“I knew that he was going to die.”
That is what I heard my mother say one warm, humid Sunday afternoon three weeks after my father died.
“I had a dream, and I knew.”
Ms. Vivian had come over to visit with Mother as they had done for the past three years since we’d moved to Haiti from the Bahamas. I was about eight years old at the time, sitting at my mother’s feet on the cement gallery porch of our house. I didn’t usually pay attention to them; Ms. Vivian was a soft-spoken woman who lived a couple of houses down from ours on the same side of the street, and she was one of my mother’s four best friends. She was over to chat almost every day.
This time, though, I listened. When I heard my mother say she had known about my dad, I sat upright.
The way my mother said it: One night she found herself in a ballroom dancing with my dad and a crowd of strangers who were dressed in fancy clothes. My mother, though, was wearing a black dress in the dream, the color that people in Haiti wore to mourn the passing of a loved one. At that point in the story, I was most fascinated with the idea of my parents dancing, because I had never seen that in real life—my mother was a Protestant with a Puritan flair, and my dad had been a serious person who was usually thinking about work.
After some time, my mother said she noticed that she and my dad were dancing alone in the middle of the ballroom with the other couples in a circle around them. Then all of a sudden, my dad walked away. He left her by herself in the middle of the circle. As she looked back at my dad, she said — and even now I remember her words as vividly as if she had spoken them only moments ago: “Joe, are you going to leave me by myself with all those five children?”
And he did, just three weeks later.
It was when I heard her recounting this story that it finally became clear my dad was not coming back. As a child, I couldn’t understand something like death, an emotional pain for which I had no point of reference. A child’s brain has not experienced how the world can be unpleasant or chaotic; it’s difficult to maintain trust and optimism without some reassurance of meaning and order. But that day my mother’s dream was a comfort to me. It told me that if she could explain what had happened to my family, then my world was not uncontrolled or chaotic after all. I could count on predictability. I could find safety in it.
I often wonder if part of my future resilience came from hearing my mother recounting her dream. Her story meant I no longer had to fear the uncertainty of my world, and maybe that also made me believe I could dream of good things, or of a better tomorrow. In fact, even now I allow myself to dream that I can and will get out of difficult situations, and that the sun will rise again as it always does each morning.
As a society, we assign meaningful narratives to life’s events to assure ourselves there is a reason why things happen. Even if we know that life truly is unpredictable, we find refuge in storytelling and dreams because the human brain has a natural need for an orderly, predictable world. We can cope better when we feel on a deeper level that the world is not going mad despite life’s uncertainty. In fact, storytelling reminds us we’re part of a larger human story, where those who came before us were able to overcome challenges by applying the same timeless values and lessons embedded in the stories that have been handed down to us. So, we can take comfort in believing that our future, and our children’s future, will be all right too. That the world is turning as it should, as it has always turned.
How have you assigned narrative to uncertainty in your own life? What personal, social, or cultural stories have given you hope for the future or a sense of purpose and predictability? What empowers you to be optimistic, trusting that the world will be just, more humane, and more stable? Share your answers in the comments below.