When my friend Tina died in 2003, she was not ready to go. At age 55, she thought she had beaten back breast cancer, so the attack by mutant cells on everything from her bones to her brain came as a shock, a case of mistaken identity.
One night, just weeks after her death, Tina visited my dream. I was in a room filled with people, a party of sorts, when I saw her watching me from the shadows.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said. “I want you to take a message for me.”
Another woman stepped between us. “You can see us? You can hear us?” she asked in surprise.
Suddenly the other people in the room began to crowd around me, clamoring for my attention. “Go away,” Tina growled. “She saw me first!” But these other souls were too insistent, pushing us further apart.
“What is your message?” I cried. But I woke without hearing. She never came again.
My son-in-law, Scott, lost his twin sister to the ravages of a brain tumor. Just 25, she fought hard before dying at 2 a.m., at home in the arms of their mother. Within minutes of her death, Scott sprang out of bed in his college apartment, jolted awake by Jenny, bent over him, shouting with sisterly irritation, “Scott! Get up. GET UP!” With her voice still echoing in his ears, he got the phone and curled back into his bed, anticipating the call that would tell him Jenny had died.
When my mother died at age 85, I was holding her hand, watching her slip away after years of failing health. I had enjoyed with my mother a rare gift, an adult friendship of common pleasures. I still reach for the phone to seek advice or share some bit of news she would have enjoyed. But in the two years since she died, Mother has never visited my dreams.
I recently saw previews for a new movie about a man who has a near death experience but comes back to life. He finds himself surrounded by ghosts, wanting him to take a message or fix something they left undone. I couldn’t help thinking about my dream of Tina and of Scott’s sister shouting in his ear. I believe that those who fight death, or who are surprised by it, will linger. At least for a short while. Not in the movie image of ghoulish zombies or a transparent specter hovering in the dark, but in a more subtle way. In dreams. In thoughts that slip around us like a silk cloak, so real we can feel them long after we awake.
I still despair that I did not stay asleep long enough to hear what Tina wanted to tell me. That I could not deliver her message. But maybe I did hear. Maybe her message was simply to remember her life, taken away long before she was finished with it.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.