S I’VE GOTTEN OLDER it happens less and less, but mostly I still dream of my Mother falling.
I don’t know if that is the whole dream, or just the part that I remember but that is the image I wake with in the mornings, burnt into my brain; my Mother, black hair billowing out from her head as the rushing air takes it, falling into darkness. She wears a red dress (not that I have a specific memory of her wearing one – but that is what my mind puts her in) and no shoes. The part about her wearing no shoes as she fell is one aspect of her death that I do remember clearly.
After she’d jumped from the old Niffeneger building on the corner of Church Street they found her shoes left behind on the roof; simple blue slip-ons, flat and worn-in. They were left neatly on the ledge. The thought of her removing them just before leaping off haunted me then, and does still to this day. Whenever I dream of her, seeing her in her never-ending descent down into the unfathomable darkness that awaits each and every one of us, she is always barefoot because I know even subconsciously… even in dreamland… that she jumped without them.
I always remember the same details too.
She has her right arm slack to one side – just there if you know what I mean. The left arm is flailing in slow motion, almost reaching for something. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought about that arm, and the hand grasping slowly in the darkness. I’ve wondered whether she is just having a reflex reaction to the sensation of falling backwards, or if she is about to reach back toward the ledge.
As if, at the very last moment, she has changed her mind and wishes she hadn’t jumped.
And there is her face. Of everything, it is her face that haunts me the most. Wihtout fail I wake from the dream, sobbing. I never scream out in horror, as you might think I would experiencing this dream.
I only cry. The years that have flurried past since my Mother’s death have glued the cracks in my heart, but it is a weak glue. Nothing more than a tentative making-good of something irreparably broken.It doesn’t hold up to much. When I have this dream, the glue gives out, and what is left in my chest aches with so much longing and devastation. When I see her face, dropping through the abyss of death, my heart breaks over and over. She looks frightened, scared, upset. She does not wear the expression of someone consigned to what they’ve done, to the final act they have chosen for themselves – not at that moment as she falls.
If she didn’t look so frightened, I wouldn’t want to reach out and pull her back. But I do.
As I dream, I want to raise my hands and try to get to her but I can’t raise my arms. I can’t move. I am powerless to help my own Mother as she falls to death like a downed pigeon.
once had a friend tell me about a recurring dream he has in which he is laying on a train track and is unable to move as a big old locomotive rolls in towards him. It’s a form of sleep paralysis, I think – or what some cultures refer to as ‘the devil riding your back’. I think it’s this that I experience, nearly every night as I try to reach out but find that I can’t.
More than anything the dream leaves me feeling guilty. It’s the same guilt that I have carried with me since childhood. When she died, I felt that I could have done something to stop her climbing the stairs to the top of that building and launching herself off the edge. I was nine at the time and perhaps, I thought, it had been me who had driven her to do it. Even if I could reach out and hold her hand, my fingers touching hers, so that she is not alone on her way towards death, it would be some consolation.
But I am destined to see her falling, forever, for as long as I live. I am not to blame for her death – who knows why she did it? – but I am powerless to prevent it, even after the fact, even in my dreams.
I consider gravity sometimes, and everything that followed from that apple falling on Newton’s head, to the flight of the first airplane, to the first man in space, and all the people who have fallen to their deaths. I think of my Mother, sucked back towards the Earth at incredible speed as she jumped. Gravity is an unforgiving Master. It gives us life, it keeps the Earth spinning, it holds onto the air that we breathe, but it also tries it’s very best to keep us. We are as much slaves to this world we inhabit as we are its ruler. We were not meant for ascension, free of our entanglements.
Sometimes I get to thinking that perhaps my Mother was just a bird wanting to fly. I experience my Mother’s death almost every night and I can tell you, there is no freedom from gravity’s vacuum.
We mortals can only truly experience flight in that heartbeat between leaping from the ledge of an eight story building and gravity tugging at our feet. In that split-second we are free; we are unbound and only then can we fly.
I know my Mother was scared as she fell, because I see it in her face. But I sometimes wonder if she might have been smiling as she leapt… as she flew. If for only a beat.