The last time I had a nightmare sufficient to wake me, I was twenty-one. That fall, on the campus of Hampshire College, my girlfriend kept telling me about her dreams. Every breakfast for weeks, for months, I listened to those tales. My mind and body reacted oddly to the constant discussion of dreams. After enough time, a) I started remembering my own, b) I experienced more lucid dreams, and c) I experienced my last nightmare before having children. Those things changed our conversations.
In my last nightmare, I ran from a monster, turned around, discovered it was a large dog, and killed the dog. It may not qualify as a terror dream but it was enough to wake me, heart pounding. There was a horror to the triumph over the dog, plus fear and anger. After I had children, of course, I experienced occasional nightmares concerning the death of one child or another. Every parent has those, I think, or at least they seem to be common occurrences.
Until the death of my mother, though, I had never experienced a dream so sad I woke up from the surge of emotion. I've never even heard of other people having those. I didn't know the experience was one of life's options. Or that I would not have any other real option, myself.
My mother died on Memorial Day. The evening after was a long one, restless and full of family duties. When I finally felt I could sleep, the time was past midnight. I glanced at the clock as I forced myself to lie down.
I remained in bed for a self-disciplined minute, exhausted and fidgeting. When I closed my eyes, I fell asleep. I emerged into a blackness followed by a room with light green walls. I found myself striding toward a seat in the room. The furniture was white and cushioned. The area seemed a little like a hospital. But the room was quieter than I expected. The furnishings were in soft focus, glowing. Even as I took my spot, I didn't like the place. I knew I was waiting to receive news I didn't want to hear. In a moment, my mother came out. She was dressed in a green, short-sleeved shirt. She sat down in the chair next to me. Her eyes found mine. I stared back, knowing she was dead, knowing she had come to tell me about her death. Sorrow welled up in my chest as if I would burst. And I awoke.
My arms turned my body. I rolled out of the covers before I was completely aware of myself. And I stood in such a pang of anguish that for a moment I couldn't breathe.
My body heaved with slow inhale, deep and calm. I was awake. There was no question of getting back into bed. A sense of misery had enlivened every nerve in my body. In a minute, I got dressed. As I finished putting on my socks, I glanced at the clock. Ten minutes had passed since I forced myself to lie down.
The next night, I experienced more of the same. I slept for a few minutes at a stretch. Each time, I started doing something ordinary in my dream. My mother appeared beside me. Sometimes I spent a few seconds with her, feeling the grief well up inside and all around me. Then I awoke.
I rose, paced the room, and returned to bed to repeat the process. After about two and a half hours, I decided to stop trying to sleep. I started my workday early.
On the third evening, I slept almost a full night. I woke once in a feverish bout of dream-sadness. After that, I dozed with the deepness of the merely exhausted.
Four years later, my father fell and broke his hip. His doctors didn't want to operate because they thought anesthesia might kill him. They had to try, though, and he survived their operation. He felt much better after it.
Then the hospital administered opiates. Everything started going wrong. As had happened to him before under opiates, his digestion slowed and part of his intestine died. This time, unlike when he was sixty, the doctors declined to try to stop the spread of sepsis. He was eighty-three. They felt sure he wouldn't make it through a second operation in three days. Instead, they committed him to dying as the sepsis took over.
For a few days, he lay in a sort of in-between hospital care, not in a hospice ward but in a room posted with instructions on the limitations of his treatment. Instead of medicines, the staff increased his doses of morphine.
On the morning he died, I made these notes after I woke to go see him:
I dreamt about seeing my dad in Holy Cross. It was room 10, all normal, but my dad was unconscious. I was out in the hall talking with my son, Dylan Kyle, watching my dad through the glass. Then my mom showed up in the hall looking about fifty-five. She had a baby carrier in her left arm and the infant Dylan Kyle in it. She was beaming, happy. But then I knew it was a dream. And I got really sad and woke up.
The night after his death, I wrote about a different sort of dream to my wife.
I was walking on the street carrying groceries. My father called me on the phone. I looked up. Although he was calling over my cell phone, I could see him in an apartment high up above. I knew it was white and green on the inside.
"I have done part of the crossword puzzle," he told me. He was dying. I knew he was dying. We had been through this before. He had been dying every night. Every night, over and over.
My father knew that he was dying, too. I could hear it in his voice.
"The crossword puzzle," he insisted. "Take a look at it when you come up."
I climbed the stairs to the apartment knowing that he would be dead when I got there. A feeling of sadness swept over me, as I knew that it had before. But this time he had started the crossword puzzle. That was the thing. He had called because he had wanted me to know he'd left me something to do.