This essay started writing itself in my dreams 12 years ago – the last night of my father’s life. This is the first time in those dozen years I’ve let it show up in a printed format others could read, not simply hear excerpt from at a reading. Ah, that’s what comes of telling evil cousin to f-off ;->
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 mechanism grinds into the wooden platforms that support four short legs, the chairs remain as comfortable, and comforting, as I recall them when urging them to spin faster and faster in Ida’s living room. 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. I reacted variously to Ida’s death; sick on the night of her death, I was simply tired from the days of family vigil when her 13 children could still hope she would survive the stroke; attentive to details and full of questions the night of her wake, the first I’d attended; aware of not being with my parent on the funeral day and full of tears that I couldn’t explain to the family friend babysitting.
The night of her wake, I stood beside my parents – actually, in front of them as I stood on the kneeler provided for my converted-to-Catholic aunts so I could see Ida’s small frame, the fluffy white hair, wide forehead, familiar dark rimmed glasses, and petite hands folded on a quietly blue dress. My first dead body. Moving away after the official viewing, I hovered at the back of the room when others approached the casket, moving forward again to the edge of the shiny burgundy container once I could stand there alone. I stepped up on the kneeler, balanced with my left hand on the edge of the white lining, and moved my right hand from the crook of her left arm down to the fingertips that cupped the right hand below. Over and over. As over and over Ida quelled my childhood hurts by rubbing the fleshy part of my 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. Neil or Idell or Deanne,” or some other of the three dozen older cousins, “can teach me what I need to know.” I was more wary of my other dreams – images floating me above an imagined spat or yelling match with a parent; brief scenes involving some never-did-happen drama with friends; bits of unrelated waking conversations intersecting so that I heard ideas in a new way; or, images like modernist art mixing together in colors and patterns I could only look upon with wonder – hued color swirls and pretty pictures. These were all less interesting to me than the Ida dreams – 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. I wanted tactile details of lived lives.
While my cousins and I talk about Ida often – trying to best one another’s recall, noting how her ethic of care shapes decisions we make in the world, or taking time to weave stories anew for the younger cousins (and now new generations) who did not live in a world where Ida was physically present, I have never talked with them about the on-going Ida dreams. Any dreams. Among family, I would spill the dreams 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, no tidy explanations. Just listening, quiet consideration, space for dreaming to be ordinary.
Inhabitant Souls – I
In graduate school, literature colleagues could spin mighty classroom 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…” Rather, dreamscapes as draft, a preliminary composition sketching together exquisitely foundational knowledge to prompt action – reflection, behavior, change, connections – for transforming 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 died when I was ten years old, conscious of dreaming for five years already, yet I remember being quite sure that Edna, the body not the dream’s apparition, would actually rise the next afternoon 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 Alexander grandmother. During those visits, the yet-living Edna told me stories. Great stories. Stories about her life, about the life of the family members who had birthed us, about Welsh and English faeries and facts and food. In between the lucid stories about performing dramatic orations on the 1910s Chautauqua circuit, near the end of her life 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 an elegant walnut bedroom set she had purchased while working at The Fair in Chicago, where she moved from sales woman (millinery) to senior buyer (furniture and women’s clothing). In one of the twin beds with headboards inlaid with various woods to make a floral spray and cane panel wrapping the bed frame, 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 – if anyone – is 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 remembering and likely remaking the dream across the years, I gain a renewed awareness that I could ask questions about and for the making of my life as a 20th-century-born, Minnesota raised, US educated, socialized and politicized female. In weaving stories from the dreams as well as artifacts – personal mementoes, genealogical documents, bits of furniture, a single hat and lace jacket – and collected memories – mine and others – connected to Edna’s life, I have come to value that funereal dream for the ways it “instructed” me to incorporate what I valued in Edna’s life – smartness, sensuality, spunkiness – across my lives. Personal, professional, political, philosophical.
Inhabited Souls – II
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 a few words at a time out of my great-uncle’s mouth after they removed the cancer, the voice box, a few lymph nodes. I preferred this sound and rhythm over the sound projected 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 dad said. “Musta 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, but more importantly for hours of conversation with Dawn, both of us unaware of the other as a domestic violence advocates – she as a survivor, I as an educator, both of us advocates wondering if and how our work could be more useful.
Inhabited Souls – III
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. On early winter evenings it hovered at Mrs. Frentz’s piano while 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.
She remembered all this as she talked with me during that early February dream. That she remembered pulled my conscious mind alongside my dreaming mind. 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. “What are you here to tell me?” I asked abruptly in the dream. 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. But 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 and pop tunes. 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 – acoustic guitar, fiddle, electric bass. In the dream, I protest Mrs. Frentz’s instruction with a snorting laugh, which I am forced to swallow under her “You didn’t practice this week, did you?” look. As always, she had more to say: “Suffer through the chording, the complex arrangements, the bad timing and phrasing even if you stumble and play the wrong notes with gusto!”
Inhabited Souls – IV
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 choice-making and discernment as attitudes I would have to adopt if I was going to attend graduate school and have a career as a teacher.
Having learned from dead friends and relatives who 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 thank these inhabiting souls for guiding my understanding of 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.”
Having identified myself as agnostic – having come to, in my words now, rejecting big church and theocratic mono-theism while being open to understanding poly-theism across world cultures and epistemologies – as part of my self-learning during Reverend Perry Hultin’s respectful, inquiry-based, interfaith-framed United Methodist confirmation course, it was the dreams that drew life together so that I learned how to grieve, how to link loss of life to lessons from life in order to animate the angels who would sustain my imagination and philosophies, the personal and political actions I undertook to sustain quality human life and alliances pursuing social justice on earth.
Clearing my head from a jarring wake up, I sat in the middle of the couch, pulling the worn 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 the 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 where the oxygen machine’s whoosh-whir, whoosh-whir, whoosh-whoosh cadence pushing manufactured air into the pockets of my father’s cancer congested lungs informed my heart’s rhythm. From the couch, a dozen steps 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 wrapped around ice chips. 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, working with the small lamp to erase night. Each particular night in succession, and the long night to come.
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 and my dream had merged, with 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 – her eldest son and his son, her eldest grandson, 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 words told us then what she had wished for us – thought of us – in that anguished anger. No words we could speak to one another then would soften all that we were forced to read in her corpse, that immobilized flesh fatigued by acrimony, abraded from anger. My grandmother Hannah left the world alone, with neither affective conversation nor familiar contact to facilitate her calling on and conversing with angels during this transition through dying. Miles, states, unknowingly away from her, I had no crossing over dreams of her, no dreams at all during the time I was home for her funeral. Instead, for several years, I carried her life lessons about thinking and learning into my teaching life and at night wrestled with nightmarish confusions of bold colors, familiar moments and places as immobile photographic images, and solitary random words as a pastiche piling onto one another – all of this looping behind my eyes regularly.
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 then gazing toward the bird feeder just beyond the south-facing window frame, Gram sipped from an ivory-colored, family cafe cup brimming with always strong black coffee. With the window behind my left shoulder, I spun my nearly empty cup like a top, glancing up from the grey-speckled formica table to watch 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” as she exited the back screen door and walked into her garden. To let me go, her transitional soul no longer requiring an earthly intercessionary to wrestle with a long history of family rights and wrongs. I had been Gram’s angel as much as she could then become mine.
As well as Pops knew my dream history, he knew better the history of grieving we shared. During an afternoon the week after his “terminal” diagnosis, one of two times that he talked frankly about his own death, 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, he pointed out in a wonderfully macabre teasing, as I would enter my 44th year just after my father’s there-is-no-denying-it-is-immanent death. With that accounting, he pressed me renew promises I’d made in our only other conversation about his dying, then 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,” that God would be invoked for the believers present and not for him, and – above all, he wanted assurance that he would not die – as his parents had – in a hospital or alone or angry.
Left alone on the couch when mom returned to her room after discussing the merging of Pops’ dream and mine, I reached a hand underneath to find my glasses and socks before shuffling the twelve steps to my father. Leaning back on bookshelves we had built to line one wall, 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 regularity of silent moments at my grandparents’ house – the wonderful interludes when Stafford/Alexander folks would sit with one another and their ideas on the front porch, in the back yard, working the garden, fishing for trout. 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, learned to love literature as another way of seeing the world, learned to see beauty of belief systems that supported human flourishing. Leaning back on books and looking toward the future I would create with the angels of my father and his family, I understood that in a lifetime with my father, I had been taught to be comfortable in the presence of divergent thinking and believing.
On that particular Sunday morning, I watched my father’s eyes open, focus on my face, wander the room’s books, bright colors and fresh flowers and remember the decades of homework undone and teenage angst that had fueled our fights. Back on my face, the eyes become pools of unfocused green once he settled into understanding he had lived another day, and focus again when he turned to ask for what was needed in that moment – ice chips, a hand on the brow, a quiet interlude of sitting together with the angels. Across two days, there would be no spectacular final words between father and daughter. Instead, there would be more 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 final doses of morphine that would erase night, day, pain, words. There would be silence. Mine humble. His trusting.
It was 6 a.m. and Pops’ coma let me sleep for two hours at a time as changes in his body came more slowly now. I loosened the cornflower comforter and wrapped a sweater tight against the air conditioner cold while inventorying the skills and strengths I would need for the day I had just come to expect. 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 to speak – with hands cleaning rotted phlegm and slaver from his face, massaging his fingers from tensed grip to supple rest, cooling that fevered brow with firm caresses; only then, with words placing assurances into a loop behind his ear: “Gram’s here; she sent me to tell you it’s time now to come home. I’m here with you both.” Moving in sync with the oxygen machine, I walked from my father’s room to rouse my mother as gently as I could: “Mom,” I stood in her doorway, “it’s almost time.” For three hours we stayed close by – my mother and I keeping earthly promises as Pops died at home, in the company of family, and with as much ease as the circumstances could muster. At Pops’ final breath, three Alexander souls hovered in the room: mother, father and son, each to become guiding spirits in my sleeping and waking dreams for a lifetime to follow.
The people I love in this life and beyond entice – no, dare – me to waft along this extraordinarily embodied bridge, inviting me on night journeys through dreams and on daily adventures through ideas so that I am daily awake to the work of stirring up life, to the on-going work of making meaning from, with, because of – and in contraction sometimes – to the lessons I’ve made from knowing, weaving, expending, interpolating and believing together the pieces from their lives. Thus enriched, each morning I rise to savor that delightful mélange of love and risk, bitter and sweet, purpose and drift that I encounter in making new worlds with creative colleagues, trusted family, loved friends and fresh strangers. The bits of grief – in my life and in this world – are daily; in this world as an agnostic more poly-theist than non-believer, I stand resilient and engaged because I imagine my angels yet here on earth doing their work in how they have allowed me to make use of their eternities in how I work with colleagues, how I love in creating family, how I value divergent friendships, and how I welcome the work of seeking social justice among strangers and friends. Neither intermediaries between my life here and a god in heaven, nor specially anointed with specific honor and obligations, nor disembodied of gender, sensuality, missions or mistakes, these angels reflect my faith in humans, my hope for grace in interactions, my belief in learning multiple ways of knowing the world, and my practice of seeking or making justice in this life an everyday act even more than an everyday hope or prayer.