Melatonin and the Meaning of Five Lives
– written in the high season of jetlag
Why would I wake after only four hours of sleep? Here I am, sleepless in Pittsburgh. It is 2.00am and for five days now I have slept too little. There is nothing to stop me sleeping: the house is quiet, snow falling outside hushes the world. Sleep is an ambition unrealised.
My mind has nothing useful to do other than to keep me from sleep. My mind visits my home in Diamond Creek. The date is December 7, 1974. I see it all in the dark from my bedroom upstairs in the house of friends in Pittsburgh.
Around 7.00 am
I am first to waken. I wash my hands and a noisy clanking in the pipes threatens the precious sleep of the children. Steam emerges when I turn on the hot tap. I turn it off. I pay no heed to the meaning of noises in the plumbing, to steam from the tap. These are practical concerns; I wash my hands of practical concerns. I remove my wedding ring to recite my morning prayers and go to my work, leaving the children unkissed, leaving the ring on the dresser, leaving Annette as she prepares for the day.
Around 8.15 am
The receptionist says: ‘Mrs. West is on the line. She says it’s an emergency.’ I take the call. Lynne says, ‘Howard. I think you’d better come home, straight away. There’s been an explosion at your house.’ I don’t come home straight away; Lynne West is an excitable person and I have a patient sitting before me. More patients wait in the waiting room. I see these patients and I drive to my house.
Around 8.10 am
The house exploded.
Around 9.15 am
I do not witness the explosion but Lynne is eager to regale me: ‘I heard a loud boom from your house and I looked over and a huge cloud of smoke came out of the roof. And the walls fell down.’
But before encountering Lynne and her tale of smoke and thunder I turn from the unmade road into our dirt driveway at 36 Deering Street. Lying flat on the ground to my left are the brick walls of my home. Before me the driveway leads to an empty carport. ‘Empty, ergo Annette is not at home, the children are not at home. Ergo I have lost nothing but bricks and mortar.’ And, as I will discover later, a wedding ring.
Until I married I disdained rings on men. Worse than effeminate, in my regard they were affected. A judgement made before I married. This ring was different: slender, of unostentatious white gold, engraved on the inner surface with words of love from Annette, words for my eyes only.
Around 10.05 am
I run Annette to ground at her sister’s house. She has dropped our firstborn at kindergarten early, as she always does. Earlier Annette sat in the armchair, breastfeeding the newborn while the older two watched Sesame Street on a couch in the same room. I ring Annette and tell her she is homeless. That we have been so since shortly after
Annette and the children left home for kindergarten. Punctual as always. Not only early, but early for early, as I was prone to point out irritably, in Annette’s overturning of my native tardiness.
Annette joins me at the wrecked house. We find two goldfish still alive, lying in the few milimetres of water on the surface of the kitchen table. That flimsy table is one of the few sticks of furniture that still stands. Paintings hang at angles from the walls, canvas gashed by flying debris. The dining table lies in heavy fractions, its geometry denuded. Ancestral bedroom furniture has collapsed. Of the wedding ring no trace.
My mind is fixed on the hot water service that exploded. Emplaced on the slope beneath the house, the hot water service – that ticking bomb – stood directly beneath the armchair where Annette sustained our baby with her milk; one metre removed from the suckling pair were the Sesame Street watchers, sitting in pleasant terror of Cookie Monster. Lynne West’s ‘smoke’ was the steam released by that bomb.
Annette is upset: unlike me she never held in her imagination the thought that arrested me for one second or perhaps two: that my loved ones are lost. Annette is a mother of children and she knows, as I will continue to refuse to know, that a family lacking a home is a frail thing, that we have lost our anchor upon this earth.
Our son, aged two and a half, knows something. Prior to December 7 he is a highly verbal person. From that time, for the next six months, Raphael will not speak.
I lie in the dark, useless to myself, tossing in all this unusable time. But unwelcome consciousness wastes nothing. It takes me back thirty-nine years in time. There were questions that Annette faced in those first few seconds, questions that my son asked in his mutism.
In the simplicity of 1976 I asked nothing. Now the darkness asks me:
What does it mean?
Why has this happened – this loss?
Why has this happened – this being spared from loss?
What, as our lives were spared, are our lives for?
What will you do with, how will you use this time?
A novel experience, this guilt, this sense of time debt, the debt unserviced, accruing, unpaid. The infant at the breast, her elder brother, their big sister, each of them has employed the time, each has grown and grown, grown and learned, grown and created a family. Throughout all Annette has been their home.
What have I not attended to?
I must listen to the pipes. When the pipes, the pipes are calling I must listen. I must not wash my hands of practical matters. The practical reality was shrapnel of exploding wine bottles stacked next to the suckling chair, next to the Sesame watchers. Those jagged fragments were flung with force from floor through the ceiling into the roof space. Grenades of glass shattered the room of milk and sesame and soft infant flesh.
I must learn from the steam. Steam, as Lynne might put it, is smoke – and where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The steam warned me: get your loved ones to safety, far from the fire.
Why live? Why us? These teasing whys tease. Abstruse abstractions, they distract from the concrete, the practical.
And Annette? Annette is where truth is writ plain and practical. The truth lies with Annette.
These musings are, as I suggested at the beginning, the children of the muse melatonin. I am in foreign territory here, lost, perhaps even found, somewhere between memory and regret.
As if to answer the questions of the dark, questions I never spoke aloud, my host passes me ‘The Descent’, a poem of William Carlos Williams:
No defeat is made up entirely of defeat –
Since the world it opens up is always a place
A world lost, a world unsuspected
Beckons to new places
And no whiteness (lost) is so white as the memory