There are three kinds of dreams I have that make me feel true awe. Dreams that make me pause and take notice because something big is going on, even if it’s only inside my head.
The first type is dreams of the dead. I’ll dream that I’m sitting and talking with my grandmother, who died when I was in high school. Sometimes I don’t remember she’s really gone and I wake up regretful that I didn’t enjoy our brief time together in my dreams. Sometimes I remember, but she doesn’t; in those dreams I’m filled with sadness because I know I’m talking to a shadow of her, but that shadow believes it’s real.
The second type is dreams of whales. I’ve had them on and off my entire life; I don’t remember the first time, but it likely wasn’t a surprise to me then. I grew up by the sea, in an area where whales frequented the deep, cold waters in search of baitfish. I had seen whales dozens of times from boats, but in these dreams I’m always standing on the shore as something huge and not quite visible breaks the surface of the ocean close by. In those moments I’m filled with a sense that I’m touching the edge of the infinite; peeking under the curtain of something not meant for human eyes. Gigantic things beyond my understanding are moving in the deep, but I’m not afraid. I stand quietly in awe.
The third type is dreams of my own children; babies who have not yet been conceived. The first time I remember having this dream was in high school, when I dreamt I was carrying a little girl with my boyfriend’s hazel eyes through the corridors of my school. That baby will never be born; that boyfriend and I parted ways many years ago, for the better. But for a short time the possibility of her existed, contained in a spark in the warm air between our bodies.
Over the years there have been more baby dreams; incomplete, like something my brain began but didn’t know how to finish. Faceless babies who turned into fish or birds or little gray weasels in my hands. They left me troubled upon waking but didn’t remain with me long after.
A few months ago, though, there was one so subtle I nearly didn’t realize it. I dreamt my husband and I were moving into a small cottage: in fact, the same cottage my family owned when I was a child, but transplanted. I was caught up with the busyness of moving but felt greatly at peace, settling into a tiny home while the sun shone down on the grass all around me. Watching through the screen door I noticed a boy of 7 or 8 playing soccer on the lawn. He was thin in the way foals are, with legs strong in their novelty. I assumed he was a neighbor accustomed to playing in the vacant yard. I opened the door and called out to him; he shyly ducked away out of sight. I walked after him and he was always a step ahead of me, smiling shyly and shipping away without a word. When I finally caught up to him he turned so I could look fully into his eyes, and it was then I could see his features were a mix of my husband’s and mine. A son, and one half-grown this time: he felt so real to me, his existence so matter-of-fact.
When I told my husband about him upon waking it made him happy. Soccer is one of his favorite things; one of the first things he’ll teach our children is how to kick a ball.
Last night I slept too long. I was awake in the early hours of the morning studying physiology, then slept nearly until midday. When I sleep too long my dreams become disordered, disjointed, tissue-thin as I hover on the edge of waking. But one dream stayed with me, as thick and tangible as if it had been written in dark ink on heavy paper.
In this dream I was standing with my mother and sister watching a video, though it wasn’t contained in any screen but rather hung in the air all around us like a memory. It was a promotional video for the university where I used to work and the cameraman was filming students walking up a hill at the west end of the campus. I saw myself in the crowd of students, walking in a long wool coat I haven’t worn in years. My hair is shorter and I look joyful, almost silly with happiness. I wave to the camera, smiling, and as the throngs of students pass I notice there is a dark-haired baby in a sling on my chest, tucked inside my coat. “Look, that’s when I could still carry her like that!” I say to my mother. But then I realize with a sinking feeling that I can’t remember her name and I don’t know where she is.
Next we three are walking down a path that I knew led away from the university, though there is nothing like this path there in reality. I’m feeling shame and panic: shame because I can’t remember my child’s name, and panic because I can’t remember what happened to her and why she isn’t with me. I follow my mother and sister through a marsh inset with deep channels where dark seawater rushes through. In the shallow places our feet sink into the rich black muck that sucks at our skin; near the deeper channels there are small wooden bridges to help us across. I know intrinsically that these channels are filled with sea creatures but the places we pass all seem shallow and barren, topped with greasy films and red algae.
At last we reach a deeper place. We stand on the bridge and look down into the still, blue-black water. And at last I see the knobby back of a whale rise through the surface, moving slowly and evenly as if lifted by pistons far below where the eye can see.
I begin to wake, and in those moments between consciousness and dreaming I think to myself, Maybe I couldn’t remember my daughter’s name because that wasn’t a memory of the past. Maybe it was a vision of the future.