After she died in December, my mother didn’t visit me in my dreams. She had always been vocal about her desire to “be with Jesus,” so I assumed she moved on right away. But my mother was also stubborn. Wheelchair bound for years because of Multiple Sclerosis, she had often said that after she received her “glorified body,” she would go jogging. I think after she died, she went for a long run, because she didn’t come visit me until coronavirus hit Europe.
I had the chance to be alone with my mom for 24 hours before she died. She could barely speak by that time, so anything she uttered held special significance to me. Bleary-eyed from an international flight and a two-hour drive, I walked into hospice. Despite the crowd of crying visitors, she spotted me across the room, and her eyes locked onto mine. When I told her I was going to be her nurse (replacing my brother, whom she had sarcastically dubbed ‘Nurse Ratched’), she responded with her usual wit, saying, “Should I be scared or relieved?
That night, the multitudes of visitors were gone, and it was just the two of us. I lay in bed next to her, pen handy, so I could jot down her few words before they slipped from memory. She told me she loved me. She told me she was sorry. She also said, “I’m not going anywhere.” I don’t know if she meant she’d never make it out of the hospital, or if she meant she would always be with me in spirit. I like to think the latter.
At one moment during that tragically beautiful night, I was sobbing into her pillow when she tipped her head towards me and put her forehead to mine. It was the first time I’d seen her move since I’d arrived. I held my breath— this was the moment when her most profound and final words would be spoken:
“Grab the Kleenex,” she uttered.
I took the box from the tray table and blew my nose.
It’s fitting, in a way, those were the last words she spoke. Not only is it sort of funny in retrospect, but it was just like her to take care of other people.
I wasn’t surprised when my mom didn’t visit me in my dreams. I thought she had immediately “gone Home.” Then one night, with people dying all around the world from Covid-19, and hundreds of thousands of people in mourning, my mom finally came to see me.
In the dream, we were driving in her favorite 1970 Cutlass convertible. My hair was blowing in my face, and Mom was behind the wheel. We were cruising fast (she liked to drive fast) down a coastal highway, with palm trees and blue sky all around. I pushed my hair out of my eyes. My mom was radiant — unlike any memory I had of her.
She looked over and asked, “Why are you crying?”
“Because you’re dead,” I replied.
She looked back to the road and said, “I’m not dead! I’m alive!”
We proceeded to argue this point until I woke up, my eyes puffy with tears and feeling an incredible weight sitting on my chest.
I cried until the weight lessened, and when it was gone, the space in my chest felt open and raw. I imagined emotion would enter it like the coronavirus and overwhelm my system.
I realized that for the first time in many years, I had feeling.
Almost three years ago, my husband died. Two years before that, he had a breakdown that led to us separating after twenty years of marriage. After a particularly disturbing conversation with him, I remember driving the minivan to a homeschool event and feeling my heart freeze over. It burned in the way ice does, when you touch it too long. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my body was numbing itself in order to survive. Five years later, my “fight, flight or freeze” instinct was coming to an end because of a dream about my mother.
I’m no robot. During those five years I had moments of intense feeling, but I always managed to block it out again — to cast myself into survival mode.
This time, I allowed myself to feel.
I realized in that tearful post-dream dawn, that if I shut out bad things like pain and grief, I also shut out good things like joy and love.
That was one of the initial days of lockdown, and I felt as if I was recovering from surgery. Tender. Vulnerable to infection. I mostly stayed in bed, scared to be walking around with such fresh stitches. I ate. I slept. I watched way too much Netflix. But slowly, I began to heal. I was thankful, in a way, for the strict lockdown here in Bavaria, as it allowed me time to recover.
My mom is still visiting in my dreams, and it’s not always pleasant. I suppose it’s our version of family therapy. Sometimes I wake angry or disheartened, and I have to remind myself that it’s okay to feel — even the bad things. When I let out the bad things, they can be replaced by the good.
There was a meme going around facebook that posited whatever song was the top hit of your 12th birthday is your quarantine theme song. Mine was “We are the World,” and I think about the people mourning right now across this vast expanse of earth.
But what can I do in this time of pandemic-inflicted grief?
I’m not a doctor working on a vaccine. I’m not an ER nurse intubating patients. I’m no counselor or coach. As I told a friend, I’m not even a grocery store clerk, who offers not only sustenance but also some semblance of normalcy from behind the plexiglass. I’m a writer. My contribution is to show my scars to strangers with the hope that someone will take away a positive message from the gruesome sight.
I think my mom would be proud. Maybe she’ll tell me tonight?
“There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me”