I am an unabashed night owl, a trait I inherited from my father. No really – researchers have actually found that there is a genetic component to a person’s circadian rhythms. Growing up, I would often come downstairs in the middle of the night to find him reading or working or making up his own crossword puzzles. Sometimes we would talk but often I would simply curl up next to him, my head rising and falling on his chest in rhythm with his breathing. Nighttime was when he helped me solve my problems, mended my broken heart, and told me fantastic stories. Nighttime was our time.
As a mother, however, my nocturnal nature has proved to be…challenging. No matter what time I finally fall asleep, my two little alarm clocks excitedly pile into our bed at 7am. And on those mornings when my head is throbbing from exhaustion and we are frantically trying to get out the door on time, I resolve to be like everyone else and go to bed at a decent time. But my body won’t let me.
My body remembers that 3 am is when I have written my best papers and had my favorite conversations. It is when music sounds the most soulful and love feels the most overwhelming. When my resolve is at its strongest, and at the same time, its weakest. When my words are their most reckless and their most genuine. In the still of the night, I am authentic.
3 am is when I really miss my dad.
I used to think that I felt everything more deeply in the middle of the night. But somewhere along the way, I realized it isn’t that your loneliness or heartbreak or anxieties are magnified at 3am. On the contrary, you are just feeling them the way they are meant to be felt. Free from the interruptions of the sunlit hours, your mind and your heart are finally able to process those emotions instead of perfunctorily acknowledging them and moving on to the next item on your to-do list.
The middle of the night produces a different kind of silence, a different kind of freedom.
I can hear snippets of conversations and laughter. I can see us driving through Scotland, laughing at my dad’s inability to navigate a roundabout. I can feel his hand on my arm as we were about to walk down the aisle, gently reminding me not to rush through the moment. I can remember the last thing he said to me as he exuberantly bounded through the kitchen (“I’ve invented a new game for the boys!”).
In the middle of the night, I can see everything. Feel everything. Remember everything. I am not afraid to remember. The truth is, I am terrified of forgetting.
With every day that goes by, I strain a little harder to hear his voice in my head, to conjure the image of him pinching the bridge of his nose when he was trying to be particularly patient, the feeling of holding his hand. I am terrified of forgetting how much I need him. With every day that goes by, I am reminded that we have all survived without him. Resilience is a double-edged sword. It is at once protective and devastating.
According to Japanese legend, if you can’t sleep in the middle of the night, it’s because you are awake in someone else’s dream. I prefer to think that when I am still awake at 3 am, it is because my body is trying to remind my heart to hold on to all of these memories. To remind me that nighttime was our time.
So if you see me in the morning and I am grumpy or confused or sad, cut me a little slack. I was up late spending time with my dad.