As we start to sense the cold snap of fall in the air, we are surrounded by messages that the dead are scary and should be feared. As big a fan of horror movies as I am, I don’t buy into the concept that those who have gone before us wish us harm. Rather I think of my deceased relatives like my cosmic cheering section. Sometimes I wonder if they have a hand in helping me find my lost keys or a parking space. When I see a penny lying on the street I wonder if my Great Uncle sent it to me to remind of me of the times he let me win at dreidel.
If you have known loss, then you know your heart is never really whole again. It seems impossible to live without that person. And so so unfair. Your heart will always be broken. That’s where they live--in the cracks that never completely heal.
Dumbledore said it best, “the ones who love us never really leave us.”
Regardless of the festivities you partake in this Halloween season, let us look for pennies on the street, be kinder to one another and make those we have lost proud.
Hope you enjoy this week's guest post by my dear friend. Happy Halloween
By Brendan Ian
Granpa John sits up in his coffin, his eyes angled slightly away from my face, speaking slowly to me, the room, and the universe.
I wish I could say, I love you.
I wake up in Oakland, knowing my grandfather has spoken from beyond his cylinder of ash. We had followed his requests, delivered his shrouded, sunken body in a cardboard box to the incinerator after I recited “The Cremation of Sam McGee” to his gaping stare, since my father could not:
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.”
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: "Please close that door.”
We sat around his body as the oxygen was removed, as his chest lifted and lowered with the crescendos and diminuendos of his respiration, as the hospice nurse delivered a few extra boluses of morphine and diazepam. I spoke to him one last time, recited a poem I had written for him from a stack of dog-eared white pages, his body near dead. He calmed down. He recognized me; he winked.
At the deathbed my face was marked by diffuse stubble and impetigo I neglected to treat till my parents coaxed me into a doctor’s appointment. The impetigo disappeared, but the stubble grew into a beard as unruly as the anti-career passions a close friend and I took to Portland in my black 2002 Accord, its bilateral bumper dents unchanged since Granpa John gave me the keys. There was grey-blue morning chill, Mount Saint Helens twelve hours after we left Berkeley, the ripe stench of new life from deathly rubble, then our friends in the hipster capital living poor, but free to be themselves, and my companion’s little blue guitar with nylon strings which inspired me to write a song we could carry back to our band from the romance of Portland night. Back in Berkeley I was unproductive, so unable to focus on emails and spreadsheets that I drove uphill to Grizzly Peak to take in the Bay Area panorama. I called my father and told him that enough was enough, that medicine and science would restrict me from my passions for life, for love, and for art, so his only child was no longer going to apply to medical school.
It is lucky that I did not give my father a heart attack. My mother was comparatively patient with my rebellion, but she did not agree with my train of thought. They adhered to their parental guidelines (thankfully).
In spite of crises of passion, my friends, peers, and mentors have seen my progress along a path to practice clinical neurology and neuroscience research. A few of them know why I am on this career path, that I got into this because my grandparents developed neurodegenerative diseases in my lifetime. My late Jewish grandparents had Parkinson’s disease— Grandpa Jack fought it, Grandma Ruth could not—and my late Irish-American grandfather, Granpa John, had Lewy body dementia. My parents know the particulars of Granpa John: his unchained spirit; his exploration and then rejection of monastic Catholicism as a young man; his pursuit of a rich intellectual and creative life as an organic chemist and an artist; his passions for truth and for human rights; and his deep love for my Sicilian-American grandmother, whom he nicknamed Granmarie, for me, and for everyone, which he expressed through his gifts of storytelling, homemade art and granola, and humorous wit. My parents know the time he spent teaching his only grandchild to cook, to create, and to think, and his desire for my mental liberation in tandem with his. His art, his books, and his clothes are scattered across my old and new bedrooms.
As much as anyone thinks they know about me, only I will know my dreams of the dead as lucidly as a human mind will allow, or their power to move me in their absence. I cannot objectively prove that an afterlife is possible or that spirits can communicate through dreams. Then again, as much as I think I know about medicine or the science of life, it is impossible for me to consciously grasp beyond four perceived dimensions of space and time. In this vein the foundational dream psychologist Carl Jung mused in his memoirs, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, that the deceased may transcend our four conscious dimensions and that the unconscious realm of dreams may uniquely allow their interface with space and time.
Granpa John has appeared multiple times. He has moved through my old house, in my dreams and perhaps in unexplained shadows passing before my father’s open eyes, as if my grandfather wants my father and I to share these visions. It is comforting that he may be watching over me as I struggle through the ceaseless demands of a professional life, perhaps providing unseen approval of the breaks I take for fresh air, for piano, for sautéed vegetables, and to give others my love and appreciation. Same-sex marriage was federally ratified this year on what would have been Granpa John’s 92nd birthday, and I pictured him disembodied, whispering in the Supreme Court justices’ ears, mentioning something particularly silly to piss off Antonin Scalia.
Granpa John’s is not the only spirit. My late Uncle Gary appeared in a recent dream, almost two years after his death from metastatic colon cancer. He had once lived the romantic California dream as a photography student in San Francisco long before I knew the Bay, though eventually he settled down in southeastern Florida with my aunt and cousin. He worked full weeks of car and furniture sales to support their life in the subtropics, somehow making time to help my cousin with her homework, to install and remove storm shutters during hurricane season, and to see Grandpa Jack almost nightly and drive him to and from doctors’ appointments or Passover dinner. There was little time for himself to sit in front of the television, his cockatiel perched on his shoulder and nuzzling his ear with a beak. We last spoke when I was just starting the med school interview trail and hoping to visit him along the way.
It was the first day of orientation at a medical school, and a kiosk was serving fresh grilled crustaceans to medical students. The man inside the kiosk upset me by asking, Are you really a medical student? I sought out his employer to complain. The employer was a man with curly brown hair and hazel eyes, my late uncle, who then apologized for his employee and assured me he would make things right. My younger cousin was a new student at this medical school; my uncle was there to protect her. I was worried she would not be ready to encounter him in his present form. He agreed. Uncle Gary and I went on to converse through a cryptic symbolic script appearing on a piece of paper, and I awoke with an ethereal jolt.
The man with hazel eyes was Uncle Gary, and he is keeping an eye on me and my cousin. Fantasy or not, he still exists in some form I do not understand. Perhaps my cousin would be comforted to know his presence, though I do not believe she needs help. She is a strong, self-sufficient woman who is currently powering through a college honors program. She is the proud descendent of my uncle and aunt, for though Uncle Gary left her a year into college, she found her strength and marched forth to a promising future.
While some dreams have reminded me and my family of our antecedents’ love and care for our futures, there is a different dream which proclaimed my duty and responsibility to follow my path in medicine. My Guatemalan babysitter Lily—my comadre—died from metastatic cancer the summer before I began medical school. The night before medical school, her emissary held my hands and sang that bone-chilling hymn from her funeral, Entre tus manos, to tell me that the lives of my family, friends, and future patients, the human race she left behind, are in my hands.
The next morning, Monday, began our medical school orientation, and I cried, the dream of Lily behind my tears, and in front, my new tribe of students, staff, and faculty assembled to save the lives and livelihoods of our fellow humans. That Thursday we donned white coats and stethoscopes as we were ceremonially inducted into medical school. A group of kilted bagpipers blared “The Blue Bells of Scotland” as we filed toward the stage, chills and more tears pouring over me because I knew my antecedents marched with me, like the Irish ancestors of Granpa John marching with war pipes to possible death. I speak for myself, but I imagine my peers too are surrounded by the love of their kindred spirits as we all march forth in scrubs and white coats, ready to do battle with the world’s ills.
One-and-a-half years into medical school, I continue to follow my bliss. My path in two words from Granpa John:
He would have me say, with twinkling eyes, My grandfather told me that.