My daughter moved 4,000 miles away last month. Her father had already cleared out a couple of years before that. For the first time in my 66 years, I’m alone. I miss her, and I miss who I am with her: a mother, a teacher, a confidant, a “straight man.” I unashamedly rely on her to remember the difference between grande and venti at Starbucks, to detangle the wires and clickers so I can watch cable, and to be the only one who, when I ask, “Does my ass look big in this?” will answer with a resounding “yes!”
My days are mostly kind and full. But as the light recedes, I begin to lose my way. I’m uncomfortable in every room of my home. I’m beset with a sorrow I can neither explain nor defend. After all, there are few more common tasks than offering your child to the future. Still, when the darkness comes, I follow. I feel restive, empty, and frightened.
And I can’t sleep.
By 2 a.m., I always end up in the same unlikely place, dragging a rocking chair to the sliding glass door. Not just any chair—the one my great-grandmother gave to my grandmother, who gave it to my mother, who gave it to me. I part the curtains and rock, looking out at the night, resigned that I’ll still be awake as it slides into dawn. The rocker is more a decoration than a functional piece of furniture. It’s a faded black, New England stiff, and spindly, almost uncomfortable. I never used to sit in it, but now it draws me back every night.
Settling into it after such a long time, I recall how this chair figured into the many firsts with my daughter. She was a cute baby, but a real disappointment in the sleep department. Night was an affront to her, one in which she eagerly and insistently demanded company. Her screams were noxious, ranking right up there with fingers on a chalkboard. I’d stagger into her room, always hoping that a diaper change would do it—it never did. So I’d drag the rocker to the window and search for the moon as she slurped ravenously at my breast. Once she seemed satiated and sleepy, I’d slowly rise from the rocker, ready to deposit her where she belonged, but she’d sense the first millimeter of my ascent and pierce the silence with her protests.
I was a smart woman who didn’t know what to do. But one night, from somewhere deep inside me, the desperate, crazy new mother asked sagely, “Wanna watch traffic?” Turns out she did. I’d prop her tiny bald head over my shoulder, and for 45 minutes we’d rock and study the street. I made up lilting motor vehicle lullabies like, “There’s a car and it’s going fast, / but no way is that gonna last, / ‘cause even in the night / it’s gonna hit a light.”
There were empty, lit buses and noisy trucks, even the exciting but infrequent fire engines and police cars. She loved them all. The rocking stoplights at the intersection were magic. “Red is stop, / and green is go, / but yellow is the best / because babies must rest,” I sang over and over. I became a wizard at finally getting that child to sleep.
But then those tiny molars began to erupt and all bets were off. “Rub some whiskey on her gums,” my grandmother counseled. I was horrified. Alcoholism has been generous to my family, and I hesitated to initiate another generation.
I then complained to my mother, who shrugged and said, “Put some whiskey on her gums.” Noticing my negative reaction, she countered, “Good God, Martha! I took Dexedrine my whole pregnancy with you and you turned out alright.” Really? Dexedrine? That explained so much.
One day, with my objections finally worn down, my fussy infant and I ended up at the liquor store when it opened. It was huge, a veritable cathedral of spirits. I was overwhelmed. A blustery red-faced older man asked me what I needed. I couldn’t tell if he was an employee or just liked to hang around stacks of booze. “I need whiskey,” I said. “Well, actually she needs whiskey.” I pointed to her cheeks.
“You’ll be needin’ Irish whiskey,” he pronounced while pulling down a bottle of something called Jameson. “Just stick your finger in the bottle, rub it over those gums, and this wee angel will sleep like a baby.” As I turned to leave, he called out, “And Missy, you could use a nip too. Mix it with warm milk. Me mam, God rest her soul, swore by it—for the 10 of us.” I bet.
That night, when her screaming became relentless, I balanced her with one hand and broke the seal of the whiskey bottle with the other. I carried them both to the rocker, stuck my finger in the golden-brown liquid, and painted it on her screaming gums. She immediately reacted like I’d just tried to set her mouth on fire. But within several minutes, her taut body relented and molded into mine. Together, we watched traffic, until she drifted into sleep so soundly that she never registered the transfer to her crib.
It wasn’t long before she grew teeth, and came to some compromise with the night, remaining In her crib longer and longer over time. Sometimes I could hear her clucking and cooing, almost amused at the sound of her own voice. She fumbled to get her fist into her mouth. I could see her tiny fingers stroke the fur of the floppy bunny who’d become her best friend for years. She still needed holding and rocking, and watching traffic and weather, but my daughter was learning how to give herself comfort. Within the cradle of her exhausted, uncertain mother’s arms, she began to tolerate the darkness, to let herself slip into peaceful sleep. To the experts, it was a notch on the developmental ladder. To me, it was a goddamn miracle.
Nearly four decades years later, on the walk home from the post office, I noticed a gray, squat building I’d never seen from the car. A small sign on the door announced unceremoniously, “Liquor.” Before I really thought about it, I was standing at the store counter. “I’d like some Jameson Irish Whiskey,” I said.
“What size?” the man behind the counter demanded.
Oh God, I thought. Venti? Grande? Tall? Big Gulp? I have no idea. The best I could do was “medium,” which made him smile, but got me what I wanted. I stashed the bottle in my bag and carried it home like it was contraband.
That night, with the usual tightening in my throat, the dread in my gut, and the emerging tears in my eyes, I poured an imperceptible amount of Jameson into a plastic cup and pulled up the rocking chair. I settled in with an ease I hadn’t felt lately. As I moved back and forth, my mind began to let go of its misery. I thought about my mother, my mother and me, and my mother and me in that very chair. She delivered me through the interminable nights in which the darkness was my nemesis. I could only have conquered it with her exhausted but constant witness to my struggle. She let me borrow her comfort until I could carry it on my own. From my great-grandmother to my grandmother to my mother to me to my daughter, we’ve rocked our way through, weaving a connection from giving and taking and giving again. These bonds have enabled us to move from cradled to cradling, soothing not only our daughters, but ourselves.
I’m still lonely, but not alone. In the nights to come, even if I’m still awake as the yellow-red streaks across the blue, I won’t recoil from the solitude of my life. It may take some rocking, or traffic, or even a swig of whiskey, but I know now that I’ll be all right, because I inhabit a powerful lineage—one that reminds me that in the rhythmic back and forth of the generations, their New England, no-nonsense stand against the darkness will soothe me again.
For as long as it takes.
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM NIKLEWICZ
Martha Manning, PhD, is a writer and clinical psychologist who has written five books, including Undercurrent: A Life Beneath the Surface. She has published frequently in the Networker as well as other magazines.