Copyright 2016 Richard Hopkins Squires
Apparition in a Dream
Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look
Not long ago I asked my mother what kind of child I’d been. Thinking back, her eyes brightened, and she laughed, “You were a happy child,” she said. Although I’m sure that’s true, it’s the opposite of my memories, which all begin on the afternoon before my twelfth birthday, when I rode home on my bicycle to find out that my father was dying.
It was a bright, cold, windless Saturday. I’d prepared the work for Safety merit badge, which brought my total to five and made me a Star Boy Scout. As I was leaving that morning to ride to the counselor’s house a few miles away, the word come that they were operating on Dad, which sent a shock wave through the family. It was his second operation in six months, but I figured they knew what they were doing. “You’re not still going, are you?,” my older sister Judy said as I headed out the door. “Why shouldn’t I?,” I said petulantly. I’d practically forgotten about the operation by the time I left the counselor’s house, my success excited me so much. I raced back home to bask in the glory of it with my family.
I opened the door to find my two older sisters weeping uncontrollably.
“What are we going to do? What are we going to do?”, my oldest sister Becky cried repeatedly. I looked to Judy for an explanation.
“Daddy’s dying,” she wailed through her tears. My bewildered six-year-old brother stood to one side and poked a toe at my youngest sister, crawling on the floor in diapers, while my mother, with a beatific continence that she somehow maintained all day, did what she could to comfort her fatherless children. It was straight out of Dostoyevsky.
Late that night, long after everyone had gone to bed, I woke to hear Mom crying in the living room. Not having the heart to leave her alone in such a state, I mutely presented myself to her in my pajamas. It seemed to work; she cried on my shoulder for a while and then recovered. I’d never seen her cry before, and found it frightening. “I guess you’re the man of the family now,” she said. The words scared me silly.
Just thirty-eight years old, Dad had been hospitalized for six months, as a growing team of doctors tinkered away, attempting to correct their previous mistakes. He’d been given oral doses of cortisone to relieve the pain of his arthritis, and the cortisone had masked the symptoms of a developing case of diverticulitis, a common infection of the large intestine, until it got out of hand, ran up complications, and finally poisoned his blood and killed him. He wrote down a ditty in his final days, which he recited to my mother:
It is ever so strange
The doctors exclaimed
As they hammered his coffin of wood.
That a man could succumb--
While he’s under our thumb--
With his vital signs looking so good?
The morning after his death the house filled up with neighbors, family, friends, and food, lots and lots of food. The word got around that it was my birthday, and by the afternoon the house was full of presents too, which I received with a mixture of happiness and calculation: although it didn’t seem right to profit from Dad’s death in this way, it hardly seemed fair to ruin my birthday. The raw ambivalence gnawed on me.
Then came the ordeal of the viewing. Mom wanted to spare the kids the shock of viewing Dad’s corpse, but she was overruled by our grandmother, Mama Lou, and no doubt the funeral director, who thought we should have a final look to remember him by. So all of us except the two youngest dressed up and drove to the funeral parlor, where a crowd was gathered around the open coffin in a viewing room decorated like a motel lobby, overseen by a couple of black-suited undertakers. I hung back by the doorway until Mama Lou pushed me forward through the crowd. I looked inside the coffin and saw the waxy, painted mannequin they’d made of Dad, with his garish, gelatinous skin and a sheen of plastic coating on his hair. It looked nothing like him. He seemed to have vanished, leaving a carapace behind. It made me worried and confused.
We never had a chance to say goodbye. He was home one day, in the hospital the next, and six months later dead. They sent him home just once, about four months into his
ordeal, presumably thinking he was on the mend. This proved to be a mistake from a medical point of view, and a disaster for the family. He was forced to use a colostomy bag, which meant he had to sleep in the den, in
the middle of the house with the television set, because it had a bathroom next to it. He was exhausted, irritated, frightened, and repulsive. He got into a fight with Becky over the television, and the rest of us took her side, enduring his presence with resentment. After five or six days he returned to the hospital without saying goodbye.
The funeral was large, held in the church in Alexandria that we attended sporadically as a family. Dad had been an editor for the Salt Lake Tribune; we’d come to Virginia seven years before when a congressman from Utah made him his chief of staff. A senator delivered the eulogy with an air of distracted sanctimony that suggested he hardly knew Dad. The minister was in the same boat. Having no knowledge of the man, they fell back on family history and talked about his great grandfather, who pushed a hand cart through the Great Plains and over the Rockies with the first of his five wives and their two children, one of them my great grandfather, Walter Fell Squires. Walter wrote an account of that first winter in Salt Lake City, where they lived in a dirt-floored carpentry shed, with roots to eat at the beginning of the winter, but only bark by the end.
This was interesting stuff, but had nothing to do with Dad, a rebellious, witty, hard drinking Jack Mormon, with four painters and a poet in his family, who thought himself a Communist when he met my mother at Berkeley, (whose ancestors arrived in Massachusetts with the Winthrop party of 1640, fought as Tories in the Revolution, converted to Mormonism in the early days of the church, and were members of the scouting party that found the promised land of the Great Salt Lake in 1846.) Dad had lots of interesting friends who would have had plenty to say about him, who sometimes called him Cassius, the man who murdered Caesar. We endured this clumsy spectacle instead, and lost their memories of him.
The cemetery was just across the street; it was another cold, still, sunny day. Six of Dad’s friends carried the coffin from the hearse and placed it on a pair of straps stretched over the grave on winches. The minister gave a short reading and we said the Lord’s Prayer. Then to everyone’s surprise he turned to my mother and asked if she wanted them to lower the coffin into the grave. Beside herself in grief, she shook her head to say “No”. He nodded kindly, and the whole crowd filed away, leaving the job unfinished, as it were, with Dad in the coffin floating awkwardly over his tomb.
There was a wake at home, but my memory is hopelessly muddled with the soirees that preceded the funeral. Dad had been president of the local civic association, which made his death a community event. I remember the smell of the ladies’ powder and perfume, and the smooth touch of their dresses as they brushed by. And the dread comments, too:
“I guess you’re the man of the family, now.” What could I say to that? I took to staring mutely at the stomach of anyone who said it.
“My god, you look so much like your dad.” This was true; in photographs taken at the same age you couldn’t tell the two of us apart.
Knowing that we didn’t have insurance, Dad’s friend Bill Graves, an editor at the National Geographic, paid for the funeral. It was supposed to be anonymous, but the undertaker spilled the beans. The relatives went back home and the neighbors stopped coming around.
We lapsed into a stunned collective silence. In the last six months he’d been gone to the
hospital; now he was gone for good. Gone for good. There was nothing to hold on to, just emptiness.
Then the dreams began, or visions. A couple of weeks after the funeral, I was fast asleep in
the dead of the night when Dad suddenly appeared before my startled eyes, as vibrant as
ever in life.
“Dad, what are you…” He seemed to be happy, and composed. “You’re supposed to be...”
“No, no, that was just a mistake; I never died.”
“Yes, I’ll be back in a while.”
“You’ll be back!”
“Yes, I’m coming back. Just need a bit more time over here.”
These encounters were so vivid that when I woke the next morning I couldn’t be sure he was actually dead. In one world he still lived, in the other he was dead, and my mind partook of both of them. After twenty minutes of confusion I’d have to abandon the vision of him as living by an act of will. I’d give my head a shake, enter the kitchen in a slowly lifting state of uncertainty, gauge the attitude of my mother and sisters as they went about their morning routines, and eat breakfast with my nose in the Cheerios.
He appeared this way a half dozen times over the next two months, patiently explaining that everything was fine, that he wasn’t really dead, that he was sorry he’d gone away, and he was coming back. He gave an impression of healthy vitality. He pledged to make amends on his return.
Then after a time he stopped coming. I don’t know if I was glad for that or not. It seemed to suggest that he’d found somewhere else to go, but I didn’t want him to be gone for good. When we visited the cemetery a few months later, fresh spring grass was sprouting from the ground, but the earth over Dad’s grave, and his alone, was sunken two or three inches below the surface. I found this alarming: perhaps there was a problem in his tomb. Had the coffin broken from the weight above it, and let the dirt fall in? Would this have happened if we’d seen the burial through? Twenty years later, the turf over his grave remained anomalously sunken.
"The word got around that it was my birthday, and by the afternoon the house was full of presents too, which I received with a mixture of happiness and calculation: although it didn’t seem right to profit from Dad’s death in this way, it hardly seemed fair to ruin my birthday. The raw ambivalence gnawed on me."
What is a Dream?
Looking back after more than 50 years, the critical effect of this dream on my life is quite clear. All of the painfully assimilated facts that I dealt with in the daytime—the weeping, the neighbors, the relatives, the food, the funeral, the burial, and the wake—pointed to the clear and final obliteration of my father’s existence. But at night while sleeping all those facts were themselves obliterated by encounters with Dad that were so vivid that I couldn’t be sure that they were dreams upon awakening. He was demonstrably alive in one world, while very much dead in the other. And both these worlds were parked together in my mind.
The clashing realities tormented me, and I fell into a cloud of confusion. Then one morning over the breakfast table when I found the two of us alone, I plaintively mentioned the dreams to my mother. With her practical, pragmatic cast of mind, she quietly assured me.
“Don’t worry, Ricky. It’s just a dream.”
Those words set me on a course, I think, that ultimately led to the suppression of the visitations. It settled my mind. But now I wonder: what if she had answered differently? What if she had said, “Of course, how fortunate! You had a dream! You saw him with your eyes; you heard him with your ears! He’s on another plane, but clearly you can visit him. Make the most of it. Tell your Dad we love him. Ask him what it’s like up there.”
If that sounds naive to modern ears, it’s nonetheless the way that most of humanity, throughout most of our span on earth, have understood such visionary dreams. Many millions of people have seen lost parents, children, and lovers much the way that I did, alive as ever in their lifetimes, giving reassurance that they haven’t died at all. And for many of these dreamers, as for me, these encounters with their loved one must have ranked among the most vivid events of their lives. The emotional power of such events—think of Jesus presenting himself to his followers three days after his death—can literally found religions. Meeting a departed soul in such encounters, you might well wonder if death was an illusion, an error born of ignorance. After all, that’s what Dad himself had said to me.
Or was the illusion—as my mother so kindly suggested—rather the dream itself?
Which plane seemed more true, the dream or the ‘reality’? They both seemed equally convincing. It just depended on whether I was awake, or asleep and dreaming. I veered between the two as best I could: but why should life present me with these two conflicting realities, one manifesting in daylight, the other one during the night?
Dreams are one of those funny things that take place completely in the mind. They’re completely subjective experiences; there’s no way to check them objectively. And I had the dream in an era when, to paraphrase the positivists, phenomena that could not be verified objectively had to be ignored. That the dream sprang from the very roots of consciousness, its very source, was immaterial. It was better to suppress it.
That wasn’t a question I was able to handle, much less ask, at the age of twelve. Needing a pathway out of the pain, I accepted the consensus as articulated by my mother and reckoned that the dreams took place inside my head. This consensus, springing largely from Freud, held that a dream like mine would spring from a young boy’s obvious desire to overturn reality and revive a beloved dead father. My emotional center in the limbic brain filed its claim, the neurons fired in response, and my brain produced a dream to… what? Balance pain of loss with fleeting joy, and in this neurotically short-sighted way attempt to re-establish equilibrium? Inject my recent memories with a massive dose of unreality to make me feel a bit better for a moment? Those who study dreams objectively generally have a hard time making sense of them.
The truth is that we don’t know much about dreams, even today. There are many contending theories, none of them preeminent. We don’t know where they originate, or why, or what purpose—if any—they serve. But we do know that we’re not alone in our nightly descent into phantasmagoria. All mammals dream, just like humans, and many birds do too. This seems highly significant to me. If my dog and cat are dreaming too, along with the deer and the foxes, the bears,
the wolves, the horses and the hummingbirds—if every warm brain in the world is dreaming the night away—you would think that there must be some reason for it. And that reason, once found, would unite us all. It could hardly be mere coincidence that we all share this bizarre condition.
Here’s another issue with the idea that my dream originated in my head. My brain is adept at coordinating my senses and the information they provide. But that’s completely different from the epochal creation of reality in visionary dreams. The assumption that my mind can switch from monitoring phenomena in the daytime to generating phenomena at night is a curious supposition that warrants some review. Is the brain both an organ of perception and creation? Why should it make sense for my mind to change from a cameraman and sound recorder in the daytime to a full-fledged reality production house and movie screening theatre at night?
It might be more reasonable to assume that I only monitor phenomena while dreaming, as I do when awake. During waking hours I perceive various kinds of energy, delivered to my brain through the senses, and use that information to construct an image of the outside world inside my mind. If my mind continues to be a monitor of reality while sleeping, then this system would remain intact, and dreams would originate beyond the confines of my head, just as waking reality does.
It’s true that I know neither the source of that dream energy nor the receivers in my brain that capture it. But there are lots of things I don’t know. My understanding of electromagnetism and gravity is rudimentary, but I’ve learned to work with gravitational and electromagnetic fields. Could there be similar energetic fields whose content I perceive as states of consciousness like dreams or visions, that I tune into like a television set? This is, again, how most of humanity has thought about this issue for most of humanity’s time on earth.
Space seems empty to us, and our bodies seem full. But at a large degree of magnification, it is space that is full, and our bodies empty. At the level of the atom, some 99.9% of space is void of matter. Yet this virtually empty space is simultaneously an unimaginably fervent sea of energy: more than four trillion elementary particles course through our bodies every second of the day. At the level of those particles, our bodies are diaphanous, almost immaterial clouds of distant atoms.
What are these energetic particles that run through us by the trillions? They’re many things: cell phone calls, television shows, movies and radio programs; but also cosmic rays, solar radiation, earthly emissions, and many other particles and waves about which we know nothing. The numbers are astounding: if every particle coursing through my body could be turned into a dollar, I could pay the national debt in three seconds.
To think that we are somehow insulated from this vast ocean of energy that completely permeates our bodies strikes me as naive. Why shouldn’t we be as intimately tied to the various currents of that sea of energy as we are to gravitation? Since consciousness is itself a kind of energy, it’s not hard for me to imagine it flowing into energetic fields beyond its normal locus in the brain, to some attraction outside the body.
Perhaps that’s what happened to my father’s consciousness upon his death. And maybe that’s what happened to mine in the course of my dreams. Perhaps we found each other in the astral plane, where I saw him through the veils of death. I don’t know, but I do know that the question, and all such questions, are valid ones. Millions of people have asked them, and our growing scientific knowledge of the core reality only makes them more compelling.
But how could Dad say that he was coming back, that he hadn’t died? Didn’t he know what had happened? Well, maybe not. If he was transported at the moment of death to a continuing existence in another plane--as many people have reported in near death experiences--he might well have found himself in the middle of a new and oddly similar life to the one he’d lived before. He might well have been confused, assuming there was no one there to greet him and explain the workings of the afterlife. None of us receives a guide for this life, after all, and ferreting out its meaning is for lots of us the prime preoccupation of our time on earth. Why should it be different on the other side? Stunned with emotion to come upon a lost, beloved son, perhaps he didn’t know that he could no more come back to my world by his own volition than I could go to his. The ways of the dead, they say, are strange.
"Dreams are one of those funny things that take place completely in the mind. They’re completely subjective experiences; there’s no way to check them objectively. And I had the dream in an era when, to paraphrase the positivists, phenomena that could not be verified objectively had to be ignored. That the dream sprang from the very roots of consciousness, its very source, was immaterial. It was better to suppress it."
Life is a Subjective Phenomenon
When I think of what I have to work with in myself, it’s a miracle that anything works at all. Just look at my body: it takes two separate fuel systems—one for oxygen, another highly inefficient one for carbon, which harbors billions of alien and potentially dangerous parasites—to make it run. Chemically speaking, I’m mostly sea water; as if the matter in my body contrived
somehow to rise up from the ocean as a kind of walking water bag, which hangs
from a skeleton whose backbone is a travesty of engineering, which is monitored
—and often tyrannized—by a bio-electric nervous system with a predilection for
inflicting useless pain. I’m chock a block with multiple organs, each required for
some vital function in the patched together orgo-machine that I discover that I
am, each one famously prone to failure in its task of turning sunlight into energy to
keep the whole contraption going. I’m crowned withal by a brain in a helmet of bone,
with two tiny windows for sight, two tiny holes for sound and a single gullet for the
fuel systems. With both the nervous and the physical bodies driven by unbridled
passion—incited by the hormones coursing through my lymph nodes—to perform
an act with another walking water bag to make more of the same.
My judgement and perceptions are so colored by these contending, often
incompatible systems, that it’s a wonder I can even set my pen to paper just to talk
about them; much less direct them; much less rise above them to some realm of
objective appreciation. And it’s precisely that capacity, or so I think, that elevates me
over every other animal and plant.
So when Mom said that it was just a dream, my ears pricked up. She offered an escape
from the residual confusion and paralysis of this wholly subjective experience by
giving me a point outside myself from which to view it, to look down on it, and judge
it as tantamount to nothing. She gave me objectivity—or as I came to realize much
later on—the illusion of objectivity.
It’s an illusion that—through empiricism and the scientific method—has served us very well. Where it works, it works quite well. I live in a different, better world because of it. But it’s an illusion nonetheless.
Because there is no place outside myself from which I can view anything. I’m stuck for the duration in the mire inside my skin. Objectivity will never be an option for a creature like me; it must always be a subset of my all encompassing subjective reality, always colored by the chaos of my organism’s functions and the limitations of my senses and my brain.
Which makes me wonder if I was mistaken to repudiate the most vivid event of my life at that time, to dismiss it from an illusory vantage point, which contained after all no more content than a few empty words.
"Chemically speaking, I’m mostly sea water; as if the matter in my body contrived somehow to rise up from the ocean as a kind of walking water bag, which hangs from a skeleton whose backbone is a travesty of engineering, which is monitored—and often tyrannized—by a bio-electric nervous system with a predilection for inflicting useless pain. I’m chock a block with multiple organs, each required for some vital function in the patched together orgo-machine that I discover that I am, each one famously prone to failure in its task of turning sunlight into energy to keep the whole contraption going."