I wake up in the dark and know I am on my own. Grandma’s bed has been moved into the dining room where she can be close to Dad when everybody else is fast asleep. Someone needs to be there around the clock to suction phlegm from his mouth. Pour vanilla Ensure into his empty feeding bag once the beeping alarm finally wakes her up.
I miss her; miss listening to the sound of her rearranging her bedroom in the middle of the night. For years I have been waking up in the empty darkness, determined to keep my eyelids pressed together as long as I could to keep from seeing the horrors creeping in long shadows. Her low, gentle bumping was a comforting noise in a house quiet except for the shrill of crickets and the chirping of geckos. Knowing she was awake, on the other side of the wall, helped steel me for terrifying trips to the bathroom just across the hall.
My midnight house is no longer quiet, but the sounds are nowhere near a comfort. The air conditioner in the living room rattles continuously, trying in vain to cool down my father’s always-hot skin. He drenches his hospital bed with sweat even though he is completely naked. He is always miserable, waiting for the trinity of wife, mother, daughters to orchestrate turning him one way or another so that the other side of his back can finally get some relief from the body heat captured by his adjustable bed. But at night, while we are too busy sleeping to pull and tuck bed sheets to give him some minuscule comfort, his forehead begins beading. His eyes sting with sweat that he can’t wipe away.
He focuses all his might to thrash a forearm against one metal bed rail. Even this small movement requires an exertion so great that his forehead begins sweating even more. His eyes become inundated. His thrashing, critical.
“Mama,” he rasps through the hole bored into his throat, but Grandma is snoring. I hear the gnawing sound of her sleep falter and think she must be getting up. He calls to her again right away, forearm crashing into the silver railing again and again. The awful, metallic clattering pierces the silence, but it is my father’s cordless voice that shatters.
“Mama,” he calls, this time with true desperation.
I want to go downstairs and help him. I am terrified of going downstairs to help him.
Grandma’s snoring quiets and I shiver with relief. I hear the creak of her mattress and the whistle of her breathing as she makes her away across the dining room. She chatters to Dad in a voice she thinks is quiet, but she is almost seventy now. Her hearing has been going for many years so her voice rings out in contrast to her son’s futile rasping. I hear my father struggle to ask her to wipe his face.
“What?” she asks. “You want grapes?” I wince. She already knows he can never eat anything ever again.
Finally Grandma understands. She wipes the sweat from my father’s face and ambles back to her bed on the dining room floor. The rattling air conditioner is drowned out once again by their call-and-response snoring competition. Tomorrow we’ll joke about them sawing down the entire rainforest, but right now the noise keeps me awake.
I lay beneath the covers, working hard to convince myself to get out of bed and close the door against the discord that seems even louder in the darkness. My hollow bedroom door won’t do much, but at least it is something I can do. Only, I cannot. In between their saw-toothed breathing I hear the whisper of shadows that have always hounded me in the middle of the night.
I close my eyes tight, trying to lull my brain into letting me fall asleep. I try telling myself stories but they are all menacing. I switch to spelling a few words I’ve just learned, the letters droning on one after the other.
They’re not on Mrs. Muramoto’s eighth grade vocabulary list, but I can spell them just the same. There are a lot of words I can spell now that don’t get me credit in school.
Only, they sort of do.
The homework in my backpack is as done as it’s ever going to be. That means not much of it has been done at all. I’m not flunking, but probably I should be. The teachers told Mom that they know I’m bright and they know our family is going through a rough time right now, so I get lots of no-homework excuses. I don’t get in trouble the way I know I should. I am not supposed to take advantage of this, my teachers’ understanding. I am supposed to be doing as much as I can. I know I am not, but I also know that I am. I know I am disappointing everyone.
Everybody thinks this is hard because of my dad, and it is. Of course it is. But also it’s not. I mean, there’s more to this than my father dying. That’s not, you know, the only thing in this whole awful world that’s going on.
Beneath my bed lurk demons and monsters who wait to grab at my slender ankles. If I do manage to close the door there will be more demons breathing evil on the other side of it, waiting for me to run screaming from my room as the demons inside it chase me from my bed.
Just a few months ago, I would have jumped from my bed and opened Grandma’s bedroom door to ask if I could sleep in her room. She’d still be up, black Flair pen whispering over the wide rule pages of a marble composition book. She’d nod towards the foam mattress on the floor, put there especially so she could watch over sick or sunburned children in the middle of the night. I’d settle in and fall asleep almost right away, lulled by her whistling breaths and the scritching sound of her continuous writing. Statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Jude kept vigil over both of us and I, at last, could sleep.
When I was eleven, Mom decided Grandma and I should switch rooms because it was obvious I liked hers better. Without the words to tell my mother about the demons that threatened whenever I was alone in the dark, I did not contest the move. The day it was done, I sat on my grandmother’s bed in my old bedroom and wept, petting the textured wall in an emotional farewell. I ridiculed myself for those tears, knowing it was just a room. Not really knowing why I was carrying on like such a baby.
I crept into Grandma’s room again that night, of course. Most nights, until Dad…until Grandma’s bed was moved downstairs.
Tonight, in the room that was once upon a time my grandmother’s room, I am inconsolably alone. I turn on the radio to break the silence. I listen to KDEO, the station I catch best on the alarm clock that used to be my parents’. The minutes flip by one by one. Loretta Lynn sings another song about the same wandering man.
Finally, fitfully, I am able to sleep. It is nearly three o’clock in the morning.
At five, Mom comes to rap her fingernails against my open door. “Get up,” she says for the fourth of fifth time that morning. She is getting angry now, but my eyes refuse to open. Mom yanks me out of bed by my arm and I pull on my uniform, tired and seething.
We get into the car, just me, Celine, and Mom now. We used to just barely fit into the Buick, the six of us spending our days on the other side of the island. The house would sit empty, Mary and Jude watching over the whole quiet thing until we came home in time for dinner. Now the house is almost never empty. Hushed, but never really quiet. Mary and Jude are in a bookcase next to Grandma’s dining room mattress. They can’t watch over me any longer.
Shadows remain deep and treacherous in the middle of the night. Demons wait beneath my twin-sized bed and behind my folding closet doors. My father tries to wake his mother, covering his forearms with bruises as I close my eyes, spelling words I learned from my mother, who learned them from my father’s neurologist.
I am twelve years old and I know, really know that I must keep watch over myself all night long.
image: Moon over Kīlauea via Wikimedia Commons