by Todd Matson
What does it mean for a small child to stand a packed suitcase up on its end and then try to walk the length of it? This is one of my earliest childhood memories. I have been mystified by it throughout my lifetime. Let me take you back there.
I must have been three or four. I remember lifting the top end of an already packed suitcase to stand it up like a coin on its edge. Then I would climb up on top and try to walk the length of it like a gymnast on the balance beam. Except I was no gymnast. The suitcase would tip and I would lose my balance and fall. This happened over and over. Each time I would fall, I would feel my body jerk and find myself on the couch in the living room. My mom was kneeling on the floor beside me. She was laying her hands on me. She was whispering. I heard her say my name along with words like “Jesus” and “please” which gave me the sense that she must have been praying. Suddenly I was once again standing the suitcase on its end, climbing up on top and trying to walk the length of it. Was I trying to walk the balance beam or was something forcing me to walk the plank? I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I had reached the other side. I never found out, because each time I would start walking, the suitcase would tip and I would be startled awake to find myself back on the couch, with my mom kneeling on the floor beside me, her hands on me, whispering my name along with the name of Jesus.
I was sick. This all happened during a fever dream. It is indeed strange how delirium can come and go, and how it can be interspersed with moments of lucidity. I have often thought that I must have been delirious to keep trying to walk the length of that suitcase standing vertically in my dream, especially after losing my balance and falling repeatedly. Yet each time I would fall and awaken with a startle, it was as if my delirium gave way to lucidity, as I was suddenly completely aware of laying on the couch with my mom kneeling beside me, her hands laid upon me, whispering a prayer for me.
Through the years I have often wondered about the meaning of my dream. Can our dreams truly be meaningfully interpreted? Can we unconsciously speak to ourselves in and through our dreams? What is actually happening when we dream? Are dreams merely a random firing of neurons in our brain, a conglomeration of electrical and chemical impulses we unconsciously weave into the nonsensical tales we tell ourselves in our sleep? Or is something more going on when we dream?
According to Sigmund Freud, if we want to know the meaning a dream, we have to ask the dreamer. The meaning of a dream is contained in what consciously occurs to the dreamer upon awakening and reflecting on the elements, figures and themes within the dream. What are the dreamer’s conscious associations to the story being told by the unconscious mind during a dream? Can it be that our unconscious mind is often unconsciously aware of the meaning and significance of what may be happening in our lives before we become consciously aware? Can it be that our unconscious is trying to speak to us, to send us messages in our dreams?
Where is God in this? Does God speak to us in our dreams? How we answer this question is, of course, a matter of faith. The scriptures tell us, however, that God often spoke to his children in their dreams – Jacob; Joseph; Solomon; Daniel; Joseph, the husband of Mary; the three Wise Men – to name a few. Funny how dreams, like parables, can conceal and reveal at the same time. To discern the meaning of a dream, we need to have what these icons of faith evidently had. We need ears to hear and eyes to see.
Now I am not one to attribute a child’s delirium to God, nor am I assuming that God chose me at the age of three or four to speak to in a dream. Isn’t it true, however, that our minds are essentially meaning-making machines? Have you noticed how our minds desperately seek to make sense of things that seem to make no sense? We are truly narrative beings, are we not? We seem to relate to each other through the stories we tell, stories of our experiences, adventures, achievements, hardships, losses, tragedies, joys and sorrows. Isn’t this, after all, how God has so often communicated with us throughout the history of salvation – through stories that tell of God’s fierce, relentless, unconditional and everlasting love for us?
All of my life I have tried to make sense of that early childhood dream of mine. What did it mean for the sick little boy that I was to repeatedly fall from the top of a packed suitcase in the context of awakening over and over again to my loving mother praying for me to recover? I still can’t say that I know. I can say, however, what occurs to me as I reflect on my dream. I have the sense that my mom didn’t want her little boy to be sent packing. I believe she wanted me to stay there with her. It was as if her prayer kept pulling me back to that couch until my fever broke.
Fast-forward many years to mom’s 85th year. Our entire family only wanted mom to emerge alive and well on the other side of the covid pandemic. You see, she had a pre-existing lung condition from the time she was only 2 or 3. She had beaten all odds to survive a major surgery to remove half a lung during my second year of life, as well as to grow to the ripe old age of 85. During mom’s 67th year of marriage to dad, during the peak of the covid pandemic, mom got sick. Dad, my sisters, my brother, myself, our spouses and children, our extended family – we all prayed relentlessly for mom’s recovery as if our prayers could keep pulling her back to that bed until she recovered. When she continued to decline, when the doctors told us that there was nothing more that could be done, we felt so sad and defeated. We didn’t want to let her go. As she slipped into a coma, we were filled with despair and anger. We cried bitter tears.
Then it happened, as if in a dream. It was as if my young childhood dream had come full circle, only this time there were twelve hands laid upon mom as our family prayed for her to emerge alive and well on the other side. Not on the other side of the covid pandemic. On the other side. Where death is swallowed up in victory. Where the temporal gives way to the eternal. Where there is no suffering, no pain, no tears. Where there is only love, forever.
It’s okay mom. You have no suitcases to pack. You can travel light. You can be free. You can be well. You already have everything you need. You have Jesus in your heart. You have the love of God in your soul. You have been a loving wife to dad. You have been a loving mom to all of your children, and a loving grandma to all of your grandchildren. You have our love always, even as you have always given us yours. There is nothing else that you need. You can go home now, mom. Where you go, we will follow. We will see you again. We love you, mom.
What if we all awaken one day, as if from a fever dream, only to discover that all of our unanswered questions, hardships and pain, struggles and tears are swallowed in the unconditional love of an everlasting God? What if we find ourselves in a place where there is only love, forever?
Todd Matson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in North Carolina, United States. His poetry has been published in The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling; Soul-Lit: A Journal of Spiritual Poetry; The Clayjar Review and Agape Review, and his short stories have been published in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal; Faith, Hope and Fiction and Fresh Words: An International Literary Magazine. He has also written lyrics for songs recorded by various contemporary Christian music artists, including Brent Lamb, Connie Scott, and The Gaither Vocal Band.