At night I often think of Frederick Douglass. Not because my children are light brown, like him. And not because of his lionesque grey hair, nor of his eloquent speeches that still ring true after a hundred a fifty years, but of his bed. On the second floor of his white house in Anacostia, across the river from the White House, in his small bedroom. Double in width, but not in length, only long enough for his legs. It was dark, stained mahogany, or some similar type of hard wood that is now endangered. In it, he slept sitting straight up, to avoid the bronchial ailments that took down so many of his peers in those days.
I think about him because that is how I should sleep, to help my almost two year old girl with her bronchial issues. If I could muster the self-discipline, I would sleep as he did, sitting up, propping my girl against me, to keep her lungs clear, so she can breathe. Here was a man who taught himself to read, escaped from the South to freedom in the North, eventually got a job as an Ambassador to Haiti, and from time to time, conferenced with Lincoln about the benefits of abolishing slavery. He walked several miles each day between his house and the executive offices of the White House, and when it was time to rest, sat up the whole night with a straight back. I hope, also, that sometimes he got to relax, laid down sideways on his double bed, and had a truly restful night.
When I am lying awake at 3 am, my face a few inches from hers, I listen to her breath. How it sucks in too quickly. I wait for her to find her rhythm, but it doesn’t come. I wonder at the human capacity to sleep, without breathing, to grow, with weak lungs, to eventually outrun one’s own weaknesses. In the middle of the night, my anxiety roams freely throughout my city.