4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
I had a dream about my brother, Butchie, on Friday night.
We’d driven to the beach in my minivan. It was a place we’d never been before, the sort of beach where you drive out along a spit of shoreline, ocean on either side. And so my husband directed me as we bumped and swayed over gullies and down hills. We drove out to the edge of this gorgeous beach and unloaded the minivan, placing blankets and toys on the sand.
I helped my kids out of the minivan, lifted my brother out and laid him in on a beach quilt, covering him with an old pink cotton blanket, saying that no amount of sunscreen could keep his white skin from burning, which was always true. While I set up our little space, tried to round up my kids for their sunscreen, a large wave suddenly washed over the passenger tire of my car, so high it covered the wheel well. I cursed myself for having parked so foolishly.
I climbed in, but the minivan wouldn’t start, and so I jumped out and pushed it backwards along the beach, retracing our journey, up a small hill, because in dreams your dead brother is still alive and you can push a minivan all by yourself.
When I got there, I stood retelling the ridiculousness of our situation to the women standing up over the dunes looking down at the beach. One was a neighbor we knew in Philadelphia, the one who woke my husband so that he could make it to the hospital in time to see the twins being born seven years ago. We’ve only seen her once in the last six years but she shows up in our family lore like this in unexpected places. She is a rabbi and a teacher, always caring and reasonable, forgiving and helpful.
There was a woman standing with her in a hijab. She was one of the three Muslim women who ran the baby room at the daycare I brought my oldest to when he was three months old eight years ago. I receive an e-mail from her twice a year, from Philadelphia or Egypt or somewhere in-between. We have a video of her bouncing my son on her shoulders, singing in accented English on the last day he stayed in the infant room, the day he turned six months old.
There was also a family there from the next town over whose son plays soccer with my son. Their youngest son is the same age as my youngest, but with physical and intellectual disabilities. He reminds me of my brother in so many ways, with his sweetness and beauty, his abilities and disabilities; seeing him makes my heart ache. Now though, I am an adult and he is the child. I can pick him up easily, and they bring him everywhere, to the sidelines of games and for walks in the park.
My brother Butchie was eight years older than me. I couldn’t carry him until I was thirteen or fourteen, although I would take him to the bathroom, help feed and bathe him when I was as young as nine or ten. And we never brought him anywhere except doctor’s offices and hospitals. He just sat in our living room watching TV, went to a “school for the retarded” where they taught him nothing, and then he’d return home again for ice cream and television. Later we’d find out that they were abusing kids at his school; there was a broken arm, a drowning.
As I told these women about the car nearly being washed away, I looked from one of my children to the next, counting their blonde heads, and then I suddenly realized I didn’t know where my brother was. I looked down and saw that in the interim, the tide had come in even more.
I ran down to the water’s edge and then along the shrinking spit of land. Where could he be? Why couldn’t I see him anymore? I looked out into the infinite shallows at the strangely blue-green water. In that moment I thought about the recent headlines of the little girl whose body washed up on Plum Island, about children stolen by the ocean, innocent lives lost foolishly.
And then somehow, inexplicably, I saw my brother laying under my blanket next to an enormous wall of sand that had held the incoming tide at bay.
I scooped my brother up and he was as light as a feather, lighter even than the pink blanket would have been on its own. I carried him in my arms like a baby or like Michelangelo’s Pieta- a grown Mary, craddling her adult son as if he were a child- his little man’s body somehow fitting perfectly in my arms.
And then my dear five-year-old daughter walked into my bedroom and woke me up. Just like that.
I do not know where these dreams come from, what it is we are trying to sort out as our bodies rest and our minds spin freely. Hopes and dreams, guilt or sorrow. Do the indescribable horrors we watch unfurl on the news combine with our greatest losses, becoming the only way we can relate to senseless destruction a world away?
Or are our dreams the place we somehow make peace, a group of women and children (and my husband, of course), from disparate walks of life, rabbi and Muslim, mothers and friends, neighbors and fellow humans, watching over each other in lovingly flawed ways before the vast and immutable power of the ocean.