During a recent trip to the Louvre, I saw a painting depicting the mythological story of Endymion and Diana in the French neoclassical collection. Hanging above another painting way above eye level and therefore easy to miss, its pink and blue hues, along with the drama it portrays, caught my attention. For those not familiar with the work, it depicts a man sleeping on a bed of clouds while a woman appears to be casting a spell over him as an angel looks on. The painting had no marker describing its story and although at the time I presumed it to be part of the French painter, Jacques-Louis David’s, collection, I have since been unable to find any information about this particular painting online. Further along in the gallery, however, while examining Anne-Louis Girodet’s painting called The Sleep of Endymion, which depicts a similar scene, my cousin and I began talking with a young woman who was able to explain the story behind the painting. The man, Endymion, is a shepherd who falls in love with the goddess Diana, who can only visit him in his dreams. Because the difference in their status as human and goddess makes the fulfillment of their love impossible, Endymion begs Zeus to suspend him in an eternal slumber, permitting the two lovers to meet and live out their love in their dreams. After clarifying the painting’s meaning, she pointed to the first work that had caught my eye, saying that it too represents Endymion’s story. She explained that this story is also depicted by the first painting that had first caught my eye.
Almost immediately, I felt like I understood the emotion behind this myth, like I understood why someone would sacrifice living on this earth in order to be with someone they deeply love. When I dream about my mom, it’s like being trapped in a parallel universe where we are able to meet each other and be together. I sense that we meet in my present but I never seem surprised to see her, as if I come here often and as if she has never been gone. We go about our dream-world life as if nothing has ever separated us. Sometimes, leaving this world is violent. It involves watching her die again, trying in vain to save her, and reliving the pure agony of those first moments without her. I awake from these dreams in a panic, disoriented, and astonished that my screams from my dream don’t wake anyone else. These dreams stick with me and are hard to shake; they stay on my mind for the days that follow. Other times, the separation is peaceful, as normal as the good old days of leaving for school in the morning and coming home to find her. I wake up from these dreams smiling, feeling like she’s sent me back into this world with a goodbye kiss and a hug. These encounters revive me after prolonged absences, like a wilted flower that receives the water that restores it to life. On these mornings, I feel her here with me. These dreams act as a portal that take me to her, my own trance that Zeus has cast over me, allowing me to breach the barrier between the living and the dead so that we can meet in this dream world.
Perhaps these dreams are simply the product of my overactive imagination and the fact that I have always been a vivid dreamer. Maybe it’s just a coping mechanism that allows me to escape from reality for a couple of hours. But I can’t help but think that there might be a connection between her strong presence in my dreams and a conversation between me and Mom that I hold very close to my heart, for many reasons. During the last few weeks of her life, when it became apparent that we were losing the battle, my mom spoke with me and my brother individually to tell us that she was probably going to die. Our conversation is obviously engraved in my memory and there are many things that she said to me from which I often draw strength and encouragement. At one point during the conversation, as we were lamenting over all the things that we would miss out on together, she said something to the effect of “I hope I can come down from wherever I am and watch you sleep; maybe I’ll be able to tickle your toes. That’s how you’ll know I’m there, you’ll wake up toes first.” I remember we both mustered a giggle at the thought of this despite the somber circumstance. As silly as it sounded, I held on to this image of my mom’s spirit lingering at the end of my bed simply as a way of being a little more positive about the situation and I still use it today as a comforting thought. Sometimes, on the mornings when I wake up from dreaming of her and I’m in that state in between sleep and wakefulness, I still try to wake myself up starting with my toes, letting the alertness of being awake move up my body from there until I open my eyes.
In talking to other people who have lost parents or other loved ones, I know that I am lucky to experience these encounters with Mom. An older relative of mine who lost her mom when she was young has told me that in the fifty years since, she has never once dreamed of her. No matter how hard she would try to fall asleep while thinking of her mother, she never appeared in her dreams. While it’s not always easy to wake up with your head in another world, usually a more ideal one, I can’t imagine not being able to live out these imaginary scenes with Mom at all. There have been times when she has come in my dreams right when I needed a calming presence in the midst of life’s stresses. Her first appearance occurred about five months after she had passed away. For whatever reason, I was having a particularly bad night and I cried for four hours straight. When I finally fell asleep around five in the morning, I dreamed that someone was repeatedly braiding and unbraiding my hair. All I could see in the dream was the top of my head and the hands that were working through my hair, but I knew they were Mom’s. She just kept braiding my hair, like she did when I was a kid, and then taking it apart and starting over. I never saw her face but I knew it was her, and I woke up feeling eerily calm after a horrible night. After that night, my grief seemed to change into a river that ebbs and flows instead of a storm that never lets up. Another time she visited me in my dreams every night during my final exams one semester; I woke up every morning feeling at peace from the self-doubt and pressure that exams often trigger. I never know when she’s going to visit but I hope I’ll keep meeting her in this dream world for the rest of my life.