Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Dream Dance

Digging into my Emily Dickinson drawer, I found this poem, written 25 years ago, when I returned home to Princeton to take care of my mother, who was diagnosed with terminal emphysema. I was teaching at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, when I received an urgent phonecall from my sister, summoning home. She told me our mother was given a year to live by her doctor, unless she gave up smoking (which she refused to do).

I immediately drove back home--a total of 1,1000 miles--only to find my mother and sister sitting in the living room in a cloud of smoke, watching TV. My mother barely acknowledged my homecoming she was so enthralled with her show. A little irritated, I asked her to step outside to talk and she did so reluctantly. As I explained how concerned I was about her situation, she grew very huffy and lit a cigarette.

"You make me nervous," she said. "I have to smoke."

As you can see, she was quite a challenging person to deal with, and we had many conflicts--some so bitter we didn't speak to each other for months.

During this crisis, my heart softened and I felt an urgent need to learn how to get along with my mother. It was literally a life-and-death matter. I prayed for help, and God answered my prayer. I was led to the Quaker Meeting in Princeton and Friends proved enormously helpful. Through the practice of silent worship, I learned how to be more patient and how to be a more compassionate listening.

I also sought help from my father, who had died 15 years before, when I was just graduating from college. My father had never argued with my mother. They got along beautifully. And I wanted to know how he managed to do it. So one day I looked at his picture and asked him for help.

"Please help me to figure out how to get along with that woman!" I said with some exasperation.

Immediately, I felt a surge of energy and the hairs on the back of my head stood up. I knew my father was present and my prayer for help had been answered.

From that point on, I knew what to say and how to act with my mother so I wouldn't push her buttons, and she wouldn't push mine. She lived another seven years and we never quarrelled once.

Another manifestation of my father's ongoing presence in my life after his death was this dream, which I turned into a poem called "The Dream Dance." It is not uncommon for our loved ones to come to us in dreams, often to give us insight and help. This happened to my wife six months before she died. Her dead uncle came to her in a dream, revealing himself as a radiant being of life and light. But that's another story I will share at another time.

What canst thou say, my friends? Have you had close encounters with departed loved ones? How did these encounters change your life?

(For my mother)

For years, it was the same dream,
and always the same ending:
Father is alive, and we are talking,
finally talking, man to man, no longer father and son;
We walk back to the garden and inspect the vegetables,
children of the same earth.
The sun is setting,
the light soft and pale as Hymettan honey.
At last I realize he's dead,
and it's all a dream. I wake up inconsolable.

For years this dream came and went,
until one day I sensed the time had come
to share it with my mother. Tears came to her eyes.
She understood. The dream had done its work.

This fall another dream arrived: we're dancing, the three of us,
mother, father and I--dancing a Greek dance,
nothing between us
but a white handkerchief. I wake up happy.

Father in heaven, and in my heart,
who weaves these dreams that we must humbly live?

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