What Do Kids Dream About
I've always been envious of my two-year-old son. He, like most children, has the ability to slumber with that "sleep of the innocent" -- total relaxation, total comfort, total safety, whether he's in his car seat, his bed or on my lap at dinner. I wondered at what point daytime stresses began to translate into nighttime anxieties.
I think I've found out. It's right about now.
The other night, I was rousted by an ungodly wailing. My usual process when awoken by nocturnal noises is to "talk" Benjamin into our room, reminding him that I'm right here, and encouraging him to make the trek to our bed on his own. But this time he didn't respond to my voice. So I pulled myself out of the covers, hobbled across the hall, and found him huddled at the edge of his mattress, his Winnie-the-Pooh bedclothes wadded around him as he lay there, shaking and crying.
I picked him up and started the soothing process, but he was having none of it. I carried him gently back to our big bed and put him in his favorite spot, a small cocoon of space between his father and me. But even snuggled warmly in this nest, he continued to cry and shake, moaning. He seemed to be getting increasingly agitated and started mumbling incoherent words, which I finally deciphered:
"Goldfish crackers - all gone!"
Benjamin kept wailing this phrase over and over, tears coursing down his face. My husband, John, and I looked at each other by the light of the digital clock, a hint of laughter in our eyes. If Benji hadn't been so upset, the situation would have been almost funny. But given his obvious distress, we could do little more than keep our amusement to ourselves and try to calm him.
After fifteen minutes with no signs of sleep, I did the obvious - I went into the kitchen and came back with a handful of goldfish crackers, which I placed in Benjamin's tight fists. "Here you are, sweetie," I said. "See? There's plenty of goldfish crackers."
But even this didn't help. Somehow, Benji's subconscious had told him that his snack had disappeared, and no evidence -- physical or otherwise -- could convince him of the contrary. The crackers became tiny, damp crumbs as my son's anguish continued. Finally, John took him into the living room and rocked him until his sobs subsided and he fell back asleep.
The thing that's noteworthy about this episode is not the nightmare, per se. Instead, it's the subject. Adults tend to dream about plane crashes, dentists and business presentations given in various states of undress; in other words, physical, mental and psychic pain -- all the things that haunt us in our waking hours. But for this child, the worst possible thing that could happen in his small world would be to have his favorite treat disappear.
His nightmare reminded me of how fragile my son really is. When I see him tearing around the house, tumbling over furniture and running into doors, I think of him as invincible. But in actuality, he's a tiny sprig of a human, one whose psyche is so impressionable that something as silly as his crackers vanishing causes him sheer terror, one that even Mommy and Daddy can't make go away.
There are going to be a lot of things I can't fix over the course of my son's life. There's a limit to what I can do to "make it all better." Someday, his problems will be so large that they'll seem insurmountable to him and to me -- failed relationships, tough choices where no option seems to be the right one, pain of all kinds and sizes. Just like the other night, I'll be powerless. All I'll be able to do is sit and be with him, hoping that eventually the hand of the divine will come and soothe his brow, easing his mind just enough so once again he can sleep.
But in the meantime, I do know this; as long as I'm making his lunch, that boy is getting all the goldfish crackers he wants.