A Nightmare Illuminated

by Eric Kopelson

Tears stream down my cheeks, dripping off my chin into a reservoir of hopelessness. My body twists as I claw the staircase; fingers dig into the carpet. My mother drags me to my doom, even though she and I both know that I will die.

I experienced this nightmare throughout my childhood. I used to have a lot of nightmares, averaging two to three per night. The only defense I had against the persistent dying was a plastic plate with strings. The simplicity of this contraption, hanging from just a hook, belied its mystical and mysterious nature—that of a floating wonder that should be feared.

The Dream Catcher’s aura drew my eyes toward it each night. Its blue and red strings wove in and out of each other, forming convoluted patterns that seemed pre-ordained; its circularity seemed caring and honest. However, this façade masked its devious and murderous underbelly. I would converse with my Dream Catcher almost every night, urging it to grant me pardon from the terrorizing events that seemed inevitable. I believed in its supernatural powers because there was no other method I could think of to rid myself of these haunting nightmares.

I created the Dream Catcher in the second grade, months after my father’s passing. I recall the moments leading up to my revelation. I have tunnel vision as I stride across my balcony, the walls narrowing in on me, my destination looming closer with every step. My mind is fresh, spirited, and full of excitement. As I enter the room I notice my mother and aunt sitting atop my mother’s bed. Both are crying. My mother struggles to choose the best way to orient her words in order to alleviate the wound in my heart she is about to drill. What exactly did she say next? The words she stuttered forced their way through her sobs and tears. What she had to say put in motion not only the tribulations my family and I would have to deal with, but also eroded the normal life I naively thought would come to be. O Dream Catcher, save me from this horrifying nightmare. Imbue me with your strength and endurance for I lack the fortitude to realize the beauty within this chaos.

The daily recognition of the loss I suffered faded away with every stroke of the clock. Soon my life returned to its ordered and emotionless schedule of going through the motions. Throughout middle school, I found myself in a particular group of friends I not only enjoyed, but also felt confident around. School was a place of fun and constant excitement. I went to what we considered parties at that time. Life was normal. Through the experience of immense loss came a reassuring sense of normalcy.

Or was I wrong? In fact, was the normalcy I welcomed with a half-forced grin, really a manifestation of the insecurities I had and an inability to comprehend the cruel world I took part in? The joy I received in school was not derived from my intellectual appetite or a natural desire to be liked by all, but instead was seized by being the class clown who disrupted studies and only cared about what certain people thought of me—inevitably leading to a chair in the Principal’s Office that should have had my name printed on it. I became enslaved by this desire to have fun. Teachers and administrators refused to believe that I did not want attention. I wanted to be admired and respected, an interesting distinction, and not seen as a child crying for help. I despised the thought of being pitied. Pity equated weakness, a deficiency in my mental fortitude much like the deficiency in my household—a widowed mother and no father.

During sleep, fear of death controlled me and made me a victim. The Dream Catcher mocked my distaste for pity by continuing its destruction night after night. I was completely vulnerable to the emotions I felt on that distant day, forced to become once again the distressed and needy boy. The day was my only escape from the night’s dominating grip.

I fought against the Dream Catcher the only way I knew how—when it was powerless. I sought freedom from these emotions through adults in my life. Unconsciously, I responded begrudgingly to my teachers and to all the adults who tried to help me in order to be free. I did not fear the consequences of my actions because it forced teachers to not pity me. I felt victimized in every instance, a manifestation of my oppression during sleep. The struggle persisted night and day, internally and externally, never ceasing—not even for one deep breath. I did not mind throwing myself in the Principal’s Office, receiving multiple detentions, missing class discussions, and earning C’s and D’s in almost every class, despite the turmoil my mother was forced to endure. After all the laughs I had with my friends, I would come home to a mother in despair, too loving to send me to military school like she always threatened, or to lay a hand on me, too fragile to punish me, too plagued with her own depression and the depression my older brother suffered to figure out how to deal with me.

My mother suffered through the same experience I did. She empathized with me and yearned to wake me from the nightmare from which there was no waking. Her overflowing love kept me from closing out daylight and succumbing to the horrors that the Dream Catcher would have effervescently welcomed. Although my family was falling in different directions, our love for each other passionately bound us together in the most distant but dependent fashion. While I was reduced to insignificance in dreams and scrutinized disapprovingly in school, at home I was seen for the person I truly was. My mother kept me from despair but could not dissuade the constant reminders that plagued my childhood.

Sporting events were the worst. Those clichéd father-son moments that some kids take for granted—catch on Saturdays, a father helping the coach during practice and games but always displaying expected favoritism toward his child, being the biggest and most supportive fan section for him. Thankfully, my mom threw me into every popular sport. First was tennis because that was my father’s main sport. Then came basketball, baseball, and last and definitely least, football. Nothing would send shivers down my spine, coursing throughout my veins, than when I made a basket at the buzzer, aced someone under pressure, or hit the ball into left field to win the game, and glared over to the bleachers, past the clapping hands of people who will forget about me the second they reunite with their children—stopping only on the empty spots where my father could be—should be. These were the moments where my disguise of emotional strength not only broke down but also were shredded to pieces and trampled on. You tempt me with your magic and wave of the wand. You cast away the shadow trailing behind me, aiding me to stand firm. This is but merely an escape. Surely Dream Catcher, you do not expect me to run from the villain of my nightmares forever, the same figment of my imagination that my mother so determinedly impelled me toward.

I always told my mother that I would change for high school but she never believed me. She and all the adults in my life said I could not change with a snap of a finger. However, I did just that. Just as my mother and brother slowly found ways to cope with our loss, I seemed to immediately find myself upon entering high school. Although there were rough patches along the way, I worked diligently and effectively.

My mother, having her life stunted for years, has slowly tried to pick up the pieces and find someone else to live the rest of her life with, although even now she is wrapped up in making my brother and me happy. As for me, I hang onto the limited and fleeting memories of my father. I remember a snippet: he is trying to teach me to play tennis, the sport he loved so much, caressing the side of my face lovingly for some unknown reason, he and my mother staring deeply into each other’s eyes. And another: when I was face to face with him for the last time as he lay in his eternal casket, the line extending for half a mile outside the cemetery as the hundreds of people who respected and adored him came to sob their final goodbyes.

Daily, I both consciously and unconsciously conquer the nightmares of my life that seemed to loom over and envelop me like a heavy fog. Instead of going with the motions as I did during my youth, I now take moments out of my day to reflect and focus on who I am, who and what I care about, and what needs to be done. The world spins too quickly for anyone to collapse and fall apart. It takes a strength of mind to stay on life’s path. Although the path will become blindingly confusing along the way, I must embrace my enemy—my past. My Dream Catcher’s malice followed me through much of middle school, terrorizing me but also pushing me toward acceptance of myself and of what life has dealt me. The Dream Catcher is not an enemy as much as it is a relic of my past—an eternal pursuit to cope and live with my loss. I am no longer the innocent child who could not grasp that he had everything he could have wanted or the rebel teenager who could not handle the loss of his father. I walk day by day as a friend, a brother, a son, a wonderer, struggling farther along the path—trying to find the beauty along the way.