Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Sleep is Over-Rated

All my life, I have been taught the importance of family. I was raised in an active, loving, Mormon family in rural Utah – where the sky is blue, the grass is green only when irrigated constantly (and, often, not even then), the water runs through the tap cold, fishing and hunting are an hour’s walk from home – and all else is right in the world. I took domestic peace and marital joy for granted growing up, and my early married life did nothing to disabuse me of my adolescent assumptions. After all, I married the only girl I have ever loved – the girl who, at the ripe old age of 15 stole my heart and completed my soul. Once she turned 16, she was the only girl I dated – and we were married less than two months after I returned from my mission. I valued marriage, and I loved my wife – and I slept well each night.

I attended college as a visible anomaly – a 22-year-old, married freshman – the first married freshman in institutional memory, according to the Freshman Dean’s Office. By the time I graduated (six years later, but that’s a story for another time), we had our first three children – again, the first such situation in institutional memory. I didn’t sleep much during those six years, since working full-time, attending college full-time, serving in the Church in various callings, loving a wonderful woman and helping raise small children didn’t leave much time for trivial things like sleep. (If I tried to live that schedule now, it would kill me.)

Just before my senior year, I realized once again that I wanted to be a school teacher. I had spent six years dreaming of academic and social glory (international diplomacy was my intended occupation), but, fortunately, the strong impressions of my adolescence came back to me and put my future back into focus. I won’t take everyone through the journey that took me from the classroom in Alabama to where I am now in Ohio; suffice it to say that through both sweet peace and intense employment difficulty my family grew to include six beautiful children, various non-paying boarders at the house that is known among our children’s friends simply as “Hotel DeGraw” and, at its foundation, the girl who continued to amaze me through it all. I loved her more each year, particularly as I watched how deeply she cared about being a good person and helping others no matter the pain it caused her. For all those years, I ended each night at her side – talking about the day, our kids, our cares, our joys and our sorrows until we fell asleep arm-in-arm – sleeping as happily and contented as it is possible to be.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: When we first moved to Ohio, we did so for a job that required I travel. Eventually, I worked into a position where I was traveling extensively. I like to travel. Driving, flying, seeing new cities, staying in hotels, just about everything associated with travel I enjoy - except for those multiple thousand mile drives with multiple tired children in multiple foul moods after multiple days on the road. Otherwise, I like the open road and sky.

On the other hand, I quickly found that I have a hard time sleeping alone when I travel. You see, pretty much since our oldest son scared us out of our wits by getting out of his crib and going down the hardwood stairs all alone (at about 13 months old), we have had an open bedroom door policy in our house. This means that for the past 18 years I have spent most of my nights either crammed up next to my wife or crowded to the edge of our bed, hoping a strong wind (or a random push or kick) didn't send me tumbling to the floor – crammed or crowded by as many as 7 other bodies sprawled any which way but orderly and consuming every available square inch of the bed.

I remember so vividly, years ago, when I first started traveling overnight, how much I looked forward with anticipation to that first night away - my chance to sprawl in imitation of my children - to sleep diagonally if I so desired - to use the blanket and sheet however I pleased - to sleep the deep sleep of the quiet and undisturbed – to wake up refreshed from a deep sleep for the first time in many years. That simply wasn't my experience.

I lay there, eyes closed but unable to sleep, and I couldn't understand why. There were no bodies crowding me to the edge - no kicks to my unprotected kidneys or eyes - no incessant snoring or muttering or additional body heat in the summer. It was peaceful - and I couldn't sleep - at least not until about 4AM, and then for only two hours until the alarm shattered the shallow, fitful sleep I had not enjoyed. This lasted each time I traveled for about a month; then one night I discovered the solution: PILLOWS!

One night, in the middle of my sleep-deprived state, I had an epiphany - truly, I believe, inspiration from someone who took pity on my plight. I missed my ridiculously cluttered and cramped nights. I missed those toes in my nose - those knees in my back - the hair in my eyes whenever they opened. Most of all, I missed the sense of peace and contentment that came amid my chosen chaos. Quietude and solitude, I discovered, are not all they’re cracked up to be - at least not when fulfillment has been defined and wrapped up in noise and family for years. So, I asked for seven extra pillows, packed them around me on the bed (cramming myself into a small space within their embrace) and slept like a baby - at least like a baby whom others apparently have who sleeps through the night without a sound.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: The past few weeks, my wife has returned to work - since our youngest child started school this fall. She (my wife) has been working overnight a couple of nights each week, taking care of the elderly - and spending those nights away from me. It has not been easy, and I have found myself up late, falling asleep on the couch - even as our three youngest children lie sleeping in our bed upstairs.

I learned years ago that I like to have my children around me - even as I sleep. I learned this last couple of weeks that such a situation is not enough - that to be wholly happy and completely content my wife needs to be there, as well. I can sleep soundly with her by my side, with or without the children around us; I cannot sleep soundly without her there, even when they are crowded around me. I love my children with all my heart, but they are no substitute for my soul-mate - my split-apart - my chosen companion - my best friend in all the universe - the other half of the whole I hope to be throughout eternity.

I tell you all of that to tell you this: I truly am blessed, and I recognize now – a little more than ever before – just how grateful I am and should be. I know many people who are not blessed in this way – who never marry, who are divorced or widowed or abused – who sleep alone for many unplanned years – who want to live the standards of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but must renounce inclinations that would bring companionship in this life in order to do so. After feeling a small portion of what they live with day in and day out, I am much less inclined to judge them for the choices they make – and much more in awe of those who remain faithful to the difficult ideal required for temple attendance.

Eternal marriage and family mean just a little more to me at this moment, since I have caught a tiny glimpse of isolated immortality, living as half the whole she and I are meant to be. If I can’t handle each night we are apart, I can’t fathom living endlessly without her – feeling alone in a vast cosmos – sleeping in a great and spacious hotel – forever, fitfully alone. I want to live on with my arm around her – in a universe surrounded by our children – even if that means I only get a little edge of it as my own and never get enough sleep.


Mama D said...

Amazing! I like your additions! (Wow, you portray me as so awesome -- thanks for skipping the bad moments!) Now you truly know how I felt trying to sleep when you first started traveling!

There are some editing things I'd suggest, but I'll tell you personally rather than typing them all down here!

Love you!

Papa D said...

What bad moments? *grin*

Anonymous said...

What I fear about living with my sister is all those "teaching" moments for her, but in the mean time I want to see her grow.

What I am finding out is that as much as I love being alone I can't stand the fact that she is gone for the night. I just don't like the fact that I have to function for myself.....I think I need to think and ponder about what I just wrote.