Living alone, a severe stroke victim, I had a lot of time on my hands. I was no longer able to exercise or engage in vigorous physical activity, since my left arm and hand were largely inoperable. I reminisced a lot, and slept a lot, too. My mind remained active even when asleep. My dreams were often about past life memories, but sometimes unexplainably, a recurring dream was often just about the sound of breathing.
Most dreams began by bringing back past life events I had almost forgotten. My wife Nancy and I, on vacation in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, crawled into underground remnants of a Mayan tomb. I shined my flashlight onto the wall, and there was a picture of a beached Viking ship. I knew it was Viking, because of its dragon’s head prow and row of shields down the side.
Mayans with spears confronted blond-haired men swimming out to sea. I started to exclaim, “Sweetheart, we have discovered proof of pre-columbian voyages to America!” but for some reason, the breathing noises interrupted the dream.
Another dream began to retell the story of when I walked into Nancy’s work. Her boss, Dr. Kinsman, gestered to me to come into his office. Once inside, he closed the door behind me.
“Oh oh,” I thought, “what’s up?”
“Don’t say anything until the formal announcement next month, “ he admonished, “but your wife is one of four finalists for a Nobel Prize.” I was starting to tell him how wonderful this was, but those breathing sounds took over my dream and stopped me.
Not all my dreams were happy ones. I hang up the phone, and called out to Nancy, “Darling, come here, I need to tell you something.” When she sat down next to me, I started to tell her the bad news I had just received, struggling with myself how best to phrase it. Before I could tell her that her beloved Aunt Maude had died, that breathing noise abruptly changed my dream again.
The most vivid memory I experienced, sitting there alone with my thoughts in my recliner, was often not a dream at all, but my most fond, treasured memory. That’s probably why one night I found myself dreaming it as well. Here I was, back again as a K-12 guidance counselor of the Marshall, Wisconsin School District. I entered the office of my friend James Langer, the elementary school principal.
“Glenn, I need you to do me a favor,” Jim told me. “I’ve got this lady coming to do learning research on fourth graders, and we need a room.”
One of my duties was managing room utilization, a frequently assigned counselor duty; we were in the midst of passing a bond issue to build another building, and finding an empty space might be difficult, I thought.
“I’ve got to take a sick kid home, because I can’t get the mother on the phone,” Jim went on. “Both the fourth grade teachers have my permission for this woman to take kids out of class one at a time. All you need to do is find her a place to interview them.”
A few minutes later, the researcher, a doctoral student at the nearby University of Wisconsin, arrived. She was carrying a heavy piece of equipment to use in her study. After a hurried introduction, I picked up her apparatus, “let’s try to set you up in the high school home economics kitchen,” I told her. “The class is currently doing sewing, so the kitchen will be empty.”
As she and I walked down the hallway between elementary and high school, I noticed something, I really didn’t really know what it was, about her. I still don’t. She was about five foot-six, with blue eyes and light brown hair, neither pretty nor unattractive. There was a four step stairway at the end of the hall entering the high school wing of the Marshall School building. As I hefted the research apparatus up those stairs, I told myself, “I am going to marry this woman.”
On reaching the home economics suite, I arranged a place in the kitchen for Nancy to interview the fourth graders. I Scotch-taped newspaper over the glass panel in the door between sewing room and kitchen so the girls in the home ec class wouldn’t disturb the research. I recalled admonishing Nancy, “never put Scotch Tape on the wood, it pulls the varnish off.” Before I left, I asked her for a date on the upcoming weekend, and she accepted. (For many years after, Nancy would remind me that Scotch Tape can pull varnish off of wood finish.)
Then strangely, after redreaming this true life story of my initial meeting with the love of life, my dream ended abruptly. I thanked God for sending this vivid dream to me, although it made me a little sad. I somewhat admusedly told myself, “oh yes, I took two and a half years to make it happen, but I married her.”
Now here I was again, reminiscing in my recliner, very much awake. Forty-five years have passed since that day in Jim Langer’s office back in Wisconsin when I first met Nancy. But my most vivid memory was now much more recent and very close to home. Only a short four months ago our son Scott and I stood beside his mother’s bedside and watched my wife of over 42 years quietly die. Her lungs had been constantly filling up with fluid for the past two years, and recently her condition had worsened.
“I want to go home,” she had told her doctor when he visited her hospital room. All of us in that room knew that on the end of that short sentence could have been an additional two words, “to die.”
Our only son Scott, who lived nearby, was always a major help. He took his vacation to care for his mother when she got home. Even I had hobbled up to her apartment to help her the best as I could when she called. The local Hospice organization sent over a hospital bed and made some home calls. After one week back at home, Nancy died. Now four months had passed. One night, sleeping in my recliner as I always had to do, I started to dream. No, I wasn’t dreaming about my late wife this time, as someone might conclude, but of random, unconnected topics. Rather, I found myself dreaming about, of all things, that annoying breathing sound.
This went on for a short time, then I woke up. I looked around, realizing I was now wide awake. Then I suddenly noticed that while my dreaming was indeed over, the breathing noise continued. I actually thought someone was in the room with me, but no one was there, just me.
I had heard this noise before.
It was when I was with Nancy as she struggled, trying to breathe despite her forever filling lungs. The breathing noise went on for about a minute or two, then stopped. I sat there alone in my apartment, confused and mystified.
Then it hit me. That breathing noise, forever etched in my memory, was the same one I had heard Nancy make so often, now I was hearing it again. Could my Sweetheart possibly have visited me from wherever? The answer to that question can only be given by Almighty God. But for me, this most recent memory is the greatest one.
Glenn Dahlem, age 83, Honolulu, Hawaii resident, likes to write about farming/gardening, coaching sports, linguistics and teaching methods. He holds B.S. and Ph.D. degrees from his original home town school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an M.S. from Winona (Minnesota) State University.