Every living person on the planet dreams during sleeping hours. This function is so vital to the quality of our sleep that a lack of dreaming signifies severe sleep deprivation. There is something frightening about dreaming as it puts us at the mercy of the thoughts in our heads and the random firing of neurons in our brains.
I for one hardly ever remember my dreams, and the ones I am able to recall are usually those that come after I’ve foolishly binged on another crime show marathon on television.
Running full speed away from an unknown assailant, I instantly jerk awake, breathing heavily, my heart pounding but relieved to be surrounded by the pale purple walls of my bedroom. It only takes the brain a few seconds to adjust to reality as I tell myself repeatedly “it was just a dream” or “it was only a dream.” No matter how fantastic or horrific, it would end and the morning light would soften the memory of it. Except for one night when I was about five years old…
My mother and father both worked Friday nights at the restaurant my mother ran with her father and brother. While my parents tended to their regular customers celebrating the start of the weekend, my sister and I were left in the care of my older cousin.
By about 9p.m., after hours of playing dress-up and bartering for an extra few minutes of time in front of the VCR, my sister and I were sent off to bed. My cousin was never naive enough to believe we had dozed off immediately after our last bedtime story–my sister and I always fought to stay awake to see my mother walk through our bedroom door.
It was not uncommon for my sister and I to fall asleep waiting for our mother’s return. In the summer, my mother would, if necessary, come in with a flashlight telling us the power had gone out as the humidity raged on during those hot months. On this particular night I was startled after hearing the lights snap off as the thunder boomed.
Lightening flashed in the two windows of the bedroom I shared with my sister. I crept out into the darkened hallway but I heard no voices, no cabinets being opened, in search of the emergency equipment we kept in the nearby kitchen. There did not seem to be anyone else awake.
I walked past the kitchen and into the living room, sliding on the hardwood floor in my socks, nearly tripping over my nightgown in my haste. The large bay window was lit up with rods of silver lightening. I could just make out the furniture in our rectangular family room and two shadows in front of the open door–one of whom I was sure belonged to my mother.
The two figures were facing away from me and I could distinctly hear my mother bid her goodbyes to Brooke (my cousin), thanking her for watching us but she too was walking down the steps and towards the driveway.
“Wait!” I cried as the door slammed shut. I opened the door again but my mother was nowhere to be found. Even worse, Brooke’s red Jeep was no longer parked in front of our house.
I was alone. It was pouring rain out, there was no electricity and I was alone, save for my sister sleeping unknowingly across the house.
I frantically peered through the screens in the front window, desperate for my mother to come running through the yard to escape the sheets of rain. Being close to the open windows made me feel too vulnerable, as if I could fall victim to those grizzly home invasions they write about in the papers simply by being visible. I collapsed onto the cold fabric of the couch paralyzed by fear.
I was sobbing and calling for my mother and yet no one came. No parent came to console me and no one came to tuck me back into bed. It seemed hours before I finally surrendered to sleep, unsure how long I would remain there wishing my family would come back to me.
I awoke the next morning, my neck strained from the odd angle I had cried myself to sleep just a few hours before. From my place on the couch it appeared as if power had been restored overnight. My eyes were sore and my mouth and throat felt as if I had swallowed a jar of pipe cleaners. I could hear my father’s whistled breathing as he snored from my parents’ bedroom.
How could either of my parents sleep so soundly when they had tortured me so? Where had they gone? Why didn’t anyone stay until they got back? I was five years old! I didn’t even know how to unlock the doors! I had never been so afraid in all my life and it seemed as if no one felt even one bit uneasy or remorseful for it.
I went into my room to read–I needed to get my mind off the awful night I’d just had. I needed to stop thinking and imagine something adventurous, maybe even something happy. Sometime later I heard the coffee pot begin to gurgle and I made my way to the kitchen, my legs still uncomfortable from my night on the sofa. My mother smiled at me until I started to cry again.
“Did you have another nightmare?” she asked concernedly.
“You left me!” I insisted. My mother furrowed her brows in confusion. “I was alone all night!” I was shivering from the mere memory of it.
“In your dream?”
“No! You left!” I stated angrily.
“I got home early last night, but you and Kristin were asleep,” she said calmly. “I know I usually come in and kiss you but you looked so peaceful. You know you’re too young to stay home by yourself.”
“I cried myself to sleep on the couch.”
“Kerrin, you were asleep in bed when I got home.”
“Are you sure?” I asked in disbelief.
My mother then proceeded to tell me that Popcorn, the book I had been reading before I drifted off, was on the floor next to me when she came to check in on her twins. It was then that I noticed that even though she had just woken up, the clock radio next to the stove read the correct time. Outside the sliding glass door, the ground was completely dry and there was no sign of the wind or rain I had emphatically reported.
My mother reminded me that I had started to sleep walk occasionally over the last month, and I sometimes continued to have night terrors where I could not distinguish my dreams from reality. As a toddler I would have sensations of spiders crawling all over my body as I lay in bed. I thought I was awake, but actually, my dreams were being interrupted and I could not wake myself up as easily. From then on, I would fall asleep only with the hallway light on and the door cracked open and a dream catcher hanging above my bed– just in case.
The agonizing fear of being abandoned, the colors and sounds of a dreary evening had all been a product of my vivid imagination. I could taste the salt of my tears, feel them stinging my lips and yet it was my mind playing tricks on me while my body was supposed to be in rest. I had dreams of knife-wielding mad men and great white sharks hidden in the depths the pool in my backyard, but not being able to separate what my eyes were seeing from what I knew was possible was far more frightening.
My chest still gets tight at the thought of being alone in front of that grand window in the middle of a stormy night. But it was only in my dreams.