How to Wait for Morning

by Kelly Sokol Avery

You cry for sleep. Often. But when the opportunity comes, you lie there. Feel your heart lumber. There is never enough air no matter how hard and how open you push your lungs. Stare at the green lights of the baby monitor. Then, wait for the strangled cry the doctors warned you about—the one that means her brain has swollen; you’re too late. Lay there knowing that if you give in to the unconsciousness that pulls you like a plastic shovel on the beach, the cry will come. You will lose her. Keeping your eyes open is a dry act of defiance.

If you fall asleep, and you will sometimes, you will awake with stabs of panic, muscles that tense across your chest, down the length of your arms and legs. Point your toes too far. Get a charley horse in your calf while your mind stutters. Where is she? Your breasts leak. Is she okay? When did she last eat? A reminder: medicine is only a failsafe. It buys you time like so much sand spilling through your fingers.

Roll over to the tangle of sheets where your husband’s body should be. His pillow is crisp, unlined. Understand that life has caught up with you. Lies you told. Scars you carved. You haven’t outrun anything. These nights are your reckoning for wrongs, large and small, scattered throughout a lifetime. Know that if they cease, it means that she is dead. The baby’s diagnosis eludes. A broken link in the amino acid chain, perhaps: a metabolic disorder. Or is it mitochondrial. Infant liver failure. Each day another blood draw, a different specialist. Medicine and breast milk, every two hours, and the force of will keep her alive. Dare not miss a dose.

Lift your body onto one side, fatigue groaning deep in your forearms. First knuckles crack, and then ankles. Feel the heft of your sodden breasts sag. Drag hands over eyes; sight remains blurry. Walk into the hallway. Look left down the hall to your older child’s room. She sleeps, healthy and quiet. She is not crying at you crying, now.

“Do I make you happy?” she asked you that morning in the kitchen. The quiver in her chin said she blamed her two-year-old self for the foreign tears running salty off the tip of your nose into the sink full of dishes and suds.

Hope her dreams are peaceful. Apologize in a whisper.

Step across the hall to the nursery, and slip your hand around the doorknob. Coax it open. The latch does not catch, but your ankles creak. In the glow of the Noah’s Ark nightlight the outline of your husband’s form lies curled into an “s.” His man’s body is too long for the daybed where he sleeps, your daughter’s guardian in the night. Their faces are less than a foot apart, though separated by wooden crib slats. They are so much the same. Two ski-jump noses. Both mouth breathers.

In the shadows you cannot see the grey circles in the hollows of his eyes, the wrinkles that skittered out from the corners. Hate the two of them for an instant. Hate them for their frailty. This house and the people in it are the snow globe of your life. Carelessness could savage untold devastation.

Lay your hand on your husband’s shoulder and nudge him. Feel his muscles snap to attention beneath your palm. Shush away the fear in his not-yet-awake eyes as he jerks upright. Place a ragged fingertip to your lips and nod toward your bedroom. Watch as he tiptoes away, still dressed in khakis, a leather belt and button-down shirt.

Look down at your daughter, tightly swaddled in a cotton receiving blanket, borders hand-sewn by his mother, pink rosettes. She rolls her tiny cat tongue through the open heart of her lips. Reassure yourself that they only look grey because of the dark. By sunlight her lips will be pink. She has sensed you and stirs. The nurses say she smells the milk. Her fontanel draws your eyes. Her heart beats through translucent skin.

Your breasts ache, so you pick her up, still mostly asleep, and walk her to the rocking chair. Your ankles crack as you sit. She wiggles. Eyes closed, her mouth finds your nipple. You rock as she eats and you relax. You have no choice. The body plays tricks. She dozes and her jaw falls slack. Lift her burrito body and rest her head in the cradle of your shoulder. Pat her back until a sour, lusty burp rises. Her body settles into yours, breath hot on your neck.

Memorize the damp feel of it, the smell. Just in case.

Kelly Sokol Avery holds a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Goddard College. Her work has appeared in print and online journals including ConnotationPress, The Pitkin Review and Tidewater Women. She teaches creative writing at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, Virginia, and serves on the board of directors for ForKids and the Seven Cities Writers Project. She’s currently finishing a novel.