A Beautiful Song?


Did you ever dream of some lost friend, and feel that you were having a sweet communion with him, and yet have a consciousness that it was not a reality? That is the way I dream of my lost boy, Willie.

–Abraham Lincoln.

You heard me, he’s in the building, Elton John is going to sing a beautiful song about death!

–Denholm, The IT Crowd.

Today, in my installment of Thinkin’ about Lincoln, I heard the above quote. He was reading a passage from Shakespeare’s King John, when the president stopped mid-reading, turned to an officer, and said that. He began sobbing, inconsolable. His little son had just died. He dreamed of him. The “sweet communion” was remarkable. And then he woke, and he had a country to run, and a war to prosecute.

I’ve had the dream Lincoln mentions dozens of times. I see family members in my mind–the ones I loved the most.

A spiritualist might say ghosts they are visiting me; giving me guidance. Mary Todd Lincoln apparently was so disconsolate, that after weeks in bed, she contacted mediums to lead seances in the White House. She took her kids’ deaths hard. She blamed herself Willie’s death, and their little son Edward, who died of tuberculosis a decade before. When she turned to a family minister who reminded her of the “rejoicing there will be in heaven” when they met once again, she could not bear the thought of Willie being someplace where he was happier than he already was here on earth.

So, today I’m not going to write about an afterlife, or even reincarnation. That’s for later. I might mention zombies just a bit, but that’s because so many people are interested in The Walking Dead right now. They are not creatures with whom one would care to share a sandwich.

In my dreams, my grandparents are there. We are planning a day trip somewhere, maybe to out to Sly Park or to pick apples. The conversations in my dreams are without any very deep meaning, but life-affirming anyhow: Should I choose a cooler of drinks for the kids? What kind of sandwiches should we bring? Who is riding in which car? Should we stop and have lunch before we go? Are my uncles and aunts coming along?

dead stay deadThen I wake up. Sometimes I might even have a tear in my eye. Why should they be dead? Why should the distance between them and me be this way? We all go through it eventually, I guess. It’s funny how these dreams about mundane things, are the stuff of life. Eating. Drinking. Family. It’s almost as if those who have gone before me are urging me forward: Be alive. Enjoy it while you can. Enjoy your family. Take a trip in a car. Have a sandwich before you leave. And don’t forget to stop and pee.

You see, those are all things the dead can’t do. But we, the living, can do them, and we can do them well.

Several of my work friends are fascinated with the television program The Walking Dead. It’s not really my cup of tea, the zombie apocalypse. I’ve grown to tolerate the occasional vampire story–my wife loves those–but I’ve got no interest in zombies. Rotting is gross. I’ve seen it. I grew up in the northwest–I was one of those kids who would poke roadkill with a stick. We often butchered and ate the animals we raised, the same animals that we kids loved. I’ve never been to war. I don’t know the horrors of seeing my friends before my eyes, but one thing I know with certainty: dead is dead. Most people run from it, like death a rotten, shambling zombie of some kind. We don’t like talking about it.

So, why my dreams? My subconscious seems to dump them into my head with uncanny frequency. Why do I have them once a week? Why do they occur with such regularity? How come I wake up unsure where I am or, more alarmingly, when I am? Psychologists might suggest it’s your means of coping with loss. Grief slowly transforming itself to acceptance.

Mary Todd Lincoln closed herself off from life, draped herself in black Victorian veils. Teddy Roosevelt never spoke of his dead wife and mother again (and they died within hours of one another, in the same house). Lincoln talked and talked about how much he loved his boy. And had a good cry. And then he moved on.

The Irish are famous for their Wakes. We get the impression that they get good and thoroughly drunk, then let it all out. Stories are told; the laughs and good times. Then, they weak up with an enormous headache, and throw up everything from the day before… Almost a purgative of the soul. And then you go back to your job of living.

I’m reminded of a story from the Danny Glover and Steve Martin movie Grand Canyon. I watched it once, but this quote always stuck with me.

SIMON: My father died last year. He was 80 years old. It’s a long time for a black man to live in this town. He outlived everyone he ever knew. He saw two wives die and three of his children. He had a great ugly old face that looked like a suitcase gone a million miles. All beat up and dented and scuffed and stained. Man, he looked like he walked years on that face. When I used to look at that face and see all the pain there. All the things he’d lost, all the hurt he had. I wondered why he wanted to go on, why he just didn’t lay down and give it up.
MACK: Did you figure it out?
SIMON: No. Never figured out much about that guy. I asked him, though.
MACK: What’d he say?
SIMON: Habit.

Go on. Live. Do what makes you happy. Be bold. Eat a sandwich. Even if you have a “great ugly old face that looks like a suitcase gone a million miles,” things will get better. Then they might get worse. But they’ll probably get better again. They always do.

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