Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Now I lay me down to sleep.
This is how it begins.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Innocent really. A prayer from my childhood. Everyone's childhood. From childhoods stretching generations back. Who knows how far into the past?
If I should die before I wake ...
This is where it gets ugly, turns sinister. Kind of morbid for a child's prayer. Particularly at bedtime. For me, this is where it turns personal, hits home. This is where my gut begins to twist and my face gets real hot and I feel the things I can't unsee working their way to the surface like the slow rise of vomit and bile.
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
I never liked this line either. I never understood the poem at all. Why wouldn't you just pray not to die in your sleep? Doesn't that make more sense? Why would children even need this prayer? Who dies in their sleep besides the very old or the very sick (says the woman I once was with no foresight about what's coming her way whatsoever)?
I bought a cross-stitched version of this from an antique store when my girls were young and hung it in their room. It might still be here somewhere, tucked away in a closet. I wouldn't want to see it now. Add it to the list of things I never want to see again. But it comes up more than you think, this child's prayer. And every time I squirm at the way we recite these lines as if their meaning isn't real, could never touch us. And every time I wonder why for Ev, for me, for her father and brother and sister, it did.
I understand the poem now. I think it must have come from a time when a child not living through the night was as great or greater a likelihood than the opposite. When it wouldn't have seemed morbid to address such things even in a prayer ... for children ... at bedtime. What a godforsaken time that must have been to birth a prayer like this. How many heartsick parents, just like my husband and I, spoke these very words over their little ones' still and sleeping bodies like an incantation to ward off evil, feeling their own powerlessness in their bones, knowing the most they could ask for—hope for—was that their child's soul be carried swiftly away to heaven should the worst happen? Perhaps like it happened before, or happened to their neighbor or their own parents?
What a hateful, painful, grim and cursed time. A time I sometimes feel more in common with than the age in which I've lived and loved and lost. A time when we wouldn't have been such an anomaly. When perhaps there would have been more compassion, more acceptance for what we cannot control or change, more stories like ours, more hearts like ours. Not that it would have hurt less. Not that I want anyone else to know this loss. But I do feel like a relic. An out of place family with our dead child, here one second and then gone in the night, that we can't explain, that science and medicine can't answer for. Gothic. Melancholy. Clinging to whatever scraps of hope we can gather between us, hiding the rawness of our aching hearts behind lace curtains. Burying our shame beneath the geraniums.
The age we live in now makes light of this prayer. Has a fondness for it. As if it were a warm and cuddly thing, like a kitten. That's how out of touch we are with the actual words, with it's actual meaning. The age we live in now hands this poem down with grandma's china, speaking it with apple-cheeked smiles, chests swelling with nostalgia. My father said it and his father before him ... Completely overlooking that death, DEATH, is right there in those words, snuggled up next to their kids at night, tucked into their warm and waiting beds. The age we live in now is oblivious.
I don't belong to this age anymore. I cannot abide its blissful ignorance. I belong to an age of stillbirths. Of gargoyles. Of fairy changelings and child-eating witches. Of demons who curl on your chest at night and steal your breath like sleeping cats. I belong to an age where the unexpected is still expected. Where all the love and knowledge and technology in the world is still not enough. Where answers are as rare as unicorns and death is not cute and fuzzy, not something to laugh at, not a game we play or a bedtime story. I belong to an age where beautiful, healthy, happy 18 year old girls on the cusp of living their dreams can be snatched in the night and spirited away by wicked forces.
Maybe the forces aren't wicked at all. Maybe there is nothing supernatural about Ev's death. Maybe her heart just stopped and maybe our doctors don't know as much as we all want to think they do. All I know is that there are many, many days where it feels like I am living in a dark fairytale. And that somewhere in my house is a cross stitch of this ridiculous prayer that feels like a slap upside my heart every goddamed time someone says it. And that I want my little girl back. I want her inside her body standing beside me laughing and giving me a hard time the way she always has. And that if the universe cannot give me that, the least it can do is tell me what happened to her and make sure I never have to hear this godforsaken prayer again.