I punch my pillow, throw off the blanket and turn over, again. The dance of car lights streaks pattern across the wall beside the bed in the room I now share with my mom. It is dark, but light from a kitchen lamp spills through the doorway, and I can see my mom’s small form bundled in her bed across the room.
I try to still my thoughts, relax, reclaim the sanctity of sleep. Instead, I toss, turn, count backward, listen. A dog barks in the dark. The click of the ceiling fan keeps its rhythmic cadence. My mom’s raspy breath comes in gulps. I listen, waiting to see if her heavy breathing will lead to another fit of coughing. It has been a long night, and we are both exhausted from this nightly battle we wage against failing health.
My mom’s little body is betraying her. Her heart labors from congestive heart failure, breathing is short and shallow, complicated by allergies and COPD. Medication and breathing treatments help, but on nights like this, it all seems too little, too much.
I rise from my bed, slip quietly into the kitchen and refill my mom’s water cup. I find the small blue bottle in the dark, unscrew the cap, smear pungent goo on the cloth. I place the cloth in the microwave, punch in time and wait. I am so familiar with this nightly waltz, I can complete these tasks through the stumbling stupor of tousled slumber. This nightly dance is one I have, unfortunately, come to know so well.
As my mom once cared for me and perched at my bedside, I am now at hers. As a child, I remember her strained and beautiful face, shadowy in the dim light as she sat on my bed and wiped my fevered brow with a cooling cloth. My mom would coax me into taking harsh-tasting cough medicine, then take a warm cloth covered in Mentholatum and slip it under my flannel PJ top. The smell, the vapor, the sound of my mother’s voice would soothe me to sleep. This 8-year-old me would rest and feel better; a Mother’s love helping her child fight some unseen virus, ward off the common cold.
Now, I lean over my mom’s bedside, brushing aside wisps of silvery, baby-fine hair. I take the plastic mask from mom’s face and quiet the rumble of the breathing machine that helps ease her labored breath. I readjust pillows, slip the warmed cloth under my mom’s PJs, re-button the top, cover her. The familiar smell wafts across the covers, and my mom takes a deep breath. I kiss her forehead, whisper a prayer and ease back into bed, hoping an hour or so of sleep will claim us before we start the dance again.
I lie still in the dark, hoping my efforts will keep my mom safe through the night; that my steely thoughts and fervent prayers will cover my mama with God’s grace and keep illness and Fate at bay. In the lonely dark these many months, I grit my teeth, focus my mind, and try and convince myself that if only I pray harder, will it to be, my mom will be safe from night’s evil clutches. Like my 8-year-old self, I am afraid of what lurks in the shadows. I feel helpless that I can not protect my mom from illness, age, disease, pain or mortality. Sometimes, on these sleepless nights, I am afraid of The Dark.
The red face of the bedside clock mocks me, clicking numbers, a symbolic reminder of how little time we really have with those we love. I lie still. I listen. Steaks of light dance across the walls.
On these sleepless nights, my body tires, my mind muddles, my heart hurts. I punch my pillow, throw off the blanket and turn over, again. I listen.
I listen to my mom breathe, even and easy. For a little while, she is peaceful, and I sleep.