About 3 a.m. on many nights I hear my 13-year-old son Alex chortling and talking in his bedroom or in the living room, sometimes even singing. In my bed, I lift my leaden head and crane over Jill to see if there’s a bar of bright yellow shining under our bedroom door. Many nights, there is.
Alex, who is autistic, got up in the night a lot when he was younger, and for a sleepless while Jill and I split what we termed “Night Duty.” Who would get up in the middle of the night for Alex and who would get up early in the morning for Alex? We switched. (You do it! … I did it last night! God you just always forget – you are so SELFISH!)
Night duty seems to be back. Several times Alex has woken his typically developing brother Ned up by rocking in bed, making the whole Ikea structure creak and weakening the joints held together with little more than a twist of the Allen Wrench. The rocking – back and forth, back and forth, creak creak creak! – is a motion that I’m coming to suspect springs from an urge of Alex’s that I don’t want to talk about yet. For a long stretch of the Night Duty phase, I admit that we left Alex on his own in the living room in the middle of the night. Then last summer he started leaving the apartment, and now I can’t think of sleeping when that ribbon shines under our bedroom door.
I wake up around 3 and find Alex on the couch, munching pretzels. Pretzel breath at 3 a.m. ...
“Alex, go back to bed!” He does, darting into the shadows. "Head down, Alex!" I see it go down in the dark. I head to the bathroom to take one of my middle-age 10-minute pisses and then weave back to back past the shadows of the dining room table and chairs toward the bedroom. He always pulls this crap around 4:30. By the time I wrestle him to bed and convince him to stop rocking and by the time I can wiggle my toes down there in my own sheets and drown my own thoughts with exhaustion, it’s 0600 and time for the alarm.
Then one night at 4:30, for some reason, it hit me. “Alex, do you want to get up now?”
He laughed and laughed and laughed while I tugged him to the bathroom. His laughter evaporated when I clicked on the light. “Alex, we’re getting up now. You want to be up, we’re up!”
“Back to bed!” said Alex.
“No, Alex, you’re up now...”
“Back to bed!”
“Fine,” I told him. “Fine. Go back to bed or we’re getting up!”
Down went his head. I returned to bed. I listened and listened as 0600 neared. I didn’t get back to sleep.
Jeff Stimpson is a native of Bangor, Maine, and lives in New York with his wife Jill and two sons. He is the author of Alex: The Fathering of a Preemie and Alex the Boy: Episodes From a Family’s Life With Autism (both available on Amazon). He maintains a blog about his family at jeffslife.tripod.com/alextheboy, and is a frequent contributor to various sites and publications on special-needs parenting, such as Autism-Asperger’s Digest, Autism Spectrum News, the Lostandtired blog, The Autism Society news blog, and An Anthology of Disability Literature (available on Amazon). He is on LinkedIn under “Jeff Stimpson” and Twitter under “Jeffslife.”