The Night Self
Truly, poor Night, thou welcome art to me.
Mary Wroth, "Sonnet 15," 1621
It's Sunday, December 6, and I'm running down a narrow country lane. It's the first time I've run for months-I usually prefer the slower, more contemplative pace of walking. But on this particular day, which is to change the balance of my life forever, I am running.
The air is thin and glittering, and so cold it pinches the insides of my lungs. I feel the virtuous exhilaration that all morning runners feel and decide that my New Year's resolution will be to run more often. It doesn't occur to me that there might not be any New Year's resolutions. Or that these feelings of virtuosity and exhilaration could be the last I experience for some time.
As I approach our cottage, my phone rings. Which surprises me, because it's only 8:45 a.m. I expect to see my husband's name, Matthew, on the screen. To my surprise it's my father's wife, whom I shall call L.
"Hello," I puff, wondering if she's phoning to discuss our Christmas plans. I've invited her and my father for the traditional meal we always celebrate with them-supper on Christmas Eve. Since my parents divorced, Christmas has been a delicate navigation. For twenty-two years, my siblings and I have juggled growing families, jobs that don't stop for the holidays, elderly parents, acrimoniously divorced family members, multiple locations, diverse dietary requirements, and so on. Which is to say, all the usual complications of a family Christmas. This year, things have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning that only a certain number of family members can be together. And because of the growing death toll and the lack of a vaccine (although early batches will be made available within the next two weeks), a heightened feeling of anxiety pervades this year's festivities. My father is particularly alarmed and has gone to excessive lengths to avoid catching COVID. I'm half expecting him to cancel our supper plans.
All this bubbles into my head as I shout into the wind, "Hello?"
"Your dad . . ." says L. "The paramedics are here . . ."
I don't understand what she's saying. Why are the paramedics there?
"He's dead," she says.
She sounds so calm, so dry-eyed, I assume I've misheard her. Besides, her words make no sense. First, he can't be dead because I spoke to him two days ago-and he was fine. Second, if he's dead, what are the paramedics doing?
"A heart attack," she adds.
"I'll drive over," I say. "I'll be there as quickly as I can." I hear voices in the background, as if L. is conferring with someone. Why aren't they resuscitating him?
"They say you must drive very carefully." Her voice is still oddly calm and measured. "The police, I mean," she adds.
The police? Why is L. with the police?
I hang up, and then I start to scream. I am running and screaming and crying all the way home. Three words play over and over in my head: I'm not ready; I'm not ready; I'm not ready.
This is where it starts. And later, much later, I think how strange it was that something so decisively ending was also something that was so clearly beginning.
Matthew drives while I call my sister and then my brother. My sister drops the phone, and I hear her screaming and screaming. My brother is very calm. Later I realize that I was too blunt with my sister and too vague with my brother. I know this because, after an hour, my brother calls back and asks how the paramedics are getting on. And I have to tell him that our father has been dead for nearly twelve hours, that there was never any chance of resuscitation.
Then my brother says the very thing that had struck me when L. called: "He can't be dead because I spoke to him last night." And I know he's thinking exactly as I am-that this is too soon, too fast. That we need more time. That we have not had time to say goodbye or I love you.
The flat is full of uniformed men writing reports, talking into phones, drinking tea. Their presence-with its intimation of order and certitude-is immediately calming.
L. asks me if I want to see Dad, and I cannot answer, so I nod. Because I do and I don't. And I'm working excessively hard to regulate my emotions, to stay calm. Like L., who is calmer than I've ever seen her.
Dad is sitting in his red chair. He looks asleep. Peaceful. We comment on this, and for the next few months we repeat it over and over . . . How peaceful he looked. I touch his hand. It's as cold as glass.
The coldness of him stayed with me for months to come. But it was the silence of him I remembered most of all. A silence that was lost at first, lost in all the people milling around. Until I caught a snatch of it: no hiss of breath escaping his lips; no creak of bone or joint; no grind or gnash of teeth; no twitch of cloth; no words. Without life inside us, we are soundless.
For the first time I saw death close up-and it was silent. And I wondered if this was the reason we so often fear silence. For in its folds and creases, silence carries unavoidable indications of our own mortality.
A week before my father died, I had helped my mother bury her partner of twenty years. Douglas and my mother weren’t married, but I’ll call him my stepfather, because that is how I thought of him. My mother was mourning him. We were all mourning him. His drawn-out death in a nursing home he loathed-where, thanks to COVID, we could not even visit him, let alone hold his hand-had left a vinegary taste in our mouths and a tight feeling in our ribs; like thousands of others, he hadn’t been accorded the comfort and dignity in death that he deserved.
This tightness in my chest may have been the reason I was running on the day my father died. Perhaps I hoped to outrun its viselike grip, to breathe so fully I'd shake off the vestiges of anger and sadness still swilling around.
Instead, the grip tightened.
I stayed at my father’s house that night, sleeping in his study on a camp bed with orange sheets and an orange duvet, my head squeezed up against his desk. His books were all around me. His pen was just as he had left it, mid-sentence on his notebook. His cardigan lay slung over the back of his chair. My father had always attached great meaning to particular objects-stones, feathers, shells, small sculptures. These objects were all around me, placed with great care on particular surfaces and shelves where he might see them as he wrote. The room was heavy with his smell, his presence, his hopes.
That first night, I had no expectation of sleep. No desire to sleep. Instead, I chose a few of his books and settled in for a teary night of emotional but wide-awake intimacy. But to my surprise, the night passed in a thick blanket of dreamless sleep. I awoke, shocked and ashamed: instead of crying all night, I'd had one of the best nights of sleep I could remember. How could I sleep so well after the most upsetting experience of my life? What did this say about me? I read later that a response like mine wasn't uncommon, that the brain shuts down when it needs to-an evolutionary mechanism designed to preserve us, to ensure our survival.
It was not to last.
For the next ten days I lived at my father’s house and busied myself organizing the funeral; seeing to the postmortem and the death certificate; informing friends and family; writing tens of obituaries; decorating his (cardboard) coffin; shopping and cooking for L.; and performing all the other chores and errands that accompany a sudden death. L. was a ghost of herself, and I sometimes wondered where exactly she was-later I learned that she was in shock, a state of mind that protects us from extreme pain. I would come to think of Shock as a place, a cross between a hospital and a hotel, to which L. had quietly and involuntarily removed herself.
I took this absence as an excuse to become ever busier and more "competent." But when darkness fell, as I lay tucked up between the orange sheets, staring at the outline of my father's books, I could no longer maintain this pretense. Every night, the claw tightened so determinedly around my chest I thought I too was having a heart attack. I cried and gasped and gulped and focused on slowing my breath. And then I got up and began another manic day of organization. Clearly, that first night of uninterrupted sleep had been an aberration. I rummaged through my chest of sleep aids, determined to fight my ever-longer nights. I threw back quantities of Nytol, melatonin, and magnesium; doused the pillow in chamomile and lavender oils; rid myself of blue light, caffeine, and alcohol; and hunted for old prescription sleeping pills. To no avail, of course.
And then I made myself even busier. Convinced I had the answer to my family's grief, I found a puppy online, arranged its collection for the day after my father's funeral, and went shopping for puppy toys and food. What better way to heal this sudden loss than by bringing new life into the home? And who better to lavish our homeless love upon than a puppy?
But our puppy was sick from the minute we got her home. She lay around listlessly, occasionally lapping at water. Looking at her limp little body filled me with foreboding. On Christmas Day I drove her to the emergency vet in our nearest town. The vet suspected she had parvovirus. He explained the long process of testing, the escalating costs, the slim chance of survival. The process would take longer than normal, he added, because of the raging pandemic with its endless rules and regulations, and because it was Christmas.
"She's probably come from a puppy mill," he said with a shrug of his shoulders. "Likely the whole litter is dying."
Our puppy stayed in the veterinary hospital for five nights. We weren't allowed to visit her, and because parvovirus is both fatal and highly contagious, she was kept in isolation. We called for news repeatedly. Each time, the vet asked if we'd prefer to have our puppy put to sleep. The costs were mounting by the day, and she still wasn't eating. But until the tests came back, we had no diagnosis.
'Is there any hope? Even a sliver?" I asked through a veil of tears. And every day the vet said, "Perhaps a sliver . . . there's always hope."
On the fifth evening, the vet called and said, "She's taken a turn for the worse. I don't think there's any hope now." Our puppy was put to sleep in the arms of a veterinary nurse. And we never saw her again.
For weeks I was haunted by the size of her-that she had died so small caused me endless anguish. I had taken her from her mother and allowed her to perish. I had failed to protect her. That an animal we'd lived with for less than three days could give me so much pain astonished me. We had no relationship as such, no shared history. And yet even now I cannot write about her without crying. For she had also carried on her tiny shoulders the weight of hope. And, in some inarticulate way, she had been a crucible, a means of remembering my father and stepfather. And suddenly that seemed too great a weight-and so everything swung back again to the smallness of her.
I didn't want to terrify my children with my wild, monstrous grief. And I had grieving people to look after. I was no use to anyone as a flailing sobbing mess. So I spent my days busily tracking down justice for our puppy, and my evenings busily buying up my father's out-of-print books. Stay busy. Stay busy. Stay busy.
Still I could not sleep.
Then one grayish dawn it occurred to me that I was night-grieving, and that this was how it would be. And so I put away my chest of sleep aids and accepted my wide-awake nights. At which point, I noticed that this wasn't my usual insomnia. Slowly my sleepless nights were metamorphosing into something I hadn't expected: they were becoming a vital place of refuge. For while my days were overfilled with organization and caring for others, my sleepless nights were becoming oases of inner reflection.
And in this dark and comforting place I began to understand the necessity of my wakefulness.
Those long wakeful hours were like nothing I’d ever experienced before. This wasn’t my normal insomnia, with its habitual fears and anxieties. This was different. The darkness seemed to shift and soften, and yet it had weight and density-so that I often felt as if I were enclosed in something resembling the inside of a marshmallow or the sweetly pillowy interior of a meringue. At other times it felt like a downy protective skin, a soft pelt in which I could lose myself.
What I recall most clearly is the sense of being held by the darkness. It never pressed upon me-it simply held me. It asked no questions, and it made no demands. It gave me space and secrecy, silence and anonymity. And yet it seemed to breathe and pulse beside me, like a sleeping companion, so that I never felt alone. This companion wasn't entirely silent-my nights came with their own soundscape: planes, traffic, inexplicable scrapings, scufflings, and rattlings. I came to understand that a whole other world was awake alongside me. And I heard, for the first time, the infinitesimal noises of what I would later call my Night Self-the beating heart, the sump of saliva, the rasp of my heel against the sheet.
Every night, after my eyes snapped open, my father appeared in my mind's eye. Puppy and Douglas followed, reminding me of what I had lost and would never recover. A void opened in the pit of my stomach, and the boulder lurched against my chest. And then the darkness seemed to rush in, as if to say, "But I'm here. And I'm yours." A sort of buffer between me and bodily pain. A feeling of relief would wash over me: I didn't need to get up; I didn't need to be "strong"; there was nothing to organize. I could lie alongside my sadness, dredging up memories that I was terrified of losing, searching for the answer to my questions: Where was my father? Where were Douglas and Puppy? Where do the dead go?
Copyright © 2024 by Annabel Abbs-Streets. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.