Both of my parents have died this year: my mother in April, my father in October. Although I think of them every day and recognize so much of them in myself (they’re in my blood, of course)—still, they are gone. I have been changed by their absence. I am being transformed by the increasing awareness of what it really means to live a full lifetime, touch the lives of others, and eventually die. I guess I’m growing into my new place: the place that they left open for me.
Along with others of my generation, I find that bearing witness to the deaths of my parents means not only grieving, but opening up to a larger perspective. This perspective goes beyond Mom and Dad as parents, beyond Shirley and Phil as individuals, to include the open-ended questions that defined them, define me, define all of us as living (and dying) beings… In the words of Gauguin’s famous painting: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? [D’où Venons Nous/ Que Sommes Nous/ Où Allons Nous].
Exploring these questions is part of maturing, aging, and preparing for our own deaths. It can be well underway before the deaths of our parents, but the passing of the generation before us marks a turning point—and saying good-bye to those we love in the previous generation makes this universal, archetypal turning point intensely personal.
Dreams are at home on the muddy, shifting soil of that fertile delta where the river of personal experience splits into rivulets and flows into the universal vastness of the open sea. So, as I say good-bye to my parents and ponder my own mortality, I find guidance in dreams. Such dreams ask more questions than they answer. This is as it should be.
In this post and the next, I’d like to explore two significant dreams that helped prepare me for the deaths of my parents.
[Note: I shared a shorter version of this dream in my presentation for the PsiberDreaming Conference a few weeks before my father’s death: see “Dreaming and Daring.” The dream was also mentioned in two posts last summer: “After the Nightmare,” and “Game Over.” Clearly, this dream has “blown me away” on a lot of levels, and I’m still in the midst of absorbing its impact and integrating its wisdom.]
A few months before my mother’s death, and many months before my father’s death, I dreamed:
Death of Dream Seal: I’m visiting Mom in the hospital. To get to her, I pass through long corridors, and through a crowded room where a frail, elderly man is dying. I move past his bed, into the inner room, where Mom is supposed to be. When I arrive at her bedside, I find she’s a magnificent otter—with gold highlights in her glossy coat. After a moment’s hesitation, I accept this, telling her how beautiful and precious she is as I stroke her long back.
Now, the otter has become a seal, and the seal is Dad instead of Mom, and I accept this, too. I notice there is blood on my hand. Dad, the seal, is bleeding from a wound in his back. I shout for help while I try to stop the blood. There is more and more blood, too much blood. It is sticky on my hands, soaking into my shirt. The seal is vomiting blood and writhing in pain. I struggle to keep him alive. Finally, understanding that he is going to die, I tell him, “I love you, Dad, I love you.” A doctor (a “resident”) bursts into the room, but instead of helping, he brings a shotgun. I try to stop him, but he shoots the seal—several loud shocking bangs! Someone is setting off fireworks to cover the sound of the shots. I wake overwhelmed with emotion.
In the moment of awakening, this dream seemed like a nightmare. A voice in my head was shouting, “No! No! No!” and at the same time a softer voice, deeper down, was repeating, “I love you, Dad, I love you.” That doctor (or “resident” healer within me) brought a shocking form of medicine. The fireworks felt horribly ironic—a dazzling starburst of celebration in response to an awful tragedy.
Yet, once my heartbeat had begun to slow to normal, the strongest emotion was overwhelming love and gratitude for my mother (that shining, astonishing otter!) and my father (that ungainly, graceful seal!)… How incredible to encounter them in this way!
The final, violent death of the dream seal took place off-stage, but the blood was everywhere in my imagination. I’d tried to hold it back, but couldn’t stop it. I could still feel the warmth and slippery stickiness of blood on my hands. It was life blood. It came from a wound in the back—perhaps in the past, or in a part of the self that is intimate but unreachable—a seemingly insignificant injury that led to a total outflowing, a total letting go. It was no longer the blood of one seal, but the blood of my whole family. It couldn’t be contained, or confined.
Over the next weeks, I returned to this dream again and again, touching it gingerly, as if cleaning an open wound with a soft cloth, wincing at the pain of it. Yet, there was beauty in this dream, along with pain. Both otters and seals are creatures that inhabit land and sea equally. Both are awkward on shore and glorious in the water. Both seem to revel in their lives, playing in the waves or basking in the sun. And seals, especially, have always been associated with shape-shifting in myths from all over the world. It was wonderful to know that my parents could be such creatures.
The Celts named shape-shifting seals Selkies. There’s one Selkie story I remember in particular: On midsummer’s eve, all the beautiful Selkies come ashore, take off their seal-skins and dance—naked and human—in the moonlight. They do not see that there’s someone hiding on the beach to watch them dance. When one Selkie goes off alone, enjoying her human form apart from the rest, she encounters the human being who was hiding, watching—and they fall in love. They cannot bear to be apart. So she chooses the human world, where she marries, has children, and lives a full human life with her beloved family. But eventually, the Selkie longs for her true home. She finds her sealskin, puts it on, and returns to the sea, leaving her loved ones behind…
This is the way our story goes. In some sense, I believe, we are all radiant, wild and utterly free beings who have chosen to live human lives in human bodies—to love and be loved. Yet, ultimately, we return to the infinite ocean where we belong.
I knew, when I dreamed this dream, that my parents would die soon. I’d known it all along, of course, but with the dream I felt the truth of it, and the beauty of it, as well as the grief.
In order to get to my mother’s hospital room in the dream, I have to pass a deathbed and bear witness to the reality of death. Then, I enter a fairy tale (my mother’s an otter! my father’s a seal!) where I am repeatedly called upon to accept, and accept again, the unpredictable changeable nature of those I hold most dear.
I accept my mother as she truly is; I accept my father as he truly is. I accept the rushing life-blood that can’t be held back. Finally, I even accept the shocking medicine and the painful celebration of our precious and fragile mortal lives. I celebrate our transformations, and the beauty of the dream we are living out together.
The big questions cannot be answered. But such questions do invite us to respond, again and again, in different ways at different times in our lives.
In my dreams, I am responding:
Where do we come from? A living ocean, constantly moving, in moonlight... What are we? Shape-shifters, swimmers, beloved dreamers… Where are we going? Back to the depths, into the infinite…