I have only three memories of a close family member that I lost as a child, that I can be sure are my own memories and not recollections of photos I might have seen. One is a snapshot, nothing more than a moment, captured as if in a photograph; one is of a particular event; and one is a fragment of a dream – and so not really a memory at all – but at least I can be sure that it is mine.
We lived in neighbouring streets (this relative and I) and saw a great deal of each other over a number of years. But almost nothing remains of those experiences, save those three memories and some old photos. It seems bizarre, even given the passage of decades. It feels a little like science fiction – as though my memories must have somehow been wiped. It feels as though the memory gap needs some explanation – that this person was too significant for there to be hardly anything left.
The ‘snapshot’ is of them sitting at the head of the table at a family meal, possibly around Christmas time, wearing their wig after chemotherapy had taken all of their hair. The event was the time I brought a friend home from school and saw the look of horror on her face when she saw my relative’s skeletal looking frame – it was as if I was seeing the progression of their illness for the first time, through my friend’s eyes. As for the dream – it is the earliest one I can remember, perhaps even from pre-school years or no later than very early school years, and it was set in the gardens of the house we used to live in until I was five.
This is all I remember of the dream: my relative and I went through a side gate into the garden of the house where I used to live. At the bottom of the garden were some witches, stirring something in a large pot. It felt dangerous, and I knew we musn’t be seen. So we left, via the same side gate, though on the way back I remember that I was flying rather than walking, hovering in the air just over my companion’s head, so that we could both go out of the gate at the same time.
When I tell my therapist about my dreams, she always asks me what my associations are. With the passage of time (and subsequent familiarity with Macbeth!) the dream has become associated in my mind with the phrase ‘when shall we three meet again….’, but I couldn’t actually tell you how many witches were in my original dream, and I don’t know if that matters. I have a feeling I dreamed the dream again, when I was studying the play in senior school. As for the element of flying, this was a feature of the vast majority of my dreams growing up, and it was almost always used as a way of trying to escape when I was being chased. When my dreams of being chased started to become less frequent, so did my dreams of flying. I’ve experienced them again a couple of times in the last year or so, once again in the context of trying to get away from something.
I don’t know what the dream means – who the witches represent, or what the danger was that we were trying to get away from. But I’m glad I remember the dream, because it’s the only positive memory that I have of that family member, that isn’t tainted by illness or distress. Although the dream had its frightening aspects, what I remember most is a vague sense of comfort, togetherness, and protection. That my companion was trying to keep me safe, or that we were trying to keep each other safe. I don’t have any ‘real life’ memories of having their arms around me – and so that dream memory is the closest thing I have to a sense of being held by them.
Dreams are important, and as with events, perhaps we remember the most significant components of them; the parts that hold most meaning for us and that will serve us best in future, even if we don’t understand how. I don’t know how much I will remember of my therapy sessions, for example, in ten or twenty years’ time. I hope, a great deal – and this blog should help with that! But I am pretty confident that I will remember at least some of the dreams that I have had, that involve my therapist.
And so who knows, perhaps in time, the dream-memory of sitting down with my therapist at a breakfast table, simultaneously wondering how near it was appropriate to sit, whilst also glowing with a sense of wonderful closeness and companionship; may come to be an important part of how I remember her. It may turn out to be almost as much a source of comfort and connection as the memories of the time spent together in session. The dream may not recall a real event, but it was a product of real events and most importantly, real relationship, interwoven with my conscious and unconscious feelings.
I think the same is true of that earliest dream that I can remember, and perhaps the sense of ‘safety in togetherness’ in that dream, and the one of my therapist, is something that I need to remember. Not just as an antidote to the past, and the ‘danger’ and separation of death; but also as an anchor in the face of the ‘danger’ and separation of a longer-than-usual upcoming therapy break in a few weeks’ time. I will need all the resources I can muster to fend off self-sabotage and keep a sense of connection alive. But the beauty of a bank of ‘dream memories’, is that it can not only be drawn upon, but it can continue to grow – in presence, but also, wonderfully, in absence.