Like most dreams, this one was a string of loose, unconnected episodes strung together with no particular connection beyond a common setting or character. I’ve forgotten the early episodes of that night’s dream anthology, but they brought me into a large house that my family and I were sharing for a vacation. I was alone in the house, my parents, spouse, and child having gone to town to do something. I wandered through the house, looking for something, but the house was full of closed doors that did not lead to what wanted. I meandered through the house with a vague sense of purpose until I came to a door different than the others, a door of heavy ornate wood. On the other side of it, I heard someone faintly calling for help.
I went inside, and in a room lit only by the sunlight from a wide window. Lying in a bed was my maternal grandmother, who died sixteen years ago. As I entered the room it became clear to me that my family had gathered in this house to keep vigil with my grandmother, who was dying. She was calling out because no one was around and she was afraid.
I immediately went to the bedside and sat down next to her to reassure her. She sat up and told me she was afraid that everyone had left her. I assured her everyone was coming back and that I was here and not to worry. She sat up and I hugged her and told her everything was fine.
Then I spoke the words: “You don’t have to wait for everyone.” What I was really saying to her was It’s alright to die.
Then I spoke the words: “If you see anyone I know, say hello.” What I was really saying to her was Please look for my brother when you go wherever it is people go when they die.
And in that strange dream logic, I knew that she understood exactly what I was really saying to her even through the ambiguity of my spoken words.
She patted my hand and thanked me for reassuring her. She told me I didn’t have to stay with her, that she would be alright, that I could get back to whatever I was doing. Then I heard a door in the house open and knew that my mother was home. I told my grandmother I would go get her. We looked out the window and saw some children playing, and I saw my daughter in the yard playing, her mother following a little ways behind. I pointed out the window and said to my grandmother, “That’s my daughter. Isn’t she beautiful?” She nodded and we sat and watched.
After a few moments, my daughter started to cry. In the instinctive ways that all parents learn to interpret their children’s types of crying, I knew that my daughter was upset about something minor: not injured or afraid, but upset about some disappointment or frustration. I saw her mother watching her and registered her mild concern, and it was that familiar mundane parental moment of knowing that your child needs some brief, simple, easy care in order to get over this mostly insignificant setback and be on her way again. I stood to go give my spouse a break and then I was awake.
When I awoke, I was weeping. Indeed, I believe that’s what woke me up. The emotions that were flooding over me in that tiny early hour were ones of gratitude, affection, and the soft aching longing of having touched something sacred.
I would guess that ninety percent of the dreams I remember (which is itself probably only ten percent of the dreams I actually have) are silly, insignificant, mildly entertaining snapshots of absurdity and strangeness. But there have been a few in my lifetime that have stood out to me as so hauntingly evocative as to persuade me to understand those who talk about dreams as if they were visitations from something outside of ourselves. When a dream evokes that kind of emotion, then I believe there’s something inside me – something deep and foundational and wise beyond my awareness – that I need to listen to.
In my work, I live with my feet in two worlds: the world of the living and the world of the dying. I have sat on the beds of people who are in their last hours on this earth; I have stood with people who have whispered words of leaving to their dearest friends and family members. I have also sat next to people who are in their first hours on this earth without someone they love; I have heard and seen expressions of grief and disbelief. I also spend a good bit of time with others who occupy this transitional space between the healthy and living and the sick and dying.
It’s my assessment that not many people occupy this space in between life and death with any regularity. We’re so afraid of death we deny it at all costs. We numb ourselves to our own mortality with food, TV, money, celebrities, sports, whatever. Most people only put a foot down in the world of the dying if they’re dragged to it by sudden loss. Of course, all of us are dragged to it eventually.
The thing is, though: I don’t think you can put a foot in the world of the living unless you’ve sunk your feet into the dirt of dying. So it isn’t about people avoiding the world of the dying so they can stay in the world of living; it’s about people choosing to avoid the world altogether.
I was still in college when my grandmother died in her sleep in a nursing home. Her roommate died the day before, and the story my mom’s family tells is that my grandmother saw the peace and rest that awaited and decided she was ready for it, too. She died before I started dating the woman I would marry; she died long before I became a parent. When I think of how I live in the worlds of life and death, I like to imagine my grandmother seeing her great-granddaughter playing in the yard. We are shaped by our ancestors, even the ones we never meet; the way of life is paved for us by those who have lived and died before us.
I’ve pondered what it meant that the last thing I see in my dream is my daughter crying. In the most embodied interpretation, I wonder if I saw her start crying because my actual body was crying. In the same way that I sometimes dream I’m looking for a bathroom only to wake up actually needing to go, I wonder if my body responded to the emotion and the physical sensations of tears were projected into my daughter in the dream, because that is the person I was watching. There also may be a shared generational grief that might be reflected in my daughter’s tears. She may be young, but she’s not disconnected from life; she is, perhaps, more connected than I am. She knows there are people who would have loved her who have died. She knows that I once had grandparents. She knows I once had a brother. Perhaps her tears in the dream are my own grief experienced with more depth and reflection reflected by my child.
There’s grief in everything, everywhere. That’s what it means to have one foot firmly planted among the dying. But grief isn’t all there is. The emotions that came over me in the dream as I watched my daughters tears weren’t sadness or loss, but warmth and love and, well, duty. I needed to comfort my daughter; I have a life to live. If my grandmother represents death, then it means a lot that she told me I could go back to what I was doing. After a moment of showing death the most beautiful piece of life that I’ve ever seen, I knew I needed to get back to the task of living it.
Our existence is not meant to be spent wandering between closed doors. That’s what we do when we deny the richness of our lives, but to fully see that opulent splendor we must visit the beds of the sick and dying, for they will be our own beds one day. But not today. Today is for living the luxurious, lavish gifts of love and grace and compassion and warmth of – and for – the people around us.
I hope that your heart might feel as full as mine has felt this week and that you might honor those you’ve lost by loving those you have in all the sweet, mundane ways this existence gives to you.