“The man who says his prayers in the evening is a captain posting his sentries.
After that, he can sleep.”
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
It is somewhere past two in the morning, and I find myself in the upstairs hallway going from room to room looking in on the children. There is no special reason such as a coughing spell or a call for water. I am just wandering. I go downstairs to check the doors and have a glass of milk. Sitting at the kitchen table, I listen to the sounds of our house. Creaks and snaps as the furnace heats up then the rush of air that rattles the basement door as the fan kicks in. Outside, there is the sound of the wind through the eaves and then, the unexpected rumble of a car on our quiet street. I listen until it recedes in the distance, and all is peaceful again.
My thoughts turn to the health of my family. These past winter weeks there have been more than a few types of cold and flu bugs floating around. One child in my son’s kindergarten class has come down with a high fever, and tonight I read in the paper of a case of meningitis in a nearby town. We have had our share of coughs and colds lately, but for the time being we are relatively free of illness. I remember to add vitamins to the grocery list on the kitchen counter and make a note to buy some of the new “natural” orange juice that is being advertised. I wonder what good a glass of orange juice can do against a determined virus; maybe a lot or maybe nothing. My children, however, are in no position to judge the relative merits of various preventive therapies, and so I do it for them. They will get the orange juice, and they will drink it happily. There are other decisions that they do not take as kindly to, but my intentions in all are the same: to protect them.
I remind myself that not so long ago I would have been sitting here wondering about the mortgage and deciding which bills to pay. There were many nights when my family slept, and I took out the calculator and figured out repayment schedules and various methods of working with a dollar to make it cover two. With a combination of hard work and a little luck, those days have receded. Still, here I am.
My wife has been sad for the past few days about her relationship with her mother. They don’t seem to be able to communicate. As a result, even the slightest misunderstanding quickly becomes a major disagreement. One such incident occurred last week, and it now has my mind. I am sitting here wondering what I can do to make it better for my wife. We need that. Our children need that.
These are my private thoughts. I, like many other men, keep my own counsel on many matters. I don’t mean to ruminate in the middle of the night, but it happens. Contemplation is the companion of silence. The small hours of the morning seem to lend themselves to quiet reverie.
Women are right you know; men don’t talk. At least not about what’s really on our minds. We can talk about love and feelings when the mood hits us or when we’re reminded, with varying degrees of good or bad humour, of our lack of attention. That is not what I mean when I say we don’t talk. No, it’s a lot more complicated than that. We men have a secret society that meets in the dead of night. We may be wide-awake in bed or sitting in the kitchen. We could be on the twentieth floor of an apartment building staring at the streets below or standing at the window of a rural farmhouse searching the darkness for an answer. What is it that we are keeping to ourselves?
It is our feeling of responsibility. It is the belief that, in spite of all the claims to the contrary, the burden for our family’s health and happiness rests solely with us. This may not be the feeling of every culture and every man in this culture, but it is my belief and many men share it. This is my family, and it is my job to shepherd them through this night; through this life.
It is so easy to become complacent sitting in my now quiet suburban neighborhood. I have no doubts that living in this place and in this time makes me one of the most privileged men to have walked on the face of the earth. My family wants for nothing physically. We have our normal conflicts, but we can always reach past the angry words or gestures and touch the love that is the foundation of our lives.
Still, I am vigilant. I take nothing for granted. It can all change in the blink of an eye. I have seen it. You have seen it. “Enjoy life, my family!” we say. “Sleep well, my family!” we say. We will watch, and we will keep it to ourselves.
I finish my milk and put the glass in the sink. Before I turn off the lights I check the doors once again. Upstairs, I look in on the children once more and then I slip into bed beside my wife. She stirs, and I shape to her body. I post my sentries and then I close my eyes and sleep.