Somewhere in the Utah desert, I came undone. Our family was on the last leg of our spring break trip and we decided to cross into the San Rafael swell where Seth and I had spent part of our honeymoon. We drove up, up and up, through the night to a little family-owned and well-taken-care-of motel we’ve been to several times. It’s just outside Torrey, which is close to nothing except Capitol Reef National Park, which is close to nothing, either, except the intersection of some two-lane roads that are a jumping-off point to the depths of southern Utah. We arrived late and a spring wind met us as we unloaded children and snuggled them close in bed. We spent the next day walking in a wash with tall sandstone walls rising up on either side of us. We went to an old in-holding in the park to eat ice cream and drink orange sodas. That night we cooked dinner on our camp stove on the picnic table outside our motel room and when it was time for bed we thought it would be a quick, kids-are-tired process.
We were so wrong.
Seth read books to the kids and let them fall asleep. As he crept out of the room and into the other room where we were hoping to hang out, Eliza woke up. She said she was scared. This happens often and we thought she’d quickly go back to sleep. And she did but she woke up again. And again. And again. It took three hours to get her to sleep.
Seth and I took turns trying to get her to sleep. He talked to her, read books, told stories. I sat with her, rubbed her hair, told her everything was okay. She only became more and more worked up. Seth got frustrated. I got frustrated. I yelled, he yelled. He calmed down, I didn’t. I walked the grounds of the motel. I sat on a swing in the play area on the motel’s front lawn. I seethed. I fumed. I raged. Most of this I did on my own but I would occasionally check in to see if she was asleep. She was always still awake. I would go back outside and seethe some more. I came back in more than once to pull Seth out of the room and lay all of my frustrations at his feet. Let her cry it out, I told him. Let her deal, I said. She’s six, he said. She’s scared. We should have done this a long time ago, I said.
She finally fell asleep. We were both puffy-eyed from crying as she lay in her bed and I lay in mine still full of rage. I felt things that night that I never knew I could feel for my own child. I had no compassion, no empathy left. I had nothing left at all.
I’ve spent all six of her years dealing with the fact that she doesn’t sleep in one form or another. I’ve read, fallen asleep with her, spent many sleepless nights with her twitching beside me. I was, that night in Utah, done. I was at the absolute limit of my ability to deal with my non sleeping child. All the years of trying to make it better, make it okay, make it happen came crashing down around me and I was left with what felt like nothing. I have rarely felt so alone. Not even the love I have for this creature I created could bring me back from what felt like the depths of something terrible.
The next morning Eliza and I walked small circles around each other. We didn’t know how to transcend all that had transpired between us the night before. I felt, ultimately, like the worst mother in the world. With some amount of compassion coursing back through my veins, I knew she couldn’t help it. That something had to be done.
At some point I told her how sorry I was that I wasn’t there for her that night. And I told her how much I appreciated her dad and that he had the patience to stick with her when I couldn’t. I told her I loved her so very much. I think she forgave me but it will take a lot longer for me to forgive myself.
When we got back to Missoula, we made an appointment, then another and another. We slept across town one night with wires attached to Eliza’s head, her heart, her legs. She did this for me, I know. Even at six we can sense when our mother’s need us desperately to just try. She did and I still feel a little guilty.
As we walked into the appointment to have the doctor read the results of Eliza’s sleep study, my heart pounded not because I feared he was going to tell me something was wrong with my child but because I feared he wouldn’t.
In the end we found out Eliza has apnea. She wakes several times each hour because she stops breathing and it has probably always been this way. It is probably why she wouldn’t sleep more than a few hours as an infant, why I could never put her down in her crib but had to carry her in an Ergo so she would stay asleep and why she thrashes all night long now. It is also why she is so scared when she wakes up at night. Her body is negotiating a fight or flight response. It is telling her to be scared.
Eliza will get her tonsils out in June to hopefully cure the dark circles under her eyes. I hope it will give her some relief from her nighttime fears. Honestly, I hope it gives us all some relief.
While taking out Eliza’s tonsils will likely solve her apnea it will not repair the damage I caused that night in the desert. I’ll have to continue to work every single day to cure that. But I also know that my reaction that night was as undiluted as my love for her. And, while it’s not pretty, showing your children raw emotion, unbridled and real, is sometimes as much a part of being someone’s mother as smoothing curls and nighttime kisses.
I’ll have to keep telling myself until I believe it.