Have you ever had one of those dreams that is so real you wake up with a start, gasping for air, heart pounding, momentarily stunned to find yourself in your own bed, safe and sound? It happens to me. I have always had very real, very complicated dreams. If I could remember them all, I would probably have enough material to be the next Steph(v)en (as in Spielberg, King or Hawking). Usually my dreams make no sense to me. I’ve heard that people can decipher dreams. That may be true, but I don’t think I will spend any time on the one where I am walking backwards in bare feet through muddy jeep tracks in culottes and a Yes concert t-shirt with my Daisy BB gun slung over my shoulder shouting orders at bunny rabbits. I would never wear culottes, first of all. I definitely wouldn’t wear them with a concert t-shirt. My fashion choice in that one was not even the most disturbing element, as you can well imagine. There are other dreams that are more common and obvious, but still truly terrifying. The worst one of all, which has many variants, is the school nightmare. In that one, it’s my senior year in college. I realize that I never attended a single class and I am late for finals. That dream featured regularly as a sympathy nightmare during finals week when I was a teacher and a principal.
Last night, I had one of those dreams. It was so vivid; I woke up nearly in tears. In the dream, I walk into my kitchen and my dad is standing there. It isn’t my 2018 dad. It is my 1970s dad. I know that because he is big and booming. In the 80s, we built a house, he leaned out from all of the labor. This was definitely 1970s dad. He is wearing an Aran sweater, thick and soft, the color of milk. I remembered he told me how the Irish clans each had their own cable pattern of Aran sweater so that the fishermen’s bodies could be easily identified no matter how long they were at sea. He is standing at the kitchen counter and I am stunned to see him. I know he has passed away. He isn’t sick. He is standing on his own, healthy and strong. He wraps me in a hug so deep and strong I can feel it in my heart. I can feel his heavy hand patting my shoulder blades the way he did when I was small and sad. He says a phrase I’ve heard a hundred times, “Hey there, it’s OK pal.” It is as mushy as he gets. Someone says to me, “He isn’t gone” but I know that this is not true. I hold onto him anyway because I know I will soon lose the feel of the cable knit on my cheek, the warmth of his hug, the weight of his presence. When I wake up, I know it is a dream. He has passed. Nothing will change that. But for a few moments, it felt so real.
Though I rarely even think about my dreams, let alone attempt to decipher them, I could not ignore this one for the lingering sorrow it evoked. It made me wonder why we dream at all. What does it accomplish? This dream made me miss him so painfully. I certainly wouldn’t choose that feeling, so there has to be something else at play here. Of course, I turned to research first. In an article on the Psychology Today website, Michael J. Breus sited these theories on why we dream:
- A component and form of memory processing, aiding in the consolidation of learning and short-term memory to long-term memory storage.
- An extension of waking consciousness, reflecting the experiences of waking life.
- A means by which the mind works through difficult, complicated, unsettling thoughts, emotions, and experiences, to achieve psychological and emotional balance.
- The brain responding to biochemical changes and electrical impulses that occur during sleep.
- A form of consciousness that unites past, present and future in processing information from the first two, and preparing for the third.
- A protective act by the brain to prepare itself to face threats, dangers and challenges.
(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sleep-newzzz/201502/why-do-we-dream, Accessed October 19, 2019)
I reject the theory that dreams are merely biochemical changes or electrical impulses. I don’t have any scientific basis for rejecting that theory, I just think it’s unlikely that it comes down to nothing more than a biological process. As I thought about the dream, its meaning seemed pretty simple really. I miss him. I especially miss the 1970s him, when we were the closest. I miss that time of life when my dad could make everything better. The purpose of the dream was not so obvious, though.
To every thing there is a season,
and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
I would guess that this is all coming up on a deeper level because I am missing my own child who is away at college. We visited her last weekend. It was so great to hug her and catch up. I soaked up her laughter and wicked wit. I reveled in her emphatic explanations and dramatic stories. I was filled with joy to meet her friends. Though she is safe and happy, and right where she should be, I do miss her and I do worry about her. I am pretty sure my psyche was taking advantage of sleep to help me process these feelings. If I am honest, it helped me to see that, on some level, I have tried to block out missing her because she is so happy and safe, and right where she should be. I want to protect her from missing us as well. That probably is not logical, but then feelings rarely are.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there,
wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams
no mortal ever dared to dream before.
Edgar Alen Poe The Raven
Whatever the real purpose of dreams, I got the message loud and clear on this one. My dad is right, it is going to be OK. She is going to be OK. It is OK to miss her. It is even OK for her to miss us. We do not have to be in the same room to feel that deep love of a bear hug. That is stored in our hearts and minds. We can touch that feeling asleep or awake, together or apart. That, my friend, is not a dream. That is the real deal.
Holding onto my dad in 1966.