The baby slept in our bedroom for the first one hundred and ninety three nights of her life. Night one home from the hospital, Joe and I put her in a bassinet at the foot of our bed and none of us particularly enjoyed ourselves; night two, flying high on our pediatrician’s blessing to co-sleep if we weren’t drunk or high or swimming in blankets, we put her between us, a wiggly comma between the anxious parentheses of our bodies; night three, catastrophically cricked and no better rested, we finally mustered the sliver of brain power required to try and set up our Snoo. We stationed it against the wall four steps from my side of the bed — an obscene distance, I thought, for someone who’d slept inside my body for most of the previous forty weeks. But she liked it fine, so there she stayed. It was a generous hand-me-down and we never figured out how to connect it to our WiFi network or to the app, but we swaddled and clipped her in every night anyway, like a little grub blasting off to outer space.
Still, nearly every night for weeks afterwards I woke up thinking the baby was in the bed with us: wadded up in the comforter or smothered between our pillows or crushed underneath me. I would wake up gasping and paw around madly until Joe woke up too and assured me that she was fine — or she would remind me herself, over there in the Snoo, with a whimper or a whinny or a fart — and then I would collapse with relief and sometimes even get myself back to sleep before the next time she woke under her own great delusion (that she’d never been fed in her long, long life).
At that point, to be awoken by anything except the baby herself felt like a great act of violence, and my relief at her safety was always tinged with regret. If only if only if only we hadn’t put her in our bed that one night, if only I hadn’t given my dumb greedy subconscious access to a true memory it could spin into a mean little middle-of-the-night lie! But then I realized it probably didn’t matter, actually, because this is just something my brain does, with or without my help.
I have one mushy memory of what might be my first sleep hallucination — laying in bed in my family’s old house, staring at a doll on my bookshelf, watching her mouth move and straining to hear what she was saying — but then again, my childhood was kind of one big mirage that toys were talking to me, so not sure if that counts. The first I can be sure was a true hallucination happened when I was maybe eleven. I fell asleep on my cousin Marie’s bottom bunk with her family’s elderly cat curled at my feet, woke with the absolute certainty that I’d kicked the cat and killed it, then watched as its ghost rose up from the bed and floated away. I came to in a panic, woke up Marie, made her go find the cat (the cat was fine) and then made her switch bunks with me in case the ghost of the non-dead cat came back for me (it never did). There must have been others in my teenaged years and in college, but I recall only a peak in my early twenties when I first lived alone: rats swinging on mini-blind cords, a black dog running through my studio apartment, a the shadow of a man in a wide-brimmed hat standing motionless at the foot of my bed. Each of them as real as real could be until something in my head popped like a bubble and I found myself sitting up alone and panting in a quiet, gray-dark room.
I googled my way to a name: They’re hypnagogic when they happen on the way into sleep and hypnopompic when they happen on the way out. They’re not dreams, not exactly night terrors, more like a weird misprojection from my brain onto the scrim of whatever that falls and rises between asleep and awake. That helped a little, knowing that I wasn’t imagining that I was imagining something — that the unreality was real in its own way.
But they tend to feel real in the real way, too. That’s the thing, and I don’t think I realized how real until Joe and I moved in together, more than a dozen years ago now, and all of a sudden I had an audience. I would wake up and Joe would wake up because I woke up — either because I sat up so abruptly he thought something was wrong, or because I screamed; I had no idea, until he told me, that sometimes I screamed. Once he clocked that neither of us were being murdered, he would gently inform me that I was having a sleep hallucination. (He used to say just that: “You’re having a sleep hallucination.” Now he just says, “Sleep ‘lucie, babe.”) After arguing with him — absolutely insistent that our dog was sitting on top of the dresser, or that someone was having a big party in the backyard, or that there was blood dripping down the wall — the bubble would pop and I would say, “Oh,” and flop back to sleep. He reports, even now, that I always sound disappointed when I realize I’m wrong and there’s truly nothing there.
So then came the baby. Mostly she was lost in the bed. But one night she was starfished on the ceiling above us, one night she was nestled in the junk basket under my nightstand, one night she was bobbing upside down in my water bottle. My waking hours simultaneously more and less real than they ever had, my sleeping hours more fragile than ever, so I was extra unsure what to make of this in-between. Seeing her in all of these strange places was very alarming but also bemusing: She barely knows she has hands, how did she open that lid? I tried to remember to remind myself to look at the Snoo light for proof that she was where she was supposed to be. (If the light’s blue, she’s in the Snoo!) This worked, except for the non-zero number of times I put her in the Snoo and forgot to turn it on. (If the light’s white, things ain’t right.) And then those four steps never felt longer. But she was always there, right where we left her.
For the first five or so months, I thought about our nights with the baby in terms of how many times she woke us up. Around six months, though, I began to suspect it was becoming more of a team project. Her fun-sized farts occasionally roused me; what were ours doing to her? I was often unsettled by her tendency to emit a single piercing, desperate shriek for no apparent reason; what did she make of all my hollering at her hypno-doppelgangers? More than once I heard her crying and sprang out of bed and scrabbled around in the darkness for her pacifier only to realize it was still in her mouth — she hadn’t chucked it, hadn’t cried, only now she was, now she was pissed, now it was real.
So we moved her into a crib in her own bedroom. Another obscene distance, I thought, until my hunch was proven exactly right. We’re all sleeping much better. I still wake up thinking she’s lost in the blanket, or curled in the pile of laundry, or stuck inside the picture frame on the wall, but she doesn’t have to hear me carrying on about it or her dad talking me back to reality, as I suspect he will be doing for the rest of our natural lives together. I can’t see any sort of future where I don’t worry, just a little bit, all the time, waking and sleeping, that this child isn’t safe and breathing and exactly where she’s supposed to be. For now, at least, I have a video monitor to check. Sometimes I do see strange faces in the rumple of her sleep-sack, and sometimes the flowers on her crib sheet crawl like fingers and bugs. But mostly I just see her: luminous even in grainy night vision, unclipped and unswaddled, sprawled face-down, my little grub out on her spacewalk, falling and falling and never hitting the ground.
Thanks for reading Vanitas, a newsletter about life, death, and other dumb stuff. If you’d like, follow me on Instagram: @by_rachaelmaddux.