35: This I Know

35: This I Know

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

This I Know

From the bitterness of disease man learns the sweetness of health.

~Catalan Proverb

If we spend a third of our lives sleeping, is it possible the time is more productively spent than we imagine? I like to think so. I’ve heard in dreams we are able to solve problems, get in touch with our own subconscious minds, and even be more receptive to the messages of loved ones who have passed on. I’m convinced I once managed all of those in the course of a single, life-changing night.

When my mother died, I couldn’t be with her at the end. That bothered me so much that I secretly asked for a sign that she knew I loved her. I told myself that if I dreamed she said the words, “I know,” it would be my sign she had heard.

“I know,” she said in the dream. I awoke with a start. Even though she’d said the words, it wasn’t at all the dream I had envisioned. It wasn’t sentimental. But then, neither was my mother. In the dream, I had just finished telling her I needed to quit smoking. Leave it to my mother to find a way to correct my behavior even after her death!

So when I woke up, I tried — unsuccessfully again — to quit. By that point, I had probably quit close to two dozen times. Usually I’d make it a couple of days. Sometimes, I made it several months. Once I even made it a year. I always started again. Life was just too stressful.

My mother always had ways of making herself heard, though. Around that time, I had the mother of all nightmares — a marathon of mayhem that made Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve saga seem like a frolic. It felt like it lasted the better part of a year rather than one night. It was a nightmare that I had lung cancer. In the dream I had to live through every single stage.

It started with worry over a nagging cough. I went to the doctor and had some tests.

After receiving the diagnosis, I sat in my car and broke down, wondering how I would ever be able to drive home. I had to tell my children and watch them cry, knowing I’d failed them. I had to see the pity and horror on people’s faces when they found out what I had brought on myself.

I struggled through each treatment — biopsies, surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation — in agonizing detail, just as if it were really happening. I watched my hair fall out in clumps and wore a wig that didn’t look right.

I witnessed the agony it put my family through at the same time I went through an agony all my own. On top of it all, I had to deal with my own guilt and the mounting doctor bills.

In the end, I was forced to say goodbye to my family, my friends, and my life. I worried about what would happen to my children and pets, but it was too late. On and on and on the wretched dream went, refusing to allow me any escape. At long last, I was struggling for each breath on my deathbed.

When I finally “died,” I was given the most incredible gift, a rebirth of sorts. It was a true awakening in every sense. I wasn’t merely shaken and horrified. I was sobbing uncontrollably.

I woke up and staggered out of bed on wobbly legs, searched for my cigarettes as I wiped away the tears of relief. When I found them, I hurled them into the garbage, knowing without question that if I touched those things again, the nightmare would come true. For all I knew, it might still come true someday, but for the moment, I was going to do everything I possibly could to have more time.

That was more than a dozen years ago. I don’t remember the exact date. I never commemorated it in any way because that was too much like quitting smoking. I wasn’t quitting anything — I was starting over, choosing life. Even now, I continue to choose life every single day.

I used to tell myself I’d find “a better time” to quit smoking. I’d wait until I was less stressed. I’d wait until my life was more settled. I’d wait to get over the next hurdle first . . . but, of course, there are always more hurdles. Life is never settled. It is too dynamic.

Now I sometimes joke that I quit smoking, got a divorce, and went through menopause all at the same time, and they canceled each other out. I joke about it, but it’s still true. I was already sleepless and crabby and sweaty and stressed, so what did a little more hurt? I decided it could only get better . . . and thanks to my nightmare, I always knew it could be much, much worse. I told myself I was entering this new stage of my life with a fresh start, no matter how crazily I was approaching it.

In fact, I was later surprised at just how much better things became.

The ups and downs are just the way life is. I accept and embrace that every single day. Sure, I was incredibly foolish to have started smoking in the first place, but I’ve worked hard to make better choices, and that feels good. Knowing I tackled a seemingly insurmountable goal gives me an amazing sense of empowerment. The dream did more for me than simply get me to quit smoking. It began a chain reaction that taught me I can change my life with one magic tool: resolve that is fierce enough to overcome my own ridiculous excuses.

My children are grown now, and I no longer have to worry about what would become of them if I died, but I still wouldn’t touch a cigarette because of the (literal!) nightmare that smoking put me through. Recently, I had another dream of my mother.

She was standing in front of me, expressionless, as if waiting for something. “I quit smoking,” I announced proudly, “and I feel wonderful.”

This time, a slow smile spread across her face as she said, “I know.”

~T’Mara Goodsell

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