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In Year Three of the pandemic, my dad will die and then I’ll stop dreaming he does.
Again and again, my dad develops in Polaroid contrasts, dies in Kodachrome blues. Coming home the back way, he rolls the truck down the ravine. He slides off the barn roof and ragdolls over the tractor. He has a heart attack as he’s welding at the machine shop and the line moves on with mechanical detachment.
In my dreams, my dad’s mustache is still dark the way it was when I was a child. But I’m not there, either as a child or an adult, to help him. Scenes are presented in a fixed view, not quite full-color but not black-and-white, like a worn VHS tape replaying events on a monitor.
Each time I wake up in the throes of a hot flash, soaked in sweat and disturbing my two toddlers who sleep on either side of me on our mattress on the floor. Mark, sleeping on another mattress pressed against ours, reaches without waking to tuck the younger boy under his arm.
I know my nightmares are about the virus. My dad’s going to catch this thing. People I love are going to die.
What causes recurring nightmares, I ask WebMD. Stress, conflict, fear, trauma, emotional problems, medication, drugs, illness. Yes, obviously. But what doesn’t cause nightmares, I wonder, because that’s what I really need right now.
Mark suggests we get out of the house. Go hiking. Fresh inputs, he posits, will help my mental health. Fresh air and exercise will produce new brain chemistry.
We rent a cabin in the state park and spend the weekend with our children in the woods. I take pictures of moss and rocks and the leaping rumps of white-tail deer. The kids have a blast clamoring into the cabin loft, even sleeping in their own bunks instead of crowding up with me. I sleep soundly to the keen of frogs.
Let’s do this more often, Mark says. We do.
It was Year Two when I first told my friends, over Facebook Messenger video, about the premonition of my dad dying. They reassured me of its unlikelihood: in their real-life Covid anecdotes, their elders survived. Sherry’s mom beat this thing in a week. Half her clients at the salon were elderly and they were all doing great. Heather’s father-in-law said it wasn’t any worse than the flu. They, along with their aging parents and their children, were getting on with their lives. They attended graduations and family reunions and destination weddings. It was like a bad cold. A stomach bug. Allergies.
Video chat was the only way I felt comfortable talking to them anymore. It felt like one of my monitor-view dreams as I explained myself.
My parents were more vulnerable, couldn’t they see? My folks were lifelong smokers, poor, doctor-averse. More pre-existing than other people’s parents. And worse, my parents didn’t understand how vulnerable they were.
I vented about how I didn’t feel safe bringing my kids around family, how my brother’s family ate at the packed Cracker Barrel then showed up unmasked, how reckless it was risking exposure to this thing.
Exposure to this thing with long-term consequences we didn’t even understand. Why couldn’t anyone understand?
Even through a small screen I could see the closure of a friendly face. All nightmares are irrational, Sherry said. She suggested I was possibly dreaming about my dad possibly because I feel guilty having not seen him for almost a year. Wouldn’t I possibly feel better if I went over to visit? I could stop by the salon for a fresh haircut. It had been since the kids were born.
Heather nodded along from the airport coffeeshop where she awaited her flight. A nightmare is anxiety, not a premonition, remember that.
No-one they knew had actually died.
No-one ever actually died except people who were dying anyway.
Emotional distance descended like a veil, and there was nothing to do but keep my fears to myself.
My memories are time-yellowing at the edges.
I don’t dream my dad in digital. I suppose that makes sense, since my dad didn’t do anything in digital. Unless Mom put it on speaker, he barely talked on the phone, just sat there grunting with a cigarette on his lip. They didn’t have a computer, let alone a router. Dad had never used the internet in his life.
But these are my dreams, not his. Why don’t I dream in crisp, high-definition, surround-sound hyper-detail? Why do my dreams replay with tracking issues on a washed-out monitor?
I was born in 1978, on the tail-end of the last analogue generation, and grew up in rural backwaters where everything moved five years behind schedule. I used a word-processor all through college, researched on the brand-new microfiche machines at the university library, and graduated in 2000 without an email address. The next ten years of the digital millennium had me mailing handwritten letters and printing pictures from the Walmart photo center. My photo albums – who bothers with photo albums anymore? – document another age of the world. I’m getting old. I’m pre-existing.
Nobody else in their mid-forties talks about their dreams, at least nobody I know. Maybe they’re traumatized, self-medicating, or too sleep-deprived to reach that state of memory processing each night. Or maybe they do dream but they don’t attach any importance to connections their brains spin out, and they don’t want to bore anyone else with the nonsense. Why should this be interesting to anyone else?
When I ask Mark what he dreams, he claims he doesn’t remember. I ask the three-year-old what he dreams, and he says tractors. Tractors and trucks.
Me too, I say.
I wonder if it’s perimenopause causing my nightmares, or if it’s the generalized stress of raising young children in a world rattling apart.
This is the stage of life when the rapids of aging begin to batter a body and soul. Mark’s face shows the wear of having two kids in two years, and he didn’t even go through the pregnancies or births or breastfeeding. I’m struggling to accept that my body hasn’t recovered from all that. That it isn’t going to recover.
Yet I’m still breastfeeding our two-year-old, a choice that feels increasingly taboo among friends, family, and online acquaintances. Even Mark begins to ask, gingerly, when I think I’ll get around to weaning him.
Maybe, he suggests, it’s sleeping with the toddlers that’s actually causing the nightmares. They confine me to a rigid sleep position. Could that be the source of my immobile, monitor point-of-view? Can we work on getting the kids out of the bedroom? We reserve another cabin. Mark is delicate with my maternal sensitivities.
This is my last baby, and I’m stuck in this pear-shaped soft mother-form, and I can’t have this time back. I’m clinging to each moment. Mortality’s shadow lengthens.
I dream both of my parents die when they refuse to evacuate from a wildfire. They sit on their porch, and let the wind-swept inferno come.
Our relatives pick up croupy coughs and go on living their lives. Friends post pictures of fun nights out at packed bars, stadiums, concerts. Each outing feels like a betrayal. Their wedding RSVP postcards go unanswered.
We’ll just move far away from everyone, Mark declares, too far for people to visit.
We trust no-one enough to babysit for us. Not our families, not our neighbors, not our friends. We’re on our own, twenty-four hours a day, with two toddlers. We might as well move far away, if we have to live like this anyway. We are headlong into a midlife crisis.
Mark scours the job postings with his agency and trawls Zillow for historic homes. Something with character, something to work on. We rank and compare states by climate, culture, proximity to the beach, distance from hurricanes and fires and floods. Nowhere is perfect but any place that is not here holds an allure.
We celebrate the first and second and third birthdays of our children with parties to which we invite nobody. Big cakes, boisterous singing, dancing in a room filled with balloons.
At least they have each other to play with, Mark’s mother sighs. My mother says the same. Dad grunts in the background.
In Year Three, I can hear the ticking of the classroom clock. Our older boy is nearing pre-school age. We will not send him this year. I spend hours reading to the kids, overseeing craft-time and puzzles, teaching numbers and letters and the building blocks of reading. Some of the finest minds in history, I reason, were formed in secluded childhoods. Abraham Lincoln was largely self-taught, right? Benjamin Franklin was an autodidact – as were all early scientists, mathematicians, and Enlightenment thinkers. They, too, had to vanquish dark ages.
And at least our children have each other.
Mark applies for jobs in New Mexico, Florida, and Hawaii, which we know we cannot afford but which we fantasize about anyway. We contemplate whether we’d lose our minds in a Maine winter. We click through real estate listings of remote, stilted homes in Louisiana. Without knowing where we’re going, we start preparing for the move by piling Amazon delivery boxes in the room that used to be my office.
At least Mark and I have each other.
We take family walks in the neighborhood after dinner, sometimes bringing beers along in the children’s snack bags. We go to the park, drink our beers, and play on the empty playground equipment with our children. I pull my back on a spiral slide. Mark pulls his jumping too gregariously on a bouncy bridge. We make up our own children’s songs. We make up our own world.
My dad will die of the virus, and also a heart attack, and also cancer. But in my dreams he still shows up to defy death looking wiry and stern, his work-strong forearms crossed in a Polaroid doorway.
My sense of safety has borne a high social cost. I have lost all of my friends and kinships and career opportunities.
But the losses aren’t dramatic splits, which makes them all the more disorienting. I’ve suffered my anguish and rage in private, so the ripples of vast changes have barely disturbed the surface of propriety. Sherry stops calling, stops offering to cut my hair in a long bob. Heather postpones a group call and doesn’t reschedule. People just drop off. There’s no closure.
Nor is there clarity over who’s ghosting who. Is it me? Everyone else continues doing what they have always done, as though the shift of tectonic plates under their feet poses no relative change in their local or day-to-day happenings.
I suppose that means it’s me.
I mostly abandon my Facebook to the weeds. I don’t unfriend anyone or reel in my privacy settings. Every other month or so, I creep on again to see how much less I recognize the landscape. Nobody messages me. Nobody asks if I’m okay. Maybe I’ve already moved away. Maybe I’m gone.
I can’t stand videos from super-spreader events. I can’t stand the obituary notices tucked in between photos of celebrations. Rambling walls of texts announcing divorces or hospitalizations. I can’t stand back-to-school pictures followed by the pitiful updates about sickness. I can’t stand weddings and I can’t stand funerals and I have no patience for the people whose lives have fallen apart because they ignored the alarm bells. Smiling group shots trigger my despair, frustration, rage. My empathy has shriveled with my trust. My nightmares intensify.
My office becomes too cluttered with boxes to enter, but we can’t fill them with anything. Mark can’t find a new job. My hair reaches my lower back. I can’t get the kids to stay in their own room at night. On our longer and longer evening walks, we contemplate the grim prospects of homeschooling.
One afternoon, when I nearly hack my finger chopping vegetables, I realize I’ve been talking to myself. Damn, I whisper. That was a close one.
A sliver of onion drops into a spiderweb under the lip of the cabinet. A gray spider shakes itself in circles. Didn’t know you were there, I say to her as I retrieve the slice. Sorry about that.
I leave her be. In my nerves I feel that webbing the rest of the day.
On a warm May day in Year Three, I visit my parents. We sit outside, in the full sun, on the porch. When the kids have to use the bathroom I help them don their little black ninja masks. My parents don’t understand the precaution. My brothers have had their families over for visits all that weekend. If they brought Covid with them, my parents could be asymptomatic and contagious. But I can’t bring myself to explain public health guidance for high-transmission counties. It’s like germ theory has been lost. It’s like the dark ages are back.
This is the last time I see Dad before he’s hospitalized five days later. We don’t hug.
My dad dies and I stop dreaming.
Prophecy fulfilled, my third eye closes.
I say goodbye to Dad in the ICU, crying in my snot-saturated N95 that I’m afraid will expose me to the aerosols I can almost see ejecting from coughing patients and visitors alike. The ward is full; Dad gasps for breath without an oxygen mask as the nurses cart his bed down the hallway. They are making room for another Covid patient who needs a ventilator. My father wanted no intervention into his death, and the family and hospital honors his advanced directive. No children are allowed into the ICU; I sit for hours with Mom and my siblings watching Dad slip into unconsciousness. He occasionally makes noises, grunts and groans, and the nurse comes to adjust his morphine drip.
He says a few phrases, hallucinating. Beautiful girls, he says. Looking good, boys.
Out the window I can see the blue mountains bounding the edge of town. Mark is over there hiking with the kids right now, waiting for me to call. We are all waiting for Dad to die.
It’s so hard, he says.
The nurse turns off the monitor to keep it from beeping as his heart and oxygen plummets. His breathing slows and he quiets.
Every so often, my phone dings and I pull up a picture of the kids posing in their matching rainbow hats before a nice cliff-face or crop of moss. Mark knows what I need. I pass the phone around. Mom smiles at the picture. He sure does love his grandkids, she says on Dad’s behalf. I imagine his grunt, the way he did when listening to our phone conversations, but he’s silent now. I think of his last words that we didn’t realize were his last when he said them: It’s so hard.
I pinch and zoom in to see each face of my smiling children again and again and squint out the window. They’re right there. My breasts swell with milk that I press against to prevent from spotting through my shirt.
When it’s time to leave, I take my father’s hand and give him a squeeze he can’t return. His skin feels papery. I lean over him and kiss his forehead through my mask, tell him I love him again, call him Dad for the last time.
I have to go. My kids are out there. Mark’s on his way. I have to get out of this place. I take the stairs, heaving with sobs in my wet mask. Deep breaths. I may vomit.
Outside the main entrance, I hug the brother I was most angry at for his Cracker Barrel dinners. He wouldn’t understand. Our father is dying of cancer, and nobody’s to blame for that but Dad himself and maybe Phillip-Morris. No matter that he would have lived longer had he not gotten catastrophically ill in this past month. I guess in most people’s minds, at least in this country, individual responsibility is the driver of causes and consequences. We make our own choices. We’re on our own.
My brother finishes the McDonald’s apple pie and coffee that he’d ordered, maskless, like everyone else, from the packed restaurant up the hill from the hospital. Leaving my mask on, I lean beside him to wait for Mark and the kids. I don’t remember what we talk about, but it has nothing to do with Dad. It’s weather talk, traffic and new construction talk.
The kind of conversation I could have with anyone. With a stranger.
I don’t tell my newly widowed mother I’m planning to move away with her youngest grandchildren. How could I?
Grief taunts me: I second-guess how I spent the time I can’t get back, and feel guilty that I’m stealing time from the future. I second-guess how I understand time itself. Is it linear? Concentric, with each decision made impacting the ripples forever after?
I bargain with myself in the future tense. In a few years, maybe this will all be different.
It’s like an intoxicating new prophecy I can will, through sheer repetition, into being.
I am so very sorry to hear about your dad.
The message is from Sherry, in a chat thread inactive for more than a year. As I begin typing a response, I see Heather come online, too.
Move or no move, I resolve to see my mom with more regularity. She’s alone for the first time in her life. Wasn’t this just the kind of social isolation that anti-lockdown people screamed so much about, the kind of social isolation I’d been imposing on myself?
When I show up with the kids for a visit two weeks after Dad’s death, she surprises us by revealing she’s taken in a tiny long-haired kitten found by my brother at the weedy edge of his neighborhood. It is her first-ever housecat.
There are other changes. She’s gotten a smartphone, though she’s still learning how to use it. We’ll have to help her practice video calls, she says.
She’s also cut at least eight inches off her hair. Jim always wanted me to keep it long, she says, petting her kitten on the porch.
I find the sound of my father’s name odd. Of course Mom knew him as Jim, not simply as my dad, but to hear her refer to him by his name is like being dragged through a time-travel portal to some place where I’m no longer their daughter. In this new, post-dad timeline, I’m simply another adult talking to this widow on her porch. Just two old ladies talking about the past.
It takes me a moment to realize she’s referring to him as Jim to keep my children from understanding the conversation. It will take me days to recognize she’s trying to initiate a conversation about her life with my father, and her new post-Jim life. I’ve become so emotionally dense.
She rubs a thumb back and forth on her kitten’s tiny cheek. Jim tolerated cats outside, she says, but not in the house. The kitten shivers with the sensory overload of the day: a warm breeze, the cheers of cardinals in the dogwood, and the undivided attention of two toddlers. My mother smiles adoringly down at them.
We eat fancy Drumstick ice-cream cones, the kind with a chocolate shell and chopped nuts on the top, which she never had in the house before. The kids don’t know what to do with all this dessert in the middle of the day. It’s like a party, the three-year-old declares. A Mamaw party. The kids don’t ask about Papaw.
I ask Mom how she’s sleeping. She’s never had such vivid dreams, she tells me. Ten hours a night of solid sleep. All the stress collapses like a wall in a flood.
We both lick beads of vanilla ice-cream from off the backs of our knuckles and I notice I have proto-liver spots like hers coming on; I resolve to more consistently apply sunscreen when I go on hikes.
I ask what she dreams about.
She laughs. Well. Last night I dreamed we were all out in the field and a storm was coming on, but instead of clouds it was a giant elephant. But a baby elephant, walking on its hind legs. She stops to lick her ice-cream, then chuckles again. It’s hard to explain. It was shaped like a toddler, cute, but it was tearing everything up on its way, the way babies do. I thought it was like an Indian god, some kind of creative destruction, you know. In my dream we weren’t scared.
She glances at the boys and lowers her voice. I woke up wondering if you were pregnant again.
I burst into laughter. Oh god, I hope not! I’m past that now.
She flaps her hand in exaggerated disappointment. Oh well. How are you sleeping?
Not well, I say. Restless, sweaty, no dreams.
I went through about five years of insomnia when I hit menopause, she tells me.
I tell her about the hot flashes I’ve been having. We are growing old together. I think to myself: In a few years this will all be different.
In a few years my small children will be grade-school children. A few years after that, middle-school, high school.
Tucked in on either side of me on the porch step, the kids are slathered with ice-cream, enjoying their Mamaw party. Oblivious, for now.
Three months pass. I dream.
It’s Dad, not Polaroid young and dark mustached, but white-whiskered as he was in his Papaw years, his Jim years. He’s on the landing of a dim stairway with a flashlight, unsuccessfully attempting to create shadow rabbits and barking Dobermans. Who is the audience? I do not know if it is even me. He grunts in frustration; he can’t make his hands do what he wants them to do.
The shadows don’t resemble animals at all. They’re just Dad’s arthritic, but huge, workmanlike hands, fumbling there in the dark.
I’m waiting for something worse to happen. But nothing does.
Edie Meade is a writer, artist, and mother of four in Huntington, West Virginia. She has a degree in studio art and a passion for moss. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, and published in dozens of literary magazines including The Normal School, Invisible City, and Atlas & Alice.
Edie Meade is a writer, artist, and mother of four in Huntington, West Virginia. She has a degree in studio art and a passion for moss. Her stories and poems have been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize, and published in The Normal School, Invisible City, Atlas & Alice, Still: The Journal and elsewhere.