The Language of Sleep

A hand on my shoulder wakes me from my sleep. I was dreaming about Christmas time a long time ago. Sam was there in my dream childhood, which isn’t true in real life. We were eight or nine and building an elaborate Lego city. I built yellow houses with red roofs. Sam built windmill after windmill.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor says, his hand still on my shoulder, “he hasn’t woken up yet.”

Memory is such an odd beast. I always think it interesting what peoples’ minds chose to remember, especially what surfaces when someone is about to leave your life, this life, for good.

Sam is shaking me awake. I slept on the mattress in the corner of his dining room again. I slept there often the winter we met. The sun isn’t up yet. Sam pulls me up to a sitting position and hands me a mug of coffee. The mug is my favorite blue ceramic one with two cats on it. One cat says, “I knead you!” Its paws are on the other cat’s belly.

“Come on,” Sam says, “Let’s get out of here. Let’s just go somewhere. Drive, anywhere.”

I sip the coffee, brushing my hair from my eyes.

“Ok,” I say, “Just give me a few minutes.”

Sam and I slept in my car more than once. One time, we were on a residential cul-de-sac in Alexandria, Virginia. Many mature oak trees lined the street and we fell asleep under the leaf shadows coming through the street lamps. In the morning, when we stumbled out of the car, a woman wearing a pink bathrobe and curlers spotted us. She picked up her paper from the lawn, shook her head, and turned abruptly away.

 

“I’m surprised I fell asleep,” I say to the Doctor, “What did you say?”

“He’s not awake yet. He might…he might not wake up. You should start thinking about what you want to do.”

“Ness! Ness!” Sam is pounding on my door in the middle of the night. “Are you asleep? Ness!” I wrench myself from slumber and pull on my blue plaid flannel robe. I open the door.

“What? What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Nothing. I just…I just wanted to talk to you.”

I study Sam for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. He’s barefoot, and wears a grey t-shirt and red striped PJ bottoms. His eyes appear clear, not glassy. He has an unlit cigarette in his hand. I motion for him to come in and sit next to me on the bed.

“What?” I ask again.

“Do you ever wonder if people will miss you when you’re gone? If they’ll care?”

“Sam, what are you talking about? I’d miss you. I’d miss you forever.”

“Ah, I know you would…but what about others?”

“Does it matter?”

“I want to leave something behind. I want people to remember me.”

“You will. They will.

 

We lie on the edge of the single lane country road in Chittenango, NY where Sam grew up. Our heads are toward the center on a slight incline. It is July and the air is warm.

“I used to do this all the time when I was little,” Sam says, “For hours, just watching the stars. Sometimes I’d almost fall asleep out here. Until my mom would start yelling for me.”

I stretch my arms out so that one flops over Sam’s belly. I can hear his breathing and the crickets. The faint porch light from his Mom’s house is the only light. We count the stars. I find myself drifting off to sleep.

“Sam!” his mom yells from the house, “are you two coming in? Its pie and ice cream time!”

“Let’s go to L.A. Just get in the car and go. We can camp along the way; sleep under the stars…just you and me. What do you think?”

“Sounds wonderful,” I say. “We need a better vehicle though.”

“I have a friend with an RV. We could take that.”

“Sure. Yes, let’s.”

My shoulder hurts from falling asleep in the tan vinyl chair in the hospital waiting room. I’m not sure what time it is or how long I’ve been there. The only other person in the room is a man in black sweat pants and bright white Adidas track shoes reading the New York Times. I make my way to the nurse’s station.

One summer, I work at the Chautauqua Summer Theatre. I have a private room in a wood boarding house within the gates. Chautauqua is a gated, carless community for artistic types. Sam comes to visit me there. We spend the evenings on the porch of the boarding house. Sam plays the guitar while I doze on the lawn chair. People stop to listen and clap and sometimes join in. Sam sings the Sinead O’Conner song ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’. I fall asleep to the sound of his voice.

I can’t find anyone at the nurse’s station so I wander down the hall. I find Sam’s room. I can’t go in but stand transfixed outside the window. I know he is gone. I know it before anyone tells me. I can hear him singing ‘Black Boys on Mopeds.’ Tears run down my face.

“Are you asleep?” Sam asks.

“Not yet.”

“I wish we could explore outer space some day. Do you think that will happen in our lifetime? We’d be good space explorers. Some one ought to give us our own ship. What would you name it?”

“Our ship?”

“Yes.”

“Ummm…I don’t know. Samuelness?”

“How about Samuelness the First?”

“Ok. Samuelness the First.”

We both fall silent. My eyes close again.

“Ness?”

“Hmm?”

“We’ll do it, right?”

“What?”

“Everything. All the things we say we’re going to. Go to outer space. Slay the dragons. Climb all the mountains. We’ll do those things, right?”

“Of course we will. Of course. Now go to sleep.”

 

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