Dreaming of the Dead

posted January 19, 2012

(My grandmother)

Last night I had a dream about my grandfather, a man who died in 1981 at the age of 66 from esophageal cancer. When he died, I was thirteen, and I had just discovered him. For most of the overlap of our lives, he was grouchy and clearly regarded his three granddaughters as a noisy nuisance at best and competition for his wife’s attention at worst. He regularly yelled at her, and occasionally at us, so we hid from him, spying on him from behind open doors. He was mostly deaf and completely so when he didn’t wear his hearing aid. He had a bad back, and I’d watch him stretch it when he thought he was alone. It made me feel strange to see him looking so vulnerable, back against the wall, lifting his arms like the Romper Room lady, wearing funny long white underwear.

He was a fire-breathing monster before his first drink. He yelled at my grandmother in public if dinner wasn’t on the table by 6:30. We never ate before seven. Also, my grandmother didn’t actually cook the dinner. So I am not sure what that was all about, but at any rate, I was afraid of him, and so were many people.

For Christmas 1977, after years of letting my grandmother handle the gifts to the grandkids, he gave me a stereo–a real stereo, with high quality hi-fi speakers, a synthesizer and a turn table. It was the best present I ever got, and that system followed me to college and to my first apartment, or pieces of it did anyway. He loved listening to music more than anything in the world; he worshiped at the church of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, filling the house with music played so loudly the house shook–remember, he was deaf. The next year, he gave me a Swiss Army Knife with every attachment imaginable. I felt seen. The last summer he was alive, I came to stay with him and my grandmother for a week in the summer. In the still-sunny evenings, he’d drink his soup–the only thing he could eat anymore since his tracheotomy–and ask me what I was reading. When I told him I loved Agatha Christie novels he smiled conspiratorially. “But just the Hercule Poirot ones, right?” And I fell in love with him.

His children deny his alcoholism. But my sister said to one of them, long after he had died, “But they had to pour whiskey into the feeding hole in his stomach every day. I think that means the doctors understood that he was an alcoholic.”

Today I joined the Y. I should say “rejoined” since we are foul-weather members, always quitting in late May. Tom and I thought long and hard about joining. We don’t know how much we’ll really use it since we both prefer to run, walk, bike and do outdoor activities over indoor ones. I have a fabulous yoga studio, so I don’t intend to bring my danurasanas there, either. But the kids love it. They need a place to swim and to learn to swim. Everyone I know is a member. And I want a Y two blocks from my house, so I see our membership as neighborly support in part.

I also saw that they have a class at 4:15 called Family Yoga. I have been fantasizing about bringing my kids to a family yoga class since before Elle was born. It’s never worked out timing-wise. But today, I saw it would–I am officially looking for something to do with the kids during what is in our family lo-o-o-ong witching hours of after-school to dinnertime.

We started out eagerly enough, each of us choosing a different colored yoga mat from the closet. We set our mats up in a row, with mama in the middle. Elle was terrific, able to do every pose. Jay was predictably hilarious, sitting in half lotus, jumping around on a one-footed tree, inventing something that looked like table pose with one leg up in the air, perpendicular to the floor. Eventually all that devolved to the kids running around the room. I was told that this is usual for this class. The whole thing was a half hour. I was in heaven.

And then we stepped out of the class to put on socks, shoes, winter coats, scarves, hats–all in triplicate. And it was as if I had scalded them with hot water. “That was too short,” Elle whined.
“Oh, I am so glad you liked it!” I said. “I wish it were longer too.”
“Not longer, Mama! I hated it! We didn’t get to run around enough. I wanted to go swimming.” And she threw herself down in the middle of the hallway sobbing. Meanwhile, Jay screamed at me when I tried to put his socks on him. “Why do you DO dat, Mama? You are SO MEAN TO ME!!!” And he ran away down the hall.

As I write it now, it’s pretty funny. But in the moment, all I could think about was my disappointment that my fantasy about family yoga was going up in smoke; and also that the class that had just started in the yoga room was listening, eyes closed, wishing for a peaceful pre-OM silence, to the sounds of kids berating the World’s Worst Mother. So I acted like one. “I’m leaving,” I announced. “See you in the parking lot.” And I marched off, their coats and hats and shoes in my hand. The kids followed me screaming, “Why are you so mean, Mama! You are being SO MEAN!”

In my dream, someone said, “Granddad has come back.” And I saw him first in a wheelchair, many years older, bald and round, lost-looking. But then he stood up and was transformed. He rose to a towering height, and shone like an angel. Perhaps he was one. He was the most handsome version of himself. His hair was silver and gold, and his skin shone gold, too. His eyes were clear and peaceful and kind. I came to him and put my ear to his chest. He held me for a long time. I pulled away and looked up at him. I didn’t know what to say. I needed to say something–because I thought he was dead. So I finally looked him in the eye and said, “Should I be worried about you?”

He took a breath. “Well, I am abstinent,” he said. “So no. But I haven’t beaten cancer yet.”

“You will,” I told him.

I woke with the sweetest feeling about him. Even now, writing about it, I have tears in my eyes. My friend Judy, an author who writes in my Wednesday group, recently said, “When we dream of dead people, these are not really dreams.” Of course, I see myself in this dream, in a very dream-like way, so I don’t know. But I also feel as though I had the most wonderful visit/visitation imaginable.

I told the kids on the car ride home that I was sad we had joined the Y because of how terribly they had behaved.
“We didn’t behave terribly, Mama. YOU behaved terribly.”
I thought about this. They were right.
“That’s true,” I said. “But it doesn’t solve the problem. I think we all need to just take a big break from each other between pick up from school and dinner time. We’re all too cranky.”
“I’m not cranky!” screamed Elle. “You’re cranky! I want Dada!” And she collapsed again on the floor sobbing.

I gave up. I started to make dinner, pulling food out of the fridge with one hand, texting Tom with my other. “Please do not go to the store. Just come home now.”
He texted back: “Need to not come home. Need time to myself. Need to come home after you feed the kids dinner.” It was a conspiracy. He was going to leave me with them, me whom they hated. Possibly they would have killed me by the time they got home. No, that wasn’t realistic. They wouldn’t have killed me, but they would probably steal away in the middle of the night to marry men from the motor trade like the girl in “She’s Leaving Home.”

I started to pray. Help, help, help, like that.

At that moment the phone rang. It was my father. I took the phone into the bathroom, burst into tears and told him briefly about the bad afternoon and then about the dream about my grandfather, his father. As I sobbed, Jay came in and threw his arms around my legs, patting the backs of them consolingly.

“That’s wonderful,” said my father. “You’re lucky to have had that dream.”

“Daddy’s home!”shrieked Elle, and sure enough, in came Tom to the scene of chaos, me with a tear stained face and the kids attached to my legs, my father under my ear. And I knew we’d all be ok for the foreseeable future.

My grandfather believed in God. I didn’t see this myself, and when I learned as a teenager that he was the believer and my saintly grandmother was the atheist, it threw my straight Protestant concepts for a loop. But now I get it. Saintly people don’t need God, they don’t need church. It’s those of us who wrestle with our rage, who look for Spirit in a bottle, who fall down again and again in our relationships, and who are saved by saying we are sorry–we’re the ones who need church, just as the sick are the ones who need a hospital. And on good days, we are the ones who see angels.

The Comments

Join the Conversation. Post with kindness.

  1. Beautiful post. Sounds like a definite Visitation Dream to me (I agree with the woman in your writing group in that when we dream about dead people it’s more than a “dream”). If you’re curious, I do have some further thoughts from a Jungian perspective, but I’ll refrain from going psychoanalytic in your comment forum!

  2. Beautiful post. Sounds like a definite Visitation Dream to me (I agree with the woman in your writing group in that when we dream about dead people it’s more than a “dream”). If you’re curious, I do have some further thoughts from a Jungian perspective, but I’ll refrain from going psychoanalytic in your comment forum!

  3. Beautiful post. Sounds like a definite Visitation Dream! (I agree with the woman in your writing group; when we dream of the dead, it’s more than a mere dream). That said, I do have some ideas about this from a Jungian perspective. But I’ll refrain from going psychoanalytic in your comment forum! 😉

  4. I love this, Nerissa. You wove the story of your grandfather in with the present day, and in with your dream so seamlessly! It also gives me hope that I’m not the only Mama out there who is overwhelmed sometimes. I’m glad your Dad was there to listen on the phone and that the evening ended better than the afternoon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More Like This

River Roads

Here’s the strange thing about me: I can completely forget I’m a musician until I arrive at the gig. It’s as though that part of me is a set of clothes for another season, kept in a moth-proof box in the attic, out of mind until the weather changes.

The Many Injuries of Nerissa

October has been a veritable study in fear and anxiety. As I wrote last month, it started with a diagnosis of melanoma in situ–a creepy black spot on my leg….


So I had surgery last Monday. For only the second time in my life, I went under general anesthesia. The last thing I remember is being wheeled very rapidly down…


Someone told me today that EGO stands for Easing God Out. I love that. The way it works for me is this: I have a huge existential crisis (like losing…