Wide Awake Excerpt

Chapter One


When I was a little girl, my grandfather taught me to sing “O Sleep, Why Dost Though Leave Me?” from Handel’s oratorio Semele. Based on Greek mythology, it tells the story of a beautiful mortal, Semele, who falls in love with Jupiter, god of the sky. One day, after a postcoital nap, Semele can’t understand why Jupiter seems distracted; she doesn’t yet know that his vengeful wife, Juno, is plotting to send a thunderbolt her way. Oblivious to the dangers of loving a married deity, Semele sings of restoring her “wandering love” through the transformative power of sleep. The Handel aria became my signature song. I sang it at recitals, school assemblies, even after a practice air raid in second grade when some of my high-strung classmates were hyperventilating and Sister Margaret turned to me for something soothing to get our minds off a possible communist takeover. I sang it for my parents’ friends, for the neighbors, and for my piano teacher, who, being a narcoleptic, slept through it, as she did through all twelve years of my piano lessons. Yet in all the times I performed the song, I never once thought it was weird that I was singing “O Sleep, Why Dost Thou Leave Me?” when sleep had already left certain members of my family and was, with grinding relentlessness, in the process of leaving me.

“Sleep architecture,” along with “sleep hygiene,” is one of those mysterious phrases that crop up regularly in sleep books. It refers to the overall pattern of a person’s sleep—how fast one falls asleep, how long one stays asleep, how often one wakes up, and how that sleep is distributed across the multiple “stages” of sleep. When I think of sleep architecture, however, I immediately picture my family home in Andover, Massachusetts–the House of Punk Sleep. It was named in honor of my mother, who, invariably upon rising each morning, would dramatically announce that her sleep had been “punk.” Punk was my mother’s favorite synonym for anything weak, dispiriting, or well below par. She was so protective of her fragile sleep that if any of us got up at night, we were forbidden to run the water or flush the toilets or make even the slightest noise lest it wake her. That she was probably wide awake was totally beside the point. The inherent message was that sleep wasn’t a natural process but a gift from fickle gods, who at any moment could snatch it away.

The House of Punk Sleep had three incarnations, the first a two-bedroom apartment in a white Victorian near the center of town. For the first two years of my life, I shared a room with my Irish grandfather, who lived with us on weekends. The other part of the week he was in idyllic Manchester-by-the Sea, where he worked as the majordomo for a socially prominent Boston Brahmin. My grandfather, whom I’d nicknamed Bumpa, was also a concert singer, a voice teacher, an opera aficionado, a superb chef, and a delightful storyteller. Bumpa claimed that he inherited his poor sleep genes from his Irish mother, who, in turn, inherited them from her Irish mother, who inherited them from hers, and on and on. If you listened to my grandfather, Ireland produced light sleepers the way it bred poets and priests, but the Flynn family was particularly vulnerable for reasons he couldn’t explain. He referred to it half-jokingly as “the Flynn curse,” but what exactly did that mean? Did the Flynns carry a gene for “fatal familial insomnia,” an inherited prion disease that kills through lack of sleep? That was highly doubtful, as Bumpa died at eighty-six, and my own sleep-deprived mother, at eighty-nine, is one of the most energetic people around. Maybe the Flynns were “short sleepers”–people who only needed four or five hours a night. Or maybe they were “secret sleepers”–people who got enough sleep but complained that they didn’t. Or maybe there was a curse.

A few years ago, hoping to get to the root of the problem, I traveled to Ireland to search for my grandfather’s relatives in his native County Cork. He had eight brothers and one sister, but all were deceased. I did, however, manage to locate a widowed niece, who was then in her late eighties and was getting ready for a night out dancing with a “gentleman friend.” She was pressed for time, although she did mention that her grown children didn’t approve of her gallivanting. “They want me to be home in bed,” she said, which prompted the obvious question: “Do you get much sleep?” She shook her head vigorously. “Not a wink, dear. I’m too busy dancing.”

Before high-stepping out of her small house, she provided directions to the overgrown cemetery where my great-grandparents are buried amid the ruins of a twelfth-century Cistercian abbey. Both had lived to their mid-seventies, which was fifteen years over the norm, proving again that however poorly they slept, it hadn’t affected their longevity. From the cemetery it was a short distance to my grandfather’s birthplace in Upper Aghada, where the architectural precursor to the House of Punk Sleep bears the name Careystone Cottage. Set against a lush backdrop of green pastures, wildflowers lining the entranceway, the house was so quaintly Celtic that I wanted to move in to it immediately. I was loitering in the driveway when a short, dark-haired woman opened the door. After I explained my connection to the house, she invited me inside, confiding that she could never figure out how the Flynns slept. “The house had only two rooms when we bought it,” she explained.

“No wonder they didn’t sleep,” I said. “My grandfather had nine siblings. Imagine twelve people in two rooms.”

“Actually, one room,” the woman said. “The other had a piano in it.”

While Bumpa may have been a poor sleeper, he was a prolific dreamer and it wasn’t uncommon for him to start a conversation with “The weirdest thing happened last night.” The deceased might appear to him “as real as life,” or he might interpret a dream as a warning, such as the one foretelling the end of his career as a merchant marine. As he told it, and he did many times, he dreamt that he was sailing past the Rock of Gibraltar when he saw a mermaid sunning herself on the limestone promontory. With a nod to both Homer and the Starkist Tuna, the mermaid, whose blond hair cascaded down her shoulders, called his name and cried, “Beware of drowning! Beware!” He was docked in New York at the time, and heeding the siren’s warning, he jumped ship. “And a good thing, too,” he always said, long after I knew the punch line. A steward on White Star’s Oceanic, he was about to be reassigned to the company’s newest luxury liner–the RMS Titanic.

In New York, without a job or connections, Bumpa was walking down Fifth Avenue when he literally bumped into the woman who’d become his wife. My English grandmother had recently moved to New York from a country estate in Leesburg, Virginia, where she’d worked as a lady’s maid for Mrs. William Corcoran Eustis, whose in-laws had started the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Eustis’s father, Levi P. Morton, was Benjamin Harrison’s vice president and so rich that Henry Adams, the Washington chronicler, referred to him as “Money Bags.” Through Morton, my grandmother secured Bumpa a job at the Metropolitan Club, which had been designed by Stanford White for the railroad tycoon J. P. Morgan. Morgan had helped finance Thomas Edison, who, in 1879, had invented the incandescent lightbulb, which would forever change modern sleep habits. Bumpa, whose Zelig-like ability to insert himself in the popular culture never ceased to amaze, claimed to have met Edison through the Irish tenor John McCormack, who recorded some ballads for Edison’s company. The astoundingly prolific Edison–he held more than one thousand patents–was said to get by on only four hours of sleep a night. Bumpa delighted in quoting Edison’s dictum that extra sleep made people “unhealthy and inefficient,” to which he’d invariably add, “and dull, too.”

When, in 1953, we moved to the second House of Punk Sleep, Bumpa lived with us full-time; my grandmother had died a few years earlier and he’d retired from his duties on the North Shore. Our new house, a charming 1930s Cape Cod, had three bedrooms; Bumpa shared one with Buff, my new cocker spaniel puppy. It was Bumpa’s job to paper-train him and make sure he didn’t bark at night, so my mother was free to toss and turn to the syncopated rhythm of my father’s snoring. How my father managed to sleep was one of life’s great mysteries, for in addition to probably having sleep apnea, he had bruxism, grinding his teeth so badly that he later needed extensive dental work. My nickname for him was “Mr. Pressure Cooker Head.” Yet despite the snoring and gnashing of teeth, he was an extremely deep sleeper. You could scream his name and punch him in the arm, which my mother often did, and he wouldn’t flutter an eyelid, whereas Bumpa, even with bad tinnitus, could hear a pin drop.

In theory, Bumpa’s nightly routine should have encouraged good sleep. He never drank tea after 4 p.m. and abstained from cigarettes and alcohol. He ate early and lightly and rarely watched television. After cleaning up after the puppy and putting him in his little wicker dog bed, he’d say his prayers and then do eye exercises from the book Sight Without Glasses. He usually dropped off right away, awakening around 2 a.m. Instead of going downstairs, which he couldn’t do without inciting seismic tremors that would awaken my mother, he stayed in bed, copying bits of Shakespeare onto pieces of Kleenex that he kept for transcription purposes on his night table. His favorite quotes were sleep-related, such as Hamlet’s “To sleep, perchance to dream” or Romeo and Juliet’s “Where care lodges, sleep will never lie.” Bumpa’s “Shakespearean Kleenex” used to drive my mother crazy, and one day she left his bedroom window open and all the tissues flew out. You’d have thought they were part of the original folio edition for all the importance I attached to them. Running outside, I chased them around the neighborhood, salvaging a scrap of The Tempest from our birdbath. After plucking off a few stray feathers, I pinned “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” to the clothesline and hung it out to dry. From then on, Bumpa always joked that my mother had “murdered” sleep by tossing Shakespeare out the window, and disheartened, he switched to Webster’s dictionary, transcribing vocabulary words onto Kleenex. I could always tell how badly he’d slept by the number of new words foisted on me at breakfast. “You better eat your Cream of Wheat,” he’d say, “so you will feel satiated.” Or “May I offer you some delectable donuts? Don’t eat too many of them, however, or else it could prove deleterious to your burgeoning waistline.” Pockets bulging with words, he had to be careful not to let my mother get near his plaid bathrobe in case Webster wound up in the wash.


Excerpted from Wide Awake by Patricia Morrisroe Copyright © 2010 by Patricia Morrisroe. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.




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