Thursday, December 28, 2006

I see dead people

This morning, sleeping in with a pillow over my head to muffle the noise of the cats clamoring at the door for me to get up and feed them, I had one of the worst dreams of my life. I dreamed that my mother brought me news of my brother’s death. I spun into the surreal terrain of acute grief — that breathtaking anguish, that sense of unreality — which fits so closely with dream-logic that it followed me into waking, its tendrils clinging to me like vapours from the crypt.

As in waking life, my head played the game of trying to un-know the thing that was causing it such terrible distress: I woke up in the dream and wondered, Have I only dreamed this? Is he still alive? and, just as in waking life, my memory of the calamity came flooding back and I was again overcome by waves of rage and sorrow. In the midst of it came the thought, “It’s what he wanted. Why be so upset when it’s what he wanted?” I paused there for a moment until the next upswell came and blotted it out.

When my father telephoned me in Dawson City in 1988 to tell me that he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer and had been given six to twelve months to live, my first thought was, “I always knew you’d do this.” It wasn’t hard to deduce — he’d been warned at nineteen that if he kept smoking he’d go the same way as his own father, with lung cancer in his forties.

My stepmother’s death was predictable, as well. I was on the phone with my sister-in-law one day and she mentioned that she didn’t think L. was going to live very long, given her lifestyle. I agreed. ”How long do you think?” I asked. “Two years,” she said, which was my thought exactly. Though she didn’t have a thing wrong with her at the time, L. lived just 27 months. It was cancer that took her, the same one that had taken my father — a “lifestyle cancer”, the oncologist called it. She was fifty-four.

Before L., there was D. I met him three weeks after my dad died. It was a self-destructive time for me, and I gravitated toward people with similar proclivities. I drank a lot, and took whatever drugs came my way. One night, just a few weeks after D. and I met, we were high on MDA and he let me see it: the death urge, Thanatos. It was in his eyes, plain as anything. I recoiled, cursing him. You’re going to die, you bastard, aren’t you? And you’re not going to do a fucking thing to stop it.” He laughed at me, treating it as a joke, but I knew what I’d seen. For a year I tried to stop it. I discovered that it’s dangerous to get in the way of someone who’s dedicated to his own destruction. He died a year after we broke up, OD’d on heroin in the bathroom of an after-hours joint. He was twenty-seven years old.

Am I psychic? A little, perhaps, but that’s not what I believe this is. What I believe it is is an ability to recognize in others — others to whom I’m close — a deep ambivalence toward their own existence. I believe I recognize it in them because it’s also in me. It’s not like it’s all that rare or anything — I’m beginning to suspect that we learn it from our parents, like some sort of dark family value that we internalize along with ideas about right and wrong and how good or bad life is going to be and how to manage.

I know that my brother has been somewhat unattached to life since he had a fall off a mountain six years ago. With a snapped ankle, he wasn’t seriously injured, but he told me later that in those moments when he was falling, he knew he might die, and he welcomed it. He said that imagining his son and his wife looking down on him in his coffin made him want to live for their sake, but it seems to me that he’s been courting death ever since.

He’s doing well at the moment. He’s in his fourth treatment centre — a good one, this time. He’s almost four months clean and he’s returning to himself in recognizable ways. He offered to help with Christmas dinner — something that wouldn't have occurred to him even a month ago. That I see him getting better doesn’t change the fact that I know what I know: he wants to die. Maybe not whole-heartedly, and maybe not all the time, but he wants it from somewhere deep inside himself and it doesn’t go away. Perhaps he can back away from it. I do this consciously now, anchoring myself to people and animals, to responsibilities, to plans and commitments, to joys and satisfactions. I find there are many reasons to stick around, not least of which is the unmitigated suffering of those I'd leave behind. I hope he’ll find his own reasons to stay.

People tell us everything, if we’re paying attention. Somewhere down in the basement our dreaming mind puts the pieces together and we call it intuition or precognition, but it’s really just an unconscious form of deduction. We get to know things we wish we didn’t know. After waking up choking on my tears this morning, I wish I didn't anticipate the loss of those I love, but I treat people better when I take their plight seriously, so there’s that, anyway.


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