The dream is familiar, but it has not come to me for years: I am running through long dark corridors after a girl in a pink dress. She has been entrusted to my care, but I keep losing her. I am following a vision of her – just beyond my reach. Every corner I turn, I catch a glimpse of her – turning the corner ahead. In the dream, I feel as though I have run for hours.
One corridor finally opens out into a courtyard, but she is gone. The ground is dry, gray, dusty. There is a low stone wall that encircles an open area. There is no one here now, but patterns in the dust suggest motion, struggle. I walk to the center of it. Kneel down on the hard-packed earth. The faint smell of warm metal: there has been blood on this ground. I look down and there is a pink ribbon in my hands, when moments ago, my hands were empty.
That I should have had this dream – so filled with anxiety about my ability to care for a child – in the weeks before the birth of my daughter – seems a failure of imagination on the part of my subconscious mind. Its meaning could not be more literal. Meanwhile, the world in its cruelties seemed to offer up an endless spectacle of human failures: stories of mothers killing their children appeared daily, it seemed. Or at least, that is the way I remember it.
In many cases, my friend explains, mothers who kill their children will either drown them or suffocate them. Something about replicating the conditions of the womb, she says. She is a crime writer, so the confident way with which she delivers this is grounded by countless hours of grim research. I have no reason to doubt her.
I ask: But what about the woman who dressed her three children in their Sunday clothes, took them up the elevator to roof of their apartment building and walked them off it. They were all holding hands. “There are always exceptions,” she shrugs. “I’m just telling you what I’ve read.”
In childbirth classes, we had been counseled that our babies might look strange when they are born, and that we might not immediately bond with them, might not feel love for them at first. That this was not abnormal. That the love would come.
My love for my daughter was immediate and overwhelming. To hold in my arms this tiny person who was part of me, but not me. Who was of my flesh and bone. In whose soft, rounded features I could see the imprint of my own.
I clutched this child so closely to myself, as if her survival meant my very own. And didn’t it, really? In those early weeks and months, it was as though we were merely extensions of each other’s bodies. Her warm soft skin, her sweet milky breath. She was intoxicating.
Not long after my daughter was born, an adopted child was killed during a “rebirthing” treatment, which had been intended to address what seemed to be an attachment disorder. The child, who had been removed from the home of her birth parents for neglect, was adopted at the age of seven.
For this treatment, conducted when the child was eleven, she was wrapped in a sheet (meant to simulate the womb) while several adults kept pressure on her – with their bodies and with pillows – so that she would try to break free of it and thus be “re-born” to her adoptive mother.
After more than an hour in this sheet, the child suffocated and died. This story haunted me – as it did many – for months.
In the dream, sometimes the girl – the elusive, disappearing girl – is my daughter. Sometimes it is me. I catch a glimpse of her face to see my own staring back for a just a moment before she is gone. And then I am running, again.
It is tempting to seek meaning from every image, every story about a mother and child. Or, perhaps it is tempting only for me to do so. As if there is some code, some hidden message imprinted – and that if only I look long enough, look hard enough, I will discover the essential truth that has been there all along. That suddenly, when I look into the face of my daughter, not only will I see myself, but I will see my own mother, and her mother, and her mother before her. That the line will at last be continuous: the line of blood and bone.
I wake from the dream strangely calm. I get out of bed, walk down the hall past my daughter’s room, where from behind the closed door, I can hear the muffled sounds of her morning routine. Music playing low. The soft fall of her slippered feet as she walks back and forth between her closet and her bed. While I am standing in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, she walks in behind me and for a moment, our faces are side by side, reflected in the glass. She asks to borrow a pair of shoes. I turn, embrace her and kiss the top of her head, hold her there. “OK, thanks,” she says as she backs away down the hall.