A personal essay in which Sara Fredman thinks about the voices in her life, as she raises young children and reckons with her fading father.
Sara Fredman | Longreads | March 2019 | 10 minutes (2,523 words)
Everyone is screaming.
It is 4 p.m. and we are in the car. The 6-year-old and the 3-year-old are cranky from a long day at school, the baby indignant at having spent too long strapped in a car seat. Still, when my phone rings over the cacophony, I answer because it is my father and because he has dementia.
“Hi Daddy, is everything OK?”
“Yes, yes, everything’s fine,” he whispers, with unusual loquacity.
“Then why are you whispering?” I yell over the din.
We are sleep training the baby. She is our third so I am no longer surprised by the uncomfortable feeling that I have somehow become pitted against my own child in a fight for survival. This does not make the feeling more comfortable. Every night before bed, I jam Amazon’s top-rated earplugs into my ears in the hopes that I can sleep through her crying and her father can perform the prescribed rituals. It rarely works. Apparently, a baby’s cries are like a “sledgehammer” to its mother’s brain. The next person who tells me that the days are long but the years are short is going to get a sledgehammer to the brain. It is always an older person who says it, their soft words offered up as comfort. But what they no doubt intend as knowing reassurance I hear as a warning of still more different sorrows yet to come; their nostalgia seems deployed to shame me into recognizing my blessings before it is too late.
How long do I have before it is too late?
I do, of course, recognize my blessings, and I know, with a certainty I rarely possess, that someday I will look back on this tired person and I will want to be her. But it’s not just the sleep-challenged baby, it is also the auditory assault that begins before dawn. There are so many voices. More voices, it sometimes seems, than there are bodies from which they supposedly emanate. I move through my day to a soundtrack of temper tantrums and raucous laughter, endless questions and knock-knock jokes with nonsensical punchlines. Almost every sentence begins with the words “And, Mom.” They have so much to say and they want to say every bit of it to me, all at the exact same time.
When the real voices have quieted for the night, the imagined ones take over. Earplugs are powerless against the phantom baby cries and other voices, similarly faithful to their waking life counterparts, that live in my head. One dream has me caught in a loop, over and over again, hearing the baby from another room and grabbing her right before she is about to fall down the stairs; in another I am once again living in my childhood home, caring for my father as he loses his memory and his ability to speak. On a good night, these dreams can provide a solace: In real life, I don’t always catch the baby, and neither my father nor I have lived in that house for more than a decade. In my dreams I can sometimes be in two places at once, both called home.