WENDY ELLIOTT: Knowing the night

Wendy Elliott
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We all have times when sleep evades us. Nursing babes call through the night, catfights in the back yard disturb our slumber and, sometimes, an inexplicable internal alarm goes off at 4:30 a.m. I’ve listened to many a BBC report on world football in a vain attempt to return to snoozing.

A decade ago, Canadian poet and science writer Christopher Dewdney wrote a book, Acquainted with the Night, that he called “excursions through the world after dark.” The book, a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, starts as the sun goes down and documents each hour until dawn.

Dewdney goes to a sleep lab in a Toronto hospital to learn more. His snoring is determined to be “well below the antisocial range.” Dewdney records a British fellow whose snore equaled the sound of a big motorcycle starting up.

He describes the night in June 1816 when a handful of English writers, like Byron and Shelley, spent hatching ghost stories and Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein in a dream. Her book was published two years later and the modern horror genre was born.

Dewdney calls the night sky a “window into an incredible, dizzying abyss that drops away in every direction we look” as he stargazes at 2 a.m. He goes camping on Lake Huron and views impressive falling stars during the annual Perseid meteorite shower.

It was excellent at explaining a multitude of the aspects of night, so I was surprised to find Dewdney’s book remaindered by the Halifax Regional Library. Perhaps it was too much information.

On the other hand Maria Mutch, who grew up in Kentville and lives in Rhode Island, takes a more nuanced look at the hours after darkness falls. In Know the Night, she uses the lens of her first born son Gabriel in a beautifully written memoir.

Her state of sleeplessness becomes layered with meaning rather than torment.

Gabriel has Down syndrome. At the age of nine the boy began waking in the night and his mother was drawn to his bedroom by the sheer volume of noise produced. This was a child who had stopped using words when he was seven. Later, Mutch and her husband learned Gabriel was also autistic.

One night she writes about walking to her son’s room as if drawn by the quiet.

“Something about the silence seems noisy; it has a presence as distinct as calling.”

She finds the lad covered in his own feces. Rumpled and tired, Mutch is such a patient mother. She will not leave him in isolation, even though his insomnia lasted about two years. “My caring for Gabriel in the night occurs on an island, a remote part of it without internet, cable, or radio receivers.”

There are other nights when Gabriel’s love of jazz music takes mother and son on a different journey. They even attend jazz clubs where Gabriel high fives the performers. “Gabriel isn’t rocking and clapping like he usually is, he is utterly transfixed,” she writes.  

As a counterpoint to the sleep deprivation that Mutch endures while leaving her husband to sleep, she  finds herself fascinated by the first person narrative of Admiral Richard Byrd alone in Antarctica. His months of isolation in a white cave somehow mirror her emotions.

Know the Night is a remarkable book because of Mutch’s response to her parenting circumstances. Her state of sleeplessness becomes layered with meaning rather than torment and her writing is truly affecting. This is mother love writ large.

Organizations: BBC, Toronto hospital, Halifax Regional Library

Geographic location: Lake Huron, Kentville, Rhode Island Antarctica

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