By ELLEN GRACE
When I was younger, the last words I said before I went to sleep had to be either “I love you” or “goodnight”. I preferred “I love you”, but that wasn’t always an option. At sleepovers, I would settle for goodnight, not yet old enough for it to be okay to love your friends. I would say goodnight, and hope that I would not have to speak again for fear of changing that last word of the day I had locked in. If I did, the goodnight would have to be repeated. Even if I was alone, I would whisper goodnight to myself, too scared to risk my day ending with a word that wasn’t finite.
This had nothing to do with going to sleep, but had more to do with me finding ways to control the world and its perception of me. It was an absorption of rules and ideals to take into account if a life was to be remembered. Some evening, you might fall asleep and never wake up. You should never go to bed angry or upset. Your life only has as much meaning as the last words that you say before it ends. I never questioned these as truisms.
I thought someone was always watching or listening. Not a god, not someone who would protect me, or who loved me. Just someone who knew, who could see everything I did, but could not influence it in. Even if I was alone, someone somewhere knew what I was doing, and recorded it to be tallied for later. There was no downtime, no relaxing, nothing that was free from judgement. They would know that if I didn’t wake up, and my last words had been irrelevant. Then, I would fail at the yes or no question, “was her life worthwhile?”
I don’t know when this started or where it ended. It was something I slowly grew out of. I realized that those two phrases I had repeated night after night had nothing to do with their original meaning.
They were not about letting anyone know how I felt about them.
I was saying I love you for my own benefit. It wasn’t “I love you” as in “I love myself”, nor “I love you” as in “I love someone else”. It was ‘I love you” as in “there are people whose lives are worth remembering and there are people who will come and go and it will not matter”. They will disappear into the night because they did not work hard enough to say something memorable with their lives. The worst thing in my childhood mind was being forgotten.
I am learning how to make goodnight into an extended line, between person to person. I am learning to make I love you into a network of people who make my life easier day by day. And every night, I sleep a little more soundly.