By Natalie Beglau
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
– Langston Hughes
July 11, 1999. The streets were still glossy from a summer storm as we headed home from Big Bear. I was learning to drive. Mom had been teaching me all day. Now, it was my step-dad Phil’s turn.
“Now remember she is just learning so you have to explain every detail.” Mom urged.
“Yes yes I know. She’s got it Carol so relax. All right, so we’re gonna get ice cream now right? Make a left up there.”
“A left? okay…”
I had only had my permit for a week and this would be my first time turning at a signal, so I waited intently for further instruction as I clicked on the blinker. Mom started to speak up but stopped herself. She wasn’t one to be a back seat driver.
Now what? The light was green. I was told to turn. So I did what I thought I was supposed to do.
The world went into slow motion as my head smashed against the window and I felt myself pushing down on the gas pedal with all my strength, in an attempt to accelerate through that intersection and past the car striking us. One slow, silent, surreal spin. We lurched forward, my foot still holding the gas to the floor, and rolled to a stop as real time came surging back with sickening speed.
Even though I pushed so hard on the gas pedal I broke it off, all my strength wasn’t enough to keep an SUV from broad-siding our little Toyota Camry and crushing 16 inches into the rear-passenger side — the rear passenger side where my mom sat.
I was hysterical, but didn’t realize the extent of the damage. I thought the bright red spatters on Ashley’s face were scratches from the shattered glass — but her innocent white cheeks were painted with our mother’s blood. I thought that Mom’s eyes were rolling back because she’d passed out, and that her deep exhale was just a reflex. I just couldn’t believe we’d been hit.
After I got out of the car, I collapsed down on a curb, helplessly watching my step-dad perform CPR. Someone put my sister in my arms and I held her tightly as I prayed out loud, gasping for air through sobs — she needed an anchor, but I myself was unable to grasp onto anything but hope that was quickly morphing into denial. She had to live. She just had to. We couldn’t get by if she was gone. And God wouldn’t do that to us. He wouldn’t let her die.
But she had been killed on impact.
This is only one clip in the ongoing melodrama that was my life. The before and after, though not totally devoid of the respite of some comic relief and tender moments, are almost equally as traumatic, but one event sculpted my life as I know it now more than perhaps any other — more than my parent’s divorce. More than living with an abusive alcoholic, more than living on welfare, more than witnessing my step-dad being shot six times by our next-door neighbor. My mom’s death was the event that punctured something deep within me.
Outside I was fine. Most of the people at my high school — in the small town of Lake Arrowhead, mind you, where everyone is supposed to know everyone’s business –didn’t even know what had happened when I came back in the fall for my senior year. And even those who knew thought I was just being squeamish when I jumped up and ran out of class during an old Julius Caesar movie, not realizing that the sight of even the most unrealistic blood sent me into gory flashbacks. But I was draining slowly. So slowly in fact, that I didn’t quite notice the color sapping away from everything. Or maybe I was unaware because I doped myself up so much I’d come to believe the wounds were healing.
At the time, my drug of choice was avoidance. By the time I started college, I was spending much of my time playing video games and talking online. I played video games as a way to avoid the hassle of relating to people. Likewise, strangers online never had to know the real me. I could ignore or block them in moments. Real people, or real life, was too hard to confront.
I was in such a state when my psyche decided to send me a detailed, though much encrypted message that would take me three years to have the clarity of mind to decipher.
It began in Napa. The sky was a cold, ashen gray, and the air was forbiddingly still. I looked out over my aunt and uncle’s back yard, hoping to find fresh, full fruit hanging heavily from the branches of their many trees. That had always been one of my favorite parts of visiting them in the summer — plucking ripe fruit from the trees and picking berries off the bramble, while I let the warm sun and smell of sweet straw and summer soak in.
But there were no red nectarines — no peaches. The trees were sunken in and gaunt. Bony branches thrust wildly in every direction, and each was laden with the putrefying flesh of rotting fruit.
Not to be defeated, I walked down to the creek where I’d played for many summers as a child, and had found solace and peace as an adolescent. There I knew I could find promising prospects for fruit, or at the very least could enjoy the gurgle of the water rolling over stones and through duck weed and mint.
At the water’s edge I stood astonished; the stream flowed backward. Slow, constant uphill waves crashed over one another, pushing the water in the wrong direction. My older cousin, Jack, was standing on the bank holding my baby sister.
I finally spotted some sort of fruit that looked ready to be picked, but it grew from a plant that was rooted in the neighbor’s soil. I wanted to cross the water, certain I could float up the stream on the raft. Jack assured me that it would be impossible, but I still climbed on that raft and rode wave after undulating wave, without every making any progress up stream. Instead of going up the stream, I somehow ended up on the other bank, at the foot of the chain link fence which separated the properties. Here, the red fruit teased me just out of reach, at the top of the fence. Jack, watching from the other side of the creek, warned me to be wary of taking fruit from the neighbor’s vine. Then I saw it.
On the other side of the fence, a massive hand was creeping around like a starving junkyard dog ready to make a kill. The hand was scaly, covered in crust and blood, and bore a striking resemblance to a foe in a video game I’d played. I urged Jack to light fire to keep the hand at bay — we had to protect my sister at all costs. In a frenzy, he lit the fire and we both scrambled to protect the baby from the clutch of the hand.
In the middle of this, my sister seemed now somehow younger. My cousin no longer seemed identifiable as “Jack.” But I didn’t think about this at the time.
Seconds later, the hand sprung high in the air, easily clearing the fence. Grabbing a log from the fire, I swung hard, trying to knock it into the icy water. I struck it with the burning log, but it came at me again for a second blow. Again, I tried to smash it with the log, but this time, both the hand and I crashed into the water.
We were both sucked under with tremendous force, and I knew that would be the end of my life on earth. All went black. I was dead. I was dead, but my sister had been saved, so I drifted into the stillness.
When I woke up, this dream played out in my head over and over again. It was the middle of my freshman year at USC, spring of 2001. I had yet to be diagnosed with major depression, and was fighting hard to find a sense of normalcy and home when this dream burned itself into my waking thought. But I told myself it was just that — nothing more than a dream — a bunch of garbled nonsense my subconscious invented to pass the night away. Or so I thought.
Sometimes dreams are so real that they, like true life events, demand closure. It has been a little more than five years since my mom was killed and recovery has been a slow process. Perhaps I could have prevented the exponential unraveling of my life, but apathy had me in blinders. Now that I’ve managed to rip those suckers off, I can look thoughtfully at this experience, and shape an interpretation. With a little help from Freud, who “Found that the dream represents a wish as fulfilled,” I realized that the images in my dream all point to one central wish: to let my longing to return to the past to regain things lost die so I could move forward in life.
The dream begins in Napa — a place I associate with summer, bounty, and joy. In the world of my dream, however, the sky was sullen, the landscape gray. Many people say their dreams are like TV before the invention of Technicolor, but mine don’t play to any budget. They’re usually bright and surreal, frequently as colorful and vivid as Renoir’s work, “Rainbow Pallet.” This canvas, however, was drained of color, mirroring the way I’d come to view the physical world.
The withering trees and putrefying fruit were like my soul — on the inside I was wasting away. The trees were not just going dormant with the coming of fall — they were dying. I longed so much for the past that rather than move forward to new courses of life, I clung to things lost and dead — rotten fruit not yet dropped from branches — and preferred to be poisoned by the rot and die than let go. When I did not find what I was looking for, I remained persistently hopeful and moved down to the water where I believed I could find what I’d lost.
I see many images in the dream as condensed images, which are those in a dream that represent multiple things. The water flowing backward seems to signify reversal of the course of life and further edifies the idea that I wanted to return back in time. I believed so much that I could retrieve the past, that even after my cousin’s warning, I attempted nevertheless.
This image also, however, reflects my inner struggle with depression. The tumultuous water was choppy and backward, just as was my daily thinking. It needed to be returned to its calm, natural flow.
Jack is also a condensed image. In life, Jack is my cousin, but he also has been my lifelong friend and an ever cautious voice of reason. Jack begins as an identifiable person but as the dream progresses, he becomes simply an unknown man, just as my sister becomes more a baby and something to be protected rather than my actual sister. Jack is there at the brink of the backward stream. Taking on the voice of my superego (defined by Freud as the part of the human psyche that is responsible for the discerning, rational, moral quality of our personality which we present to the outside world), he assures me that I cannot go back up the stream — not only would it be illogical and dangerous, but also, it would be a sign of regression. Just like the day my mom died, when I refused to believe she wouldn’t make it until doctors came into the waiting room with the official news, in my dream I refused to believe Jack without making every attempt to prove him wrong. I couldn’t reconcile reality with hope.
As I reach for the only not-rotten fruit I can see — the last bit of summer gone that I was prepared to steal even at risk of death — Jack, my super ego embodied, tells me, “No!” He tries to stave off my hopes to return back to the unattainable past and my deep desire to reach and find one last glimmer of my old self and my old life.
Nestled in Jacks arms is my baby sister. My subconscious used Jack –my responsible logical judgment holding fast to Ashley — to remind me that I must act as her protectorate. In life, she is the thing I must, more than anything, protect, and in the dream I defend her to the death. But more than being my literal sister, Ashley serves as another condensed image.
As my sister became less identifiable as herself, and more clearly a nameless infant, or perhaps even my own child, she also became more helpless and more in need of protection. I believe that this indicates this infant embodied the vulnerable part of me that died, as well as the me that was reborn when my life as I knew it ended with my mother’s death. To move on from my mourning, I needed to assure the safety of this part of myself.
It is easy to see how my subconscious came up with the image of a scaly rotten hand; one of the villains in my game of choice at that time was a possessed hand that ripped you away from wherever you tried to go and proceeded to crush the life out of you. This image was also the hand of death — the source of all the rot and backwardness of the dream. The hand served as a vivid metaphor for what was happening to me inside. Holding to the past was crushing me and keeping me from my life. Dead fruit and backward streams, though disturbing, could not actively harm Ashley — the infant — the me that needed to live and move on. It is only this hand which threatened to devastate what little hope I had left. It therefore must also stand for my Mom’s death and all my loss. Unless I could face it head on, I would be doomed to remain depressed.
“Recovery is like darning socks; you can only do it one stitch at a time.”
As the hand approached me for the kill, it became imperative to light a fire. A devoted Christian, I always associate fire with faith. My only defense against this hand of death was my faith in God. In the dream, as in life, I struck the hand with my faith (the burning log) and we quickly both succumbed. Though the struggle was violent, I found peace in death.
My dream gave me a warning and a solution all in one. As the hand, the water and I burst through the dam, I felt as though I’d not only lanced a festering blister, but had killed the thing that had created it. My dream urged me to die. Death was the way to bring to rest that searching, mourning, lost part of myself. Only then could deep sores heal. Though I didn’t manage to keep my old life, I remained victorious; I fulfilled my wish to die, while killing the source of this wish as well.
It took me at least a year and several pages more of story to become aware that I’d become estranged from myself, and several years more to actually bring to fruition the solution my dream suggested. Once I was aware that I was suffering from depression, I fought hard — just as I had in my dream — to achieve wellness.
Recovery is like darning socks; you can only do it one stitch at a time. So that’s what I did. I set tiny goals and as I met those, progressed to larger ones. I got help, and found new ways of medicating myself that were healthy rather than destructive. Now those things that served to treat my illness are part of my way of life. Now, instead of avoiding, I pursue.
Five years later I can still see the details of the day my mom died more lucidly than events that have happened to me even today. Any time I want, I can press play or rewind, fast forward or stop, and see the events unfold, frame by frame. But I can now view the reel in peace. Sometimes it makes me sad, but this sadness is nothing like the deadened numb of being depressed. It’s an odd, almost out of body feeling when as you’re crying from sadness, or livid, or disappointed, you take satisfaction in the emotion, thankful that you can feel at all.
The phoenix is born out of the ashes of its own demise. Yes, I fulfilled the wish. I died, and am the better for it.
About the Author:
Natalie Beglau is a senior from Lake Arrowhead, California majoring in Theatre and double minoring in Psychology and Musical Theatre. When not analyzing her dreams or playing pretend, Natalie spends her mornings and afternoons working out and rowing her hands bloody for the USC Crew team.