It is not without irony that seeing a “sleeper sunrise”–a band of bright color that breaks through a predawn bank of blue-black at the horizon, often evaporating so quickly that the sleep-saturated will never even imagine it–is there for the sleepless. It is among insomnia’s best byproducts.
I have never missed as many sunrises as I did when all I had to do was glance through 1805 wood-paned windows to an unadulterated view east, over the pond downhill from our house.
It was the same vista Jim took in for his last view this side of heaven, as a brilliant orange perigee moon rose at winter’s end and enveloped us all.
I could have seen the sun rise from the warmth of a shared bed. I would not have had to brace for even the cold of a foot on a wide-pine floor in a New England winter, or cast off quilts I had sewn for the tiger maple bed that seems so vast without my 6’4″ husband.
After sunset on the March day he died–a day in which I cannot remember the skies being anything but black–I stood immobile in our bedroom, where my friend had escorted me to attempt sleep. Jim’s side of the bed was at the west-facing windows, which framed a postcard view across a triangular town green to a white clapboard church.
“Are we going to have to get you a new bed?” my friend asked, reading my hesitation. For the first of endless nights, Jim was so starkly not where he should be.
Perhaps that was when I began to look elsewhere and outward for him. What I could no longer see or touch was more than I could bear. The moment his heart stopped beating I was certain he–all that is and was this man–overwhelmingly was somewhere else. It tormented me not to know where.
I skipped the vast earthly middle occupied by the gravity-bound and began exploring the skies.
Over much of a decade since then I have been chronically sleep-deprived, wheeling from crisis to crisis, cursed with an inability to stop ruminating about the past or let regret go.
Now that seeing the night-to-day segue has become much more of a production–often requiring layers of winter clothing, chipping off windshield ice to drive to the waterfront, and being speed-walked by boisterous beagles while navigating in the dark along paths of colonial bricks pitched like choppy seas–I hardly ever miss it.
I no longer bracket my days with New Hampshire skies. Alone, I have looked up from vantage points occupied only because I’ve been hurled into this unpredictable and largely solitary new life, somehow both cleaved from and still conjoined with my far more adventuresome missing half.
I have watched night arrive and give way from deserts on different continents; from the water in Essaouira, as gulls shrieked by an ancient offshore prison; on a sheer black span between Kentucky and Indiana, which gradually blazed into purple; on water-slicked limestone cliffs in Pemaquid Point; in Iceland and Ireland and from my daughter’s balcony in Delhi.
I’ve developed a knack for being able to see into the near (and sometimes not-so-near) future of daybreak by examining what surrounds it.
Like Byron White’s infamous Supreme Court descriptor, I could not define it for you, but I know it when I see it. In the way one touches a finger to the sky to test a building wind, I can see a harbinger on the horizon where the deepest black skies will burst into a sailors’ warning.
A sliver of luminous silver to the northeast, a shimmering fissure in a dense cloud bank, a gray-lavender arc simmering on my periphery, signalling that within an hour or so the sky will fill with improbable neon colors–sometimes just for a few minutes before rain begins to fall, the heavens turn a murky slate again, and none but we seasoned insomniacs are the wiser.
What I sense is out there to quicken my pace out the door exists only in counterpoise to something far out of my reach and beyond my sight, some distant cosmic source of these ribbons of light and color waiting to take shape at the horizon.
Perhaps I don’t really see anything at all, and it’s a mere figment of hope.
Hope that when the sun rises, it will be magnificent, even if it does not last as long as I would wish for.
Hope that when what is in sight is too painful, something remains far outside and away from me but still balances me, holds me within the pull of enduring gravity.
Faith that when I’m out there chasing the light on a frigid shore, in the visible company of only a gold-eyed owl or the occasional coyote, we’re not alone.