December 2009


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Dreams are amazing things. To me, they are an indicator of just how expansive our creative capacity can be. They can be purely fantastic or so hyper-realistic that one can wake with questions regarding which reality – waking or sleeping – represents the true state of being.

I had just such an experience last week, when, in a dream, I watched Dad die right in front of my eyes. I was standing at the sink washing dishes. He walked into the kitchen, dressed up in his wool, houndstooth-checked trousers, white mock-turtleneck sweater and tan cashmere jacket, excited about Christmas. He stopped at the table, turned to head out of the kitchen and then gasped. This was all going on behind my back as I stood at the sink. Hearing the gasp, I turned to see him staggering toward the living room, as though to sit down on the sofa. Before I could really react, I heard a crash as he fell to the floor. I knew he was dead before I could make it out of the kitchen and around the corner. This was it, I knew, this was how it ended. I was so startled by the experience that I woke myself up.

Some researchers see dreams as merely the result of the upper brain’s attempt to make sense of random neuronal signals received when the lower-brain structure that usually helps route those signals has shut itself off for the night. Others have hypothesized a more psychological theory, that dreams are our mind’s attempt to make sense of life’s craziness. Whatever the truth may be, I think my dream somehow was the result of my need to truly visualize how this particular event might play out.

With a disease like, say, cancer, there are a series of tests, treatments, and more tests, that let patient and family know where that patient is in the path toward remission or death. In Dad’s case, though, with so many intertwined diseases and conditions, the end could come in the next 15 minutes or 9 months from now. This lack of knowledge of progression is a blessing, of sorts, I suppose, and I’m sure the not-knowing is better for Dad. Preparation has been a rare concern for him – packing for a trip, for example, means little more than throwing some underwear and socks into his bag, and zipping up his dopp kit. I, on the other hand, think out what I’ll be doing, where might I need a sweater or a nicer pair of shoes, and whether I might want to have my sheepskin slippers handy.

Part of this penchant for preparation comes, I think, from experiencing my own fair share of worst-case scenarios. When you grow up learning that the worst thing you can imagine happening actually can happen, you can become hyper-alert to signs and signals that could be pointing the way to another such event. The shortness of breath that doesn’t go away once the pneumonia has passed, the doctor’s order for oxygen 24/7, the diastolic blood pressure in the 40s and heart rate in the 50s, an unexplained weight loss. All are indications that all is not well.

So I research – pulmonary hypertension, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, low diastolic blood pressure – to try to understand what I’m likely to face, what warning signs to watch for, to try to feel some control over the situation. I’m thinking this recent dream is, perhaps, a similar effort on the part of my unconscious mind to prepare myself emotionally for what might well happen – Kind of like a flight simulator for the psyche.

It hasn’t helped, though, really, all these attempts at preparation. That bump in the night that I’d otherwise sleep through still wakes me, for at least the added few seconds needed to listen for follow-up gasps. When Dad sleeps in a bit longer than usual, I’m still easing his door open to hear for light snoring or see the up-and-down of the comforter over his chest. If I’m out shoveling snow and hear the dogs barking out of control, I still can’t just write it off to a random truck bouncing by or squirrel running past the window.

In this situation, the worst – which, really, isn’t the worst, just the death that’s a part of life – is going to happen, probably sooner rather than later.  I just hope it takes Dad as unprepared as it likely will take me.  I think travelling lightly into that world past that for which our dreams prepare us is the best guarantee for an easy passage.

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One thing I thought I might get right when I was growing up was a relationship. I’m the child of a mother who had two husbands and a man who had three failed marriages – the third ended after 38 years, when my stepmother died, but I think it’s fair to say it had gone south after the first 10 years or so. As a professional observer, I once thought I’d seen the way to not muck it all up.  But my own two serious relationships – which had their definite high points, but still failed to flourish – have, in the past, raised my doubts as to my ability to follow through on this goal.

Now, I’m a 50-year-old man taking care of his 87-year-old father, still hoping for the relationship of which every 17-year-old dreams. But, let me tell you, it’s hard to feel sexy when death – or its first cousin, once removed, old age – is staring you in the face every day. I find myself feeling a whole lot of “why bother” these days. I’m a person who tends to look at the end game, or at least consider the ways any particular game might end, and here’s what I see right now: Me, or my partner, alone after the other’s death, or doing for the other what I’m doing for Dad right now.

This realization has, for a while, had me re-thinking my relationship goal. Well, this and the steady calcification of my single ways into a shell so hard that blasting caps may be required for an interpersonal breakthrough to take place. It’s easy to place the blame on Dad, or, at least the presence of Dad – “Sorry, but I’ve got to be home to dress my father’s toe wound” isn’t really a response to make a heart beat faster, should a goodnight kiss become something more intentional. But my own age and experience also have made me wary, and encouraged a not-so-helpful tendency to think in terms of “why?”, instead of, just, “well, why not?” In short, I think I’ve become old at heart.

This realization has me beginning to feel a need to shift my focus away from the end, and more on the game, itself. Wedding vows may cast an emphasis on the “ever after,” but, in middle age, I’m beginning to think a more realistic concentration on present emotion may be a better tactic for making a relationship work. When you’re 25, “for now, and as long as we both shall live,” probably ends at a mortgage signing or the maternity ward – can you really visualize the enormity of life and death and hospice and toe-wound dressing you might face 60 years later? No, your imagination at that age just can’t conceive of more than a 10- to 15-year timeframe. Once you hit 50 (or earlier, if life gives you the experience of seeing life to its end), the whole sickness-and-health roll of the dice just starts seeming a bit, well, dicier. But why should that deprive us of the hope youth grants – of a love everlasting?

I guess it comes down to the fact that any relationship really depends on a continuing leap of faith – and maybe faith becomes harder to achieve when it’s been tested by reality, and when experience has taught us the pain that reality can cause. Our hearts become older, both physically and emotionally. So, when we say someone is “young at heart,” maybe what we really are saying is that this person has gained the ability to maintain that faith, not in ignorance of potential pain – because no one reaches a certain age without experiencing loss and its emotional results – but in spite of it.

So faith, in this situation, becomes a time machine, one that can make our old hearts young again. My father talks to his lady-friend, Lois, who lives back in St. Louis, at least once or twice a week. She’s got a pacemaker and a defibrillator and he’s got heart, kidney, lung and circulatory issues. But when he picks up her calls, he’s back on the dance floor, with Benny Goodman swinging on the stage. At that moment, faith in the happiness that relationship is bringing him, even with a 1,200-mile separation, makes his heart is decades younger than mine. I just hope, among whatever else I might inherit once he passes, is the key my father’s always carried to his time machine of faith.

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