This is my story from the book Chicken Soup for the Soul, Dreams and Premonitions. It’s an amazing book with 100 more stories by other authors about the mysterious language of dreams.
I sought my soul, but my soul I could not see. I sought my God, but my God eluded me. I sought my brother and I found all three. ~ Author Unknown
My brother Paul started out in life with great potential. He was a gifted storyteller and an amazing athlete. I idolized him and followed him everywhere. We got along very well until he became a teenager. He changed drastically and I couldn’t understand why.
It was 1973 when he turned thirteen, and our Southern California neighborhood was awash in illicit drugs—mostly marijuana but also harder drugs like LSD. Paul became a stranger to me, and I became an annoyance to him and his friends. I internalized this rejection until I realized they didn’t want me around in case I “finked” on them about their drug use.
Most teenagers laugh at adults who tell them marijuana is a gateway drug that will lead to harder drugs, but in my brother’s case it was absolutely true. He went right up the ladder from pot to heroine, spent eight years of his life in jail for drug-related offenses, and died of an overdose at the age of thirty-seven.
His death devastated my parents and I after so many years of hoping and praying that he would get his life together. By the time he died, he was covered with menacing tattoos, had lost most of his teeth, and no longer resembled the sun-kissed big brother I played in the street with as a child. The athlete was gone and the only stories he told were lies to the police.
Mothers always suffer most for their children’s mistakes. My father told me that when the police called at three a.m. to tell them Paul had died, she walked away from the phone crying “no” over and over. Their worst nightmare had come true. She took prescription drugs for years afterward just to avoid being driven insane by grief. She slept a lot and my father buried himself in work. I was so angry and resentful toward Paul for dying in such a preventable way, and for the misery he caused our family, I couldn’t even cry. Anger and hatred were easier to handle than sadness.
I moved back in with my parents for a few months and found that I had to hide my grief to help them through theirs. The accumulated weight of their pain and my own was so overwhelming, I felt numb inside. Grief at its worse is a kind of walking death. Eventually, this numbness started to get me into trouble.
I was driving on a freeway one night when another driver started tailgating me, even though I was traveling ten miles per hour faster than the speed limit. I ignored him until he got closer and flashed his bright lights. A disproportionate rage started building in me.
Earlier that day, I had stood with my mother under an umbrella in a cold cemetery, trying to find a gravesite for my brother. I felt a kind of righteous indignation toward the tailgater for adding to the unbearable load of pain I was already carrying. In that moment, he became more than just some jerk on the road. He became a symbol of the chaos in life that attacks us without warning. He also became a target for my anger, which, until then, had been unfocused.
I slammed on my brakes. He went into a skid, then caught up with me and yelled at me to pull over. I did. He stopped behind me. We got out of our cars and walked toward each other. My grief had removed all fear. I had never been aggressive before, but that night, I wanted to fight. I couldn’t fight the bitter reality of my brother’s death, or the avalanche of misery my parents were buried under, or the dark labyrinth of despair my life had become. But I could fight this man. This was tangible. I suspect most violence is that way—an outward expression of deep inner torment and helplessness. People don’t punch each other; they punch their own misery.
He continued to curse at me, but I said nothing. As we got closer, he looked at my face in the headlights of oncoming traffic and saw my eyes, which had been rendered lifeless by sorrow. I wasn’t angry, scared, or even slightly agitated. I just didn’t care anymore. He stopped and asked, “What’s wrong with you?” I kept walking toward him. When I had almost reached him, he turned, ran back to his car, cursed me one last time and drove away. It was terribly reckless of me. If he had a gun, I could have been killed. Part of me must have wanted to die so the pain could finally stop.
The next night, I dreamed I was driving on the same freeway with the same tailgater behind me. Everything happened the same way, but as I walked toward him and his face became clear, I saw it was my brother. Shocked, I ran to him and hugged him tight, crying with relief that he was still alive.
I said, “Paul, you’ve got to let me take you to see mom and dad. They miss you so much.”
“I can’t. I have a new home now,” he replied.
I asked him where it was. He looked up, and then smiled at me. It was a smile full of the peace and joy he had lost long ago in life. The teeth that were rotted out by drug use were fully restored. I knew what and where he meant when he looked up, but I kept begging him to come home, desperate to keep him from leaving again.
He said, “Mark, listen. I came to tell you to stop doing things like this. Your sadness is making you crazy. Don’t die in some stupid way like I did. Mom and dad need you now more than ever.”
I promised I wouldn’t and hugged him again, as if I could make him live again by not letting go. But then he was gone. I awoke in bed and lay there thinking about the dream, trying to remember and feel every part of it again.
The psychologist Sigmund Freud said one of the purposes of dreams is wish fulfillment. My deepest wish was to talk to my brother again, so that may be true, but I still think Freud was too cynical. The fulfillment of a wish doesn’t make the dream untrue. I didn’t dream that my brother was alive again. He was physically dead in my dream and he knew that he was.
Maybe those we’ve lost can’t get through the wall of our conscious minds, but our unconscious minds are just porous enough for them to find a way in. Surely they’re just as desperate as we are to talk again, especially if they see us behaving foolishly, and need to warn us off a dangerous path.
Since I had that dream, I have honored my brother’s request. I allow myself to feel sad, and I don’t let it become rage. Aside from all the other gifts I might receive from being a patient, peaceful person, it is also the fulfillment of his dying wish for me, a wish delivered in a most mysterious and liberating dream.