The subconscious has its own way of saying goodbye
My mother died one year ago today, yet she remains deeply present in my life — largely through our dreams together, which seem to be multiplying. Most of these nocturnal reunions skip into oblivion as soon as I wake. When a dream is particularly vivid, though, I try to scrawl its contours in my dream journal.
Still half asleep in the dark, I’ll write blind before the movie in my mind flickers out. And somehow, these half-conscious scribbles are surprisingly decipherable. Like hieroglyphics, they provide just enough imagery — stairs, foliage, faces, signs — to bring the mental story right back to me. In this way, the recent dreams involving my mother have re-emerged like prose-poems from the subconscious — or some other metaphysical zone. Consider this one:
I’m back in my childhood neighborhood with Mom as my guide, photographing all the old houses before they’re gone. She reminds me who lived in which glass house. The O’Neils. The Steinmetzes. The Bigelows and Barkentins. All now gone, though she is here. We trudge through the woods, needing to catch up, to explore, to remember where the Amusement Park is before it, too, is gone.
We never had an easy relationship, my mother and me. I moved 3,000 miles away from her when I was 26, and for the next four decades I visited only once or twice a year. I phoned each week, but my mother did most of the talking and rarely asked questions, in part because her hearing was failing and she refused to get hearing aids until she was in her nineties. She adapted to email, which allowed more information to flow, but our interactions were what she liked to call “congenial.” Friendly and careful, but not exactly intimate.
We loved each other, but we had very different ways of loving. Hers brooked no criticism, and mine hungered for honesty and trust. That held us at an impasse, loving each other across a chasm of frustrated longing — on both our parts.
Now I’m forever late and racing to get to her dream house. Searching for the right subway. Chasing the boat or train. Trying to remember the route to the airport before my plane takes off. Not hard to interpret these, since circumstance prevented me from seeing my mother for the last four months of her life. The pandemic roared back through her nursing home last January, and none of her family could get to her at the very end. She had just turned 101.
Years ago, when the first of my mother’s close friends died, another acquaintance commented that my relationship with this quasi-godmother would remain the same. What he meant was that I lived so far away physically, I hadn’t seen her since we were young, so I was already relating to her almost entirely through the realm of memory and stories. And death could take nothing from her in that realm. My mother’s friend was still just as present as ever to me.
This is true of my mother now, too. Except that she lives on with me, in me, in a way that finally feels both trusting and intimate. I no longer fear triggering her unpredictable temper. I have the patience in my dreams to listen and appreciate her many passions and curiosities. And we can agree that we’ve always understood and cared for each other more than we could say.
My favorite dream after death came to me just about nine months after my mother died. It fills me with hope. And love. And healing. This:
My brother and I are clearing out Mom’s house, and she is with us. But she’s old. When I step inside, she wanders off. We give chase, and I find her, but she shrinks to the size of a moth. I try to hold her little body, but I drop her, and she hits her head on the curb. I feel her heart and hold her against my chest, terrified, trying not to crush her. At last she stirs. I open my hands, and she flies away. Free.
This story first appeared on December 28, 2022, as part of the final blog posted by the exquisite Cai Emmons, who, herself, flew away from us just five days later, on January 2, 2023. I hope Cai, too, will return to my dreams often and forever.
For two years and with extraordinary courage and joy, Cai chronicled her journey with ALS and her preparations for Death with Dignity. I encourage you to read her stories. They will change you for good — in all the best senses of that word.