Waking Up Before Dawn With My Son, on the Day of a Funeral
After a child in our community died of cancer, I savored an early morning with my son. These mornings filled with reruns on television, laps around the dinner table, and leftover eggs are genuine treasures.
I’m exhausted. It’s the kind of tired where you feel like you are outside of your body, not exactly certain how it works or where it is. But this isn’t the kind of tired that can be easily remedied with falling back into bed. A woeful mind and a little bit of indigestion causes me to toss and turn.
The teething, co-sleeping toddler next to me in bed — complete with restless legs and a limitless imagination — doesn’t help, either. I have just accepted the fact that my son doesn’t sleep, ever. I can count on both hands how many undisturbed nights of sleep I have shared with him in our bed.
We stare at each other, our eyes acclimated to the darkness of the room, which is slowly transitioning to the early light of a spring dawn. It’s some time before 5 a.m. on this Saturday morning, and we have been lying in bed wide awake for lord knows how long. This is a rough start to what will likely be an already emotionally draining day. I have to be somewhere in a few hours, so I give up on the idea of a few extra hours of sleep. I might as well get up.
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“Do you want to go downstairs, Hank?” I whisper, so not to wake my wife who is fast asleep next to him.
“Mm-hmm,” he mumbles without removing the thumb from his mouth.
I sit up, and then Hank mimics my slow rise. With his favorite blanket draped over his shoulder and his thumb firmly fastened to his face, he wraps his unoccupied arm around my neck. I wrap my right arm around his backside and lift. His wild, unkempt hair tickles my face. As I lift, my shoulder audibly pops. I freeze, worried that it was loud enough to wake my wife. She didn’t even budge. We quietly make our way downstairs.
Usually, Hank is a slow riser, but since he has already been awake for a painfully undetermined amount of time, he is already spring-loaded for the morning, completely oblivious to the circumstances of the day to follow. I barely make it down the stairs before he starts floundering like a fish trying to escape my grasp and fall back into the freedom of the stream. Hank’s feet touch the ground like a wind-up toy, launching himself into his pile of collectibles that were left out on the coffee table from the night before. Cars, dinosaurs, and random kitchen utensils are the current favorites.
I sleepily cobble together my morning routine: make the coffee, feed the cats, let the dog outside, etc. The coffee probably won’t help the indigestion, but at this point, I don’t really care.
This routine is interrupted by guess who, as he bursts into the kitchen like a professional wrestler. Power stance and all, he points to me, and says, “Daddy, I get you!” That’s code for me to trade one routine for another — one where he chases me and we run laps around the dinner table until he gets tired, bored, or both. This is such a common scene in our house that I am surprised there isn’t a visible circular path beaten into the rug underneath the table.
The rhythm of heavy-footed steps and punch-drunk giggles follows closely behind me. Thankfully, I closed the upstairs bedroom, so that the sounds of this chaotic scene don’t wake my wife. After the umpteenth lap, I notice the rhythm of steps has slowed and the giggles have turned into heavy breathing.
“Do you want something to eat, buddy?”
“Mmm-hmm,” he mumbles, nodding his head. This time, no thumb because it would impede his ability to catch his breath.
“Do you want to watch cartoons while I make breakfast?”
“Pwease.” Despite his inability to sleep, he is an awfully polite toddler.
He lifts his hands in the air, the international symbol for “pick me up and carry me, dad.” I oblige and carry him to the couch.
I head back to the kitchen to make the usual breakfast standard: eggs, toast, yogurt, and milk. With plates in hand, I return to the living room to find the restless toddler, showing his first signs of fatigue. He is curled up on the couch underneath a pile of blankets, thumb in mouth again. His gaze is fixed on the television; his eyelids already appear to be getting heavy.
Hank takes a bite of eggs, but he is more interested in the milk. I sit down next to him on the couch, and he presses up against me without removing the thumb from his mouth. It’s not long before I notice his weight shift, getting heavier by the second. His breathing slows down, and he starts making the same moaning noise that he has made since he was a newborn when he finally drifts off to sleep. I finish his eggs — something I am also accustomed to.
Not even 15 minutes into the movie and he is out. I slowly peel away the slumbering child, carefully lowering his head onto a pillow and pulling a blanket over him. I am convinced that there is evolutionary trait in adult humans that — despite being angered, frustrated, and thoroughly exhausted by the never-ending energy of a young child — is immediately placated by the sight of their sleeping offspring; otherwise, I am not certain either side of the parent-child equation would survive naturally. Cuteness preserves symbiosis and the propagation of the species.
I head back upstairs so that I can get dressed. Fortunately, my wife is awake, so I don’t have to keep tiptoeing around this sleepy house.
“Thanks for letting me sleep,” she says. “I didn’t even know you two were gone.”
This is called earning “good husband points.” I keep a stash of them near the liquor shelf, just in case I find myself doing something embarrassing at the bottom of a Jameson bottle.
“You’re welcome,” I reply. “Little stinker is passed on the couch.”
“Ok, I’ll head down in a second,” she says. “Are you OK to fire up the kitchen?”
“It’s been a while since I’ve done it, but I think so.”
“Just call me if you need help.”
Our family owns a restaurant and bar—or what used to be a one at least. The establishment closed down in 2017 so we could make more time for our growing family.
Why I was going into the unused space this morning was the result of a tragedy that no parent should ever have to experience: A young boy recently passed away, losing a prolonged battle with leukemia. Our bar was an ideal space for the funeral reception, so we offered to rent the space out to the family for free. They accepted.
The morning plan consists of meeting up with a team of Mennonite women, who were using the bar to prepare a feast for the grieving. My job was simple: unlock the back door, fire up the stove, and make certain that the women had everything they needed to cook. Our family will return later to pay our respects and make certain that everybody in attendance is taken care of.
A local florist donated all of the flowers for the funeral. The funeral home covered all of the expenses of the arrangements. The Mennonite community provided spiritual guidance and food. The local liquor distributor donated two kegs of beer for the reception. Countless individuals and businesses donated money to a memorial fund to help pay for expenses incurred by the boy’s family. Though tragic, this event showcased how caring our community truly is.
My sleep-deprived mind slowly calculates the weight of the day while driving to the bar. Sure, a sleepless night is enervating in the moment, but it cannot compare to the loss of a child. Though I am weary, I still get to see my ornery son again. When I finish up at the bar, I can still head home and try to catch a nap with him. For the sake of perspective, I will be forever thankful for sleepless nights, because the following morning is not guaranteed. These mornings filled with reruns on television, laps around the dinner table, and leftover eggs are genuine treasures. Not realizing their grandeur would be foolish and selfish on my part.
So, though I am exhausted, I am thankful for the reasons that I am exhausted.
Jay Stooksberry is a freelance writer based in Delta, Colorado. His work, available at jaystooksberry.com, has been published in Newsweek, Reason Magazine, 5280, and several other publications.