Heather O’Leary

Can’t Sleep

Waking up to someone staring at you is never fun. Waking up to someone staring at you at four in the morning while you are trying to sleep on a couch, having only passed out an hour and a half prior, is somehow even less fun. It took every bone in my body not to immediately start swinging at whoever was staring at me at first, but even though I was slightly dazed from lack of sleep, I recognized that it was probably not a threat. Slowly, once my eyes adjusted to the dark, I turned my head over to see who was looking at me. I saw my youngest sister, Beth, only eight at the time, going back and forth between staring at me and staring at all of the presents underneath the tree, which had thankfully been placed there before she woke up.

I was very grateful that I wasn’t in danger and hoped that if I stayed very, very still, she wouldn’t realize that I was awake, and then I could go back to sleep. I was nineteen, and still kept my sleep schedule from high school, which meant a minimum of ten hours of sleep was needed to function. I knew I wouldn’t be getting that, but I wanted as much as possible. After about a minute of silently wishing that my younger sister would just go back to bed, I realized two things. First, Beth, who already had problems sleeping, would not be going back to sleep anytime soon. Second, I’m the older sibling and therefore the adult of this situation, so I had to be the one to do something about this. I considered waking my mom, but I knew she needed the sleep even more than I did considering how chaotic the house, which she kept functioning, was.

“Are you alright?” I whispered. Again, I prayed that she would say yes and go to bed. Christmas Eve is as big as Christmas at my dad’s house, so I was up late on the twenty-third prepping food, then up at seven the next morning, cooking and cleaning while also entertaining guests the whole night. Then I drove from my dad’s house to my mom’s house at two in the morning, and crashed on this scratchy, shriveled couch. Even when I was laying on my side, I was falling off it. Unfortunately for both of us, she said no. After cursing internally for a moment at the fact that sleep would be delayed, I asked her what was wrong.

“Can’t sleep,” she muttered. No shit, I wanted to say, but she was eight, and I always try to be a role model, so I didn’t. I had her take me back to her bedroom, hoping that distracting her from the gifts might calm her down enough to sleep for a few more hours. It did not.

After turning on her white noise machine to make ocean noises, turning on her weird color projector that painted the ceiling in waves of blue, and telling her a story, she wasn’t any closer to falling asleep. I wanted to give up and go to sleep on her bed, a large futon that was way more comfortable than the couch, but I kept telling myself that this was probably an important moment for her development or something.

When I was growing up, my older sister who is older than me by seven years and had moved out of the house with her father before Beth was born, had helped me out. She was my role model. She didn’t curse, she played with me even when I was annoying her, and she stayed with me when she was exhausted if I woke her up late at night or early in the morning. It let me know that no matter what I always had someone who had my back. I’m about ten years older than Beth, but I wanted to have a similar relationship and to act as someone she could always come to without getting pushed away.

I ended up giving up hope that she would go to bed. We talked about it for a little bit, in whispers so we didn’t wake anyone. My family was, and still is, notorious for being confused and angry when they get woken up, so neither of us wanted to wake anyone.

“I had a nightmare,” Beth said, looking down at the stuffed raccoon she was holding.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked, desperately trying to keep my drooping eyes open.

“I don’t remember. Just that it was scary. And now I want to open presents. And eat candy. But mostly open presents. And I want to talk to you.”

An unfortunate part of divorce is the separation of half-siblings. Beth never met my father, as our mother had divorced him years before she was born. She grew up with me in and out of the house, staying with my mother during the weekdays and every other weekend, but living with my dad for the rest of the time. It wasn’t a messy divorce; it was our normal, as our step-siblings would also be in and out of their mother’s house on weekends. Eventually, the most financially sound decision for everyone was for me to move in with my dad, who had no other children, rather than stay with my mom, who was supporting my four younger siblings. I hadn’t realized how hard my move hit my youngest sibling until that night.

“I miss you,” she told me, surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals, the waving blue light reflecting onto her face. She told me that she missed how we used to read together, how much I used to play with her, and how I helped her with her homework. Our other siblings were at the age where they didn’t want to talk with anyone in the family anymore, so she was getting used to playing by herself, but it wasn’t going well. She was lonely. Our mom was also not known for explaining things well, so school wasn’t going much better for Beth either. She also struggled with making friends, which made her lonely wherever she was.

I did the proper older sibling thing and started explaining ways that she could play alone without getting lonely and ways to get others to play with her. We briefly went over how to ask better questions so the answers might be clearer. I made a tired promise to come around more, and told her to practice telling herself a story to help her fall asleep by telling me a story. It was one hundred percent a ploy to get her to stop asking me questions because it was five in the morning at this point, and I could look like I was listening to her while actually getting a bit of sleep. Five minutes into her story, the thundering steps of three kids poorly trying to sneak downstairs let me know that an hour and a half of sleep was all that I would be getting.

When the rest of my younger siblings broke into Beth’s room, we turned off the noisemaker and the projector, turned the normal lights on, and started talking about anything and everything and played games. God, I was so tired. My eyes were burning, trying to stay open. I’d find my head snapping up when I almost fell asleep and got whacked in the face with a pillow, courtesy of one of my siblings who couldn’t imagine how I could be tired on Christmas.

At six, my mom, stepdad, and grandmother woke up. My mom took one look at me and handed me my stocking, filled with Reese’s Pieces, and made me a hot chocolate. I was very grateful for sugar.

Here’s the thing: I didn’t realize how much my half-assed attempt to get my younger sister to go to sleep would actually affect her. She held me to actually visit more through her expert use of tears and guilt, and even with working over forty hours a week and living in a different house with other familial obligations, I still kept my promise by seeing her at least once a week. She demanded that I let her read to me and let her tell me stories, even after the holidays. She was able to make more friends and get her siblings to play with her more. The most shocking effect was that even months afterward, my mother told me that Beth would still tell herself stories, often out loud but eventually just to herself, until she fell asleep.

“I don’t know what you said to her,” my mother told me months later, as we watched Beth chase our brothers with a plastic baseball bat, “but it got her to rest.”

It’s no secret that children take what parents say to them very seriously, but I never realized until that night how seriously they take what their siblings say to them as well. I got lucky. Very, very lucky. My sleep-deprived mind was able to come up with good advice and enough sense not to brush her off. It made me think about how often I had told her or my other siblings to go away or leave me alone or something worse. It wasn’t just that I had to make sure I didn’t accidentally tell them something stupid like to do drugs, but I needed to be present and active in their lives. This was equally as important.

I couldn’t help but wonder what might have happened if I had given in to sleep, told Beth to go to sleep, and pushed her to the side. She might not have continued to come to me for help later on in the year. She might not have gotten those friends or learned to fall asleep on her own. She might have become aloof and angry.

I’ve seen it happen in some of my other younger siblings. We’ve mostly grown up together. I was growing up while they were. I didn’t have any words of wisdom for them because I was still searching through Life’s dictionary to find them for myself. By the time I mostly got through high school, I knew enough to help a bit, but the damage was done. At that point, they had already either turned inward and pushed others away or made meaningful relationships with friends and were on their way to being fully matured people. Our older sister had moved out during one of the divorces. Though she was able to help me when I was younger, the siblings closer to my age are step-siblings who didn’t arrive until after she had left, so they didn’t have her help. They just had to deal with moving and divorces without an older sibling’s guidance.

My mom telling me about the progress Beth made had led me to an “oh shit” moment. It’s like pausing for an extra second after the light has turned green, narrowly avoiding getting hit by someone who decided to run the light, or it’s like nearly dropping the phone that you can’t afford to replace, but fumbling and catching it after all. I could’ve very easily messed up an important moment with my sister.

I’m grateful that I was able to help my youngest sister, and every time I groan about having to go hang out with my younger siblings after eight and a half hours of dealing with horrible customers, I try to remember how much an older sibling’s support can mean. I force a smile onto my face and watch them play Roblox for the hundredth time with no complaint. I know I wouldn’t do anything differently given a second chance, and I say that knowing that I might have to do it again this year.

Heather O’Leary is a senior at SUNY Fredonia double majoring in English adolescent education and writing. Heather’s work has been published in The Trident, SUNY Fredonia’s literary magazine.