‘We’re all children when we sleep,’ Miranda July

Even my father in his hospital tall bed in St Vincent’s in the city after a burst of pleurisy, a harbinger of his last days with emphysema, looked vulnerable. A far cry from the monster who towered over us when we were little.

He with his long feet, encased in black leather in my memory, though there were times when they were naked, those long-elongated toes with tufts of red hair on each phalange, his wide hands, that were good for slaps, his stubbled chin, so awful to brush against when bedtime came. 

There he was in the white sheets of his hospital bed full of apologies on the visit I made one day after work.

‘I have been so bad to you children,’ he said, and I wanted none if it.

I wanted only that I could get through this visit without too much eye contact, too much meaning transiting between us, too much of anything. The strange reversal when children grow up and confront the vulnerability of their parents. 

As July reckons, all of us are children when we sleep.

And so it was I liked to gaze at my mother when she was also laid out on her hospital bed, eyes closed, body still, soon to leave her body, her heart stopped in its regular rhythm.

One day in the last three weeks before she died she tried to usher me away. The slight hand gesture, an expression on her face, a glint in those tired eyes that said, leave me alone.

Then she closed them as if by shutting out light she could shut me out too. 

But I stayed. I held back, close to the door, out of her sight, and watched as the forced eye closure became involuntary and my mother slipped back into sleep. I watched her face, the wrinkles smoothed into the pillow under the weight of gravity. And imagined that she did not want any of us to see her like this. 

Like Susan Sontag railing against death but allowing those photographs so that people could see not only the bright side of this life, her life, her amazing ability with words, her bright sharp eyes, but the drag on her body as the cancer took over.

We’re all children when we sleep, but less so when we die.

One thought on “‘We’re all children when we sleep,’ Miranda July”

  1. Both my parents died suddenly and unexpectedly so there was no sitting around waiting. My one and only experience of that was the death of my second wife’s mother which was an awful experience because we’d just split and finding our feet but she wanted me with her and so there I was with her five siblings and spouses and her dad and her mother who was furious with me but, fortunately, was unconscious on our arrival and never woke up. Two of her daughters were nurses so the medical staff left the family to take care of their own but I remember so clearly the last few minutes waiting for the old woman to take her final breath. And she kept managing one extra puff. And then another. And although no one said it I could feel everyone thinking, “Finally!” when she actually passed away. Did she look like a child lying there? I know what July’s getting at but, no, that’s not what I saw. I saw a woman shriveling away to nothing. There were no photos taken.

    I wrote this poem years later:

    Losers and Winners

    At the very end
    we all held our breaths

    just waiting to see
    which one of us could

    hold theirs the longest.
    It seemed only right

    she should get to win
    one last time before

    she died.

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