This is not a fun story and it wasn’t fun to write it but I had to get it out. Parenting is the best thing ever except when it’s the worst.
A squeal pierced the quiet of the night. Sarah’s ears registered the sound but she didn’t wake up. She frowned, turned on her side and smacked her lips without waking up. Another squeal followed. It was shriller, louder and angrier, and it drilled through the cocoon of sleep that Sarah had wrapped around herself. In her mind the squeal turned into words. Help me, honey. I fell. Sarah’s eyes flew open and she sat up in bed before she was fully awake, swaying a little, blinking hard to dislodge the last bits of sleep from her brain.
She was dead, her mother. Couldn’t she stay dead? No, mother was still alive in her dream, alive after that first stroke that had sent her to the hospital, which she never came back from, not in reality. Even in her sleep, Sarah knew that the dream couldn’t be true, that her mother had already died years ago. Yet the dream—the dreams—kept coming. Another squeal came from the nursery and a tentative smile made Sarah’s tightly pressed lips relax and quiver. She pushed the light blanket aside and got up.
David was awake and wailing. He needed a diaper change and Sarah obliged, only half awake, with her heart still racing from the dream. Her mother. The best mom ever. The woman whose absence Sarah felt painfully now that there was David to take care of and no one to get advice from. But mom came in her dreams. Always alive. Always dying. Sarah shuddered, holding the baby to quiet him down.
David stopped sobbing and she put him back into his crib. He was such a sweet baby. If only he could sleep for more than an hour at a time, Sarah would be the happiest mother alive. She sighed and pulled his blanket up to his chin. It was a bit chilly tonight, typical for April, but not cold enough to turn the heating on. Sarah bent over to kiss her son’s forehead.
The door flew open and Sarah jerked awake. Her mother stood there, leaning on the frame in her bathrobe, her short salt-and-pepper curls still wet. Her face was a mask of horror.
“I fell in the bathroom,” she said. “My head hurts and I fell in the bathroom.”
Sarah jumped out of bed—her old bed—and helped her mother to her bedroom, the bedroom that a part of her knew she and her husband, Mark, used now. She shook her head trying to clear it, trying to restore reality but her mother’s arm, which she had gripped tightly though gently, felt as real as her own hand.
The woman was trembling. Sarah told her everything will be okay. She told her she would call the doctor right away. As she said all this she knew she was lying. She just had this very powerful feeling it was not all going to be okay. She didn’t know how she knew. Perhaps it was intuition. Sarah helped her mother into bed and took the wireless phone to call her doctor. She remembered she had a date with her boyfriend Mark tonight. That would have to be cancelled now. Sarah made a face.
“Hello?” she heard her mother’s doctor say. Sarah started to explain what had happened but the doctor couldn’t hear her. She spoke louder and louder and eventually started shouting to get through the static that had appeared almost immediately after he had picked up the phone. He never heard it all. The static transformed into a wail. A baby’s wail.
Sarah woke up panting. Tentative April light flowed through the uncurtained windows. She had a vague memory of a door opening and closing. It was probably Mark, coming home from night shift. No sound was coming from the nursery so Sarah got up and went to check. David was sleeping peacefully, on his back, tiny hands curled into fists, his face the image of serenity. Sarah smiled and for a second wished he could sleep like this forever. The thought made her flinch. She shook her head and turned as she felt the door open more widely behind her.
“Hi,” Mark whispered and kissed her head. “How’s it going?”
“Okay,” Sarah said, almost sagging to her knees with relief. “He only woke me up once.”
“That’s my boy,” Mark said and bent over the crib. He touched his son’s head gently. “He’s so peaceful, isn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Sarah said. That thought from a few seconds ago stabbed her and she winced. “I’ll go make some coffee.”
Mark nodded, gazing at the baby with a faint smile. Sarah smiled, too. She was lucky to have Mark and David, despite the night shifts that left everything around the baby to her. Despite the exhaustion. Despite the sleep deprivation she had not even come close to imagining before it was a fact. But she could cope. She was coping. And now she needed coffee to continue coping.
The espresso machine steamed and rumbled as the coffee flowed into the two cups. Sarah opened the fridge looking for something she could turn into a quick breakfast. The fridge was almost empty, containing half a dozen eggs, a half-full carton of milk and a half-eaten camembert and ham sandwich. Her sandwich. Her dinner from last night. A fridge of halves, she thought for some reason and shuddered again. It sounded wrong, this thought.
Sarah took the sandwich out and sniffed it. It smelled okay but she didn’t really feel like eating. She knew she had to, she was too thin from the breastfeeding and the lack of sleep that messed with her appetite but she couldn’t force herself to eat right now. Coffee first. She switched off the machine.
She heard Mark start the shower upstairs just as the doorbell rang. Sarah winced, hearing the bell ring so loud and clear she was certain it had woken up the baby. She waited for a few seconds but no sound came from the nursery. Sarah had a short argument with herself whether to open the door or ignore whoever was standing outside but in the end the good citizen won. It could be someone who needed help.
“Hi Sarah,” said doctor Scheffler. His face was tense but he had space for a smile. “How is she?”
Sarah gasped and stepped back, letting go of the door. Doctor Scheffler pushed it and squeezed his tall, heavy body through. He narrowed his eyes at Sarah.
“What happened, Sarah?”
She could only shake her head grasping for straws in the sea of confusion. Mark was in the shower. That’s right. Mark was in the shower upstairs and David was sleeping in her room, and she had fallen asleep in the kitchen and she was going to wake up right now.
“Sarah? Where is your mother?” Doctor Scheffler asked and put his warm hand on her shoulder.
Sarah opened her eyes. She was standing in the hallway of their old house, the house she’d lived in with her parents for most of her life. Sarah looked around in wonder, ignoring the little stab of pain in her heart. Meeting the past hurt. Everything looked the same as it had when she was 12, except her. Sara made a few steps forward and peeked into the kitchen. It wasn’t a big kitchen. Her mother liked everything to be within her reach. There was a note on the table and a sunray fell on it as a pointing finger.
Her parents often left each other—and her—little notes. Sarah smiled when the memories came flowing in. Notes about grocery shopping. Notes about phone calls. Those were the 80s – people used notes to tell each other things and make reminders. Sarah picked up the note.
“I’ll be back around 7,” her mother’s elegant writing said. “We have a late meeting at the office. Love you.”
Sarah put the note back on the table and rubbed her face. She felt like crying but there were no tears. She looked at the note one last time and walked out. Back in the hallway she hesitated. Everybody was clearly at work. She had the house to herself. The old joy came back, a little stale but still there. Sarah loved to have the house to herself. She loved the feeling that there was no one but her there, no one to bother her while she read and no one to try and make her do something she didn’t want to do, whatever it was.
She went into the living room. Something wasn’t right here. Every piece of furniture was where it had always been, the TV lurked in the corner and the crowded bookshelves gleamed with the backs of hundreds of books. It didn’t take Sarah long to see what was wrong. It was dark because the curtains were drawn and the lights were off. She turned them on, confused. Just a minute ago it had been day. Now it looked like it was early evening.
Sarah glanced at the stone clock on one of the shelves. It said 7:20. A rush of panic ripped through her body. Her mother’s note said 7. She should have been home by now. Unless something had happened. Something terrible. Something that Sarah had been expecting ever since she realized—with the help of her parents—that all humans are mortal. That we could die without warning and without time to say goodbye. She shivered and walked to the window. She pulled the curtain aside and peeked out. It was completely dark. Nighttime dark. And her mother was still not home.
Sarah started biting the nail of her thumb, the ever-higher waves of panic slamming against her mind. Her father should have been home by now, too. Where was he? Where was her mother? Were they lying dead somewhere, killed by a reckless driver or a robber, or maybe a psycho serial killer? Sarah gritted her teeth to stop the outpour of increasingly ridiculous ideas her imagination was always too ready to produce. Everything was going to be fine.
The key turning in the lock calmed the waves of panic, confirming her last thought. At least one of them was okay and coming home. She rushed to the hallway just as her mother opened the door with some difficulty because her hands were full.
“Hi honey,” she said with that warmest of all smiles on her face. Her dark eyes—the kindest eyes ever—sparkled with joy. “We had a very good time, didn’t we David?”
Sarah stood staring at her son in her mother’s arms, gurgling happily in response to her words. She stood and stared, incapable of moving, of reaching out and snatching him from her mother. She was the best mom ever. But she was dead. She had no business with David because David was alive. Sarah tried to start moving but the air was thick and heavy, pressing her from all sides.
“Let’s get you out of these heavy clothes, okay?” her mother said, oblivious to Sarah’s desperate and unsuccessful attempts to move. She took her shoes off and carried the baby into the living room. Sarah wanted to scream, to tell her to stop and give her the baby. She couldn’t.
Sarah opened her eyes when the baby’s cry finally pierced through the heavy veil of sleep. A bout of bitter annoyance gripped her for an instant. Why did they have to go and have a baby at all? They were fine as they were, Mark and her. Sarah stepped on the floor, which was surprisingly cold against her bare skin, and grunted. They shouldn’t have procreated. It had been a mistake. She could feel her rationality slip away further and further and all because she could get enough sleep. Because of the baby.
That last thought cut the rope on which the laden ball of guilt hung suspended over Sarah’s head ever since she had found out she was pregnant. The ball came crashing down. Sarah winced, running her hands over her face in a desperate attempt to regain some semblance of alertness. She went into David’s room unbuttoning her shirt. It was dark outside, of course. It seemed to be always dark these days but this was because David woke up so often during the night it had begun to feel like the natural time to be awake.
As she took the baby out of the crib and settled into the feeding chair as they called it she tried to keep hold of a fleeting thought, a question. When was the last time she had gone through a full day without blacking out and sleeping until darkness came? The thought flew away before Sarah could grip it tightly enough.
The baby latched hungrily onto her breast. Sarah had to fight another unwelcome thought, about how David did nothing but eat, sleep, and fill his diapers. She knew that was what babies did, she knew it with her rational mind but it faced stiff competition from sleep deprivation and general frustration with life. Sarah was not happy. She was so not happy she wanted to turn time back sometimes. That’s why she so often dreamed of her mother, perhaps. It would make sense. Sarah shook her head. She wasn’t going to think about these dreams, not now. If only David could sleep through one full night without waking up Sarah was sure everything will be different. She moved the baby to the other breast and closed her eyes.
Sarah woke up. She was standing over David’s crib. The baby was in it, on his back, sleeping peacefully. Sarah stroked his smooth forehead. Something wasn’t right. His skin was cold.
“David?” Sarah whispered. The air became thick, as thick and sticky as honey and every movement became a near impossibility. Sarah put her hand on the baby’s cold cheek and a sob escaped her lips. She tried to move her hand to the back of his head, to lift it, but it was so heavy, so massively heavy. A drop of blood splashed against David’s skin. It took Sarah forever to lift her other hand to her nose. She used to have nosebleeds when she was a child. Another drop splashed on the stain left by the first one. Her nose was dry. Sarah turned her arm and saw the gash running from the wrist to the inside of the elbow. An identical gash had appeared on her other arm. Sarah tried to scream but there was not enough air. There was never enough air in this place.
A squeal pierced the quiet of the night. Sarah’s ears registered the sound but she didn’t wake up. She frowned, turned on her side and smacked her lips without waking up. Another squeal followed. It was shriller, louder, and angrier, and it drilled through the cocoon of sleep that Sarah had wrapped around herself. In her mind the squeal turned into words. Help me, honey. I fell. Sarah’s eyes flew open and she sat up in bed before she was fully awake, swaying a little, blinking hard to dislodge the last bits of sleep from her brain.