Published on September 17th, 2015 | by Lynne Nugent


The 781 Days: LYNNE NUGENT on Sleep

If I died today, my two-year-old son would lose all memory of me. Childhood amnesia, it is called; these two years that have been so momentous in my life would fade quickly for him. He would forget that he spent the first 781 days of his life sleeping curled up against me every night, at his own insistence. Unsuspecting first-time parents, we had bought a crib; we had bought a bassinet somewhat inaccurately termed a co-sleeper—it abutted our bed, but a little wall kept it fenced off. From day one, he protested vociferously when placed in either of those devices, but became a instant cherub when nestled snugly next to Mom. (Meanwhile, the infant furniture became expensive loungers for the cats.)

When he was a newborn, I’d worry about SIDS and smothering, so I’d place him on his back, as the few experts who countenance co-sleeping recommend, in his own pillow- and blanket-free zone of the bed equidistant between me and my husband. Despite an almost total lack of motor skills, he’d somehow scootch-scootch-scootch over in the night, and I’d wake to find him peacefully sleeping on his side with his nose wedged against my armpit. A fearful co-sleeper, always worried I was breaking some law, I eventually grew to believe in an awareness that persists even when we are unconscious. I’d nurse, soothe, and even pop a hat on him—he was born in December, and our old house is drafty—all without fully waking up.


If I died today, he’d forget that when he was a little older, a toddler with his own room, and I did sneak away after he fell asleep, he’d eventually wake up and call “Maaa…maaa…” in a quavering voice, quietly at first, then increasing in quaver and volume, until I’d lurch in at one or three or five in the morning and we’d collapse together on the double futon mattress on the floor, his mouth clamped onto my nipple. He’d nurse, then sleep-nurse, then fall so soundly asleep his mouth would relax into an O and he’d detach from the nipple, but even in deepest sleep his hands and feet would still press against me intermittently, sending and receiving messages of reassurance. If I died today, he’d forget that Mama was the planet around which he revolved in both waking and sleeping hours, that warmth and smell were our gravity, that touch for us was its own language, that I could fix a hurt with a kiss, that my proposed absence drew howls, and that when he glanced over from his play and saw I was watching him, he’d give an almost visible shudder of joy.

I have read that we are born with all the neurons our brains will ever need and that thus the main work of our first few years of life is forming the synapses, the connections between them—a process influenced by our first experiences, good or bad. That gossamer network of synapses then becomes the scaffolding of consciousness for the rest of our lives. Anxious or carefree, confident or neurotic, our adult destinies are largely foretold in some mysterious interplay of the genes we were born with and this built array. To create it, the cerebral cortex of a toddler forms up to two million synapses per second, an operation I can practically see happening as my son greedily explores the world.


So maybe even if I die today and my son forgets me, there’ll be a ghost of memory forever haunting him with blessings. Maybe he’ll be a kinder person for having been loved so well at the start. Maybe he’ll seek out romantic relationships that make him feel safe rather than ones that keep him guessing. Maybe he’ll be generous out of a native faith in the abundance, not scarcity, of love in the world.

I hope not to die today or anytime soon, but this is no maudlin exercise. He will forget. He will grow older, stop nursing to sleep, no longer call for me when he wakes up, adjust his body to a single bed. Go to school, make friends, become a teenager, move out, rarely call. And that is if all goes as well as can possibly be dreamed. He already squirms away from half my kisses, and sometimes, when I hover too much, he stands at his full height, holds a palm up as if directing traffic, and says in his firmest voice, “Mama, go ’way!”

What I can’t bear to think about, these days, is the fact that this love will end—one way or another at first, and ultimately in all ways—in loss and forgetting. Every mother-and-child pair has its moment in history, then fades away. I would like to believe that some scaffolding of good in the world will linger from the smile he gives me today and that I return, one that builds, like a coral reef, upon all the smiles exchanged between all the mothers and children that have gone before. I don’t know if I can believe that. Maybe he will, though.


The other night I awoke abruptly from a nightmare. As always when I first wake up, I was startled to find another body there, so close to me, startled to remember that I have a son, that here he is, right now. He was breathing evenly, eyes closed and mouth slightly open, folded into the V between my torso and right arm. His back was against my side, and he faced my right hand, which he held fast in one of his. While I waited for my thudding heart to slow and the nightmare’s details to fade, I could feel my blood circulating all around him as it did before he was born, pressing rhythmically against his back, against his palm, providing the old comfort. Our hands were clasped so tightly I couldn’t tell if I had reached for his or if he had reached for mine in the night.


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About the Author

Lynne Nugent is managing editor of The Iowa Review. Her essays have appeared in the North American Review, Brevity, the Modern Love column of the New York Times, and Full Grown People.

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