Just before waking up this morning I was embroiled in a fast-moving dream, with many characters and locations. Toward the end, a friend and I are running away from something – a bar fight? an assault? – and I have a mark under my right eye, not quite a black eye but noticeable, enough that I’m self-conscious of my appearance. We end up at an upscale waterfront building of apartments and move from one door to the next; I can’t remember what or who we’re looking for but we engage with several people. Eventually I seem to find my own apartment, although I don’t recognize it or the building as a place I’ve ever been. Then, nearby, I notice my father moving into an adjacent unit and I’m ecstatic because it means he’s left the step-monster!
I wake up. It’s time to get up. My dogs notice me stirring and instantly give me their happy good morning greetings, jumping onto the bed and lying on top of me, offering kisses. Our morning ritual.
Remembering the dream mark under my eye, I look in the bathroom mirror, expecting to see what has often greeted me first thing in the morning lately: swelling and drooping in the area of skin just above my eyelid and below my eyebrow, usually just on the right side, what I’ve come to recognize as a sign of my cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) leaking condition. I often joke that it makes me look like I was in a bar fight the night before, so that would match pieces of my dream scenario.
But to my surprise, my eyebrow is normal this morning. Instead, I’m shocked to see that there’s an enormous swelling alongside my left cheek and jawline. I look like I have the jowls of Marlon Brando in the Godfather, but just on the left side.
Now that’s out of the blue. What the hell?
Apparently, my dreaming mind thought I should pay attention to this new swelling, an outward sign of an ongoing assault to my immune system. I was under attack, like in my dream, just not from another person. And no wonder I was self-conscious of my appearance in my dream; this swelling is quite noticeable and ugly!
I’ve been keeping an eye on an odd, small abscess on the gum just below my tooth line, right below the tooth I had crowned a few months ago. When I first noticed the bump, I took antibiotics prescribed by my dentist after describing it to his receptionist over the phone. There was no improvement, but the bump also didn’t worsen, so I ignored it, hoping my body would slowly heal it. Months went by with no change. Then a few days ago the bump felt tender and appeared inflamed. It has erupted pus several times – clearly a sign of infection – but again, there’s no real pain, just slight tenderness if I push on it, so I was waiting until next week to return to my dentist. I suspect there’s a foreign body embedded in the gum, likely from that crown procedure, and my body is trying but failing to get rid of it. No big deal.
Until this morning’s jarring new symptom. I have to believe the swollen cheek – same area as the abscess – is related, that the infection is spreading and the swelling is my immune system’s response. Clearly my dreaming self wants me to take this abscess more seriously. I’ve never been any good at self-care, at putting myself first or thinking I’m important, so I tend to let this sort of thing slide. My subconscious has lost patience, and now has my full attention. First thing Monday I’ll be visiting my dentist.
That bit in the dream about seeing my father moving into a nearby apartment? He’s been gone over ten years. He and I did once share an apartment, when I was in my twenties and he hadn’t yet remarried. For all the years he was married to his second wife, right up until his passing, I wanted him to leave her. But why did that show up in last night’s dream? Probably because I mentioned the “evil step-monster” in my last blog post three days ago.
What’s Up with Dreaming, Anyway?
There’s no consensus among scientists and thinkers as to why we dream. Freud felt every dream represents a wish fulfillment. More recently, some studying sleep and dreaming believe we dream to cement short term memories into long term ones while culling the ones that aren’t important. Others describe dreaming as simply thinking in our sleep, helping us sort through emotions. It’s known that physiological repairs occur while we sleep, including the production of more growth hormone. In the past couple of years, scientists are finding that events with high emotional impact are more likely to show up in some fashion in our dreams, which they theorize act as a sort of overnight therapy to soothe the emotional impact of our experiences.
One of the symptoms of my chronic low CSF levels is excessive sleeping, and along with that, more vivid dreaming. The dreams are kind of fun, actually, one symptom of low CSF I view as a positive because they usually involve pleasant scenarios with people I know and enjoy. Before this condition entered my life, I was rarely aware of my dreams.
On the flip side we have nightmares. They’re vivid, real, and disturbing, often causing us to yell in our sleep or wake up with heart racing. I hate them. It’s thought they serve an evolutionary purpose, focusing the brain on issues that need attention, like potential dangers, to ensure survival. On a less immediate level, nightmares might be our subconscious reminding us to pay attention to something we’ve been willfully ignoring but shouldn’t. That portion of my dream where I was fleeing a brawl – a sort of nightmare within a dream – was likely thanks to my subconscious awareness of a new swelling occurring in my cheek as I slept.
Thankfully, my nightmares are few and far between. Although, for about a decade after graduating law school, I had recurring nightmares of failing to show up for a critical exam, or being stuck in an elevator that’s falling uncontrolled through a skyscraper, death imminent if/when it hits bottom. Happily, those nightmares have stopped, although I learned recently that a colleague’s father, also an attorney, still has nightmares about being in court, completely unprepared, even though he’s been retired for 18 years. Apparently, some emotional scars on the brain take a lot of effort to heal.
I’ve always enjoyed trying to figure out why certain people, places or topics appear in my dreams at specific times. What seed got planted when, only to grow and bloom in my dreamscape? If I’m able to remember any part of a dream – usually, the details are hazy and remain mere seconds after I awaken – I can often trace it back to something I said, heard, saw or did in the previous day or two. The associations between reality and dream are often amusing and enlightening.
Sometimes, though, they’re powerful and have a lasting impact.
For example, not long after my father passed in 2009, I had an unusually vivid dream in which he appeared. I woke with tears in my eyes, smiling. I quickly wrote the dream down, wanting to remember all its details, knowing they were important but not fully grasping why.
That dream both comforted and haunted me over the next few years, especially because my father almost never appeared in my dreams. What was the dream telling me?
Starting in 2002, my father and I began collaborating on what would become my first book. I wanted to collect and preserve the amazing stories I had heard him and his colleagues at Boeing Flight Test tell over the years, test pilot stories often told only among themselves that I was afraid would die with them if I didn’t do something. I spent hundreds of hours taping interviews, collecting photos, taking notes, transcribing. But after my father died, I set it all aside, initially too deep in grief, later not sure how or if I could do it without him. The project seemed too daunting.
Years went by. I felt guilty that I wasn’t working toward completing the project. I had huge binders of research notes and documents and plastic bins full of photos and interview tapes, all stashed in a closet. Out of sight, but not out of mind, apparently, because that dream from 2009 kept intruding in my waking thoughts.
Finally in 2012 I admitted I’d forever regret it if I didn’t make a real attempt at writing the book. I created a Kickstarter page to raise funds for editing and publishing costs. Reaching my funding goal was a huge vote of confidence from others in my project. In May 2013 I put all work on hold and spent the entire summer writing. I knew I couldn’t let anyone – my father, his colleagues I’d interviewed, my Kickstarter backers – down. I was powerfully motivated. To my own astonishment, I completed the final draft in three months. The words flowed. The rest of that year was devoted to editing, formatting, finding a cover artist, and getting ready to self-publish. The book – Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter – finally took flight in February 2014.
As I was writing the book that summer of 2013, I had one of those lightning bolt moments. There was a major detail, a very important aspect of the dream, alerting me to what would have been a glaring hole in my book’s story had I ignored it.
The book covers the entire expanse of my father’s career as a WWII Navy aviator and Boeing test pilot, including all the models of Boeing airplanes he tested, from the B-47 in the 1950s through the 767 in the 1980s, when he retired. Starting with the 727, he was on each new model’s first flight except for the 747. I hadn’t planned to write much about the 747. That left a bit of a hole – most of the 1970s – in the chronology of the aviation aspects of the overall story.
I was always puzzled that my dream involved my father in a 747. Why not a 727, the airplane he always said was his favorite? A 747 is easily recognizable with its hump (upper deck) at the front. There was no mistaking that the airplane in my dream was a 747.
But why? I was bothered by that question and it gnawed at me as wrote the book. I had already decided to include the dream in the book’s epilogue.
Then one day, going through some of the old photos I had acquired from Boeing Archives, I stumbled upon one of my father and the rest of a first flight crew on the airstair next to a 747SP. The 747SP was a shorter, faster version of the original 747 (SP stood for special performance) that first flew on July 4, 1975, six years after the 747.
(From left: 747 SP first flight crew Lew Wallick, Ken Storms, Jack Waddell, and Paul Bennett who flew the F-86 chase plane. Photo: Boeing Archives.)
I’d forgotten about that first flight! My father was, in fact, on a first flight of every model commercial airplane Boeing made during his time there.
My dream made complete sense, now, and took on even greater significance.
Here’s how I describe the dream in my book’s epilogue:
I’m standing alone on a precipice high above the ocean. It’s dark, yet a full moon brightens the ground, the water’s surface, and the star-filled sky all around me. The sea murmurs far below. A slight breeze caresses my face, tossing my hair back.
It’s beautiful. I feel at peace.
Far away, among the billions of glittering stars, a small light catches my eye. I focus in and follow it, something I often did as a child with my father, watching shooting stars and the lights of airplanes cross the night sky.
Approaching steadily, the object brightens.
An airplane, I wonder? It moves horizontally across my field of vision, still in the distance but gaining in size, getting closer.
Then, abruptly—as if noticing me—it stops and hovers. I’m surprised. Airplanes don’t hover. Like a spaceship in a sci-fi movie, it turns 180 degrees, facing me head-on. After a brief moment of stillness, the giant airplane—a 747, I suddenly realize—sets a slow and sure course straight for me. I have no sense of fear. I feel calm and full of wonder. I watch, transfixed, as the aircraft silently draws near.
Maintaining an altitude mere feet above me, the 747 comes so close that its vast size fills my field of vision. Everything else—moon, stars, ocean—is obliterated. I peer inside the cockpit, dimly illuminated by the instrument displays. I see a pilot and copilot in their seats. Standing right behind them, one hand on each seat back, looking directly at me and smiling, is my father.
I smile back. A sense of warmth washes over me, like the enveloping love of one of his big squeezing hugs.
Then, with my father’s guidance, the enormous airplane slowly, silently, and ever-so-gently passes just above me. I reach out with my right hand, palm up, and lovingly stroke its belly as it glides by, like petting the soft underside of a horse.
“Thanks, Dad,” I whisper as the airplane slips past me, disappearing into the night.
[My eyes are leaking as I read that after pasting into this post. Conall’s looking at me, wondering why I’m sad. I tell him these are happy tears. I miss my father so much.]
Saying “Thanks, Dad” in the dream wasn’t because he was an amazing father – he was – but a subconscious acknowledgement that he had left me the gift of amazing stories to be told, symbolized by that slow-moving 747. My dream was a reminder that his gift would allow me realize my own long-standing dream of being a published author. It just took awhile for me to figure it out.
I can only imagine the flak I would have received from my father’s colleagues, though, had I left out that 747SP milestone.
Whew! Thanks, Dad! You were right, on so many levels: I should always follow my dreams.
I don’t believe in visitations from the dearly departed, but I do believe my dream was some sort of gentle nudge from my father’s energy in the universe.
[Featured image: Ryan Hutton on Unsplash.]