Wide Open Spaces by Abigail Dotson

There was a space I used to feel safe. Everyone should have such a space.
Today, when fear grips me and I need a balance bar to keep from slipping out of my life, I remember those mornings when I felt safe. Ten, fifteen, twenty-five years ago…these are some of my first memories. My bed is warm and cozy, but I am not sleeping. Sometime just hours after falling asleep I am awake again and all night long I drift in and out of this semi-conscious state. It is not tiring nor is it frustrating; I relish the feeling of being snug and in bed. I don’t want to fall asleep and miss it. I want to embrace it, to realize it and hold its hand. I want to spend all night drowsy and relaxed, awake in my sleepy space.
But I always fall asleep, at least for a little while. And it is sometime during those random few hours- an hour here, two there- that my father sneaks in my room to open my window.
My bed lies horizontal against the outside wall, parallel to the long window that keeps the overgrown bougainvillea from trespassing my room. I am a skinny little thing, drawn to all things warm and cozy. I like hot baths and fuzzy pajamas, I like an open lap and a feather comforter. At night, before bed, I stand on a chair and open the heating vent in my bedroom. Then I slip between the covers, exhausted and happy, falling into half-consciousness.
Sometime around 2 a.m. I awake with a chill. My window is open and my room is cold. I know who did it. My dad snuck into my room while I was sleeping and opened the window. He believed the stuffy indoor air was no good for me…he wanted me drawing dream breaths to cold night air. He did it every night, without fail. Every night, I pretended to be angry. But there was something in the constancy that I loved. After awhile I guess I came to expect it. After awhile, I guess while I was sleeping I could feel the wind on my cheeks and hear the trees waking up...after awhile, I guess I kind of liked it, even if I didn’t know it.
A couple of hours later, I awake again. Every night, the same thing. I close the window, he opens it. I close it again and he opens it again. It’s like a midnight game we play. We don’t talk about it in daylight hours; it is our secret. My daddy sneaks into my room and lets the cold night air into my California bones each and every night.
Sometime around four a.m. I awake for the last time. I lie, enjoying the quiet, the whispering wind, and the bougainvillea branches swooshing through the open window. I feel my legs and how nice it is not to be using them. I watch the back of my eyelids and the pictures they draw. I breathe deep and in that breath I feel safe.
After several moments I swing my legs around the side of my bed and wrap my pinstriped baby blue comforter around my shoulders. Sleepily, I pad out the back door, across the yard and into the garage.
My dad is working. He is a printer, the old-fashioned kind with real presses and ink. In the corner of the garage he keeps a propane heater. It glows orange like the sun, like something warm, like my dad and me and four o’clock on a Tuesday morning.
He sees me come in but doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t have to. This is our routine. I have three brothers and they are all still asleep. I walked right past my sleeping mother on way here. Everyone else in the world is still asleep; this is just us and there is no reason to talk.
This is the language my dad and I spoke. We listened to the sound around us together; we were always good at doing this. My dad took me to live in the trees when I was twenty-one. I’d never been to a place like that before; for a week we drove around, listening to the rhythmic sounds of the small town.
I curl up on the cement floor in front of the heater. I close my eyes and listen to the periodic swish of the press as it works. “cha-chu…cha-chu…cha-chu…”…it sounds like music. Sometimes I can hear my dad counting softly to himself as each page runs through the machine “one…two…three…forty seven…forty eight…forty nine…fifty…”
These are his lyrics and the song is a lullaby. He is there and I am there and nothing has ever felt so sane. It is our time together and it is my favorite time in all the hours of a day.
When I was seven and lying tangled in my comforter in the pre-dawn hours on the cold cement floor of the garage, listening to my dad work, I didn’t know anything except that it was my favorite place to be. The sun would rise, and the light would wake up, slowly at first and then faster. I’m thirty-two years old and dawn is my favorite time of day. Something about the quiet of the city and the sounds of the earth, the deepness and sturdiness of it makes me feel safe.
The presses were relentless, “cha-chu…cha-chu…cha-chu-ing” in and out, something to be counted on. My dad would pitter-patter around and still we would not speak. It was enough to there, together, sharing a space and the solitude of that witching hour. There was no one else I could just be with the way I could just be with my dad.
My dad gave me a gift. He taught me how to be with him without being with him. He gave me a space to feel safe. I am thirty-two. Eight years ago my dad died. I miss him something awful. I struggle with feeling safe in the world daily. I am fraught with panic; I often have a broken heart. I miss my daddy. But sometimes, when the world is quiet, I can find him using the map he drew for me all those years ago. I open my windows; I listen to the sounds of the earth; I imagine myself beside the soft orange glow of the propane heater and strain my ears until I hear the soft pitter-patter of his presses. I breathe in the cold air and connect to the space he created for me. I am safe. I am good in this world.
With a strong heart and a new sense of grounding, I attend to my own daughter and I wonder if she will embrace a similar gift from me one day. I think he meant for me to pass it on.