The three terrible things I learned from a dream glimpsing the afterlife were not, at first, obvious.
I woke up hard this morning.
As in, I’d gone so far away I wasn’t sure I’d returned.
I lay in bed for a long time not sure I was awake, and then I lifted my hands up and looked at them closely, like I do every morning, to make sure I came back into the same body. Yes, those are the bitten nails I remember. The sesame-seed freckles, the red spot I suspect is the beginning of yet another skin cancer, the square shape. I, of all my sisters, inherited hands from our father, with deft, blunt fingers and a meaty, muscular palm. Little man-hands I’ve come to appreciate for all they can do.
Writer’s hands. A mother’s hands. Capable hands.
I went so far away last night. I remember parts the dream: walking in the sandy loam of a citrus grove somewhere that looks a lot like Southern California, toward a gracious white house I somehow know should have been my inheritance, but isn’t.
My brother-in-law’s father, a big bluff tugboat captain in real life, dead now twenty years, walks up to me in a pair of denim overalls, holding a rake. I’m shocked to see him.
A) because I know he’s dead, and B) because he’s not someone I ever met more than a couple of times so long ago.
I can see him so clearly: tall, slope-shouldered, with a bigger head than usual, jowly with a thinning crown, large brown eyes with pouches of ill-health beneath them.
“I’m sorry, Toby,” he says. “The economy took the place in a poker game.”
I want to protest this, but I don’t. Instead I keep walking down the dry rows of trees, smelling their sharp, delicious scent: the grapefruit smell sweetest. Oranges, so bright they look fake, hang like Christmas balls among dark, glossy leaves. Neon-yellow lemons look like plastic but when I pinch them with a fingernail, the smell opens my nose.
I’m aware I’m in a dream, and mystified by the incredible scents of the trees. I wonder why I’m here and where this is.
I get to the house by walking down a gracious drive in that pea-gravel that ruins good shoes. Inside, people from my extended family are there, and I hear raised voices. I see both sets of my grandparents through the big front window: Geegee and Grandpa Jim on one couch, Maga and Grampa Garth on the other.
That these four people are even in the same room together at all is incredibly jarring. I know they despise each other. They’re disagreeing loudly about the coming November election, because Grandpa Jim, Republican and a proudly self-made millionaire back when that meant something, hates Obama and Maga, my mom’s mom who went to Berkeley in the fifties and is stridently liberal, thinks he’s the next FDR.
I hear my aunt’s voice and spot her, tall and imposing, in the doorway. She always had a booming voice, deeper than most women and resonant, as if she should have been an opera singer.
“Whatever happens, they can’t kick us out,” she says. “We have squatter’s rights.”
Everyone in that living room is dead.
I realize that somehow I’ve wandered into heaven and it’s a place where people are still who they were in life, politics are undecided and living situations are uncertain.
But at least some things are glorious, like the fruit on the trees.
I re-orient myself when I finally get out of there, because, though I can’t remember the rest of the dream, I have a sense of having escaped after a long and arduous journey.
First, my hands up in front of my face, blurry because I don’t have my glasses on. Yep, the same hands I’ve learned to love. I get up, put my glasses on, and make the bed right away. I’ve always been someone who did that.
Turn on the kettle for tea.
Brush my teeth and put on my contacts.
Let the dogs out of their beds in the laundry room.
Turn on the hose and water my roses, which are fighting a little powdery mildew this late in the season.
These habitual tasks comfort me and I decide this, not that, is the real world.
I wonder about Heaven, and what the heck it’s going to be like. That wasn’t the heaven I was hoping for, that’s for sure.
I am a Christian by choice and inclination. I am also a therapist and I do some dream work in my practice. In Jungian dreamwork, every figure in the dream is an aspect of self, and symbolic of some issue being worked out. But this dream was peopled entirely by very solid, loud, smelly ghosts whom I’ve known and loved to various degrees, and it’s given me pause. I don’t feel like I can dismiss it so easily, and I wonder why I glimpsed an inheritance that’s been taken for stakes in a heavenly poker game, and dead relatives who haven’t changed one iota from their corporeal selves and are forced to live together.
Maybe where I visited wasn’t heaven. It was hell.
Now there’s a freaky thought.
I need another cup of tea. Or ten.
I think I have to dismiss the dream as symbolic, after all, and the result of watching that really bad Russell Crowe movie, Noah, last night. Now that was a really terrible movie. Clearly my psyche couldn’t cope.
Here are the three things I learned:
1) Heaven (or hell) is not going to be what we expect.
2) It behooves us to live fully now, and work on our character traits while we’re at it. We might be stuck with ourselves forever.
3) Read reviews before you watch Biblical movies and avoid them if they’re going to mess with your head.