I have never put much stock in dreams. I am not into Freudian analysis of a bygone age. Aren’t dreams just the random firing of brain waves in your sleep? Your brain showing midnight movies to lull you through the night? And we don’t recall most of these fleeting REM sleep snapshots, right?
So, what’s in a dream?
Well, I grew up in what many would have called a dream house. My dad was a doctor, the Chief of Surgery at Greater Southeast in D.C. My mom, a stay at home mom. We had the nicest furniture and the nicest cars. We wore the nicest clothes and ate the nicest food. We had household “help”: Nan and her daughter Cornelia cleaned our house and did our laundry. Cora came once a week just to iron. And Sonny, (really Mr. Simpson) stripped and polished our hardwood floors. Floors that were covered with Karistan carpets.
But inside 5408 24thAvenue, the fairytale fractured. There were six of us kids, just nine years apart from the oldest to the youngest. And there was a ton of chaos within our walls. Not just the Brady Bunch kind of chaos. What I would not have given for the Brady Bunch kind.
My mom was a stay at a home – but not what you would call available. Either manic or dark, my mom tried to drink away her bipolar moods. She was either sky high shopping till she dropped or in her bed days on end behind the bedroom door. Delightfully, I remember her once spending $1000 on Hallmark Halloween things. But, I remember just as well, my father screaming obscenities at her as he flushed her valium down the loo.
My mom was a bipolar alcoholic housewife. My dad a raging workaholic who was hardly ever at home.
God bless them, my Grandmother Cady who lived with us, cooked and cleaned and got us off to school. And my barely elder sister often read to us and put us to bed. But this was not supposed to be their job – especially not my sister’s — just four years older than me.
A bit of a nightmare, if you are a little kid. So, middle child me did my best to hide, to be ever so good, not make a fuss. It was safer that way.
A brown nose in parochial school, I would stay after class to clean the nuns’ quarters, so I would not have to go home to all the yelling and screaming and name calling. I was ten years old.
And I had dreams. Recurring dreams. All set in my growing up home. I will tell you about one.
In my house we had a basement laundry room which sported a double washer & dryer set. Huge, it was equipped with multiple clothes baskets and ironing boards. There was a “toy shelf” built into a back wall. Stacked with puzzles with missing pieces, board games without all the cards, baby dolls missing an eye or without any clothes, these broken toys belonged both to all of us or to no one at all.
I dreamed of snowdrifts of laundry piled high in that basement. And just like snow, I dreamed that I tunneled through it to build igloo forts. But while hidden in the snowy mounds, somehow, my mom scoops me up with a load and tosses me into the dryer. Tumbling and screaming, “Please, let me out. Please, let me out.” But no one could hear.
Growing up, I dreamt it again and again. Not really a dream but a nightmare and a metaphor for more.
And once upon a time, in 1972, this middle child herself became great with child – totally smashing and fracturing my family’s fairytale façade. Such a scary house of cards.
And I got myself out of that house. I got the child in my belly outside of that house. And through an adoption agency I found in the Yellow Pages, I found her a house that I thought was safe and happy and secure and good. Where she could grow up and live happily ever after.
I thought and believed at seventeen that by placing her, that I had saved her. And in 1972, it was the best I could do.
And I have never really told this to anyone before, but after her birth I began to have dreams — recurring dreams of a baby in a basket. A baby I lost. A baby I could not find. A baby crying for me. A toddler lost at the mall. A child left at the playground. And it was all my fault.
Nightmares, really. Nightmares which I wish I had confessed long ago.
Reunited with my first daughter, with hindsight I have learned so much. I thought I had escaped my nightmare so, she could live a dream. And while she is happy, healthy and whole – happily married and a great mom of three, I have learned from her about the complicated and deeply felt conflicts of adult adoptees. Being cut off from half of who you are, an adoptee’s life is not always an easy road. It has lifelong repercussions for mental health, relationships and work.
As it does also for first moms like me.
I have no time machine. I wish I did but I do not and I cannot undo what I did decades ago. But I believe in redemption in the here and now. As her first mom, I am just as much her forever family as her adoptive mom. Different, of course, but physically and viscerally connected from the start. She is my first daughter. Her children are my grandchildren. My children are her siblings. My brothers are her uncles. My second cousins are her third. And I hope and pray we will never separate again.
It is not a fairytale. But it is a f*ing gift.
For me this is not an either/or proposition, it’s my celebration of both/and.
So, to heal the past and create a different kind of future, I am reading books and going to conferences and taking a deep dive on my therapist’s couch. I have signed up with Saving Our Sisters – a family preservation group and I have volunteered to be a “Sister on the Ground.”
“We are such stuff as dreams are made of…” Shakespeare said. I choose now to dream better dreams, loftier dreams, dreams filled with possibility and hope. The nightmares be damned.