I’ve been having this recurring dream. I am sitting alone in a movie theater, about halfway down the theater. A movie is playing on the screen, but I can’t make out which one. I turn around and see lots of people standing and talking to each other along the side and back aisles. They are not seated; that privilege is reserved for the living. It is the dead who crowd the standing-room-only aisles, looking on at the movie and on those of us who sit.
Among the standing are those in our family who have died. I see Uncle Andy, Grandma and Grandpa, and others too. They look at me, nodding and smiling in recognition. I see them but never get out of my seat to approach them — not out of fear but out of respect for boundaries. I belong here and they belong there. But I don’t see you. I never see you, even though I have the dream again and again over the years. Are you there?
The dream reveals an element of my unconscious imagery: life as movie theater. According to this view, we begin life in the front of the screen and move to the back of the theater as we get older. The dead stand crowded in the back, looking on but never rejoining the living. In my dreams, I’m seated in the middle of the theater, a position that gives me some comfort. It’s not yet my time.
Everything seems to be going well with my life. My wife and I are living in a new condominium, spacious and clean. Our marriage is steady, if not strong. We vacation regularly and at attractive places: Bermuda, Mexico, the Caribbean. My scholarly work continues to be published, and it even receives modest praise. I am earning good teaching evaluations at the university. This fall, I will take a sabbatical, spending part of my time here and partly in Great Britain, where I plan on reading, writing and traveling.
Despite this success, the night terrors come most evenings at about 2:00 a.m. I wake up with a start — jumping out of bed, sweating profusely, heart racing. I’m disoriented. My arm is numb. I sit by the side of the bed looking out, wondering what’s going on. Am I having a heart attack? Will I die in my sleep, like they said you did? I think of that prayer I was taught as a child, that dreadful prayer:
“Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
My wife is asleep next to me and never knows. I dare not wake her for fear that she too will lose sleep and be concerned. What if it’s nothing? It will go away, I assure myself. So, I walk into the bathroom, sit on the toilet and wait. Wait for the fear to dissipate, for the arm to return to normal, for my disorientation to disappear. Then, I return to bed and watch the clock turn. 3:00. 3:30. 4:00. 4:30. I remember the words of a poem, “Everyone is asleep at 4:30.” But I am still awake. By 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning I fall asleep out of shear exhaustion — and awake an hour or so later. This ritual repeats itself for weeks, months.