Long distance call from the dead

I am one of those middle-aged people for whom sleeping can be as complex and textured as waking life. But the intense winter we just came through provided me with delicious, restorative sleep. Nights felt longer and darker than usual, themselves a kind of shelter. I was going out of my house less, out in the world less, given the constraints of the weather, and at night my inner life, my dream life, in some kind of correspondence, became extra vivid.

I carry forward startling images from my winter dreams. One was of a woman’s long, thick, gray hair. I couldn’t see the woman herself at all, just her hair, which was flowing over the top of a chair. It was unusually healthy and thick, like hair in a shampoo ad. But when was the last time you saw gray hair portrayed that way? We move through our dreams as hurriedly as we move through waking life, but I remember stopping to admire the salt and pepper color, and to note the audacity of this woman who, at her age, grew her hair long, and wore it loose and free.

She had let her hair down. What would that mean for me? My hair is going to white, not to grey, but I have grown it out some lately, and I like the feeling of having more of it. Winter keeps us in the house, it makes us super-domestic. We cook, eat, clean, read, work. Then we retire. Wild for me right now would be to spend more time outdoors. I am itching to do so.

Hair color is a weird indicator of aging, given that it continues to grow after we die. Fossilized humans have spooky heads of hair.

People who had died visited me in my dreams this winter. One such visitor was a friend who had had cancer, and had had chemotherapy, and who had lost her hair. In my dream it had grown back, and she looked healthy. She wore a white terrycloth robe, one I had seen her in at a cabin getaway last winter, which she had put on before getting into the outdoor hot tub there. She had seemed quite vital that night.

If we settle deeply enough into winter, and into our own unconscious minds, do we sink down to the very place where the dead reside? Or to a place they are able to rise to?

I was overcome in that dream by conflicting feelings. I told my friend that I was filled with joy to see her, yet equally filled with sadness that she had died. She just looked at me calmly, maybe even with mild disapproval, and said, “I suppose.” I sensed she meant to convey some sort of message, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I had recently been grumpy in a situation that asked for compassion, a situation she would have had a stake in, and perhaps she was trying to nudge me toward better behavior.

In another dream I was talking on the phone with my grandmother, who died a couple of years ago. I woke up in the night, not able to recall what she’d said. I went back to sleep and dreamed about her again. This time I picked up the phone and she was talking to someone else about a computer problem. I set the phone back down. These scenarios with my grandmother were strange for a couple of reasons: she rarely made long distance phone calls, as she thought they cost too much. And she died at ninety-seven, having never used a computer.

She had been in good health until the fall of 2012, when she went into a decline and then died shortly before Christmas. Her funeral was up north at a church in the country. We drove through a sullen, snow-covered bog to get there. During her decline, she had thought the colored carpet in her nursing home room was a field of flowers. And one day I got a call from a sister. Had I been up to see Grandma the week before? No, I had not. Grandma had been telling everyone she had seen me standing in her doorway. I still don’t know what to make of that.

Once, on a visit before her decline, she’d just come back to her room from her bath. She was sitting in a wheelchair wearing a lime green robe. Her short, white hair was still in damp clumps. One of the staff had just polished her fingernails. When I arrived she was holding her hands in front of her, admiring the light pink, shiny finish. Her cheeks were flushed, like anyone’s would be, after they’d gotten the spa treatment. She looked happy.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.