I had my first nightmare in 1979.
I was 10 years old, and had just watched the made-for-TV miniseries Salem’s Lot; the “Window Scene” and The Master were two things that nestled frightening images in my mind.
That night, thoughts of vampires assaulting my jugular had me wake to find that in a sleep-driven panic I had launched myself out of bed. Wide-eyed and shaking, I took in my bearings from the floor and noticed that my breathing was shallow, and fast. I was hyperventilating, even if I didn’t know that medical classification for my condition.
My eyes scanned the KISS posters adorning the walls of my room; I discovered Gene Simmons looked a lot more menacing when enshrouded by nighttime shadows than with sunlight splashed across his face. Especially chilling was the shot of him drenched in blood, a trademark of the band’s early days.
It took me somewhere in the neighborhood of an hour to calm back down, and no matter what evil dreams I’ve had over the years, that moment remained the benchmark for horrific thoughts that run through my subconscious.
Until October 20th, 2012.
As a rule, dreams are stupid things. Not aspirations—“I wanna be an Airborne Ranger/I wanna live a life of danger”—but the imagery that bounces around our brain while we sleep. Everyone can attest to having had dreams that make absolutely no sense, but that were real to us at the time.
On October 20th, my unconscious movie started out very, very stupid. It ended in a way that scared me in a way I had never felt fear before.
The dream was a cartoon, playing out in my head, and the theme of the cartoon was a basketball game of “Aliens vs. Babies.” Maybe it was inspired by the movie Space Jam, which I saw once, in the theater, and hated. Maybe I just have stupid dreams. I don’t know.
I do know Maggie Simpson was in the dream, and from what I remember the events transpired as follows: The Aliens were winning handily, so the crafty cartoon babies started using trickery to gain the upper hand. Maggie Simpson unleashed a clever ploy that ended in Kang (or Kodos, it’s difficult to keep track of which is which) throwing her though the hoop, and for some reason that counted as scoring more points than using the basketball. Soon all the Aliens were throwing all the Babies through hoops, and all was done in the typical form of cartoon hijinks: everything was silly, and no baby was in any form of danger, this despite their being tossed about like rag dolls.
All at once, the scene changed. Without warning, it was no longer a cartoon, there were no more aliens, no more Maggie Simpson. In a cruel twist of mental psychosis, suddenly my own infant daughter Hillary was falling to the ground.
Before I could react, she landed with a thud.
The sound of human flesh and bone landing forcefully against hardwood floor reverberated inside the hall and within my head.
I looked to my wife, who shouted in complete terror: “I thought you were going to catch her!”
Hillary wasn’t moving. Whatever damage had happened was severe enough she couldn’t even cry in pain.
Her eyes were open; they stared lifelessly at me.
I started screaming.
And then I woke up.
My heart was pounding furiously; Gene Krupa on cocaine.
I was paralyzed, my whole body tense with fear as a thousand thoughts and emotions ran through me. I didn’t know if I should rush and check on my daughter or throw up over the side of the bed.
On the nightstand, the crimson glow of our digital clock told me we were somewhere in the 5am hour.
Calming as slowly as if molasses, I began gathering my wits about me and came to a conclusion: the reason the dream happened is because when my wife and I retired to bed, we attempted extinction with Hillary.
If you are unaware of the term or practice, it means that when your baby cries, instead of hurrying to check on her you let her work it out until she finally exhausts herself and sleeps. Lydia—ever the baby-book reader—had information in her head that stated, “At any point after an infant is two months old, you can begin sleep-training them using either extinction, or graduated extinction.”
We chose that night because earlier that day, I noticed our little Hillary was apparently very aware she had us wrapped around her baby-fingers.
I had been administering daddy day care while Lydia was at work, and at some point during her afternoon nap Hillary began to whimper. I listened for a few moments, ultimately deciding to let her work it out a little. Babies usually whine or make crying noises as they transition between sleep cycles; more often than not, it is worse to interrupt their slumber by picking them than to just let them be.
Within a few minutes, however, her mewling began an ear-splitting crescendo that announced, “Hey, Dad! I ain’t fucking around in here!”
I walked into her room, and the instant she laid eyes on me, the crying stopped. Hillary gave me a very clear look: “Oh, hey. There you are. Yeah, I was calling for you.” and waited patiently to be picked up.
Laughing and thinking, “Well you little shit,” I raised her to my shoulder and bounced her out to the living room, where we sat and watched The Daily Show.
When Lydia got home, I informed her that our daughter had connected crying with mom or dad arriving to save the day. It was decided that we could either break the habit now—ten weeks into her life—or continue down the path of placation and end up with an attached, needy daughter still wanting to cuddle at age twenty-six.
So extinction it was. That night, as we lay her down to sleep, should she fuss? She would weep.
When bedtime came, Lydia was already snuggled in and reading. I had been Hillary in my arms, gently singing a made-up “Hello” song when I decided to put her down. I lowered Hillary into her crib; everything went smoothly, and I gave Lydia a “thumbs up” sign.
Twenty minutes later, armageddon began.
Lydia was asleep when it started; I was awake, staring at the ceiling, and wondering if I’d be able to nod off myself anytime soon, when Hillary fired off an opening salvo.
This was nothing that started small and grew until eruption; this was Spinal Tap at “eleven.” She was unhappy, and wanted the world to know.
And just like that, I started crying.
If there are ties between logic and emotion, I have yet to find them. In my head, two very clear separate streams of thought began pounding war drums. On the logical hand, I knew that Hillary was fine. She was safe in her bed, in a warm room, had a full tummy, and a clean diaper. On the other, emotional hand, I understood that she was just a ten-week old baby that—even though she could not formulate coherent thought—knew two things: one, she used to be in a very warm womb and is now in a large, frightening world, and two (and most importantly), if things get to be too much, cry and someone picks you up.
Except this time, no one was coming.
That’s what had tears running down my cheeks as I lay in the dark, listening to her.
I wondered what sort of confusion was running through her; was she wondering why she felt neither mom nor dad lifting her to their warm embrace, holding her to their chest, bouncing her, cooing in her ear, and kissing her on the nose? Did she feel she had been abandoned; that we were gone forever, and that no one would ever come to her aid again? Was she afraid, alone in her room in the dark? Or, and possibly worst of all, was she just thinking the most simple of basic human thoughts: “I want to be held and loved”?
I have made note in the past that certain moments “killed me” as they happened, such as when Hillary received some vaccinations, but those moments didn’t make me cry. They didn’t tear at me like the knowledge my child was in her room, wondering where I was, confused by the fact that she was thrust into this stupid world without asking to be, and was now abandoned in a cage crib in the dark.
Worst of all, I was doing it to her on purpose. My daughter needed consoling, and I was actively neglecting her. In that moment, in my head, I was the most awful father in the world.
Hillary’s cries eventually woke Lydia, who soon realized she had an even bigger baby in her bed than in the nursery. I didn’t try to hide what I was doing; I couldn’t have even if I had wanted to. My breathing was erratic, and I was continually wiping my cheeks with the back of my hand. What could I have said the problem was, allergies? I may be sensitive, but I’m no pussy; I’m not allergic to shit.
Lydia nuzzled up next to me, her heart, in her words, “full.” She had never seen me so emotional and found it playfully delightful. I took her hand, and we settled in to ride it out.
Over the course of the next ninety minutes, an interesting swing of the pendulum took place. When she awoke, Lydia was steadfast; this was all for the best, and Hillary would undoubtedly cry herself out within twenty minutes. When that didn’t happen, Lydia’s resolve started to weaken. Where up front I had been the Nancy-pants and overwrought train wreck, once it was out of my system I was grounded and ready to wait as long as needed. Lydia, on the other hand, went from resolute to capitulation.
When Hillary’s cries tick-tocked past the twenty, then thirty, then forty minute marks, Lydia turned to her phone. Using the World Wide Web, she went about researching sleep training.
“We did this too soon!” She hissed. “Everything I’m finding says you have to wait three months! The book that said two months is crap!”
I did my best not to roll my eyes because everyone knows that if you find something on the web, it’s absolute truth. If you need to know what really happened in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963, what’s in Area 51, or the truth about chemtrails: just look to the Internet. It was my turn to promise her we were doing the right thing, but Lydia would have nothing of my assurances. My guarantees didn’t have the backing of anonymous posters on Internet message boards, and therefore held no weight. I had to cede to her demands; if the crying continued to the ninety-minute mark, we could quietly pop in to the nursery and make sure all was well.
Because the Gods are cruel Gods, Hillary did not stop crying, and we had to endure the pain of knowing our daughter was suffering needlessly, because we were being stubborn. There were respites of almost thirty to forty seconds, and once almost a minute, where we were certain she was done…But no, those were only pauses to rejuvenate the air in her tiny lungs and the cords in her Lilliputian throat.
When the allotted time had passed, Lydia darted out of bed and noiselessly dashed into Hillary’s room. I followed less quickly, still hoping we could get this extinction thing banged out in one night.
When I got to the nursery doorway, Lydia was crouched next to the crib, where she could monitor Hillary without being caught. She looked at me with worried eyes, and motioned that she wanted to go in for the save. I stopped her and whispered, “Not during an outburst. Wait for a moment where she’s at a low-ebb.”
Lydia waited, and a few seconds later a break came in Hillary’s crying. Lydia reached in and cupped her hands under Hillary’s armpits, gently raised her up, and pulled her in for a hug. Lydia whispered a song of apology into Hillary’s ear, begging forgiveness for the neglect, then eventually nursed and laid a contented baby back in the crib. Hillary then slept soundly for a nice stretch of time, until right around the 5am hour.
Unbeknownst to her, at that moment, one room over, the most evil of thoughts were shocking me awake.
Staring at the ceiling as I had when trying to fall asleep, I wondered why something so awful would be rooting around the recesses of my mind, when I heard Hillary squeak.
I wondered if she was awake or just transitioning, so I got up to check.
As I tiptoed into her room, the first actual cry erupted. This wasn’t a transition; she was firing on all cylinders.
I quietly positioned myself beside her crib; Hillary’s eyes were opening and closing, opening and closing. Due to the crying, she couldn’t focus and see me, so I reached down and lightly grasped a foot.
Her eyes went wide instantly, and the crying stopped as if I had hit a “mute” button.
She looked at me with a casual expectance: “Oh, there you are. Picking me up now?”
I smiled and said, “Hello, beautiful baby girl.”
I lifted her to me; she nuzzled into my shoulder, contented.
And my heart went to bursting.