The Stuff of Nightmares

I walked into the closet and found the cart I was searching for. I needed to move our field equipment from the van to the lab and as buff as I am I would still rather make fewer trips. So I sought the dissection lab cart. It was loaded with specimens but I could set them aside for the 30 minutes I would need the wheels. So I started moving clear plastic bags with stiff Siamese cats from the cart over to the counter. They were all roughly the same size and stacked with kind of a squishy weight as formaldehyde dripped through their fur. Each cat was labeled according to the organ it had been dissected to display. They were cut open to reveal a lung, or the heart, or the muscles of the arm. As I stacked the 20 or so cats I realized they were each different in other ways. These weren’t plastic models manufactured with a minimum of error. They were bred. They had once been kittens from a couple of litters, chasing each other’s tails, murdering grasshoppers, being incredibly cute. They had been raised to adulthood, and then systematically slaughtered so a bunch of biology majors could see what a mammalian ankle looked like.

Biologists have that problem. We love life so much that we dedicate our lives to understanding it. For some reason that includes ending the very thing we love. So biologists collect books of pressed flowers or beautiful butterflies pinned in a frame, or vials of insects carefully labeled and stacked in metal cabinets. I recalled going for these specimens deep in the mountains, picking through piles of litter for the first one hundred insects I could see, grabbing them with metal forceps then hurriedly shoving them into vials of 70% ethanol. That’s strong enough to kill most bugs in a few seconds and preserve them through 10 miles of backpacking out. The worst were the beetles. They resisted the ethanol. Sometimes they would struggle for 10 minutes before their limbs slowed down and they entered the death of a museum piece. I asked an entomologist if he thought someday he would have to face those bugs and explain why he had taken their lives. He laughed it off but I later saw him pickle a giant stonefly and walk away to stare at the ceiling for the few minutes until it died. I’ve killed 10,000s of insects in this manner, he’s killed millions.

OIMB 2013 New Years Sunset bay Amphipods

I am haunted by more than the squirming larva of dying insects. Like most I’ve had those fears of losing bodily control. You know the dreams of drinking too much and running across rope bridges over monstrous waterfalls that result in laundry the next day. Or the fear of joining the poopy pants club that so many missionaries talk about. Or the ingestion of something unpleasant that results in a rapid increase in your stomach pH as the pH of your friend’s mother’s shirt falls precipitously. Or running into that certain someone for whom you have mentally prepared sonnets and being reduced to a beet-red, mostly silent wallflower. I won’t confess which ones are nightmares and which are realities.

The truth is those aren’t my real nightmares. They are worries and fears that cross my conscious self but rarely do they resurge without warning in the darkest nights. They aren’t the kind that you shudder about three days later. Those are like the possibility that you could wake up one day and find everyone you know had died in the night of some zombifying disease or catastrophic plane crash. Or that you might have to move to a new place where you don’t know anyone and no one knows you. This is the fear that you might be left alone, with no one else to count on. In a similar vein there is the fear of going through a whole day without making a memorable impact on anyone, without mattering. People know you but don’t notice you. This is the fear that if you disappeared no one would notice until the smell of rotting food in your fridge made someone question when they had last seen you. This is the fear of being alone even in a crowd simply because no one cares.


I am lucky that I have many affirmations to fend off those fears. Dear friends who remember me even when I forget. I have forgotten so many of their names. Sometimes they run into me at the university, or in the grocery store, or in the temple. I see their face and feel the love I still hold for our companionship but I cannot recall the name or the circumstance. I am haunted by the memories that have grown faded on the edges. What treasures the past has claimed from my present! Mixed in these memories are the might-have-beens with their tortuous blend of hypotheticals. These dreams are painful because they are sweet. The very glory of them burns because it exists only in the incorporeal. It makes me cling to my memories and photo albums with a power that urges backups of backups, frequent review, and pages of journals to stave off the gathering mists of time.

The potentialities of a flexible mind are haunting but they do not cling as flagrantly as the memories that are enforced by physical senses. The blue color of my brother’s lips 20 years ago, glimpsed as I ran to the door to see the fire truck arrive. The anger in my sister’s voice directed at my father night after night. The phone call on a cheerful scouting trip telling me my grandfather was undergoing emergency quadruple bypass surgery. That memory of witnessing my father’s first heart attack which somehow grows more terrifying the more distant it grows.

Overlooking Jabok river,  by Maddie Miner

These memories are the ones I can’t forget. Among them is the hospital. I spent the morning pulling the spring plantings downtown and preparing the rich earth for summer production. I slipped away from my friends as they headed home and boarded a train to the children’s hospital where my brother had just undergone his second open heart surgery and was now awake. For his first he had been a month old and I was only 2. I only remember his zipper of scare tissue running down his chest all the years growing up. He was now 20 and barely was allowed in the children’s hospital. Through years of hospitals visits I had never visited him without my parents. The receptionist sent me to the ICU for cardio patients and I strode confidently into the ward. He had been through 9 hours of surgery but all reports indicated it had gone well and he would be better off because it. I identified the layout of the ward and looked for room numbers. It was on the far side on the room with a large window. As I walked toward it I noticed the room was set up strangely. There was the central room full of equipment and surrounded by beds in an almost circle. The beds had drawn curtains and glass walls around them making it feel like one massive room. A few more steps and it registered that most of the beds were bassinets, covered with incubation glass and far too small for adults. A few more steps and I remembered that this was a children’s hospital. The mean age of the patients in that room was 1, and that was only because a 20-year old was there. I held it together to meet my brother and try to be cheerful and encouraging as my soul raged against all that was going on in my peripherals. He was heavily drugged and rather pleasant as he showed off his new chest scar and casually pointed to his one month old neighbor who had his chest open all night because they couldn’t close it up yet.

Even now I tremble to think about that cardiovascular ICU in a children’s hospital. The memory puts my stomach in my throat and makes talking difficult. For the first time I had a glimpse into what my parents went through the first time he was in that room. Or what my sister would go through with her son 3 years later. Some of my worst nightmares take me there although the edge is softened. Because though it horrifies me deeply it is also one of the holiest places I’ve ever been.

Western wall, last time (3)

Somewhere in here the physical memory of tragedy mixes with the hypothetical potential of failure and I find my darkest nightmares. They don’t contain disemboweled cats or squirming beetles. They are dreams of love ripped apart by separation. A disease, an argument, an accident: the particulars vary. Sometimes I leave her, sometimes she leaves me. In the worst ones she leaves us, and I am left to raise a child in a deeper loneliness than I can know now. This is why I cry in Disney movies. Not because I fear death or hardship, but because I fear being left alone. Because any force that threatens a family is the most terrible thing I know. Sometimes those forces are external and violent as car accidents or armed robbery. Sometimes they are internal and seditious as abuse or neglect by family members who personally destroy their greatest possible joy. I’ve seen that last one before. I’ve seen it too many times in the faces of my friends. It seems a great evil that I have every desire to march forth and destroy. Oh that I could gather all the people on earth and end such villainy with the force of voice or will or arms. But generation after generation it persists, somehow entering each new chance at a better life. And I suppose buried in there is the deepest fear, the stuff my nightmare are made of that I refuse to even see. It’s that possibility that the betrayer of trust, joy, duty, and duty; and destroyer of family, could ever be me.

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