It is Wyatt. He is calling out in his sleep again. He moans and twists in his sheets. We have been in and out of his room, shushing and settling, pleading with him to be quiet, but he is uncommunicative and unresponsive and now we lie awake in our own bed, side-by-side, staring at the ceiling, listening to the angry animal-like noises issuing forth out of our firstborn son. He snarls and shouts and jerks his body around, and I am appalled to find that when I go to him again, I must repress the urge to scold him or shout back or shake him awake.
“Shush, Wyatt, shush. Please don’t wake your brothers,” I say, perched on the ladder of his bunk, leaning over the rail to straighten his covers, rub his exposed shoulder.
“NNnnnnnnnrrrrrrrrr…. nyah-nyah-NNNRARRRR!” He shakes me off, brow furrowed, eyes closed, making a sound that is somewhere between a roar and a colicky infant’s angry cry.
“Come on, honey, shhhhh…. Everything is okay,” I say, crawling up beside him, whispering in his ear, hoping to reach him somewhere in there. “You’re asleep in your bed, Wyatt. You’re fine. Everything is fine.”
“RRRRRAAAAAARRRRRRRRR! Rahr! GRRNNNNRR!” He thrashes from side to side, catching me in the jaw with his elbow, and then, as I am rubbing the sore spot, he spits, “Pah!” spraying my face and I recoil.
“It’s okay,” I say again, through gritted teeth. “Everything is okay.”
He will remember nothing in the morning. We have been through this for years. The first incident I recall, he was a toddler, not yet two. I did not understand what was happening—it was wintertime in Central Pennsylvania, Aaron was away and I was bleary-eyed, my patience shot and my nerves rattled from being up and down with him in our cold, dark house, unable to determine any cause for his apparent distress. I brought him in bed with me—usually a fail-proof way to steal back a good night’s sleep—but still he kicked the covers off, flopped from side-to-side, moaned and called out, unyielding to words of comfort, unresponsive to my queries: “Does your tummy hurt, Wyatt? Are you thirsty, honey? Are you hungry? Do you have owies? Wy-Wy, what’s wrong? What do you need? Please, Wyatt, let Mommy help you.” I remember at one point, forcing him up into a sitting position, my hands under his little pajamaed armpits, demanding, “You must be quiet! You must sleep! Enough! Enough! This is too much!”
The self-loathing I experience when I revisit this memory is nearly unbearable. He was a baby trapped in a nightmare and I said enough, and I said too much. Now I trot this memory out to chastise myself as I feel my patience beginning to fray. He is my child, I remind myself. He is my baby. I must have compassion. I must hold out. He is my child; he is my baby. And then this terrible unavoidable thought rises to the surface from who knows what murky depths: He will die.
He will die.
My child, my baby will die.
My wide-eyed, curly-headed, tender-hearted boy— my Wyatt will die. Not now, but one day. It is a fact so difficult to face—more difficult than my own inevitable demise— that it scandalizes me to write these words and imagine them being read. No, there is nothing “wrong” with him: despite the night terrors, he is a healthy, growing child and we feed him fresh foods and love him dearly and carefully brush his teeth and sunscreen his petite face with the faith that he has many happy and productive decades ahead, but someday—maybe as much as a hundred years from now— some fateful day, he will die. Not only that, but every person he knows and loves, and has yet to know and love, will also die. I will die. His father will die. His grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins will die. His brothers will, too. Friends, lovers, children, grandchildren: deaths foreordained, one and all, even for those not yet born.
And as if that was not a raw enough deal, over the course of the life sandwiched between his birth and death, he will experience pain and heartache, frustration and disappointment. He will know loss and despair. We brought him into being to fulfill our own desires to be parents and now he has to face suffering and death, and on some level he understands this, and now here, in the small hours, I imagine that his wordless torment is an expression of outrage against the injustice of the whole arrangement.
“Ma…ma… mama… h-help… Mama, help…” he mutters, reverting in sleep to his baby name for me. I push his hair back from his brow. It is damp with sweat. Enough moonlight falls through the open shade for me to make out his profile.
I know I could say anything to him—or nothing—either way, he will not remember when he wakes. I could walk away. I could slip out the backdoor of the house and just leave. It seems like if I kept going and going into the darkness, if I went far enough for long enough, I could somehow walk right out of my very skin and disappear from this life entirely. He and his brothers are still so little. Their memories of me would fade. I imagine Wyatt as an adult saying, “I don’t really remember my mother. She disappeared one night when I was a kid.” Gently I stroke his cheek, touch his lips, his back, his hand, his head.
“I am so sorry,” I say. “I am so very sorry.”
He whimpers and kicks one leg out from under the comforter.
“I am sorry, I am sorry,” I whisper; teardrops fall easily out of my eyes and land with audible plops on his rocket ship pillowcase. “My sweet, sweet boy, I am sorry. It’s not okay, it’s not fine—not at all. I am so, so sorry.”
“Mama?” he says. His voice is raspy from shouting.
“I’m here,” I say.
“Ma-ma,” he exhales.
“I am here,” I say again. His brow unfurrows. His breathing slows. “I am here.”
“I am here, I am here, I am sorry, so sorry, but I am here.”