On sleeping and not sleeping

Small boy looking down

At 3.08 am, I hear your first scream.

The fluorescent light from the cabin bathroom is flickering unpleasantly, giving the cramped room a strange, nightmarish quality – but we cannot turn off the lights or you will not sleep at all.

“Sweetheart – everything is okay. You are safe. We are on the big boat.”

You scream again. I look down from the higher bunk and I can see you in the awful spluttering glow. Your body is curled up, your hands clamped over your ears.

The alarm is going to come. The alarm is going to come! Is it time to go? We have to go before the alarm comes!”

“Darling, it is the middle of the night. The alarm will not come for ages – I promise you. My phone is all set up to tell us, so we will have plenty of time before the alarm.

You stop shouting, but your body remains stiff, your hands clamped over your ears. At 3.12 am, you scream again and the same conversation is repeated. At 3.16, you scream once more. With each repetition, your screams become louder, your terror harder to control. By 3.22, as muffled sobs escape your pillow, it is clear that we cannot continue.

As quick as I can, struggling against the nausea of sleepiness, the rocking boat, the flickering lights, I get you up, out and to the main deck of the ferry. We leave Daddy and Littlest to sleep, groggy and bleary-eyed.

In the lounge on the main deck, all is silent. Crumpled, gently snoring bodies fill every sofa and comfortable space, covered in coats and blankets.

As soon as we are away from the cabin, away from the alarm, you relax. I unwrap a cereal bar and you devour it while we wait. My eyes struggle to stay open but you do not sleep. Your eyes are wide and alert. Eventually, the sky starts to lighten and the black ink sea slowly turns blue.

On the long drive through France, you do not sleep. Your sister naps for hours but your head only nods for a few minutes. You are too busy listening to your favourite CDs. The car is a safe, happy place.

After the long, black night and endless journey, the bright blue of the French sky and the wilting sunflowers seem like a different world, a different time. The bustle and excitement of the new place, of nanny and grandad, the swimming pool, the garden – they buoy your spirits for a little while. But by 4pm your eyes are rolling; you can barely lift your head, barely answer a question.

Finally, you fall asleep.

Spread across my lap, your head resting against my shoulder, you lie, face as pale as paper. Small beads of sweat form on your forehead, making the front of your hair damp. This is the first time you have fallen asleep on me since you were a very, very small baby. I am exhausted and I should sleep with you – I should let my head rest on the cosy armchair and drift away.

But I cannot. I study your face. I watch the beads of moisture run into the flecks of gold in your hair. I watch your chest rise and fall, your huge, long lashes flutter as you stir a little. I listen to the sound of your breathing.

I treasure every moment of peace, every second of safety. I thank the universe for every moment that you are mine, and happy. I remember your hands on your ears, your face stained with tears and scrunched in terror and I thank everyone and everything that those moments were not longer, that your terror has passed, that you are peaceful and perfect, warm and safe against my chest.

When you wake, you are not yourself at all. The routine is broken and you are so tired that you cease to function. You cannot speak at all. Words come in between sobs but they are all jumbled up and slurred.

We carry you to bed, face stained with tears, eyes barely open.

And we hope that the morning brings a better day.


For more posts like this, you might like:

A moment in a life with autism

The Faceless Unexpected Things


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