This morning I greeted the new year with a grumble. No. That’s an understatement. I was downright grinchy.
Used to be when I saw in the new year on less than four hours of sleep it was due to some crazy partying. Well maybe not crazy by anyone’s standards but mine but at least having a jolly good time with my friends. But last night it wasn’t revelry but duty which kept me from my bed.
I had absolutely no desire to stay up to see the new year in. Not even the faintest glimmer. I’ve seen too many midnights and lost too much sleep. Motherhood sees a different sort of night. Instead we had a glass of champagne each at 9 when my sister came home from work bearing the gift of a bottle. And then I figured I was done.
But it took a long time to get Ben down and then despite my great intentions I succumbed to the lure of a bit of amusement and decided to finish watching the episode of Flash Forward that Dom and I started a couple of weeks ago. And then when that was done I remembered that I wanted to call my mom to thank her for the gifts we’d received. We haven’t had many real conversations this year and I miss chatting with her. It was a nice talk. By the time I finally got around to getting in the shower, it was almost midnight. And then Ben woke up again.
He nursed on and off for the next couple of hours, never falling deeply asleep. Poor little guy has a sniffle—all the kids do actually. Not really sick just a bit of a cough, a runny nose. A wee sniffle. But enough to unsettle Sophie a bit more than usual. Three night wakings night before last that needed my intervention for her to resettle. And last night poor Ben couldn’t sleep.
I was exhausted and all I wanted to do was sleep. I was feeling dehydrated and like I hadn’t a drop more milk to squeeze out. Dom took pity and rocked him to sleep once and that bought me about half an hour before Ben woke again. And then nothing would calm him down to sleep again. I sat up in the bed as whimpers turned to screams. I rocked and I rocked and I rocked him in the dark, sobbing in frustrated exhaustion. I tried to pray but I felt as dry as a bone. Can these bones speak? Only the faintest whimper: Help.
How many times do I have to go through this? I grumble and groan, I weep and moan, I rant and rave against the cruel fates that deny me my precious sleep. And then finally when the storm is spent I listen to the voice that has been whispering all along: Count it as a gift.
How? How can I deem these lost hours a blessing? How can I see them as a gift? Oh I know the answer but I cling to sleep like Sophie clings to her blankies: “Another blankie? Another blankie?” she calls for more and more until she’s wrapped in a snug cocoon. I don’t want to give in, rise from my bed to rock and rock and rock the sleepless, screaming baby in the cold, dark night.
But I do. Eventually I rise and go.I settle myself in my chair, settle myself to the work. Holding. Rocking. Praying through gritted teeth. The dry bone prayers: Why, Lord? When, Lord? How, Lord?
Why is my heart so stubborn, so dry and cold? Why do I keep it so tight shut? Why am I so resistant to your grace? Why is it so hard, so bitter and hard? Why do I keep falling?
When Lord? When will these wounds be healed? When will this wounded animal cease gnawing? When can I finally stop being the beast who lashes out in hurt against everyone who comes near? When will I stop hurting those I love most? When will I stop biting the hand that feeds me? When?
How, Lord? How can I lay down my burdens? How can I give up, give in, open the tight-shut rusty gates of this little, cramped stable-space of my heart? How can I make a place for you here? How can I change? How can I make tomorrow different from today? How can I live here, now, in the moment the necessary Yes?
I rock and rock and my baby screams and screams in my arms and my heart-voice screams and screams at the silent heavens.
The night is bright. Somewhere behind all the thick blanket of clouds a full moon shines though I cannot find it as I peer out the windows. The snow collects the light and sends it back heaven-ward.
This is a gift. This time this place. That I cannot see it does not make it any less of a blessing. My curses assail the heavens and still blessing pours down on my dry, shuttered heart.
Dom fetches me my footwarmer. He brings me a glass of orange juice to soothe my dryness. Even though he can do nothing, he takes his place on the couch opposite me. The gift of his presence. If I must wake, cold and bereft of our warm bed, then he will watch with me. A pure gift of presence that I do not appreciate; but he gives it nonetheless.
My sister gets up and goes to work. Blast of early-morning chill as the door opens. I curl into my chair, still rocking, still in turmoil. No smile for her, no whispered word to warm her way, to bless her day. I am too wrapped in resentments.
Rocking, rocking, rocking.
Ben starts to calm. Finally. Screams become intermittent. Fade to whimpers and cries. Cries become creaks, little moans and sighs. Flailing hands claw, claw, claw at his head and each time I gently pull them down, hold them tight so that he doesn’t scratch himself. Eventually they stop their movement. Little head grows heavier on my arm. Eyes growing heavier. Blinking slower and slower and slower until a minute or more passes between blinks. More closed than open. And yet each time I think maybe he’s out they pop open once more and I rock, rock, rock, shhh, shhhh, shhhhh.
Dom has tried to stay awake; but he’s sick too. His eyes have closed, his head’s thrown back. Sleep has taken him. And yet it eludes me. I rock and rock in the stillness of a sleeping house.
The words come but I don’t feel them: Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.
I don’t want to say yes to this night watch. Still tight shut I want to refuse this burden. But the words, rehearsed daily, noon and six, the words come:
Let it be done.
No. I don’t want to say it. But still they push themselves:
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
No. There is no room for him here.
But the Word is persistent. Unbidden it creeps in.
And dwelt among us.
In my arms the baby sleeps. Restless, stirring; but sleeping nonetheless. In my heart something begins to crack and stir as well. A tiny seed of quiet sprouts, sends out a feeling root.
A baby. It begins like this with a baby in the dark of night.
In a hostile world. Cold and unfriendly. A dark cave, home of beasts. How can he not be devoured? This world will chew him up. Cut him down.
How can it be that you will dwell here in this muck, this stink? This is no place for a baby. There is no peace here.
I will fail you. I will wound you. Precious baby, I am no fit mother. I will fall.
Come, Lord, into this dark place. Save me from the beasts that devour.
Weak. Vulnerable. He comes.
And dwelt among us.
Quietly I creep. I put the baby down, seek sleep. The work is done. The word has been heard and once more a faint yes, a little drop wrung from a dry stone. I will try again. Rise and try again though I will fall and fail.
I wish I could give it a happy ending, say that the pre-dawn peace lasted, say that the word heard in the night stilled my harsh tongue, that I made it through the day tired but peaceful. We made it to Mass. There was grace aplenty. But I fell. Nap time came and I was wrung out, worn thin and again I tried to do it on my own strength. Full of fear, of fury. I snapped. Then I slept. Then I woke to try again.
These words come to my fingers. I write pretty prayers. I even think I mean them. But the ugly truth is the weeds are thick and the soil is stony. The words spring up seem to flourish but are choked back. It will take many more sleepless nights, being plowed by the word, before this dry garden bears fruit that is not bitter.
Still, the words come. Gifts undeserved and treasured. How can I not share them? I cannot hoard these lights for my own comfort but must put them up on the window sill where perhaps they might give a little hope to others who also toil in the darkness.
Do not imagine that behind all these pretty window-dressing words all is calm, all is bright. This is a calm place in the storm. These are glimpses of the moon. These are dispatches from the front lines that are old news, full of hope but unreliable. Still, I will sing on in the darkness and wait in hope for the days when the storms shall cease.
A new year. Another chance to try again. Pick up the pieces and climb anew.