I had a dream.
I am in a crowd of people, none of whom I know. The place feels a little like a college dormitory on students’ first day. I’m milling around, getting to know people. The atmosphere is congenial, anticipatory. I see a friend of mine, Jack. I say to him why don’t we go upstairs to see who all is here. He agrees. We go upstairs. He sits on the edge of a bed. I see one person I think know. I’m not sure.
The dream ends.
Jack died three weeks ago. We had been intimate friends for thirty-eight years. I was curious about his presence in the dream. I kept thinking about him.
Jack had been suffering for several years from degenerative heart disease. Covid and then my leukemia kept us from meeting, but we talked on the phone about our wonderings about life and death, how we’d changed over the years and complained regularly how bad our memories had become. Jack was a year older than me.
Jack was a Catholic priest and, as I am, a native New Yorker. I liked teasing him about his Queens’ accent, as thick and chewy as bagel, the way Dr. Fauci speaks. We were both ordained in the same year but met later to become spiritual friends, and although we’d see each other maybe four times a year, when we’d gather it was as though we’d seen each other only yesterday.
Jack had been passionate about the writings of the Jesuit visionary and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin. He introduced me to them.
I have to say that Teilhard’s writings are about as easy to understand as Einstein’s mathematical computations. However, one theme emerges from them with such consistency and power that I find them, as Jack had, extremely compelling. All parts of creation, Teilhard wrote, everything in them, whether organic or inert, are in a process of becoming, of being drawn upward, along a divinely inspired evolutionary continuum to their ultimate perfection and unity. Heady? Well, yes! The suggestion for me in his vision, however, was a kind of confirmation of what I’d sensed since my childhood: it ain’t over til it’s over and then, it’s still not over.
From my earliest childhood recollections, I have had an innate sense of continuity to human life, to all life. My sense of this continuity played out during a particularly difficult period in my boyhood.
Beginning in 1945, when I was eleven years old, seven close relatives, important people in my life, died within an eight-year period. These included my father, both grandmothers, my grandfather, two great aunts, and a great uncle. Eight losses, if I include ‘Pete,’ my dog who died of distemper.
I recall this as the time of emptiness.
I suspect I handled these losses as I did, from a combination of my church teachings, but also from an undifferentiated awareness of life’s continuity deeply ingrained in me. I was keenly alert to the way things constantly renewed themselves or were transformed, like seeing the forsythia bush near the corner of the house keep blooming every spring as if for the first time or the way leaves changed colors every autumn.
I recall kneeling nightly at my bedside asking God to look after these departed loved ones. I figured I’d see them again, but I wanted them to know I was thinking about them while gently reminding God to keep an eye on them in the meantime.
My behavior proceeded intuitively rather than from any clear thought or belief. It wasn’t based on doctrinal ideas of resurrection, nor was I following sectarian protocol to assure the safety of their souls. Whatever human life was about I felt it belonged to something far larger.
Some readers may recall when Dr. Christopher Kerr spoke here in Easton in June of 2019.
Kerr was a physician and directed a large hospice facility in Buffalo, New York. Over a ten-year period, Kerr documented the dreams of fourteen-hundred dying residents at his hospice. The dreams were remarkably similar. Some patients dreamed of seeing long lost friends and loved ones who welcomed them to the new place they would soon be coming. Others received reassurances that it was safe there. In some dreams, deceased friends and kin appeared to heal old conflicts and to engage in a process of reconciliation. Forgiveness and reconciliation were common themes.
I didn’t find Kerr making a case that deceased friends and relatives actually returned from the grave to help their dying loved ones. What he was clear about, though, is the process of deep healing and wholeness that the dreams dramatized. The suggestion to me was that in the larger picture of our existence, in the biological anticipation of our total physical arrest, a parallel process emerges in our spirit and soul. The death of the body initiates a full and complete closure in the soul, in the way we’re often inclined to put things in order before traveling or like placing an arc in an incomplete circumference to bring it around full circle. From prophets and seers, to psychoanalysts, to inventors and to romantics, dreams have always been a particular way of knowing that our rational minds never seem adequately wired to perform.
I ‘ve been thinking about Jack and the dream and how in it we both appear among congenial people. It seemed we were getting used to fresh digs, finding our way around the new neighborhood. I kept mulling over the way I learned about Jack’s death and the surprising incident that soon followed.
I received a call from one of the Brothers of the Maryknoll Order where Jack was living. He informed me Jack had died that morning and, at his request, wanted me to be notified. I reacted as I always do at the loss of loved ones: as though their death signals an end to an era, maybe because I associate certain people with specific chapters of my life.
Two days later I received a package in the mail. Jack had sent me a book, apparently mailed only a few days before he died. The book was a biography of Teilhard’s life and work.
It ain’t over ‘til it’s over and my sense of it is, that it’s still not over.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.