At five this morning, I woke. I was panting and tangled in sheets. It was a nightmare so realistic that I thought I could smell death in the room for a full five minutes as I lay trembling. I had to look in on my daughter. I got out of bed and went to her door. I stood outside desperately wanting to make sure she was lying in her bed and still breathing. In the dream she was in bed, but she wasn’t breathing. She was rotting. I hadn’t noticed.
“She was always so quiet, you know,” I would say guiltily when the police came to take the report. In my dream, I deleted all the text messages on my phone for fear that they would be hung in the breeze with all the other dirty laundry when I was on trial for neglect.
Even after I caught my breath, I couldn’t sleep anymore. I thought that I should workout and grab my shower, move on with the distracting tasks of the day, and get a head start. I lay listening to my own heartbeat and thinking. I started to cry. I know how I feel about my daughter, about all my children. They aren’t neglected. They have a sense of how thoroughly (if imperfectly) they are loved. I felt the shadow of sadness that often comes of ancient sorrow; I know my own mother never felt this way for me.
In the dream, I couldn’t look at my daughter’s decomposing corpse, not even to confirm that she was dead. I called a friend to come and check. When he returned, he gave a flat report, “Yep, you were right. She’s dead.” The scariest part: I responded exactly how I thought I was supposed to respond, but I didn’t actually feel it. I didn’t feel anything at all. I felt only a bottomless emptiness, and I fell into it, just as my mother probably did—my mother, who may well be, at this very moment, rotting in a dark house in an almost-forgotten Midwestern suburb.
Sometimes dreams are just dreams—random. Sometimes, they give a glimpse into our deepest fears. My worst nightmare has always been that I would come to live a numb, depressed, self-absorbed life, clinging to dusty resentments while my children rot; that I could become just like my mother.
I opened my daughter’s door a crack. I had to check on her, even at the risk of waking her. She stirred lightly, her soft, steady breath affirmed her life, and mine.