When you’re young, people don’t tell you that as you grow older you begin to lose bits and pieces of memory, a face here, a place there. Poof. Forever. Gone. Somewhere in the mid 90’s I lost my mental image of my childhood friend Gail. I could no longer close my eyes and see her face distinctly. No longer could I hear her voice in my head. I retained vivid memories of things we’d done, places we’d gone, but no facial features. I had a name with no face. Of course I knew what she looked like. Straight shoulder length brown hair, thick eyebrows and long lashes, large impish brown eyes, and an overactive intellect that propelled her through high school and into college before her 17th birthday. A larger than life woman, at 5’9” she towered over me; slim yet densely muscled with no discernible waist, and larger than normal feet. I often teased her by saying that she came from sturdy German peasant stock, designed for a life in the fields yet perpetually with her head in the clouds, which wasn’t far from the truth. I believe that hearty genetic predisposition may have extended her life while simultaneously drawing it to a close.
When she was initially diagnosed shortly after her 20th birthday in 1987, AIDS was a mystery disease; there was no drug cocktail, no treatment facilities, and no existing research. An AIDS diagnosis was a death sentence, with a limited range of appeal, and no chance of parole. My best friend died of complications due to AIDS in 1990.
My maternal grandmother passed away in her sleep at home in August 1990, one month before Gail died of pneumonia. Afterward my mother would say that she caught glimpses of grandma out of the corner of her eye only to turn to see nothing. Cognitively she knew that no one was there, yet sometimes turning very quickly to try to capture the image more fully or for a few seconds longer. My mother was convinced in the months after grandma’s death that something remained, something essential and tangible, which could be sensed but not seen. I did not harbor any such ideas, thinking as many other family members did that her images of grandma were merely wishful thinking, or a trick of the mind, or perhaps mom was slipping into a mild form of mental illness brought on by extreme stress and depression.
In the intervening years since Gail’s death I’ve moved multiple times. All over Florida, diametrically to Seattle, the absolute opposite corner of the country, and most recently to the Canadian border, misplacing photos all along the way. As a result of my transcontinental wandering I have no tangible image, nothing except my faulty memory to prove that she even existed. Yet I know she did, I’ve seen her.
Gail has come to me in dreams only twice. Both times unprovoked and unbidden. If I were a person of faith I would have to say in a manner approaching personal prophesy. But I am not a believer. I have no devout frame of reference. No god to pray to. No deity to thank. In retrospect I am thankful for the intervention regardless of its cosmic unconventional source.
In early 1999 I was living alone for the first time in many years, having ended a long term fiasco and not terribly interested in commencing another. Some casual dates, no strings or commitments, have a little fun and make some new friends was my only real game plan. Internet dating was just beginning to catch its stride and it was easier than ever before to interact with people from all over the world via a modem connection and a keyboard. When I began receiving messages from Washington State on a nightly basis I thought I had met a friend, someone I could confide in, someone I could trust emotionally. I wasn’t actually looking for another lover. After several months of interaction, and multiple requests, I eventually relented to a face to face visit. She would fly to Orlando with her eleven year old daughter for a few days, hang out at Daytona Beach, see Disney World and go home. If it felt awkward or uncomfortable she’d go to a hotel. No questions asked.
The night before their arrival I was awakened around 3 am feeling like I’d had a heart attack, shaking uncontrollably, heart pounding, drenched in cold sweat and hyper alert. I had seen my friend, my long dead friend in my dreams and the image scarred my mind, searing into my consciousness like the branding of my soul.
Gail, the beautiful young woman I knew so intimately appeared to me as she was at that precise moment. Moldering in her grave of 9 years, in the later stages of decomposition, indiscernible as human, yet in spite of her deteriorated physical condition absolutely and irrevocably manifested as the woman I knew as Gail in my mind. In the dream she descended a battered staircase to a landing adjacent to a foyer where I stood mesmerized. Her spectral essence appeared absent any definite facial features, lanky hair hanging limp, her gangling frame wrapped within a decaying funereal dress and heels.
She approached me silently with an air of displeasure and disappointment that I viscerally felt but could not articulate in words. Held captive by the image of a woman I knew with certainty to be dead, my muscles surged with a burst of adrenaline. Quivering slightly the muscles so finely tuned in ordinary life, failed to respond to my demand to flee. Frantically looking for a place to hide and feeling catatonic, I was completely immobilized. I awakened instantly, petrified with the desire to run, to escape.
The following morning shaken and confused with what I interpreted as a lack of sleep, I quickly filed away the whole event as a silly dream. I immediately dismissed Gail’s appearance as the inner workings of an overactive imagination and nervous anticipation. I didn’t believe in dreams or prophesy. I didn’t believe in signs, or warnings, and I certainly didn’t hedge my bets by adopting a half-hearted agnostic viewpoint.
Whether I couldn’t afford to pay heed, or didn’t see the necessity I ignored what I later perceived to be Gail’s initial warning. I pursued the relationship in Washington even though I subconsciously knew at the inception that it was destined to be a catastrophic failure. At the time I had no idea that it would be a decade long failure of elephantine proportions. Hindsight’s funny that way.
On Halloween night, October 31st, 2009, I spent the evening with a six pack of Alaskan Amber beer, a medium fluffy pastel green paint roller and a 2 inch angled poly-nylon trim brush, alternately in hand. My bedroom walls, a fairytale pink calamine colored calamity required a serious overhaul to the more sophisticated aura of richly saturated French cream. While I’ve never been a trendy fashion conscious person I felt it was important for my living space to exhibit something of my current situation; that of a newly single woman, not a pseudo-married drudge with dependents, even if the dependents were literally dogs.
Unfortunately my attitude of there’s no time like the present left me little recourse except to dig in and finish the job. Between running to the door for trick-or-treat-er’s and keeping my two miniature dachshunds at bay, I repainted my personal sleeping space into a more inviting room that I could happily view through sleepy eyes every morning without cringing. With some modicum of refined satisfaction, the new paint felt like a new beginning, a new lease with renegotiated terms.
According to folklore, the night of October 31st is All Hallows Eve, a brief period of time when the boundaries between earth and the otherworld are blurred, and passage between portals is possible. One night each year the souls of the deceased roam the earth. One single night of restless wandering, of ghoulish spirits, and otherworldly events, followed on All Saints Day by ascension of the worthy into heaven.
That Halloween, Gail decided to make her reappearance. As before, she appeared in my dreams immediately prior to a first meeting with a prospective suitor, but with one major variation; I was not indifferent to this introduction. This woman had the potential to be important, vital and life changing. I found myself willing to be absolutely vulnerable and unreservedly open for the first time. Feeling cautious of every word, every nuance, I envisioned an imaginary minefield of potential faux pas that threatened to obliterate this fledgling romance into just another date. I approached this encounter as if I were offering my own life force; a breathing, fragile and delicate living thing cupped within my proffered hands.
The apparition that I recognized as Gail appeared that Halloween night as the woman she should have been, fecund with life and all of its possibilities. She materialized standing in the doorway of my bedroom, youthful and glowing with good health, not having aged in the intervening years as I had. Almost as if instead of dying of AIDS twenty years ago, Gail had been granted entrance into Tír na nÓg, the Irish land of perpetual youth. Vibrantly alive, brimming with happiness, she paused long enough for me to comprehend her silent approval, what I judged to be her sanction of my life’s choices. She faded as quickly as she came, while I merrily drifted off into another dream.
Gail’s dream would remain until the next morning, a remote reality floating in my subconscious mind patiently awaiting recognition. The following morning I awakened smiling, refreshed and revitalized. It’s entirely possible the dream was a result of a long night of painting and cleaning, and one too many ales. Maybe it was the cream colored paint fumes gone to my head. What I know for certain, is that my autonomic mind, in collaboration with my limbic system, drafted the dream from thoughts that ricocheted off my cerebral cortex, bounded for collisions within the right hemisphere of my frontal lobe like the actions of a silver ball within a pinball machine played by a virtuoso. But, I prefer to think that my friend was attempting to guide me to make better choices.
I’m getting married tomorrow to the woman I met on All Saints day. Message received. Thanks Gail!