Nights are sinister. I don't really know why. Perhaps it's the isolation. Perhaps it's some primeval fear; the rustling in the leaves of a harmless squirrel, or the littlest bird, sounds terribly huge in the dark.
I was camping in the mountains with some friends as a teenager. There was three of us, and only one small tent. So I slept outside in my bag. It was cold, but I curled up naked and settled into sleep. I was warm enough. The fire died down. And sometime in the middle of the moonless night, some woodland creature decided to have a look around for a meal. It was huge. Or it sounded huge. And it took an interest in me. It walked around the campsite a few times. Sniffed at my sleeping bag. Knocked me with its head. Breathed, grunted, pawed. And moved on after what felt like minutes. It might have been a bear. I thought for sure it was. But I certainly didn't want to risk appearing like food and peaking out from the inside of my bag. I was quietly terrified. Had I risked a look, I wouldn't have been able to see anyway.
It might have been something smaller. It might have been Bambi for all I know. And that's probably why night feels like night. There is a bit of the dangerous in the unknown, in the other. I have always wanted to be more like the thing that sniffs, grunts, bumps in the night, than the kid terrified of whatever lurks in closets and under beds. Night/ otherness/ the abject plays in our minds and in our culture. Maybe that's why we like cities so much, where there is no open space to be filled by imagination, where there is no darkness, and going out is filled with too many blinking lights and too many sounds to drown out the unknown. And ironically, cities bring us closer with those that are different from us, but also allow us not to see them at all...
Night before last my phone rang over and over. It was my dad calling from the hospital in a panic. He woke up and suddenly felt that no one knew who he was. He was alone in the world and reaching out. During the day, he is more lucid, more calm. Pain and disease and isolation bring out the ghosts. Add the darkness and it seems too much for his mind. We've all had nights that bare some vague resemblance to this...
He is wasting away. He has been for weeks. And the terrifying thing is that we haven't had a story to tell about it. He's in constant anguish. And the toll on his consciousness is obvious. He needs a story as much as we do.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
Sometimes literally. In this case the story is all we have. We need a story that accounts for his symptoms, for his pain and weakness. And much of what the doctors are doing is trying to construct a narrative that makes sense. They ask him questions. They interpret the mixed and confused dream-narratives he tells. They interpret our stories about him. They look at abstract images of his body on terminal screens. They discuss the hermeneutic nuances of tiny irregularities in their texts, like rabbinical scholars. And my father continues to disappear.
The most recent revision of this story is about an infection in the bone at the sight of the surgery. This would be a long and painful story, but it's better than the earlier version, told by the surgeon: “Everything is fine. Everything looks perfect from the surgical point of view.” And to the nurse: “he's faking it 'cause he's a junkie.”
There are other stories happening all around my father. He sees ghosts. He is transplanted from one place to another. Forgets where he is and where he's been. Struggles to speak and is misunderstood by people no one can see but him. Those stories are chimeras to the rest of us. They are his new reality.
There was a moment the other day when my nephew came to see his grandfather. He was concerned with a tube coming from my dad's body that was filled with blood. He kept walking around the bed and returning to it. Trying to follow it back to see the injury. He's four. All he could say is “Sangrando?” And for a brief second my dad smiled at him. And I saw the simple logic of this moment: two consciousnesses, on either end of their narrative arcs, trying to comprehend one another.
Continuity is neither good nor bad. All we can say about it is that it persists.