Part 15. Nocturnal Admissions
Everyone told me, the newly identified Cancer Guy, to take it easy, to relax, to get some rest. But relaxing was harder for me than working.
The inability to sleep — or to relax — has been a fact of my life, from the moment I exited the womb.
This all started in childhood. Even as a little boy, I was usually the last in the house to go to sleep.
Thursdays were especially hard, for some reason. This all started around 1962, when we lived at Offut Air Force Base in Nebraska. Because of the tension inherent in sharing a room with my big brother — he was thirteen and I was seven — I was moved to a large storeroom by my frustrated parents.
The statute of limitations is up by about five decades, so it’s too late to call children’s services. Sounds bad, I know — making your youngest child live in a storeroom. But you need to understand that my father was in the United States Air Force, and our house — our “quarters” — were always far from luxurious.
The first home I remember was in England, three Quonset huts connected by a plywood hallway. There were spots where the wall and ceiling of the hallway didn’t quite meet. Hence my chilly British years were spent in a fog of Vicks Vapo Rub.
Housing was better in Germany, but the American dream of every kid in his or her own bedroom was well nigh impossible. So, I bunked with my big brother, who was not pleased to have the kid he called Buttsmell in the bed across the room. Insert fighting, arguing and Chuck’s teen-age angst here.
Thus six-year-old me felt I had arrived when I got my own room, even if it was just a large storage closet. It was the only way my parents saw to end the testosterone stalemate of their two sons.
We were at Offut in Nebraska then, and my father was the favorite physician of General Thomas Power, grand exalted mystic ruler of Strategic Air Command. General Power even arranged for all of us to visit the underground of lore, where America’s surviving military honchos would deal with a nuclear attack, when it came.
When. Not if.
Dark days, those, especially for a kid.
But the windowless storeroom as my bedroom wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I had a personal fall-out shelter and bunker. It was eight by eight, but had no closet. I had to keep my clothes in a dresser and on a couple of shelves in the linen closet. But to compensate for this, my parents moved something special into my little room — our old black-and-white Westinghouse the approximate size of a Chrysler New Yorker. Between the massive mahogany TV cabinet and my bed, there wasn’t room for anything else.
No one had a television in their bedroom then . . . no one. There was a big Philco in the family room and that had displaced this gigantic Westinghouse with the horizontal-hold problem.
Finally, the little kid in the family was the envy of his big brother and sister. I had something they didn’t have. It was from this massive piece of furniture that I was schooled in the subtleties of baseball by the two CBS game-of-the-week commentators, Hall of Famers Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese. I spent Saturday afternoons in holy communion with Ol’ Diz and Pee Wee. Those are times I’ve never forgotten.
Thursday nights, I’d watch “The Untouchables” on this massive television, then lie in my bunk, wondering. Nothing about the program frightened me, but that’s when I first remember having trouble sleeping.
I’d lie in bed, listening to the house shut down, hearing the toenails on the dogs’ paws circling, as they gingerly approached their separate corners in the kitchen. My sister slept with her door closed. My brother stayed up late reading the German philosophers, but the shadows finally vanished when he turned off his light. My mother was in bed early, and when I could hear my father’s snoring from down the hall, I knew it was all over, and that I was the only thing awake in my house.
Nothing helped me sleep. I’d creep downstairs for a glass of milk. The dogs gave me the dirty eye for waking them, but wagged their tails to cover up their anger. I’d sit at the dinette and try to read a Hardy Boys book.
Sometimes I’d just look out the window, watching the lights winking on the runway across the open field, a half-mile from our home.
I’d shuffle from room to room, watching everyone sleep, wondering why I carried this curse. I have no idea why this happened on Thursdays. Perhaps, after a few coincident Thursdays, my subconscious made it happen.
My subconscious is a cruel bastard. All of my life, I’ve tried to avoid looking at the clock if I wake in the middle of the night. If I see the time, my evil subconscious begins unwittingly counting the minutes until I have to get up, and that also keeps me from sleep.
And I don’t think it had anything to do with “The Untouchables.” The good guys were in charge there and I could reason myself into not being scared of the bad guys. They were gangsters, interested in bootlegging, blonde women and machine guns.
There was the overriding Nuclear Fear, of course. Even though I was a stressed-out seven-year-old, feeling that I was one button-push away from instant annihilation, I don’t think that it was the Cold War that kept me from sleeping. Seeing those winking lights from the B-52’s on the flight line was the tangible reminder that the world was on the brink of war. But to an Air Force kid, those lights and the screaming F-104s lacing the sky were oddly comforting.
Friday nights, “The Twilight Zone” came on. You’d think that would make me lie awake in fear. But as frightening as those shows were to the younger me, I rid myself of fear by going outside — usually around ten o’clock, as soon as the show went off — and running barefoot down the street. I was easily convinced that I could outrun any evil that Rod Serling brought my way.
Then I’d go home and get a good night’s sleep.
As a child, my sleepless nights were usually confined to Thursdays. In a few years, that would change. By the time I was an adult, I was a full-fledged insomniac.
As my family grew, I found my life coming full circle, as I again shuffled room to room watching my family sleep.
All of my life, as I struggled to find a good night’s sleep, I found myself surrounded by people who were artists of slumber.
I had college roommates who slept through both sides of the Superfly soundtrack blasting at twelve decibels.
I got through my first marriage without many complaints about any nocturnal choking and gasping. My first wife awoke even earlier than me and took perverse pleasure in waking me by banging pots and pans together — which is how she also woke the children in the years after our divorce.
Of my seven children, it was the daughters, mostly, who could sleep through an assault by the Fifth Royal Ghurka Rifle Brigade. During their visits to my house, I’d be eager to go out for a day of father-and-child fun, but spent a lot of time rocking on my heels in the hallway, waiting for them to awaken.
A few girlfriends into my midlife bachelorhood, I woke up after a restless night and found My Beloved on the couch.
“Too much racket,” she said. “You were rattling the rafters.”
Okay, everybody has a bad night of snoring now and then, I figured.
A couple of girlfriends later, My New Beloved said she found my noises oddly comforting, because I sounded like the asthmatic pugs she used to sleep with in her room at her parents’ house. That one would sleep past noon most weekend days.
But my marriage to Nicole was another story. We’d been married only a couple of months when my sleep became an issue.
It happened when my little spaniel, Spooner, died. I let him out in the morning and when I went to let him in from the yard an hour later, he was dead on the back deck. Savannah, then my new daughter, was out of control. She was only four then, and I don’t think she’d ever had to deal with a death.
I buried Old Spoon by the back fence, then canceled the plans for the day, and stayed home to mourn with Nicole and Savannah.
The next morning, Nicole rose before me, perhaps the only time in our marriage this happened. I usually wake at five o’clock and can’t get back to sleep. I need to bring her coffee in bed to get her to lift an eyelid.
But this day, she got up, made coffee, and was sitting in the living room by herself, examining the newspaper.
Suddenly, she heard a low, rumbling growl. It was terrifying, she said, a horrifying, guttural, bowel-rumbling sound. She had no idea what it was or where it was coming from. She went to the kitchen door and looked out, thinking, My God, what if Spooner wasn’t dead when Bill buried him? She was off on a Stephen King / Cujo fantasy. Maybe he’s coming back, and he’s pissed.
But there was no crusty, dirt-covered spaniel at the back door.
She looked around the house, warily checking out the closets and dark rooms of our new still-mysterious home, broom in hand as a weapon.
Finally, she found the source of the sickening sound upstairs, in our bedroom.
It was, of course, her husband. I lay in bed, gasping and choking for breath.
To me, it was a normal night of rotten sleep. To her, it was the call of a crazed, demonic beast.
Turns out that after a sleep study, I was finally diagnosed with sleep apnea. During my leg surgery in 2006, I’d shocked my physician — Amanda Maxey, of whom I spoke earlier — and she assumed I was dying during surgery, because I stopped breathing so many times.
I was prescribed a machine that approximated the gear worn by fearless test pilot Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier back in 1947. It did nothing to help my sleep and made remote the possibility of rest and relaxation.
If “rest” was part of my cancer treatment, I was set up to fail. I could imagine chemotherapy and radiation and a surgeon fashioning a new asshole for me.
But rest was a foreign concept.