So it happened again last night – the big dream – the recurring one I have had in various iterations since the first terrifying time when I was eleven years old.
In each of these dreams, which have haunted me for over forty-five years, there is a baby and this baby is in my care and somehow, I fail to keep this baby safe and it dies.
Sometimes, like the first time I had the dream, the baby is an actual child. Randy is a little girl I used to babysit and in the dream she (three or so) and I (eleven) are walking along the curb on the cul de sac where we both live. I am playing with a bob-a link, my favorite toy from that time. It has a red plastic ball around 4 inches in diameter with a 1 inch hole on the bottom. The ball is attached by a string to a short wooden pole. As I am walking, I let go of Randy’s hand to flip the ball in the air, and maneuver the stick to try to get the ball’s hole to land precisely atop the pole.
It’s a perfect fit.
When I look over at Randy, I become very frightened. It appears as if she is beginning to shrink. She gets smaller and smaller until she’s only about six inches tall. As I bend down to pick her up, it starts to rain hard – torrents of water blind me and before the Nooooooo! can escape from my throat, the little girl is swept into the teeming gutter and disappears down the sewer.
I awake, guilty, terrified and utterly ashamed.
Another time, years later, I am a new mother and this time the child in the dream looks like it could be mine. It has the same chubby round cherubic look of my daughter. In the dream, I sit her upon the granite countertop in the kitchen and watch in horror as she turns all blue and pink and shiny like a ceramic cookie jar.
I make no move to support her and like Humpty Dumpty she falls to the tile floor, breaking into pieces.
There have been other babies over the years turning into balloons then slipping through my fingers. Still others have been dragged off and eaten by wild animals, their bones buried beneath my feet.
In a particularly devastating one, an intruder enters her bedroom, steals my baby from her crib and places her beneath the wheel of my car in my garage. I awaken in terror just as I am about to get into the car, turn the key in the ignition and hear the motor rev.
In last night’s dream, the baby speaks to me.
She is only six months old, but has the deep sultry voice of a grown woman who has smoked too many cigarettes. When I look at her, I can tell that she understands everything that is going on around her. She is just too helpless to take care of her own physical needs.
In the dream, I forget about her. I don’t feed her or change her diaper and when darkness comes, I leave her lying cold and alone on the family room floor as I go upstairs to sleep.
In the morning, when I wake up (still dreaming) I sheepishly creep downstairs to the room where she lies cold, wet, hungry and helpless on the floor.
It’s her painful, knowing tone that punches me in my gut.
“You forgot about me,” she accuses. “What kind of woman forgets to take care of a baby?”
And with that, this resilient little baby’s eyes become mirrors.
Over the years, decades actually, I have tried to make sense of this recurring nightmare. And for years, I thought the image of the baby was to be taken literally – that it expressed my unconscious fear of being responsible for the lives of others.
But during those years, I managed to raise two healthy children and launch them into adulthood and I successfully taught thousands of other people’s children over the past thirty five years.
So now I am thinking that perhaps I need a different approach to this recurring dream – one that sees each image in the dreams as aspects of my own psyche – the dreamer dreaming herself.
Through this lens, the image of the baby becomes the neglected, wildly unmothered part of myself. And if this is the case ( and why shouldn’t it be?) last night’s dream is a hopeful one.
For this baby, unlike all of the other babies of my dreams, though left alone in the dark without food or care, is still here in the morning.
She survives the neglect and looks at herself as if to say, “I am Marsha, and I am here.”
And the dreamer, dreaming herself replies, “Welcome.”