I’m always caught off guard by the physical process of letting go. It’s certain the new is upon me when I’m forced to take to my bed. When I begin to let go, I get sick. I’ve come down with shingles, cold sores, strep throat, winter flu, summer stomach bug—all manner of things to knock me flat, to force me to visit a doctor, to ask for help. In the end, letting go—in the sense of really changing—plays out as a physical process as much as a mental one. It comes down to some dotted line between thinking and feeling, a line I never know I’ve crossed until I’m sick and feverish and panicked at the realization that I’m different. No matter how fervent my resistance to change, at some point, there is a perceptible shift from old to new. Change is relentless and will not be diverted.
One of the surest indicators of change on the horizon (per the standard tropes of dream interpretation) is being pregnant in a dream. Dream pregnancy supposes that one’s conscious mind is brewing some fetal idea or urge. It’s understood that you might be ruminating about a nascent creative force or something you’ve been hiding from yourself. Or a truth you’re not ready to admit—or perhaps a life goal that won’t wait any longer. The nameless change you’re incubating in your dream life could be all new—a break through. Or it could be a breakdown waiting to happen, the long-awaited end of something. The state of gestation in dreams could be about letting go of something and embracing what follows next. One’s subconscious dutifully whirs about said change while one sleeps. In periods of great upheaval, I have been gravid each night for months on end.
In my waking life, I’ve been pregnant three times. For the record, each was completely unlike the other and none of them were anything like the dream.
From the beginning, my ex-husband and I wanted the same brass rings. Eighteen months into our courtship, we were engaged. Things progressed. We planned. We registered at Crate and Barrel and we had a wedding. We bought a house. Our first attempt at reproducing ended in miscarriage, an abruption so early as to have been genderless and formless to the naked eye. I know because I looked. The eye of the storm was a blob, a bean-shaped ball of cells, not yet a noun of consequence. Its loss was the realest grief I’d ever experienced, unfulfilled potential to the infinite power. I didn’t bounce back. So we moved. After the miscarriage, we moved away from Los Angeles to Texas. We got into two cars and we drove. Sent our things in a big truck. Began again. In Texas, I gave birth in succession to two baby boys, less than two years apart. Joss and Lev: brothers. Each one weighed 6lbs 2oz at birth.
Joss was just over a year old when Lev was diagnosed in-utero with heart defects. I spent the second half of my pregnancy on playgrounds and splashing in kiddie pools and pushing Joss in a swing in front of my neighbors’ house, in a black and anxious depression, chasing this small person who would not be convinced to lie quietly with me in my dark place. I rocked Joss to sleep every night in the rocking chair in his room, his little body laid across my swelling belly full of sick baby, singing Elvis Costello’s “Alison” until my voice broke, wondering how I would ever make this okay for any of us.
In the weeks that stretched into months after Lev was born, we lived in the hospital. Joss lived at home with grandparents. Joss, barely 2 and talking in bursts of garbled one-clause sentences, hadn’t asked to see Lev, hadn’t asked about him at all. We didn’t see the point in making the introduction. Joss finally asked about his brother during month four of Lev’s hospital stay and the staff helped us to bring Lev out of the ICU to an outdoor courtyard, still tethered to oxygen and a feeding tube. Joss peered over the edge of the stroller into the bassinet to see Lev. Both boys were quiet and regarded each other with blank stares. It was windy and strange and no one could make it feel less bleak. I cried. A few weeks after his first trip into the sun, Lev came home. As we prepared to leave the hospital, we took a family portrait with Lev tucked into his infant car seat. In the photo, Joss is still baby enough to be sucking a pacifier.
For the first two years of his life and into the third, Joss’s father and I lay in our bed listening to the peals of Joss’s tiny excited voice chirping disembodied nonsense words over the thrumming static-y speaker of the baby monitor. Joss would wake up two or ten times a night with no need or desire other than to get our attention and hold it. We’d take turns making a bed on the floor of his room trading rest for the pleasure of our son’s delight. In my fitful sleep, I’d dream of getting lost in the empty hallways of my high school, always tardy, always facing punishment. I would dream of riding on a luggage cart through the gates of a nameless airport, trying to catch a flight to Africa. Trying to get there before it was too late, wind in my hair, cloudless sky.
Joss’s life as a heavy sleeper began after we brought Lev home, as a coping mechanism, honed over the years he shared a room with the alarms of his sick little brother’s feeding pumps and IV infusions. Joss began to sleep. When the loud-beeping equipment was dismantled and carted from the nursery after Lev died, the heavy sleep stayed behind, vestigial. No need to keep quiet in the house. No bump in the night can wake him. He sleeps like a stone, leaden and smooth. Within a few moments of laying his head down, his face goes slack and placid. He exhales in giant sighs, pushes the bedclothes around with his feet, curls tighter around his pillow. Each shift of his pointy body is slow, no thrashing or moaning or starting from fright, no anxiety, no restlessness, no fear. To rouse him, one must physically touch his body—gently shake an arm or leg or press a kiss onto his cheek. When his eyes open, he is groggy but rested. Peaceful and pliant. Ready for whatever.
Joss is nearly nine now, a study in points and angles and recently picked scabs, with nothing left of the baby I nursed or the toddler I chased. In certain moments, I almost don’t recognize this grown, angular boy as my firstborn. Except, of course, for the fact that he’s a ringer for me when I was little—delicate and pretty with tangled hair and skinny limbs. He’s a storyteller and a perfectionist—like I was, analytical and anxious. I had no idea what paces he would be put through on the way through his first 8 years and even less idea how to help him not get crushed under the weight of loss and the burden of being wise and cynical before he was able to swim or tie his shoes. He won’t tell me what he dreams about, if he dreams. I’m not sure if he does.
If he’d lived, Lev would be seven. I can almost imagine it. His smile would be a jagged relief of missing baby teeth. His limbs would be gangly and marked with the scrapes and scratched bug bites of an adventurous life—a life lived digging for things with found sticks. His feet would stink like hell and outgrow shoes at a breakneck pace. When he died, although he was three years old, he was the size of a one year old. For better or for worse, Lev remains tiny. A toddler in diapers, with short legs and a round belly. He had a fuzzy head of hair recently growing back from chemotherapy. His torso was crisscrossed with the pits and slashes of scars from innumerable procedures to fix the unfixable and one of his eyes drooped as a result of brain surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. He was often frustrated or angry or in pain: his life was a lot of that. Above all, Lev was a strident and joyful person: a person who was not afraid to ask for help, a person who was not afraid to look like a fool. He slept well. He loved his brother. He loved to sing. He loved junk food and dried cranberries and especially pancakes and mac and cheese. He loved the Muppet Show. And he’s gone now. Found and always missing.
I dream of Lev often. In my dreams, he’s visiting from wherever he’s been, from wherever the dead go to rest. From nowhere or somewhere between dead and alive and I have to parent him. Again. And I’m rustier each time, because he’s been gone and life has gone on and I’m unused to him. Sometimes he’s in the hospital, still fragile and sick in my dream logic. We’re separated by multiple iterations of windows. I can see him, but I can’t touch or hear him; I phone the nurses in his room and watch through the glass as they answer my questions and tend to his needs. In these dreams, everyone else is mad with joy to see Lev again. It’s a miracle. Lev is back. But I know, even in the dreams, that he’s still dead and he’ll be gone again soon. I’m not happy to see him. In every dream, I need to learn how to nurture the version of Lev who’s come to visit. And when I wake up, I need to learn, again, how to raise a ghost.
Life, once expansive, is now pocket-sized. Until we flew the white flag, I lived with Joss and Lev and their father in a sprawling house on a piece of land where our muscular, overfed dog would run all day and chase squirrels. Our children had a sandbox. We had walk-in closets overflowing with sweaters and winter coats no one needs in Texas, and built-in bookcases in the living room, full of our textbooks from college and every collected thing we’d ever hoped to read proudly displayed for the world. After the maelstrom, the sickness, there’s the weakening that happens after; the breakdown of infrastructure, the cholera in the dirty water. But you recover. Joss and I live in a boxy ground floor apartment with our grey-muzzled, shrinking dog. We have cacti. We’re three blocks away from his dad, walking distance from the grocery store (to which we promenade with our wheeled basket to pick up watermelons and cereal and dog food) and the movie-theater and good Indian food. Joss has two bookcases in his bedroom. And I have two bookcases in mine, full of books I’ve read and loved and framed photos of my boys and Lev’s green converse and a misshapen ceramic turtle Joss made in the second grade. The slate is cleared of everything non-essential.
Joss left for his vacation with his father this summer and I spent a week in bed with a cold that wiped out every bit of energy I had, forced me to lay and think. To read and listen. To sleep and sleep. Twice this week I’ve been pregnant in dreams. Awake, I whir and ruminate, always trying to fix and solve. Asleep, the incubation continues unimpeded and tritely symbolic. Something is coming. Something has changed. Something is changing. It’s so small. My whole life can fit into the belly of my dreams. So small, I can’t see it with the naked eye. I know. I’ve looked.
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.