July 6, 2001
It’s been a long time since I’ve watched him sleep – not since he was a very small boy. I’ve seen him sleeping – in bed, on the sofa, in the car, even on the floor – but I haven’t really watched him sleep for years.
You know the kind of watching I mean: watching the play of dreamland across his face, mouth twitching into a smile or frown, foot jerking in some unknown race or in time to unheard music, fingers waving in greeting or farewell. That kind of watching.
Parents do it all the time when their children are small, wondering which of life’s momentous experiences are playing out on the theater screen of baby’s sleep. Our minds are as curious about their world as their minds are about ours. With a kind of awe we watch them sleep, trying to memorize and hold fast to those things that we know are transient and destined to live only in our memories.
As they grow and chisel out their places in the world, we become less awestruck and more impatient. Go to bed. Go to sleep. It’s time to wake up. You’re going to be late. I want to take a nap, play quietly or lie down with me.
They grow, we grow. We stop watching so closely, accustomed now to their presence. The newness is gone, the baby is a person – still loved, still lovable, but not so mysterious. This person has a world that intersects with ours, but we are no longer their universe, nor are they ours. There are events, perhaps, that are captured in the photo albums of our hearts – first steps, the first day of school, losing the first tooth, first love, first big disappointment, first important achievement. But soon, too soon, the baby is the adult and the film of his life is as choppy and scratchy as the old home movies we used to watch when he was small. Not quite in focus, some parts in black and white, cut off where the projector stalled and burnt a hole in the fragile film. Memories stored, to be recalled in quiet times, in lonely times, in happy times – whenever some event or place tickles and a faded memory bubbles to the surface of the mind. They’re there, these memories, waiting to be bid to rise.
Today they came flooding back as I watched him sleep. When the corner of his mouth curled into a fleeting smile and his chin twitched in response, I didn’t see the day-old growth of beard, now flecked with gray, but a sweet bow-mouth and fat rosy cheek. When his foot flexed and briefly jerked, it wasn’t the foot that had been cut on a piece of glass on the day of his senior prom, but the foot that I kissed and tickled while peals of laughter rang throughout my world. The dark lashes that lay softly curled on his cheeks were as wondrous to me as the day he was born. And the tousled hair that barely covers his head was, in my mind’s eye, the baby-soft hair of a newborn.
And as I sat next to him while he slept, I remembered and I cried. As we waited – he in his world of dreams, I in my world of pain – for the test that would tell us how badly damaged his liver is, I watched him sleep. And I was so grateful.