At Night, I Dreamed by Sam Wright

I. My Parents

In the fall of ‘78
my second year in Maine
I rented a cottage in Goose Rocks Beach.

That winter I slept under a down sleeping bag;
it took a few minutes,
but after I shook off the cold…

I’d soon be dreaming
of little blue crabs scurrying about
in the brackish flow of the tidal creek
in the marsh out back, or,
I’d dream of the lobsters offshore
and how, when I snorkeled, they’d circle warily
ten feet below and curse me with their terrible claws,
brandishing them like warriors, or
I’d dream of the daughter I left behind
but barely knew, or
I’d dream of the woman I left behind
who was never far from my thoughts, or,
I’d dream about the girl down the road
I’d met waiting tables at the Pour Farm Restaurant on Route 1
who reminded me of a girl I had yearned for
back in the Ohio but never caught,
and about whom I never dreamed.

I found it easy to dream that winter
inside that square, cedar-shake cottage
alongside the marsh,
for it was very dark there,
especially when there was no moon to show the way.

Sometimes I dreamed about my mother—
sitting at her manager’s desk in a hospital business office,
chain smoking and cringing when her coworkers called her Dee.
Sometimes, I dreamed about how my parents met
in Kansas as soldiers during the war, got married in Buffalo,
moved to Cleveland for a spell, started their family,
and how they no longer loved each other,
though they would have eight kids that lived and a son
who would have been the eldest had he not been stillborn.

At other times, I dreamed about my father as a boy:
Burying his father in the heart of the Depression,
his siblings and mother huddled in a tiny cemetery
hidden amid the rolling hills of southern North Dakota,
the plot just a short march uphill from a whitewashed train station
and the tiny hardscrabble town it served.
And the cemetery, which is tucked under a single tree,
is nothing, only necessary, like a stamp on a postcard;
and the grounds might be sun-burnt, except for the snow;
and the solitary tree that defines the location of the dead
is so thin and wind-withered, its shadow is almost invisible.

He is just eleven and teeters on the edge of surrender,
can feel but not name something gnawing inside his gut,
wearing him down.
Except for his eyes scanning a horizon
that might be endless for all he knows,
he is like granite in the face of a frozen prairie wind that sways
the nearby grasses in a kind of Lakota death-dance;
and he doesn’t protest when his youngest brother, Lyle, pries his cap
from his homesteader-son’s hands and puts it on his own head;
and he neither cries nor looks down
when three other siblings press themselves tightly
against their big brother, hanging on his sleeves, seeking comfort;
instead, taking his cue from his mother,
a stoic German named Anne,
who cradles a newborn daughter in her schoolmarm arms
and who oversaw the burial of her husband, only 36,
then wrote her father in Kasson, Minnesota
beseeching him to take all seven of them in.
Which he did.

Another time, I dreamed about my mother being shipped off
to an aunt’s house during the Depression because she was the oldest
and her parents had three younger mouths to feed.
I dreamed about the heartbreak she was told would go away,
but didn’t, remained no more buried than a ghost.
I dreamed about the harsh necessity of those times
and how they tarnished her spirit and made her wonder:
Why me? What have I done?

They say that adversity makes a girl tough, is good for her soul.
But when I dreamed about my mother, that’s not what I saw.
I saw my mother alone, a bright girl encaged in shadow.
When I was young, my mother was the best thing in my life.
But when I dreamed, I never imagined her happy: always
she was standing under dark skies as melancholy as she.

In one dream, I remember her crying at the kitchen table
after she got the news that her mother had died—
and me wondering why she cared.
And I remember not feeling comfortable enough
to console her
or give her a hug
or tell her I was sorry.
Even though I loved her.
With parents like mine, such expressions were alien to us all.

I remember too the dream I had about the time we visited
Mt. Olivet Cemetery near Buffalo, where she pointed out,
but did not approach, the site where her infant stillborn son is buried,
and how when I saw the tiny flat stone marker I choked up
—right out of the blue—nearly breaking down
at the thought of the big brother I might have had.
But I didn’t cry, and now that dream
is more often than not a daydream, not a night dream.

Sometimes I imagined that my mother, and possibly my father,
smothered their troubled hearts in the folds of a damp pillow,
only to awaken unrefreshed and no less overwhelmed,
children forced to play high-stakes poker with only one rule:
they couldn’t fold.

And so,
because my father never shared stories,
and my mother rarely spoke about her youth
I used dreams to build a bridge to their pasts
And when I dreamed, like Orion, I hunted.
And when I hunted, I hunted in a cold city to the East
and I hunted in the empty plains of the Upper Midwest,
searching for my parents and the histories they refused to relive. 


II. My Brother, David

Before Maine
and long before I felt an attraction for girls,
I dreamed about my brother, David.

As kids my siblings and I called our brother “crippled,”
though what he was a victim of cerebral palsy,
a condition we kids didn’t understand
any more than we understood the workings of sex,
vaginas, and birth canals. Nor had we experience
with the brand of patriarchal arrogance
that demanded delivery room nurses
pinch a woman’s legs together, like a vise,
till the doctor arrived, ignoring head butts to the pelvis.

To keep it simple, my father invented the fiction
that my brother’s condition
was the result of falling and hitting his head, hard,
on the corner of our television set.
When we looked at our 2-year-old brother
crawling around on the carpet on all fours, like a dog,
never a “toddler,” never meant to stand on his own two feet,
then at the hard, bulky edge
of our black & white television’s solid wood cabinet,
my father’s stern certainty overwhelmed our doubts,
became the story we told our friends
to explain
why my brother couldn’t walk
and why his legs and right arm
were stiff and unruly.

Somehow, that corner thing my dad dreamed up
became the quintessential detail of an accident beyond our reckoning.
That fiction seemed infinitely more plausible to us, as children,
than the mysterious concept of “birth accident.”
So we believed our dad’s lie. And why not?
We were just stupid kids. Plus:

We attended a parochial grade school,
a religious factory whose soul purpose was to brainwash
good Catholic boys and girls into believing all sorts of nonsense.
Brain-damage-by-TV was just another brand of absurdity,
a venial whopper, a father-fib, an eccentric joke
we accepted and found a place for in our nascent world view.
It was a small lie, really,
especially when compared to the spiritual ruthlessness
of the nuns who indoctrinated us to distrust our desires
and confess every tiny slip up
lest the hot, hungry, sizzling flames of Hell
lick our naked little bodies for all eternity.

Under those conditions, I am not surprised
to recall that most of my recurrent dreams as a boy
were about my crippled brother, David…and Jesus.

In those dreams, I showed Jesus my poor little brother
crawling around on the ground like an animal,
and implored Him to let David walk,
to let him live like a normal boy.
It didn’t seem like much to ask from a Guy
who could bring the dead back to life.
I wasn’t the Devil in the desert and I didn’t mean it as a test.
Nor was I the doubting thief hanging on Jesus’ wrong side.
I was a believer.

In my dreams, I could see Jesus’s face
shining with kindness and compassion.
But, for some reason, He never answered my prayers.
Maybe the endless prayers of others
had driven Him deaf, or maybe, just maybe,
He didn’t like the smell of Friday bologna on my breath,
and the nuns were right, and I wasn’t worthy.

As I grew, I confess that my dreams came to include
an awful addendum—call it the snake in my Garden—
that I dared never speak aloud:
Oh, Jesus, let my brother walk! Please, Jesus,
You’ve got to cure my brother because
I’m embarrassed to have a brother who’s a cripple.

No sooner had I recognized the selfishness of that request,
than I was overwhelmed with shame
and my Jesus and David dreams ended….

Despite my failings, David was never ashamed.
Not even when he hung a metal bucket from the handlebar
of his modified trike and pedaled down the street
requesting handouts.

My brother, of course, made a compelling beggar:
four shiny steel rods enshrined his pale underdeveloped calves,
and a dark steel brace ran up the rear of his bike,
branching into a T that cradled his upper back and spine.
A cute cripple, he always returned with pennies, nickels, and dimes,
proud to have earned his own money for snacks at the corner store….

I never asked David if he dreamed about Jesus.
Or if he ever prayed for a miracle.
Never told him, I had.

David is 68 now,
his skinny legs have atrophied,
his gut is big enough to accommodate twins,
and he requires help to get into his motorized wheelchair.
And, thanks of Covid,
he has become a virtual prisoner
in the long-term care facility where he now resides.
Even so, he rarely complains.
The staff enjoy him
and they have found that he has a good heart.

As for me:
Though I never dream about David or miracles any more,
I often recall the dreams I once had,
those born of a wide-eyed innocence
that ended suddenly
with my own Fall.


Sam Wright is a retired English teacher and, but for two years living in Maine, is a lifetime Ohioan. He recently moved to Lakewood, OH, to be closer to his two grandchildren. Before his move, he volunteered with the Toledo-based environmental groups Tree Toledo and Lake Erie Advocates. His work has appeared in The Sun, Peace and Planet News, The Toledo City Journal, Best of Ohio 2021 & 2022, Encore, Common Threads, Of Rust and Glass, and the anthology A Rustling and Waking Within, among others. He earned his doctorate at the University of Toledo and is the author of Identity, Family, and Folklore in African American Literature (as Lee Alfred Wright).