Do you ever have those dreams that are so real that you wake up startled, disoriented, and trying to determine if it actually happened or if now, awake in your bed, is the true reality?
Now what about nightmares?
My sleep was disturbingly interrupted by one of those nightmares this morning. This one was worse than many because it didn’t involve any danger to me, but instead to one of my children. And unlike other bad dreams where I can wake and realize any danger was highly unlikely and improbable, this one involved a very real scenario that left me shaken and unable to go back to sleep.
In my nightmare, Mira died. It was a very life-like situation: she wasn’t with us (I can’t remember if she was at school or with family) and she choked on a bit of hot dog. The horrific scene played out where we received the news, and then planned her funeral. I remember sobbing that I’d never hug her again or see that impish smile. I tortured myself with “what if?” – what if she had been with me that day, what if she had only picked a different food or someone had cut up the hot dog better for her, or what if I had never encouraged her to like hot dogs? I remember walking into her room and seeing her favorite stuffed animals on the bed, and I was overcome with grief.
And then I woke up.
Terrifying, right? It took me several minutes to calm my breathing, wipe the tears out of my eyes and realize I could hear Mira arguing with her sister downstairs, perfectly healthy, perfectly alive. My mind was still on fire with the false memories from the dream, trying to push them aside and write them off as fears conjured into a hellish scenario for my brain to process.
The half hour remaining before my alarm went off was useless. I tried to go back to sleep, in the hope that more sleep would erase the lingering images from my mind, but the danger had been laid out for me and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I needed to do to prevent this from becoming a reality. After all, I had just bought hot dogs for Mira at the grocery last week after she asked for them – was this some warning, or just my mind arranging a random collection of thoughts and memories then taken to the extreme end?
I do occasionally worry about Mira choking. The kid is a talker – an excessive talker – and that includes while she’s eating. I’m often reminding her to chew and swallow, then talk. How easy would it be for her to accidentally inhale a piece of food?
And the concept of choking is one I’m personally familiar with. When I was five or six, my babysitter had given me some of the candy orange slices as a treat. (You know, the thick, sugared gummy-jelly wedges?) I was so happy to get them that I inhaled them. Literally.
I ate the first two without any trouble as I looked out the back door, trying to finish them so I could go out to play, but when I popped the third one into my mouth, it accidentally slid too far back and got stuck. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t yell for help. I remember the confusion and then the panic as I tried to cough or swallow to dislodge the candy. My babysitter was two rooms away and I didn’t think I could make it to her.
I walked from the kitchen to the living room, starting to hit myself in the chest, begging my lungs to work as I became light-headed. I remember stumbling over the rug (her rug had tripped me on many better days as well) and landing with my chest on the arm of the couch. And that did it – the candy popped up enough for me to cough it out. My throat burned as I gasped for air.
My experience could have ended far worse, and to this day I still won’t go near orange slices candy. I know Mira has trouble focusing on any single task, so I guess it’s only natural that I’d have a nightmare about her choking.
The hard part now is getting the nightmare out of my mind. As parents, we only have so much control over our children and we can’t guarantee their safety 100% of the time. Letting a child out of your site, even for a moment, is trusting that you’ve surrounded your child with the safest possible world and the best teaching, and that they’ll remember what you’ve taught them.
But there is no absolute safety. There are always risk, accidents you have no control over, and dwelling on all of the what if’s will only zap all of the joy out of being a parent.
When I came downstairs this morning, I sat on the couch next to Mira and she immediately threw her arms around me and said “I love you, mommy.” I pulled her close to me as she nuzzled her face into my neck, and hugged her tight.
That was my restart for the day. Instead of thinking about possible danger, I’m choosing to focus on the great moments I have with my kids. Because if something bad should ever happen to any of us, I want to know that our days were filled with love and happiness.
If anything, the nightmare was a good reminder to notice the little moments of joy in each day.