On most mornings I wake Rohan with a cup of tea. She drinks sitting up in bed, I sit on a comfy chair and soon there is the inevitable question “.. and how did you sleep?” When dreams occur they take pride of place and after careful retelling we puzzle together over what might have inspired the dream and what it might mean. I rarely dream but soon after we arrived in France in early July I had two, and both were nightmares about our eldest son Daniel who died suddenly seven and a half years ago (“When words failed me”. Greyhares, 24 March 2013).
We were sitting in a cafe when the news came. My phone rang and I went outside to answer. After introducing herself, one of Daniel’s closest friends told me calmly and clearly what had happened and although she left no room for doubt, the news of his death was impossible to absorb let alone to believe. I returned to Rohan and relaying what I had heard was almost impossible.
Recovery has been slow and for each of us the path has been different. We always share the sadness of his birthday and the anniversaries of his death. For me now, every three weeks or so something happens that brings back memories and makes me think, sometimes even tearful. For Rohan, memories of Daniel and moments of sadness are more common, sometimes occurring several times each week.
My two nightmares were a most awful way of ‘bringing him back’. In the first, I dreamt that I was in bed in our cottage in France. It was dark and I was half asleep as I waited for Rohan to come home from an evening meeting. I heard her open and then close the front door and then suddenly Daniel, as a man, was at the bedside leaning over me kissing me goodnight. He was sweating and very agitated and I asked him “Why are you so nervous?”, to which he replied “I am very anxious – I haven’t been back for seven years”. With that I woke in tears saying “Daniel, this can’t be you – you are dead”.
In the second dream three days later, I was standing in the doorway looking into the sitting room in my parents London house. In the middle of the room two chattering girls aged around five years were playing on the parquet floor; looking on was Daniel standing, leaning against the wall. His was an imposing figure; all 6ft10inches of him dressed in greys and blacks and sporting quite a tum. Several times the children stood up and gently biffed him, sometimes his legs, sometimes his tummy and each time he smiled in gentle acknowledgement. With each biff I said aloud “You must be careful, Daniel is dead.” – no one took any notice. After four such exchanges I woke sobbing.
After both dreams I got up out of bed and sad, shaken and even frightened I went into my study. For me, being woken up by dreams is most unusual and my crying was a first! Each time it took around an hour to recover enough to go back to bed.
As I recounted, Rohan was both very moved and gently comforting. But soon we were puzzling together over what might have brought Dan back in this way. There were two reasons that felt right. One would have brought him closer generally; the other would have touched me more precisely now that I am gardening.
Thoughts about Daniel have been heightened by once again reading a collection of around seventy of his poems that we have just published. For any parent, not feeling moved would have been impossible. It is the last line of his poem, ‘Once a Jolly Soldier’, that I find particularly moving and that line is this blog’s title. The poem itself ostensibly tells how because he had grown tall, hugging him was difficult. Now, of course, it eerily refers to his dying when he has become really out of reach. Reciting the line is always sad.
Now to the more precise stimulus. During the very week of the dreams I had become aware that the once sturdy fig tree we had planted in Daniel’s memory was now ill, not to say moribund (see illustration). Our Treguennec gardener had told us of the changes some months ago; now, while digging and weeding nearby its plight became obvious and very moving. The tree wasn’t him, but it might as well have been.
In all this, both Rohan and later our son Joshua commented how lucky I had been to see Dan and speak to him. It was far from how I felt, but their idea did somehow help lighten the experience. Both also asked if I ever talk with Dan otherwise – they do. I never have, but perhaps by doing so I might talk through some of the issues that I had failed to deal with earlier; warding off further nightmares would certainly be worthwhile.
The illustration is a photo of the fig tree we planted in our Tréguennec garden in Daniel’s memory six years ago. Normally, at this time of year, it would be covered with shiny green leaves hiding umpteen little, yet-to-ripen green figs.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Joshua, Al, Rohan and Vivien.