My dad died when I was 18 years old. I was in the first semester of my freshman year in college. I lived off-campus in a 2-bedroom apartment with 3 other young women, fresh out of high school. My dad’s death was sudden. The events that prevented me from having any warning were incredibly synchronistic.
It just so happened that my mom and stepfather decided to take a vacation in November that made a big loop around Wisconsin and ended up in Eau Claire, where I went to school. They had been gone for a week and came to visit me on a Thursday night. On Friday, my mom had attended some classes with me, which was great fun. I loved showing her what I was doing, and she loved being back in the learning environment. After my classes were over for the day, my stepfather drove us the 4 ½ hours back home, where I would relax and visit for the weekend. We had planned that I would take a bus back.
I found out later that the university had my phone number wrong by one digit. So while my mom and stepfather were on vacation (no cellphones in those days) my sister was frantically trying to get a hold of any of us. The school had my number wrong, and she didn’t know where my parents were.
We arrived home Friday night about 8:00PM, and hadn’t even made it through the door when the phone rang. “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all week! Where have you been?!” my sister cried. My mom replied they had been on vacation and asked why she was so upset.
She explained that Dad had been in the hospital since Monday - he had coughed so hard, his esophagus broke. My dad had been a chain smoker ever since I can remember. They flew in a specialist and he was able to stabilize him. He slowly improved. Then Friday afternoon my dad went nuts. He got tired of the hospital. He wanted to go home. I suspect it’s because they don’t allow drinking in the hospital. He had been a recovered alcoholic for 14 years. I noticed he started drinking again in July at his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, but he may have started before that. My sister said that he ripped out all of his IVs and damaged the stability from the surgeon’s work. At that very moment, he was back in surgery and they weren’t sure he was going to make it.
I immediately wanted to go to the hospital. I didn’t have a car, and my mom convinced me that it wouldn’t do any good. We could go visit him in the morning.
On Saturday morning I woke up with my mom at my bedside, telling me my dad had passed away. The next couple of days were a gray blur and on Monday afternoon, I was walking into the funeral home staring at my dad’s body. Wednesday morning my mom drove me back to school and dropped me off in time to go to my 1:00 class. She was of the mindset that one needs to keep moving and carrying on before sadness can take over. I walked in a daze. I was still in shock, so my emotions were on hold. I had no idea what to think, feel, eat, or say. I went to bed that night earlier than the rest of my roommates. I was exhausted and numb. The next morning they told me they heard me screaming at the top of my lungs. No one came in to check in on me; they were too frightened. (Thank God no one had come through the window and attacked me, I would have been out of luck on the friend department.)
I had a nightmare that made me scream at the top of my lungs and I didn’t wake up from it? I don’t remember that ever happening to me. I thought that if I knew what I was dreaming about, it might give me some insight into how I felt about my dad and his passing. It seemed like the best place to start.
So I set up my little portable cassette player next to my bed, and every morning quietly recorded the fractions of memories I had of my dreams before I got up. Later I turned to notebooks, since it was too irritating to hear my half-asleep voice tell about some bits and pieces of nonsense. After awhile I dropped the notebooks, and mentally ran down everything I could remember about my dreams. By my senior year, I could recall 4-6 dreams each night. The only problem was, I had no way to interpret them. So there was no sense of release or understanding accomplished. Remember, this was before the internet, and answers to questions and finding people who could help, were a lot harder to find in those days.
A couple of years after graduation it got intense. The dreams were vivid and felt more real. Some were normal day-to-day tasks, and some were in places you don’t ever want to be. I started to think things happened that hadn’t happened. For instance, in real life, I was having a problem with my car. Once in a while, it would suddenly jerk to the right and pull the steering wheel. It was very intermittent, but it got so bad once, that it jerked me about 4 feet. Fortunately it pulled me into the side of the road in the gravel and didn’t cause damage to another car. I dreamed that I got it fixed. I was shocked that it was still doing it. That’s when I noticed that my dreams and my every day life were beginning to blur into one. This wasn’t good.
I was getting more and more exhausted. And I was less and less interested in going to sleep. It hit a peak when I found myself sitting on my pillow, curled up with my knees around my arms rocking back and forth, saying, “I don’t want to go into that world, anymore. Please help me, God. I don’t want to do this. I never want to go to sleep again, and I know that’s not possible. Please help me.” I was terrified. Even though I was sleeping, I felt like I hadn’t had rest in weeks. And the waking world was a lot easier to handle than the unpredictable world of dreams.
An answer came to me that I would never have thought of on my own. “Call your mom.” She lived an hour away, and I rarely called her for anything. (You’ll understand why the more you get to know me.) I felt like I was at my last strand of hope and had no idea what else to do, so I called her. I explained to her my situation between my tears and terror, and she asked me if I thought I’d be able to drive safely to her house without falling asleep. It was about 1:00 in the morning. I told her I could easily make it, there was no chance I would fall asleep while driving. I was pretty worked up. She said she would make me a bed on the couch in the spare bedroom and leave the door open. Then we could figure out what to do in the morning.
The idea of a plan was enough for me in the moment to move forward. I gladly drove the car the hour-long distance just to keep myself occupied. I arrived to a dark and sleepy house, and the change of environment and calming drive made it easier to succumb to the much-needed rest.
I slept late, and at some point my mom came in the room to check on me. I let her know how grateful I was for her help, and that I had actually slept well. She told me she found a local therapist who specialized in dream interpretation and asked if I’d like an appointment with him. This was in a town of 5,000 people. I couldn’t believe that she already had a plan in place and found someone before I even woke up. I was not only willing but looked forward to it. I wanted to know what my dreams meant for the past 6 years, and now I was also going to have my waking life and dream life separated and functional again.
The first appointment with the therapist was not what I had expected, but was incredibly revealing. I’ll fill you in on what happened in my blog next week.