“Even if she be not harmed, her heart may fail her in so much and so many horrors; and hereafter she may suffer–both in waking, from her nerves, and in sleep, from her dreams.”
There was a time in my life when sleep was neutral territory, mostly hospitable, occasionally lacking, but the stuff of nightmares was rare, and the nightmares themselves didn’t have all that much potency. The roof of our house was chewed clean through by termites; I forgot to attend algebra class all semester and was about to fail the final exam; the neighbor’s black cat stalked me, rabies spreading frothy across his teeth—but the dreams always became lucid, the potential terrors subdued, and then fully extinguished before I woke up.
Much more cogent in my memory were my sister’s whimpers when we were little and shared a bedroom upstairs and she would wake up in the middle of the night, and the whimpers would transmute into the squawks of a bird young and afraid, and our parents would come trudging down the hall and my sister would describe the horror of our father’s transformation into Darth Maul or the butterflies that were biting, gnawing into her shoulders and feet, and no matter the content, her alarm was palpable—sweaty palms, rapid heart-rate, tears.
As my sister got older, she no longer screamed with the nightmares. Instead, she drifted into the hallway—silent, ephemeral—and tucked herself into a nest of quilts and blankets beside our parents’ bed, letting their even breaths lull her back to sleep. Eventually, I moved downstairs into my own bedroom (what had once been the playroom), and I forgot about her nightmares and her salty tears and the lights flashing on at one in the morning.
Throughout my early and mid-twenties, I’ve been haunted by a nightmare that won’t go away. I don’t know when the nightmare initially came, not exactly—if it was right after my mother’s death eight years ago from ovarian cancer or sometime later. The cancer had metastasized to her lymph nodes, her brain, her lungs. My mother took her last breath when I was on a red-eye 40,000 feet in the air, hoping to get home before she died. All this occurred two weeks before I moved 2,500 miles across the United States for my first year of college.
It’s difficult to describe this nightmare in words, as is often the case with nightmares, because the associated fear is inherently ineffable, subject to a logic coded within each unique person, fingerprint grooves embedded in our psyches.
The detail I remember most vividly from the day my mother died: catching a glimpse of the paramedics carrying the black body bag down the stairs behind me. Not a direct glimpse – a distorted glimpse in the decorative mirror above the dining room table. I was talking to Jon, a friend, a best friend, someone who was supposed to be distracting me even though he didn’t know it. But I saw it anyway, saw the paramedics barely tense under the weight of her, and I remember thinking, as an 18-year-old, I should not be allowed to see this. I wondered what else I hadn’t seen, what else my father, the nurses, my own mother had been vigilant enough to hide.
In the nightmare, this recurring nightmare, there are certain givens, aspects of the nightmare that will not yield to permutations. For instance, my mother is always still alive. The reason? Somebody made a mistake. The doctor told us she was dead and he or she was mistaken. The coroner thought she was dead and he or she was mistaken. We thought she was dead and we were mistaken. Despite how dead she seemed, at some point, my mother begins to breathe again. She begins to walk again, she begins to talk again. She is alive.
There is a caveat, of course. In the nightmare, my mother is always still dying, soon to be (actually) dead, the cancer having infiltrated just as it had in real life, and so in comes the central conflict—do I tell anybody of this strange doomed miracle? Call my grandma, e-mail my aunts and uncles, send Facebook messages to my closest friends? Or do I pretend that my mother continues to be dead rather than alive and dying, because what is the point of changing the narrative if everything is going to turn out the same again?
I don’t decide. In the dream, I can’t. How to omit such a truth, that my mother is alive! Yet, what a cruelty to others, for this reigniting of life to be blown out so quickly. Why put everyone through that? Would I even want that if I were given a choice? I imagine the answer would be no. Aside from the obvious, to relive those first days of grief yet again, there is also a truth that is hard to admit—she wasn’t herself by the end. Parts of her had been dying for months, her personhood wasting away. Eventually, when my mother gave up on the chemo, when she was in the ebbing weeks of hospice, I wanted her to die, so that she would no longer be in pain, yes, but also so that I no longer had to sit with this specter, this skeletal being who had once been mine.
Growing up, I was unusually optimistic, especially in my middle school years. My sister would come home from school and slam down her backpack and complain about running too many laps in P.E. and getting too many fractions for homework and Kate abandoning her for some boy or another and I would say, “But, there must have been one good thing that happened today, right?”
For most, middle school is the worst. The physical changes of puberty, emotional angst and hormonal pendulums, spite-filled betrayals. My mother was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage IV, the summer before I began 7th grade.
But in my 13-year-old mind, my optimism wasn’t really out of place. I received high grades at school without having to work very hard. I didn’t have a huge group of friends but enough close ones, Aaron and Eric and Taylor and James, and because I was still tomboyish, I avoided the drama of middle school girls that my sister experienced so acutely. My friends and I spent our time beating each other up in Super Smash Brothers and filming parodies of our favorite films on James’ video camera. I played soccer and saxophone; I was a starter on the local all-star team and the only 8th grader to get into the high school jazz band. I was a writer and had already finished my first novel, over 100,000 words, more than I’ve ever written since, with developed characters and a plot and what I still consider to be a good twist at the end. I was convinced that I would be published and famous before the end of high school, the kind of child prodigy you read about in newspapers and magazines.
Finally, my mother’s cancer was gone by the end of 7th grade. Full remission. No more chemo. No more hair loss. She ate the healthiest diet I had ever seen, entire plates of raw or lightly steamed carrots and beets and greens for breakfast. She exercised regularly, took handfuls of vitamins and supplements, and drank teas filled with herbs and bits of tree bark prescribed by practitioners of Eastern medicine. I didn’t know what stage IV ovarian cancer meant when I was 13, that the cancer would probably come back. I didn’t know anything about my mother’s expected lifespan or lack thereof (in 2016, the 5-year survival rate was only 17%, and 8 years earlier, it was lower than 5%). As far as I was concerned, she had won, the cancer only serving to prove my mother’s invincibility. We all thought that way—my dad, my sister, and even my mom, who was most aware of the realities of her diagnosis. To believe anything else was too hard, too difficult to conceive. And even with the likelihood of survival so low (and lower still once one considered the mortality rates 10 years after diagnosis), the percentage who lived was still greater than 0, and we—family and friends, coworkers and neighbors—were convinced she would make it. If anyone could defy such odds, we agreed it was my mother.
I have not felt unconditionally loved since my mother’s death, or not, at least, in a way approximating how safe, how encouraged I felt when she was still alive, when I could feel her touch against me, my ear against her ribcage, her heartbeat, her arms around my shoulders. This is unfair, I know, this judgment. Yet it’s the truth of the feeling, the feeling that the loves I experience now seem either conditional or hierarchical, different loves, loves that leave me wondering if I will ever feel as fulfilled again. I wonder if I will ever be as happy as I once was or if that’s impossible now, if that happiness is a limit I’ll only be able to approach but never meet.
My father’s love feels conditional. Yes, he always says “I love you” at the end of a phone call and he gives me a check on my birthday, and I can’t imagine what I would have to do for him to stop talking to me. What I mean by conditional is that my father’s love depends on compromise, and by compromise, I mean that I must compromise what I want—I must take what I’m given and ask for no more. He cannot be more expressive of his emotions. He cannot send me care packages in the mail without me having to bother him for months about doing so. He cannot maintain a conversation by asking me more questions about what’s going on in my life. He cannot cheer me up. He’s just not like that.
Last year, when I was having a particularly stressful argument with my roommate and I told him all the nuances of the incident on the phone, his response was, “Just gotta keep that chin up, I guess,” followed by an achingly long silence. I understand this. My father’s mother died of breast cancer when he was 3 or 4 years old, his stepmother from lung cancer when he was 14, his wife from ovarian cancer when he was 52. To be vulnerable, to truly acknowledge the trauma he has experienced, this is too much for him. I just wish things were different.
My sister’s love, on the other hand, feels like a dying star in the night sky, a burst of effervescence followed by a burning out. For several years at a time we’ll talk, once or twice a week, and I will swear to this love’s consistency, to its constancy. But my sister is implosive. At times, I become repulsive to her—conniving, egotistical, undeserving of her love. As I write this, it has been over seven months since she’s been willing to speak to me in person or on the phone, and the few e-mails I’ve received from her over that time have been filled with a venom for which I don’t have the antidote. Whereas in the past I have been “the best sister ever” and “kind” and “generous” and “a role model,” now I am “vindictive” and “profoundly disrespectful” and “deeply hurtful” and “have done everything in my power to make [my sister] …miserable” because I was not a supportive enough attendee at her graduation from her MFA, a degree in music composition from a low-residency program in Vermont.
My sister, too, has her reasons. She was 14 when our mother died, and she has felt this absence just as acutely as I have, if not more so, because of the 3 & 1⁄2 years more I got with my mother than she did. My sister spent her high school years dealing with friends who were unsympathetic to her mourning, with teachers and administrators unsympathetic to her grief, her sadness, her anxieties. Her MFA cohort, her roommates in Boston—these were supportive, positive forces in her life, and now they are elements of a phase that has passed.
My sister and I have fought before and we have reset, as if nothing had happened. But it has never taken this long before, and I worry that our relationship has been tainted, our closeness dissolved in some irreparable way.
The last man I dated was a police investigator named Jed. We were together for three months, though it felt like more. He listened to me when I spoke of my family, of the challenges I faced. He nodded and gave the occasional reassuring affirmation. But he never really got it. His parents are divorced and he sees each maybe once a year, if not less. He has two half-siblings—a brother more than a decade older, a sister over a decade younger—and they rarely communicate as well. He joined the Navy at 18, and after that he moved to Alaska, a state as far away from any blood relations as he could get.
Jed broke up with me recently. He said it was because he was starting to like me too much and that our future paths were too different from one another; he didn’t want to get hurt. He is planning to stay in Tuscaloosa for the indefinite future, to spend 15 more years working for the police force so that he can collect his pension, and as a graduate student, he knows that I’m likely to leave, even though I wouldn’t move away from Tuscaloosa for at least a year and a half. I tried to explain to Jed that even if he were dating someone who wanted to live in Tuscaloosa forever, there are no guarantees in relationships, especially ones that have only existed for three months. I tried to explain that there is always the possibility of heartbreak, that to fall in love is to be vulnerable and to be vulnerable is to risk getting hurt, not matter the circumstances.
But he was right. I would never stay in Alabama for Jed. I could never love him, but I loved his touch, the way we would spend weekends spread across the couch like beached whales, binge-watching episodes of 30 Rock, his muscular Nordic arms wrapped around my waist as we both fell asleep. That was the part of our relationship I so dreaded giving up. That was the part I didn’t want to end.
A few mornings after we broke up, I opened my front door to find a bag of Pedigree dog food on my welcome mat, the only possession of mine I had left at Jed’s place. The next week, I mailed him the house key he had given me, placing it into a Ziploc baggy so that it wouldn’t accidentally fall out of the envelope.
When I have the nightmare, I often wake up soaking, my shirt and pajama pants sticking cold and wet to my skin. I have to change into different clothes. I have to get a drink of water. I have to turn on the light and remake the bed to get into it once more as if I am just starting my night’s sleep.
Recently, I had the nightmare again. My mother was alive again. My mother was sick again. But this time, she made a decision. She would wait a month so she could live to see her 60th birthday, and then she would kill herself.
There is no convincing her otherwise, no matter how hard I try. She has already bought the pistol at a yard sale. She is going to go through with her plan—the metal muzzle of the gun icy in her mouth, the bullet spraying out blood and fragments of skull.
Among the hierarchies of love is a deep love, a pure love, something approaching unconditional love. Aunt Kim loves me in this manner. So does Cathy, a close family friend. But I am not one of their children (Jaclyn or Paul or Kyle or Derek), and I am not one of their grandchildren (Noah or Madeline or Julia or Wyatt), and I am not a significant other (neither Stan nor Terry). I am not prioritized, and I understand this.
And then there is friendship, which is hierarchical in its own way, a complex multicellular system continuously in flux, or maybe an infinitely complicated scoreboard, and I never know how many points I’ve got. I don’t feel this way so much in Los Angeles, where my social groups are dispersed across such a broad plane of networks that opportunities for jealousy and apprehension are mitigated by the constant potential for social interaction on any given day. There is a tendency to be open and honest with people you’ve just met. Maybe it’s because there’s a loneliness in a city so big, a loneliness that everyone shares, or maybe it’s because the person you splash your feelings upon at a party or a bar or a BBQ, well, you can become fast friends or you might never see each other again. There are fewer “best” friends. There are more “just” friends.
As a graduate student at the University of Alabama, there is an insularity, a bubble with soapy edges that confine one to a limited number of options. I’m good at meeting new people, at making new friends, yet I often don’t feel like I can be myself. I am extroverted where others are introverted. I am single where others have settled down with fiancés or spouses. I am a floater between groups while others focus on making a single best friend or two. I have fragmented interests that lend themselves to dispersion rather than convergence. I have issues with trust that probably manifest in ways I’m not even aware of. I want to be open, to be “real” with my friends, and I want my friends to feel the same about me. But it’s easier to be the funny one, the nice one, the intellectual one, a flattened character who provides sustenance to others without asking much in return.
My first year of my graduate program, I thought, if I was just kind enough, if I just reached out enough to others, cooked them dinner, baked them dessert, demonstrated that I care about them, at some point, they would want to reciprocate. This year, I’ve stopped doing that. No matter how much of myself I try to give away, I cannot make people give me their love.
In the nightmare, I am afraid of others’ judgment, that they will think me unreliable, deceitful, perhaps deliberately so, if I tell them about what has happened. I will be called a liar. I will be vilified, however much I acknowledge the unlikelihood of the circumstances. But I want to tell them: She’s alive! Don’t you understand?