I Slept Through A Murder in My Childhood Home
And it made me a light sleeper
A couple of nights ago, while trying to fall asleep at 2 AM, my mind wandered. Coffee at 9 PM was a bad idea. My thoughts shifted and twisted, running through situations that I thought had been all but buried deep within my psyche. Do you remember when you farted loudly at the library, and that cute guy and his friends turned around and stared at you? Yes, I remember. Or when you were giving your valedictorian speech in primary school and almost threw up on the podium? I’ll never forget.
Eventually, these spiralling thoughts became too much, and I remember feeling frustrated, thinking, “I used to fall asleep so quickly. What the hell happened?” There you have it. I was thinking about not being able to fall asleep while not being able to fall asleep. How meta.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with sleep, and I divide my life into two segments: the before and the after. Before the event I’m about to share with you, I could fall asleep standing up and spend the entire day tucked away in dreamland, none the wiser. My mom would have to shake me awake and drag me out of bed every morning for school, much to her annoyance.
Everything changed when I was 8 years old, and a group of men broke into my childhood home, killing my dad’s older brother. I slept through the entire ordeal. Looking back, I feel like Luke Dunphy on that one episode of Modern Family where another driver ran a stop sign and nearly barreled into his family’s minivan. Although he was in the car at the time and almost died, he had his headphones in and missed everything.
The night it happened, I remember my mom rushing me and my sister to bed because we had school the next day.
Despite our vehement protests, our mom won in the end. My sister and I could not convince her that foregoing our 8 PM bedtime to watch the new Hannah Montana episode was a worthy pursuit. We said goodnight to our parents and our uncle and were out like a light a moment later.
My uncle had been crashing on our living room couch for weeks in the lead-up to his death. When he showed up at our house, I didn’t question it. His family lived in a town two hours away, so we only saw them on special occasions. Birthdays, Christmas and sometimes Easter if we were feeling religious that year.
Many hours after going to sleep, someone shook me awake. I opened my eyes reluctantly, blinking twice to clear the crust out of them. Staring down at me were two uniformed police officers. The one who woke me up was a woman. She had kind eyes, and her voice swelled with sympathy as she ordered, “Come with us.”
Confused, I looked to the right and noticed that my sister’s bed was empty, her duvet dragged off the edge. Like she startled awake and ran out of the room, halfway out the door, before realizing her bedspread was still attached to her.
I got up and walked with them. The officer draped her arm around my shoulder, guiding me out of the bedroom and into the hallway that led to our living room.
“Look away,” she whispered before we entered the living room.
Look away? Who tells a child to look away? That has the precise effect of screaming at the top of your lungs “Look here! Can’t be missed!”
So I looked, despite her warnings and against the forceful attempts by the male officer on my right to ensure I didn’t.
Our ugly floral couch looked like someone had spilled an entire jug of tropical punch Kool-Aid on it. And another jug on the living room floor. And splattered another on the beige walls for good measure. The rickety wooden coffee table that my mom routinely yelled at us not to stand on lay broken and splintered on the tiled floor.
I’ll be honest. I’m an idiot, and I’ve always been. When I saw the state of our living room and exited our home to the welcome of police and ambulance vehicles, men in puffy white suits and a congregation of family and neighbours outside, I didn’t immediately think “death.”
In fact, my initial thought was, “What the flying fuck? They send me off to bed early, and they’re having a party?” I might’ve even said that out loud. As a kid, I was terrible at reading the room.
Still the Middle
In the after, I learned a few things from observing the adults present.
One. My uncle pissed off some powerful men during a tense gang war in his town and came to our house to lie low while everything cooled down. I never learned the extent to which he was a player in this gang war. Everyone’s an angel post-mortem, after all.
Two. Four men entered our home at 3 AM, intent on killing him. They broke in through a back door that led into the room my sister and I shared. The police knew they entered our bedroom while we were asleep because of the broken lock and the noises my parents heard that alerted them that someone was in our home.
Three. Next, the men made the long trek down the hallway, where they accosted my parents and held a gun to my dad’s head. An important detail of this story: my dad and my uncle had the same face. My uncle was three years older than my dad, but it was like God drummed up a facsimile at my father’s birth. I suppose we should feel some relief that these men weren’t like the hitmen in León: The Professional. You know — shoot first, ask questions later. Kill the entire family to prove a point. According to my dad, one out of the four men listened to his pleas and decided that he was “not the man they were looking for.” My father would later recognize that voice as one of his childhood friends.
Four. After deciding that my dad was indeed not the man they were looking for, the men moved into our living room, where they found my uncle fast asleep. My parents’ screaming hadn’t roused him, either. They shot him eight times at point-blank range in the head. Hence, the Kool-Aid situation on our couch.
Life immediately after that incident is blurry.
I know I didn’t go to school the next day. Or the day after that. We had a funeral that involved a lot of crying people and many adults hugging me, saying it would “be okay.” The funeral was a closed casket, obviously. At some point, we burned the wretched floral couch in our backyard and repainted our living room walls. I also vaguely remember my family staying with my aunt for two weeks immediately after the murder.
Everyone was scared the men would grow to regret leaving four witnesses alive and come back. I suppose they got over that fear because we eventually started living at my home again, and things were normal.
My parents would occasionally recount the events of that night. For a long time, my younger sister (five at the time) was terrified of walking past a photo my parents had hung of my uncle in the living room, so they eventually took it down.
I imagine this is going to make me sound like a ghoul and a terrible person to anyone reading, but I…felt nothing. I wasn’t afraid, angry, sad, traumatized, or whatever else I should have felt. In the aftermath, I didn’t see a counsellor (we couldn’t afford one), so I have no idea if my lack of feeling indicates something deeper and darker. Maybe I’m a closet sociopath, and we just don’t know it.
My running theory is that because I didn’t have the same visceral, first-hand experience of the event as the rest of my family, I didn’t develop the same fears. Unlike my parents, I wasn’t held at gunpoint by strange men. And unlike my younger sister, I hadn’t heard the gunshots and ran out into the living room to discover the mutilated body of a beloved relative. I didn’t witness men in Michelin man suits carting away his remains. I was asleep.
So naturally, the only thing that changed for me after that night was my sleep.
Piecing Together Fragments of the After
No terrors plagued my dreams. I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night screaming Bella Swan style. And I also experienced little difficulty falling asleep.
I did, however, become a light sleeper.
Gone were the nights when I laid my head on my pillow, passed out, and had to be dragged out of bed the next morning. Now, when I close my eyes, even the slightest disturbance wakes me. The pitter-patter of rain on the roof. A faint light seeping under my bedroom door. The midnight whispers of hushed conversation in the kitchen. Or the routine rumbles and creaking of my old apartment.
I find I need to go to bed physically and mentally exhausted, often with headphones in to enjoy a decent night’s sleep. And even then, I can’t sleep past 6 AM. It doesn’t matter what time I go to sleep; I wake up without fail and often without an alarm at or around 6 AM.
I’m not sure what changed in my body or why this happened. I mean, my family almost died, my uncle actually died, there were strange men in our home, and I was fast asleep. Maybe by sleeping through a murder, I experienced extreme FOMO and my subconscious declared, “this will never happen again” and adjusted my sleep patterns. This is pure speculation on my part. I’m not a therapist, although maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “you definitely need one, though.”
And it’s very possible that I do. Especially given that the event that I just described doesn’t even crack my top five list of most traumatizing childhood experiences.
Mostly, I think it’s fascinating that my 2 AM brain jumped down this rabbit hole into my childhood unprompted. Before that night, I hadn’t thought about this incident in years. It was one more unremarkable moment in a life filled with them. And I didn’t imagine that it had any meaningful impact on who I became. My jumpy 2 AM overthinking proved two things. One: Ted Mosby was right, and nothing good happens after 2 AM.
And two, the trauma you experience in childhood shapes your life in mysterious ways whether or not you’re aware of it. I’m 22 years old and a crazy, tragic circumstance I didn’t even witness at 8 years old might’ve fucked up my sleep forever. Isn’t that weird?
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