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.