Dream catcher - FamilyEducation

Dream catcher

March 10,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

The first thing T. likes to do when she gets up is to sit at the kitchen table and draw. While I’m fumbling around for my coffee, cutting up fruit for breakfast, watching the clock every five minutes, and shouting upstairs to L. to get a move on, T. is waking up in her own quiet way, pencil in hand.

She reminds me of myself in so many ways; in so many ways she’s so different, too—her own person—not an extension of me in the least bit (I always wince when parents see their kids like this) but an individual who is often so familiar to me in that déjà vu kind of way that catches me by surprise. I used to love to draw, too, and like T., I would fixate on drawing the same things over and over (for T. lately it’s been animals). I was crazy about horses, and I thought they were the most beautiful creatures in the world—all sinewy legs and muscle, flaring nostrils, sheer power and elegance in one heart-stopping package. I drew horses all the time, over many years. My horses went from disproportionate long-necked, legs-all-akimbo creatures to animals that better resembled what I wanted them to be When I discovered acrylic paints in high school I moved on to painting horses—white horses, to be specific.

When I was a child I used to have trouble falling asleep, and I’d lie awake sometimes paralyzed by a frightening image—thoughts of those Really Big Things in Life pressing around me like a dark, heavy blanket. But I devised my own visualization technique to chase the images away. I would imagine a strong, white horse running across my mind, galloping hooves taking all the bad thoughts away with a swish of its white tail and mane. I told L. about this a long time ago, to try and help him with his own night anxieties and panic attacks, but I think he just can't separate himself enough from the scary thoughts to superimpose another image on top of them. If he were able to control his mind this way, then many of the challenges he faces wouldn't be there. T., on the other hand, is a good sleeper, who seldom seems to be bothered on a regular basis by night worries. Every now and then she’ll got through a period of having trouble going to sleep. Usually these times center around other difficult things going on: transitions in her life, a new school year, or a particularly turbulent L.-related patch at home.

For about a week now, T.’s had trouble falling asleep. She’s been asking for extra book chapters, extra snuggle time with me in her bed, extra songs. I’ll tuck her in, turn on her magic lantern, close her door, and no sooner have I walked away when I hear her wail:

“Mama! Mama!”

Then I find her wild-eyed and teary, the sheets gripped around her chin. She’ll relay some scary “dream” she had (T. calls wild pictures in her imagination “dreams” even though she’s awake when she’s having them). I’ll sing her a few more songs, tuck her in again, kiss her—my comforting tone turns a little edgy the longer the rituals drag on. Finally I extricate myself, only to have the whole process repeat itself again.

Last night I reminded T. about the white horse (a legend in our house now), and how I used him to comfort myself at night.

“But Mama,” she wailed. “I try to think about the horse but my dreams turn scary!”

I sat on the edge of her bed, feeling tired myself, thinking about the worries that keep me awake, and wishing the white horse could still take everything away with him at night.

“I wish I had a picture of him," T. said, sniffling. "The white horse."

Then I had a brilliant idea. From the back of my closet, behind a suitcase, I dug out one of the last white horses I’d ever painted. I’ve been carting him around all these years—stashing him in closets, letting him gather dust. I took him to T.’s room and showed the painting to her.

"Here he is!" I said. "You can have him."

She looked at me in complete astonishment, and her eyes welled instantly with tears.

“What’s wrong?”

“He's so beautiful!” she said, still amazed that I'd produced him so readily. We propped him up on her night table, behind her African violet plant, and she scooted over in her bed so she could fall asleep while looking at him. When I checked in on her later she was still like that, her little body curved into a perfect comma shape, her sleeping face turned awkwardly toward the painting, like someone angling to see the moon.

"Gallop on" I whispered to the horse.