Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When Dreams Invade Reality

Dear Ellie,

I'm glad that you are a girl, and not a boy.  Because of that, you will probably never inherit my sleep condition.  You've probably woken up often during your childhood at the sound of Dad bumping around the house or shouting.  During the day, I'll just be your calm, disciplined, fearless father.  But at night, I might be something else.  Frantic.  Wild eyed and possessed by a fear beyond fear.

It's a disease of old men who's brains are rapidly deteriorating.  For unknown reasons, a very few young men get it too, like me.  In case I haven't told you about the cause, the neurochemical responsible for paralyzing my body while I dream becomes exhausted.  If I wake up during REM sleep, my dreams persist.  Inhabit my reality.  Invade my reality.  I've woken up and seen monkeys dangling from my ceiling fan.  Or shrieking, flaming skulls bursting through my window to chase me through my house.  In college, my episodes often resulted in amusing antics.  Like when  I ran through the dorm hallway in the middle of the night in my underwear because I was convinced that giant leeches were chasing me and attacking my feet.  In every case, inevitably, reality begins to shunt away my dreams once a tiny voice in my head insists: "Dana, you are dreaming."

However, the worst part about having my dreams invade the waking world is that it leaves a residue.  Some part of my memories are infused with those dreams as though they had happened in reality because, in a way, they did.  Most people can remember a dream and know it was a dream, but for me, its not always clear.  Sometimes, I'll dream something and it will stick in my memory so strongly that, some time later, I'll be unsure of whether it really happened or not.

I think my constant fear that I'll lose you is partially due to this reason because every night since the day you were born, I dream that you die.  It's painfully visceral.  In fact, this letter began last night around midnight, not long after I had such a dream.  Half awake and half asleep, I thought that the little red light on the television was something other than what it was.  I squinted at that red light and my brain turned it into little red numbers.  Your oxygen saturation numbers.  But it was only a single digit, which meant that you were suffocating.  I ran to the television to look at the number more closely.  On the way I saw a pile of laundry.  But it wasn't a pile of laundry to me at that moment, it was you beneath the blankets in your isolette.  I grabbed my belt and a water bottle, believing that they were hand held respirators.  I tried to revive you.  I didn't succeed.  I couldn't find you anywhere in the laundry.  You were already gone.

It took me a few minutes of sitting in the darkness to finally convince myself that it had all been a dream.  Even then, there was some holdout in my consciousness so I went out the door and headed to the hospital.  I arrived at the NICU and sat next to your isolette, dozing off.  If you died again in my dreams, I wouldn't have to sit in the darkness and wonder whether you were still with me.  I could wake up and see you sleeping, right in front of me.

Before you were born, for my entire adult life, I used to dream that you were alive but then I'd wake up and face the bitter reality that you didn't exist.  But now, I dream every night that you die but awake to discover you alive.  These terrible dreams, I think, will always be a part of my life.  A parent's fears may diminish over time, but they will never disappear completely.        

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