“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
Yesterday I had a nostalgic dream while sleeping off jet lag. I dreamt that my brother, who in his later years was estranged from the family in our own unhappy way, was alive and well. He was also his good self, the part I no longer saw for the last decade of his life.
He had come to pick me up from an apartment where I was staying. Why I was staying apart, is not in the dream. And where I was staying was unclear. But we walked through the neighborhood as we had done so many times during my childhood---me following him so we could get home. He showed me a new shortcut too.
The house was empty when we got there but I had the sense that soon, my mother and father and my sister would be in. An ordinary day in the life of one of those usually happy families which are the same world over.
And that was the end if the dream. But the waking up was difficult. My brother, father and mother are no longer alive, and waking up made me realize how much I have lost just because life has taken its course.
We have been plodding on, my sister and I, the last two standing. The way we see it, we have a bit more to go. Ordinarily we are brave girls. Ordinarily there can be no bellyaching between us because life remains worth living and joyful. We are also under very strict instructions from my mother (the kind of instructions drilled into you from your first breastfeeding) that sentimentality about one's particular life situation is nothing more than self-conceit. Being human and alive is wonderful, joyous and marvelous. However there are, as Omar Khayam has said, "millions of bubbles like us". Nothing is very interesting or uplifting about anyone's particular bubble.
The dream reminds me of yet another of mother's admirable traits: she was an agnostic who was not afraid to die. She joked about it on the day of her death to her cardiologist, "this is a serious condition I have, right? It could kill me?" And it did.
She would look at the fear of death in our Catholic dominated society and say, "if I knew there was an afterlife why would I be afraid to die? I don't know for sure, and yet I am ready."
When asked about dying, my father took a different tack. He told me that all life comes from a limited set of carbon atoms. He says it would be selfish to keep our carbon atoms to ourselves forever and not give other life forms a chance.
So why do I break my mother's rules and write about this dream, so peculiar to me and therefore so uninteresting to others? Because it reminded about a principle of living well: do not be afraid to die.
This is not an appeal for dangerous behavior. It is an appeal for liberating the self from conceit and supersition. Many religious traditions and my non-religious agnostic one, remind us that many fears (and a whole lot of irritating behavior and bad manners) are born out of thinking that you are more important than the minor blip that you really are in the cosmic story.
My dream reminds me that immortality would become unbearable because life, for all it's joys, is also wearying.
So I will, as a poet once said, warm my hands before the fire of life, but depart without fuss when the fire wanes.
Tonight though, I hope I will have that dream I have about flying. I fly, really fly.
What would we do without our dreams?