Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of the week.
WILLIAM DEMENT, Newsweek, Nov. 30, 1959
We are on the roof of a tall city building, white sky all around us. There is no barrier on this nightmare roof, no parapet to keep us from falling over the edge to certain death. There are two of us in that odd lonely space. I am one. Cliff is the other. I can sense the presence of others on the rough gravel surface but they are like ghosts, white, unformed, almost invisible, as if an artist, in rendering the scene, had run out of paint. I am far, too far from him as he closes the gap between himself and the brink, and so I scream, “NO!” He doesn’t seem to hear me, or at any rate he won’t acknowledge my existence except to glance at me as he backs up. I continue to scream and implore those others, the faceless beings floating in place like useless sentries, to help. Cliff is oblivious to the danger he is in, doesn’t understand that this space between us means I can’t help him in time. They say most dreams last only seconds, but my screaming and fright feels endless, because even though I try to run to save him I know I cannot. Just as I get close, holding both arms out towards him, he falls backwards and is gone.I wake, shaken, frightened, disturbed, horrified. I think, “Oh, God, God.” There is no sleep for me until I get up to check on him, because I worry that my sixth sense is telling me he may be in some sort of distress and I need to help him. When I reach his bedroom, standing and staring, waiting to observe the rise and fall of his chest as he breathes, I see reflected in his mirrored wall, the depths of my own worst fears.
I used to see a therapist who asked me if I tended to "catastrophize" everything. I thought about the time Max didn’t come home all night. I kept waiting for the police to call to tell me he was thrown from his car or had been robbed and beaten. In 1974, in Buffalo, New York where I went to college, my roommate Mary wanted to have a Halloween party. Reluctantly I went along with it, all the time having serious doubts that more than maybe a couple of people would come. She was a witch; I was Malcolm McDowell’s character from “A Clockwork Orange”. We sat on the couch, waiting for the people to show up. I kept looking at the heaping plates of chicken wings and celery with blue cheese we had carefully placed on the vinyl-covered table and felt sorry for her because we had gone to all that trouble for nothing. Two years ago, I felt a lump in my left breast and began to think about what I would say in the farewell video I would record for Olivia, Max and Cliff, telling them how honored I was to be their mother; in a fantasy where I am not actually a jealous wife, I rehearsed a speech in which I would tell Ken he should try to fall in love again.
I told the therapist that, yes, I certainly did have a propensity towards unwarranted worrying. I refused the pills she offered to me, arriving at the conclusion that there is a part of me that feels if I worry less, something bad will happen. Possibly, the fight or flight thing won’t kick in when it’s supposed to, and then where would that leave me?
It would seem that wide awake or in the surrender of REM sleep, I have a constellation of fears probably not all that different from the rest of the human race. At times I let it take over, leaving me open to an imagination bent on scaring the hell out of me. But I always, always get a hold of myself. (I am reminded of the scene in the movie “Moonstruck” where Loretta slaps Ronny twice, saying, “Snap out of it!”.)
However, there is still the question of Cliff and my recurring nightmare and the reasons behind it. I suppose one doesn’t have to be a student of Freud to understand that deep down, I don’t believe I can protect him from hurt, from disappointment, from sadness, from leukemia, from Alzheimer’s, from missing his old job.
What I don’t understand is how everyone else seems to be walking around singing “Que Sera Sera”. I’m looking at them, wondering, “How do you DO that?”
The answer at which I have arrived has something to do with faith and hope. I have faith that everything will be okay, and I hope I’m not wrong. Also, even with all my insecurities, my fears, and wild assumptions, I would argue that I am both rational and sane. That is, can I really expect to have that much control over what happens? Sometimes, I have to consider that those other people (the ones who are singing) are probably struggling too from time to time, waking up in the middle of the night with a feeling something is terribly, terribly wrong.
Max was neither thrown from his car nor beaten and robbed. He fell asleep (i.e. passed out) at someone’s house where he’d been partying. Halloween, 1974 in Buffalo turned out to be a success; there were so many people we ran out of chicken wings. The lump in my breast turned out to be a cyst.
In my recurrent dream concerning a city roof high above the unforgiving ground, I waken with a pounding heart. Unable to go back to sleep, I quietly leave my room and enter my son’s. I remember to be quiet because he wakes up at a pin drop. It’s the middle of the night and he’s still breathing. As I leave, I pass Max’s closed door, then Olivia’s, touching each with a flat hand like some sort of bizarre blessing. I do this without forethought, but afterwards, all is peaceful and right. And bad dreams are stalled for a good long while. These are not the actions of a crazy woman, just one who loves deeply and worries too much for her own good.