Dream a big dream: Time to die

Interestingly, as I review past posts, this will be the second post about dreams recently. The other was my post “Dream a little dream” in October. And while I don’t intend to make this a dream journal, as I said in that post, dreams are important and sometimes very charged. And this morning, I had another very powerful dream. One that felt very real and left me feeling quite disoriented. So, I want to take time to capture it and perhaps some thoughts before it, like the fog surrounding me in the Forest, dissipates under the light of day.

The dream is set in the future. I am older, much older. My wife, our dog and I are all living on a space station. It’s quite large. Large enough to have a town, farms, animals. It reminds me of when I lived in Alameda. The town is smallish in feel like Alameda. The farms remind me of places in Marin and the East Bay. It also has simulated daylight and nighttime. The effect is that it feels very much like earth, but smaller, self-contained.

In the dream, I have cancer. It’s fairly advanced and it’s the day that I’ve decided to take my life. I know that I’m on the cusp of a rule I have regarding terminal and/or debilitating diseases or conditions: if you don’t think you’d be able to take your own life tomorrow, today’s the day for you to do it. Otherwise, you’ll fall into the trap of wasting away and being unable to do anything about it. I’ve always said that I don’t want to waste away and linger, but after watching what my mother went through, I became even more adamant about that. That’s why I have a living will for instance.

It’s mid-afternoon and my wife and I are driving around. I know it’s my last few hours and I’m taking in the sights and experiences. I’m actively living my last few hours. We stop at a farm and I walk around. The farm has these small animals that grow out of the ground that are food on the station. They’re small and brown and come up out of the ground fast and scatter and swarm around your feet. I have to watch my step so I don’t step on them. I also feel that they’re kind of weird and creepy.

Then we’re driving in the town. We go around a curve and I see an auto dealership on our left. The road curves around it and as you round the curve you see an attached repair garage. The building on both sides has a logo that’s an image of the owner. I think to myself how they’re going to have to change all their branding when the owner dies.

Then we’re in an office. A guy I work with right now is there at a desk and he and I and my wife are talking. He and I work together in the dream. He’s saying how it’s a good thing I’m dying today because Eisenhower, who runs the company, doesn’t have much use for sick people. I had been watching Ken Burns’ The War last night, which is about World War II, and it talked a lot about General Eisenhower and his overall command of Western Europe last night. While what the guy I work with sounds horrible by day, it didn’t in the dream, it was just a very matter of fact thing.

After that, my wife and I are still in the same office, but he’s gone and a faceless/nameless female friend of my wife is in the room somewhere. I have a vague sense that she’s my wife’s girlfriend. This person and I don’t have much connection but she and my wife do and I know that she’s there to help my wife. The hour has come and it’s time. Throughout all this, I never see my dog, but I know he’s there on the station with us. I know too that he’s old and dying and that after I’m done, my wife will be going to help him pass. I know this is a very hard day for her, but I know too that she’s incredibly strong and as OK as she can be. I have a sense that this person with her helps. That when I and our dog are gone she will be OK and won’t be alone or lonely.

When we had to send our other dog on her way this fall, when I first saw her that last time, she looked OK and I had trouble believing we had to do this. I also was blindsided by what was happening and not ready. I started to cry and said to my wife “I don’t think I’m ready for this, maybe we don’t have to do this yet”. She explained again why the vet thought it was time and I could tell our dog was having trouble breathing. After a minute or two I agreed it was time. In the dream, when my wife and I realized the hour had arrived, I had a similar wavering. I felt sadness that I was done with this life, that I had no more chances to do anything else. I said something to the effect of not being ready.

In reality, I drink a lot of Vitaminwater Zero XXX (it’s one of the red ones). In the dream, I had one in my right hand. As we’re talking, I took a drink from it. It tasted very bitter, almost toxic. I looked at the bottle and I saw a large pill or tablet floating in the bottle at the top, dissolving. I recognize it as the pill I was going to take to end my life. I look at my wife and realize that she knew I might have trouble doing what I wanted, that I might waver at the end and so she put the pill in my drink to help me. I have said that there are times in which the greatest act of love one can make is to let go and help one you love pass. It’s what I feel every time I send our kids to the other side: the crushing grief is mixed in with the fact that I’m doing what I have to, what I don’t want to, because I love them. My wife and I have similar feelings about not wanting to whither and we have both said that if we had to, we would help the other that way. As I look at my wife in the dream, I realize that she’s done just that and am filled with a sense of that overwhelming love that makes one do what she did.

I move to hug her and give her a kiss. As I’m holding her, she’s nearly bald and thin, I feel the back of her head where it joins with the neck. Perhaps she was sick herself in the dream? I tell her that I love her and thank her. I’m feeling deep love towards her and gratitude that she loves me enough to do this very difficult thing. This thing that so many people wouldn’t understand and that many would think is wrong.

My vision starts to blacken suddenly. I feel like I’m starting to swoon. I pull away and stand on my own. I remark “wow, that stuff works fast”. When I’ve sent our kids to the other side, one thing that has struck me is how quickly they fall asleep and then pass away. It’s faster and more peaceful than I thought it would be before I ever saw it. In the dream I know that’s the case with what I’ve taken. I’m dying and will be dead in a minute. My awareness of the world is withdrawing, closing in on itself.

Then I woke up. It was morning here in the Forest. Very foggy, giving the day world a dream-like feel to it.

That’s the most realistic death dream I’ve ever had. It’s the closest I’ve felt myself come to the moment of death in a dream (or reality even). The dream and the fog have left me feeling disoriented, trying to figure out not so much what the dream means but rather what I think and feel from it.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on death lately. With all the death and loss that I’ve gone through these past three years or so, this period I call the Crucible, I can’t help but have more focus on those issues. And too, with so much loss around things that formed my identity in the past, I’m having to look at questions of who I am and what am I doing, what do I want to do.

As I have been writing on this dream and thinking about it, it feels like some more pieces are coming into place. Like Dante, I feel like I’m in a dark wood and searching for the path. And like Dante, it’s a long way out of that dark wood and is taking me to places previously unimaginable. And it seems, like Dante, the path leads to metaphysical places and questions about life, love and death.

Certainly working with death and loss seems like a part of my path right now. In the past three years or so I’ve been doing a lot of reading on and listening to talks about Buddhism, particularly Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. Dealing with loss and suffering is such a core part of Buddhism that I felt there was a lot I could learn from it. In Buddhism death isn’t a negative, a thing to be fought. It’s a natural part of life and like all things in life can be made better or worse. I find the Tibetan idea of the Bardos very informative too: that just as sleep follows waking follows sleep, so death follows life follows death. So for the past three years or so, I’ve been exploring and learning about that. I’ve learned about people who work to help facilitate passages, “death doulas“. And when I read about them, I wonder if perhaps the reason for this life for me has something to do with death. That maybe I have so much loss in this life because I’m supposed to use my experiences to do something helpful?

Certainly a sense that I’ve been called to do something around death isn’t new in my life.  A long time ago, my sophomore year of college, I had a chance to try acid for the first time. At the height of the experience while Metallica’s To Live is to Die was playing, I had a vision of being taken into the underworld and bargaining with the god of death. It was an amazing vision where I sat at a table across from him under the vault of a sky that looked like a medieval illuminated manuscript. As the Cocteau Twins’ Blue Bell Knoll came on, I felt the music hit me like refreshing cool water, bringing me back up to the surface from the underworld. I stood up and felt like I had returned from a journey and been transformed, like Siegfried after bathing in the dragon’s blood. I had this sense of being marked by the experience.

And so even when I was young, I had this sense of death being something different for me. Something that I was called to be closer to than other people. And, given the amount of suicide in my life, and the fact that my father died by suicide at age 47 (I would find out nearly seven years later that both that he was dead and how he died), there’s been this additional feeling of being marked and called, almost like it’s the family business.

On a side note too, the psychologist James Hillman writes about the psychological and mythological ties between dreams and the underworld. Given how powerful dreams are for me, that feels like another tie between me and the underworld.

This is a long post to write and to read. So, if you’ve made it this far dear reader, thank you for staying with me on this path.

I don’t have firm answers but perhaps I have a bit more of a clue on where I should be doing work: around life, love and death. Perhaps in my way I’ve been called, while I live, to serve both love and death. Perhaps the claims of Lilith and the god of death, in their way support each other. I still am figuring out what I do with my warrior side, what I do with my creative side. But maybe I’ve got a bit more direction after this. Nothing makes you think about life as much as death, that’s for sure.

As always, I guess, it remains to be seen what comes next. What I do know is that I have a better feeling today for what it will be to die. I feel a bit more ready for it. The Tibetans encourage practice for dying in your dreams. It would seem I took one of those lessons to heart.

A closing postscript to this post: while writing this, I learned from the Wikipedia article that James Hillman died this past October. He was an influential figure for me in college and part of my recovered interests these past three years. I am sorry he has passed, though he had a good life. And it is interesting that I should learn of this when writing about my own death dream.