Early this morning (August 15, 2009) I had a dream in which I was standing outside a building, like an officer’s club on a small military base. It felt like I was in Florida or somewhere else where the winters are mild. There may have been palm trees, but I’m not sure. What I do remember is that I stood outside the building, with tables and chairs all around me, as if this were a place where people can gather and share a meal. Perhaps there were a few others milling about; again, I don’t recall for sure, because what I was about to see took all of my attention. I saw, walking out of the building and toward me, a couple, holding each other arm in arm. They looked to be in their early seventies. He was in full officer’s dress, and looked quite smart, even for his age. She, however, was head to toe in white.
It was Mom and Dad.
For those who are reading this and do not know, my Mom died at 83 following a stroke and a battle with vascular dementia. It’s been two and a half years since she passed, and my Dad, now 86, is in a nursing home, ravaged with Parkinson’s disease and Parkinson’s-related dementia, which has left him confused and his frail body confined to a wheelchair. Thankfully, he always seems to be in a good mood when I visit him, and everyone who knows him marvels at his serenity in the midst of such a debilitating illness.
Back to my dream, where Mom and Dad seemed to be as they were some 15 or so years before Mom’s death, retirees but strong and vigorous. Mom had padding on one knee, perhaps a playful twist from my subconscious, as the last Christmas I saw her before her stroke she had an injured knee and was walking with a cane. But other than that, they both looked great.
They came up to me, and swept me into a three-way hug. I was filled with joy not only at how good they looked, but at their obvious love for each other and for me.
Mom kissed me and said something like, “Oh, Carl, it’s so good to see you!”
I pulled a little back so I could cherish the delicious joy of seeing her. I said, “Well, Mom, it’s good to see you.” And then, acknowledging that this was a lucid dream, I said, “You’ve shown up in my dream!”
Dad was silent, but smiling. We continued to hold each other, the three of us. I jerked my head in his direction, still looking at my mother, and I said, “Mom, when are you going to talk Dad into coming to be with you?”
She answered me with a confident and serene voice, so unlike her rather childish singsong that became her trademark as dementia had taken its toll on her. “I know, honey. He’ll come when he’s ready.”
Dad interjected, “Son, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
I turned to look at him, and yes, he did look fine, dashing almost in his officer’s uniform.
“But Dad, I don’t like watching you suffer.” No point in being anything but honest here.
“It’s okay, really.” He looked me square in the eye as he said this, and his eyes were dancing with light.
“But, Dad —”
“Look,” he said, cutting me off. “I’m never going to go his way.”
That’s when the dream faded.
I woke up, feeling happy about seeing Mom and seeing Dad look so well. His confident, almost brash way of speaking struck me as the voice of a young guy in the military, so even though he looked like he was in his seventies, I wondered if I wasn’t seeing a glimpse of how he talked when he was in his twenties, when he first met Mom at the end of World War II.
One thing puzzled me. What did he mean by his final statement to me? Who was Dad referring to when he talked about “his way”? Did this pronoun refer to Christ? The Devil? Some other figure? Alas, the dream was too far gone, and I could only rely on my intuition — which suggested to me that no matter who “he” is, “his way” is the way of an unnatural death. It was as if Dad were saying, “Yes, I know it’s hard to see me decline, but hang in there, son. This isn’t a problem that needs to be ‘solved.’ Let nature take her course.”
I know that the months to come will be quite difficult, as Dad does nothing but continue to waste away. However, I think this dream may have given me a new perspective on how to be present with Dad as he takes the final steps of his life’s journey. Let me make a confession: I have been praying for God to take him, if only to alleviate his suffering. I know Dad’s health or mental clarity are not going to get any better, and it seemed to me a kindness to let God know that I am ready to let Dad go, so he could go be with Mom and be free of his failing, Parkinson’s-deformed body.
But if there is any kind of deep, transpersonal truth to my dream, then perhaps I should consider that Dad is far more content with his situation than I am — and that, spiritually speaking, everything is pretty much right where it needs to be, which means I really don’t have to fret over it.
As a student of both the Catholic tradition in general and the teaching of Richard Rohr in particular, I believe that our human suffering doesn’t have to be absurd; it can be redemptive — if embraced within a larger vision of faith, hope and love. When accepted in this way, suffering can even facilitate transformation into higher levels of consciousness. This, frankly, is what keeps me and Fran going as we continue to love and serve Rhiannon, in her profound suffering (and in our suffering as her parents, powerless to take away her illness or her pain). For those who don’t know Rhiannon’s story: she has congenital kidney and liver disease, and is herself the survivor of a stroke she suffered when only three years old. Now 24, she is partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Along with her complex physical disabilities, she is moderately intellectually disabled, functioning with the cognitive skills of a child. Her organs are slowly failing her, and it seems likely that her mother and I will be whispering “Bon voyage” to her some day in the not-too-distant future as she goes to join the grandmothers she loves — ahead of her parents.
In the morning afterglow of my dream, I realize now that I have made a pretty big assumption about suffering and the spiritual role it can play in our lives. I’ve assumed that suffering is redemptive/transformative only if embraced in a fully conscious way. In other words, I’ve had this hidden notion that you’ve got to understand what’s going on when you suffer, in order for your suffering to be “offered up” to God. Because of this hidden bias, I haven’t seen my Dad’s suffering as potentially transformational, because his understanding has been compromised by the dark cloud of Parkinson’s-related dementia. If he’s no longer even sure of who I am, how can his suffering be anything but meaningless?
But thanks to my dream, now I’m beginning to think that there was a flaw in my reasoning. After all, don’t the great mystics teach us that we all labor under the cloud of unknowing? In other words, even when we are at our peak of cognitive ability, we don’t really know what’s going on. My Dad’s dementia-confounded mind is really, from God’s point of view, not that much more handicapped than the mind of a fully alert, fully functioning, highly educated human being (like me).
If Dad, even in his profoundly compromised health, might still be undergoing (at a very deep level, to be sure) some sort of transformation in his soul, thanks to his final suffering, then who the hell am I to waste time believing it’s such a horrible thing, or to ask God to short-circuit it? Please understand, I am NOT suggesting that we go about making a fetish out of suffering. I don’t believe that every minute we suffer on earth is one less minute in purgatory, or that suffering magically burns away bad karma, or any other such horrible idea that reduces pain to some sort of heavenly bargaining chip. Likewise, I continue to believe that we are always called to humanely and lovingly work to alleviate suffering — whether our own pain or the suffering of others, including the elderly and anyone who is chronically ill, like Rhiannon. The mystery of suffering is never about glorifying suffering for its own sake, but acknowledging that, in the Divine Economy, even the most apparently meaningless suffering might be a means by which we can experience redemptive love and transforming grace. And my dream suggests that this holds true even for Dad in his dementia.
And even for Rhiannon, in her end-stage kidney and liver disease.
As I write these words, I feel at peace. It will still break my heart when I next see Dad, hunched over in his wheelchair and mumbling incoherently, in all probability smiling vacantly at me because he doesn’t really know who I am. But maybe I’ll see behind the smile the promise of that future when he will walk again, with the lady in white at his side.
Likewise, I don’t relish the continued pain and suffering that Rhiannon is certain to encounter in the months and years to come. But maybe my dream about my parents is really a dream about how I can be a better parent to Rhiannon, following the example of my dream-encounter with parents who are peaceful and accepting of life’s mystery, both joyous and difficult. Perhaps this dream can help me to be loving without getting lost in my own agendas for Rhiannon. If I can keep in mind that, even in her intellectual disability and inability to understand the finer points of mystical theology, she nevertheless could be experiencing miracles of transformation deep within her, then I just might be able to walk alongside her without fear or undue pain of my own. Perhaps I can see that even she, way deep down inside, would assure me that “It’s okay, really.”
Postscript, January 2013: Dad finally left to be with Mom on January 15, 2013: forty-one months to the day after this dream. In those long months, his cognitive skills continued to decline, and visits with him became increasingly shaped by the fog of dementia, by his inability to answer even the simplest questions. But he never lost his smile — whether a smile of recognition, or simply delight at having visitors, even if he couldn’t quite place who we were. And even to the end, his caregivers found him to be a delightful, charming resident in the nursing home where he lived. His final suffering, mercifully, lasted only a few days. He passed away five months to the day before his 90th birthday, and quite close to the sixth anniversary of my Mom’s passing. Now, at long last, he truly does walk arm in arm with the lady in white.