jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

A Dream About the Ocean

I had a dream about my brother, Butchie, on Friday night.


Dad, Butchie, my sister, younger brother and me, Summer 1977

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.


Standing together
August 2015


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.

16 comments on “A Dream About the Ocean

  1. Burns the Fire
    November 17, 2015

    Crying. In public. Thank you. xo

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      Tears of peace and love, I hope. (And thank you for crying with me.)

  2. Amy Reese
    November 17, 2015

    I wish I had dreams I could remember, Jen. Wow, this dream has so much going on with it, with so many familiar faces from different parts of your life. I think only you know why and I think you probably figured that out for yourself. It sounds reasonable to me that you are working through these past events and trying to make some sense out of it all. Because, this is such a mad world we live in. I have a feeling your brother has shown up to tell you how he feels about it, because he can and also because he knows how much he means to you. Powerful post. xox

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      It is a mad and crazy world. Strangely, I wrote the whole dream down when I woke up and then forgot about it (except my brother wrapped in that pink blanket, which stayed with me all day.) I didn’t realize that it maybe meant something until I tripped across it midweek. And then it all made sense, or as much sense as a dream about loss and love and peace and friendship can possibly mean.

      Thank you for sharing it with me.

  3. lafriday
    November 17, 2015

    Wow. The last two paragraphs took me from spellbound to gut-wrenching. Such a powerful dream and deeply personal way to comment on a world that only a dream (nightmare?) could make sense of. My heart aches for the complexities of your childhood and the complexities of this world. Peace for your past, Jen, and for all of our future.

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      Complexity is such a good word for it. Thank you.

      And yes, peace to you, too.

  4. Anna Spanos
    November 17, 2015

    I need to remind myself never to read your posts in public, because it’s all I can do to not break out weeping in this waiting room right now. What a beautiful rebelling of your dream, and how beautiful the way you describe your brother.

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      I like that in your comment my dream is rebelling (rather than retelling.) Because I think it was rebelling with love. I hadn’t realized it until days later.
      And how I remember those days of pregnancy tears. Sigh. Try to enjoy these life-force growing days.

  5. Stacy di Anna
    November 18, 2015

    Beautiful, Jen, as always. I just this week read a post with the title “signs your departed loved one is near” and of course, appearing in dreams is at the top.<3 I hope you are doing well and that your book is progressing.

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      I do think he is with me, more on some days than others, but definitely always present. (And thanks for the support on writing. I’m about 30,000 words in, woot, woot. It’s my own mini-marathon. I may not do it gracefully, but I’m doing it!)

  6. Matt
    November 19, 2015

    Always just the right tone.

    Pulling things from here and there and tying them up like they were meant just for me.

    Wonderful stuff, Jen. Hope you and your family feel ready for the coming-too-fast holidays. 🙂

    • jgroeber
      November 19, 2015

      Ah, and I had meant to comment on your last post but I read it in the car line and then the minions descended. The love in the face of colostomy bags got me. Because sloppy, messy, crazy love is the most important kind. (My father’s was an NG tube, but still, such love in the face of challenge.)
      And perhaps that’s what the two posts have in common- the necessity of love despite the odds and our better judgement.

  7. Dawn Quyle Landau
    November 23, 2015

    Jen, this just made me cry. I suppose, I’m just in a place where I cry easily right now, or I have a soft spot for Butchie (as I’ve shared), or maybe it’s just the dream… of carrying old things, of carrying memories and pain, as well as love and connection. This touched me, as your writing so often does. xox

    • jgroeber
      January 2, 2016

      What a delicately sweet comment, dearest Dawn. Thank you for being here to witness. It means something big. xoxo

  8. Heather
    December 22, 2015

    Oh my… the tears. You are such a beautiful story-teller.

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This entry was posted on November 17, 2015 by in Memory, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , .

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