The other night, I woke from a nightmare. It was so vivid, so real, I had to write it down to purge myself of it so that I could return to sleep:
I was doing therapy in an old, sprawling, Victorian house with a woman going through a divorce. Initially, she was there to share some concerns about her child, but she wound up talking about herself. I had the sense that walking would put her at ease, so we wandering from room to room, still talking.
In the kitchen we encountered her ex-husband. After a brief exchange, he left. The woman and I stayed and talked a bit, until I noticed her ex-husband’s outline through a frosted glass door and realized he was eavesdropping. I was reluctant to leave the space, thinking to myself, "there's something so intimate about kitchens.” But, I wanted to protect her confidentiality, so we walked on. Suddenly, Sophie was in my arms in that inexplicable dream-like way. I carried her as we walked through an area that had a high, slanted, leaded glass ceiling. Golden, fiery balls were falling from the sky, crashing through the roof, shattering the glass all around us, setting the ground aflame. "Oh." I thought, "it's the golden balls of hail," as if recalling a weather report or a prophecy I had previously heard. I shielded Sophie with my body, as I tried to find my way out of the room. Sophie was fascinated by the balls, staring up at them, pointing to one that was aglow with several different colors. I, on the other hand, was terrified. Everywhere there was splintering glass. I had to run, holding Sophie while looking up to avoid being hit. One golden ball of hail grazed her back. I panicked. We, Sophie, my client, and I, headed outside, quickly determining it was safer than being in the glass-ceiling room. Seeking shelter, we headed back towards the front door of the building, dodging the hail as we went. We could hear the screams of other people in the street, wounded, dying. Just as we finally reached the front door, the hail let up. We had made it through. A woman lay on the steps, moaning. There were bits of blood and what looked like brains on the ground. "What happened?" I cried stupidly, alarmed. "She's been hit." said my client, trying to comfort the woman in her last moments. I couldn't shield Sophie from this awful sight. And then, I woke up.
Since the recent earthquake and floods, my dreams have been morbid. Full of death and destruction. Apocalyptic. Now, more than ever, I am acutely aware that my time on this Earth is limited.
Just days later, three-year-old Sophia shared this dream with me:
“I was in grandma’s kitchen, saving a piece of my pizza crust. I leaned back in my chair and fell down. It made a big hole in the floor. Blood came out of my head. It felt like it had wood chunks inside. Grandma put me in bed in my room. Blood came out on the pillow. I sat up. And grandma put a Band-Aid on it. I felt better.” Which is, presumably, when I walked into the room and found her sitting up in bed, bewildered, but calm.
As she recounted the events of her dream, what I found most remarkable about it was how completely unperturbed she was. I listened, hoping my face didn’t betray my shock that this was the stuff of her dreams—violent and sanguinary as my own.
Sophie talks a lot about death, now. Just today, we were looking at a photograph of her classmates from her first year in nursery school. “They’re not dead,” she remarked. “I just don’t see them any more.” Again, I tried not to miss a beat. “That’s right,” I said, “they’re not dead. They’re in kindergarten.”
She’s working on the concept. Trying to make sense of what becomes of the dead. Her first encounter with death occurred a year ago. It was in a field, while we were picking raspberries. A rat lay lifeless on the ground. She stood over it, wondering at his still form. “It’s not alive anymore,” I told her, avoiding the word dead. My explanation seemed to satisfy her. She enjoyed recalling the story, of finding the rat that was no longer alive.
About a month ago, the grandfather of one of her friends died. She caught me off guard with the inevitable question, “What does it mean to be dead?”
“Well,” I replied slowly, “it’s like the rat. His body is no longer alive. He’s not with us anymore. His body stopped working. But even after a person is dead you can keep him alive in your mind, by thinking about him.”
Again, she seemed satisfied. I followed the psychological guideline of discussing difficult subjects…sex…divorce…death…with young ones: when they stop asking, stop offering.
Still, she continues to grapple with the concept of mortality. In Beauty and the Beast, Gaston gives the war whoop, “Kill the beast!” And later, the beast lies dying in Belle’s arms, only to be resurrected by her love. Sophia recycles this storyline over and over again in her play. As if through the enactment, she will gain some mastery over it. “Daddy, you be the beast,” she instructs. “But be a nice beast.” When Kevin treads on delicate ground, baring his teeth and growling at her, she squeals, half fearful/half delighted, “No! Don’t kill me! Be a nice beast!”
Sophie, with her egocentric orientation to the world, is the boss of death.
For me, the impetus to reflect on my mortality (outside of all of the natural disasters of late), is this no-mans-land of middle age. The recognition that my life may, in fact, be half over. Time is now measured in what I have left, not what I have ahead of me. Suddenly it feels short, time borrowed. I am at death’s mercy:
Death is the boss of me.
Last night, I was having dinner with my family at a soda shop that caters to kids. I took a bite of my salad, swallowed, and felt something hard lodge in my chest. I suddenly lost the ability to breathe. Panicked and choking, I stood. A cranberry shot out of me, from somewhere deep within my trachea. I felt it scratch the raw interior of my airway as a cough propelled it out of my body. As I sat back down all I could think was: what if that had been it? In front of my daughter. My husband. And my mother, who had joined us for dinner.
Life is that tenuous. Or at least it seems so to me. My existence is not special. I have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, but I could be taken down by a cranberry. In a soda shop. In front of my kid.
Our dreams can offer us the illusion of control. In my case, not only can I dodge death, but I can shield my daughter from it. In Sophie’s case, she can confront it and emerge the victor. Graceful, but futile attempts at either end of the spectrum to extend our limited time together.