The following column ran, in a slightly edited version, over at Philadelphia magazine’s website. I’m publishing this fuller version here along with some additional thoughts on how this dream relates to Fringe-ology.
The dream started innocuously enough. I was in a hotel with my father, my wife Lisa, and our boys. We traveled down a long hallway, laughing about something. I don’t remember who was carrying Eli. But he got set down near a stairwell. He rolled over, once, and that was all it took.
My tiny little son, 14 weeks old, spun right out of his swaddling blanket and tumbled—so fast—down the stairs. Hearing failed me. I don’t know what he sounded like each time his body hit the steps. I don’t know if he cried. But I remember hearing my own voice and Lisa’s spiral from silence to a disbelieving wail.
When Eli hit the landing, my father spoke, brightly, as if to convince himself: “He’s all right. He’s fine.”
I ran down the stairs, reached Eli and picked him up. He wasn’t even crying. His eyes remained open. And for a second I thought maybe he was all right. Then I saw that his head was misshapen, cratered in the back. Rivulets of blood oozed up slowly over the rim of his wound. My father dialed 911. Lisa started screaming, hitting notes reserved for mothers of dying children. I held Eli tight and hollered “Eli! Don’t go! Please, please don’t go!”
The tears rolled fast and hot over my face and I just kept yelling those same words—like the boy had a choice, like he could save himself.
Then I felt a sudden misery, a fresh hole open up in my own chest, which I figured would spread until there was nothing left of me but a little spot of grief dotting the stairwell.
The first few minutes after that dream I struggled to process what I’d seen. I looked around my bedroom, regaining my bearings. Eli slept in his crib. Lisa fed Jack, his fraternal twin. I said nothing about the dream to Lisa, not right away.
Something told me the dream served as a punctuation mark to our first few months as parents. I’ve avoided mentioning it, till now, but there was a period of maybe seven to 10 days where I felt mostly despair. The boys I’d worked so hard to have weren’t people to me, weren’t Jack and Eli, but things—obstacles always blocking me from the loves that had sustained me over the last many years: reading, writing, long conversations, dinners and time with my wife.
I fell victim to sleep deprivation and spent several days at work struggling to get through the day. Worse, I dreaded going home. Much to my shame, I behaved around Lisa and my new sons like an antelope caught in a lion’s mouth: limp, glassy-eyed, shocked, struggling not to feel anything at all. It seemed that if I allowed my feelings any momentum I’d be subsumed. So I tried to remain silent. And whenever Lisa spoke, I grunted in response. I made every motion count, trying to use up as little energy as possible because it took so much effort not to cry. The boys were barely there, just blurs in my vision, duties I had to fulfill.
I’ll likely write about those feelings and that period more in the future. But for now, just know that I acted. I called someone, a Trusted Advisor. I talked to Lisa. And I admitted everything. I said the words I felt were too raw to say to anyone else: That I worried I could not fulfill these new responsibilities; that I feared fatherhood might be too much for me.
Relief came by degrees. Speaking the words, saying them out loud—“I’m scared,” “I’m not sure I can do this”—deprived them of all the power they held as secrets. Over the ensuing days, I still felt fragile. But mercifully, the boys finally began to sleep, once per night, in a four–to-six-hour stretch. Given this reprieve, the world seemed clearer to me. I noticed that, as 5 o’clock approached, I no longer felt intimidated by the prospect of taking care of my children. And I could see the boys as people, Eli and Jack. Without giving it much thought, I quickly developed a new ritual. After I changed their diapers, redressed them and exercised their developing muscles, I laid them on their backs, stroked the tops of their heads and stared deeply into their eyes. I had tried this earlier with no result I could discern. The babies stared past me. But when I tried again, shortly after they passed 12 weeks of age, I stared right at them and they stared right back. I stroked their hair and spoke to them of the toys I’ll give them, the wrestling matches we’ll share, and the long games of catch. They responded with coos and smiles.
The nightmare arrived as this ritual established itself, forming the ground of a new relationship. And the image of either of my sons, tumbling down the stairs, struck me, initially, as a mortal threat. But as I processed what I’d seen the core truth of the dream suddenly became obvious to me. In fact, before I even got out of bed I broke into a wide grin. The nightmare contained a message, all right, and I suppose it is only natural that every time I pick up either boy I find I am doing so with a heightened sense of security. But rather than serving as a prophecy, a foretelling of some possible future, the dream illustrated for me all that had come to pass: The little creatures I had been beset by and afraid of and unable to see had become the little boys I love and could not bear to lose.
I am no longer surprised at the relatively small place we afford dreaming in our popular culture and our science. I am not even surprised at how many people declare “I don’t dream,” or that they often say so proudly.
But I am saddened by how ignorant we are, in general, of one of the most fundamental, unavoidable aspects of our lives.
Personally, I made up my mind many years ago that my dreams were, at worst, an entertaining diversion. At best, they were of bedrock importance. An example: I remember, as a teen, dreaming that the back wall of the family living room fell away and revealed a broad, semi-transparent curtain. Behind this, flames roared and the devil himself stood—not a horned creature, but an immaculately well-manicured man in a suit. He roared, bragging about how he was going to kill my family and me.
In the dream, I roared back at the devil and when he failed to go quiet I charged him, prepared to do battle. Much to my disappointment, I woke up before we could grapple.
The dream was very vivid and over the years I recalled it from time to time, even poring through essays and books of dream interpretation for clues as to what it might mean. I resisted the solution for a short while, but eventually had to admit the dream signified my own penchant for drama, my habit—particularly at the time—for taking on way too much responsibility, even to the point that I felt it was up to me to defend my whole family from the devil himself.
Little boy lost.
I took myself so seriously.
My point here is that dreams can be used as a tool to better understand our selves. Now, please notice that I wrote that dreams can be used as a tool. I made sure not to write that they are a tool (or that they are anything else for that matter). In Fringe-ology, I write at length about dreaming in general and lucid dreaming in particular. (I hope to speak to Joe Rogan about lucid dreaming, too, but more on that later.) These chapters sparked some excellent publicity for me, including an appearance on Radiolab. But I’ve also encountered a bit of eye rolling. As I write in Fringe-ology, the dream has long borne some of the same stigma associated with the paranormal. But it isn’t the dream that suffers for this state of affairs.
The issue is practical and grounded in basic mathematics. In an average 72-year lifespan, you’ll spend an easy six years of that time dreaming. Now, you can certainly choose to ignore the sights and sounds that fill those hours. But wouldn’t it make more sense to find some creative or personal use for a solid eight-percent (or more) of your life span?
It might seem strange to say this, but after that nightmare I felt doubly blessed. Because the dream not only signified the shift in my experience of my sons, it communicated something about my relationship to dreaming.
It is difficult to dream at all in the early months after a baby is born. The opportunity to move through an entire sleep cycle, to enjoy 2:30 to 4 consecutive hours of sleep and wake in peaceful enough circumstances to remember a dream is non-existent. So my dream of Eli indicated not only that I had moved into a new relationship with my sons but also that I got a big part of my life back.