Nightmares and Cosmic Gifts


When I was offered a new job earlier this summer, a strange thing happened. I started having nightmares. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the new opportunity or unhappy with the offer. In fact, just the opposite. It was an offer so substantial that it was going to dramatically change our circumstances and allow us to accomplish a lot of goals. I was so happy I was terrified. I was so happy, it seemed that my brain didn’t know how to behave.

In one dream, I tried carrying my mother’s cancer-weakened body across a snowy terrain, knowing my house was hundreds of miles away and she couldn’t survive the trip. In another dream, I tried to coax mom into getting on a train with me that would take her safely into the future to escape her death, but she didn’t board in time. In another, I had a giant duffel bag of money to pay all of her medical bills, as if it would save her life. In yet another, I was an adult when I started looking for her, but by the time I found her I was a little kid and I couldn’t make her understand that I needed her to come with me.

In my therapist’s office I tried to explain through my tears how excited I was about my job, but how confused I was about the dreams.

“Your mother didn’t die of debt, she died of cancer,” my therapist pointed out quietly.

“That is what it says on her death certificate,” I acknowledge.

Yet the two were intertwined, in my narrative of my mother’s death. She was sick and she was poor. Being financially stable wouldn’t have saved her, but it might have given her better quality of life.

What would it have been like if she hadn’t had to work right up until a few months before she died, just to keep her salary and her healthcare?

What would it have been like if she had spent the last years of her life enjoying her time with her kids and taking vacations with my dad and visiting family?

What would it have been like if I had never had to sit down and sort through all of their unopened bills?

What would it have been like if I hadn’t spent the first several years after she died agonizing over how to take care of myself financially?

In my mind, there’s an alternative timeline where I have control over what should have been the least important part of her death: money.

What I was feeling was survivor’s guilt. My sudden happiness and stability felt like a betrayal.

My therapist asked me to imagine my new job as a gift from my mother instead, a way of her being able to care for me. It didn’t come naturally, but I tried to coax myself into just accepting the gift. No more imagining the what-if’s and alternative timelines. No more apologizing for not being able to save her. Just gratitude.


A few nights before I started my new job I had another dream. This time I was in graduate school and I was lost on campus. I couldn’t find my class and I was scared I was going to screw up such a big opportunity. I felt an arm slip around my shoulders and looked up. It wasn’t my mother; it was Lorelai Gilmore, the mom from my favorite television show as a teenager.

“Hey,” she said. “What’s with the waterworks?”

“I can’t do it,” I sobbed. “I never thought I’d get a chance to go to graduate school and now here I am and I can’t even manage the most basic part – showing up to class.”

She squeezed my shoulders and tucked my head under her chin as we walked.

“Class is this way,” she motioned to a fork in the path ahead of us.

“Oh, and your mom couldn’t be here today, but she wanted you to know that she’s proud of you and she loves you.”


I can’t say for sure what I believe about that dream, or whether I believe my job is a cosmic gift from my mother. Financial stability suddenly feels so arbitrary and unfair. What about everyone else who needs it? What about all the people who work hard and never get what they need? What about economic justice? In an alternative timeline, I save everyone who needs it. Everyone gets enough time and money to live a happy life.

But in this timeline, maybe the real gift is my mother’s love for me. All I can do is be grateful and figure out how to share that with others, and hope that it’s enough.