The stuff that dreams are made on

I’m beginning to think I can never completely retire. Reminders of my past life appear each night and cling like lint until the morning. Unlikely scenarios, impossible situations, friends who could never be, surface to commune like Hamlet with his father’s ghost. For years after I graduated from university, my nights were populated with assignments not handed in, exams not completed, courses never attended. I would awaken in the dark, a thoroughly chastened failure until the gift of light erased the penalty.

But, I suppose the brain needs something to do while we are asleep, so it composes stories, rents movies, makes stuff up. And although it sometimes tries to stay current, my nights are often a rehash of long ago, a wander through a collection of Brothers Grimm, or strangely distorted versions of Aesop where I am usually a hapless victim, or an unwilling perpetrator.

Now that I am retired from Medicine, and no longer entangled in the web that is obstetrics and gynaecology, the dreams are, inevitably, distortions of surgical adventures, often admixed with confusion in the clinic: charts lost, names forgotten, or -more frequently perhaps- information not received, patients either not understood, or hidden somewhere in a warren of offices down a labyrinthine corridor. Usually, I am struck by my inability to do my job properly -sometimes, because I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, but more often, fearing I am actually a charlatan.

I’m sure such dreams are common to any of us who suddenly change the stripes we have worn like skin for so long, but I have to wonder why. Are they simply contextually bereft distortions of familiar themes, or is the brain trying to tell us something? Working through unresolved issues our waking days have buried?

I was sitting in a quaint little pub with Janice, a retired midwife, a few months ago and the topic suddenly surfaced. We’d been talking about the old days and how much things had changed, when she suddenly put her empty glass on the table and leaned forward as if she was about to divulge something important.

I mistrust divulgences, if only because they usually require commensurate reciprocation, and I had not nearly finished my own wine. I was torn between ordering another carafe to distract her, and plodding with fresh determination through my own glass. In the end, I decided to sit back in my chair to give her more room on the table.

“I’ve been having some crazy dreams,” she started, a little surprised at my withdrawal I suppose.

I nodded encouragingly, though, and I think that helped. Catharsis is difficult at the best of times.

“Last night, for example, I dreamed I was sitting at a bedside encouraging the client to push, but she was screaming so loudly I don’t think she even heard me.”

I smiled at the scenario -we’d both been involved in deliveries for so many years the image was a familiar one.

“I realized I was becoming annoyed at the noise, and yelled at her to shut up.”

Again I smiled -it’s something I think we’ve all felt like doing.

“And then the room went quiet and everybody began to stare at me.” She signalled for the waiter and ordered another carafe of wine. “It was as if I had defiled the delivery room by saying what everybody had wanted anyway.” She followed the waiter with her eyes to make sure he was doing his job.

“But I remember being so happy the room was finally quiet -so happy I’d finally done what I was trained to do: impose order on confusion, calm a woman desperately in need of my help.” She glanced impatiently over her shoulder again, and then sighed.

“And yet her partner and his mother who had been watching from a corner of the room continued to stare at me in disbelief -their mouths silently opening and closing as if I had disrupted a Mass.”

“A Mass?” I asked, just to show Janice I was paying attention.

“A birth is a sacred act,” she said, her eyes clutching painfully at my cheeks. “It is a ceremony enacted by the parturient on her congregants…”

An interesting way of looking at accouchement, I had to admit as I nodded enthusiastically at the metaphor and finished off my wine.

“The silence in the room became stifling, however,” she continued, looking around the pub again for the waiter and her wine. “It was almost like that mysterious calm that precedes a storm -the tingle on your skin, the fear of upsetting something sacrosanct by moving or breathing too deeply…”

“I’ve never…”

“You’ve never lived on the prairies,” she interrupted, dismissing my thought with an imperious wave of her hand. “There, in the moments before the towering clouds arrive, you can feel things are about to change.”

A carafe magically appeared on the table and Janice filled both of our glasses to the brim.

“But in that birthing room, for all its praeternatural silence, I could feel a change about to unfold, and every eye shifted from me to the woman in labour.” She took a tentative sip of her wine, sighed, and then continued. “Picture the room around me: it was as peaceful, as quiet as a church during prayer, and filled with an electric expectation that could flash out like shining from shook foil at any moment.”

“Gerard Manley Hopkins,” I said, and saw an impish, but nonetheless admiring grin surface on her lips. “I recognized your metaphor,” I added.

Janice blinked in what I can only assume was surprise that an obstetrician had read from more than the required academic literature. “So,” she continued, after a brief respectful nod, “all was quiet and yet electric, when suddenly the client screamed and shocked the room with a mighty grunt. And there, on the now blood-soaked sheets, was a furiously howling baby, angry it seemed, at being thrust out of its warm and cozy closet.”

I loved the way she described the dream, but I was a little puzzled at her consternation about it, because she immediately drained her glass. “I guess we all dream about those thoughts that we kept bottled up at the time, eh?” I had a sip of my wine. “I’ve often wished I could tell the patient to keep quiet.”

She sighed and filled her glass again. “The dream didn’t end with the delivery, though… I wish it had.”

I tried to look sympathetic. In the dream, there was probably something wrong with the baby, or her patient had massive bleeding, and I opened my mouth to reassure her that I sometimes have dreams like that, when she held her hand up to make me hear her out.

“The screams of the baby seemed to reverberate through the sacred space like an out-of-tune organ in a cathedral, and I discovered I was becoming angry at it. Furious, in fact.” She sent her eyes again to seek refuge on my cheeks.

And as she spoke, I imagined her dreaming of doing something horrid to the baby to force it to be quiet. Of losing control. “So, what did…?”

“I put it back,” she said, her eyes suddenly merry and her face wrinkling in amusement.

“Back…?” I wasn’t sure I understood. “Back where?”

“Back inside the mother,” she said, hardly able to explain through her laughter.

My dreams always hint of danger, of malpractice, of inadvertent mistakes and for a moment, I wondered why mine couldn’t be as inventive. As redemptive. Was I missing some important stuff she had that dreams are made on? And then, as her eyes twinkled saucily, and we both laughed together, it occurred to me that I would probably never be allowed to have midwife dreams.

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