Toby can’t sleep.
It’s not night terrors this time, but rather its precursor: conscious bedtime fears that haunt him well before he has a chance to dream. They don’t spring on him from out of nowhere either; they latch on, unbeknownst to him, throughout the day and then refuse to loosen their grip like a dog’s jaw to the jugular. He just can’t shake them:
the fifteen seconds of a movie we flipped past on TV
the illustration of electric eels in his Awesome Animal Facts book
the elf Dobby’s wizened face on the cover of The Order of the Phoenix
the fly on his windowsill he’s sure is a bee
the possibility of fire, of robbery, of war, of tornados.
And most recently: the account of an alligator attack in a passage of a book he didn’t even read.
And wow, does all that make him sound like a wreck, but you have to know this: from sun-up to sundown, he’s not a fearful child. He’s an embracing child. (Literally: he’s never met a stranger he wouldn’t hug.) He’s a go-get-’em child. A first-in-line child. A hand-raised-ready-to-try child. Happy. Earnest. Smiling-big-coming-at-you-with-arms-open-wide.
And this is half his problem, because in Toby’s life–in his all-systems-go quest for understanding of his world–there’s no filter. There’s no discernment. He’s all trust, all the time. He leaps first, looks later.
Later being when it all comes crumbling down, of course. Later being that vague time we warn him about: ‘Don’t watch that program, Toby,’ or, ‘Don’t listen to that story…it will scare you later.’ Later being 8:15 pm, 8:45, 9:00, under cover of blankets, as he physically shakes with fear. Later being when the universe makes him pay for that big ‘ole imagination of his that just won’t stop.
But we have contingencies for later. We have rules, so that he can learn to help himself through this. He has to sleep in his own bed. He has to fall asleep on his own. He has to put his books down at 8 pm. And rights: He can have the stuffed animals arranged in just the right way. He can have the dog sleep at the foot of his bed. He can keep his moon light shining.
Even so, there are good laters and there are bad. There are the ones in which he falls asleep without so much as a whisper, and then there are the ones like last night. When all the night lights and mothers and stuffed bears in the world can’t keep the fears at bay.
I comforted. And then I scolded. And then I sat on his bed, rearranging the troops, reminding him (and the stuffed bears and the dog curled at our feet) that alligators don’t live in Oregon. Teaching Toby how to cope, how to reign his brain in, how to feed himself words, stories, prayers that fight the fears. Because Lord knows I know about fears.
And then I got up, and shut the door per his specifications, and walked out. And I listened to his strained silence until his shallow breathing (in-out-in-in-out) turned to hitching gasps and then gave way to sobs.
And I went back in and started all over again.
And again. And again, as the clock worked its way around the hour.
And then some time around 9:45 pm, with red-rimmed eyes bleary with the sleep that wouldn’t come, he told me, in the manner of a man defeated, “It’s just too hard tonight.”
And it was. It was. He wrapped his little arms around me and begged me to stay in his room until he fell asleep. And so I did, protocol be damned. And even though it felt a little bit like failure, it felt a lot more like grace. As his entire body relaxed and his breathing slowed to a natural rhythm, I didn’t regret being weak. Being soft. Giving him that extra dose of security to wrap around himself. Because I’ve needed it a time or two myself. And within minutes, his hand in mine, his breath on my cheek, he’d found his way to sleep.
Without any alligators nipping at his heels.