Keeping the Lights On

27 Nov

“Call me anytime” I said as I stood on a stool wrapping white lights around the curtain rod.

“I couldn’t” she replied.

“Well, I can set my alarm for 2 AM and call you then” I said. “In fact, your choice is either me calling you at 2 AM or you calling me when you feel sleepy and your radio is no longer interesting and you’re bored of your own thoughts.  I’m stringing Christmas lights right now and I’ll keep them on just for you. That’s a very long car ride in front of you.”

“Are you sure?” she said.

“I am. And not because I’m a great friend or really like waking up in the middle of the night but because someone did it for me and I want to pay it back.”

* * *

It was a lot of give and take, just like in any friendship. He called me in the wee hours of the morning driving home after a late night work party because he knew that the last time he hadn’t called and woke up, in his car, on the median strip, facing the wrong way.

I called him in the wee hours of the morning when he was pulling all-nighters for work. I disliked his job but if ten minutes of conversation away from the recording studio helped him stay positive than it was worth it. It made me feel less guilty for sinking into a warm bed to sleep while he’d be lucky to catch an hour or two. (It was rarely two.)

We leaned on each other, helped each other navigate the daily challenges of too much work, too many demands, not enough sleep.

And then I started having nightmares.

Payback for all those dreamless childhood nights?
A cruel twist on my insomnia issues? Now I fell asleep fine, only to wake up hours later, incoherent and crying.

The first night it happened, I called him. And stayed on the phone for hours until I had curled myself into a place of tiredness from which nightmares seemed like the lesser of two evils.

The next night, he said “I am sleeping with my phone on the pillow next to me. You call when you need to. I will wake up.”

I don’t like inconveniencing people. I don’t like making phone calls. But I was learning to trust and so I did call, at 2 AM. I cried and cried. He distracted me with stories and got me to talk and he prayed. I called again at 3 AM. I don’t remember what was said.

The next night, he said, a little sheepishly “I’ve been sleeping with the light on. So when you call, I can find my phone immediately. And if you need something, I won’t waste time looking for the light switch.”

That night, when I woke up hysterical, I thought, “There is someone out there sleeping with his light on because he wants to do whatever it takes to make me safe.” And so I repeated all the truth he’d been saying over and over again to myself “You are safe. It was a bad dream and not reality. You are in your own bed, you are safe. If anyone ever tried to hurt you, I would kill them and put them in my trunk. That’s why I keep my trunk empty.”

And I never called him.

“No nightmares?” came the 5:30 AM text. “There were but I calmed myself down” I replied. “You didn’t need me?” he asked. “I needed to know your light was on,” I said.

For the next few weeks, a nightly text arrived “Sleeping with the lights on.”

Once, I got the text while brushing my teeth.  Most nights, I saw the text when I’d wake up, in the middle of the night, panicky for a second.  And a few glorious times, I read the text after the sun was already rising and realized I had slept all night through.

I never offered to pay the electric bill.

But I witnessed someone sacrificing their own needs (sleep) for mine. I witnessed someone respecting my vulnerability, and my shyness about asking for help,  and making me feel like it was a problem we were solving together. Even when the lights weren’t on in my apartment, I knew that somewhere, they were. And when I called, even when there was a delay as the person I called struggled to wake from a deep sleep and respond coherently to my silence or my sobs, the phone was always answered.

* * *

I may not be the most chatty friend. I may be often busy and stressed and focused internally.

I may not be Motel 6. (I’m not.)

But I’ll keep the lights on for you.

True friends are there when you need them. Not there when it’s convenient for them. They are there in the hidden moments, not just the public ones. And once grace has been extended to you by a friend, it is easier and sweeter and natural to extend it to someone else.

Friends keep the lights on. For as long as you need their light.

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