Updated: Jan 10, 2020
Last night, I dreamt of Evelyn. I have these dreams a lot.
They are not the PTSD nightmares of the early weeks—those come far less frequently now. The wake-up-screaming-crying-shaking-sobbing mashups your brain invents to torture you with, those kind of nightmares. The kind where you relive the worst parts of finding out your child died, or where you witness the deaths of countless other loved ones again and again without mercy. In my case, because I found my daughter's body, because I saw her hours after she had passed, my brain has plenty of detail to work with. It doesn't need to make anything up or gloss over blank spaces. It took that data and made me watch her die countless times, made me watch my other children die, made me watch my husband and father and sister and numerous other people I loved all die. I know exactly what they'll all look like now, when they're gone. Not right away, when they're pale and peaceful like sleeping infants, but later, when the blood shifts and settles, when things that should be dark turn white, and things that should be white turn dark, and things that should be soft turn hard, and things that should be warm turn cold.
Nor are they the visitations we all long for—the opportunity to see and speak with your child again in real time. Those are the most infrequent of all, and the most cherished. They come like tiny gifts in the night, shining jewels that cut through the dark miasma you now call your "life", treasures you store in the shattered fragments of your heart, tucking them away so you can turn them over again and again for the next two or ten or twenty years when the light can no longer reach you from outside yourself. Those are the whispers of your deepest, innermost desire, the one so precious you can scarcely say it out loud—that they go on. I've had a small scattering of those, and they are valuable beyond belief.
These dreams fall somewhere in between. They are sad dreams, cruel dreams. In many, Evelyn is brought back to life. In others, I am transported back in time to avert her death. In both, the ending is much the same. I am racing to find a doctor, a hospital, someone, anyone who can help her before it all happens again. I am always frantic over how to convince them something is wrong. I am aware I cannot say, "She's already died once."
Sometimes, she is 18 and long-legged and smiling as she was just before we lost her. Other times, she comes back younger, smaller, so much more fragile. Sometimes, she understands what has happened, but often she is unaware and I must convince her as much as any doctor. There are countless variations on this motif. Evelyn is getting dressed for school the morning after she died. Evelyn is laughing between the sheets before she goes to sleep on her last night. Evelyn is dead but her small body is perfect like a doll's, and if I can only preserve her long enough, she might come back.
Last night, she was just as I remember her right before she passed. I had gone back in time to the night before her death. I lay next to her in the bed, cuddling her, stroking her hair, talking and not talking, watching her breathe, begging her not to leave me. When morning came, she was still alive. Somehow, I'd done it, the impossible. I'd cheated death. But then the panic set in, the desperate search for an emergency room. We got separated. I feared the worst. I finally found her laughing. "You are perfect," I told her. "Don't change. Don't change."
I wake from these dreams and remember the ugly truth. My little girl is gone. She is not coming back. I cannot return to our life before. The second chance to save her that we both deserved will never come. I lie in the dark and weep, feeling her slip away from me all over again. I clutch the pillowcase from the pillow she was lying on when I found her to my heart. I cry into the small, stuffed wolf that was my last gift to her, the one that wears the locket of her ashes.
When I can calm myself, I get up and check that everyone else in the house is still breathing. Through my tears, I thank her for the dreams, even if they cause unbearable pain. I don't pray much anymore, and when I do, I pray to Evelyn. My constant request is this, "Come back to me, however you can." These dreams, sad as they are, are my chance to hold her again, to hear her again, to smile at her and see her smile. And so I welcome their torture night after lonely night. Like much else about this experience, I hope that they get easier to bear, but I hope they never go away.