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I Dream of My Late Mother

An odd dream from the new book, 'Act Like You're Having a Good Time'

By Michele Weldon

The other night I had a dream, and in it my mother was about 50 years old, about the age she was when I was 16 and smoking cigarettes in the shower to mask the smell and tearing the pages out of my history and Latin textbooks to tuck into my book bag every day at high school so it looked lean and empty; that way none of the boys would think I was smart.

woman walking with purse
Credit: Adobe

I didn’t want to be smart outside of the classroom. I wanted to be liked.

In the dream, I was the age I am now, 61. I am sitting in a beige uncomfortable chair in a crowded doctor’s office waiting area that I do not recognize. There are plenty of doctors’ offices in real life where I have been a regular, and I know the mauve couches and I know the assistants and I smile and ask them how their children are. Hoping the answer is that they are OK. This is not one of those of offices.

The funny thing about this office — other than my mother is in it with me and is younger than me, oh, and that she is alive, having passed away in 2002 — is that there as many patients as there are dogs.

Pretty dogs, long-haired golden retrievers and tiny snow-haired huskies with wagging tails and leashes held tightly. Everyone has a dog; or rather, everyone is paired with a dog. There is no barking, just a clinking of leashes and collars.

A woman — presumably a nurse — comes over, puts a rather large dog in my lap and explains that I will be holding the dog throughout my treatments.

It becomes apparent that I am there for cancer treatment, as the cancer has returned. That is, in my dream, I have cancer again, something I had in 2006 and have been free of since.

My Mother Was Not Afraid to Die

It is not new for me to dream that I have cancer ,because every year I think it has come back. That is because I had the kind of cancer that comes back, likely that it will. It doesn’t feel pessimistic to say that; it feels as if I am not in denial and that I will not be shocked when I hear the words, though I know I will be shocked when I hear the words because they are shocking words.

In my dream, I am sitting with my mother, who is wearing a knit suit and Ferragamo shoes, size 8AA, her legs crossed at the knees, a rather larger purse in her lap.

I also flash to my dream of getting to Australia, not necessarily Hawaii, though I have a good friend — former student — there who swears she will host me, and then I hope onward to Thailand before I have no more time. I hear the food is good, even though pad thai is a made-up American dish. The flight is long, but I will wear the compression socks.

Michele Weldon
Michele Weldon

In my dream, I am sitting with my mother, who is wearing a knit suit and Ferragamo shoes, size 8AA, her legs crossed at the knees, a rather large purse in her lap. The purse is white, a lunch-bucket style that was popular in the 1970s.

I have so many purses from my mother, maybe 20 of them, that were relegated to me by my sisters after she died.

I have an orange leather shoulder bag with a gold clasp that many people remark on if and when I wear it. There are alligator purses, not to mention the tan alligator briefcase, and the Judith Lieber bags, the rhinestone minaudières I tote along to weddings and leave on the table because they look so pretty next to the wire basket of fresh rolls, sometimes pumpernickel.

My mother was not afraid to die. She lost my father when he was only 66 and she was 65, and the six of us children were grown and long gone from the downsized house on Ashland Avenue with the attached garage and the yellow chintz couches in the basement. She died in hospice at 80 and seemed at peace, calm, accepting.

A Comforting Presence

In my doctor’s office dream, the dog I have been assigned is licking my face and I am squirming, not that I am not a dog person, but I guess I can admit, well, I am not so much a dog person. I like other people’s dogs, but I do have a pet allergy and it’s not just cats, it’s dogs too.

I gather in the dream I was receiving chemo — because this is not how my breast cancer was treated in 2006 when I received brachytherapy, or internal radiation, over the course of 10 treatments.

I was told to sit in a chair and hold this dog on my lap who was rather large and fidgety. The nurse adjusted a tube in my arm and I was not happy.

My mother was in the chair across from me and did not look up from her reading. In the dream, I couldn’t see what she was reading, but she tended to read national best sellers and topical books, collections of stories too, along with the occasional reread of a Shakespeare favorite.

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I was not surprised in the dream that my mother was ignoring me. I was just pleased she was there. It was similar to the feeling I have at times, that my late mother is with me, long gone, invisible, but present in a cubicle of my mind, perhaps just a memory of her, a flash, but there all the same.

I Wondered If My Mom Knew Something

I asked the nurse to please remove the dog, who was at this point nuzzling my neck.

“This will help you to relax,” she insisted. It was part of the therapy, she explained.

“Please get him off me,” I insisted.

She would have remained quiet and calm –that is, until the doctor came in, and then she would have asked a lot of questions.

The nurse hissed at me and told me I was ungrateful. I remember being shocked that she was mean. I had cancer, after all, and wasn’t she supposed to be nice to me? Damn your therapy experiment, I thought, and my mother looked at me and didn’t say anything. And then I woke up.

"Act Like You're Having a Good Time" by Michele Weldon

When I did, I missed her, reminded of how she might have been, sitting with me through a treatment. She would have remained quiet and calm — that is, until the doctor came in, and then she would have asked a lot of questions.

She did come to visit me in the hospital in Chicago after I had an emergency appendectomy in the 1980s, and she did come to visit after each of my sons was born.

But mostly I was not sick while she was alive; she was the one who needed care, she was the one in the hospital frequently. She was the one I brought flowers to.

When I woke up, I wondered if I did have cancer again and didn’t know. And I wondered if my mom knew.

Because I think that because she is gone — as is my father — that they both know everything.

(Excerpted from "Act Like You're Having a Good Time" by Michele Weldon. Copyright ©2020. Available from Northwestern University Press.)

Michele Weldon is an award-winning author, journalist and emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University who has published six nonfiction books, and has contributed chapters in seven other books. A senior leader with The OpEd Project since 2011, she has led Public Voices Fellowship initiatives at Northwestern, Stanford, Princeton and Brown universities, as well as the Ms. Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, Boone Family Foundation, Center for Global Policy Solutions and Urgent Fund Africa. She is the award-winning editorial director of Take The Lead, a global women's leadership initiative. Her essays have appeared in hundreds of outlets globally. Read More
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