February 13, 2006
Do you have a metaphor for sleep? For most of my life I thought of sleep as a dark flowing river. I would often dream of being swept far and fast in the powerful enveloping current eventually finding myself on the banks of some foreign land always a moment before waking.
But last year my wife introduced me to a new metaphor. When our son was falling to sleep she would say she imagined tucking him into a small boat and pushing him out to sea. This is the shorthand we use around the house: "Has the boat launched?" I will ask, and then she will shush me and say, "The boat is on shore, but the tide is coming in and we can walk it to the deep water."
My wife's image took hold and I dream of rivers no longer, now I see a starlit sea with groups of parents standing in pairs on the beaches gently pushing sailboats, kayaks, and canoes into the inky depths.
Sleep is one of the unspoken fears of new parents. When our children sleep we put our hands to their chests to check their breathing. Night is when sickness strikes. And there is always the terror that one day you will wake and your child will be gone. In my new dreams the sight of the boats disappearing into the night is chilling, but I know it is a fear we must accept. Then in my dream, stars fall from the sky and in the shadows we parents hold each other and sleep on the beach waiting for dawn. By morning the children are back from their night's journey, changed by degrees, poking us, and watching us stir. And that's where the dream pushes into the reality of the new day.
I wake up each morning and look at my son and wonder if this is a day he will remember. For a long time, I found it unspeakably sad knowing none of days of the last year would hold. He would not remember the unfettered joy of playing ball for the first time, he would not remember the discovery of oranges, and if something were to happen to his mother or myself, he would not remember us.
Each night we push him out into the deep and each morning he returns a slightly more complex human being. Our relationship changes as his personality grows. He is learning to say "no". One day something we do will disappoint him and he us. Things will change. And I've realized that these first years without memory are for us, the parents. The utter sweetness of these days is necessary not only to face the dread of that dark sea but because love is an abyss, and these days give us the courage to dive in.