I was only a girl of nine years when I first witnessed Mom's nightmare. My dad had gone out of town, so I was happily sharing her bed. I woke up to Mom's restlessness. I was scared. Sweat drops on her forehead, anguish in her voice and... She stirred in her sleep asking frantically, "The boy? The boy! Where is the boy?"
"Mom! Mom, wake up!" I cried shaking her by her shoulders, determined to stop her dreaming before something terrible happened to the boy.
Mom sat up robotically, opened her eyes, and as the contours of her room sat in place under the moonlight, she took a deep breath and urged me back to sleep. Alas, I spent the rest of the night wondering who the lost boy was. Was it my brother, the only son in our family? Did the dream mean that something bad would happen to him?
Although my curiosity almost killed me like the proverbial cat, I dared not ask Mom about the dream which continued visiting her in the following months. For one thing, dreams good or bad were never told in our family. Mom believed that if you put a dream into words, if you articulated it even in a whisper, you pronounced an undeniable invitation for the dream to become true.
"Dreams," Mom often said, "should be left alone. Dreams are tricky. Everything you see in them stand for something else in the real world. Rats stand for money, money for gossip, crack and holes in houses for deaths in the household."
So I kept my peace and never talked with anyone about the matter.
One day, long after that night, I was looking for a dear necklace of mine which I couldn't find, having hidden it too well for my own good. As it often happens, if you look into all possible hiding places in a household, you are bound to find unexpected things—like your sister's secret diary in the wardrobe or your brother's savings under the mattress. But what are the chances that you will find pictures of a brother you never knew!
At first, I couldn't make sense of those two pictures. One was a photo of a baby in his crib with eyes half open and the other was a shot of the same baby with Mom, in her younger years, leaning over the crib as if to place a kiss on the baby's face. Mom's face seemed so sad that I wanted to tear up the photo right there.
I went to my older sister instead and asked her, "Who is this baby?" My sister snatched the photos from me and reproachfully said, "Why can't just you leave anything alone?"
She immediately headed toward mom's bedroom, apparently knowing the hiding place. Then she stopped midway and replied without turning around, "He is our brother. He died from a fever when he was ten months old. And don't ask Mom about him. After all these years, she still cries when she speaks of him."
A tender feeling of longing, gripped my heart. "What was his name?" I asked.
"Leonard," she replied. "He would have been fifteen-years-old now, had he lived."
I wanted to take another look at the photos and stroke with my fingers the little face of my brother, but I dreaded my sister's anger. She went into Mom's bedroom and closed the door shut.
On the days that followed, I started fantasizing about what it would have been like for me to have another brother, four years older. I imagined us going to school together, his arm on my shoulder, me proud of my protective brother, daring the bullies to come even closer.
I imagined covering up for him when he came home late and he telling me first, before anyone else, about the girl whom he loved. I smiled as tears welled up in my eyes when I thought of those happy moments that never came to pass. It was then that I willed myself to believe death couldn't be the end of all things. A sweet hope invaded my heart that one day I would see him, hug him, and catch up on missed happiness.
I wanted so much to share this hope with Mom so that she could accept her loss, so that her nightmares would stop tormenting her, so that those two photos would come out of hiding and join the light in the family album. But I never had the courage to confront her grief. I had understood by then that no matter how many living children a mother has, her heart will always mourn the death of a child.
One afternoon, five years later, I overheard my aunt talking in low tones to Mom. "He would have been twenty years old today," she said while she stroked Mom's hand in sympathy.
"It's kismet!" Mom said, taking a deep breath. "It's the destiny." Her voice quavered, but she did not cry. "It wasn't meant to be."
After this, the photos came out of hiding and took their place on my mom's dresser. Yet, Mom's nightmares did not vanish. They continued to torture her. One thing remained a mystery to me. Why did Mom never ask, "Where is my boy?" It was always the boy? And during all these years, why hadn't she uttered his name in her dream even once?
Every time I heard her search in the darkness of the night for the nameless boy, I wanted to whisper into her subconscious before waking her up, "Mom, you have to let things go. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't meant to be." But I never did. ***
Tonight, Mom is having another of her nightmares, but I won't wake her up as I have before. I watch her turn in her sleep, hoping that her dream, left undisturbed this time, will relieve her from the burden of her conscience. Tonight, I know Mom is looking for some other boy. One she doesn't dare to own.
We were talking this afternoon about how life had changed for her and Dad after each of us, their children had married and left home. Mom didn't enjoy her empty nest as much as one would expect.
"People always remarked that my five children were too much for any normal person to handle, but look at us now," she said, taking in the tidy and spotless living room. "The house is quite, empty, just me and your Dad and... the memories. It would have been nice to have another child for our senior years, someone who would tie us to life with bittersweet worries."
A wave of sadness covered her face, a feeling of regret I couldn't quite grasp. Did she remember Leonard? But he still wouldn't have been the child of my parents' senior years. What else?
"It wasn't meant to be," I said insinuating on his death. "Destiny." Mom's eyes watered and her voice trembled. "Sometimes you pick your destiny."
"But what could you do? The doctors couldn't reduce his fever and..."
"I am not talking about Leonard," she interrupted and then paused in pain. Seeing my shock, Mom, with great difficulty, told the story of her last child. While listening to her, I realized that a house cannot hold enough hiding places for the secrets of the past.
"When you were nine years old, I discovered I was pregnant again," Mom continued.
"Everybody was so against the idea of me giving birth to that baby. Your father worried about our already strained finances. My doctor warned me about the difficulties of a labor at forty-one. Your eldest sister, who was newly engaged at that time, complained of how ashamed she would feel to tell her fiancé's family that her mother was pregnant when it was her own time to have children. My friends told me that women my age often gave birth to children with disabilities. I felt so helpless and scared, so alone." She let out a sigh.
Gathering her strength, she continued. "People push you to take one definitive step and leave you to bear the burden alone afterwards. It was hard for me. I regretted it the moment it was done." Mom sniffed and closed her eyes, struggling for a deep breath.
"As I was about to leave the hospital, the nurse told me the baby was a boy. It was then that I remembered Leonard, my son whom I had lost in infancy. I know, it sounds crazy, but at that moment I felt as if the soul of Leonard had made a second attempt to come to this world, to my arms, and I had brutally rejected him."
Mom couldn't continue any longer. Her chest was heaving for air. I took her hand and stroked it lovingly. Who of us hasn't done things that we terribly regret? Don't the tears of remorse expiate the past? Shouldn't we forgive ourselves as we are asked to forgive others? Mom listened, nodded, but she did not speak a word. She excused herself and went to her room. Tonight as I lay in the dark by her side, I pray Mom will find the boy in her dream, present her tears to him, and find peace in reconciliation.