By Marc Dickinson
That night, after we paid the babysitter and threw away the empty pizza box, your mom wanted to watch the two of you sleep. It was sentimental, she admitted, taking my hand to lead us upstairs. We stood there a long time, looking through one doorway, then the next. It was quiet, not even a night light to keep away the dark. Both of you claimed to be too old for such things. I wanted to get a closer look—hoping some of your sleep would rub off on us—but your mom refused to cross the thresholds, as if already imagining herself absent from these rooms.
“I want to remember this,” she whispered.
“It’ll always be like this,” I said, despite what we now knew. Neither of you had any idea. Not yet. So maybe she hoped to memorize the way you were before tomorrow, when we’d keep you both home from school and confess everything we learned that afternoon.
Each of you slept differently.
You lay upside down and outside the sheet: a boy who couldn’t sit still, even in dreams.
But you were the opposite, buried beneath blankets, the bed always looking empty.
“How does she breathe under there?” Every night your mom pulled the comforter from your face. By dawn, you’d again be a little animal snuggled in a den. “It must get hot.” A flush rose to your mother’s face. New hair always made her sweat.
“It makes her feel safe,” I said. “She’ll be okay.”
“I know. She’ll be great.” Your mom’s smile could be so convincing—like she could tuck in the whole world. And that night it almost worked. Until she touched the corner of her eye, took a deep breath, and said, “You’ll all do just fine.”
I tried to hold her. But she held herself instead—arms crossed, eyes closed—so all I could offer was: “Do you want to go to bed?”
“They gave us a pamphlet in Group.” She leaned against your doorframe. “It broke down a lifetime into minutes. To offer perspective, I guess. But all I remember is we spend a third of our lives in bed.”
“Everyone needs sleep. It’s good for us. Just look at them.”
“I did the math,” she said. “Twelve years. And a quarter of that is trying to sleep. So three years of staring into the dark. It’s almost criminal.”
I’ve never done the math. Maybe it helps some people, but all those hours adding up terrifies me. Though that night not being awake seemed wrong. Partly because of how unfair it felt. And partly because of what the morning would bring, when we broke the news and you cried, which felt like the right thing for a daughter to do. Whereas you didn’t make a sound, which made us worry, acting so brave because you’re a boy—only for it to someday catch up with you. But you were also the first to talk, your sister unable to speak through her sobs.
There were questions, of course.
The typical why and what if’s, until finally you asked: “How can you just give up?”
It sounded like an insult, but your mother knew better. She kneeled down, wrapped her arms around your eight-year-old shoulders, and said, “You’re the only reason I haven’t yet.”
Though it was an unspoken rule to never mention it, much less touch it, that morning you swept a strand of your mother’s hair behind her ear. It was a small gesture, but it made her cry. And maybe it was those tears that finally got to you. That made you grab a handful and pull.
Neither of you had seen it before, so the stares couldn’t be helped. Each pair of eyes gazing at her scalp, as if discovering some pale, new planet.
Your mom rocked back on her heels, mouth wide-open without a sound. I’d never seen her so speechless. A kind of helplessness I couldn’t forgive or forget. All I wanted was to put that wig back in place. Your mother never wanted this version of her stuck in your minds. But it felt impossible to move, much less to punish, when you took your mother’s bare head in your hands. Then you stopped crying and joined your brother, running those tiny fingers over her skull like it was a crystal ball to wish upon.
Of course, you know this already.
I can’t remember what we did with her hair—donated it? Threw it out?—but either way, it was the last thing taken from her, by both of you, which maybe makes it okay.
Though what you don’t know is the night before, when your mother stood there and watched you in bed, losing track of the time, I took her hand and told her to follow me. I refused to let her pass over your rooms like a ghost. So first, we went to you, rotating your body right-side-up. We slipped next door and pulled the sheets from your face, at first with a gentle tug, but soon with some effort, your arms so tangled in the covers I had to jerk the blankets, almost not worrying if it woke you, which was maybe my plan all along, until your mom touched my hand and told me that was enough. With a magician’s skill, she gently drew the sheet free, exposing your face coated in sweat and hair wild with sleep. I could tell she wanted to wipe your brow, comb everything back into place. Instead, she left you alone, though not before turning on the lamp by each of your beds, offering just enough light for us to see our way down the hall, where we finally found some sleep before the sun came up.