I had some very vivid dreams the other night. It is not unusual for me to have vivid dreams; I have had them all my life. More than five decades after the fact I still remember a dream that I once had while I was a child in my elementary school years: It was pouring rain in my dream, which would be an oddity in semi-arid San Diego where I lived, and a big red fire truck with lights flashing and sirens blaring raced down the street, firemen hanging from the back of the truck. I could not imagine how a fire could rage during a downpour, and so the dream stood out and the memory lingers these many years later.
Now I’m in my sixty-fifth year and my sleep patterns have changed a great deal. I rarely sleep eight consecutive hours any more; blocks of two and three hours is more likely, and on some occasions that means two or more vivid dreams might inhabit my night bringing entertainment, befuddlement, and sometimes terror. On a few occasions I have enjoyed all three of those categories, and many others besides. The night in question was one of those multi-layered dream events, and it’s uniqueness and connectedness makes it stand out even more than my flying, breathing underwater, being machine gunned by Japanese soldiers in WW II and being roasted by Godzilla dreams. This dream series was of family reunions.
During my first few hours of sleep I dreamed of a reunion with my parents’ families during the period of my childhood. Such a reunion never took place because my father’s family lived in Georgia and my mother’s in Kentucky. Even if those families had lived closer to each other there is little likelihood that they would have mingled well; Dad never liked my mom’s family and Mom returned the favor. In my dream however the two families did inhabit the same big farm house, and the mix was like oil and water.
“How do you like living in California?” asked my aunt Clara (Dad) of my mother. “George (my dad) would have come back to Georgia if you hadn’t thrown a fit and declared that you would not raise your children on a Georgia farm. Isn’t Georgia good enough for you?”
“I don’t think Georgia’s the problem as much as some particular Georgians” retorted my uncle Robert (mom) before Mom could answer. “Sarah (my mom) didn’t feel like being anyone’s servant just for the privilege of growing sweet potatoes in Georgia. If George would not have been such a stiff necked antisocial they would have both been treated decently in Hazard, but George is so much like you-all that he couldn’t abide decent company. It’s your inhospitality and his behavior that’s the reason for them living as far away from you as they can get”
“I might point out that they are living as far away from you as they are from us” interjected uncle Raymond (dad). “George has told us how you like to put on airs when they are up with you northerners (an insult to border-state Kentuckians that could not be missed). We’ve even heard that you sometimes forget who’s married to whom.”
On it went in that dream until Mom removed herself, my brother and I in a taxi to a motel where she waited until Dad arrived with our car loaded with luggage and supplies, ready to begin our return trip to California where it was far from peaceful, but everything made some kind of sense and I could find familiar places to pursue my own life unmolested by bickering relatives and, when necessary, hide. I awoke to see that it was only about 11:30 in the evening. After getting up for a sip of water I snuggled back under my covers and soon drifted off to sleep once again.
This time my dream carried me forward in time to a period of my young adulthood. I had returned home from the Army, alive after two years at war. My family had gotten together for a camping trip in the Southern California desert, one of the things that we really did enjoy doing as a family when I was awake. In this dream it was very different however. My parents, my brother and I were in this dream but so too was my grandfather, two cousins and one cousin’s wife, and a very good friend of my brother. We had established a camp with other campers around us and set out to ‘enjoy’ ourselves.
If this dream would have been real I’m certain we would have ended up dead or arrested. My cousins, brother, his friend and I raced madly across the desert drinking beer and smoking marijuana while doing hill climbs in a volkswagen bus and flushing out a nest of neo nazis who were engaged no doubt in planning some sort of skullduggery. We lit a raging bonfire out of which I plucked glowing beer cans bare-handed while we chucked chunks of cactus at each other and surrounding campers. My parents were islands of serenity in the midst of this chaos but our cousin’s wife became extremely friendly with another camper while my grandfather told stories of riding with the KKK in Georgia. Somehow we managed to finish dinner without being ejected from the campground and I was soon lying on a cot while my father dug for cactus spines buried in my backside with his pocket knife. My dream began to dissolve and morph into me lying on the bed clutching a pillow as if to steel myself against the pain of Dad removing the spines that were more deeply buried. It was now 2:45 in the morning.
I arose at this time to relieve my bladder and take another sip of water. Sometimes in the early morning my dreams begin to get hung up on some insoluble problem such as how can I remove a glowing beer can from my hand while Dad performs minor surgery with his knife. In such cases I have to arise and do something to reset my brain and clear it of the troubling, constantly repeating dream. I turned on the computer and checked the news on the BBC World site; Australia continued to burn while the black rhinoceros was declared extinct and a Venezuelan president was given total power by a rubber-stamp legislative assembly which was about as independent as the Roman Senate was in the third century A.D. This diversion succeeded in effecting the necessary reset and I soon returned to bed, plumping up my pillows and drawing the blankets up close to my chin to keep out the cold air which was flowing in through the window that I prefer to keep open when I sleep. I daydreamed about some story that I wished someday to write and before long I was once again fast asleep.
As before, my sleep slipped quickly into a dream state and once again I was at a family reunion, but this one was a good deal more somber than the previous two. I was much older in this dream; my hair speckled with gray and the beard which would never grow as long as I liked was much thinner now. I was standing with a cluster of family in a beautiful cemetery on the northeast edge of Santa Fe, New Mexico. My brother and his wife were there, as was my son and a friend of his, a niece and her husband, two nephews and a small gaggle of children. And Mom. The children were doing their best to be good but the sunshine and green grass and sweet mountain air of New Mexico made them want to run and play and pick at each other as children universally like to do. The young adults were softly sniffling, dabbing at their eyes and keeping a restraining hand on their coiled-spring children. They had all spent many years of their lives with Grandpa and Grandma at their home in the country, learning about knitting and gardening and literature and family. Each one of this group had offered some memory of their time spent sitting in a swing in the summer listening to Grandpa’s stories, or helping Grandma to remove a tick from one of the cats or one of the kids.
And then there was us old-timers; the silverbacks, the newly crowned heads of the family. The kind is dead, long live the king! Only on this occasion it was the queen who had died. My sister in law was reading from Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Tears ran down the faces of my brother and I. In my brother’s hands rested the urn which contained the ashes of our mother who had passed away peacefully at the age of almost 94. I was lucky enough to get to Albuquerque in time to see Mom before she passed, and we were all surprised when she recognized me. Mom was not suffering from Alzheimer’s or anything like that, she was just old and tired and her body and mind were saying ‘enough’. She didn’t recognize me for the next four days that I was there. A week after I returned home Mom passed away.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; For Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” Each of the younger adults brought forth a small item that connected them with Mom and put them in the square hole which had been dug next to the urn that contained the ashes of our father. Betty put a knitted tissue holder in first, followed by Jonathan who placed a black and white photo of him holding up a bluegill caught with Grandpa. Mom had cleaned and cooked that fish, small as it was. Jeffrey offered up an old, tattered, stuffed bunny he once found on an easter egg hunt; a bunny carefully placed behind a rock and guarded over jealously by Mom to make sure that no other child walked away with that prize.
“Thou hast anointed my head with oil; my cup overflows.” My brother leaned over and placed the urn gently among the offerings to her memory. He lovingly adjusted the urn so that it would remain upright, as Mom had done with us all of her life. As my brother stood back I stepped forward to place my offering into the little hole; a flask of Dad’s favorite rye whiskey. It was silly, but I thought of Mom coming to reclaim her position by the side of her husband of sixty years and bringing a libation to help him celebrate the occasion. Dad had been dry for seven years, and I imagined that he would appreciate that touch.
“Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” The cemetery worker waited a respectful few minutes until we were clearly finished with our memorial, and then he began to fill the hole with dirt from the little pile which sat by the gravestone which now contained the names, dates of birth and dates of death of both Mom and Dad. They didn’t really get on well in life on Earth and I hoped sincerely that they would have a much better time of it in the life that they were living now. We turned slowly and walked to our cars, the children gleeful over being freed from captivity for the moment and the rest of us relieved that this painful, heartbreaking duty was over. We were planning to go into Santa Fe for an early dinner at one of the magnificent restaurants that dot that city but at that moment the alarm on the table by my bed went off and I was snatched back to the world in which i live today. I quickly punched the silencer on the alarm and lay there for a moment thinking about my dream before rising up to go to work. I turned my head a bit on the pillow and noticed that it was wet, moistened by tears cried in the night as I remembered my last time together on Earth with my father and mother.
I arose and sat on the edge of the bed as I usually do and rubbed at the sleep in my eyes. This morning, however, my eyes were clear, bathed by the tears which flowed while I had slept and dreamed. At last I pulled myself erect and made my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth and hair, get dressed and be on my way to work. It was as I splashed cold water on my face that I realized that it was Saturday morning; I had forgotten to disarm the alarm for the weekend. I was not too annoyed by my mistake however, as I had no desire to relive the pain of my goodbye given to Mom years ago.
I knew that there was little likelihood that I would return to sleep in bed, since the alarm went off at the time that I usually got up and got going. My body was keyed toward beginning the day’s activities at that time and it would require a trick to shut that process down. In cases like this I have an ace in the hole. I took a spare blanket and went to the sofa in the living room. There, I plugged in an old science fiction video tape containing a movie from the 1950’s, “The Deadly Mantis” it was. I lay down on the sofa with my eyes closed, listening to the familiar dialogue which took my mind off of the fact that I was awake when I wanted to be asleep, and as usual my stratagem worked. Within minutes of the opening credits and just before the giant bug had eaten it’s first Eskimo victim I was once again fast asleep.
And for the last time that night I fell to dreaming. This time I was watching a scene in a hospital room. Lying in the bed was a thin, frail figure whom I recognized with difficulty to be myself. The hair which I once wore long and the beard which I could not grow long enough were gone now, wiped off of my head and face by the ravages of a disease with which I had wrestled earnestly but which had, in the end, prevailed. Near the bed was an assortment of pumps and monitors and a ventilator, but only the monitor was being used now, and that for only the most basic of functions; heart rate, respiration rate, blood pressure. The irregular blip of the EKG was becoming slower and the beep, beep…, beep sounded like an old wind-up clock which was in the process of coming to its last few ticks.
Gathered around the bed was my wife, Gretchen, and children Alex and Naomi. There was nothing being said; there was nothing left to say. I knew that my last words had been spoken some time in the previous days, and by the same source of knowledge available to dreamers I knew that my aged brother wished he could be there, but he was not doing well himself and waited at home for the news that he dreaded to hear. I knew than it wouldn’t be long. Strangely I felt no dread myself. I sensed the tiredness of the figure on the bed and that he knew that his race had been run. It was now time to rest. Beep…, Beep……., Beep………., Beep……………………………………………………….
The three figures standing by the bed slumped visibly, and Naomi began to cry softly. Alex hugged his mother and whispered a couple of words to her. She nodded assent to some question and Alex left her to go comfort his sister. I watched as they all hugged each other and turned to leave the room as a nurse came in to begin the last page of my book. The curtain across the doorway rustled as they exited the room and I became aware that it was getting darker. My skin tingled and what I could see of the activity in the room began to spin and blend together into a patchwork of light and dark, animate and inanimate, living and dead.
After what seemed like only a few moments the picture began to clear up and I could see that there was a warm, glorious light that suffused the scene from some unseen source. There was a small crowd of people who became visible and then recognizable. Dad and Mom stood before me, and they looked like I had never seen them before. I couldn’t tell you what age they were; age didn’t seem relevant there. It is sufficient to say that they stood before me with a health and vigor and expressions of joy on their faces like I had never seen anywhere before, much mess on them when they were alive. ‘Were alive’? They were now so alive that what preceded had only been dim, unhappy shadows. Dad hugged me and laughed with happiness. When he let me go he thanked me for that flask of rye with a chuckle and asked if I had happened to bring another one with me. He then moved aside so that Mom could once again hug her baby. One by one old friends from my childhood, from Vietnam, and my later years stepped up to hug me or shake my hand, and even the mob of cats which we had cared for and loved over the years were there to rub my legs and accept scratches behind ears, some of which I had not scratched in over seventy years.
At last one figure approached whom I had never laid eyes upon before but whom I somehow knew as well as any of the others there. She didn’t have a name because I was never able to give her one. I never had the chance. Standing before me was the child who was miscarried during my first marriage. “Hello Dad” she said. “I’ve waited so long to meet you, and now I see that the wait was well worth it”. I instantly loved that person and held her tightly against me as emotion swept over me like a giant wave. Strangely, I felt like crying with joy but the tears wouldn’t come. My newly discovered daughter knew what I was feeling and smiled. “Don’t worry Dad, you’re OK. Tears don’t happen here.” We all sat down and began what would be an eternity of fellowship, talking and laughing about things we had lived and done and about anything and nothing at all. I was petting old Tiger while Tiffy Girl curled up in my lap and purred.
I was just reaching out to grasp the hand of one of my uncles when the scene began to fade. The cushion upon which I reclined slowly became the sofa on which I was sleeping in the living room. The sun was up and a large crow was cawing raucously on the top of a spruce tree in my neighbor’s yard. The VHS tape had finished playing the movie, rewound, and was playing again; the giant bug was now crawling up the side of the Washington Monument. I continued to lie there and think about where I had just been. I don’t know where heaven is and I don’t invest too much time trying to figure out who will get there and who will not. Decisions like that are made far above my pay grade. I nevertheless lay there on the sofa grateful for what I took to be a visit with people who waited joyously for our real reunion and at the risk of sounding morbid, I lost all fear of what awaits me at the end of this life and the beginning of the next.