, ,

An hour had passed before Harry walked to the bedroom door and stood there watching his wife sleep.  It would not be he who would wake her.

In a few minutes the phone would ring and on the other end would be the mother of the young man who found her son’s body in their shared apartment.  Harry would remain standing and watching as she answered the call and tried to understand the news.  Eventually, he’d go to her, sit down on the bed, and hold her in his arms.

After hearing the details of the morning and his ability and willingness to console her, I originally assumed the reason Harry did not wake his wife was so she could sleep one last time the sleep of one who has been untouched by tragedy: deep, sweet, fully given in to it.  I admired him.

Soon, I would not.

As a psychiatrist, I know one of the first things to be affected when patients experience deep loss is their sleep, and I asked Harry’s wife if this was so with her.  It was.  I asked if she would like something to help her sleep.  She did.

There are several theories about sleep, but one is that we have evolved to conserve energy when it is most dangerous for us to be awake.  Lions, for example, at the top of the food chain, sleep upwards of seventeen hours or more a day.  Prey animals, on the other hand, like white-tail deer, barely sleep at all and must be somewhat alert when they do.

I turned to Harry and asked the same, assuming he would need something, too. Harry’s wife answered for him.  She told me Harry was having no difficulty with sleep and, in fact, was sleeping better than he had before, with no aids whatsoever.

I was surprised, and looked at Harry for confirmation; he had an odd sort of smile that seemed to agree and confirm he caught the irony.

In the end, as is so often the case with my patients, I don’t have an answer for why Harry didn’t wake her, and I would caution anyone from simple explanations of human behavior.  The mind is not simple.  We don’t know ourselves, how could we possibly know each other?

Sleep is not simple either.  Whether it’s performing an evolutionary duty, organizing itself like a computer, or removing neurotoxins, what happens in those hours of rest is profound and tells us profound things about who we are.  Indeed, I believe dreams are the closest explanations of ourselves.

Harry and his wife continued to see me for three months, at last conceding neither one wanted to continue the marriage.  His wife, alternating between feeling numb and feeling profound guilt that she could have prevented her son’s death if only she’d done this or that thing, never did sleep well and, eventually, for whatever reason, rejected any pharmacological intervention.

Harry saw me by himself one more time, and it seemed as if he wanted me to say something to absolve him or to give him a simple answer to the unasked, but obvious question.

I did not.