Back in graduate school, long before I met N or even thought about parenthood beyond the abstract, I had what I think was a panic attack. That’s the practical, likely name for it. I woke up in bed, certain that someone was sitting on my chest and holding my arms down. I couldn’t breathe or speak or scream, and I intensely wanted to do all of those things. A Chinese-American friend told me later that she thought it was a hungry ghost, and I spent a lot of time thinking of old nightmare stories where the mare doesn’t refer to horse but to a goblin or hag or unspecified supernatural being (usually female) that sits on top of a person and feeds off of their terror.
But I was living in a dark apartment in graduate student housing in a new (to me) city, and was teaching for the first time under the supervision of a mentor who never answered any of my questions or took any interest in my teaching except as a way to get out of teaching himself. So “panic attack” seems to be a good diagnosis. Reasonable, recognized, scientific. I am a logical person, with a fairly skeptical mind, and panic is easier to talk about than supernatural attack. But I’ve never been able to wean myself away from superstition and the belief in things unseen (or I’d be happily atheist right now). I’ll never know if voicing my anxieties kept the nightmare from coming back, or if it was the rowan berries and twigs I tucked into the corners of my windows and over my door.
I used to dream about saving the world. I was Girl Robin Hood, or the person with superpowers who dived into the sea to turn back the darkness and the monsters, or the leader with a plan. I was fierce and powerful and beautiful in my dreams. That nightmare in graduate school made an impression on me not only because of the substance and terror of it, but because it was such an aberration.
I don’t dream as much now, and my dreams have softened. I haven’t saved the world in a long time, though I once gave the god Thor a really great kiss before he went off to die in Ragnarök, and enjoyed the dream-privilege of Neil Gaiman babysitting Dot in his apartment so that I could have time to do some writing. Good stuff, but I sometimes miss being the hero myself. I think that might be a part of me forever lost with Teddy’s death.
Last night I dreamed that I turned my back on Teddy and he died. He was Dot’s age, in my dream – a little boy with short fair hair and some sort of internal injury. And I pulled him out of a bus – or a plane – or something – and held him before laying him on the ground next to a stranger. And Teddy was hallucinating, calling the stranger “Daddy” and talking about what they were going to do tomorrow. I wanted to keep holding him, to stay, but someone told my that Teddy couldn’t be moved, and that we needed to drive others to safety, and I heard a small gasp, then turned around, and he was dead. And then I woke up and he was (of course) still dead, and I cried in a way I haven’t for a long time and then overslept and had to push to get everyone up and out of the house.
It’s warm summer here – I fling the windows open in the evenings and rush to shut them and keep the cool air inside in the mornings. I’m aware, especially so this morning, that the warmth and smells and sounds are pulling me back to those days of hope and desperation before Teddy’s birth and to the dumb, raw grief that followed. Still. Still, I feel this. And this nightmare of last night – I got to hold him again, see him again – but I’d rather have a good old traditional nightmare sitting on my chest or to be hagridden than to dream that I let him go.
I wish I could dream of saving him, just once.