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Issue #9 |

Insomnia

The neighbor was at it again. At 4:00 a.m. he switched on his living room light. According to my mother, even from across the street that light cast an intrusive yellow glow into her bedroom. Only the full moon on a clear night, angled above her like the lamp over a dentist’s chair, would have shocked her into greater alertness. Never mind that she was already awake. Never mind that she had been awake for hours. The neighbor was up, the light signaling the beginning of his nocturnal routine. There was no point trying to sleep now.

Not that there was much of a point anyway. This was in the months after my father died, when she was plagued with insomnia. Her doctor explained that sleeplessness is a common side effect of grief, and it would go away soon enough. “Fake it till you make it,” he prescribed—a little too cheerfully, she complained—instead of the pills she requested. So each night she turned off her lights, spritzed lavender oil onto her pillow, and waited. In the mornings she would call me to narrate her myriad failed attempts to trick herself into slumber: meditation tracks, coloring pages, the chatter of old sitcoms on the television. “Just close your eyes, Mom,” I instructed. “You won’t fall asleep if you’re doing things.” I don’t remember saying this, but she does; it’s the type of thing my mother would never forget. This was back when I thought a good night’s rest depended only on exercise, that you could wear out the body enough to wear out the brain.

Now my mother tossed off the covers and shuffled to the window, where she installed herself in her rocking chair to watch the neighbor. The space next to the window once had been occupied by the rental hospital bed where my father spent the final months of his decline from ALS. The metal frame of the rental was wedged between the wall and the queen-size bed that he and my mother had shared for forty years. By day, a nurse would roll his bed over against the window for easier access. At night, my mother pushed his new bed back up against their old one. She slept on the side that had been his all their lives, her fingers reaching out to him between the bars of his railing. The same day my father passed, my mother ordered the hospital bed out of the room. An hour later, she complained that she hated the expanse of space and the ugly tracks that the bed’s wheels had worn into the carpet. I lugged the rocking chair up from the basement to help fill the space, but with the chair unoccupied, the room still felt too empty, so she took to sitting there.

In her previous life, my mother would never have lingered at that window. Long before she would wake to the neighbor’s living room light, my mother had resented him for his eyesore of a house. She had spent hundreds of dollars on translucent shades to blur our view. She couldn’t comprehend how my father could gaze out the window during his final weeks, accosted all day by that wretched sight.

When my parents moved into 14 Cedar, the neighborhood comprised mostly modest homes, New England–style with brick chimneys and clapboard exteriors painted in Puritan shades of white and gray. Over the decades, many of the houses evolved into million-dollar McMansions. As if in protest, the neighbor directly across the street stubbornly allowed his single-story ranch to decay. I remember hearing Mom complain that his house was the epitome of neglect. Everything about it was jaundiced: the paint peeling off the clapboards, the crepe curtains, even the windowpanes that had yellowed like old teeth. An untended group of bushes sprouted like ear hair along one side of his yard.

The kicker, what my mother absolutely couldn’t stand, was his car. In the driveway, the ‘87 Toyota Camry rusted at its seams, its front headlight smashed out and never repaired. With its tires many years deflated, the car’s sole purpose seemed to be storage for a collection of plastic bags, which blocked the view out the rear window. “He has a garage!” my mother complained to any dinner guest who would listen. “He doesn’t need to subject the whole block to the sight of it!” Though the vehicle was the worse for wear, it was my mother who was losing a battle of attrition—if not with the car, at least with its owner, whom none of us had ever seen until her insomnia began.

When I was growing up, the derelict scene was a source of terror and intrigue, our own haunted house. I remember the afternoon in Jake Michaelson’s backyard when he laid out the rules for survival: Never bike on the sidewalk in front of the house. Hold your breath when you ride by. Don’t look through the crack in the curtains or the bogeyman will get you. When we were younger, these rituals promised safety. Later, after Brad Marsh’s brother showed us horror films and our fears mushroomed—we imagined a Frankenstein-style laboratory, electric tools with blood-encrusted razor-sharp teeth, or skeletal zombie children living under floorboards—we used the house to prove our valor. In winter, when 7:00 p.m. was as dark as the middle of the night, we trespassed onto the house’s lawn for games of manhunt. Only the bravest of us would hide in the bushes, daring the girls to discover us there.

Though we darted in and out of the yard, we never saw the face of whoever lived there. Sometimes one of us would claim to have seen a shadow, but we chalked that up to the quest for bragging rights. Shayna Feldman, trusted neighborhood babysitter and therefore purveyor of adult knowledge, would share rumors about the owner. “It’s a man who lives there. Mrs. Neiman said so. It’s super sad. His daughter died when she was, like, five or something, and he never leaves the house.” The story changed often. Sometimes he had beaten his wife to death; sometimes he had a strange medical condition and could contract a fatal disease if he left the quarantine of his home; sometimes nobody had lived there in a century and the town was embroiled in a legal battle over the deed. If there was an adult who knew the truth, it wasn’t my mother. “Whatever happened, it was a long time ago,” she had said, meaning, There’s no excuse for this now.

By high school, our interest in the house waned. We spent our free time searching out secluded spots and memorizing our parents’ routines for times when we would have our own houses to ourselves. I don’t remember thinking much about it, though according to my mother, I came home from school in ninth grade holding up my copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and declared, “I guess every town has a Boo Radley.”

Relegated to his position by the window, my dying father didn’t mind. “It’s like the one about the hospital,” he said, upbeat as if he had been granted an unexpected opportunity. He was referencing one of the stories he used to tell when I was growing up. They were more like fables, the endings all involving some syrupy moral, meted out instead of punishments on days when I had behaved as badly as all the other boys my age, harassing lunch ladies or pulling the heads off the girls’ beloved dolls.

There was the story about a waitress on a busy night at the diner. She snaps at a little boy who takes too much time asking for the pricing on sundaes; he has a dime and a nickel laid out by his spoon, and he inquires how much the sundae costs without the whipped cream, how much without the fudge, how much for just a bowl of vanilla? She realizes only after he leaves that he settled for a single, plain scoop so he could give her a bigger tip. There’s the story about the little girl who goes down to the beach after a storm to discover all the starfish washed ashore, thousands of them drying out in the morning sun; one at a time, she tosses them into the ocean. “You’ll never be able to save them all,” says a passerby. But she is determined. “It matters to this one,” she says, tossing another starfish back into the water. 

There’s also the story about the hospital. Two men share a hospital room, separated by a privacy curtain, which is hardly a divider at all. They can hear each other’s moans; they can hear each other’s doctors delivering reports. To occupy the long and lonely days, the man by the window narrates the scene outside: There’s a view of the cityscape, and in the mornings the sun glints off the shining buildings, the river glimmers in the distance; at night, the whole city is aglow. For weeks, the man by the window illustrates the outside for the man by the door, who longs to see it himself. One day, the man by the door hears the man by the window struggling to breathe. Though the man by the door can reach the button to summon a nurse, he delays too long in calling for assistance. When the doctors finally arrive, from behind the curtain comes a quick commotion, the beeps and blips of desperate machinery. But soon there is only silence, and then the man by the door is alone in the room. The next day, the man by the door asks if he can be moved to the bed by the window. The nurse obliges. Would you raise the blind? he asks, as that day it is closed. The nurse shrugs. She opens it to reveal that the world outside the window is only a brick wall. 

While he could still talk, my father looked out across the street at the neighbor’s house and said things like “They’re changing the guards at Buckingham Palace.” My mother huffed every time, but the blind went down only at night. After my father was gone, after the bed had been taken away and all the medical paraphernalia with it, after I had lugged the rocking chair up the narrow basement stairs and planted it by the window, I went to shut the blind. I was surprised when she said, “Oh, leave it open. Not everything has to change in one day.”

Which is how, on my mother’s first night without my father, she noticed the light from the neighbor’s house. Even though the worst had already happened, when my phone went off just after 4:00 a.m., in my disorientation I still expected this to be The Call. I picked up on the first ring.

“You won’t believe what I’m watching,” my mother said. “Boo Radley is playing the cello.” 

“Who? What—what’s going on?” I asked. 

“Boo Radley. You know. In the eyesore. I can actually see him right now!”

“Jesus, Mom. It’s the middle of the night. I thought there was an emergency.”

“I thought you would want to know. He’s playing the cello. Of all things.”

In bed next to me, my girlfriend was asking what time it was. “It’s okay,” I told her. “Go back to sleep.” But my mother thought I was talking to her. 

“I can’t. He’s making a racket.”

“Not you, Mom.” 

“Well.” She was not a fan of this particular girlfriend. “I guess I forgot the time. I’ve been up for hours,” she said, not quite an apology. 

“Okay, Mom.” I reminded myself to be patient. It was only the first night. “Why don’t you shut the blind?” I suggested. 

“You can’t be serious,” she said. “I can hear him. Anyway, I just thought you would want to know.”

 

In the morning—not three hours later, but at least the sun was up—Mom called again to continue her report. “I hope I’m not disturbing you?”

The neighbor, by my mother’s estimate, was about a thousand years old. He had what she called David Ben-Gurion hair: Smooth-headed on the top with downy white tufts protruding from the sides. He was wearing pajama pants and a terry cloth robe.  

“He played for an hour. It must have been an entire concerto! Then he put the thing back in its case, shut off the light, and disappeared.”

My mother didn’t know much about music. For the life of her, she couldn’t tell a concerto from a sonata. She gave me a hard time when I asked her to describe the instrument to confirm it was, indeed, a cello. “I know what it is, I’m not incompetent.”

We weren’t music people. An orthopedic surgeon, my father had been of the opinion that science is the highest art. My parents never went to the ballet or the symphony; no CDs stocked the shelves at home. Only my mother’s mother had musical inclinations. She’d once had aspirations of a prodigal piano-playing grandson, so when I was in kindergarten, an electric keyboard was delivered to our house. My mother signed me up for a class at the local music school. It was clear after the first few lessons that I had no innate talent, and I quickly learned that the keyboard could be deployed as an instrument of torture. When I was meant to be practicing, I drove my mother crazy repeating the same five notes over and over, clanging a random succession of keys, or pressing the buttons that produced built-in rhythms and pre-loaded songs. I mastered cacophony. One day when I came home from school, the keyboard was gone. 

Of the neighbor’s cello playing, my mother had similar complaints: “It’s absolutely unbearable. What a hideous sound.”

As the days went by, she discovered that the strange incident was hardly an aberration. Each morning at 4:00 a.m., the neighbor’s light went on; at precisely 4:05 a.m., he began to play. Always he played the same music. My mother sat in the rocking chair so she could watch. And now that she came to expect his practice, she blamed it for her inability to sleep. Never mind that she must have slept through it for years before my father’s death. Three sleepless months went by, during which her biorhythms should have returned to normal, but instead she could only hover on the edge of rest, anticipating the pre-dawn annoyance.

My mother had taken an early retirement from dentistry so she could help care for my father; now her days were oceans of time. She began dedicating her day to setting herself up for sleep. In both the morning and evening, she strapped on her hiking boots and set out with the dog for a long walk around town or through the trails in the arboretum. She gave up coffee. She purchased a pint-size bottle of melatonin. Everything in her bedroom smelled of lavender: there was the spritzer for her pillowcase, oil for her skin, and a diffuser so that every breath she inhaled would be lavender. She hoped for an effect not so different from the field of poppies in The Wizard of Oz, an immediate and druglike sleep. Even with her tricks, she would wake an hour or two after she closed her eyes, and the night became a miserable series of catnaps. Then the neighbor’s light would come through her window, preceding the whine of the cello.

This would be what she wanted to talk about when I came over for dinner on Saturdays. Although I was nearing thirty, I was still an inept cook, and I was more grateful than my mother for the stack of kugels her friends loaded into her freezer. Each week, on the third placemat at our table, instead of a plate she would set out one of my father’s things—his nicest trousers, say, or his new slippers—that she thought I might want. The trousers were too small, and the slippers hardly felt like his without the imprint of his bulbous big toe worn through the shearling, but I brought them home anyway. We never discussed him, as if it were he instead of his belongings joining us at the table and it would be rude to talk about him in his presence. Instead, she reported on the neighbor and his music; I updated her on the strangest objects I removed from a child’s nose in the ER that week: Pennies, raisins, Barbie shoes. After dinner, she would send me home with the rest of whatever casserole she had defrosted. Her attempt at humor: “I can sleep at night knowing you have enough food.” 

After another sleepless month, my mother went back to the doctor. That ever-helpful man suggested that perhaps she was getting enough sleep but only felt she wasn’t. Physically, he said, she had never been better. The long walks had done wonders for her cardiovascular system. Maybe, he suggested, she was lonely. “Try to keep yourself distracted,” he prescribed.

My mother added to her schedule regular excursions with her friend Sheila. I had known Sheila as one of the neighborhood mothers memorable for her inedible cupcakes and occasional casting as an extra in local films. Sheila was perfect for the background, her facial features remarkably plain. When Sheila’s husband died from a heart attack, my mother had made no outstanding effort to comfort her. For a few weeks, she had taken over lasagnas but gave up when Sheila failed to return her baking dishes; she had invited her into her book group, but it was a very serious group, and the other women fussed when Sheila hadn’t read the book attentively enough to converse at their levels. But Sheila was a good friend to my mother. On Tuesday afternoons, Sheila would meet her at the diner and they would both order grilled cheese and tomato soup. My mother never had to go to movies alone, and Sheila revealed to her the wonders of mixing M&Ms into their popcorn. Perhaps because of this indebtedness, my mother agreed to go with Sheila on Friday evenings for Shabbat services at the synagogue. So she had a routine, she had activities, and in the day she was distracted. At night, she sometimes slept for as many as three hours at a time, which she considered a victory, but always she would wake to the intrusive light, soon followed by the first note of the cello.  

 

It was on the night of my parents’ wedding anniversary, in mid-January, when the first big storm of the year hit. I was already on the way to work for an early shift when again my phone rang before sunrise. According to Mom, when the neighbor started to play that morning, it sounded nothing like his usual performance. According to Mom, he hit a wrong note, which spiraled into a series of wrong notes, or maybe he intentionally attempted something new, she guessed, thinking the snow provided a kind of soundproofing. The noise that came through was hardly music. It was not unlike a fisher cat or a wailing, miserable woman. It was the sound the house itself would make, she told me. 

She couldn’t stand one more minute of it. 

She picked up her phone and called the police. “I’d like to register a noise complaint,” she said, as if there were a houseful of rebellious teenagers. She explained the location of the disturbance. “I don’t know the address. You’ll see what I mean. You can’t miss it,” she said, and gave them her own house number as a landmark.  

It wasn’t long before blue and red lights danced through her window. My mother watched as a pair of officers knocked on the neighbor’s door. The cello stopped its squawking. The neighbor answered quickly. He invited the police inside. 

She wondered how long it had been since anyone had entered that house. She wondered what it smelled like, where the officers and the neighbor gathered in the living room. After a few minutes, all three of them looked in her direction. My mother worried they could see her in the window, watching them from above. But her lights were off. She could see out; they wouldn’t be able to see in.

When the police left the neighbor’s, they crossed the street to her house instead of their car. There was a knock on her door. 

“The complaint has been addressed,” one officer said. “Mr. Hudson sends his apologies.”

So now she knew the neighbor’s name. 

“It’s the weather,” the other officer explained. “Too cold in there for an instrument like that. Especially an older one, like his. Most people don’t know it, but a nice instrument has to have certain conditions. Can’t stay tuned if it’s freezing. The sound gets all…erratic,” he gestured with his gloved hands. “My daughter plays the violin,” he added as explanation for his rambling. 

“If everything is all set here, we’ll be heading out,” the first officer said. 

My mother was furious. “They were trying to shame me. It isn’t right, to make me feel bad just because that man’s house is so depressing. Well, I won’t. I did the right thing. It was an awful noise and nobody should have to listen to something like that.” 

“You didn’t need to bother the police,” I told her. “You could have used earplugs.”

“I didn’t bother anybody. I did a public service. I shouldn’t have to use earplugs in my own home.” 

“Mom,” I said, “give the man a break. You’re acting like a crazy person.” 

It was a while before she responded. I heard her breathing through the phone. “You could be on my side,” she finally said. “And a good son would have called yesterday to wish his mother a happy anniversary.” 

A few weeks passed before we spoke again. I finally called my mother at the urging of the woman who would later become my wife—not my girlfriend, but another doctor who picked up the early shifts at the ER, who had heard about my father. “Don’t wait too long,” she said every morning till I gave in and picked up the phone. 

Mom was standoffish at first, until I asked how she was sleeping. I learned that the noise complaint had been effective in sending a message. My mother’s mornings had been restored to silence. Mr. Hudson’s light did not come on. No music seeped through the window before the first rays of sun. But still my mother could not sleep soundly through the night.  

It was Friday, and I suggested we resume our Saturday schedule. “I’m not free tomorrow,” my mother said. “I made plans.” I felt hurt, thinking maybe the plans were only an excuse to carry on our stalemate. “But you could join me and Sheila tonight,” she offered. “It’s Shabbat,” she said, as if I didn’t know she would be going to the synagogue. “There’s a big hullabaloo over some musician the rabbi invited. I don’t know. You might like it.”

My mother had not heard of the musician, but Sheila had been looking forward to his appearance. He was a famous pianist from Hungary who had made quite the splash, as Sheila put it, in the international music community. In addition to his musical talent, Sheila was excited because he was supposed to be very handsome. I noticed that Sheila had a faint smudge of blue eye shadow coloring her lids.

The pianist was tall and thin with a clean-shaven face to match his shiny head. He wore a tuxedo, which stood out among the casual attire of the congregants. A flyer that the ushers distributed explained that he was in the country performing with his orchestra at such esteemed institutions as Carnegie Hall, but on this night he was here to promote a more personal project. In memory of his grandparents, who had perished in Treblinka, he had organized a small troupe of musicians to perform in buildings that used to be synagogues. With antisemitism on the rise again in Hungary, he wanted to bring these Jewish spaces back to life. They had played in synagogues converted to offices, synagogues where the windows were shattered and birds flew in overhead, synagogues now used as shopping malls or food courts. They moved ping-pong tables and piles of stored furniture out of their way; they swept up dirty floors. For a night, they set up folding chairs. People came to hear them play, to hear music in those halls once again. 

His visit at our synagogue, so far from Hungary, struck my mother as merely a fundraising opportunity. She said as much to us. “Oh, pish posh,” Sheila said in response. It seemed the rest of the congregants agreed with Sheila. They chatted excitedly about the celebrity in their midst until the rabbi went up to the bimah and began the prayers. 

While on most nights the sanctuary held only a scattering of congregants, this night it was filled almost to capacity. The pianist was the draw, but the rabbi couldn’t resist the opportunity to teach his large captive audience. When it came time for a sermon, he explained that tonight he wanted to share a story. 

“Our story begins with a man named Shmuel. Shmuel lives in a shtetl. For those of you who don’t know what a shtetl is, it’s not a bad thing,” he jokes. “It’s what we called our small villages in Eastern Europe before the war. So Shmuel, he lives in a shtetl, and one afternoon, when he’s leaving work, he decides to take a walk through the woods on his way home. He never walks through the woods, because it’s the long route and his wife has such a fit if he’s home late. But Shmuel’s had a hard day and he wants to clear his head. So he takes the long route, and he marvels at the beauty of God’s world, and as he’s walking through the woods, he hears a song.

“It’s unlike any song he’s heard before. It’s not the song of a bird. It seems to be coming from the woods themselves. This song is a niggun, a melody, and it’s the most beautiful melody Shmuel has ever heard in his life. It goes like this,” and then the rabbi sings: “Ay da dum da dee dum da de dai, ay ga diggy diggy diggy diggy dai, ay da dum da deed dum da de dai, ay ga diggy dai.” He was not a great singer, the rabbi, but it was a moving melody. 

“So Shmuel, he wanders for a long time in the woods, longer even than the long route requires, so he can listen to this song. When finally he gets home, his wife says, ‘Shmuel, where have you been? You’re hours late! What happened to you?’ Shmuel stares at her blankly, and at first he doesn’t answer. But then he responds with the song: Ay da dum da dee dum da de dai, ay ga diggy diggy diggy diggy dai

“All night it goes like this. Shmuel’s wife tries to talk to him, asks him questions, pulls her hair out at his madness—why is her husband singing?!—but all night it’s only the niggun: Ay da dum da dee dum da de dai, ay ga diggy dai. In the morning, his wife calls the doctor. The doctor comes, and he asks Shmuel what’s wrong, and Shmuel only sings. Ay ga diggy diggy diggy diggy dai

“The doctor has never seen anything like Shmuel’s behavior before. ‘I can’t help you,’ the doctor says, and he packs up his medical bag. So Shmuel’s wife summons his friends, she summons his coworkers, she even—and this is how you know you have a problem—she even summons his mother. They all come over, and they all try to talk some sense into Shmuel. His only response, as you can guess, is his niggun. Ay da dum da dee dum da de dai, ay ga diggy diggy diggy diggy dai

“The days go by, and then weeks, and then months. Shmuel isn’t limited by his malady. He goes to work, he walks through the town, he visits with friends and family. But everywhere he goes, he sings. Ay da dum da dee dum da de dai, ay ga diggy diggy diggy diggy dai. For a whole year, the only sound to leave his lips is the melody of this one niggun. By the end of the year, everyone in the shtetl has grown accustomed to Shmuel and his strange singing habit. ‘Okay,’ they say, ‘so he sings? We have Mordechai with the limp, and Sasha who talks to his chicken, and Rutka who cries in public. Now we also have Shmuel who sings.’ Sometimes when Shmuel walks through the town, the townspeople greet him with his niggun. Sometimes the breadmaker finds himself humming it after Shmuel leaves the shop with a challah under his arm, or the candlemaker hears himself singing it as he pours the Shabbos candles. Sometimes, even Sasha sings the melody of the niggun to his chicken. All around town, you can hear: Ay ga diggy dai, ay ga diggy dai, ay ga diggy diggy diggy diggy diggy dai. In this way, the people of the shtetl learn to embrace Shmuel’s oddity. 

“But then, one day, Shmuel stops singing. He’s headed to work in the morning and his wife kisses him goodbye, and in response, he says, ‘Have a good day!’

“‘Shmuel! You’re cured!’ his wife shouts! ‘You’re back! You’re you! But Shmuel,’ she asks, ‘what happened?’ 

“So he tells her about the walk in the woods, how he heard this beautiful niggun coming from the trees themselves. 

“‘But Shmuel, why did you sing all this time? You drove me crazy! You drove the whole town crazy!’

“Shmuel admits that he had a feeling he might be getting on people’s nerves. But, he explains, he felt it was far more important than a little annoyance. Shmuel says, ‘Now, you see, everybody knows this niggun.’ And it’s true, the whole shtetl knows it by heart. ‘Now,’ Shmuel explains, ‘it will never be forgotten.’ And Shmuel was right. Nobody in the shtetl ever forgot.”

Finally, it was the pianist’s turn on the bimah. When he introduced himself, he graciously thanked the rabbi for inviting him. “Before I play, I invite you to imagine that we are in Hungary. With your winter, that should not be a stretch.” There was a knowing chuckle from the congregation. “So we are at the site of my last performance, in a small village outside of Budapest, my home. The building used to be a synagogue, but its doors have been locked since 1944, when the Jewish community was deported. But for us, for tonight, they have unlocked the doors. I invite you to be there with me while you hear this piece that I composed for the occasion.” Then he sat down and played. 

What I remember of the pianist’s performance is the length of the piece. Perhaps it took twenty minutes, but it seemed to go on for an hour. I don’t remember noticing my mother at all; she might have seemed to me like every other person in the congregation, staring at their feet or prayer books to rest their eyes while they listened. It wasn’t until a few years later that she told me this: 

When my mother attended synagogue, she didn’t like to chant along with the prayers, the sound of her voice offensive even to her own ears. She wouldn’t mouth the words. She wouldn’t clap when the cantor encouraged clapping. But that evening, what the pianist requested was something my storytelling father would have embraced. Almost unwillingly, as if she were responsible now for enacting her husband’s desires as well as her own, my mother allowed herself to try. When the pianist played, she imagined spirits rising from the ground, from the walls, from the furniture, borne from the decades of dust into corporeal form, as if the line had been written, “From dust you shall return.” She imagined them swept up by the wind that came in through the cracks in broken windows, almost dancing, almost rejoicing. As they returned, for the duration of the music, the desecrated site she had been asked to imagine was restored to holiness. 

When the pianist stopped playing, the souls were dust again. Although my mother had pictured the setting vividly, in her mind she hadn’t been in Hungary. Or she had been in Hungary at first, watching the birds overhead, but then in her mind the light yellowed and the music she heard was the aching sound of a cello. And the musician wore a terrycloth robe, rising before dawn to play in private.  

After the performance, the rabbi led the congregation in the Mourner’s Kaddish. We said the prayer for everyone we had lost and for those who had nobody left to say it for them. Sheila and my mother had made a practice of holding hands during the Mourner’s Kaddish, which my mother at first found abrasive—she did not like the feel of her fingers interlaced with Sheila’s bony, feminine ones, so different from my father’s—but that day she took comfort in it.

I do remember Sheila whispering, “You’re cold,” when she clasped my mother’s hand. Sheila rubbed her hands over my mother’s to heat them up. Even after I drove Mom home and turned up her thermostat, she still couldn’t manage to feel warm.

That night, she sat in her rocking chair and waited for the light from Mr. Hudson’s house that she knew wasn’t coming. In the morning, she called the gas company. “Please tell him the cost is no problem. I can easily afford the bill,” she told the representative, explaining the situation. “Please ask him to turn up his heat.”

 

All this was years ago. Now the neighbor’s house is gone. A developer bought the land and tore it down. One day it was standing, the next it was rubble. One day the new foundation went in, the next the walls went up. Under a month, I’d guess, and the whole thing was built. The new house has a garage to fit three cars. 

These days, I’m stumbling through my own sleepless nights. My daughter arrived two months ago, and she likes to test her lung capacity around 3:00 a.m. When the baby is fed and burped and swaddled, when we have bounced and cooed and prayed and still she won’t sleep—when we’re sorry for our neighbors as much as for ourselves—I take her on a drive. Not every night, but some nights, we go back to my mother’s street. 

We don’t listen to anything on the radio. When I’m really desperate, when the cars start to populate the roads again with the first wave of working people who enable society to function (there is the woman unlocking Dunkin; there is the bus driver with his key in the ignition) and still my daughter is awake, only then do I resort to music. My wife stores CDs in the car for this very purpose. Our daughter sometimes falls asleep listening to the Beach Boys. But mostly we drive in silence to the house where I grew up. 

Not yet, but someday, I suspect my mother’s house will be gone too. She moved out a few months ago, down to Florida, where the warm weather alleviates the pain from her arthritis. It was when we were packing up her house that she told me about her experience listening to the pianist. “It felt so different from listening to the neighbor. Before, on those mornings,” she confessed, “all I could think about was how he kept me awake. It was impossible to dream if I couldn’t fall asleep, and all I wanted was to dream of your father. Anyway, the neighbor must have been playing long before I was up to hear him. Can you imagine? Maybe he was playing like that for your whole life.”

Now, when my daughter and I get to my mother’s old house, we don’t stay long, in case anyone is watching. We just drive by slowly, crawling along so that for a moment I can look up at the bedroom window. The shades are down at night. But this is how I picture it in these dark early mornings: 

My mother sits in her rocking chair, waiting. She has turned off her lights, spritzed her lavender oil, and already given up on sleep for the night. She has listened to the dream-whimpers of the dog curled up at the end of the bed. She has focused on the ticking of the grandfather clock, which she can hear even from its post in the hallway. She has counted the long minutes between the wavelike whooshing of passing cars—in my mind, mine is among them: here we are pulling up; here we are driving away—like a child monitoring the seconds between peals of thunder and flashes of lightning. She has counted backward by intervals of seven from five hundred, then three hundred, then five hundred again. She has tried to concentrate on the concept of one. Finally 4:00 a.m. arrives and, with it, the yellow light through her window. 

Mr. Hudson returns to his cello. He sits up straight in his chair, sturdies the instrument between his knees. His feet are level on the ground, and the cello’s neck leans against his shoulder in a way she finds comforting to watch. His eyes don’t seem to be looking at anything. He is awake, but he is elsewhere. He plays by instinct.  

It’s such a gradual shift, my mother hardly notices. Her eyes are open, then they are closed; her breathing begins to settle. The creak of the rocking chair gently comes to a stop. She drifts off to the comfort of the familiar music. No, not familiar. Though the melody remains nameless, she knows it by heart. She has committed these notes to memory through all the early hours when he filled her dreamless nights with song.

 

Photo courtesy of user jypsygen; view more of her work at Flickr

Laura Rosenthal holds a BA from Colby College and an MFA from Emerson College, where she won the graduate student award in fiction in 2020. She works and lives in Boston, her hometown. She would like to thank Allan Cohen and Rabbi David Wolfman for sharing the folktales and the niggun that inspire “Insomnia,” which …

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