Stay up late enough, past The Late Show, past the The Late, Late Show, and television changes. Except Sportscenter, which is a universal constant. For one, every commercial is for an adult hotline or male enhancer. And the Science Channel switches over to the hard stuff, the histories of chemistry and the explanations of Quantum Mechanics and the profiles of Einstein and Maxwell. At least it used to. Nowadays it’s probably reality shows or something, I don’t know, but in college I would regularly stay up until 3 or 4am, marvelling at the universe. My final semester consisted of just two courses, from 12:30 to 3:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I woke up just in time to brush my teeth. I don’t remember ever eating breakfast.
Graduation, jobs, and kids have been a harsh reality. I don’t stay up till 4am anymore, and we sadly don’t get the Science Channel, but I’m still the one who turns off all the lights and the last to get in bed. It was working out alright. While Christine got up to get Virginia ready for school, I’d doze for a few extra minutes, more if Jackson slept in. Then she got sick—something about the lymph node in her neck dying—and felt terrible most of the time. She still went to bed early but might not rise until 10am, long after both kids had to be at school. Some of the medications they eventually put her on meant she couldn’t drive them anyway. What choice did I have? For the time in forever, I set my alarm for 7:03am every day. I wake in the still-dim light, brush teeth, make lunch, change clothes, and shuttle Virginia to school by 8am (Jackson goes at 9). We usually get there before anything really important happens. She doesn’t make it easy. There’s always one more thing she needs, one more special blanket she forgot, one more breakfast item she wants, one more trick to show me. I loved her a lot more when I didn’t have to get her out the door in the morning.
That started over a month ago. One week of antibiotics turned into four, and steroids, and a trip to the hospital, and blood clots, and narcotics. It was so bad they were giving her morphine as though her lymph node were a soldier dying on the beach at Normandy. At least it helped. With the pain, that is. Didn’t do anything for my sleep schedule. I’m still rising early, still telling myself it will be just another week, maybe two, until everything goes back to normal.
Christine’s mom stayed with us a few days during and after the whole hospital affair. She’s no early riser either, but she did her best to help out in the morning. I’d usually hear her come down the stairs around the time I was making PB&Js (hold the peanut butter) for the kids’ lunches. Nothing about my demeanor or disposition, apart from standing upright and spreading strawberry jam, suggested I was awake, much less happy about it. I barely heard her say, “It’s a good thing one of you is a morning person.” Drowsy as I was, a minute passed before the words registered as referring to me. I didn’t respond. Not enough caffeine.
Any kind of praise is uncomfortable, but this kind in particular bothers me. I’m not trying to be some kind of hero by getting up early and taking the kids to school or gym practice when Christine can’t. I don’t want to do it. I’m not even sure exactly how I do it. I don’t intend to get up every morning; I just do.
I imagine most soldiers on the front lines don’t want to be fighting and killing, marching and struggling, spending the fearful nights in a trench or bunker or tent far from home. Maybe some feelings of duty or patriotism or adventure made them sign up. Perhaps they have some sense of the purpose of their fight, to defeat an aggressor or liberate a nation or advance a cause. But those things don’t keep you going through exhaustion and weariness and terror. The reason you can continue into the teeth of pain and death is that you have no choice; the consequences, both for you and those around you and everyone you care about, are worse if you go back, than anything you face going forward. You may die. Certainly, you will face hardship. But if you give up, you lose everything.
We all want freedom. We all want choices. It’s a good thing life doesn’t always give them to us. How else could we survive a tough marriage or difficult kids or a financial crisis or a long fight? How can Christine persevere through intense pain in the hospital or sleepless night at home or the interminable days of medicine and irritation and weariness? We go into life knowing in theory what we may face, the difficulties that are possible, the things we might have to sacrifice, but of course we never expect to experience them nor appreciate the true extent. If we did, no one would do it. If we had to have the strength ahead of time, when we still had some choice, no one would ever make it into the situation where they needed it. Instead, we operate on a type of faith. We start out with higher goals, the hope of reward and greater joy. It is a grace that we do not too carefully contemplate the hardships and the costs, and it is a grace, nothing more, that when the time comes you find yourself able to wake up and do what is required. At that point, you don’t have a choice. The alarm sounds whether you want it to or not.