The Older They Are, The Harder They Fall (Asleep)

Last night I woke up at 4:30AM and could't fall back asleep. This has been happening to me a lot lately, waking at odd hours between 2 and 5AM, tossing and turning, mind racing. It's a new thing for me. I've always been a good sleeper with strong sleep inertia. Once I'm out, I'm out. It's typically harder to roust me and convince me to start my day than it is to convince me of almost anything.


I'm not sure what's going on. I try not to worry about it, but I can admit I find it concerning. Sleep is a mystery, but it's also important, and luck has granted me the benefit of being a good sleeper. I'd prefer fate not rob me of the one slender advantage I have over all you insomniacs out there. I'll take every advantage I can get.


So what's going on?


There have been a lot of changes in my life, lately. I became an uncle for the second time a few weeks ago, which is undoubtedly a joyous occasion, but it is also an event that, seeing as I have no children of my own, inspired no small amount of reflection on my own life and the decisions I've made. I've also been traveling a lot for extended periods of time. This most recent trip happened to involve a lot of sleeping on the floor of my parents' condominium and taking them up as temporary roommates. I love my parents dearly. I'd venture to guess I spend more time with them than most adults choose to spend with their parents; they are two of my closest friends. But a couple of weeks cohabitating with them after twenty-odd years of independence stirred up some things in my subconscious mind, I think. It certainly stirred up some things in my conscious mind. I also moved not long ago - from Manhattan to Brooklyn - and moving is, they say, one of life's greatest stress inducers. Not un-related to my move, I'm a single person now - for just about five months - for the first time in over a decade.


So, yeah. Lots of changes.


On top of all that: I'm getting older. This is, of course, nothing new. But I've always held the belief (for reasons I can't exactly explain) that the ease with which you sleep works in directly inverse proportion to your age. To butcher an old idiom: the older you are, the harder you fall (asleep).  


Is any of this actually contributing to me waking at all hours, unable to doze back off? Who knows? I certainly don't. My self prescribed remedy to this new problem has been to crack open a book and read. And that’s just what I did last night (or this morning, I guess) from 430 until about 6AM, at which point my eye lids became heavy and my head filled with a disorienting fog. I found myself reading and re-reading the same paragraph over and over, unable to retain its essence. I closed the book, rolled over and went back to sleep. It seemed to come on in a blink.  


I dreamed I was on a warship, or some sort of large seafaring vessel. Maybe it was a merchant ship? I’m not sure. I was on the rear deck. My mates were all around me. My memory of exactly what I was doing is imprecise. Maybe I was laid back watching the clouds and sky roll past. Maybe I was reading a book of poems about the sea. Maybe I was playing cards with a few pals. It was an easy feeling - the type of relaxation that settles in quick and runs deep because you know it will be fleeting, bookended on both sides by some deeply stressful circumstance. It felt nice. 


And then, from out of nowhere, something exploded overhead.  I looked up and saw a metallic fireball plummeting toward our ship.


I tried to move but felt stuck, almost as though I were in quicksand. It was only when I resorted to a crab walk (?!) that I was able to break free. I shuffled clumsily, panicked for my life, eyes fixed on the sky. The flaming wreck drifted away in a tight arc, caught by the wind or pulled by some strange quirk of physics as it sliced the air, the trail of smoke billowing from it's tail looking almost like a tear in the fabric of the sky. With a deafening crash it tore into the ship maybe twenty feet to my right, where, suddenly and absolutely, I knew my brother had been sitting this whole time.


For a moment everything was strangely calm. No one seemed to react. It was as if time had stopped. In that moment of serenity I believed the fireball had not struck my brother - had missed him by a foot or two and he'd escaped unscathed. But as the haze of shock thawed and chaos seized back the reins, I noticed my brother struggling to pull himself from the gaping hole in the deck. 


By the time I reached him he was laying back on a deck chair mumbling incoherently. He was streaked with blood, but at first glance, he didn't seem too bad. Are you alright? I asked. Yeah, he said, his voice a throaty whisper. It didn't hurt so much as it surprised me. But then his head rolled from one shoulder to the other as if some invisible string responsible for holding it in place had been cut. I'm sleepy, he said. 


I reached down and grabbed him by the collar, tears suddenly streaming down my face. Things were worse than they'd seemed. I noticed deep cuts crosshatching his face. His torso was lumpy and misshapen. His whole body was roiling now - undulating within the confines of his skin - rising and falling like waves, as though all of him, every muscle, organ, fiber and bone, had come loose inside.  


Don't go to sleep, I begged him, and then I began to apologize to him. I was sorry that he had been struck by this flaming wreck instead of me. I was sorry he was hurt. I was sorry that his innards seemed to have melted and that he was a tiny ocean in a bag of skin.


Flames leapt. Smoke rose from the wreckage and filled my nose and lungs. The back of my legs and my neck grew hot. Sweat streamed down my face and mixed with my with tears. I suddenly realized that I had never considered life without my brother. Even to my dreaming self, this seemed odd. Our relationship is closer than most siblings. We make our way in the world as part of a team. I speak to him daily. I toil with him, oftentimes for 12 or 14 hours at a stretch, for days, sometimes weeks at a time. We do this by choice - not by necessity. And yet somehow, despite the closeness inherent in our relationship, there is also inherent neglect. A taking-for-granted that had escaped me. All of this struck me acutely and instantaneously as I held my brother’s limp and helpless body, shaking him gently, urging him wordlessly to be okay. To recover. To return to the full strength I have, in all of my years, scarcely seen diminished for even a moment. 


And then I woke up.


I don’t usually remember my dreams. Lately, I've been remembering little snippets. A chunky metal watch on my wrist that I can't help but notice over and over again. When did I get a watch? I wondered in that dream. A warrior chief looming over me, a long wooden spear in his hands, taking aim for my throat. So this is it, then? I remember thinking as the spear came rushing down to end me. 


I stopped smoking weed a couple years ago. It was something I did frequently - almost like it was my job. In a way, it would’ve been great if it were my job. I would’ve made a lot of money: I was really good at it. And prolific. Marijuana has a reputation for choking out the dreaming mind, or rendering the habitual smoker incapable of remembering their dreams. Maybe I’m beginning to remember small bits of dreams as a result of my prolonged abstinence. Or maybe my dreaming mind has finally woken from its weed-induced hibernation. I'm not sure how to explain why I'm remembering things I've dreamed, just like I'm not sure how to explain that I've begun to wake up for a few hours at a time in the middle of the night, just like I'm not sure what to make of the dreams I am remembering.


Maybe this is just getting older. You have trouble sleeping. You cool it with the drugs. You worry more about your loved ones dying. And you worry that maybe, no matter how much you've loved them, you haven't shown them you love them as clearly and decisively as you'd like. You realize how little you understand, and how little control you have over anything, really, when you get right down to it. 


Shit, man. Getting old is heavy


I did talk to my brother today. I got the impression his innards are still attached and have not melted down to some quivering pool of goo contained only by his flesh. While we did not discuss it expressly, it feels like something he would've mentioned. We're pretty close. 

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