Archive for the tag 'cancer'

Essay: Life in bed

NS June 30th, 2010

I wrote this essay in winter and sent it to two of my favourite magazines in the hopes of having it published. I received a rejection from one and never heard back from the other. Instead of letting it gather dust while I am busy with other things, on hiatus from submitting, I’m going to publish it here. No more waiting and hoping, just my words in my space, on my terms.

Bed. It is a place I so desperately want to be but also a place of worry and restlessness and exhaustion; the scene of a cruel prank in which I am awakened at the peak of a much-needed REM cycle but to which I will not easily return, even after the baby, my youngest, is soothed and asleep again. I strain my ears to confirm that which made me stir and find my brow furrowing with annoyance, anger and misery before smoothing itself into placid resignation when the cries become clearer and more urgent. In performing my nightly routine of Bedtime Bolero, I stumble and sway from bed to crib and back again, only half conscious. Too tired to sit upright in the velvet-covered feeding chair that belonged to my husband’s great-grandmother, I trundle back to bed with my warm bundle and curve my body around his, like we’ve done a thousand times before. The drug-like effect of milk production feels like small weights being pressed down onto my eyelids, willing me to nod my head sleepily in time to my son’s hungry gulps and allow his warm, searching hands to burrow beneath the fluffy blue collar of my robe. ‘How could I be angry at this little soul?’ I admonish myself, though I suspect that’s the oxytocin (the so-called ‘love drug’ produced in lactating women) talking. Seeing only occasionally the glow of the street light outside the window through the slits of my bleary eyes, I nestle into my pillow and reflect on the spectrum of life experienced here.

Though it seems quite a boring, unassuming place, so much happens in bed. We spend approximately one-third of our existences there, sleeping. We also read, write, eat, drink, smoke, dream, agonize, cry, vomit, laugh, make love and die there, among other things. Great novels and political manifestos have been written in bed. Inventions conjured up, cities planned, wars plotted, great love affairs begun, families started. In fact, that’s where the offspring of yore were born – in the same location as their creation. Today, the most common bed to be born in belongs not to the family but the hospital; the scratchy-linened, stirrup-equipped, mechanically-reclining kind or, if things don’t go to plan, the steel, sterile one in the operating room. Some babies aren’t born in bed at all but rather into bathtubs, on rural kitchen floors or the backseats of cars that didn’t quite make it in time.

Though we may not remember our own births, bed quickly becomes a central theme in our lives. Early childhood memories revolve around that most magical and frightening place, where we are meant to peacefully slumber. The first flash of consciousness I can recall is clambering over the rails of my wooden crib, aged two, in order to dump pail after pail of water from the bathroom sink onto my older sister’s mattress, a middle child’s revenge for the new baby in the house who was taking up all her parents’ time. At age four or so, the light from the living room glowing in a thin yellow line under my darkened door was a portal into a strange adult world of which I was infinitely curious but infuriatingly barred. From bed I learned to listen carefully and observe with my ears, my parents’ parties intoxicating in more ways than one. The clinking of ice in a glass of bourbon, the crack-pop-fizz! of a beer being opened, the rapid ph-ph-ph-phhhlump of a deck of cards being shuffled, the chatter and laughter of friends…it seemed so glamorous and mysterious then. Eventually though, snooping would give way to somnolence and my head would connect heavily with the pillow of its own volition. Dreams would have to do while my body and mind rested.

Later, at perhaps six or seven, monsters made their way under my lavender dust ruffle and a fear of the dark and unknown often gripped me as I lay awake with blankets clutched tight, heart pounding in my chest and eyes inspecting every suspicious shape. This was not helped by my father’s propensity to allow us to watch age-inappropriate films when my mother was away, featuring nasty characters with evil grins and masks over their eyes, or a wild-eyed clown with an insatiable appetite for children. Nightmare on Elm Street brought just as many to Locust Street, I can tell you. Then, age nine, hearing the sobs and cries of my mother from her room, mourning the loss of her youngest child to the real monster under the bed: cancer. Though the other creatures faded from existence, that was the only one that never left my side and lurked, forever-more, in the shadows of my childhood. It never had a face or discernible features; it was just a deep, dark mass of seemingly indeterminate cruelty. On more than one occasion, I knelt in prayer before climbing into bed at night, even though ours wasn’t a particularly religious family, promising to be better, braver and stronger, if only God would lift the fog of grief engulfing us. Eventually, it cleared enough for us to find one another again, though the mist of loss will always be present.

Cancer wasn’t the only real-life monster I became aware of as a child, unfortunately. At a sixth-grade sleepover a couple of years later, what had begun as a standard pre-teen slumber party (giggling, videos, popcorn, talk of our first schoolgirl crushes, perhaps a bit of make-up or nail polish) turned suddenly into a confessional booth in which I was thrust into the role of priest and my three friends the confessors. But what they confessed that night were not crimes they had perpetrated or sins they’d committed, but those of the man in the next room: our host’s stepfather. It seemed the bed upon which we were sitting was not only the site of make-overs and sing-alongs, but of horrific abuse and intimidation. Ten minutes before I had been eating sickly-sweet candy with my friends. Very quickly, my head was spinning from not only the sugar rush but the sudden rush of reality. The next day, I sat down on my mother’s bed as she folded laundry and told her everything. She hugged me, then sprang into action. After the flurry of doctors, police and child psychologists had passed and their monster was safely locked away, the girls distanced themselves from me, from the pain, and our friendships faltered. I often lay awake at night, counting the stick-on neon stars on my ceiling in an effort to quiet my mind enough to sleep, wondering if I did the right thing. All I could do was hope that, one day, their beds would become places in which they could dream again, not cower in fear.

Upon entering the teen years, my bed became less a place I wanted to escape and more a place of retreat. I vividly recall throwing myself onto the mattress and crying tears of frustration and angst, sure that I was the most misunderstood, mistreated and misjudged 14-year-old the world had ever known. Weren’t we all? I lay there for endless hours, listening to the albums that best expressed my burgeoning independence and scribbled furiously and clumsily in my journal about my rage and the metaphorical cage against which I beat my wings, so desperate to unfurl them and fly away. When I wasn’t sulking in bed I was using it as a launchpad to adulthood with the opposite sex. Bed was simultaneously a place of exploration and exploitation, intimacy and intimidation. It was not only the stage on which we acted out our desires but where we learned of the thin, thin line between ecstasy and agony, of the art and importance of reading subtle body language. It is also where we learned that bedroom politics and the power therein will always be with us, even when we are well past our teens. Even now, as a woman who has been with the same man for eleven years, the vigorous campaigning for more, better, different sex and the why and how often and when it will occur is still ongoing. The passion of new lovers may have been replaced by something more familiar, but the complications remain the same.

A real turning point on my voyage to maturity was when I bought my own bed. After having slept on a succession of mattresses provided by my parents, relatives’ and friends’ cast-offs and landlords of ready-furnished apartments, my husband and I finally made the big leap to orthopedically-correct ownership. It wasn’t as intimate an occasion as we might have hoped, given that my father stood nearby while we tested for potentially embarrassing squeakiness, but we didn’t have a car back then and needed Dad’s pick-up truck and adeptness at moving large items to get the thing home. Still, it was ours and it was freeing, in a small, mundane sort of way. No more worrying about stains, chips, unsprung springs or ill-fitting firmness levels that had us rubbing our backs in the morning. We could make love in our bed and not think of who had done the same before us, or would do so after us. We could smoke right then and there after a marathon session, with the sweaty sheets tucked around our waists and chests, in a perfect, L-shaped improbability, while he grinned or slept and I looked, wild-haired and open-mouthed, into the middle distance — the very picture of Hollywood-styled post-coital bliss. We’d sleep there ’til 10, 11, even 12 on Sundays, with nowhere to go and no one to see but each other. Then, I had excuses not to get out of bed; now, I have none for not doing so. Even though we enjoyed nearly seven years of pre-children cohabitation, I sometimes look back on those days with intense longing and wish I could tell my younger, more carefree self to enjoy them while they lasted, that my older, parental self would want me to ignore the phone, the cat, the laundry or that movie time. ‘Stay in bed!’ I would shout. I’d tell that young couple to bottle up those moments so they could be uncorked and appreciated later (perhaps in the midst of an argument about whose turn it is to get up with the crying toddler or whose career is more important), allowing the weight of responsibility to drift away on an effervescent memory.

If I could replace the nights when anger and resentment sent us inching towards the far corners of the bed with fond memories of his arm draped protectively over my baby-laden, wriggling mountain of a belly, I would always be happy. If I could erase the time I wrecked our computer in a fit of sleep-deprived rage and substitute the memory of him placing our son in my arms immediately after he’d been born, I’d never again feel guilty. But I can’t and I wouldn’t. The bad with the good, that’s what we promised when we married. All the nasty, gory, ugly grimness in order to enjoy the uplifting, companionable, heart-melting wonderfulness.

My reverie is disturbed by my son’s babbling, his wide-open eyes and mischievous grin telling me I have no chance of slipping back into sleep. I smile at the blond mess of hair peeking out from the other side of the pillow, confirmation that my little girl has wandered through at some point in the night to curl up beside her father, her best friend in the whole world. All four of us lie there — breathing warmly on one another’s closely-assembled faces, tucking elbows and knees respectfully to our sides (us) or flailing about indiscriminately (them) — pressing our bodies together to form a pulsing, nuclear mass of love and security, stronger together than we ever could be separately. Despite the lack of sleep, the arguments, the bedroom politics and the hardships, this is what he and I wanted when we decided to become parents. This is what we dreamed of. Our idea of familial bliss, what we saw when we pictured our lives with children, revolved around this image, in this bed. All of the other stuff goes out of focus until only this moment becomes crystallized. We are reminded by their beautiful faces and rising, falling chests of why we do this, of what makes each day worth facing. My lover’s hand finds mine somewhere in the tangle of blankets and we smile faintly at one another, the outlines of our lips barely perceptible in the pink-grey light of a winter’s dawn.

Finally, as the first rays of real sunlight begin peeking through gaps in the blinds, illuminating the thin layer of dust ever-present in our house, the reality and routine of everyday life sets in. I swing my feet out of bed and into slippers. I change a diaper and brush my teeth, squinting away from the easterly-facing bathroom window. I pour the cereal and feed the cat, then wash the bowls and pack the bags. I contemplate crawling back into bed with my second cup of coffee, knowing it won’t happen. Instead, I sip from my mug in the kitchen while I write, my effort to forge a career in snatched moments of peace a distinctly exciting and frustrating endeavor, the possibilities as endless as the limitations.

Later, when the boy is napping, I go upstairs to make the bed. My hands linger as they fluff and smooth the duvet and my lips smile at the morning’s memory. I perch carefully on the edge, close my eyes and try to picture what other memories I will create here, how many more times I will sob into my pillow or lay awake with worry or excitement. I wonder if, once the children are grown and gone, my husband and I will revert to modified versions of our pre-parent selves, with less mind-blowing sex and more cups of tea, but with the same unfettered blitheness on a Sunday morning that we enjoyed in the beginning. I imagine our rekindled closeness will make the likelihood of watching him die, perhaps in this very bed, all the more unfathomable. I’m not able to imagine any further than that before the ache in my chest makes me draw breath and shake off the vision. I go back to the scene from this morning and hold it in my mind until the monsters and demons, both past and future, scurry back under the bed where they belong.

I hear my son awaken in his room, calling to me. I stand and sigh good naturedly. Up and out once more.