The other morning I was getting dressed in the pre-dawn dark, when I heard a quiet sobbing coming from the twins’ bedroom. This was unusual, not because there was sobbing, but because it was quiet. My kids know very well the dramatic effect of tears and they like to play to a live audience. But in this case, the crying was so muffled that I had to hold my ear up to the door for a full minute before I could even ascertain whether it was crying or just weird mouth-breathing.

I went in and found the Wolvog in tears — actual wet tears — staining his face while his whole body shook with sobs.

“I had a nightmare,” he announced between gasps.

I picked him up and carried him to the glider that’s been in their room since the day we brought them home from the hospital. Back then they were attached to heart monitors which were the farewell present from the NICU they had spent their first three weeks of life inhabiting. Five-and-a-half years ago I could cradle him in my forearm. Now as he laid sobbing on me, too disconsolate for words, his body stretched down to my knees and I wondered how much longer he would continue to embrace me like that. I rubbed his back and kissed the nape of his neck, not just warm but hot — he’d clearly been sleeping with the covers over his head again despite our pleas with him to stop.

When he had calmed down a little bit I asked him, “Did you have a bad dream?” He nodded his head at me and cried a little harder. And then I asked him, “Do you want to tell me what it was about?” Which was a strange formulation for that question. I usually just ask, “What happened in your nightmare?” It is taken for granted that he would want to tell me. He’s five. What kind of dark secrets could he be harboring in his dream life that I should ask permission for him to share? But for some reason, that’s how I asked him. Perhaps it was because while he’s had plenty of bad dreams in the recent past, this was the first time he seemed legitimately terrified. I didn’t want him to talk about it if the result would be to give added life to that terror. At the same time, I had the father’s confidence, that if he told me, I could dispatch the fear by assuring him that there were no monsters in the closet, no sharks in the bathtub, no agents of Darth Vader roaming our neighborhood. But better he should confront whatever fear this was when he was ready to face it, so I instead I asked, “Do you want to tell me what it was about?”

“I dreamed you died.”

My first unspoken thought: “Am I dead?” For a second I couldn’t tell. What if this was not his nightmare, but my dream between life and death, and my son had come to me to let me know I was gone. Bullshit. As quickly as I thought that I dismissed it as absurd and adolescent. But now both of us were a little bit terrified.

My second, also unspoken thought: “How did I die?” Hey, I’m curious. Who by flood and who by fire? But that line of questioning seemed more likely to prolong the trauma than heal it. I still kind of wish he could tell me — I don’t believe dreams are prophesy, but then again, I could be wrong.

Instead I did the fatherly thing.

I lied to him.

“I’m not going to die for a long time,” which seemed a better choice than, “I don’t plan on dying,” or “The odds of me dying before I reach the average lifespan for a college-educated Jewish male in the United States are very reassuring.”

“Not until you’re 100?” The Chickienob was awake now and had been quietly listening to us.

Figuring there was no reason to stop at one lie I said, “Not until I’m at least 100.”

What else could I say?

I’m not particularly afraid of dying. I worry about being forgotten, but actually ceasing to exist doesn’t trouble me in the same way. I walked away from a terrorist attack in Jerusalem when I was in my twenties. I know death can be sudden, unfair and merciless. But five-and-a-half is awfully young to learn this fact. We’ve haven’t tried to shelter the kids from death, but to treat it in a respectable manner — we brought them to Mel’s grandmother’s burial because it seemed wrong to “hide” the fact and reality of her death.

But the fact and reality of MY death are another matter altogether.

Eventually he calmed down. He hasn’t mentioned it again, but it keeps rattling around in my head.

He’s too young and it’s too soon, but I want to say to him, “Some day I will die. Hopefully it won’t be for a long time, and you’ll be older and have a family of your own and I’ll have long since stopped being the person who you need to feel safe in the world. Hopefully we’ll both be ready to say goodbye. But it may not go that way, and if it ever does, I am so so sorry. Know that I love you and your sister and your mom with my whole being, and you’ll carry that love with you forever no matter where I am. That I want you to use that love to build a happy and successful life for yourself in whatever way you choose to do so. That it is okay if the way you choose to do so takes awhile to figure out. That the only answer to the death of someone you love is more life. That there’s a reason the mourner’s prayer in Hebrew starts with the word, ‘yitgadal’ meaning ‘make bigger.’ You and your sister are the best thing I ever did with my life. That would still be true if I died tomorrow or in a hundred and fifty years. Love your life.”

And now…I’m gonna get myself a beer and watch Dumbledore get-it from Snape.



Filed under Parenting

11 responses to “Nightmares

  1. Love it: “That the only answer to the death of someone you love is more life. ”

    Gonnna steal, um borrow it next time we have the issue here.


  2. N

    the only answer to the death of someone you love is more life

    I love this line, too. And believe it 100% (most of the time).

    As somebody who, as a child, had many such nightmares and nights crying about such things, he probably knows. He may not realize it, but he probably does. But it’s okay to say those things – often they’re necessary.

    And who knows. Maybe you’ll be around until 100.


  3. Mel

    I need you to still be here at 100 and beyond.


  4. Cheryl

    Oh you make me cry! Beautifully said. As always.


  5. Vee

    Josh I love your blog. I too love this line “the only answer to the death of someone you love is more life ” I think you handled a difficult situation really well.


  6. I hate having to mislead the kids in situations like this but I know that five year olds (especially ones who just had nightmares) cannot handle the truth.

    Ian has been having a lot of nightmares lately. Now I am wondering if it is a normal five year old boy thing. Maybe it is even associated with their feet growing so fast.


  7. LJ

    I read this the other night before the kids came over. I was so worried about this with the Furley situation. The Chickie and Wolv did great though, they were super sweet with Roper today – and did ask how old she was, if she was over 100. I confirmed that she was. 🙂


  8. *sniffle* Well, that’s quite a start to Monday morning at the office…!


  9. uncoveringyou

    you handled that one just fine…i also have young ones that have had to deal with death a little bit…its a whole other ballgame when it’s your death though. This made me a little teary…sigh.


  10. Dude. First, welcome back. I’ve missed you.

    Second, my kids know that my father died and we have had several talks about this subject. And they have asked me if I will die and I still never know exactly what to say. But, like you, I think it’s ok to lie and say, “Yes, I will be here for you.” Even if we can’t really promise that.


  11. Bea

    I seem to have got these posts out of order somehow…

    Mostly I’m glad I’m not the only one who would have sat and contemplated the possibility that I was already dead in such a scenario as my first reaction. Gosh knows how much like death I feel at that time of day, for starters.

    It’s a great speech, though – they will be ready one day.



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