When I was a child we would say a prayer before bed. “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.” As is typical with me, I thought soul was salt. And for some reason I did not question it. Didn’t God turn someone into a salt statue in the Old Testament? Or was that another story I misunderstood?
The thing about saying that prayer before bed each night was that as I drifted off to sleep, lulled by the sound of ocean waves hitting the beach, I was keenly aware that I may not wake up in the morning. The prayer said so. And so I always believed death must be like dreaming. That after we pass away we would exist as we do in dreams, hovering above our loved ones and neighbors and classmates, watching life unfold, unable to determine the outcome by making another choice or instituting change. It frightened me. In my dreams, especially the nightmares and night terrors I experienced often as a child, I would be full of anxiety and guilt and fear- dragged down by not being able to save my sisters or stop someone from hurting themselves. On nights where I could make myself up I would stumble into my parents room and wake my mother, telling her of yet another nightmare. She would ask me to tell her what I dreamt and then say the Hail Mary with me until I felt safe enough to drift off into sleep again.
Due to this I became an expert on “waking” in my sleep. I would become awake enough that I could re-enter my body or enter the dream and begin to make changes as to where the dream was going. In one recurring nightmare my youngest sister is dragged away by a wave and I would thrash about screaming her name, running my hands though the thick white foam that rushed in and out, over and over again. One night I re-entered that nightmare and made myself reach down to the left, instead of the right like I had in every dream. When I did, I got the back of her bathing suit and pulled her up. As soon as her head was above water I woke up completely. I wept into my pillow, full of relief and joy. Overcome by my ability to finally change the ending that haunted me for months. I never had the dream again.
Even with this skill of changing the outcome of my dreams, my thoughts about death never changed. When I would sleep and be in vivid dreams I swear I hovered with angels, who like me, where watching over the action. But the angels did not seem distressed by danger, or thrilled by excitement. It felt as though they were just there. Wise and silent. Half smiling, the type of serene and peaceful smile one has while watching a child preform a song or a friend get married. And as a child, this troubled me. How could they feel such peace with all that is unfolding beneath us?
Death visited an acquaintance yesterday. Snuffing out a life that was responsible to 3 children. A life that was full of talent and generosity, and as many are rightfully saying, genius. As I walked my dog through the melting snow of what seemed like a spring afternoon, I wondered about the angels, and of him. Had they been there, watching it unfold? Did they watch as they do in my dreams, serene and peaceful? And what of him? Had he slipped into a dream and is now watching from just above. Is he filled with sadness over the circumstances or is he at peace? Are the demons that haunt us in life disarmed and quieted once we enter death? And do those angels I sit with when dreaming acknowledge you once it’s no longer a dream?
I may be naive. And perhaps some will write me off as silly. But in all the years since childhood, all the dreams I entered and exited, I believe there is peace in that final dream. That the angels’ slight smile is a knowledge I won’t gain until I no longer get to exit the dream. And for all the pain we may meet while walking this earth, that last dream erases it, bringing sense and meaning, offering solace. And hopefully, just hopefully, allows us as angels to comfort the rest of us who will wake up to life, in all its glorious joy and pain and chaos, tomorrow.