Tonight I aim to get myself to bed early. Working with a shaman is kicking my ass. Working at the gym with a trainer is kicking my ass. And every night I’m kickin’ ass on the keyboard, writing like a house on fire till three or four in the morning. It’s no wonder I married a Marine; I’d rather die than say I can’t do it, whatever “it” might be. In this moment, I’m listening to 3 Doors Down sing “Kryptonite” and I’m wondering what mine is, my kryptonite. I imagine it’s my do-or-die attitude. It definitely gets me places and it definitely gets things done, but there’s hell to pay. Not the next day. Not later in the week or later in the year, when I go on vacation. (Penniless writer. Vacation? what’s that?) Hell-to-pay doesn’t kick in till long after the crisis has passed.
In grad school I regularly went without sleep, often as much as two or three days at a stretch, and when I finished I joked that I needed three jobs just to keep pace with the level of work I’d grown accustomed to. My husband, the Marine, dropped out half way through. Not me, I was hardcore: four point, all the way; winner of the graduate award for top literary research. That was a lifetime ago, but today as I tell the shaman how exhausted I feel since we began working together - as bad as grad school - he tells me that my body has yet to recover from that experience.
Four years after grad school, Jose died. For months, every minute not spent at work was spent with Jose. I didn’t notice the exhaustion. I wasn’t clueless about how tired I was; I was focused. Two years later, when my grandmother died, the one who half raised me, it wasn’t her children there at the end. I could rearrange my clients, true, but more importantly, I could rearrange my headspace; the intimacy of death didn’t frighten me. Then it was my aunt, the one who half raised me: two strokes with long months of recovery work; and then my mother, circling the drain from the ravaging effects of a lifetime of alcohol and pills. She survived, of course, and like the grandmother in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story, “The incredible and sad tale of Innocent Erendire and her heartless grandmother,” my mother will no doubt live to torture me for another hundred years. I tell my sisters our mother has cockroach DNA. I’m certain of it.
In the years between caring for my grandmother and my auntie, I broke down, just like an old car in the middle of the freeway during rush hour, and was left for dead. “If I go crazy, will you still call me superman? If I’m alive and well, will you be there aholdin’ my hand?”
I don’t mean physical death. I mean social death. I mean psychological and emotional death. I could not properly care for myself and I could not get well, despite half a dozen doctors and more than a dozen prescriptions. And I could not sleep. Caring for the dying was an easier experience, by far. Death has an arc to it, an inevitability toward which everything builds: crescendo, climax; denouement.
I was always good at the first two. The denouement, however, that’s the lull that leads to sleep, but not for me. As I write this, the words soaking into me for the first time even as they stream out my fingertips, I know like I know the color of my own eyes, I haven’t slept since I was fourteen when insomnia pushed me out my bedroom window to wander the neighborhood streets till I was too tired to stand. But I have gotten better, healthy again, healthy enough to care for others. Again. But this year, I let go of caring for mothers and aunties and nieces and nephews. This year, I don’t answer my phone and I don’t answer the what-are-you-doing-this-weekend question with “nothing.”
Earlier this month, my sisters and I gathered to celebrate two of our three birthdays. Near the end of the evening, my sisters began the what I refer to as the mama talk: “You can’t know blank until you.....” This time: “You can’t know the exhaustion of motherhood until you actually have children.”
No, I suppose you can’t.