To Sleep, To Breathe

No one ever talks about how scary it is to listen to someone sleep, nor the weight of the responsibility of being the one left awake. Asleep is the most vulnerable one can be. Not only in being unconscious (where a person could perpetrate any manner of things upon you, from slipping your hand into a warm glass of water to sliding a hot knife against your throat), but sleep also releases your psyche. Your mind betrays you night after night, going places where you’ve sworn you will never go again, trolling dark corridors, your way completely obscured as you drag your feet through the mud.

And, if you are listening to someone sleep, feeling their body jerk in response to unknown stimuli, seeing the shadow of their eyeballs darting back and forth beneath their lids, hearing them moan and breathe, you feel, because it is tangible, how fragile they are.

The breath is ragged and blown sometimes, sometimes it’s short and concise. Sometimes it groans, in and out, uneven and with force, or rhythmically with only the slightest breeze behind it. How does it continue, how is it possible?

You lie there, eyes held apart by invisible toothpicks. The mind won’t stop, it twirls like a pinwheel, a pink and silver metallic pinwheel. Problems that fell below your feet during the day, problems that had almost melted away now have alarming new size and structure. They have rigidity, they have form and they are gaining consequence. You point your mind, your brain, those annoying, elusive, badly behaved gray cells, toward other things. Lovely distracting things. Fame and fortune and the twenty-something cart boy at the grocery store earlier that day who’d looked for all the world like a young Lloyd Cole and you forgot, for that bright moment, that you were old enough to be his mother.

And still, you are pulled back in by the breath, and how it could stop. Anytime. Not just tonight. You’d think nothing could be heard over the pounding of blood in your ears, but it is there. Shredded and sighing, it is there.

The weight of caring. Most days you trip along, methodical and mundane, happy in inanity. But then there’s that news story, a car, is it red? It looks red, it’s hard to see under that tarp. It was ripped in half by a falling telephone pole. That person never knew, not one of the many, many people who cared about that person, whose lives are going to be sheared, rent by this, none of them knew. Because it’s never going to happen to you.

But when it does happen to you, when you’re there, when the breathing stops and the light changes, edges become sharper. You have to adjust your focus and move on, even though your bones feel heavier and your way of moving has changed.

Sleep returns, sleep becomes refuge. Until you wake and your eyes, even though closed, feel as wide as the night sky. The breathing is still there and it coats your face, your skin. You wrap yourself in it and accept that for now, which is all there ever is, that it will continue.

Originally published at

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