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Nightmares and Realities

December 11, 2013

When I was little, I would dream that my father had died. I felt sick, lost. My sister perished too, on at least one occasion; she fell asleep on the couch in our living room and never woke up. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had very vivid and emotionally intense dreams that I could often remember in detail. When I compare myself to Ragnar, who very rarely remembers dreaming at all, it feels like a superpower. Except when those dreams are nightmares.

I never did dream of my mother’s death. Though I was a very imaginative child, it was beyond me to comprehend a tragedy that so fundamentally violated my sense of self. I could more readily dream of my own death. There was a very disturbing one in which I died and was consigned to go on living with my family, except that they could no longer see or hear me.  I could not imagine my mother’s death. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I told her of this anomaly. “I could handle anyone else, Mom,” I said. “But not you. Anyone but you.”

I heard a radio program the other day in which the host discussed the preponderance of world leaders and successful businesspeople who had lost a parent in their youth. The theory goes that, once you’ve experienced the worst thing that could happen to you, and you’ve moved on, you realize you can do anything. I’ve lived through the worst thing that could happen to me. But I don’t know that I could do it again.

The flip side of having conquered you own hell is this: You are no longer naive. You know that the worst can happen to you, and you have no difficulty imagining it. This morning, as I was sleeping, Asher died in my arms. He woke up gasping for air, and though I rushed to him there was nothing I could do. A sense of disbelief and violation pervaded the rest of the dream. Everywhere I went, everyone seemed to know and stare at me, the woman whose son had just died (a throwback to my senior year, no doubt). Though many of the situational particulars of my dream make no sense, my feelings were very real, and traceable to my feelings after my mother died.

To quote Isobel Crawley of Downton Abbey, “When your only child dies, you’re not a mother anymore. You’re just nothing.” I was just nothing, What would I do? Go back to work until I had another baby, tread water until my life came together again? But it was impossible for me to have another child. I couldn’t risk it again. And I couldn’t experience that same motherly happiness again with another child. It would be betrayal. I was doomed to revel in grief and uselessness until I died, and I prayed that would be soon. Perhaps I would make it be soon. I began to breathe faster and faster. I couldn’t stop. And then suddenly, my eyes opened to the dark and still bedroom around me, and my breath slowed. Asher was peacefully and healthfully sleeping in the next room. All was well.

My mother’s death robbed me of my sense of complacency. Many times when Ragnar has been late getting home from work I have imagined that he’s been in a car accident. My mind quickly traces what I will do, how I will proceed with the business of living and making a life again. It’s reflexive. This tendency has guided many of my biggest decisions, particularly the choice to earn an education and prove to myself that I could provide for my family if anything were to happen to my husband, all before I decided to have a child.

Scarlett O’hara is probably my favorite literary heroine, and one of the reasons Gone With The Wind is among my favorite books. Scarlett’s world collapsed again and again—starting with the loss of her mother—but she always came out swinging. I would like to say I relate. I wish I could say that losing my mother at a young age gave me a sense of invincibility. If you had asked me two years ago, I would have said it did.  But since I became a mother myself, things have changed. My very definition of myself, my role in life, is to raise this child. And if something were to happen to him, what would I be? How could I go on being at all? I can imagine it. I have imagined it so many times. But I am no better equipped to deal with it than I ever was.

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