Not long after Dad died, I had a dream – a short, abrupt dream that seemed to have a pressing need to get right to its point. Here’s how it went: Mom and I were in the living room of my parents’ house, and my sisters were sort of standing in the background. Usually, when I dream of someone’s house, it is not the house they actually inhabit in real life. It is just some “dream” house. But in this dream, the house was actually my parents’ house. Someone rang the doorbell. We were not expecting anyone. When Mom and I opened the door, an old woman dressed head-to-foot in black stood before us. I don’t recall her speaking or gesturing or exhibiting an expression of any kind; she was just there. She seemed to serve no other purpose but to get us to open the door. We went out on the front porch, and I think she kind of lingered there a while but then she was gone. The air was gray with rain, and the yard was flooded with several feet of dingy water. The water was rising slowly but visibly. Then, Dad was there, standing on the porch about five feet to my left. He looked as he had in the prime of life, maybe in his 40s or 50s. He stared out at the water. I looked at Dad and said, “You’re concerned about the water, aren’t you?” He looked at me and said, “Yes. You need a boat.”
I am a sound sleeper; very few things are capable of disturbing my slumber, but this dream woke me out of a deep sleep. I have a lot of strange dreams, a trait I inherited from Dad. Sometimes, they are silly; sometimes, frustrating; sometimes, truly bizarre. Usually, they make little sense, and I remember very little about them. But every once in a while, I have a dream that jars me, a dream that I remember vividly and that I am confident holds a message. And this was one of those dreams. What struck me immediately as I awoke was Dad’s concern for us. I had the definite feeling that his concern hinged on the fact that he knew what we needed, but he could not give it to us. All he could do was offer advice. “You need a boat.” The warning was offered calmly, as was Dad’s way, but quite decisively. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but very soon, you will need a boat.
Naturally, I started researching dream interpretation. While I doubt that every dream holds some deep-seated meaning, I do believe dreams are the subconscious mind’s way of running free, unleashed by walls of emotional defense that crumble while we sleep. So I pay attention when a dream sticks with me, and I really wanted to understand this one. So, here’s my take on the things that stood out in my dream:
An old lady wearing black– Old people in dreams often mean death. They can also mean wisdom or knowledge, but since the old lady in my dream never spoke, imparting wisdom did not appear to be her task. Black can also indicate death, and that old lady was draped completely in black. So, this image seems fairly straightforward. Death came a-knocking.
Home – Your home, especially a childhood home, represents your basic needs or priorities or your beliefs about “home.”
Water – Water typically symbolizes the subconscious and one’s emotional state of mind. It can say all sorts of things about one’s emotions, depending on the kind of water it is. Calm, clear water means serenity and peace of mind. Muddy water relates to negative emotions. Water rising up into your house = being overwhelmed by one’s emotions. Bingo. (Also, water, in the form of rain, plays a significant role in the memory I will hold of my father’s transition from this life, so that seems important to note as well.)
Boat – A boat symbolizes one’s ability to cope with emotions. So I’m guessing, no boat = no coping.
A deceased parent – Dreaming of a deceased parent relates to fears about losing him and coping with his death.
Family – Dreaming of family members represents security, warmth, and love (unless the relationship is bad, in which case it can mean bitterness or jealousy). In my case, it is definitely the former. My mom, my sisters, and I grew closer as we cared for Dad, and we were all with Dad when he died. I think the message of the dream was intended for all of us.
So, how do I interpret my dream? Death came knocking to give me access to my Dad. As I think back on my dream, I believe the old lady disappeared when my father appeared. She had opened the door to the place where my father now resides, and her job was done. There are dreams referred to as visitations, and some of those dreams are intended offer advice from a deceased loved one, which seems the case with this dream. My father was the messenger. I’m not sure if the message was from Dad, from God, or from my own subconscious – maybe all of the above. The message seems to be, “Get a handle on your grief before it overwhelms you.” I also sensed, “Everything will be ok. Just be sure to get in that boat. Surround yourself with the people and places you love, and all will be well.”
The boat is taking shape. It has not appeared out of nowhere to save me. I couldn’t buy it, and it wasn’t given to me. I had a role in building the boat, and I think it is still under construction. It started as a raft, just a few pieces of wood tied together with some handmade rope – like that raft Tom Hanks built in the movie Castaway. It floated fine, but it couldn’t get him over those big waves. He needed a sail for that. For me, that sail has been in the form of friends and family who care for me. They pull me back in the boat when the water starts to pull me under and help me raise the sail so I can get over the rough waves. I’m still getting wet when the water splashes in, but I keep building the boat. Eventually, the sides of the boat will be tall enough to keep the water out, and I will be protected. Until then, it is enough to simply not drown.
I started writing this piece while on retreat. I go on retreats as often as I can. A few days off the grid is always good for my soul. Walking in the woods, sitting by the lake, reading, writing, sleeping, embracing the silence that is my prayer – all are waiting to nourish me on retreat. Each retreat is unique; I never really know what will happen. I take along a variety of items – books, journals, sketch pads, colored pencils – not knowing which I may actually use. I simply come prepared to let the Spirit take me where it will. As I was packing for this retreat, I grabbed an origami kit and placed it in my bag. I had forgotten I even had that origami kit, which consists of colored paper squares and instructions on how to fold a variety of designs. I spotted it as I was grabbing some other items and thought it might be fun. One night, sitting in that cozy cabin with a prayer shawl made for my dad draped over my legs, I decided to fold some origami and see where it took me. At that time, I had no idea I would end up writing about this dream. I hadn’t even thought about this dream for a couple of months. And I wasn’t thinking about it that night. I just started thumbing through the origami book to pick a design. Or maybe it picked me.
The first design I attempted – a boat. Yep, I made myself a boat. And it made me smile. Thanks, Dad. You always give such good advice.
Such a cheerful, neatly constructed boat too! That seems in character for you to proceed slowly, carefully, intentionally, thoughtfully, thoroughly. When your boat is complete it will be strong, well suited to you and able to carry you forward in safety. I’m sure your dad will keep offering his wisdom through the process. Hope you keep writing about it and sharing:)
Thanks, Cullen. It is a cheerful little boat, isn’t it? The color wasn’t intentional; I just pulled out the first sheet of paper my hand touched. Dad was a big Tennessee Vols fan, so the orange and white seems appropriate!
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