A sweet thing, for whatever time,
to revisit in dreams the dear dead we have lost.
A dream may be a moment of magic or of madness. Often it is a conundrum, a not easily soluble riddle, yet it is also the road most readily traversed between the transcendent realm and our conscious awareness. We may remember or ignore our dreams, be fearful of or fascinated by them, understand them or feel completely befuddled. We parse them for relevance with psychotherapists. Freudians search for the sexual needle in their haystack. Jungians seek out both the personal and the collective unconscious. Lucid dreamers are aware when they dream, capable of consciously creating what occurs within their dream-state. We dream during the several segments of a night’s sleep that are often unimaginatively called REM sleep, after the rapid eye movement that occurs then. I prefer the less common name, “paradoxical sleep,” after the paradox that our brains are fully awake while our bodies are so asleep we can be running or dancing in a dream without kicking our partners or falling out of bed.
Like poetry, dreams often don’t reveal their richness without our active participation. That’s why there are so many dream interpretation dictionaries, dream study groups, dream magazines and books, organizations like the International Association for the Study of Dreams. Not that I recommend all of these. Dream dictionaries, for instance, can tell us what a fig leaf meant to Freud or a buffalo to a Navajo, but no one else can tell me what these mean in my dream. Like magicians we need to pull the rabbit out of our own dream hats. In my dream group, based on Jeremy Taylor’s work, we use the phrase, “If this were my dream . . .” to preface responses to someone else’s dream. It is a phrase that originated with Montague Ullman and was popularized by Taylor, author of the delightfully titled, When People Fly and Water Runs Uphill. We go on to state what the dream would have meant to us if we had had it. Hearing several such reflections gives me fresh insight into what the transcendent is trying to get through my sometimes very thick skull. Most of us dream of those we love when they are alive and frequently we continue to dream of them after their deaths. Not all of these are ADC dreams, though many of them very definitely are. Patricia Garfield and Robert Moss have both written entire books focused on ADC dreams.
A peculiar mood enveloped me as I worked on this chapter. Since the dreams themselves were so uplifting to write about, I could not fathom why I was rising from my desk every day as if surrounded by a dark cloud. This caused me to correlate my research in a fresh way, until I found my answer. It is a given that deaths generally sadden us, but there are certain deaths, the ones most often called tragic or traumatic, that are even more of a challenge for the living. These may involve a young person, or the death may be sudden. There is the shock of accident or violence. There may be estrangement, unfinished business, addiction, a sense of a wasted life, scant chance to heal the wounded parts of a relationship, or a self-inflicted death. These deaths can leave us unable to function at all. There are those—mothers in particular—who never recover from such losses, with the wound festering and infecting the rest of a life. About half of those I have interviewed have had significant after-death contact with dead beloveds through dreams. What I discovered at this point was that among these more difficult deaths, fully 75 percent of the contacts were through dreams. It was writing about this preponderance of tragedy that had so troubled me, reminding me once again of the potent effect of after-death contact to give succor when it is most needed. Besides their vividness, the key distinction in ADC dreams is their ability to transport us into new understandings that may bring profound healing. They are particularly effective in easing our struggles with these most traumatic deaths.
My mother’s death did not fit this traumatic pattern. She was sixty-nine and had had cancer for a year; her death was expected. My father, however, died sixteen days later with little warning. This second death was made enormously more challenging by both its suddenness and its proximity to the first. My sister Eve and I were desolate, and that desolation was laced with emotions I’m less than proud of—resentment tinged with anger. The cause of our father’s death was unclear. We agreed to an autopsy, but to us it seemed that he had chosen to abandon us for our mother just when we needed him the most. Then I had my first ADC dream. My mother had been an accomplished ballroom dancer, but because of my father’s childhood polio, he walked with canes. So they had never danced together. More recently, post-polio syndrome had weakened my father’s shoulders and arms as well. Here is what I came to call “the” dream:
I am in a huge, elegant, and shadowy ballroom. A live orchestra plays a Strauss waltz. The parquet floor gleams. A couple circles in graceful loops. As they near me, I recognize my father in a dark suit. My mother’s gown spreads its bias-cut, silvery satin skirt in a wide arc on each spin. I call out, “Mother! Daddy!” I wave. They don’t respond. “I’m over here.” I step into their path. “It’s me!” They dance around me. No matter what I do, they remain focused only on each other, their faces a study in love.
Had this been an ordinary dream, I might have awakened with my sense of abandonment heightened; after all, my parents had completely ignored me. Instead, my grief had softened, and I felt the first faint inkling of peace. I could even see some right order in their waltz with death, my mother stepping backward into its arms, my father following. For the first time I could accept that my father’s death was about something besides me. I don’t know if I wrote this dream down, yet I can still see my mother’s dress as clearly as if I had seen it last night. The reason this dream remains with such clarity is that how I was before it and how I was after it were not the same. I have had dreams, sweet or painful, of my parents since, but this is the one I can write from memory thirty years later.
Soon my sister Eve had a dream, too, in which she and our father sat opposite one another at a conference table in an airplane cleared of its other seats. Eve said, “I don’t understand why you had to die.” He replied that he had been experiencing wing-longing. Here was a man with paralyzed legs who had spent his life using his muscular arms to walk with canes. When those arms weakened, why wouldn’t he long for wings? Eve too awoke from her dream with her grief and resentment softened, as mine had been. Sharing these dreams with each other enhanced their transformative effect. This is a typical result of ADC dreams, in that we were both moved from Point A to Point B overnight.
Eve later dreamed of our parents, younger, vibrant, and dressed up as she had loved to see them, our father in his fedora, our mother in the orange-flowered dress and matching necklace and earrings that had been Eve’s favorite outfit. As they spoke, their bodies expanded and collapsed, then puffed up again like balloons. When she asked, “What do you think of President Reagan?” Mother’s reply was, We don’t think about those things here. Note how the dead prioritize life differently than we do, as in when a woman dreams of telling her deceased mother she wished she had done more to ease the process of her dying—an issue that had been really bothering her. Her mother’s response—When did that happen?—makes her daughter’s concern seem totally irrelevant.
Viewing life and death as journeys helps to clarify why travel and trains and boats and planes appear so often in dreams with the dead. Doris’ deceased father told her, I just want to let you know I’m okay, and then boarded a train that headed off into darkness. Terry’s daughter showed up on a ship. Emily’s father came to her after his death, while her mother was still living, to say, I love you and I miss you. Your mom and I are going on a trip soon and this may be the last time you see us, which gave her some preparatory warning of her mother’s impending death. In one of the occasional dreams I’ve had with my daughter Randi, we were on an airplane, with a skewed aspect because, though we each had an empty seat beside us, I sat in a row behind her. I took this to mean that as I journey through life, though our next destination—death—is the same, she is ahead of me.