In grade three or thereabouts a story was going around about the dangers of dying in your dreams. The story had two versions. The more dire version maintained that if you didn't wake up the split-second before you hit the ground/ met the bullet/ went up in flames, then you would die in real life, and your parents would find you dead in your room. This scared the crap out of my eight year old self. Even when my parents pointed out that there was no way of verifying a sleeper's cause of death as dream-induced (oneiropathic death?), I remained pretty sure that I was doomed to die by a nightmare that didn't know when to stop. The other, milder story said that dying in dreams was a sign of severe psychological issues.
So far I have died twice in my dreams, and as far as I can tell I'm not dead or too disturbed. But the experience is disturbing enough.
What I've realized from these dreams is that my subconscious is not up to the task of portraying what it's like to be dead. I don't hurtle forward into nothingness; I don't get a fast-track entry into afterlives of pleasure or torment; and my consciousness isn't pinned to my body (or what remains of my body; in both of my death dreams I've been hit by a mortar round – isn't that strange?). Instead I find myself in a new body. But the body does not come with a new life. Instead it's clear, in the way that dreams clarify by way of tacit certainty, that the new body is a loaner, a kind of holder for my awareness until I die again.
That's right – die again. Bodily death in my dreams is only the first stage in being booted out of this world. Afterwards, I am made to examine forms(somebody hands me a clipboard) and certify that I am scheduled for death at some undetermined-but-definitely-soon point. The forms are stamped, signed, and generally look as if they've been pulled from some file cabinet from an office in Albania in 1976. First the body is destroyed, then the bureaucracy takes over. During this period I feel a strange lightness, as if the weight of my experience no longer matters. It is a relief tinged with a bit of melancholy, especially when I see my broken corpse. Best of all, nobody cares that I'm now dead, and the people who were only moments before trying to kill me are now freed up for casual conversation.
I never experience the second death. Instead I wake up, my eyes opening to 4 a.m. darkness, my heart whumping away and my lungs aching, as if a gigantic weight has just been lifted off my body. In two days I will turn thirty-seven, and I wonder how many more times in my life I will find myself dead in my dreams, alive and waiting for the death that never comes? Except of course that it will come eventually - I just won't be there for the actual moment.
I blame The Flintstones. In all seriousness, it was Hanna-Barbera that implanted this bodily roundelay notion of death in my tiny, unformed mind. When I was very young, I watched an episode in which Fred got fired and then spent the rest of the episode sitting around his stone hut bitching about his fate. I didn't get it. I thought that he had been fired upon, that he had been killed, and that he had been given an extra allotment of time to say goodbye to everyone, to examine options and make plans that cannot possibly succeed. It seemed unspeakably cruel and strange for Mr. Slate to do this to Fred, and crueller still that a universe with this kind of punishment could be imagined and portrayed. Can I sue? And wouldn't it set an excellent precedent for all those disturbed people wandering around who could lay their troubles at the foot of childhood entertainment? I hope so.