Two Young and Moody African Women
  • Two young and moody African women. That's my mother on the left.

A person unknown to me has her hand on my mother's leg. The year is 1964, and the photograph is taken not too far from the capitol of the region, Umtali (it will be renamed Mutare in 1983), the third largest city in Rhodesia (it will be renamed Zimbabwe in 1980). These young women are in transition from rural to urban, from traditional to international, from Shona to English, from hut to house, from the deep past to a future that is new for those even in Europe and the United States.

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My mother died in Seattle 11 years ago on September 20. She was 57. Two nights ago, she appeared in the only place I can see and talk to her: my dreams. In this dream, which was set in an apartment in a leafy section of First Hill, she was not sick. This was a surprise. Since passing away, my mother usually appears in the state she left the world—very sick (to use my aunt's words at her bedside in the hospital: "Everything inside you is not working"). But here is the thing, and the reason for this post: In my dreams my mother is, true, very ill, but for some reason she has beaten the doctor's grim estimates. She should be dead, but she is not. She is fragile, but she is still alive. I always express amazement at how she is defying the odds, the terminal illness. But she never wants to talk about it. There are always other matters, other things on her mind.

When I awake from these dreams, it always takes a bit of time (several seconds) for me to realize that I have been fooled. That that was not reality. That this is reality. She died years ago, and she is still dead. And then I remember how the mother in my dreams did not want to talk about the miracle, and how she changed the conversation and instead talked about something relating to her business in downtown Gaborone, her penultimate city. And the more I think about the dream, the more convincing is the impression that she couldn't tell me the truth (I'm really dead) because she knew I would realize that it's not her, and that all of this (the mother, the apartment, the furniture) has been fabricated by a mental machinery that, in my waking hours, organizes the blooming chaos of my existence into an orderly story: wake, wash, walk, wait, work, and so on.

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The Harvard social psychologist Micheal S. Gazzaniga explains in his book Who's in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain that this machinery/organizer/narrator is the interpreter in your brain. This thing is very determined. It has to make sense no matter what. Even if the information it receives is utterly nonsensical, it will make meaning out of it. You can not stop it. It "suppresses conflicting information." It always "tries to find a pattern, and puts it together in a make-sense interpretation." It is in the left hemisphere.

When the interpreter is done with making my day, it does not go down with me into the dark but continues its work in the magic light of a dream. My mother appears. How is she here? She is supposed to be in the graveyard in Renton. The interpreter makes sense out of this nonsense: My mother is actually still alive. It's the doctors who are wrong. They gave her bad estimates. I'm too elated. She is oddly silent. She can't say anything about what is really going on. She can't say anything about what is really going on. My mother is like a cashier who can't tell a customer who has just walked into a store that actually there is a robbery going on, that the criminal is crouched behind the counter with a gun. The criminal looks up at the cashier with one index finger on the trigger and the other index finger over hushing lips. And you buy your beer or wine thinking everything is fine, and leave thinking everything is fine. But once outside—the gunshot. And then the morning light in the window. And then the realization.