“You’re shitting the bed. But you’re not failing them, you’re failing you.” – Critter, trying to point out something I’m missing on my slow descent to hell.
It’s December 14 at 2:45 am. I’m in bed like I should be but I can’t make my fucking brain sleep. I roll over. Punch the pillow. Adjust my shoulders. Sigh noisily and squeeze my eyes shut and strain to press my thoughts through the membrane of consciousness. If I can just make the shift into sleep, I know I’ll be healed.
But I can’t make it happen. I’m too stiff, clenched tight from jaw to anus. My body won’t melt like it’s supposed to so I can slip into to sweet oblivion. I feel like a chunk of raw carrot in the kitchen sink. Too big for the drain holes but I keep ramming myself against them because I need that darkness and quiet on the other side.
This isn’t going to work; I can see that. But I can’t stop jabbing and jabbing. I don’t know what else to do.
Oh Jesus, I think. If I don’t get some sleep I’m gonna bite somebody’s face off oh please oh please oh please let me sleep tonight, PLEASE OH FUCKING PLEASE!
Down the hall, a wheezy cough erupts and slaps me out of my silent hysterics. It’s my six-year-old; her nightly lung-busting performance. It’s been brutal these last few weeks, a twice- or thrice-per-night torture. Turning my usual insomnia into a wobbly funhouse of rage and despair.
“I’m in hell,” I whisper to no one.
Near my head, I hear a snort. “You’re not in hell,” says a familiar, rodenty voice. It’s Critter, my imaginary raccoon. She’s come around to bust my ovaries. She calls it “reality checking” and “straight-talk” and “tough love”. I call it being a bossy asshole and am not in the mood for her smug lectures or mouldy breath.
“Fuck off,” I mutter.
From the top of my dresser, I hear Critter sigh. “You’re hunched up like a snake with the piles,” she says. “But may I point out—you have the privilege of grappling with your angst in the comfort of a warm, dry bed?”
I don’t answer. My face gets hot.
“Carry on, if you like,” Critter says. “But I consider this: there at least twenty-three billion creatures on the planet—many of them, human—who would literally bite your face off to get up in here.”
“I don’t need your fucking guilt-trip, rodent. My brain is melting out my goddamned ears.” I spit the words as quietly as I can, trying not to wake my husband.
“First world problems,” Critter whispers back.
I growl in the back of my throat. If it weren’t so dark and I wasn’t afraid to knock over the lamp, I’d reach out and choke my sanctimonious little advisor. Instead, I flip her the bird and grab my sweater. Then I shuffle off to my daughter’s room. There’s a thump on the carpet as Critter hops off the dresser to follow me.
In my six-year-old’s room, the night light illuminates the shape of my firstborn. She’s curled on her side, her back to me. Her limbs are splayed like tossed laundry, and her favourite blanket is scrunched around her waist. It’s got all the characters from Frozen on it. Olaf stares at me with an absurd grin.
“This isn’t funny, you witless coke-head,” I mutter.
From behind me, Critter asks, “What’d the snowman to do you?”
“Come on; the guy’s a maniac! That stupid tagline? ‘Some people are worth melting for?’ What a load of martyr-breeding bullshit,” I answer.
Then I whisper to the blanket. “You can’t help anybody if you let yourself melt, asshole.”
Critter trots up to my daughter’s bed, stand on her hind legs, and peers over the side. Then she looks at me and shakes her head. “Yet here you are, letting your brain melt all over your girl-cub’s duvet,” she says.
I clench my fists and don’t answer.
My daughter coughs again, still asleep.
My blood pressure rises eight points. Do I wake her up and try to soothe the cough? Or should I leave her be? Does she really need me, or am I standing here on the verge of a sleep-deprived psychosis because I’m the ridiculous engineer of my own burnout?
Critter pipes up again; “You spend a lot of time agonizing.”
“I told you to fuck off, Critter!” I answer under my breath. “I’m not doing this with you tonight. Go fuck a pinecone or something.”
Critter shrugs. “Fine. But you’re shitting the bed,” she says. She drops back to all fours and heads toward the door.
“You think I don’t know that!” I hiss. But she’s already gone.
In the next room, my three-year old cries out. “Mooooommy! Fix it!”
I groan and tiptoe from one doorway to the other. The little one is sitting up in her converted crib-bed and whipping her covers left to right.
“Make them smooth!” she says. “I want then SMOOTH, Mommy! NOW!!!”
Critter pokes her head into the room. “Wow, that kid is getting intense. Like a little Howard Hughes in training.” Then she pops back out.
I moan. Pull my hands through my hair. Take a big breath. Then I kneel down beside the little bed and try to speak calmly. “Listen, sweetheart. I know you’re tired. Sister’s cough keeps waking you up, doesn’t it? Let me close your door so you can have some quiet.”
I can see the little one’s eyes bulge in the dim light. “No, Mummy, no! Don’t close the door. I’ll be quiet. I’ll be good! Door open! Open! Pleeeeeee-eee-eee-ease!” Her tiny fists shake and her voice cracks into a wail.
My brain feels like it’s about to burst. I take a shuddering breath. “Shhhh, shhhhh, baby. Shhh. You need to stop yelling, okay? Or Mommy will have to close your door. Please, baby. Shhh. You be quiet, now, and we’ll leave it open. Okay?”
My little one takes two big sniffs and reaches for my neck. I lean in for a hug, but she just grabs a handful of my nightshirt and wipes her nose. I wrap my arms around her anyway. She melts into my chest and pops her thumb into her mouth. I hold her to my heart for a moment, then lay her back down on her bed. “Everything’s going to be okay,” I whisper, but my throat is full of tears.
“Fix my blanket,” she whispers with her baby-soft voice. “I need it smooth.”
I bite my lip, feeling pretty sure that this is how you cultivate OCD, and smooth out the motherfucking blanket. “Goodnight,” I whisper, and kiss her head.
When I step back into the hallway, Critter is there with her arms crossed, shaking her head.
I peek back in on my big girl. Her foot twitches. She coughs again. And again. Then three in a row.
Cough-cough-cough, big inhale.
Poor fucking kid.
I step to the bed and slide one arm under her shoulders, the other under her knees. I haul her up to sitting and fluff the pillows and giant stuffies behind her to keep her propped up. My daughter moans but doesn’t open her eyes.
“Here, Sweetie. Have a sip,” I whisper, holding her sippy cup against her hand.
She doesn’t take it.
“Come on, Baby. Have some water. You’re coughing.”
She frowns and rolls her head toward my voice. Her eyelids crack open like sticky clamshells.
“Here, Sweetie,” I say again and press the cup into her hand.
My daughter looks at the cup, then at me. She’s got droopy, red-rimmed eyes like a bloodhound. She says, “Mommy, why can’t I stop?”
I wince. “I don’t know, Baby,” I whisper. She’s not sick. Right as rain during the day. No allergies. No identifiable issues causing the cough. We’re blessed, right? She’s just got this brain-crushing, soul-squeezing night cough. And it will not ease up this month.
My girl takes a sip of her water. Then she lays her head back on the pillow. Her hand falls to her lap, still holding the cup. She moans. Her eyes flutter and close, and her chest resumes the steady rise-and-fall of slumber.
I slip the cup out of her hand and set it on her night table. I kiss her hair, and snort deep of her baby shampoo smell. Then I tiptoe out of her room.
In the middle of the hallway, Critter’s reflective eyes flash green. She’s sitting like a cat now, twitching her tail. “When I said you were shitting the bed, I didn’t mean you were failing her,” she says. “You know that, don’t you?”
I scrub my hands over my face. “I don’t know anything, Critter.”
Critter sighs. “We need to talk about YOU, dummy. You’re failing you. Can’t you feel it?”
I frown. My throat burns. “I know,” I choke. “But I can’t do better right now. I’m empty. I can’t.”
Critter’s shoulders droop. “I know,” she says. She looks at the carpet. “I just wish you’d talk to me.”
I take a big breath and push out a sigh. Tears start to gush. “Not today,” I whisper and head back to my perfectly luxurious, warm, comfy bed.
I hang up my sweater and slide under the covers as quietly as I can. I settle on my side and hold my breath, feeling for movement from my husband. Did I wake him?
He rolls over, then inhales with a soft snore. I let my breath out.
Critter leaps up onto the bed and nestles herself behind my shoulders. “We’ll talk tomorrow,” she says. The warmth of her little body soaks into me. My tears soak into the pillow. Something lets go, and the night finally ends.