The Big Sleep

March 22, 2010 at 2:00 pm (Uncategorized)

Yesterday I slept seventeen hours. The day before that, eighteen hours.

I’m not rested after these monumental sleeps. Instead, I feel almost more exhausted for sleeping so long. My muscles ache and my body is stiff. I feel like I’ve done battle during these long stretches of blank sleep. I’m relieved to be awake, to have returned to consciousness. I listen to the chatter of my family downstairs and contemplate the light falling in patterns on my bed. Everything around me is inordinately beautiful. This is the way I have felt in the past after a car accident or some other averted danger. Never before has the simple act of waking up felt like I’ve dodged a bullet.

Could that sleep have brought me deeper and deeper—like fishing lines unspooling as fast as lightning—until I could not have found my way back to the this room, my family, or even myself?

This sleep feels dark and dangerous. When I was a kid, I saw a science fiction movie. If the killer was able to pursue you into your dreams and snuff you there, you would die in the real world. I don’t think it is possible to dream of oneself as finally dead. Sure, you might dream that you die in a plane crash, but then crazy dream logic allows some part of yourself to watch your own funeral, and then to ease back into life. It makes sense that a consciousness won’t accept its own obliteration. So what am I to make of these hours asleep that are black and dreamless? These endless sleeps are like the darkness that preceded creation. I am taken into the wet and lightless void of the primordial stew—before lightning dazzled the darkness and propelled molecules to come together.

Rationally, I know that even the deepest sleep cannot kill me. It’s the chemo that causes my extreme fatigue. Each dose of this harsh medicine has been incrementally more exhausting. I made a bargain I didn’t fully understand—or, perhaps a bargain I had no choice but to make. Like the anonymous princess in Rumpelstiltskin, I had my back against the wall. She would be killed if she couldn’t spin straw into gold; I was quickly being devoured by neurosarcoidosis. So she promised her first born to the troll in exchange for him converting bales of hay into pure gold. In my post-modern, medicalized version, I signed the consent form and nodded that I understood that fatigue would be a side-effect of the expensive elixir that night keep my disease in check. Maybe now is when I must make good on the promise I cavalierly made when I first signed on the dotted line. What did I promise? Am I consigned to the underworld of my mind like Demeter Persephone?

This sleep feels truly dark and magical—as if it indeed belongs in medieval tales of enchantment and betrayal. Before I experienced these drowning sleeps for myself, I had never even idly wondered about Sleeping Beauty or Snow White being cast into limbo. Did they look as pretty and untroubled as the Disney cartoons of my childhood? Or like me, do they sweat and toil and grind their teeth in a subterranean battle to come back to themselves?

When I resurface from my long sleeps, I don’t shine with bright-eyed smiles or ruby red lips—like Disney’s vision of his heroines. My hair is heavy with grease. My skin, my teeth, and my tongue are tacky, as if I have swum through scummy pond water. I brush my teeth, shower, and brush my teeth again. But I cannot wash away the sour smell and taste of myself. “The inside of a human body—even a healthy one—does not have an appealing odor,” I remember a college biology teacher saying. But I understand his warning, now. My unprincess-like breath carries an undertone of decay—not from my teeth, but from my blood and guts. No matter how many times I scour my teeth, my tongue, and the roof of my mouth, I cannot stop tasting my own demise.

I think all of this would be less disturbing if I remembered even a scene of a dream. But my chemo sleep is dark and dreamless. If I could recall just a flash of a story when I return to consciousness, I could believe my chemo sleep isn’t empty. All this lost time, and I don’t even have a token of my time asleep. Instead, it is as if I have been anesthetized or dead. I come back from utter blankness and blackness. Is my sleep, “death’s brother” (or sister, in my case) as Virgil wrote in the Aeneid? Is this a warm-up or a preamble to the vacuous infinity that awaits us all?

I’m not even sure these mammoth post-chemo sleeps are restorative. I have no choice but to fall into them, but my body and mind seem bruised when I awake. I used to think that sleep was a balm—a lubricant that made the hinges of spirit and flesh function properly. This post-chemo sleep is instead a sledgehammer, a wallop to my psyche straight of out Looney Tunes.

The princesses from medieval fairy tales do find their way back from their death-in-life sleep. Rumpelstiltskin does not get to keep the princess’ child. Sleeping Beauty is not trapped forever in the vines of unconsciousness that hide her. Why shouldn’t I have similar luck? Perhaps I, too, will shake this magic sleep from my hair and my clothes. I will return to dreaming and leave the oceans of darkness untouched—for now.


  1. Sharon said,

    I think you mean Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, who was carried off to the underworld by Hades. But she gets to spend half the year above ground. Demeter went into such a state of grief, that spring & summer would not come – no crops, no flowers, no harvest, cold & bad weather. Zeus demanded Hades return Persephone. Now comes the part about the pomegranate seeds that you probably remember. Persephone had eaten six pomegranate seeds while in Hades’ realm & so had to live six months of the year in the underworld. So we have seasons. And it makes you think, maybe this is where Snow White’s apple (pomme) came from. But for you, like for you, it is the dark dreamless sleep that is her nether world.

    You may still be dreaming, but not waking up during the dream cycle & hence not remembering them.

    So glad that you’re blogging again.


  2. Rebecca said,

    ear Sharon,

    Yes, I did mean Persephone, instead of Demeter. Thank you for the correction. I had also forgotten the part about pomegranate seeds. And the possible connection between those and apple in Snow White is fascinating. My knowledge of Greek mythology is fairly shaky–even though so many of the medieval texts I studied in college refer back to or rework the Greek myths. Makes me want to find my copy of the Golden Bough and learn some more.

    I know that I am dreaming–just not remembering it. But not remembering anything–and being “under” for so long–is weird and sometimes frightening.

    I don’t think my body can take much more of the chemo. I awoke this afternoon, literally mid-heave (sorry if I’m too explicit) and haven’t been able to do much except turn over in bed. I’m going to propose a break from the chemo. It doesn’t seem to be controlling the disease, what with the new subcutaneous manifestation and the bone sarcoidosis spreading…

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment and explain my mistake.


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