As I’ve gotten older I’ve come down with a common malady: getting enough sleep is an erratic and fitful nightly exercise. I have to be completely exhausted to sleep seven or eight hours in a row, and my average night’s sleep when all of the fragments are added together usually adds up to around five or six. Some of this is my fault. I don’t have a bedtime ritual that I follow with any regularity. Sometimes at eleven I write, or read, or catch up on e-mails, or watch TV. I tell myself that it’s lights out at twelve, but am not good at following my own orders. I often find myself twisted like a pretzel in an odd position while lying on my living room sofa with the TV playing an infomercial. It’s usually three in the morning, and the last thing I remember before dozing off was a comedian telling a political joke.
At other times something random wakes me up after having gone to bed at a decent time. A tree branch may have landed on the roof. The neighbor, whose carport is twelve or fifteen feet away from my bedroom window, often receives predawn guests who toot their horns or engage in loud conversations about their exciting young lives. Critters contribute to the disruption of my rest. Hoot owls have been known to perch in nearby trees, and the neighborhood has its share of dogs that are left outdoors at night and given the opportunity to bark at passing raccoons, possums, and armadillos. Cars slow down for a turn around a corner across from my house, and some of their drivers like to play music loudly enough so that the thumping of the bass notes reminds me of the more traumatic passages from Poe’s, “The Telltale Heart”.
And sometimes my body wakes me up. I don’t suffer from prostate issues yet, but my neck and shoulders and hips sometimes decide to say hello to me in the wee hours. My spine has a slight curvature in my upper back leading to intermittent pinching of nerves in the aforementioned joint areas and tight muscles that try to lock me into a robotic inability to freely turn my head and lift an arm. When I paint a lot I further aggravate these symptoms. A satisfying day of work can lead to a long night of sleeplessness.
If I wake up after getting three or four hours of sleep I’m usually alert for one or two hours before finally feeling the urge to close my eyes. I have plenty to think about; my mind races and just won’t slow down and shut up. I’m a man my late fifties so I’m visited by all sorts of mental specters. I can worry about retirement, the health and future of loved ones, and job concerns. I can brood over career disappointments and past actions that I still wish that I could take back. I can also wonder about that odd noise I just heard coming from the opposite end of the house. It sounded like the refrigerator rumbling as it went through a defrost cycle, but might have been some neighborhood druggy trying to open a locked door. There have been break-ins in our neighborhood throughout the quarter century that we’ve lived here, and it’s not an idle worry to wonder if our house is next.
This week I’ve had two very different experiences while I rested my head on my pillow. On Tuesday I heard a helicopter chop-chop-chopping overhead as it circled the neighborhood at a low altitude. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore it, and was nearly asleep when I heard a voice calling down from the heavens. The tone was so flat and mechanical that I doubted that I was being visited by anything celestial. The message was repeated twice more, and I finally deciphered it. I heard: “You there by the fence, behind the building–come out with your hands up.”
Normally I would have been concerned that the police were hunting down someone within 50 or so yards of my back door, but for some reason I didn’t care. I was reasonably sure that I had locked all my doors and wasn’t concerned that a punk on the run might manage to break in in an attempt to hide from the police. I’d deal with it if it happened. My fatalism probably came from deep fatigue–I was too tired to care.
Last night went much differently. As I lay down I was overcome by a feeling of peace that washed through my body. I’ve felt this comforting presence before in times of trouble and illness, but have never been able to identify its source or to predict its erratic schedule of visitations. It comes when it comes and can’t be invited or coerced. At times the visitation feels almost personal, like someone or something is looking out for my welfare. Sometimes I receive intuitive messages from this presence, and last night it was, “I will always be with you.”
My departed sister and grandfather have come to me in dreams before. This wasn’t a dream, and my consoler’s identity remained hidden from me. My solace vanished like an elf in a fairy tale when I asked it, “But who are you?”
I felt stupid for letting my curiosity get the better of me instead of just being thankful for the moment. Nevertheless I slept through till morning and woke with the feeling that I had been touched by something eternal the night before.