY Times)

I used to think that the only thing worse than having insomnia is having insomnia next to someone who falls fast asleep and stays soundlessly so till morning.

That was my life for 16 years. I lived with a man who slept, yes, like a baby. There were nights, many nights, when I literally wanted to steal his sleep — slip beneath his eyelids and yank it out of him; a kind of middle-of-the-night “Chien Andalou” moment, minus the surrealism. Instead, I spent the equivalent of at least a tenth of our relationship lying awake or reading in bed. In the end, that I happened to be deep asleep when he first went into cardiac arrest next to me now seems beyond irony. If I had not taken half a sleeping pill that night four years ago, might I have been awake and saved him?

I can no longer remember the sound of his laughter but I clearly recall what he looked like while sleeping, his head propped on a scrunched up pillow, his muscular arms, his breath blown in warm puffs from the corner of his mouth, the place where Popeye’s pipe would go. I suppose this is the upside to insomnia. I clocked a lot of time studying Steve in repose.

I went to see a minister a few days after his death, which was as swift as it was inexplicable — he had been only 43 and remarkably fit, with no history of heart problems. Neither Steve nor I were religious but I wanted to talk to someone. She was wonderful; she did not bring up God or heaven or anything. She was more like a doctor, explaining a diagnosis. “Suffering a devastating loss is like suffering a brain injury,” she said. She spoke really slowly, which I appreciated. “You walk around like a zombie. You can’t think straight. You feel drugged—”

Sometimes you are drugged, I thought to myself.

To be safe, I started keeping a notepad inside the medicine cabinet. “Yes, you took an Ambien at 11,” I would jot, answering a question I knew I would ask myself when I woke four hours later. Or: “2 X @ 3,” meaning two Xanaxes at 3 a.m. — no wait, maybe it was 3 in the afternoon? I don’t remember now.

In those early days of grief, short on sleep, forgetting to eat, I felt as though I were in a liminal state, not quite alive myself, which made me feel remarkably close to Steve. During that same period, I was continually having amazing encounters with strangers — people who would pop up and offer help, whether at the post office or grocery store, or just say something kind. At the time, I never doubted that they were embodiments of him.

One day I met a man with the name of an angel. He was French. His accent was so thick, it sounded fake. We got to talking and I told him what had happened. “You’re going to be fine,” Emmanuel said right away. “Something bad always leads to something good.” He spoke from personal experience. His partner had died six years earlier. But he did not use that word died as he told me his story. Nor did he say passed away, a euphemism I had come to hate. Instead, Emmanuel said, “When my partner disappeared….” I knew this was not a case of poor English, a bungled translation. Still, I had to say something. “You said ‘disappeared’ —“

He nodded.

“That’s exactly how it feels for me, too.”

One might think that for someone who has lost a partner or spouse, nights would be hardest, loneliest. For me, this was not the case. I was used to being alone at night, the only one awake. I didn’t even have more than the usual trouble sleeping after the first few weeks. I suppose this was partly because Steve and I had never been bedtime cuddlers or spooners, so I was not missing something I’d once had. That said, it was a long time before I was able to take his pillow from his side of the bed. I did not dare. The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from a streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow. It was the opposite of a shadow. Which is as clear a definition as I can come up with for the soul.

With morning, the light was gone, and I found the days empty and agonizing. It would take about three years for this feeling to pass — a thousand days, give or take — people who had been through this told me. As it turns out, they were right. What no one said is something I discovered on my own: A thousand days is a thousand nights is a thousand chances to dream about him.

Usually it went like this: Someone digs up his corpse and initiates C.P.R.; he revives in an instant, no problem. I see him walking, talking, a latter day Lazarus with a flat-top and a beautiful body and a crooked grin. Back from death but unchanged by death, with one crucial difference: He does not recognize me. It is I, not he, who has been transformed.

For awhile I tried going on dates — dinner, a movie, that kind of thing — I met a few nice guys. But I could not disguise my lack of interest. There was one man I saw for about a month. His name was, you guessed it, Steve. Even though we had been intimate from the start, we didn’t end up spending the night together until the fourth week. I can still picture the moment when he turned over to go to sleep. His back, illuminated by moonlight, reminded me of the disappeared Steve’s.

That was the last time I tried that. Now I send them home or, as the case may be, leave myself. Insomnia is my excuse: I would rather not-sleep in my own bed, I explain. This is not altogether true. I would like to stay but can no more imagine falling asleep with someone else than I can falling in love again.

Curiously, though, the reverse sometimes occurs: I will be with a lover, before I make my exit. I will have him wrapped in my arms and we’ll be talking in the aimless, dreamy way that lovers do, like two analysands to an unseen Jung. A pause stretches into a long lull and I hear that unmistakable change in breathing. He has fallen asleep, and improbably, I feel responsible, as though I, of all people, possess the arms of Hypnos. It seems like a small miracle. But here’s the rub: As I draw him closer and nuzzle his neck, I cannot help remembering what the Greeks so wisely knew: The god of sleep has an identical twin, Thanatos, the god of death.


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