by Jeff Oaks
I woke from a dream in which somehow I and three other friends had taken on the power of the elements. Mine was air, of course, because I’m a Gemini. It was an elaborate dream, with many parts (thanks, life of reading, for giving my consciousness so many ways to tell stories!), but the main point was that after I inhaled one friend’s asthma medicine out of a small machine that reminded me of the water tank in my bedroom humidifier, I held up my hand and it flashed with white light. In most dreams I remember there’s drama, and in this one was a bully who was tracking us, who seemed unfazed when we finally met each other on a street by my wind powers. He walked through the blasts of concentrated air, the tornado funnels I threw at him, and the circles of furious wind that surrounded me like a fence. In the end, I grabbed him by the head and smashed it against the sidewalk over and over again and woke up.
What do you want to come back as, after you die? The nurse who stays with my mother during the day, a woman from Africa originally, talks about my mother going to be among the angels, my grandparents, the family. It’s a dream of light and peace and love. The trouble is she didn’t know my mother until after she was mostly gone, and my mother wouldn’t have told her much about herself anyway. When I said to the nurse that I had some experience being around people dying because I’d been with my father at his deathbed, she was quick to assure me that my mother would see my father again in heaven too. I laughed out loud.
“Oh, God no,” I said. “If she sees him there, she’ll know she’s in the wrong place. He will not be in heaven, or at least not in the same one that she’s in. More likely he’ll be in the frying pan section, if you know what I mean.” She smiled and laughed. “Oh,” she said. She has a beautiful laugh.
What I wanted to say to the nurse is that there is no heaven in which my family believes. We’re far more likely to believe that after the human body dies, we stop existing as I. But all those atoms of us keep moving, interacting, as material without consciousness, and in a perfect world would be buried under roses, forests, thrown in the ocean for fish and lobsters, lifted onto high scaffolds for vultures, left out in the wild for hyenas and jackals. My mother had a hope for the vultures. I have an interest in the plants, in being at the roots of things.
All of this, though, depends on being conscious. It’s a lovely dream, a hope, a consolation that might get us through the worst days. There is no need to grieve because it’s not over, I remember the priest saying at the funeral mass for a poet-teacher of mine. Rejoice he said. Don’t look so unhappy. He of course hadn’t even known the person who had taught us, befriended us, shared poems with us, struggled with her own complicated love life, health, and career. She was not going to be around anymore, we thought in our grieving hearts, so shut up you little twerp. Have some respect for your own ignorance of the actual woman. If her two daughters hadn’t been there, I might have heckled him, but he was there at their insistence, to help them, so of course no one said anything. We just felt embarrassed for them, that after having such a wonderful woman as a mother, they couldn’t imagine a richer way to celebrate her life than for a young man in a fancy mumu to scold us about feeling sad, and who urged us, with all the witless enthusiasm of retail-chain manager, to smile, to be happy. The only real moment of the spiritual was at the mausoleum, just before our friend’s ashes where interred, her ex-husband read from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
That’s close to it. Although I think my mother would have argued even with Walt’s bodhisattvha-ism. She has had enough of crooked and mean-spirited politicians; the pulpit-mongers who turned people’s dreams for peace into reasons for war, hatred, bigotry, idiocy; the people who were so stupid they couldn’t tell when they were being lied to, whipped up into a frenzy over nothing; the news media that was now merely a publicity arm of multi-nationals. Although she feared much about technology, she loved to read the burgeoning internet sites where people were really reporting on things of weight and substance. She didn’t always get it that they too could be purveyors of dreaming, conspiracy dreaming that my brother and I would occasionally and gently laugh about behind her back. “Oh, Mother…” one of us would start, and she’d give us that look that meant You kids just don’t understand the world.
There are days I want to come back as something like the wind, as an elemental force, but I’d do it only to take revenge on the people who believe that tornados are God’s revenge for social and moral wrong. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it? We just don’t know anything about the end of things. We can only dream about them. Fitting then, that I finish this last post on Easter, with all its death and rebirth. In celebration my brother and I are going out for doughnuts, those sweet ouroboros.
Endings are hard. These past two years as I’ve been writing about my mother and her diagnosis, I kept writing poems that had the word End in them, trying to figure out if I could actually feel the end to anything. I couldn’t. Or: all I could feel was a series of endings, one after another. Someone else might (and god knows I’m always trying to) feel life as a series of beginnings or re-starts. Even this last entry from this month, this month of essays, isn’t so much of an ending. I’m so surprised that I got through it, that I wrote nearly an essay a day, that I’ll be writing more now, a new beginning, in prose this time. Soon, I’ll be an adult orphan for the first time in my life, a life I never wanted to end, a life that was a mistake to begin with, when my mother uncharacteristically took a chance on.
“I knew I still had love to give,” she said when I asked why.
God I’m going to miss her, even though she’ll be with me everyday.