When I was growing up, my family lived across the street from a fire station. Firetrucks pulled out of the station at all hours. If I was on the phone (and as I got older, I often was), I’d stop talking a moment, and then continue as if nothing had happened. This used to freak out my friends, who would of course hear sirens in the background, hear me pause and then continue, and often ask me in a panicked voice, “What’s that? What happened?!” Most of the time, I hadn’t even registered the sound – and I’d have to ask, “What do you mean?” “Why are there sirens at your HOUSE?!?” they’d practically scream in my ear. “Ohhhhhh…”
My daughter for awhile was the same way. While she was tiny, taking little cat naps a million times a day, she would often fall asleep on the long stroller ride home from Gymboree. We would pass the emergency entrance of our neighborhood hospital and sometimes the sirens were deafening to me, but always, without fail, she slept through them. If I parked her stroller in the shadows, if I began chatting nearby with a friend, if the dogs in our apartment barked, if someone came through our front door while she was napping in the crib, she would wake – but as long as her stroller moved steadily along while the sirens screamed, my daughter remained fast asleep.
It’s astounding what we can get used to ~ and what we can’t ~ each of us with our own rituals, our own attachments to what steadies us, what sets us off, what must be kept “just so.”
With age, my relationship to sirens has shifted. That is to say: Most of the time now, I hear them.
Just last week, I woke up to the sound of sirens. They woke me, in fact, from a deep sleep, growing louder and louder as they approached our street – and then falling suddenly silent. Again the crescendo, and again the abrupt end. And again. Two ambulances and a police car. Soon after, helicopters. I then heard opening and closing doors in my house – my daughter and her cousin out of bed and curious, although strangely, wonderfully, falling asleep again on the blankets spread out on her bedroom floor. Up and down, up and down like the sirens, and then out.
It was spring break in our little village. My partner and I, and our niece’s moms, had stayed out late for a vegan dinner beer pairing at Revolution Brewery while the girls zipped around our house with a babysitter – their favorite babysitter. And when she climbed the stairs to check on them, to give them a little time for reading before lights out, they were already sitting up in the makeshift bed of blankets on the floor – teeth brushed and books in hand. A little bit of magic entered our house that night, I think, and stayed through morning. They’ve never been so cooperative in all their lives. Or… mine hasn’t been, anyway.
I did not go back to sleep. I laid awake trying to separate sounds – trying to understand what was happening in my neighborhood less than a block away.
It isn’t that we never hear sirens where I live. We hear them every day. And it isn’t that we never hear them at night. We do. I do. But since becoming a mom, I hear sirens differently. That night, I feared for the safety of my niece’s moms down the street. For our back alley neighbor, classmates of my daughter whose family lives were mucky, rocky, troubling. My worry rippled out to our other daughter in Madison, to my father in California, to my mother, landing finally on the fragility of life.
Eventually, sunlight broke through our bedroom window. I let the dachshund outside. I turned on the shower to start my day while the house was eerily quiet, both girls still sleeping soundly on the bedroom floor. My partner quietly snored, which was rare for her. (I blame the beer. It was so good.)
My sister-friend – my niece’s mom – sent a text message two hours later, and relief washed over me. The ambulance missed their house last night. And ours. The sirens were not for us today.
My stepmom once gave me a statue of a woman curling her knees against her chest in a pose of concentration. “Write,” she told me after I unwrapped it. Simple. Just like she told me, “Be her mom. Parent her. Don’t think too much about it.” Just like she said, when I told her I was gay, “I know.”
We lost her last year. There were no sirens. No calls of alarm.
And yet now when the sirens come, I pay attention. Because she would, maybe. Because I must. Because they are somehow more piercing than they were before. Because I am awake. Because I understand finally what’s at stake.