Have you ever had one of those dreams about someone you’ve lost? You know, the kind of dream that is so real you can feel the person’s skin against yours and breathe in his scent as you embrace him from the depths of your soul? I would like to believe that our loved ones come .back to us from time to time and give us the gift of their presence, if only for a few fleeting seconds while we sleep.
I had one of those dreams last night. They always take me by surprise and turn my gut inside out with raw emotion. They are both comforting and profoundly disturbing because they stir up the pain that has been dormant and make it very real once again. Yet, I treasure them because they are the closest thing to having my son in the same room with me that I have these days.
The dream was nothing really, some snippet of frames in my mind pasted together in no particular order. But the scene I remember was of waiting for a car to pick me up on a street corner. As the car approached, I saw that my ex-husband, James’ father, was driving. My current husband was in the back seat next to another random man, and James sat in the third spot. James would have been 26 this past October, but this is the little guy who was in the car:
He was probably 4 years old in this picture, not much younger than my youngest now. As I opened the door to get in the car, he scrambled over to my husband’s lap to make room. I shut the door and we started moving. In a moment, I held out my arms to him and said “Come sit on Mommy’s lap.” He climbed up with his little back against my chest and I wrapped my arms around him and smelled the sweetness of his hair. He was there with me for that brief moment.
I began to sob in the car, holding my baby, because a part of me knew that it was all a dream and would be taken away again shortly. It’s odd how we know that we are dreaming in that strange twilight place between sleep and wakefulness. We hold on to those last few moments, wishing that we could stay longer. But it always ends.
This morning I am very grateful for the nighttime hug, but very sad. I don’t know when the mourning really ever goes away, or if it does. It will be 6 years this March since I lost James, and most of the time I think I’m ok with it. I carry on with life and laugh and enjoy myself. But then it comes back unexpectedly and hits me on the head like a sledgehammer, and it may as well have been yesterday. At these moments, I know that my journey with grief is still very much in progress.
As any parent who has lost a child will attest, I have regrets. I don’t remember the details quite as clearly as I would like, and I beat myself up for things I could have done better. I was 20 when James was born, and I was very excited to have him. But, I was barely more than a child myself, and I couldn’t escape being somewhat self-absorbed at times. I loved him dearly, but my own needs took precedence occasionally. It was a lot for a young girl to take on.
He was a very intelligent and intense child, and it got to be overwhelming sometimes. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s sofa with James climbing on me. I set him over to the side; I just needed some space for five minutes. Mima said to me “Can’t you see how much he loves you?” I replied, “I know he does, but I need a break.” I was his world, his entertainment, his teacher, his jungle gym…and I was just tired. i needed to have fun and do things that college-age kids do. And then I would feel guilty.
One particular scene that is forever etched on my brain is of the two of us in the car. James was 3, and I had just met my current husband. I was smitten and anxious to develop this blossoming relationship, but it was very difficult to get out with a small child. We had made plans to go out one night, and I had arranged a babysitter. James was a little under the weather with a cold. As we drove to the babysitter’s house, I was filled with excitement about the date, and then James turned to me with pleading eyes. “Mommy, I don’t feel good. Please don’t drop me off.”
In that moment, with the mind of a love-struck 20 year-old, I made the decision to go ahead with my plans. I told him that he would be fine and could take a nap at the sitter’s house, and off I went. I have relived that scene a thousand times since he died, wishing I could have that moment back, along with several others. If I had loved him better, would he still be alive? If I had stayed with his father, would that have made the difference?
Logically, of course, I know that our kids’ lives are beyond our control after a certain point, but emotionally, those scars run deep. I was a good mom, and I tried very hard. But in the end there are no do-overs. And in the stillness of the night, when he comes back to visit me, I would give anything to have him climb on my lap again so I could tell him what a perfect, sweet, beautiful boy he was and how lucky I was to have known him.