My eldest child, who is now four, has been having night terrors nearly since he was born. Though they've subsided, his pitiable cries for help, his valiant stands against his dream monsters were heartbreaking not just because they belied a dream world full of fear and anger uncertainty, but because I knew whatever assailed him during those hours was his and his alone to face.
My options were to either jostle him awake or leave him to fight the fearsome armies that terrorized him. A harrowing choice for sure.
Now, he sleeps better and, it seems, more restfully. It's been about a year since cries of “Get Away! Get Away” startled us awake. He still unleashes unprompted howls in the dead of night but, since he's four and does that in the light of day too, it seems somehow less affecting. My younger son, who is nearly three, meanwhile periodically awakens from his deep sleep to sit up quietly and confused. His little hunched form in his bed resembles the most adorable raccoon ever. His demons are perhaps latent but for now they leave his dreams unperturbed.
And now, I love to watch them sleep. And that's weird, I know. If you’re not an guardian angel or Santa Claus, it’s seems creepy to watch a kid sleep. Ah, the paradox of being a father. Because, this Father’s Day, all I kinda really wanna do is just watch my kids sleep for a while.
It’s not that I’m all kittened and cuddlified by their faces in repose, though I am. It’s not a Santa Clausian thing. I’m not Big Brother. And it’s also not come unto me my son and I shall protect thee thing either. I’m no angel. I’m just a Dad.
But watching your children sleep is like batting practice for when they strike out on their own, a touching and terrifying reminder you can shelter them only so long. For beyond the threshold of slumber, you are powerless to aid them. They are, dreaming, on a solo expedition. And you are behind the plate glass of consciousness, peering in.
This new wistful melancholia is a rather new development. It only developed after we passed the early drama nights, when one observes one’s child sleeping with an undercurrent of desperation. Every stir, every toss, every squeak could lead to catastrophic sleep drama. Your Very Important Plans of watching “Broad City” with a tumbler half full of Bulleit hang in the balance.
Now when I gaze upon the kids it's more as a meditation on impermanence. Because taking a picture and of a sleeping kid is too weird even for me, I just try to etch into my mind the moment. Sheets crumpled. Comforter thrown aside. Chin slightly up. Little snores. Hedge the Hedgehog and Foxy the Fox rest in one corner. Isa, the stuffed dog from IKEA that every toddler has but knows by a different name, is being squeezed between his legs and looks stupidly at me from unseeing polyester eyes.
Like a sourdough starter, these overnight shifts are when my love grows. When these boys are awake their cute little faces and the bodies attached to them are too frequently engaged in mischief to contemplate them with anything more than a morsel of tenderness. Something about their proclivity to just destroy anything nice — plants, art, clothing, furniture, walls, walks, meals, books, records, patios — precludes quiet affectionate contemplation. Impermanence seems then more a blessing than a root of suffering.
But when the lights go out, the stories have been read, the tossing has settled and stalling techniques exhausted, when sleep overcomes my little ones, I linger a little longer at their bedsides. Then my sons are both mine and not mine. In this state, I am with them and also without them. Then, I slip out quietly.