Rather than learning from our parents and ancestors how to live into death, and even beyond it in a spiritual sense, we attempt to create away from death, and thereby away from life as well.
Greg Mogenson, Greeting the Angels
The swivel chairs long in my living room – their backs shaped like perfect clam shells, the seats gracefully broadening toward the front so that I can sit cross-legged with ease – these twin chairs come from my grandmother Ida’s house. Though the turquoise and brown upholstery is snagged and the revolving bases grind into wooden platforms that support four short legs, the chairs remain as comforting to me as my ability to recall Ida. In part, I have been reluctant to give up these chairs for they link me to my first independently shaped memories, flashes of childhood recalled without the prompting of adults. This remembering begins with throwing up on one of the chairs the night Ida died, moves to her wake and, opens to my first dreams of her. Perhaps I reacted deeply to Ida’s death because I was named for her, perhaps because I spent so much time with her in those few years, or perhaps I was simply tired from the days of vigil when hoping she would survive this stroke was possible.
The night of her wake, I stood beside my parents – actually, I stood on the kneeler provided for my converted-to-Catholic aunts and uncles so I could see her small face, fluffy white hair, wide forehead, familiar dark rimmed glasses, and petite hands folded on a quietly blue dress. My first dead body. I hovered at the back of the room when others approached the casket, returning again to the edge of the shiny burgundy container once I could stand there alone. I stepped up on the kneeler, balanced with one hand on the edge of the white lining, and with the other stroked the length of one forearm to the back of the hand cupping the one below. Over and over. As over and over Ida quelled my childhood hurts by rubbing the fleshy part of my left forearm until I giggled under the touch of her age-softened hands. I stopped only when Mrs. Heitner, a funeral director, touched my hand to gently scold, “You mustn’t rub the make-up off her arms.”
Once Ida died – just before I entered kindergarten – I talked to her in heaven, at least that’s how I put it to my dad, her son-in-law. In the dreams I offered her comfort and information: “We miss you Grandma,” I’d tell her before adding, “It’s okay you’re in heaven where you can still watch over us.” By junior high school, I was more wary of my dreams – images floating me above a spat with a parent; brief scenes resolving some drama with friends; bits of unrelated waking conversations intersecting so that I heard ideas in a new way; or strange images mixing together in no apparent pattern. Hued color swirls and pretty pictures, these were less interesting to me than the Ida dreams, or the ones with Pops’ family members – just as The Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’ Narnia tales were less interesting to me than were red and white bound “young reader” biographies collected in the small non-fiction room of the children’s library.
While my cousins and I talked about Ida – sometimes trying to best one another’s recall, or taking time to weave stories anew for the younger cousins who did not live in a world where Ida was physically alive, I have never talked with them about the on-going Ida dreams. Any dreams. Among family, I would spill the dreams mostly to my father and his mother, each simply absorbing the details, saying “how interesting,” and asking about other things I’d been thinking. No alarm, no judgment.
In graduate school, literature colleagues could spin mighty analyses of dreams from Freudian frameworks of sexual repression and displacement while weaving their late night narratives upon the mythic and metaphysical frameworks of folk tales, tarot cards, intuition, and waking life. In these late night conversations, I came to see dreams as offering substantial insights if taken as meditations for my daily life. Dreams bridge body and mind, waking and sleeping brain, intuition and cognition, taking flight to connect worlds and the people who inhabit these worldly spaces. Dreams can pull us into the depths of knowing. Not some vague or certain elucidation – “Oh, that’s what is happening in my life,” but rather divinely foundational knowledge to prompt action – reflection, behavior, change, connections – as dreamers creatively transform dreamscape images through rich daily living.
While I can call these my own attitudes now, I do remember being “freaked out” the first time my dreams featured a dead person rising from a coffin to speak to me – my Great-Great Aunt Edna, who died when I was ten years old, and had been conscious of dreaming for five years already. This was different: I remember being quite sure that Edna would, after a night’s dream apparition, actually rise the next day from her coffin sometime during the long Presbyterian funeral service.
Growing up, I spent a great deal of time with Edna during long weekends and summer vacations with her niece Hannah, my other grandmother. During those visits, the yet-living Edna told me stories. Great stories. Stories about her life, about the life of the family that had birthed us, about Welsh and English faeries. In between the lucid stories about performing dramatic orations on the 1910s Chautauqua circuit, Edna wove stories about the “baby” in her hand – a small porcelain Kewpie doll wrapped in a scrap of pink cloth to match the bow in its topknot of porcelain hair. Dazzled by the words and elegant plot lines, all of Edna’s stories made sense to me – even as the adults in the room averted their eyes and cluck their tongues lamenting dementia overtaking aptitude and accuracy. Edna’s stories featured women speaking out, women unafraid of words, women who cared about worlds of ideas and issues. As Edna’s death approached in summer of 1967, she could no longer tell stories as she pressed the Kewpie doll – her baby – as well as a heart full of substantial words, ethereal lessons, and sweet dementia – into my hands.
On the night of Edna’s wake, as I slept in a room furnished with her elegant walnut bedroom set – its headboards inlaid with dyed woods and cane panels, she showed up to talk with me in that still vivid dream scene: The Amlie Funeral Home visitation room thickly draped in pleated brown brocade, Edna’s open casket centered along the unwindowed wall across from double doors opened to the foyer. In the dream, the room is empty – the Amlie family upstairs for the night, Edna’s family back at the homeplace drinking coffee and telling stories. Except for me. In this dream I sit in one of the high-backed chairs at the perimeter of the room. Edna’s head moves on the pillow as she shifts her eyes to the right, looking toward the room to see who’s sitting vigil before she sits up stretching her arms overhead. The woman who turns to look at me carries the face of 1940s photos when she was a sixty-year-old woman with dark wavy hair, ample bosom, and expertly tailored dresses. “Good, it’s you. There are things I haven’t told you yet. Are you ready to listen?” I am. I do. But I wake remembering only this invitation for one more evening of stories and conversation. The words spoken during Edna’s visitations have eased out of mind, as Edna herself has faded from my dreams. Always, on waking I recall Edna weaving stories urging me to sustain my own life by nurturing all that she had not been encourage to celebrate in her life as a smart, sensual, spunky female born in 19th century America.
Just as Edna came to me as a younger woman, my Great Uncle Eddy came to me healthy. Not so unusual, perhaps, for dreamers to animate idealized images. No, the unusual of the dreams featuring an enigmatic great-uncle is that I can link the timing of these dreams to the hours immediately adjacent to his death – one a short clip of my uncle walking across a road, and the second a longer sit down conversation that began like this:
“So, when will I see Dawn?”
“Sooner than you think, my girl. Soooooner than yoooou think.” The second time more slowly than that the first – each “ooh” sound filling a full three seconds so Eddy could savor the smooth rolling sounds resonating from the back of his throat to the front of his mouth. This Eddy talked without sliding the first two fingers of his right hand over the puckering hole in his neck, a gesture normally hidden by the tent of white fabric standing like a cleric’s collar just above the neck of his shirt. His gravelly voice certain and resounding in my dream, as in the days he short-waved weather and radar observation reports from an Alaska Army base during World War II. I’d grown used to the pressing of fingers and gulping of air that moved words out of my great-uncle’s mouth after they removed the cancer. I preferred this sound and rhythm, actually, over the sound produced in the meeting of flesh and the vibrator-on-a-rope the VA provided. While I had seen Eddy often during my teens and twenties, I hadn’t seen his daughter Dawn since high school began and our lives took us to opposite ends of the state.
“You and Dawn have a lot more in common these days than when you were learnin’ how to spell shit – you probably both say it too goddamned often now, too. Feminists, both of ya,” the dream Eddy pointed out. Looking down at his hands and shaking his head, Eddy raised his eyebrows, looked over his glasses, and began telling the old story: “Sounded it out – both of ya there on the sofa, just a letter at a time. Sounded out your first spelling word: S – H – I – T. Damn, if you didn’t make us all laugh hearing our two-year-olds spell! Mighty glad, we should have been, that damn and Jesus Christ weren’t so easy to figure. You had us laughin’ right along with you two girls giggling on the couch. Yup, laughin’ right with you. ‘Bout time now for you two to sound out each others lives.”
Eddy had died that night – “Hit by a car late last night on the way home from the diner,” my mom said. “Must have been the early morning, Dawn thought, when he died. She wanted to know if you’d be in Tracy for the burial.” I’d been there at the moments of his death – I’d already been summoned the burial,
Jean Thro Frentz lived at the end of my street in a brilliant yellow house, its gardens edging up to the outfield of Mankato West High School’s baseball diamond. She had been, her obituary notes, “an avid gardener who loved flowers, birds, and animals and considered the intricate beauty of a flower to be proof that there is a God.” Exactly. Intricate beauty took up residence in Mrs. Frentz’s house: On spring afternoons it lounged in the garden when Jean invited me to help weed on lesson-free afternoon, to stay and talk rather than just cut through her backyard (with permission) on my way home from high school. On early winter evenings it hovered at the piano so that I begged my fingers to create a right sound or my brain to memorize one last phrase of music before the Christmas recital. Throughout a fall afternoon it wafted from dining room windows as the record collection sent etudes and concertos through open dining room windows to grace the raking. And on a summer afternoon it baked into cookies shaped by grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and neighborhood kids. Abounding with energy and enthusiasm, Mrs. Frentz created her ease from music, with the keyboard and turntable calling forth beauty and orchestrating human interactions.
Living with Alzheimer’s for more than a decade, Mrs. Frentz hadn’t recognized me the last time we visited, hadn’t remembered – nor seemed calmed by – the seventy years at her black upright piano. That she remembered such detail as she talked in a dream that early February morning she died pulled my conscious mind alongside my dreaming mind. “What are you here to tell me?” I asked abruptly. I wondered why a woman with so many grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews would stop to find me, the girl who lived up the street for twenty years. “You need music in your life, Ilene, and not just listening. Play!” she commanded as she had in the weekly admonishments ending the page of notes in my piano lesson notebook – believe that you can do this, and you will.. But, I remind her, my right hand doesn’t seem to understand how to play music. As a pianist, I am capable of holding together melodies and easy chords of hymns. With a left hand wanting to do the work of both hands, I am inept at producing any good sound from the many stringed instruments I love – piano, acoustic guitar, fiddle, electric bass. In the dream, Mrs. Frentz’s “You didn’t practice this week, did you?” look halts my words. As always, she had more to say: “Suffer through the chording, the complex arrangements, the bad timing and phrasing even if you stumble, just go ahead and play the wrong words with gusto!”
Having passed through dreams and nightmares bringing me images of cousins who died or were wounded in Vietnam; having navigated riddles from a well-read, unschooled grandfather returned to dreams to illuminate choosing as an action I would have to learn if I was going to attend graduate school and have a career as a teacher; and having learned that dead friends and relatives would jump into my dreams for more than their own ends, I am convinced that dreaming is my way of grieving. And I thank Persephone – goddess of lost souls – for this guidance. These elegiac dreams provide me with a psychologically imaginative means for resolving grief; for internalizing Ida’s irreplaceable senses of humor and family; for engaging the spirit of Edna so that we remember old tales that I can tell as new human stories; for animating in me the particular strengths of individuals I have loved – strengths I have needed to carry on, to develop in navigating my own healthy human development. Most of all, I these inhabiting souls guide me in understanding a concept Greg Mogenson articulates in this way: “We help the dead to inhabit death; they help us to inhabit life. We are as much their angels as they are ours.”
Clearing my head from a jarring wake up, I sat in the middle of the couch, pulling the soft cornflower embossed comforter from junior high years to my chin as if the night were a mid-winter with 30-below pre-dawn wind chills rather than a late summer 2 a.m. holding still hot air to the ground at the end of a fiery week; inside, air conditioning iced the air and sealed out sounds from a world not focused on my father’s dying. Something was amiss and I was blinking my eyes clear enough to focus toward my father’s new room in the house.
Two weekends before I had helped hospice workers turn my old playroom into the place where my father would – to say it as bluntly as we knew it – die. This weekend I slept on the living room couch a dozen steps away from the oxygen machine’s whoosh-whir, whoosh-whir, whoosh-whoosh cadence pushing manufactured air into the pockets of my father’s cancer congested lungs. A dozen steps from the couch to the playroom. For me, an hourly cycle of 45 minutes sleeping, then 15 minutes at Pops’ bedside whispering stories, offering water or medications, staunching sweat with soft cotton rags and ice water. My mother slept upstairs, the hospice-loaned intercom turned low but connecting her to any urgent tone in my father’s voice during the night. I made these nighttime treks toward the solitary light in the house so that my mother could have rest at night, and to ease my father’s after-midnight restlessness by maintaining a pattern of human presence and interaction that linked evening to morning, erasing night.
A dream. This sleep pattern had not erased dreams. Yes, that is what had jarred me from sleep. Only fifteen minutes since I’d been in Pops’ room, glancing from the couch to the clock; in that instant I saw my mother walking from the hospice playroom:
“Dad okay?” the only calm question I could ask.
“Seems your dad had a bad dream. He was pounding on the front door at your Aunt Helen and Uncle Herman’s house ‘up on the hill,’ he said, trying to get them to ‘let me in’ during a drowning rain storm….”
“….and they wouldn’t,” I began, “because it wasn’t ‘your time’ yet.”
“Yes,” she faltered, “that was the end of his dream.”
“No…that wasn’t the end of the dream,” I picked up. “The dream ended with Pops asking me why Helen and Herman wouldn’t let him into their house, why he was ‘still here drowning.’ I stammered something about there being things for him to do here before that door would open, that Gram and I weren’t ready to let him go yet. It was my dream, too.” Pops’ dream had merged with mine, at least one of us joined by Gram: confluent dreaming – joining, mingling, meeting together, coalescing. Dreams with Hannah, the mother and grandmother, between us.
My grandmother had died bitterly just ten years before, reproaching her caretakers, both people whom she had reared and loved, for leaving her to die in a slim hospital bed with no history of bearing the bones and luminous flesh of her people. And us? My father, great uncle Dave, and I – the family members who had been kept away when the eldest removed her from the homeplace and refused to inform us that these were Gram’s final days? What had she made of our absence? No voice would tell us now what she had wished for us – thought of us – in that anguished anger. No words we could speak to one another would soften all that we were forced to read in her corpse, that immobilized flesh fatigued by acrimony, abraded from anger. I had no dreams at her dying or just after her death; instead, for several years nightmarish confusions of bold colors, familiar photographs and solitary, random words moved along a loop behind my eyes.
Gram became a dream image, first, finally, as my father was about to receive a kidney transplant, nearly five years after her death. In this dream, I found perhaps the clearest picture ever made of my grandmother – the voice exactly right, the house dress truly pink and the cotton hose rolled just to the top of her shins, the excess twisted into a small knot at the outside of each knee. Sitting at the kitchen table, looking at me and the bird feeder outside the south-facing window, Gram sipped from an ivory-colored cup with that last inch of strong black coffee above a sludge of grounds. With the window behind my left shoulder, I spun my cup in circles on the formica table, glancing at Gram over the tops of my glasses. At once, she rose, stepped to the sink, rinsed then placed her cup on the drain board. After a moment’s pause, she turned to touch my shoulder and said, “I’m ready to let you go now.” When she opened the back screen door, she disappeared into her garden. To let me go, her transitional soul no longer requiring this earthly intercessionary to wrestle with family rights and wrongs.
As well as Pops knew my dream history, he knew better the history of grieving we shared. During the week after his “terminal” diagnosis, as part of one afternoon of talking frankly, we spoke about Gram’s life and her dying, then turned to funerals: a morbid counting of 43 wakes, funerals or burials for friends or family during my life, one for each year – with soon one to grow on, a macabre teasing, as I would enter my 44th year just after my father’s there-is-no-denying-it-is-immanent death; and a blunt renewing of promises I’d made at the time Pops entered Mayo Hospital for kidney transplant surgery – at his death there would be no viewing of “the body,” there would be cremation rather than burial, the funeral words and music would be more “Wipe Out” than “How Great Thou Art,” and he would not – as his parents had – die in a hospital or alone or angry.
Left alone on the couch when mom returned to her room, I reached a hand underneath to find my glasses and socks before shuffling the twelve steps to my father. Leaning against the bookshelves I studied his face and his hands, the long fingers holding a sheet and blanket up to his chin, the thick waves of hair smoothed back from his brow – this still life revealing his parents’ bones: his mother’s elegant hands and cheeks, his father’s sculpted nose and brow. I leaned toward the light above his head and watched the face, the hands, the twitch of his feet escaping – as always – from under the covers; watched his breathing change with the dawn, time again for palliatives, morphine tablets under the tongue and water daubed on the brow and dropped from a straw anchored in always melting ice chips. On this Sunday morning that we’d been sent into after dreams, I remembered the chosen silent moments at my grandparents’ house – those wonderful interludes when Stafford/Alexander folks would sit with one another and their ideas. A silent communion, eyes taking in seasonal colors, movement of birds and squirrels, motions and sight lines of the other communicants. I’d learned there to have and shape my own thoughts, learned that I was responsible for coming up with ideas and for owning up to them, learned to watch for moments when ideas settled behind another person’s eyes. I understood that in a lifetime with my father, I had been taught to be comfortable in the presence of thinking.
On this Sunday morning, I watched my father’s eyes open, focus on my face, wander that room filled with books and bright colors and flowers and decades of homework angst, become pools of unfocused green once he settled into understanding he had lived another day, and pull to a focus again moments later when he turned to ask for what was needed. Across two days, there would be no spectacular final words between father and daughter. Instead, there would be water even when none could be swallowed, iced cloths that fever burned through, oxygen tubes adjusted even as there were fewer pockets to ventilate, and last doses of morphine erasing night, day, pain, words. There would be silence. Mine humble. His trusting.
I stretched across the couch, loosening the cornflower comforter. It was 6 a.m. and Pops’ coma let me sleep for two hours at a time for changes came more slowly now. It was Gram who had awakened me this Tuesday morning. Leaning over me, her hand smoothing my brow, she said, “Get out of bed now and tell your father it’s time to come home.” Yes, ma’am. And so it was time. A last time that I would be in silence with one of Alexanders who raised me. And I watched the work of my hands – cleaning rotted phlegm and slaver from Pops’ face, massaging his fingers from tensed grip to supple rest, cooling that fevered brow with firm caresses. Only then, could I speak a few words shaped as assurances to loop behind his ear: “Gram sent me to tell you now it is time now to come home. She’s here to be with you while I go to get Mom.”
Moving in sync with the oxygen machine, I walked from my father’s hospice room to rouse my mother as gently as I could: “Mom,” I stood in her doorway, “it’s almost time.” For the next three hours we stayed close by as Pops died at home with as much ease as the circumstances could muster and in the company of family – wife and daughter keeping earthly promises, souls of his father and mother each momentarily rooted to earth as Pops released a final breath. Then, three Alexander souls hovered in the room: mother, father and son. Dreams alone would now be the bridge between them and me, the Alexander yet fully in this breathing world.
The people I love in this life and beyond it entice – no, dare – me to waft along an extraordinarily embodied, inviting dream bridge, and to awaken anew – hopeful, ready – to stir up up life. Thus enriched, each morning I rise to savor that delightful mélange of love and risk, bitter and sweet, purpose and drift.
Drafted September 2000. Edited 2008. Revised 2021.