The Dream Machine: Somewhere Between the Realms of Déjà vu & Jamais vu

“I have finished my course. I have ceased to enjoy and suffer. Please transfer your love and your benevolence to your living fellow men. The memory of the one as well as of the other is appreciated and honored.”

KURT VONNEGUT: UNSTUCK IN TIME. Robert Weide (dir.) 2021.

In 18 days, it will be four months since my mom passed.
In 17 days, it will be my 37th birthday. My first without her.
In six days, it would have been her 63rd birthday. Also another first in the long line of things I began categorizing under WITHOUT HER in my personal life. A category I can use for anything and everything, which will be of considerable size when all is said and done.

The Dream Machine™ inside my head has gotten stuck on the setting that produces dreams of her. Sometimes she is the main attraction in these productions. Other times, she is just a bit player. And, on the rare occasion, just there. A prop in the mise-en-scène of my dream.

Two dreams stand out to me.

The first one goes like this: I walk into a room that is recognizable instantly. It is my parents’ house. Mom pulls out a finger pistol. Her aim is right at me. The feeling is dread. She then laughs, Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke. Or is it “choke” ’em…

On her last day, Mom started doing finger pistols. She was uncomfortable and when you bent down to ask her or say anything to her, out came the gun. No words, just the finger pointed in your face. Once she even drew both pistols and gave me an infernal look with those no ordinary blue eyes. It was a look I knew well from my teenage years. It was the look that let you know, oh boy, you done fucked up.

It was the last interaction I had with Mom before she died, besides kissing her on the head while she slept and telling her I love her. Outside, my brother said, What’s up with the finger gun? I don’t know what you did… but you got both barrels. I don’t know what I did. I doubt she really did either.

I was a baby in the second dream. Mom was holding and looking down at me. It was nice to know that my brain still has memories of her when she was young. She was 26 when I was born. Eleven years younger than I will be in 17 days and already the mother of two while I am still rocking out with zero kids. There were those blue eyes again. That smile of hers.

I think I got to go, I say to her, now having an out of body experience, watching the baby me talk to my mother. She doesn’t take her eyes off of baby me.

You do, Mom says. It’s a world out there.

There is. But maybe I can stay a little longer.

Please do. But just a little longer.

Then my alarm went off. I tried to get the dream back, but I was shit out of luck.

I lived so far away for so long, that I was always saying goodbye to my mom. And when she got cancer, I used up all my vacation time to go see her. Those were long international flights spent thinking maybe this would be the last one. Those trips always ended with her telling me, I love you and I hope I see you again, and with me saying, I love you and you will.

I told my mom on one of those trips I regretted being so far away and for so long. That I felt I missed out on simply being there. The last time she was with me on my birthday was in 2015. We were in Portland while I looked for a new place to live. The last time I spent her birthday with her was in 2011. I took her to see David Sedaris.

She said this to me: Sweetie, no. My mom always made me feel guilty about living in Santa Monica and not nearby. I didn’t want to do that for my kids. I wanted to prepare my babies so that they could go out into the world and live their lives. That was my job as a mother. And there you are, out in the world living your life.

I wrote this after my mom died:

My mom has died. I won’t say she lost her battle with cancer. Rather I would like to think she did what her chemo couldn’t do and kamikazed it. Saying she lost anything would undermine the bravery and strength she showed throughout the last 18 months since her diagnosis.

I love my mom and I don’t see that changing, so no past tense there. Some past tense things: She once made an elementary school teacher of mine cry for calling me stupid. She had a great laugh. When something was really funny to her, she laughed with her whole body. I spent a lifetime trying to get my mother to laugh like that. It was heaven. And she bought me loads and loads of books. Books that told me things like:

The best thing for being sad… is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake in the middle of the night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”


The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.”

Or how about this one from a book mom gave me to read when I was 13:

You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”

She introduced me to cinema. Really good stuff. Birthday and Christmas presents were Kurosawa and Herzog films for years. Because of my mother, to this day, I still believe there is nothing nicer than sitting in a dark room with a friend or a loved one and dozens of strangers watching a story being told through a series of flashing lights and sounds. When I was a real little kid, we went and saw the movie Maverick with Mel Gibson back when he was known for other things like acting and not alcohol-fueled, anti-Semitic rants. As recently as a few weeks ago, we still talked about that film. Not because it was some great piece of cinematic work that will be taught for years to come, but because we both thought that the film utilized some fourth wall breaking storytelling technique where the film stopped right as soon as the titular character flips over his last card in the final gambling scene. In reality, the film broke right then, and we got a refund. We had a hell of a time and didn’t even get to finish the movie.

In an odd way, I feel lucky mom was diagnosed with cancer when she was. She didn’t suddenly drop dead or die in an unforeseeable car accident. I had 18 months to say all the things I wanted to say to her. So I did, we did. I called her nearly every day. Regardless of what was going on in my life. It didn’t matter if I was having a bad day or even a boring old day. Every day she answered even if it was just to say she was too sick to talk and that she loved me. But those were rare. Most of the time we talked about food. How Berlin has shitty Mexican restaurants, can’t even get a burrito right. How mac and cheese was proof someone loved us. And how we wondered what happened to her rice pudding recipe she got out of the LA Times because that was damn tasty.

Speaking of food, when I was a little kid, mom would never let me get egg rolls. Not because she didn’t like them or had some hatred of American Asian food. Rather because she swore she made the best egg rolls. And for 30 years, she never made them, just the claim she made the best. In September, I told her I couldn’t let her die until we made egg rolls. So on my last day of the visit, we went to three different stores in two cities and bought the ingredients. We spent an afternoon making them. Cooking the filling, rolling them, and battering them in egg before frying them. When they were finished, we had two plates overflowing with egg rolls. When we sat down to eat them, I took a bite and thought they were delicious. She took a bite and said they weren’t any good.

There is a point in all our lives where the past just won’t stop getting bigger. It gets so big that the future will eventually crawl in your lap as small as a kitten, just purring and napping. But mom didn’t need to worry much about the future. She didn’t have to wonder what would happen to her boys. We are all grown up now. Most of us closer to 40 than 20 and functioning adults in society if you play loose with meanings. Her husband has even turned into an old man with grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Her little sisters became mothers and one even a grandmother. A niece will even be a grandmother soon. Babies, my god, how the woman loved babies.

After my aunt Debbie, my mother’s big sister, died in 2018, mom told me she had dreams for months about being a little girl waking up in bed with my aunt who, get this, was also a little girl again. So this is how I would like to imagine mom’s passing: She went through all the garbage that goes with cancer only to wake up a happy child again and next to her is Debbie, another little happy child. In the next room there are sounds of honky tonk playing and the smell of pancakes. And there is a man in the other room just waiting for his little babies to wake up.

I went through my mom’s phone and saved a bunch of videos and pictures from it. I found this video below. I believe it is from 2011. She had just gotten a new phone. It was an iPhone and she had this app on it that took, as I call it in the video, Old Timey Films. We spent a lot of time driving around on errands in her old, busted Mercedes from 1982. In it, my mother discusses not wanting to be videoed and my brophew (nephew and adopted brother) decides on what last name he would rather have:

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