“Mommy! Puh-le-ee-eeze Mommy! We don’t want to go to be-eh-hed! Please Mommy!”
The quartet’s tormented tune wailed over and over again from behind the catty-cornered bedroom doors. Tiny digits of guilt clawed and wiggled through the gaps underneath, reaching for me. Begging for a stay. But the day was over- the clock said so.
I’d made it through one more sunrise.
One more breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Diapers had been changed. Boo-boos kissed, forts built, and mud puddles splashed in. Baths and snacks had rounded out the evening along with tooth brushing and the four thousandth reading of Green Eggs and Ham, and the Giving Tree. Stars had taken center stage in the sky. Although I knew I wouldn’t sleep, I also knew I needed these hours alone.
I needed the nights. Especially the hot summer kind currently being served up. I longed to get outside in that sultry air, gaze up at the moon, listen to the crickets, and hope my dog stopped finding the resident skunk. I had to have this time. If only my kids would fall asleep- I knew they had to be exhausted. They were still so little, ages 6,5,4 and almost 2. Like me, their lives had been upended with the death of my husband two months ago. But unlike me, they were still capable of sleep- even if they were hell-bent opposed to the notion. Cassie, our black lab mix, sauntered over and lied down with her head in my lap- my Battle Buddy. Oops! I’d lost focus.
The sobs of my sons provided the soundtrack for the tears steadily falling down my face as I hauled back on the door that had nearly opened. My fingers tingled, wrapped in the dog leashes I pulled on. The other ends tethered tightly to the two bedroom doors, holding my babies hostage in their rooms. It was a special kind of maternal hell, this bedtime ritual, but I knew our survival depended upon it.
I’ve never been a numbers girl but four against one screamed its imbalance even to me. Four. Of. Them. One of me. And not even one whole me- two months of widowhood had pretty much stolen a chunk of my soul I wasn’t certain I’d ever get back. I’d no doubt I’d fare no better than Humpty Dumpty if I couldn’t get my kids to go quietly into their nighttime routine.
A soft breeze wafted through the open window, carrying the crickets’ chirps with it. The night beckoned. “Go to Sleep!” I begged my little dictators. “Puh-le-ee-eeze go to sle-ee-eeep!” On it went, this nocturnal ordeal, for almost two weeks. I forgot what life was like before this descent into nighttime despair had begun. At first one of my sons started weeping at sunsets, saying they reminded him of daddy’s soul going to heaven.
One by one the others had followed suit until I’d begun herding them all inside at the first rays of twilight. Before I knew it my house sounded like I was boiling a dozen cats alive the moment I mentioned bedtime. It lasted about four hours from start to finish, from twilight/dinner, to baths, to snacks, to books, to apocalypse, to silence. Until I nudged through doors barricaded by the sleeping boys who’d drifted off on the floor, carried them to their beds, and tucked them in.
No sooner was the last blanket pulled to the last chin than me and Cassie would slink out into the night. I’d spend hours pacing the driveway, my loyal friend keeping watch. Eventually I’d wind up on the gentle hill behind our house, gazing down into their bedrooms and thinking about all the things I thought about in those days. Before dawn broke I’d slip back inside for a scalding shower in preparation of the day. Somehow, each morning, they’d awaken bright and happy, as if we hadn’t all gone 12 rounds the night before.
I’d thought about getting locks for their doors instead of holding fast to leashes. But here’s my rationale for deciding against it; for starters a lock – to me – implied permanency- that I would always have to lock them in for bed. Next, I may have become a warden of sorts, but I wasn’t about to walk away from them either. I spent time trying to play with them under the doors, distracting them from their mission of misery. I also assured myself that they were all safe, albeit pissed as hell, by visually scanning under the doors, sometimes locking eyeballs with them. If I believe it will work, it will, I told myself. I just had to outlast my sense of defeat, right? Meantime, if I passed out and there was a fire in their rooms or something, they’d be able to escape over my limp body.
One day, two, three, and into the second week. I was losing it. It was horrible. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t!
It was a gradual change, for sure, but it was undeniably a change. At first the fingers would abandon their escape efforts, withdrawing before their owners passed out in exhausted heaps of heartbreak. Pleas for mercy were replaced with rattling toys and – what was that?
Laughter! They were laughing! And playing! Two boys in each room.
That first night they made sure to periodically return to their posts, checking to see if I’d abandoned mine. But I was on to them and thwarted their every effort. And they thought it was funny!
The next few nights saw further declines in digits appearing under doors, less sobs, and then- wait for it- hugs goodnight! I could hardly believe it the first time I announced bedtime and all four boys leapt up in a race to their rooms. I must have stood there for minutes after the last tiny hiney disappeared down the hall. It’s a trap, I thought. They’re all waiting down there, to tie me up and run amuck all night. I took a few deep breaths to fortify myself as Cassie followed me down the hall. I peeked in the first bedroom and saw… boys playing! Did I care that there were toys all over the floor? Nope. Because my children were happy. And so it began.
Sunsets were still an issue for quite some time, but I’d won the night back. No more tears, tantrums, or worry about being the worst mom in the world. It was my first taste of perseverance on my own, without my husband’s assurances it would be okay or his thoughts on the issue. Would he approve of my method? Probably. But if he wouldn’t I’d never know, and I didn’t care- he was the one who’d died and left me here anyway.
It was an elating victory. It was a depressing victory, too. But it was still a victory.
I knew this sense of triumph would be short-lived whereas the sense of loss would be forever. But I also knew if I fought for it I had a good shot at getting my life back, one night at a time.