My kids used to talk about their dreams at the breakfast table. I always thought, listening to them talk about their dreams, that the stuff they read spilled into secret parts of their brains when they were asleep. The dreams were sometimes funny and sometimes scary and always filled with the kind of adventure that was fun to talk about at the table.
My own dreams were less fantastical than theirs. I dream a lot, and my dreams are often vivid, but unless I write them down I never remember them for more than a day or two. And they're usually not fascinating to listen to.
But every once in awhile I have a dream that seems to mean something, and I remember it. I had a dream some years ago in which I walked up to an old screen door, and knocked. In the dream, the door was almost immediately answered by my grandfather, who has been dead now for eighteen years -- since the century turned. He was deceased in my dream, too, and he knew it. But he wore a broad smile as he turned away from me and marched off through the little house to which the screen door belonged. He called over his shoulder for me to come on in.
I followed him to what must have been the living room. On the couches that curved around the perimeter of the room sat my grandmother, who had preceded my grandfather in death by a couple of years. She looked as old as I ever remember her, but the deep lines of sorrow and illness that I remember were gone. In the living room, she stood and walked across the room with great ease, something that was difficult for her in real life for the twenty years or so before her death. There were other people in the room too – uncles that I recognized, every one of them deceased and aware of it – all sitting on the sofas.
The conversation that I had interrupted with my arrival now continued. They were reminiscing nostalgically about shared experiences – smiling and chuckling and sharing the look that people share when they’ve all been through the same similar thing. And much like you and I might talk about a long ago football game or about prom, they were talking about the shared experience of passing from this life, through death, and into that undiscovered country that Hamlet described – that country from which none return; the shared experience of their own deaths.
There was no ceremony or ritual in the conversation; it didn’t seem like they’d gathered with that in mind. It seemed like friendly talk around glasses of lemonade on the coffee table had simply drifted in the direction of chatting about death by the time I walked in – all those folks sharing stories about their deaths in the same way that married couples around the table at a dinner party might share funny or memorable details about their weddings, or their receptions, or their first high school sweethearts.
And that’s pretty much it. That’s the dream. And I don’t know how much breakfast-table story value the dream has, but I’ve been thinking about it for years; I saw this end of each one of those passings – the winding down of each of those lives, the slowing to a stop of each of those bodies. On this end, there were long years of great pain, moments of genuine emergency, and the dull, persistent sorrow of loss, that continues even now. But if those old loved ones can reminisce together in some heavenly living room, in genial and mellow tones about their passage through that most irrevocable of calamities, what does that say about the calamity of finishing the project at work that’s giving me fits, or of wrangling together cash sufficient for a mortgage payment, or of mucking out the chicken coop?
May God grant me steadiness enough, in the face of life’s horrors, to be welcomed back into that living room sometime, to lift a cold glass of lemonade from the coffee table, and to reminisce in genial and mellow tones, among those whose faces are filled with gentle knowing, about the things that I find most fearful here.