For almost two full years after my wife died, I slept with my daughter. Obviously, this wasn't Abby's idea (and I think, even if it were, as her father I'd insist now on taking responsibility). After all, she was only two when the dairy delivery truck slammed into her mother's Subaru wagon and drove the mass of chrome and rubber and glass down the embankment and into the shallow river that ran along the side of the road.
In all fairness, of course, it wasn't my idea either. At least the two years part. I'd never have done it once if I'd realized it would go on for so long.
But about a week after Elizabeth's funeral, when Abby and I were just starting to settle into the routine that would become our life, I think the concept that Mommy really and truly wasn't coming back became a tangible reality in my little girl's mind--more real, perhaps, than the lunch box I packed every night for day care, or the stuffed animals that lined the side of her bed against the wall. It happened after midnight. She awoke and called for Mommy and I came instead, and I believe that's exactly when something clicked inside her head: There is no Mommy. Not tonight, not tomorrow, not ever again.
And so she had started to howl.
Forty-five minutes later, she was still sobbing, and my arms had become lead wings from holding her and rocking her and pacing the room with her head on my shoulder. I think that's when I paced out the door of her room and into mine. Into what had been my wife's and my room. There I placed her upon Elizabeth's side of the bed, pulled the quilt up to her chin, and wrapped one pajamaed arm around her small, heaving back. And there, almost abruptly, she fell asleep. Sound asleep. Boom, out like a light.
Later I decided it was the simple smell of her mother on the pillowcase that had done the trick. I hadn't changed the sheets on the bed in the week and a half since Elizabeth had died.
Of course, it might also have been the mere change of venue. Maybe Abby understood that she wasn't going to be left alone that night in that bed; she knew I wasn't going to kiss her once on her forehead and then go someplace else to doze.
The next night it all happened again, and it happened almost exactly the same way. I awoke when I heard her cries in the dark and went to her room, and once again I murmured "Shhhhhh" by her ear until the single syllable sounded like the sea in my head, while Abby just sobbed and sobbed through the waves. Finally I navigated the hallway of the house like a sleepwalker, my little girl in my arms, and placed her upon what had been Elizabeth's side of the bed, her head atop what had been Elizabeth's pillow.
This time as I lay down beside her I realized that I was tearing, too, and I was relieved that she'd fallen instantly asleep. The very last thing she needed was the knowledge that Daddy was crying with her.
Was the third night an exact replica of nights one and two? Probably. But there my memory grows fuzzy. Had Abby asked me at dinner that evening if she could sleep yet again in Mommy and Daddy's room? In my room,
perhaps? Or had I just carried her upstairs one evening at eight o'clock--after dinner and her bath, after we'd watched one of her videos together in the den, Abby curled up in my lap--and decided to read to her in my room instead of hers? I haven't a clue. All I know is that at some point our routine changed, and I was putting Abby to sleep in my bed before coming back downstairs to wash the dinner dishes and make sure her knapsack was packed for day care the next day: Her lunch, a juice box, two sets of snacks. Extra underpants in case of an accident, as well as an extra pair of pants. A sweater eight or nine months of the year. The doll of the moment. Tissues. Lip balm when she turned three and developed a taste for cherry Chap Stick.
I rarely came upstairs before eleven-thirty at night because I had my own work to tend to after I'd put Abby's life in order--depositions and motions and arguments, the legal desiderata that was my life--but once I was in bed, invariably I would quickly doze off. The bed was big, big enough for me and my daughter and the stuffed animals and trolls and children's books that migrated one by one from her room to mine. And I reasoned that after all Abby had been through and would yet have to endure, it was only fair for me to give her whatever it took to make her feel safe and sleep soundly.
Occasionally, I'd wake in the middle of the night to find Abby sitting up in bed with her legs crossed. She'd be staring at me in the glow of the night-light and smiling, and often she'd giggle when she'd see my eyes open.
"Let's play Barbie," she'd say. Or, "Can we do puzzles?"
"It's the middle of the night, punkin," I'd say.
"I'm not sleepy."
"Well, I am."
"Okay, you can. But you can't turn on the light."
In the morning, I'd see she'd fallen back to sleep at the foot of the bed with a Barbie in one hand and a plastic troll in the other. Or she'd fallen asleep while looking at the pictures in one of her books, the book open upon her chest as if she were really quite adult.
I learned early that she would sleep through my music alarm in the morning. And so I would usually get up at five-thirty to shower and shave, so that I could devote from six-thirty to seven-thirty to getting her dressed and fed, her teeth brushed, and a good number (though never all) of the snarls dislodged from her fine, hay-colored hair. I usually had her at the day care in the village by twenty to eight, and so most days I was at my desk between eight-fifteen and eight-thirty.
I think it was a few weeks after Abby's fourth birthday, when she was taking a bath and I was on the floor beside the tub skimming the newspaper as she pushed a small menagerie of toy sharks and sea lions and killer whales around in the water, that I looked up and saw she was standing. She was placing one of the whales in the soap dish along the wall, and I realized all of her baby fat was gone. At some point she had ceased to be a toddler, and in my head I heard the words, It's time to move out, kid. We're getting into a weird area here.
The next morning at breakfast I broached the notion that she return to the bedroom in which she'd once slept, and which still housed her clothes and all of the toys that weren't residing at that moment on my bed. Our bed. The bigger bed. And she'd been fine. At first I'd feared on some level her feelings were hurt, or she was afraid she had done something wrong. But then I understood she was simply digesting the idea, envisioning herself in a bed by
"And you'll still be in your room?" she asked me.
That night she slept alone for the first time in almost twenty-three months, and the next morning it seemed to me that she had done just fine. When I went to her room at six-thirty, she was already wide awake. She was sitting up in bed with the light on, and it was clear she'd been reading her picture books for at least half an hour. The pile of books beside her was huge.
I, on the other hand, wasn't sure how well I had done. I'd woken up in the night with a cold--what I have since come to call the
cold. A runny nose, watery eyes. A sore throat. The predictable symptoms of a profoundly common ailment, the manifestations of a disease that decades of bad ad copy have made us believe is wholly benign. Unpleasant but treatable, if you just know what to buy.
There was, in my mind, no literal connection between evicting my daughter and getting sick, no cause and effect. But it was indeed a demarcation of sorts. The cold came on in the middle of that night, the cold that--unlike every cold I'd ever had before--would not respond to the prescription-strength, over-the-counter tablets and capsules and pills that filled my medicine chest.
The cold that oozy gel caps couldn't smother, and nighttime liquids couldn't drown.
Indeed, things began spiraling around me right about then. Not that night, of course, and not even the next day. It actually took months. But when I look back on all that I risked--when I look back on the litany of bad decisions I made--it seems to me that everything started that night with that cold: the very night my daughter slept alone in her room for the first time in two years.
Copyright © 2000 by Chris Bohjalian. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.