i am heavily asleep, each time, somehow. this is not possible, and yet i would swear it true.

after three wakeups in the same night, deep sleep only occurs right in those precious three seconds before the next bloodcurdling scream of ma-mAAAA!!!!  i lift my head as if from a pool of sticky cobwebs. i blink, shake. wet dog. my feet are on the floor before i know where or who i am.

Shakespeare was a pansy, or MacBeth was allegory. motherhood murders sleep. end story. curtain.

my brain finally catches up with my ears about the time i hit the door to the kids’ room, and i pause. odd.  it is the elder child calling, the one who for two blessed years has slept like a rock, at least until quarter to crocus each bleary morning.

i creep in, floorboards creaking. i take the little body in my arms, note both how big he suddenly is and still how small. he sobs, falls into me. i wedge myself into the toddler bed beside him, because this is the third time he has been awake. i hold him, rubbing my hand across the spacemen that dot his pajamas.

i mutter, for the third time in as many hours, bad dream honey?  what happened? you tell mama.

but the horror of the unspeakable holds him in thrall. he shudders. we drift.

one of my earliest memories is a recurring dream i had around Oscar’s age. a giant carnivorous dinosaur, cartoon green, would emerge from behind the giant KFC bucket that hung suspended on a pole along my tiny city’s main thoroughfare. i would be driving my little red car. its enormous teeth would loom in front of my windshield, and then it would eat me.

sleep is a Pandora’s Box that unlocks our fears, all the busy-ness of our minds.

it occurs to me that he may not have the words for what has unfolded in the theatre of his own head.  so i ask again, differently. what scared you, buddy? it’s okay, whatever it is. you give it to me. i can help. i can listen.

the little shoulders shake again. and then the deep inhale.  it all tumbles out in a cry.

mommy and daddy got eaten by a shark. with big teeth. eaten up dead. and Finn died. and will Great-grandpa die soon? or Nannie? how do we know when we die anyway? and – this last with the sob of deepest fears given voice – when daddy dies, will he still be his…b-b-b-buddy?

my heart.

he is not yet four. and he is staring down the abyss.

and my answers are shreds, Kleenex to mop up a river.

love stays with us, i whisper, even after people are gone.

no, we never know how long we have, honey. i don’t know when i’ll die. i hope not for a long time. but i don’t know. i can promise you my love will still be with you even if, someday, i’m not.

yes, Nannie will die. yes, mama too, sweetie. someday. probably not soon. people only die when their bodies are done, sweetie. sometimes that’s a surprise. usually not. my body is strong, baby. i’m very lucky and healthy. just like you.

yes, usually people die when they’re old.

no, Finn wasn’t old. Finn died when he was just a new baby. he came early, before he was ready, sweetie.  his lungs weren’t strong. your lungs are GREAT. blow. see? those are some serious lungs.

yep, he’s still my baby, sweetie, still a part of our family. we still love him. yes, we would love you even if you died. you’ll always be my son, forever. whether we’re alive or not.

yes, i miss him, sweetheart. you miss him too? i bet you do. oh, you’d share your dinosaurs with him? WOW. i think he’d have liked that, Oscar.

well, i don’t really know if he liked dinosaurs. but i bet he would.  he was just a baby, sweetie. he was little, very little. he had brown hair, like Josephine’s, and a cute little nose like yours. just like daddy’s. what did he do? well, he held mummy’s finger. like this. very tight. isn’t that neat? he could do that. but no, we didn’t get to find out if he liked dinosaurs. i would have liked the chance to read dinosaur books with him, yes. i love to read dinosaur books to YOU.

where is he? well…um…some of his ashes are out under the maple tree in the backyard, honey, helping it grow strong. everything that dies helps other things live.

is he here? he might be, Oscar. he might be. sometimes i think that. i would like that, to believe he was here with us, in the air we breathe.

he’s here though, in my heart, Oscar. feel my heart?  there’s love in there for all three of you, you and Josephine and Finn. my babies. no matter how big you get or how long you live. nothing takes love away. i’m sure of that.

yes, Great-grandpa loves you. no, he probably won’t be eaten by sharks. mummy or daddy either. there aren’t really any sharks around here, buddy. the water’s too cold. i promise i won’t go swimming with any sharks, okay?

yes, daddy will be your buddy as long as you live, your whole life. whether he’s here or not. you’re his special buddy, and he’s yours. that’s forever.

it’s okay, sweetheart. you sleep now. it’s gonna be okay.

it is true, and it is not.

i lie there in the darkness, thinking of all i do not know. whether his brother watches over us.  what days are granted to us.  whether it is better to lie to a not-quite-four-year-old asking about death, or tell the lonely truth: we do not know.  you are loved, and yet alone. this is the human condition, the nightmare we never fully wake from.

i think of my friend Whymommy, fighting cancer for the second time in just under three years. i wonder about 3 am at her house and my heart catches. i say aloud, It is Not Fair.  i feel small and stupid and unforgivably lucky, just for clinging to the belief that it somehow should be fair.

i think of my friend Sue and her sister. my coworker’s dad, whose leg will be amputated tomorrow. the friend who just lost her third baby in a row.

i breathe deep into my son’s tangle of sweaty curls, and unfold myself from his tiny bed.

the spacemen rise and fall peacefully, and i watch in the blue glow of the nightlight. i am remembering Finn’s chest, punctured by tubes, his tiny fingers blackened from lack of oxygen, all just as beautiful to me as this boy.

your father would’ve called you little buddy too, i whisper to the air, just in case.

only stories comfort this oldest of aches. what do you tell yourself at 3 am? and what do you tell your kids of fear and love and loneliness, and cabbages and kings?