Donna Marsh / Creative Nonfiction / Fall, 2016





Before September 11th of 2001, in fact, since I was fifteen, I had recurring dreams of walls of water. In each of these dreams, I would either be running away from the wall or sitting or standing still in place with a loved one as the wall of water engulfed. Never was that loved one my daughter Vanessa. But in each of the dreams, by the time I understood that the water was powerful, it was already engulfing. Already poised overhead to fall.

On the days just following 9/11 in images transmitted through our televisions and computer screens I would see endless iterations of the same dream—only instead of water, the gray wall was concrete and chemical, flesh and blood and bone, the matter of earth that would crush the body of my first born, my baby girl Vanessa and her child, too, enwombed inside of her.

These are the dreams through which I have seen my Vanessa since that day. Each dream, a mark in our paths to reunite. And understand, before I lost her, I knew Freud, knew him so palpably that I would say to my students over and over again as an incantation: Freud gave us a gift—to know that when we sleep our dreams are anything but literal, that they are encoded and meant to be so, that they can mean anything, anything at all, except the literal. And one day as I was saying this, I wondered, is there only one kind of dream?

To say I miss her, cannot capture what the lack leaves behind. That lack, that absence has a form. Not often, but as needed I see her in my dreams. Though those walls of water, if only in my dreams, have stopped.


She stands before an office building in New York City. She is wearing a red dress with brass buttons, similar to one I loved of my own as a child, though mine was navy blue. We call this sailor style.

Her hair is shorter than she normally wore it when she chose the length, but once when my mother kept her for a weekend, when Vanessa was fifteen, my mother had it cut short, a bubble cut, because Vanessa had tight curly hair. Then I could see how much she longed for her length back. For perhaps the only time in her life, Vanessa did not act as if she knew she was beautiful.

She stands in front of the building in the red dress, her hair short, her face a hologram of the fifteen year-old and the twenty-nine year-old. She waves to me, gently. She says, though not in words, I have to do this. I’m not gone. I’m okay.

Her face is somber or sober (I cannot be sure which) but she does, she does love me.


She is in the whirlpool tub in my bathroom, her red nails and the marks they have left on the tub so clear to me. It is this that convinces me that I have been wrong. She is back. No. She has never been gone. She is sitting, her summer-browned skin glistening. I move toward her. Smell her fruity wild hair. Touch her cool skin, so smooth and so soft. I want to linger over her, to hold her.

But she says, abruptly, sharply: “I’m not gone.”

“Then,” I ask, “why am I am so broken?”

“I don’t know. So stop.”

“You’re here?”

“I’m here. That’s what I’m trying to say.”

“Then nothing is wrong,” I say, relieved. Relieved of burden so great.

Until that moment, that key moment when I wake to the sun blazing
shards of light across my morning bed. And she is gone. She is all gone. Except for the red nail polish scars still on my bathroom light switch, those red marks I will never clean. Though someday, unknowing, a housekeeper will.


I am in a basement office of some official building. The office is one of several in a row on the same floor. There are windows on one side that tell of the sun this morning. There are, too, windows and a windowed door, covered in closed venetian blinds that face the hallway outside of the room. I am dressed in a skirt and blouse. Vanessa is here. She sits across from me, though not at the desk.

I am crying. Sobbing, though quietly. She is leaning toward me. “Stop, please stop,” she pleads. “I’m here.”

I don’t say this, but I don’t believe her. How can I?

She looks at me with loving sympathy, but she has to go. So I cannot, because I don’t want her to go, stop crying.

“Look,” she says to me, “I have to go for a minute. I’ll be back.”

“No,” I say. “You won’t.”

She takes her purse from her lap. She puts it in my own. “Would I leave this if I were not coming back?”

I look into her striking, sharp, clear blue eyes. “No. I don’t think so.”

“Then hold this and I’ll be right back.”

I almost believe her. So I clutch the black purse. And I watch her walk out of the door.

The phone on my bedside table jangles and I try to hold onto the purse and ignore it, but I am up. Clearly. There is no purse. There is only my white comforter, and I am bound in it.

I pick up the receiver. “I can’t talk. I’m sleeping,” I tell whoever is on the other end and I hang up and fall back to the office.

She walks back in. She comes to me and takes the purse. “I’m here,” she says. She says this as if she knew I would wake to the real world and find my way back to the dream.

“I am here.”
I will, on this particular morning, wake up again. Again my phone will ring. It will be my sister Robin who will tell me she, too, saw Vanessa. Only right in the middle of the dream, she tells me, her phone rang. And she, as did I, will hang up from life and return to a strange office, in a strange basement to the one face she most wants to see. Hand to G-d, that’s exactly how it happened.


I am reading or I have read a year before (I do not remember) The Likeness by Tana French. The novel is about a female detective called to a crime scene where she finds a dead woman in a cave who is her doppleganger. I imagine, in the way a reader pieces together place from the details a writer offers, that Cassie (the protagonist) lives in a funky apartment with bad hardwood floors aged and dull and no longer meeting the walls, yellowed paint, and mismatched glasses. Right next to the door to the apartment is a coat closet.

I dream that I am in this apartment. But, and this is key: I am me. Though I share Cassie’s immersion in some primal mystery that encases her, I am Donna. I have two sons—James and Jackson and a daughter who is lost. But Vanessa is in the coat closet, cleaning it. I am so happy to see her. I go to her, but she is not in the mood for my embrace. Annoyed almost.

“Why do you always do this?” she asks.

“I have to. I miss you so.”

“I told you before. I’ll tell you again. Nothing has changed. Only your imagination has changed.”

“Can’t I just hold you?”

“I have cleaning to do. And nothing is wrong.”

I don’t respond to her in words, but in my mind I utter the refrain, “Then why does it hurt so when I wake?”

I do wake. Again. To the utter and uttered and absolute fact that is the essence of earth, I do not have a daughter here anymore.


She is in a dark room with a high ceiling, higher than any I have ever seen on earth. Outside, visible through the large and clear gothic windows of the room is dark water on all sides. She is small though not young. She is guided by a man in a robe who has his hand on one of her elbows. She stops in front of a long semi-spheric table where she faces a tableau of judges who sit and one urges her to take a seat in a single chair at the center of the sphere. I cannot see them clearly, and she does not face me, but in some way she communicates: I am busy. I will see you soon. Wish me luck.


The last day I spoke to her with my voice, not through a keyboard, I asked her, no, I demanded, “Do not call me!” I was angry. She was pleading for me not to be. I was right. She was right, too. An impasse. Our usual impasse. I held my cell phone in my hand in the mall near our home and as I stood outside of J Crew, and I hit end. How I wish this was a dream. How I wish I could have just said to her what I now say publicly to her murderers, that peace is a value. For the sake of humanity, for the sake of life, lay down arms. But I did not say this to her when she was here on earth. So I have worked for it in her name. And people listen: people who are against war in the names of 9/11—they listen. The Hibakasha of Japan, those whose ancestral ties to a bombing that made gel of flesh–they listen and they understand. But they also know that there are fewer of us than those who would produce more war, so they come often to my house to hear a familiar story.

A man from Japan is coming to interview me soon. He wants to tell my story to his people in Japan and the ex-pats who live here in the states who know well the power of America’s harsh judgments.

There are others who know the horror of endless conflict. I have been interviewed by many people before, usually around the anniversary when we in America take stock of what we have done in response. Each interview is similar—the questions of my motivation and then, for effect, the personal questions about my daughter, the “oh, poor you” moment in each essay they write or each radio or television interview.

Two nights before he arrives at my home, she comes to me. She is again in my whirlpool bath. I am grabbing at her arm and her hair and she is so loving toward me. She looks into my eyes and says with that absolute promise, “I love you, too,” but this time she adds, “I miss the boys.”

The boys are in the distance. We can see them. They are in a sports field. I think it’s a soccer game, but only James played soccer. She says, “Can’t we just play with them for a while? Can’t we just have fun?”

“I just need to hold you,” I say and reach to touch her.

“We can do that later. Let’s just play for now.”

I feel the tears drop to my legs as I remain on the side of the whirlpool. My hands shake gently as I stroke her arm. “Please,” I beg her, “I need you.”

“I am here. I will always be here, but we can all play together right now. Please let’s just play with the boys.” And that is the moment that I snap, that even in a dream I cannot maintain the lie.

“You are so fucking not here. You say that,” I choke, “but in the morning, every fucking morning, I wake up in this fucking world, in this fucking bed and you are gone! You are not here. You are anywhere but here and I am facing that truth first thing as my eyes open, another fucking day ahead…” I am not finished, but she is holding me. I smell her hair, so fragrant, but not of her fruity shampoo; she smells of fruit, real fruit, peaches and plums. I continue, “The first thing I feel every time is the shock of you gone.”

“The shock of you gone, again. And another morning.”

“I promise,” she says, “that I am not gone. I am here.”

So I wake the next day. I have work so I am driving on Route 57, a large four lane suburban road, lined with all of the chain stores of suburban life. The day is bright. I come to the intersection where if I turn, I will be in front of the high school where all three children spent their days at different times. As gently as a touch, the touch of a love, the touch of a daughter who is gone, I play back the dream. It occurs to me. The dream that was not the first thing I remembered that morning. In fact, that morning I woke up refreshed. Feeling fine. Feeling renewed.

And for the first time since that horrid day, I know with certainty, she is right here.

The next day I open the door to the man from Japan. We sit at my kitchen table and he writes down the answers I give him to each of his questions: Why does a woman who lost her child advocate for peace? Why did your country go to war with Iraq? Why is Guantanamo Bay still open? Why do you want it closed? And I give my answer to his questions. On that horrid day, I lost a daughter and my country. One of those can be restored. I wait for the end of his Why? Why? Why? Until he has finally exhausted each of the puzzles of the body political and then he asks, in the way they all ask, the question of her. Only he asks it differently and I know that she has prepared me for this, too:

“When,” he asks in broken, Japanese inflected English, “was the last time you saw your daughter?”

“I saw her two nights ago.” And when I have finished explaining, he sobs.


I am trying to tell the story of my loss. So I write and write and bring my girl back to life on the page. My fingers work to capture her, to place her back in the world. And just as I do each time I re-read a book I love or a movie, I pray the ending will be different. And I realize after seeing the text again, that it is never the end that matters, but the details we have missed the first time around. As metaphors unfold in our imaginations anew we are drawn to old texts. Freud told us dreams are meant for interpretation because they can never be literal; the writer understands that the images of every day are just as encoded, just as full a vessel as a dream for what the processes of knowing obviate. An ending never matters so much as the substance of the center, just as remembering a good meal is never about the last bite.

So I write to relive our life together and to apologize for every misstep. One morning, as I was engaged in the writing of one of my essays about Vanessa, I woke from a dream about groping for a brown pearl and in that metaphor, because I fear pearls, I knew I had to tell a story of something I did not want to see. Something about Vanessa. Something about me.

I asked her, with my lips, after I finished the first draft, is it okay? Can I tell this?

My cell phone alerted me to a text as I was in the process of revising one section. From my son James: How did you sleep last night?

Fine, y?
I saw Vanessa. It was weird.

I called him immediately. He told me his dream. “She was busy, and really disturbed. She said, ‘I always support you. Stop asking for permission.’ And then there was this witch. She looked like a witch.”

“It’s okay, James. I get it.”

“I don’t,” he said. “The witch…”

“She was saying it was her, James. Remember? Her birthday is Halloween.”

When I hung up the phone, I asked her, “Why, why didn’t you come to me? I would have loved to see you.”

But almost as quickly as I uttered the question out loud, the answer was plain—no matter the certainty of truths that come to me in slumber, I will always wonder if they are the writer, always at work to repair that which was not necessarily broken.


She comes as a child. Her eyes are the bright blue with only the slightest tinge of gray that I saw so many times when she was sad. Her hair is lighter, blonder and full of face-framing curls, just as it was when she was a child. Maybe she is three or four. She is reaching out for me. She wants to cry, but someone else is there with her.

For the first time since she is gone, when I wake up I am afraid for her. Two days later, James will have a similar dream.


Night. I am busy. Cleaning. She is there in the corner. I haven’t seen her in a long time, but she is sitting. She is wearing a black dress that drapes down her body like dark water, stunningly beautiful, her eyes not ablaze, but subdued, calm.

I walk over to her where she is. Where she has always been. In the dream I know this, though I do not know it is a dream. She is in the corner of my life.

She looks about forty-four. It is 2015. I do not register this fact in the dream because she is not gone. In this dream she has never been gone. It is all I want. She is forty-four, so I am sixty-one.

I approach her slowly, to savor the moment, not because I miss her but because she is my daughter and I love her. She puts out her arms to me and I move to embrace, but before I pull her fully to my breast, I move my fingers so delicately through her hair. It is soft and I can feel each strand. Then I outline her cheeks. And her lovely arms. And she, because she is so with me in this moment, touches me, in the same way. I feel her deft and delicate touch on my hair, my face, my eyes.

We linger like this for a while. In this gentle world of mother daughter. I love that I have a daughter so wise, so old.

Is something wrong, I wonder, I ask myself. But then I can’t remember why I asked. Thank G-d, I say as I finally move in and hold her close to me, so real that nothing else can ever again be as true.

It is here I live.


unnamedDonna L. Marsh
teaches writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, an lives in central New York with her husband, Robert O’Connor. Her creative nonfiction essays have been published in numerous journals and magazines including Arrive MagazineRose Red ReviewRefinery29.comWeirderary(forthcoming), (Winter, 2016),Stone Canoe Journal and She has been publishing on Huffington Post and the Guardian UK as Donna Marsh O’Connor for the better part of the last ten years.


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