Apparently my psyche is very afraid of bears because I’ve had recurring dreams about them all of my life.
It began with my parents’ romantic story about their visit to Arizona. They went through a hippie period where they drove VW bugs, quit their jobs every summer to do things like backpack around Europe. At the time, he was a high school science teacher and she was a nurse back when nursing jobs were easy to obtain. So, one June they drove their beetle from NYC to the Grand Canyon and camped in a tiny pup tent along the way.
The oft-retold family story alleges they had met a group of fellow hikers and set up camp together with a fire and marshmallows (given the decade and the setting, I suspect “marshmallow” was code for marijuana). Some of these compatriots were Native Americans and proclaimed the majesty of sleeping under the stars, literally. My newlywed parents politely declined, retreating to the cover of their tiny tent.
In the middle of the night, they awoke to the shrieking nearby and the general commotion that follows such a jolting alarm. One of the young women, asleep on her unfurled mat, had been rousted by a strange warmth on her face. When she opened her eyes, a bear was staring right into them. She screamed, a group of men ran the bear off, and thankfully, no one was injured.
“Bet they were all rethinking their decision to sleep under the stars while we were safe in our tent,” my Dad usually observes at the conclusion of this story. And I never understand this logic. Does he really think that the tent provided any significant protection from a bear?
To me, it seemed that they had all made bad decisions.
But this story created lots of bear cameos in the dreams of my childhood. Never causing any harm or acting aggressively, bears would amble in and out of my dream with regularity as a minor character.
During college, a black bear was spotted in my family’s back yard in Connecticut, the farthest south and east one had ever been documented. Its unique appearance (and subsequent relocation) even made the evening news. My mom was interviewed. Although this young male bear had only harassed a bird feeder while searching for new territory to claim, the groundwork had been laid for what would become my most troubling, recurring nightmare.
The dream evolved over the years, finally crystallizing into the version that still surfaces for me, in some form, to this very day.
I am at my parents’ house with McCartney and we are awake in the middle of the night. Sometimes I got up to nurse my infant daughter and sometimes I am sick and rummage the medicine cabinet for Advil. In either instance, Mac would never let me wander the house alone at night, insisting on keeping me company. Whatever the reason for being up, I would always let Mac outside for a bathroom break before returning to bed. The house is quiet, my family is asleep. We are the only two souls awake.
With the floodlight on, the deck is clearly illuminated and I step onto the doormat. Rough coir under my fuzzy slippers. Mac sniffs along the edge of the woods, his black form barely visible.
Exactly splitting the distance between Mac and I, a bear ambles across the yard, heading for the birdseed. It seems unaware of either of us.
I lock eyes with Mac and we both freeze. What do I do? If feels like a classic parlor game.
My first option is obvious: I can slam the door shut and save myself and my loved ones. But this would leave Mac to fend for himself. Because he is also a loved one, I quickly dismiss this course of action.
My second option is to step outside and lock the door behind me, thereby protecting my family and not abandoning the black lab to the black bear. Although I am not entire sure how I will protect Mac.
Mentally, unconsciously, I would flail for a third option. Charge the bear? Run away? Call 9-1-1? Nothing was ever effective and I would wake up disappointed in myself.
It took many iterations over several years, but my brain finally developed a satisfying conclusion. In it, I realized that there are leftovers from dinner tucked into the fridge on a foil-lined plate. Something nice and smelly, like baked fish.
“Hey,” I shout at the bear, while flinging the whole plate to the other side of the yard like a Frisbee. I never had much of a throwing arm when I played softball as a teenager, but in this dream I am a veritable Tom Brady.
During this, McCartney stands transfixed, in pointer position. Waiting.
As soon as the bear pivots for the fish, I give Mac the silent hand signal for “come” and hold open the storm door. He soundlessly bolts into the house and I wake as the door slams behind him.
Everyone is safe.