Eighteen years ago I had a life-changing dream. I was looking for my friend Andrew, and I found him off in a room, alone. Moving closer, I saw him writhing in agony on his hospital bed. He reached out to me. When I backed away in fear and revulsion, he cried out. I reached out to him and embraced him. Suddenly all was calm; he sat up on the bed, without tubes in his arms, and he was at peace. I awoke from this dream at dawn, wondering if Andrew had died. Then I remembered that for three nights in a row, I had heard the owl in the woods hooting, which was an omen to me that death was near.
In reality, Andrew was in the hospital. It had been easy for me to visit him when he was calm and coherent, even when the doctor told him he had only three days to live. A week later, he was still alive and raging, resisting the grip of leukemia. I had been afraid to visit him, because I felt so helpless. My powerful dream revealed a secret to me: to embrace death, not resist it.
I decided to make contact with his family and they told me he was unconscious, his breathing shallow. I returned to the hospital, welcoming the opportunity to sit with him overnight. My dream came to life. I faced the fear I had of death. I was able to be present, to hold my friend’s hand and talk to him, even though he was unable to respond. At dawn, after three deep breaths, he died. Andrew was thirty-nine years old.
The night before his funeral, I stepped outside my cabin into the darkness with a friend to tell her about my dream. Opening my mouth to speak, there was a rush of wings as an owl landed in the tree behind her, a witness to our conversation. I felt like I was dreaming.
A few months later, a friend lost control of his motorcycle in Mexico. Instead of reaching the beach to celebrate his thirtieth birthday, he died in a ditch. The next month, another friend committed suicide. As I absorbed these tragedies, I realized that I had begun to mourn a loss that I had experienced early in life.
As a child, I often felt sad and alone. I would cry without knowing why, and would be sent to my room, alone. When I was twelve years old I was surprised to learn that the small stone square in the grass of the cemetery was for my little brother. He had been born prematurely and lived a single day. I had no memory of crying all day at five years old when my parents returned home without their fourth child.
At seventeen, I was a counselor-in-training at a summer camp. One of the twelve-year-old girls was in distress; many counselors had tried to encourage her to talk about what was wrong. Relief came for her when one of the counselors sat with her for hours, letting her cry and cry, without having to explain anything. She was comforted. I learned that day of the healing power of tears.
As I continued to grow and traveled to the west coast into my own life, I found healing through accepting my tears, through allowing grief to simply be. I believe that the best preparation for death is living with joy. And of course, there are times when joy seems to be anywhere but in me. Those are the moments when I am strengthened by gratitude for this entire creation, by accepting the blessing of my experiences.
Five minutes following Andrew’s last breath, his nine-year-old daughter’s watch stopped ticking. Years later at seventeen, as a young woman, she experienced another loss. A remarkable young man, her first love, fell asleep while driving, his car crashing into a truck. He died within twenty-four hours. An hour before his last drive, they had talked at length on the phone of their mutual desire to make more time for one another in their busy student lives. I spoke with her mother shortly afterwards, and towards the end of our conversation, she said of her daughter, “She doesn’t deserve this.”
She doesn’t deserve this? I was stunned. This simple, familiar statement gave sudden birth to so many questions, primarily: why does she not deserve this? “To deserve” means to be worthy of reward or punishment. I trust there is divine purpose for which she is worthy. Not everyone is chosen to experience such depth of heartache. I truly believe that we are never given more than we can handle, even when what we’re given is death. To me, life and death are not a matter of deserving, they are a given, until they are taken. There are no guarantees. We can make all the plans we want. Life, and death happen in the meantime. The best I can do is to be the best that I can be, to be fully here, until I’m not.
Every night when I settle in to sleep, I give thanks for the gift of dreaming. I trust that the images I see through this window will guide me in my waking world. And when I awaken, I remember that life is the dream.
Lynn Thompson hosts ‘Living on Purpose’ which aired on CHLY radio 2004 – 2009. Visit LivingOnPurposeLynn.com for podcasts. This article can be heard on Rabble.ca/rpn/lop Episode 25.