Sleep to Wake

sleep
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Haas

I’m stopped at a busy intersection when it happens: My eyes close, then open, and for a few long, blank seconds, I can’t fathom how I got here. I can see the red traffic light swaying above me, the plastic flags fluttering brightly over the used car lot. But everything feels remote. I could close my eyes again, I think, and the world might disappear. I’m tempted to let it.

Fatigue presses on me like a weighted blanket. From beneath it, a thought emerges: No. I am on a four-lane street, at the wheel of a one-and-a-half ton vehicle. Soon the light will change. I need to wake up.

“Stop,” I say aloud, suddenly afraid. “Just stop this.” I don’t know who I’m talking to. But at the sound of my voice, the unreality recedes infinitesimally.

I switch off the radio, stilling the soothing saxophone music. The light changes. “Turn right,” I instruct myself, clutching the wheel like a terrified old lady. “There’s the Safeway, keep driving.” I narrate myself home like this, the sound of my voice tethering me to the car, the road, the world. When I get inside, I climb into my son’s bunk bed and close his blackout curtains, but I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. That’s the problem.

•••

“Are you anxious about anything?” asks my doctor, not for the first time. She’s a bit younger than me, a mother; I like her. What I don’t like is this focus on my anxiety. I am untroubled by anything except my inability to sleep. Admittedly, it’s making me crazy.

“Nothing going on at home?” she presses.

My beloved grandmother died. I endured my parents’ bitter, protracted divorce. My Peace Corps journal was stolen, along with my backpack, en route from Casablanca to Dakar. A man I loved didn’t love me back. I had a terrible time breastfeeding. That’s it. Those are the worst things that have happened to me. My litany of woe is minor. My life, relatively speaking, has been a cakewalk.

“Nothing,” I tell her. “I’m a very lucky woman.”

But ten days ago, three hours after I went to sleep, I felt myself swimming unexpectedly up to consciousness. Beside me, my husband slept on. Out in the backyard, the wind stirred the heavy dark branches of the fir tree. Any moment now, I thought, I would dive down, back into sleep. Instead, I lay stranded on the surface.

We all have our strategies for this. Mine is reciting “Kubla Khan” in my head. Invariably, I’m asleep long before I get to the damsel with the dulcimer. This time, depressingly, I made it all the way to the end. There was Coleridge, ecstatically drinking the milk of paradise, while I watched the red numerals of the digital clock progress inexorably from two to three to four to five. Wakefulness felt like a door jammed open, and I couldn’t shut it.

It happened again the next night, and the next, and the next.

For years now, whenever my friends and I kvetch about our kids, someone always puts things in perspective: “Yeah, but at least they sleep through the night.” There’s a collective shudder. Like our memories of labor, the subsequent sleep deprivation is still disturbingly vivid. But that was a decade and a half ago. I was too old for this. By the fourth morning, I was queasy, snappish, fumbling for familiar words like a stroke victim. After ten days, during which I averaged three hours of sleep a night, I went to the doctor.

And really, I assure her now, nothing is troubling me. I explain about my loving husband, my healthy children, the work I enjoy, our generous health benefits. Even in my present affliction, I am fortunate: I work from home, so neither my freelance clients nor my bosses at the literary magazine can see me, haggard in my pajamas every afternoon, laboriously improving sentence flow.

My doctor prescribes a sedative and tells me to take it for a week, in the hope that this will re-set my system. At home, I shake one of the tiny white pills into my palm. It looks harmless, but I regard it with trepidation. I enjoy a glass of wine, but except for that one time with the marijuana cookies—all right, and that other time with the mushrooms—I have avoided mind-altering substances my entire life. Not out of moral qualms, but because they make me uneasy. This little pill is going to do something to my brain, something I can’t predict, and that scares me almost as much as the prospect of not sleeping. But I’m desperate. That night, I take the pill and go to bed. As always, my husband falls asleep in three minutes. I wait in the dark, listening to him breathe. Fifteen minutes later, I feel an unclenching in my body. A heaviness steals into my mind. Then it’s morning.

A week later, well-rested, I go to bed without taking the little pill. “You’ll be fine,” says my husband. Three minutes later, he is asleep. Three hours later, I am not. I try again the next night. But nothing has been re-set. Like a record with a skip, my brain wakes up at one a.m. each night, and nothing I try moves the needle back into the groove.

•••

“This medication can be addictive,” my doctor emails, when I report back to her. She tells me I can take up to three doses per week, and we arrange a follow-up two weeks from now.

“So that’s it. I’ll only sleep three nights out of seven,” I tell my husband.

“You don’t know that for sure,” he says.

I am too disheartened to believe him. But I pull myself together and try to think strategically. Which nights to take the medication? Sunday, for sure, so I can drive my son to cello on Mondays without killing anyone. Friday and Saturday, for a good weekend with my family? Or midweek, so I can work a few days with a clear head?

“It’s the Sophie’s Choice of insomnia,” I wail.

Immediately I feel guilty. Somewhere in Syria, a woman like me lies sleepless, wondering if the bombs will fall on her house tomorrow. I should think about her. But the insomnia has demoralized me with unnerving swiftness, shrinking my focus to my own exhaustion, and little else. If the universe is testing me, I am failing.

•••

A few days later, driving home from the grocery, I nearly hit a biker in an intersection. Appalled, I register his shocked face through the windshield. After that, I stop driving. My husband drives me to book group and picks me up. He arranges to take a morning off work for my next doctor’s appointment. One evening, I overhear him telling the kids to be extra patient and not argue so much, Mama’s having a hard time. I should be grateful. I am grateful. But I’m sick of feeling so damn pathetic.

I dread going to bed now, knowing that three hours is all my brain will allow me to rest. The moment of waking is the worst, the defeated awareness that it’s happened again; and then the despair as the dark hours pass, and the sky lightens, and the birds start up. If I could just make it to two a.m., I think, instead of one. But I never do.

I get used to moving sluggishly through the days, dazed and bewildered most of the time, yet performing basic functions all the same. I make school lunches, cook dinner. I don’t feel hungry myself, though. On a hunch, I try on a dress that’s been too snug for a while, and it zips up effortlessly. I stare at myself in the mirror, at my hips and breasts, outlined by the thin green fabric. Despite my pallor and unwashed hair, and the thick, smeary glass through which my brain seems to perceive everything these days, I look hot. I’m too tired to decide whether this is hopeful or disturbing.

•••

One night, after lying sleepless for three hours, I sit up and begin to cry with exhaustion. My husband wakes up and puts his arms around me. “Fucking Dick Cheney,” I sob. “He’s sleeping through the night. Why can’t I?”

At our house, when anyone is stricken by mysterious, troubling ailments, it is the custom to bitterly invoke the architects of America’s middle eastern wars. It began years ago, when my husband threw out his back while reaching innocently for a sock under the bed. “George Bush is killing thousands of Iraqis every day,” he railed then. “Why isn’t he immobilized on the floor with an ice pack?”

I nodded in commiseration. W. was undoubtedly enjoying robust health, the bastard.

Now, my husband reaches over and turns on the light. “Let me make you some warm milk,” he says.

“I tried that last week. It won’t do anything. Just go back to sleep, one of us has to feel normal around here.”

“Nope,” he says, undeterred by my grumpiness. “You’re my partner. If you’re awake, I’m awake. I’m going downstairs, and you can’t stop me.”

Five minutes later, he returns with a mug of milk. It is sweet with honey, and I tear up again, grateful to be married to such a mensch. Then I lie awake the rest of the night.

•••

Who pays thirteen dollars at the hippie mart for a tiny bottle of organic passionflower extract? People like me, that’s who, desperate people who’ve heard that this elixir will make them sleep. Dutifully, I dispense forty drops of the amber liquid into two ounces of water and down the mixture at bedtime. It tastes grassy and unpleasant, but that, I tell myself, is a small price to pay if it works. It does not work. Neither do calcium and magnesium, melatonin, multivitamins, sleeping in a different room, napping during the day, hot baths, or staying off the computer before bedtime.

“Maybe you need to relax,” says my husband. “Come on, let me just…”

That doesn’t work, either.

•••

One morning, after my usual three hours of shut-eye, I pause in the doorway of my twelve-year-old’s room. He’s reclining on his beanbag chair reading Origami Yoda, his floor littered with dirty socks, old Spanish worksheets, a couple of remote controls, a hot glue gun, and innumerable bits of other detritus. A surge of annoyance slices through my fatigue. “For the love of God, clean up this damn mess,” I snap.

The insomnia has produced two regrettable side effects: Everything irritates me, my children most of all. And while those children have long been forbidden to utter even the words “crap” and “suck,” in my presence, much less their saltier four-letter brethren, I myself now curse like a motherfucker. At first, the boys are impressed by the impact of sleeplessness on my formerly prim vocabulary. But soon enough they become amused, and then—to my aggravation—patronizing.

Now, my son looks up at me pityingly. “Did you forget to take your pill last night? Jeez, you need to chillax.”

If anything is more infuriating than intractable insomnia, it’s being told to chillax by a sixth grader.

“Don’t you say that to me!” It’s the wrong battle to pick, but I can’t stop myself. “Chillax? That’s not even a real word. Goddammit, I’m an English major! We have standards around here.” (I actually say these words.)

My son waggles a reproving finger at me. “Don’t be a swear bear,” he says sweetly.

A what kind of fucking bear? I am way too tired for this, but getting mad at him makes me feel less catatonic. “Clean up your room,” I shriek. “Now!”

He regards me solemnly. “Anger and hatred to the dark side only lead.”

•••

Because I know exactly how suggestible I am, I do not seek advice from the Internet about my insomnia. Until the day, a couple of months into it, when I do. And there, buried deep on the fourth or fifth page of results, I find it: proof that this was indeed a terrible idea. It’s a reference to a New Yorker article I read fourteen years ago but have forgotten until this moment, the story of an old Italian family, some of whose members lose the ability to sleep in middle age. For generations, no one has been able to predict who will be stricken by the rare condition, and there is no cure. After several excruciating years of sleeplessness, each victim dies.

I try hard not to dwell on this horrible story. It’s a very unusual condition, I remind myself. Also, I am not Italian. Although I am middle aged. And sleepless. When I tell my husband about the Italians, a look of mingled alarm and unease appears on his face, an expression whose specificity, after eighteen years of marriage, I have no trouble interpreting: He thinks I am losing it. I need to get a grip.

•••

I tell my doctor that I’m depressed. She perks up. “Oh? And was this a problem before the insomnia?”

Patiently, I explain that I am depressed because I can’t sleep.

“We could think about an anti-depressant. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint whether insomnia is a symptom, or the main issue.”

Do I really have to explain my perfect life? Again? I take a breath. She’s trying to help, she wants a fix for me, and I want one, too. But depression didn’t make me stop sleeping.

Maybe I’m cursed.

•••

My doctor refers me to a psychiatrist specializing in sleep disorders.

“That’s great,” says my husband, when I tell him about the psychiatrist. “You’re in the big leagues, now!”

“How can you be so damn cheerful all the time?”

“I’m sorry, did you want gloomy? Let me try again: A psychiatrist. Whoa. There is definitely something wrong with your brain.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I see that smile.”

•••

At four in the morning, three weeks before my appointment, it occurs to me that this hopeless, unrelenting misery is what people contemplating suicide must experience. Suddenly, I cannot bear lying awake in the dark any longer. I get out of bed and email my doctor: “Three nights of sleep a week is unendurable. When I don’t take the pill, I lie awake all night in despair. I can’t work. I can’t write. I nearly hit a biker with my car.” (The biker was weeks ago, but what the hell.) “I cannot go on like this.”

My email must have struck the correct note of desperation. Four hours later my doctor writes back, instructing me to just take the pill every night until I check in with the psychiatrist.

•••

At my HMO, doctors work out of small gray rooms with florescent lighting, the only décor a queasily pinkish illustrated chart of the human body. Despite this, I cannot help picturing Dr. Sleep—as he is quickly dubbed in our house—behind an imposing mahogany desk. I’ve never even been to therapy, let alone a psychiatrist. If the pop culture of my formative years is to be believed, Dr. Sleep (aka Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People) will want to unearth some long-buried trauma that wakes me at one a.m. every night. Or he’ll want to put me on drugs. Neither prospect is appealing.

As it turns out, Dr. Sleep operates out of a windowless gray room, just like everyone else at Kaiser. He has sandy hair and an air of mild-mannered bemusement, reminding me forcibly of the hapless Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Dr. Sleep evinces little surprise as he takes my history. “And tell me about your mental state when you go to bed,” he says, tapping at his keyboard.

It’s been over three months since I have slept soundly without pharmaceutical assistance. Surely a bit of drama is permissible. “I feel like the Titanic heading into that final night,” I tell him. “Doomed.”

Dr. Sleep looks up from his keyboard, taken aback. “Oh, dear. That’s not good.”

I wonder what he expected me to say. His other patients must desperate, too. Or am I an extreme outlier? I renew my resolve not to mention the Italians.

Dr. Sleep scoots his rolling stool over to face me. I prepare for an inquiry into my murky past, or perhaps an evaluation of drug options. Dr. Sleep pursues neither of these avenues. “Do you bake bread?” he asks benignly.

I stare at him. As a matter of fact, I bake bread every Friday. But what can that have to do with anything?

“Think of your sleep as a ball of dough,” Dr. Sleep says, cupping his hands as if he’s holding one himself.

“Okay,” I say hesitantly. I imagine my challah dough: warm, heavy, eggy. Is this some visualization mind trick?

“You want your sleep to be compact, like a ball of dough,” says Dr. Sleep. “You want it to be compressed into just eight hours.” He moves his hands, as if firmly shaping the dough into an eight-hour ball. “When you stretch it out”—he moves his hands apart—”going to bed early, sleeping late, it’s like stretching the dough too far. It gets thin, full of holes, loses its integrity. That’s what you’ve been doing.”

Dr. Sleep is going to put me on a behavioral plan to compress my sleep, he tells me. That will fix everything.

“But I barely have any sleep to compress,” I protest.

He waves this away and explains the plan. Its main point involves breaking my mental association between wakefulness and being in bed. I am to stay away from my bedroom, except between the hours of eleven p.m. and six-forty-five a.m. At night, I am not to lie awake longer than twenty minutes at a time. After that, I must get up, go to another room, and engage in a “non-stimulating activity” until I feel sleepy. Then I can return to bed again. I am to repeat this as many times during the night as necessary. Also, I will cut my medication dose in half. The plan sounds implausible and exhausting, but I nod as if Dr. Sleep is handing me into a life raft, because maybe he is.

“You can read during your waking periods,” he tells me. “But nothing engaging. Do you have any boring books?”

I picture my biologist husband’s shelf of science texts. Yes, I tell Dr. Sleep, I certainly do.

That is how I find myself in my office at one-twenty a.m., headlamp shining on Mammals of the Pacific States by Lloyd G. Ingles. The first section of this heavy tome is devoted to teeth. I read about the tribophenic theory, which posits that our ancestral reptiles had molar cusps that migrated somewhere else in the jaw. I wait to feel sleepy, but even though this is possibly the most boring material I have ever read, I am wide awake. Eventually I yawn and go back to bed. I lie awake for another twenty minutes, then return to the office, and Ingles, and his damn teeth. This goes on for the rest of the night. By dawn I have gotten up and down a total of six times and advanced to the marsupials.

That morning, I fill in the chart Dr. Sleep gave me to track my progress: time in bed, number of times awake at night, final morning wake time, and so on. “This is the one you want to watch,” he told me, pointing to the space on the chart marked: TOTAL minutes/hours awake during the night. I pencil in four hours, forty-five minutes. In the box for notes, I scrawl: depressing and pointless.

But what else do I have? Half the medication is not enough to knock me out, so every night I follow Dr. Sleep’s plan, waking at 1, reading about mammals (Pacific shrew, vagrant shrew, dusky shrew, water shrew, marsh shrew, Inyo shrew, masked shrew, ornate shrew, pigmy shrew, gray shrew), not allowing myself to lie awake more than twenty minutes, scribbling my notes in the morning.

That first week, I run into an acquaintance in the park. We don’t know each other well, but I find myself telling her about the sleep plan. “More like the Guantanamo plan,” I grouse, demonstrating yet again the effect of sleep deprivation on my sense of perspective.

To my surprise, she confides that she, too, was prescribed this technique for insomnia. “It took a while, but it absolutely worked,” she says. “You have to hang in there.”

For the first time, it occurs to me that the plan is not some quixotic regime cooked up by Dr. Sleep, but an actual thing. A thing that might work.

On the sixth morning, I record something startling: although I got up to read four times, my total time awake was only two and a half hours. Even with half the medication, I got an astonishing five hours of sleep. By the end of the second week, my time awake has shrunk to one and a half hours.

My acquaintance was right. Dr. Sleep was right. Over the next month and a half, my sleep steadily improves. I go down to a quarter of a pill, then to no medication at all. By the end of June, nearly six months after the insomnia struck, it has vanished. The sleep plan was a life raft, after all, and now, incredibly, I am back on the mainland, with its rested, cheerful inhabitants, the weight of exhaustion lifted at last. This outcome is the result of science, I realize, in the form of a proven behavioral therapy. But it feels like something else.

It feels like luck: as random and inexplicable as the sleeplessness was.

•••

I will never know why I suddenly stopped sleeping, just like I’ll never know why cancer struck my grandmother, or my parents’ marriage ended the way it did, or why my first baby wouldn’t gain weight, no matter how much I nursed him. Possessions are lost, and love is sometimes unrequited, and we don’t always get to know why. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, not in the cosmic sense, anyway. If I did, I might conclude that insomnia was supposed to teach me something. Or maybe I would be less troubled by my knowledge that the Syrian woman is still lying awake.

I think about her now. I think about her every day. I think, too, about all the people who manage to meet hardship with dignity and grace and courage. Maybe the Syrian woman is one of them. Or maybe she isn’t. Maybe she’s more like me. Because when it came right down to it, I wasn’t one of those people. Confronted with adversity, I was irritable, profane, despairing, and self-absorbed. In a real Guantanamo scenario, I would never be the gutsy captive, steadfastly refusing to betray her comrades. Deprive me of sleep, and you can have the plans to the Death Star.

But then, no one expected me to be a hero, least of all myself. I’ve stood on the other side of that line. I’ve been the one to hold it together, to carry more than my share of the weight. This time, someone did those things for me. Wherever she is, and whatever she’s facing, awake or asleep, I’m wishing the Syrian woman the same luck.

•••

KATE HAAS is a senior editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have most recently appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, and the Washington Post. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kate Haas.

 

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Killing the Magic

santa
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Haas

When a grown woman and her seventy-something mother engage in yearly debates about the existence of Santa, I think we can agree: there’s a problem. Of course, my mother believes the problem is mine, while I tag her as the source of the annual angst. But who’s telling this story?

My mother, a bookish only child, grew up yearning for a house full of kids and a big, old-fashioned Christmas, like the ones Louisa May Alcott wrote about. My father, who had ditched his nominal Judaism by the time he married my mom, was willing to comply with her yuletide agenda.

And so began my mother’s strictly secular, Euro-inspired holiday extravaganza. It started early in December each year, with the cookie baking. Buttery Swedish stars; Viennese crescents, rolled warm in vanilla-scented powdered sugar; gingerbread men; Swiss chocolate crisps; linzer cookies, each with its shiny pocket of raspberry jam. Over a three-week period, with her three children as floury assistants, my mother rolled out as many as fifteen different varieties at our Formica kitchen table, carefully packing the finished batches between layers of waxed paper in tins to be stowed in the basement freezer. By my mother’s decree, the cookies would emerge for the first time on Christmas Eve; sampling them before that date was verboten.

Later in the month, we adorned the house with simple pine cone decorations (no tacky plastic Santas in my mother’s home), and we kids fashioned homemade gifts to stash in secret hiding places. The holiday rituals continued with the tree selection (December 20, not a day earlier) and, on the evening of the 23rd, the decoration: while classical music played softly on WQXR, we took out the ornaments while my mother related the story behind every wooden Waldorf gnome, vintage glass ball, or lumpy, pre-school-made button string. The next night, we ate fondue in front of the fireplace, dunking warm pieces of baguette into the melted Gruyere, before hanging our stockings. Finally, there was the ceremonial, dramatic reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas (that’s The Night Before Christmas for you non-literary sticklers).

Permeating the entirety of the festive season was my mother’s Santa Doctrine, enforced with the rigidity of a decree from the Vatican:

1. Santa Claus exists.

2. Doubters: button those lips. If you can’t believe, pretend.

3. Santa alone fills the stockings.

4. Never thank someone in the room for a stocking present. It came from Santa!

5. Befuddled by an item in your stocking? (A not uncommon occurrence in our house.) Mom will interpret. (“I’m pretty sure Santa would say that’s a do-hicky to put your tea bag on.”)

6. Questioning the existence of Santa is tantamount to Killing the Magic.

I don’t know when, exactly, my mother formulated her Santa Doctrine, but my siblings and I absorbed it early, along with the rest of the holiday rituals, each yearly repetition enshrining our customs deeper into the family bedrock. And it worked. Just as my mom had planned, Christmas was indeed a time of festivity and magic for us kids (who, thanks to my mother, believed in Santa longer than was really quite seemly).

But marriages crumble, and children turn into sullen, cynical teenagers, no longer wonderstruck at the sight of the Christmas tree, glowing in the pre-dawn darkness. My mother figured that our holiday traditions were one element of family life that she could keep the same for us. But everything else had changed, and Santa couldn’t make up for that, not really.

Mom remarried eventually, to a tolerant man who knows better than to suggest alien rituals of his own at Christmastime. We kids got on with our lives. But no matter how much we’ve changed over the years, it’s made clear to us each December that, if we come home, there will be no deviation from the holiday of our childhoods, not now, not ever. When it comes to Christmas, my mother adheres to Tradition! with the fervor of Tevye the Milkman.

Which is ironic, considering that these days, when December comes around, I’m on Tevye’s side of the fence.

•••

Like my mother, I was a solitary, bookish child. Like her, I loved books set in “the olden days.” But while Mom was eager to shed the Episcopalian shackles of her stuffy WASP upbringing, I had a secret hankering for religion, a topic so resolutely avoided in our home that I felt a subversive thrill whenever I encountered it in my reading.

I trace the birth of my Jewish identity directly to fourth grade and the copy of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family that I found on the school library shelf. Here were my two fascinations, the olden days and religious ritual, united in the delectable story of five turn-of-the-century sisters growing up on New York’s Lower East Side. Enfolded in that middle-grade novel was a year’s worth of vibrant Jewish life: Mama, praying over the Sabbath candles in their gleaming brass candlesticks, Papa blessing his daughters; congregants chanting Torah at the synagogue; the Passover Seder (unusually somber when scarlet fever strikes the family); and Purim, with its costumed revelry.

Why, I wondered, was this entrancing world closed to me? My father was Jewish, after all. Why didn’t he do anything about it? His silence made the idea of Judaism all the more tantalizing. My friends all belonged to one faith or another. “What are you?” they used to ask. “Catholic, Jewish, Presbyterian?” I could only answer: “Nothing.”

My own kids, I vowed, would be something.

•••

By the time those theoretical kids arrived, I had been a member of the Society of Friends for years. I loved the deep, living silence of Quaker Meeting, the concern for peace and justice, the gentle fun we poked at our rivals, the Unitarians. And I still felt Jewish enough to appreciate that the “inner light” of Quakerism doesn’t mean the light of Jesus, if you don’t want it to.

“So we’ll raise the kids Quaker, right?” I said to my husband.

“Sure, sure,” he replied absently, distracted by graduate school and the fog of sleep deprivation that had descended with the birth of our first child. My husband had grown up in a Conservative, kosher home. He no longer practiced, but he had a strong cultural affiliation with Judaism, the kind acquired automatically when your entire extended family hails from Brooklyn. Still, the Quakers were okay by him.

The Quakers were okay by him right up until our first child was four and I was set to enroll him in First Day School, where every Sunday he would learn about George Fox walking in the glory of the inner light.

“The Quakers are great, with the anti-war and the social justice and all,” my husband told me then. “But they don’t have—well, enough tradition.”

The product of Quaker summer camps, Quaker high school, and Quaker college, I knew that the Society of Friends has plenty of traditions. Much like Quakers themselves, these traditions are plain, not easy to spot. But I wasn’t about to argue the point.

“You want tradition?” I said. “Dude, you come from five thousand years of tradition.” (I married a surfer, a move that results in sentences like this.)

My husband gave me a look. “You’re saying you want to raise them Jewish now?”

“I’m saying I want to raise them something. Jewish works for me.”

“You do realize that we would have to join a synagogue. And actually go. And celebrate Shabbat and all the rest of it.”

“Yup.”

We visited the progressive, Reconstructionist shul, where the rabbi assured my husband, who balked at the concept of a deity, that he himself thought of God as the cosmic force of the universe, rather than, you know, God. That my own Judaism came from my father, not my mother, troubled the rabbi not a bit. Did I consider myself Jewish? Did I plan to raise my kids that way? Fine.

And just like that, we were all Jews.

Except for yearly visits at the High Holidays, my husband hadn’t spent much time in a synagogue since leaving home. But when we started attending services, I watched it all come back to him. He knew the melodies, the prayers, and, impressively, he could read Hebrew, a skill I knew he possessed but had never seen in action.

Yet despite my own lifelong pull toward the faith of my forbears—well, half of them—I couldn’t help an initial sense of detachment. I rose with the congregation when the rabbi took the Torah out of the ark, but inside my head a tiny anthropologist was busily taking notes. Observe the tribe ceremonially processing with its totemic object! The language was unfamiliar, the alphabet was different, and while the customs here were intriguing, they felt decidedly foreign.

In other words, I soon realized, it was a situation made for a former Peace Corps volunteer.

With the zest I’d once brought in Morocco to learning Arabic and the proper way to prepare couscous with pumpkin, I now dedicated myself to learning the ways of my people. I signed up for a class in beginning Hebrew (for the record, much easier than Arabic). My toddler in a backpack, I experimented with challah recipes, ultimately achieving a golden, braided loaf that is reliably more photogenic than I am. Self-consciously at first, I lit the Shabbat candles on Friday nights before dinner, experiencing a quiet satisfaction that for my young children, listening to me sing the blessing was simply routine.

I was surprised at first, and a little chagrined, by how easily I’d abandoned the Friends and taken up with the Jews. Just how committed a Quaker had I really been all those years? On the other hand—and I elected to view it this way—my speedy switcheroo was certainly a testimony to the “many candles, one light” theory of religion.

That was over ten years ago. The tiny anthropologist tossed out her notebook long ago and moved in with the tribe, embracing its rituals and community, its scholarly dedication to seeking contemporary meaning in ancient texts and traditions. The holidays that entranced me in All-of-a-Kind Family back in fourth grade have become my family’s, the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, my own: Rosh Hashanah with its apples and honey; the solemn introspection of Yom Kippur; Passover’s festive seder, when we welcome the stranger among us. And in December, the arrival of Hanukkah, with its latkes and candles to warm the winter nights.

Of course, we all know who else arrives in December.

•••

When my boys were little, I gave them the lowdown on Santa, that jolly imaginary fellow, who even grown-ups like to pretend about. Never tell another kid that Santa doesn’t exist, I instructed. Believing in Santa is very important in lots of families, and it’s not your place to say otherwise. This, I thought, was the respectful approach. Unfortunately, I neglected to include my mother in the category of people whose belief in St. Nick must be preserved. And when one of the boys innocently mentioned the words “Santa” and “pretend” in the presence of Grandma—well, the reindeer poop hit the fan.

It was useless to protest that my little band of Jews shows up at her house every December 25th. To remind her that my husband orders the Christmas morning breakfast croissants from her favorite bakery, that I make my share of the cookies, help decorate the tree, stuff stockings. My mother is painfully aware that, really, I’d rather avoid the entire holiday, and my siblings aren’t crazy about it, either. She knows that my family participates only because we love her and she lives seven blocks away. (What are we going to do, stage a boycott?) Nothing could have illustrated this more sharply than my flagrant violation of the Santa Doctrine.

“You actually told them there’s no Santa Claus?” my mother said, her voice rising in disbelief.

“Mom, the kids love celebrating Christmas at your house,” I said. “The presents, the stockings, all that. But I’m not going to tell them Santa is real, or pretend to believe in him myself, anymore. I’m just not.”

“What’s wrong with letting them use their imaginations?” she demanded, adding darkly, “I suppose you tell them there’s no Tooth Fairy, either?”

“Mom, the Tooth Fairy is not associated with the birth of Jesus.”

“Neither is Santa Claus!”

I gave her a pointed look.

“Well, not in our family, as you know perfectly well.”

“Yes, but that’s beside the point,” I said. “Jewish kids don’t believe in Santa. It kind of goes with the territory, don’t you think?”

My mother fixed me with a bitter eye. “You’re just hellbent on killing the magic for those boys, aren’t you,” she said.

•••

A framed passage from Khalil Gibran hung on the wall in my mother’s house when I was growing up. “Your children are not your children,” it read in elegant calligraphy. “You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.” I doubt my mother was pondering this sentiment as she orchestrated her Christmases back then; as she carefully cut out those cookies, grated cheese for fondue, told the stories behind the ornaments. She was establishing a beloved tradition for us. That her children would grow up to reject it must have been far from her mind.

Last year I watched my oldest son stand on the bima at his bar mitzvah. In confident Hebrew, he led the morning service, singing the psalms of praise and blessing. Then he chanted from the Torah, his voice rising and falling in the ancient rhythms. Watching him ritually take his place in the community, I knew that I had given my children what I always wanted for them, even before I knew their names. Not faith, which isn’t the point in Judaism—a good thing, for my little atheists—but identity. Whether they practice its traditions or not, they’ll always have a place, a people, a sense of belonging.

That’s what the Santa Doctrine signifies to my mother, I know. Her Christmas rituals are bound up in family and belonging, too. Now that I’ve strayed from the script, she can’t help realizing that it’s all going to end. Years from now, when she’s gone, there won’t be Christmas Eve fondue, or stockings, or a tree, not in my family. I’ll always make the Viennese crescents in December, but we’ll go out for Chinese and a movie, like the rest of our tribe. I wish that my mother could accept that, instead of fighting it every year, using Santa as a proxy for what really saddens her. I wish she could recognize that she’s given me things I consider far more valuable than Christmas: a love of books and literature, the shrewdness to hunt for a bargain, her piecrust recipe. And if, one day, my kids convert to Catholicism, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and I’m able to greet the news with equanimity—well, in a roundabout way, I’ll have my mother to thank for that, too.

•••

KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Out in the Woods, Away Out There

nature exhibit
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Kate Haas

Until the bear came along, I was doing fine with nature. Shafts of sunlight were falling on the red huckleberries lining the trail, setting them aglow like tiny rubies. All around me, huge, craggy Douglas firs reached toward the sky, their limbs draped with moss, and giant ferns carpeted the forest floor in every direction. My family and I were deep into Olympic National Park, ten miles from the nearest paved road. This is the forest primeval, I thought, gazing at those massive trees. The murmuring pines—well, firs—and the hemlocks. I felt an unwonted surge of affection for good old Longfellow.

Let me be clear: the forest primeval is not my natural habitat. I grew up in the suburbs, the child of New Yorkers. Our family adventures involved the wily nabbing of city parking spaces en route to the ballet. On the few occasions that my parents took me hiking, I trudged along reluctantly, nursing a strong sense of grievance. What was the point? I complained. Why walk through the woods for no reason, only to turn around and walk right back out? Couldn’t I stay in the car with my book?

Sure, I loved my Quaker summer camp, where I learned to build a fire and use a compass, earning a “woodswoman” badge for acquiring these skills. I appreciated nature, all right. But for the most part, mine was the bookworm’s comfortable, vicarious appreciation. I savored descriptions of Heidi’s beloved Alpine meadows; the vast, mysterious swamp in Girl of the Limberlost; the cave-riddled coast in Island of the Blue Dolphins. From my vantage point on the couch, this was great stuff. But deep down, despite that badge, I wasn’t truly woodsy. And I never would be.

But then, as one does, I met a guy. I’ll call him Nature Man.

Nature Man was a biologist. He liked to lift up rocks and examine the grubs underneath. (He did this on our second date). He talked in near-religious terms about the glories of the ocean and could identify edible and poisonous plants in the woods. He took me bird watching, hauling along a giant spotting scope he’d borrowed from work, through which I watched, in horrified fascination, as a Peregrine falcon devoured a pigeon. (“Way cool, huh?” he said.) Nature Man also played old-time banjo and wrote me love letters illustrated with funny line drawings and watercolors. He planned romantic, themed birthday celebrations in my honor, and he liked to spend rainy Saturdays roaming the big downtown library with me, each of us collecting a stack of books to take home and read companionably on the couch.

There was no doubt about it. I would be learning to love nature.

In the seventeen years that I’ve been married to Nature Man, I’ve logged my time in the woods. I’ve nursed a toddler in a tent and gotten the hang of lighting a camp stove. I’ve grown fond of the scent of citronella candles. Planning a camping trip no longer fazes me, although it does tend to inspire irritation. Why go to all this trouble to haul pots and pans and ingredients into the woods, when we could cook at home in a nice, comfortable kitchen? But Nature Man and our two boys love camping, and I love them, so I keep this thought to myself. Most of the time, anyway. Because once we’re out there, amid those giant trees, out where the mist hangs like a dream over the mountains, and the jade green river churns between ancient rocks, I’m awed, each time, by the sheer splendor of the natural world. And at some point on each of these expeditions, I’m always struck by same thought: without Nature Man in my life, I wouldn’t be marveling at all this.

But in all these years, I’ve never articulated to my husband just how uneasy I sometimes feel in the wilderness. I can’t forget how far away we are, how isolated. And thanks to a ranger program we attended on yet another camping trip, I can’t forget about the cougars, either. Puma concolor, I learned that evening at the park’s rustic amphitheater, roam the Pacific Northwest. They are silent and stealthy, capable of leaping twenty feet from a standing position to land on the neck of their prey, killing it instantly.

I looked around the amphitheater. People in the audience were snuggling with their kids, spritzing on bug repellent, or nodding along with the ranger. No one seemed alarmed. Did you hear that? I wanted to yell. Twenty feet from a standing position! Onto your neck!

The next day, walking along the trail, I tensed at the creak of a tree branch, the back of my neck prickling in dread. Then I looked ahead to Nature Man, pointing out licorice ferns on a nurse log to one of our boys. My husband, I reflected, knew the woods far better than I, and he didn’t seem concerned about being attacked by the New World’s second heaviest cat (after the jaguar). You need to relax, I told myself.

I was successfully following that very advice the next year, the day we met the bear. I hadn’t entirely forgotten the threat of cougars, but I’d pushed it into a small corner of my mind, a little closet where I stash other irrational notions, like my conviction that a headache heralds a brain tumor or that only my will to live keeps the plane in the air. So as we walked deeper and deeper into Olympic National Park that day, I was happily gathering huckleberries for pancakes and musing about nineteenth century poetry.

Not everyone in our party shared my sunny outlook. Unlike twelve-year-old Simon, loping ahead of me in his broad-brimmed hat like a young Indiana Jones, Nate, my nine-year-old, was decidedly grumpy. “Why do we always have to do this?” he muttered. “You should have left me in the car with my Tintin book.”

I repressed the urge to confess that I often feel the same way about hiking. Instead, I told him what I tell myself on those occasions. “We’re a family, Nate. And families do things together.” But there was no denying this particular apple’s proximity to the tree. When it comes to hiking, Nate’s my boy. Nature Man and I had lured him along with trail mix for the first hour. Sparring with his brother on a rustic bridge, re-enacting the encounter between Robin Hood and Little John, had improved his mood after that. But now, just half a mile from our destination, we were out of bribes. “I’m walking for five more minutes,” he said darkly. “That’s it.”

It was at this point that Simon came running back toward us, an expression of alarmed excitement on his face. “There’s a bear on the trail!” he announced breathlessly.

My mental closet burst open. Here it was, the confirmation of all my fears. Nature was a dangerous place, after all. Fearsome things did lurk here. If not cougars, bears, dammit all. Instinctively, I turned to Nature Man. He didn’t say what I expected: “Okay, everyone, turn around—fast!” To my astonishment, what he said was, “Let’s see this bear.” Then he kept walking.

For reasons that remain obscure to me, I followed him.

Sure enough, twenty yards down the trail stood a bear. It was black, with a patch of white on its head, and it was looking right at us. What struck me immediately about this bear—beyond the hair-raising fact of its presence—was its size. This was not a large bear. It was on the smaller side. No, I realized, as my heart began to pound quite unpleasantly, it wasn’t actually small. It was a young bear. Quite young.

All of us, even those not particularly cognizant of the natural world, know exactly what goes along with a young bear. Any second, I imagined, the enraged mother bear would burst from the woods. She would maul us and leave us for dead on the trail. Later, there would be a memorial service, and everyone would cry over the family killed by bears, and we would be forever held up as a warning whenever the park rangers give those talks about wildlife.

Simon had followed his father, and now he turned back to me. “See? There really is a bear!”

“Back away!” I said frantically, still fixated on our memorial service. “There’s a mother bear around here, and she’s going to eat us up.”

Nature Man, who was just a few yards ahead, did not appear to hear me. “Nate, can you see the bear?” he asked. “Let me lift you up.” He raised our son in his arms, as if making an offering to the ursine gods.

“Get my baby away from that bear!” I hissed.

Nature Man made a small sound, which could have been a chuckle. Nate said, “It’s been five minutes. I’m not taking another step.”

The bear gave us a last look, then ambled back into the underbrush.

“See, it’s gone,” said Nature Man. “I’m willing to keep walking.”

Simon said eagerly, “You mean, we’ll follow the bear?”

Nate looked even more mulish. “You’ll have to carry me,” he said.

I stared at my family. “You people are insane.”

Nature Man gave me a quick careful look, then hustled everyone back in the direction we had come. A few minutes later, as we walked quickly along the trail, Nate riding piggyback on his dad, my husband explained that he had only advanced toward the bear because he wasn’t sure Simon had actually seen one. And he had lifted Nate up partly for a better look, but also because, when confronted with a bear, you’re supposed to make yourself look bigger, to intimidate it. “And I wasn’t laughing at you. Well. Not exactly.”

Unwilling to be mollified quite yet, I informed Nature Man that he could forget about taking me hiking, ever again. Today it was a bear, but tomorrow? Cougars, for sure, and what next? Vermicious Knids? Wisely, my husband did not argue with any of this, not even my suggestion that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’s amorphous space aliens might materialize in the Pacific Northwest. We both knew I didn’t mean it. Love had gotten me out of a book and into the wilderness in the first place, and I would be back in the woods next summer or even sooner. Besides, we were a family, and families do things together. Like get nearly eaten by bears.

•••

KATE HAAS is an editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, Brain, Child, and other publications. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

 

The Baby Corps

help
By tsaiproject/ Flickr

By Kate Haas

It was a joke to begin with, a half-serious attempt to persuade my parents to move from their coast to ours: “The Baby Corps seeks qualified volunteers to aid developing families,” our pitch began. “Do you have what it takes to serve?”

“Think it’ll work?” my husband asked, looking up from the scribbled draft of our “recruitment” letter.

I shrugged. “You never know.” But I come from a two-generation Peace Corps clan, and I knew my audience. They’d be tempted. Especially considering what we were offering as an incentive.

I never expected to live near my folks as an adult. When I was growing up, my parents lived far from their own hometowns. For my siblings and me, visiting grandparents involved hours in the car and the crossing of state lines. The books I read as a kid reinforced this scenario. Fairytale heroes sought adventure far from the home castle and didn’t tend to return once they’d found it. Ma and Pa Ingalls set out for the prairie, leaving the old folks behind in Wisconsin. That was the model I absorbed. The idea was to go to college, get a job (the eighties was a happier era for English majors), and settle in some distant city. I loved my mom and stepdad. But I did not imagine that one day I’d be scheming to lure them to my neighborhood.

Some thirty years later, that day arrived. Like many otherwise rational women, I took a good look at my two-year-old—verbal, finally sleeping through the night, potty-training underway—and concluded that what I really needed was another baby.

“Are you insane?” asked my husband.

I wasn’t offended by his query. The prospect of another child terrified me, too. Simon was a charming kid now, but as a baby, he rarely slept longer than twenty minutes at a stretch, day or night. Persistent breastfeeding problems added anxiety to the miserable fog of sleep deprivation that enveloped us. Another child was appealing in theory, we eventually agreed. But we dreaded a return to all that fatigue and stress—this time while chasing around a lively little boy.

“And I wouldn’t be able to help as much,” worried my husband; in addition to working full-time, he was now enrolled in a graduate program that entailed night classes and weekend fieldwork. “It would be different if we had family around,” he added. “Like, if your parents lived here.”

I stared at him, arrested by this novel concept. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, I had observed the way extended families shared the burden of child-rearing. I realized, of course, that people right here at home benefited from these arrangements, too. But I had never imagined partaking in such a set-up, myself. Now, as though I were watching a soft-focus movie montage, I saw how it might play out: my mother taking my energetic son for the afternoon while I napped peacefully with the baby; my stepfather cooking meals for us after the birth; maybe even—hoo boy!—a regular date night for me and my husband. Mostly though, what I envisioned was less tangible: a sense of security I hadn’t realized I’d been missing, the comfort of having family close by—even if I didn’t need them exactly the way I used to.

I couldn’t help wondering, however, if this scenario would be attractive to my parents. Retirees on a budget, they found plenty to keep them busy in Maine. But what really fired up these former Peace Corps volunteers was finding frugal, creative ways to travel. Over the past five years, while my husband and I were fixing up an old house and settling into domesticity, my parents had swapped homes with a family in Spain, worked their way across Ireland on organic farms, and volunteered at an archeological dig in Romania. Currently, they were spending a year in the Czech Republic, teaching English. My folks were accustomed to renting out their house and setting off to roam the world. Would they really want to shlep to Oregon to change diapers?

On the other hand, my mother had long been campaigning for me to have another baby. I had practically memorized her current stump speech, “The Pathetic Life of the Only Child.” (It was a marginal improvement over a previous effort, “You’re Not Getting Any Younger, You Know.”) Perhaps, we thought, there was a way to leverage mom’s lust for grandchildren into an arrangement that would make everyone happy.

That was when we came up with the Baby Corps. Its mission: to serve the needs of developing families (ours, anyway) by recruiting volunteers with years of parenting expertise. “Only an elite cadre of highly-qualified and experienced candidates will be accepted into the Baby Corps,” we wrote, cunningly. “Will you rise to the challenge?”

Then we added the kicker: If my parents signed on for a two-year stint with the Corps, we’d be delighted to give them another grandchild. My husband tweaked the design of the Peace Corps logo, with its stars and dove, to create an official-looking letterhead for our recruitment letter, and we sent it off.

Would we have gone ahead and had another baby on our own? Probably. But we never had to make that decision. Three weeks later a letter arrived from the Czech Republic. My parents were charmed with the notion of the Baby Corps and flattered that we wanted their help. They would be delighted to rent out the house again and move across the country for a couple of years. “So, get busy, you two,” my mother finished. I could practically see her smirking.

A few months later, I was pregnant. My parents returned from Europe and settled their affairs on the east coast. My husband and I found an apartment for them in a nearby Victorian and spent the summer furnishing it from Craigslist and yard sales. By now I had tempered my expectations of the next two years. My mother and I have never shied from speaking our minds to each other. She sniffs at my reading habits (“lightweight”); I frown at her wardrobe (“shmattes”). (My stepfather wisely keeps his distance.) There would be highly charged discussions, that was certain. Still, I knew that our differences would always be bridged by our shared love of PBS costume dramas, the novels of Ursula le Guin, and the wedding page of the New York Times Sunday Styles section. Besides, we had a history of supporting each other when it really mattered.

When our Baby Corps recruits arrived, it became clear that they regarded this move not only as a grandparental mission, but as another opportunity for adventure in a new location. Within a few weeks, my mother had signed up to audit Latin classes at the university. My stepfather was investigating the local art scene. They were raving about fabulous cheap restaurants we’d never heard of.

But when I went into labor, three weeks after their arrival, my parents were at our house in minutes to take charge of our now-three-year-old. The next day they brought him to the hospital to meet his baby brother. When we got home, a big pot of curried red pepper soup was on the stove, along with a tray of fresh biscuits. “I’ll be back tomorrow to take Simon to the park so you two can sleep,” promised my mother. “And don’t forget,” she instructed, pulling on her coat, “At five o’clock, put your feet up, nurse that baby, and have a big glass of red wine. Millions of Frenchwomen can’t be wrong!”

When I told people that my parents were coming to town, I invariably got one of two reactions. “Is that a good thing?” asked some, poised to commiserate. Others were frankly envious. “They’re moving here just to help out? You guys are so lucky.”

We were lucky. Parenting a three-year-old and a newborn was every inch as difficult as we anticipated. But over the next two years, our Baby Corps volunteers stepped up for us in countless ways, taking on tasks that might look minor—like staying with Simon while I took the baby to the doctor—but which made our lives inestimably easier. Weekends, when I was running on four hours of sleep and my husband was analyzing bioswale diversity, I could walk the boys to my parents’ sunny apartment, where a special stash of toys waited and I could count on conversation that wasn’t about fire trucks. And eventually, once we were all getting more sleep, there was Date Night.

True, my mother and I had our moments. Many times, I was the beneficiary of her unique brand of childrearing advice, a whiplash-inducing combination of old school techniques (“Just rub brandy on those gums.”) and woo-woo theories (“No learning to read before the first tooth falls out.”) She deplored the “draconian” hospital policy dictating that we produce our carseat for inspection before taking the baby home (“I held you in the front seat and you were fine!”) She was disappointed that, unlike her, I wouldn’t consider Waldorf education for my kids—even if I could have afforded it.

On the other hand, Mom was unfazed when her grandson wanted to wear a dress at age four, pronouncing him “adorable” in the blue-checked frock she’d saved from my own childhood. (“It’s just a phase; he’ll get over it,” she told me—correctly.) She demonstrated admirable stamina for reading aloud, delighting in introducing Simon to my old pals Frog and Toad, and that canny bread-and-jam lover, Frances. So when, at the conclusion of their official Baby Corps service, my parents elected to settle in our neighborhood permanently, my husband and I were thrilled.

My boys are in elementary and middle school now. It’s been a long time since we needed to rely on my folks for the logistical and emotional support that saw us through those first, hard years with two kids. These days it’s not their help that I value (although we never take Date Night for granted). It’s the way my parents have become a part of our lives. What I savor now are the birthday dinners and Thanksgiving feasts, the latke parties and impromptu calls: “We baked a pie, come on over.” I’m happy that for my boys, the seven-block walk to their grandparents’ house is a familiar routine, and that visiting can be as simple as stopping in for a quick hello on the way home from the library.

I’ll always be grateful for what our Baby Corps volunteers did for us. And while nobody’s looking forward to it, I’m aware that one day it will be our turn to render whatever assistance my folks may come to need. It may not be for a while, but as I like to remind my mom, “You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

•••

KATE HAAS still regards her three years in Morocco with the Peace Corps as one of the highlights of her life. She is a creative nonfiction editor at Literary Mama and the publisher of Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and The Toronto Star. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Under the Knife

mannequin
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Kate Haas

Until recently, I’d entered a hospital exactly three times in my life: for my own birth (technically my mom walked through the swinging doors on that occasion) and for the routine births of my two sons. That was it. At forty-five, I’d never so much as had my tonsils out. And I liked it that way. Oh, I knew all about the OR and the ER, the NICU, and the PICU. But that familiarity derived from TV hospital dramas and heartrending medical memoirs, long my guilty, voyeuristic pleasures.

This contented detachment from all things hospital ended abruptly when I learned that I needed surgery to remove a benign ovarian cyst. The news sunk in with horrid clarity. Scenes from those shows and books flashed into my mind: the tense OR, doctors barking medical jargon, machines hissing—and myself in the center of it all, off the sidelines, pitched into the drama. Even allowing for my propensity toward the melodramatic, it was an alarming scenario.

At the same time, I also felt ridiculous: here I was in midlife, scared of a situation most of my friends had dealt with before the age of ten. Of course, none of my third grade pals had read Atul Gawande’s Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science before going in for those once-routine tonsillectomies.

It wasn’t the surgery itself that unnerved me the most. It was the idea of being put to sleep. What if I didn’t wake up? My best friend in college had knee surgery our freshman year. She woke up. My sister opened her eyes after a c-section. I wasn’t thinking about them, or the scads of people who awaken in recovery rooms every day. Instead, I fixated on a minor character in one of one of Ann Hood’s memoirs, a young woman who dies from a rare reaction to anesthesia while getting wisdom teeth removed. I told myself it was crazy, but I couldn’t shake the vision of looking blurrily up at a masked face, and then…the final darkness.

I looked forward to the first appointment with my surgeon. My book group had recommended Dr. M., whose name inevitably popped up in any online discussion of local OB/GYNs, trailing adjectives like awesome, caring, respectful, and empathetic. Maybe Dr. Awesome would calm my fears.

When we met, Dr. M. turned out to be unsmiling and matter-of-fact. “I can schedule you for Tuesday, “ she said briskly. This was Thursday. I blanched.

Dr. M. gave me an appraising look, then switched smoothly to empathetic. “Some women need more time to adjust to the idea of surgery. I’m, ah, guessing you’re one of those.” We settled on a date six weeks away. Then I asked about the anesthesia.

“There’s always a risk of complications,” she acknowledged. “But it’s very small. And they’ll give you something to help you relax before the surgery.”

I nodded. In all the books and doctor shows, patients are well tranquillized by the time they roll into the OR. With enough pharmaceutical assistance, maybe I wouldn’t be freaking out, after all.

To allay my fears during the final weeks before my surgery, I asked everyone I knew for reassurance about going under. “It was HEAVEN,” responded a woman on a parenting message board—clearly the mother of an infant. “A medically induced nap.”

At my pre-op appointment, Dr. M. concluded by prescribing post-surgery drugs. “Would you like Percocet or Vicodin?” she asked, pen poised over her pad like a waiter inquiring whether I preferred the merlot or the pinot.

I looked at her blankly. Was evaluating the relative merits of prescription painkillers one of those modern-age skills I had failed to acquire, like texting? I searched my brain. “Um, Dr. House is addicted to Vicodin, I know that,” I offered.

“Let’s go with the Percocet,” Dr. M. said quickly.

•••

A week later at the hospital, nurses set me up in a curtained cubicle under what looked like a white blow-up swim raft. A continuous flow of warm air into the raft made it settle into position just above me. I wondered why they didn’t just give me a blanket.

My husband and I waited in the cubicle, where I grew increasingly twitchy. He read Coraline out loud to pass the time. “Is this too creepy for you?” he asked, after the chapter where Coraline is locked in the closet with the ghost children.

I contemplated the warming raft, hovering over me like a monstrous cocoon, and the imminent prospect of being rendered unconscious, possibly forever, via a needle in my vein. “Not really,” I said.

Now and then nurses came around with apologies about the delay. Dr. M. was delivering an early baby, it seemed. “Oh, that’s fine!” I assured them, doing my best to impersonate the plucky patient everyone loves. “It’s actually the anesthesia that really bothers me.” I didn’t mention my anxiety about waking up afterwards, figuring this might attract the evil eye, make me look paranoid, or both.

“Don’t you worry,” one nurse told me. “They’ll give you something to help you relax.” I was relieved to learn that relaxation was still on the agenda. I needed some of that, and soon. The nurse checked my chart. “Ah, you’ve got Dr. A.,” she said. “He’s the best anesthesiologist in the hospital. Really skillful, just great. He’s the one I’d want for my own family.” She winked. “And he’s the best looking, too.”

What did it mean, I wondered aloud after she left, that the nurse thought my anesthesiologist was hot? Why did she tell me this? Was I meant to conclude that good looks correlated with skill?

“I think you’re over-analyzing this,” said my husband.

It took three nurses and five tries to get the IV into my apparently miniscule vein. By the end, I was thoroughly demoralized. In that motherly way of theirs, the nurses kept repeating that I was “being a trooper, honey.”

The anesthesiologist arrived at my cubicle to introduce himself. He was tall and dark, but no McDreamy. Here comes the relaxation, I thought gratefully. Instead, Dr. A. inquired about my breakfast—a ruse designed to reveal whether I’d eaten anything since midnight—and asked a few routine medical questions. “I’ll see you soon,” he said cheerfully before departing. I interpreted this to mean that he’d return momentarily to administer my medicinal stress relief.

Eventually, some bustle began in the vicinity of my cubicle. A gurney arrived, along with a new nurse. She was short and solid and looked very capable. “Ready to go?” she asked.

My husband was holding my hand. “Can I go along?”

“Absolutely,” said Nurse Capable.

I watched the florescent lights pass overhead as we rolled through the long, white corridors and into an elevator lined with burnished metal, like a high-end refrigerator. I tried to breathe calmly and listen to Nurse Capable’s soothing flow of chit-chat. It was mostly about Dr. A and what a great guy he was. “He’ll set you right up,” she said. “Like drinking a bottle of your favorite wine, that’s how relaxed you’ll be.” I appreciated her reassurance. But wasn’t I supposed to be relaxed already?

At the swinging doors to the OR, my husband kissed me goodbye—this part, at any rate, was just like the doctor shows—and I rolled in. The room was very cold and full of people. Bright lights pointed in all directions. Over to the side, on a blue-draped cart, lay a glittering row of sharp metal instruments. I stared at them in dismay. I wasn’t meant to be seeing this. I was supposed to be doped up, so I wouldn’t notice all those scalpels, or wouldn’t care if I did. Instead, I felt horribly lucid.

Nurse Capable maneuvered my gurney to the center of the room. “Ok, hop up on the table,” she instructed.

I’m not proud of my fascination with medical dramas. I admit, there’s an element of morbid rubbernecking involved. And I’ve known all along that they can’t be very realistic, not all of them. But never, not on St. Elsewhere (my gateway drug to the genre), or on any I’ve seen since, has anyone told the patient to hop up on the table. The patients are too relaxed—like I was supposed to be!—to hop anywhere.

Lacking other options, however, I hopped up. Dr. M.’s masked face loomed over me. “This is Dr. S., who’ll be assisting today,” she said, pointing to one of the gowned figures hovering nearby. “Our anesthesiologist will be along soon.” Then she nodded to toward another masked face. “And this is Alex.”

“Hey, how ya doin’?” said a youthful voice.

Who the heck was Alex? Was this Take Your Kid Brother to Work day? And couldn’t he guess how I was doing? “Frankly, I’m terrified,” I said. “Isn’t everyone?”

“Huh. You mean you’ve never had surgery?” Alex asked.

I couldn’t keep the edge from my voice. “No, I have never had surgery. Have most people?”

“Oh yeah, once you get to be, like, forty, it’s a lot more common.” In the mind of Alex —whoever he was—it was clear that forty lay on a remote horizon indeed. I hoped he wouldn’t be allowed too near any of those scalpels.

Dr. M. spoke up. “Ah, here’s Dr. A.,” she said soothingly. “I know you’re nervous about all this. He’s giving you something to help you relax right now.”

I looked up at the lights. I looked around at the instruments and the machinery. A couple of minutes seemed to pass. My final minutes, possibly. “I don’t feel relaxed,” I said.

Seemingly two seconds later, I opened my eyes to a bright yellow light. My mouth felt coated in sawdust, and I was barely conscious, but I knew instantly, gratefully, that I had woken up, after all. “I’m thirsty,” I croaked, hoping someone was listening. “I’m really thirsty. Is everything okay?”

“What did she say?” said a voice.

“I couldn’t make it out,” said another.

“I’m thirsty,” I repeated. “Can I have some water?” The words seemed to float languidly above me into the brightness, like the viscous bubbles drifting upward in a lava lamp. I heard each syllable go by and slowly realized why no one understood: I was speaking Arabic. For it’s own inscrutable reasons, my consciousness had emerged from its chemical sleep set to a language I hadn’t spoken on a daily basis since leaving the Peace Corps, nearly two decades earlier.

I’d navigated a good deal of foreign territory during the course of that long, strange day. The doctor shows had prepared me for the high tech equipment and medical jargon. The memoirs had given me other people’s stories to latch onto. Still, so much had been unfamiliar. (I never did discover the identity of Alex). And yet, I realized afterward, nothing had been quite so alien, so mysterious, as that moment of awakening. It was what I’d fixated on for so many weeks, and it had gone exactly the way it was supposed to. Yet the return to consciousness, and the surfacing of those long dormant words, had brought with it a different, unlooked for awareness: the strangest thing I’d encountered in the hospital wasn’t frightening at all, and it turned out to be inside my own head.

•••

KATE HAAS is a creative nonfiction editor at Literary Mama and the publisher of Miranda, a long-running print zine about motherhood. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Brain, Child, Babble, and The Toronto Star. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.