On alert, unsleeping, a quarter past 3


It’s a quarter past 3 in the morning, outside temperature has dipped to below 30 degrees, and I must stay awake because it’s a matter of life and death.

Sounds of the night reach through walls of our home bringing with them a unique picture of the outside world occurring under the cloak of darkness. Lying in bed, wide-awake for the second night in a row, sleep once again has eluded my grasp.

Counting sheep hasn’t worked. Trying to solve math problems has quickly become too tedious. Putting troubles to bed, forgetting the mistakes and follies of the past day, and starting anew in the morning has proven fruitless. It’s just something I’m not good at.

I’m really good at worrying about things that have already happened and can’t be changed, haven’t happened yet, or even things I have absolutely no control over. But it’s none of these things that are keeping me awake this morning.

This morning I am awake due to a matter of life or death. Wide awake, I simply lay here, gazing into the darkness, listening and waiting. Being awake all night just waiting for the alarm to sound is a situation I’m well familiar with.

During those 28 years as a fire fighter, each night I laid in bed fully clothed waiting for the alarm. Even time spent getting dressed was time taken away from a life-threatening emergency.

Hearing the alarm, I suddenly turn and gaze at the screen holding my breath. For 10 tense seconds, I listen and watch. The red sound bars, indicating a possible emergency, span halfway across the screen. Will I have to spring into action? Not this time. This time, it’s a false alarm and no life saving is needed.

Though a very different alarm woke me during my fire fighting years, the alarm now is no less important and no less jarring. At any moment, I may have to spring forth from my bed and into action to save lives. As with the fire department, no time will be wasted getting clothed.

I lay in bed fully dressed. My easy slip-on, steel toe, leather boots next to the fire truck have been replaced by a pair of well-worn, brown, slip-on loafers next to my bedside. In a few hours, dawn will chase away the darkness and with it my shift will end, but until then I’ll lay here listening to the sounds of the world outside to pass the time.

At a quarter past 4 in the morning, the squeaks from the brakes of a garbage truck echo down the street, causing old man Johnson’s dog to start an hour-long barking episode, only ending when the front porch screen door of the house slams shut as old man Johnson scolds the dog for waking the neighbors.

This amuses me because the berating of the dog is almost as loud and disturbing as the barking. I know this because it happened exactly the same time last week on garbage collection day. I was on watch that night also.

At a quarter past 5 in the morning, our neighborhood starts to wake and come to life. The World’s Best Neighbor living next door starts his day early by dragging his trash can out to the curb, hoping the trash truck long gone will circle back around. It doesn’t. He has again forgotten trash day has been changed from Wednesday to Tuesday.

With three young girls under the age of 10 at his house, I understand how he can forget. We have two under the age of 5 and I’ve forgotten all the things I’ve forgotten this past year. Sleep desperation will do that to you.

At a quarter past 6, the bedside alarm sounds again. Red bars reach fully across the screen. No false alarm this time and I see not one but two tiny lives are on the line! Springing from my bed, slipping on loafers I run from my bedroom through the adjoining hallway and into our granddaughter’s bedroom in one seamless well-rehearsed motion. This is what I have trained for.

Our two granddaughters, Little One and Sweet Caroline, have both rolled over and now are uncovered. Little One has a leg out from under the sheet and Sweet Caroline has not one, but both arms out from under the covers. No one has called out, but I know it’s an emergency.

If I don’t cover them up, even though it’s 65 degrees in our house, they will surely freeze to death. It’s truly a life-threatening emergency and I’ve been trained for 28 years to save lives.

The Wife says the girls are no longer babies and the monitors will come out of their bedroom soon. I understand that. But for this day, at a quarter past 6, I sprang into action and saved both of their lives.

At a quarter past 7, I hear the outside door opening and their mom is finally home from her 24-hour shift as a flight nurse and my shift is finished. I can go to sleep knowing my job as Big Papa is done.

That is, until it starts all over again in a couple of days. I’ll be on duty and awake all night. Watching. Listening. Waiting. At a quarter past 3 in the morning.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog: storiesbyrick.wordpress.com.]