Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Posted: September 5, 2011 in Creative non-fiction, Narrative essay

When we were younger, my sister Chandra and I both got into the habit of counting up to a thousand when we couldn’t fall asleep in order to prevent ourselves from thinking about death. Like a prayer without the face of God to shape it, it was method for filling the void at night. We also prayed directly to God sometimes, nothing specific – just a series of requests and thanksgivings for the continued safety of our friends and family and favourite possessions. We would ramble on, adding things to the list as we remembered them, until we fell asleep.

The religious doctrine Chandra and I were raised with was fairly freeform, and as a result I was slow to learn that the prayers taught to Christian children are pretty terrifying. The image of a toddler on their knees lisping “If I should die before I wake” is only cute so long as that child is sure that their request of the Lord their soul to take will be received and answered. When I was seven, death was innocuous, a toothless creature to one protected by adults on all sides. The protection I asked of God was just a safeguard, an investment to be paid out much, much later. Eventually, with the help of a few small unanswered prayers and an untimely reading of one of the Left Behind novels, doubt started to creep in and I started seeing death in everything. Instead of something Elsewhere and Other, it became a near and waiting face in the dark, peering through the flimsy veneer of parental protection and coveting the fleshy vessel it would one day take away from me.

As I got older, the terrors of Death became secondary to the terrors of Life, but on the backburner was always the question: How will my parents protect me from the uncomfortable eventuality? And should I die before I wake, what then? Who protects me then?

*

I remember crying on the playground by the wall because I had stabbed myself in the leg with a graphite pencil. It had happened right before recess, and in the confusion of kids leaving the grade six classroom, I couldn’t make Mr. Crane understand what had happened. I had pulled out the pencil as quickly as I could, but a piece of the lead had broken off and was stuck deep in my thigh. Mr. Crane suggested that I get a band-aid or something equally useless, and in my panic I didn’t think to go to the school nurse. I could already feel the poison coursing through my leg, so I figured it was probably too late to save me anyway. I decided that in the little time I had left I had better try to make my peace with death.

I went out to recess with the others and sat down by the wall on the north side of school, then empty of the usual pack of kids playing wall-ball. A few of my friends stopped by on their way to the playground, trying to get me to join a game or asking if something was wrong. I shook them off, saying, “I just want to be alone.”

I leant my head against the cool bricks and thought bitterly of all the things I had meant to accomplish in my life. I was going to die at eleven, never having kissed a boy or made my mark on the world of art. I wondered if I would live on through my poetry. If I had been introduced to John Keats by then, I might have hoped for the young poet’s epitaph: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

I shed a few sacred tears during that solitary vigil, and had almost reached the spiritual calm of acceptance, when the second bell rang and people started running past again. I sat a few minutes longer, still crying but slowly becoming aware that my leg no longer hurt, and that no sensation of poison had spread to any other body part. A few minutes later I crept back inside for class.

That was the last time I knew for sure I was dying. In retrospect I don’t know why I wanted to be alone. In a way it might have been perfect to die at recess, the time I liked best, playing with some of my favourite people in the world. I wish I had gone to Shayna and Emily and Erica and Ellen and everybody else, and told them what our friendships had meant to me. I wish I had gone to Zain Hami and confessed my feelings for him in front of everybody. I wish I had had gone out during one last game of wall-ball, or spinning on the tire swing. I wish I had made that recess count, and even though I didn’t die of lead poisoning from a wound made by a graphite pencil, I’m still disappointed that I didn’t use my final moments to greater effect. That I’ve never been able to face death gracefully and become its master.

*

For a short period of time during my childhood I had night terrors about assassin beetles.

This was the first and craziest of the string of my night terrors that turned up between the ages of eight and nine. Like many other children, I found lying down in the dark for eight hours a pretty good opportunity to think about all the billions of things that could kill me. Fire, one of the more common childhood fears, turned up a little while later, when a fire fighter came to my grade three classroom to talk about fire safety and what one should do in the event that one’s house or clothes catch on fire. At first it was fun, as welcome as any other diversion from the monotony of math. We stopped, dropped and rolled, and practiced putting the backs of our hands to the door to find out if there was heat behind it. During the next fire drill, a cardboard cut out of Sparky the Fire Dog was placed in front of several doors as a stand-in for exits blocked by fire, to teach us the importance of alternate escape routes. I started putting my hand to my bedroom door every time I went out, still not completely sure what good it would do in an actual emergency but comforted nonetheless by the Hail Mary-like repetition.

Then flames started showing up in my sleep, licking at my house and clothes and hair. I was like a little fire myself, bursting into neurotic frenzy at the slightest whiff of fuel. In order to set my mind at ease, Mom suggested that I pack a small bag with the items most important to me, the things that I would want to be able to grab quickly should I need to make a quick escape out my window.

Inside it:

  • Snowy the white bear
  • Snowflake his baby brother
  • My ring collection
  • A picture of me with my sister
  • A picture of me with my parents
  • Some cash
  • A book or two.

No such comforting escape plan could ward off my fear of the assassin beetle. An adult assassin beetle can be up to 40 mm. They are occasionally known as “kissing bugs,” due to their habit of dropping from the rafters onto sleeping humans and biting them on the soft tissue of the lips and eyes. They use their rostrum – a segmented tube for feeding – to inject a venom that is usually enough to leave a painful welt. In some species, it may transmit Chagas disease, which can be fatal.

All this I read in chickaDEE, a Canadian magazine for kids, which is a great resource for sparking the natural curiosity of kids aged six to nine, and which absolutely scared the living shit out of me on a regular basis. I quickly developed a system for protection from the poisonous ninja beetles. I tucked the sheets neatly all around me and learned how to breathe shallowly, so that I could survive in the pocket of air for about five minutes before I dove out from under the covers for a few quick deep breaths. I scanned the ceiling every night for movement, until my eyes grew too tired to stay open and I dropped off. Frequently I would wake in the night to discover I had tossed off the sweaty sheets, and would need to tuck them around me again.

This went on for a while until my parents finally explained to me that a) assassin beetles only thrive in warm-weather countries and would be unlikely to survive a Calgary winter; b) even a beetle carrying Chagas disease probably couldn’t kill me if I were treated at a hospital right away; and c) they couldn’t drop down on me from the rafters because we didn’t have rafters, and it would take some sort of miraculously nimble super-bug to cling to the stuccoed ceiling. My nights were quiet for a while.

*

Later that year, I discovered I was being poisoned.

I have no memories from that time. That is, I have no internal memories that could shed any light on why I thought I was being poisoned. Looking back I can only observe what I said, what I thought, from the outside, as if I had no part in that year at all. This disassociation has occurred with my memories from the unhappiest times in my life. My entire third grade year – when I was so miserable at school that I routinely fantasized about crashing through the glass window in math class, running as fast as I could across the playground and up the hill to my house – is a series of blurry snapshots.

The next year, I would attend a different school downtown, one with a program designed to aid the learning of the “gifted and talented,” kids whose methods for learning were too different from their peers’ for the normal curriculum to be effective. Generally speaking, it was home to the kids who were fantasizing about throwing themselves out the window during class.

Around the time that I was going through the testing and application process for this program, I started experiencing anxiety at meals, hovering with a fork over what was on my plate. Often I went to bed hungry. Then one night we went to the Keg for Grandma’s birthday. The restaurant had an extensive salad bar, and when we returned from filling our plates I asked my mom if she had put poison in my food. I had been reluctant to ask her, concerned that she might react badly.

She wanted to know why I thought she would have put poison in my food. I sat mum for a while, looking at my plate. I don’t know what I said, or if I said anything. I should have clarified that I didn’t believe she was the only person who was poisoning me. It was Dad, too. It was everyone, all the time. I saw a threat in every plate placed in front of me.

This marked the beginning of a dark episode in my parents’ lives. Histories of schizophrenia, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder had shaken the boughs of the family tree on both sides, snapping a few branches clean off. Tragedy had taught the family to dread small indicators as the first signs of apocalypse. Then my parents, aunts and uncles got married and had kids, and something about having a new generation of happy, healthy babies to care for – the sleeplessness and the noise and the constant running – served to both cauterise the wounds and act as an adhesive, starting the family story afresh and bringing the pieces back into a stable order.

None of this troubled me then. I was only aware of the cramps, my digestive system being squeezed and twisted with hunger. For weeks, or months maybe.

Fall came and I began grade four at Hillhurst Elementary, my new school. I also went to see two specialists in child psychology. I don’t remember what I said or what they said at any of the appointments. I’m told that after my only session with the one doctor, Yates, he emerged from his office with tears of laughter rolling down his face. He advised my parents to keep talking with me, keep an eye on the situation, and let him know if it got worse or better. I generally spent my appointments with the other doctor, Mendaglio, entertaining him with my Italian accent. In between all of this, my parents were vigorously affectionate, sitting me down for long talks in which they reassured me of their love and reminded me of all the things in place to keep me safe. By all accounts of people watching from the outside I was a normal and charming child, and I had no doubt that my parents loved me, wanted to protect me. I still had cramps and I still hovered over every bite of food.

The first real memory I can call up from that time is an event celebrating Black History Month. There was a buffet with finger sandwiches, cheeses and piles of fruit. I edged towards it, eying a piece of pineapple. It was February and we were in Calgary, so the fruit can’t have been very good, but I was partial to pineapple. Once I had gathered some courage, I picked it up, and at once felt the most exquisite sense of liberation. I bit into it and felt the acidic, sunshiney juice scorch my throat.

I skipped over to Mom, elated, and told her I wasn’t afraid of being poisoned anymore. The idea had vanished like fog. It seemed insipid now. Mom must have said something, at the least an acknowledgement that she understood, but I wonder if I could go back to that moment and look again I would see the shutters behind her eyes flicker open to reveal…whatever she was feeling. Relief. Pain. Exhaustion.

That anxious period was soon left behind, but its memory became sinister in my mind as I got older and it started to look less like a passing fancy, more like a hallucination. It had seemed completely logical then.

My fear of death is symmetrical to my fear that I’m going crazy. Both are symptoms of the idea that one day I’ll be left in the dark.

*

The Dark. The vague hand that once in a while still touches my face and breathes a warm breath on me so that I become seven again, huddled in bed whispering numbers up to a thousand until the sun rises and I close my eyes.

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Comments
  1. cheryl says:

    Hadn’t read this before. Will digest.

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