I wrote in “In Dreams Awake” about a dream I had that came true not long ago. Now I wish to write about another dream I had a few weeks back. It’s rare for me to remember dreams at all, and nearly unheard of for me to remember them in this much detail. So here is a dream that has not come true, at least not yet.
To unpathed waters, undreamed shores. – William Shakespeare
Dreams are illustrations… from the book your soul is writing about you. – Marsha Norman
I dreamed Mary and I were sitting in folding metal chairs – the gray and somewhat wobbly kind you see by the hundreds in church fellowship halls and outdoor events everywhere. We looked down and grass began to appear under us. The grass became mottled by dirt – bare places in the expanding grass – and was made uneven by tree roots slowly emerging from the ground.
Around us, buildings slowly began to reveal themselves, forming the boundaries of what became an enormous quad, a great lawn also ringed and permeated by oaks and magnolias. Then a sea of chairs coalesced all throughout the quad. Soon they were filled with people – an endless variety of families it seemed – from every generation and from every walk of life you could imagine, but none of whom we knew. They formed fully into being, sitting in perfect geometric arcs around the quad like a great parabola with a stage as its focal point.
A large, square formation of neat rows of chairs filled the space between the arcs and the stage, filled with students in their navy gowns, mortarboards, and tassels. Graduation? But for whom? I realized the ceremony was already well underway. Some students were lined up on the lawn to the right of the stage, waiting for their turn to cross the stage. One student was walking away from the stairs on the left side of the stage, holding her diploma in her hand, waving it triumphantly to her family. I could finally see the stage clearly, and it was filled with the usual dignitaries – principal, administration, teachers.
I still didn’t know for what person we were there. We have numerous nieces and nephews, friends working on higher degrees, or was this the past? I didn’t have a clue.
Then I noticed something very odd. No more names were being read. The ceremony had just stopped. The middle-aged man at the podium did not call out the next name. It was like everyone was holding their breath. Instead of impatience, I could feel anticipation swelling through the formation of students. You could see heads turning throughout the crowd. Many of them craned their necks up and around; some stood up to get a better look. The crowd knew something important was about to happen – everyone, apparently, except us.
For the longest time, nothing seemed to happen. But everywhere we looked, every single person was smiling. Many had tears in their eyes. All of them radiated happiness, drinking all this in like people savoring history. Then I realized that all of those jubilant faces were now looking at us.
A great rejoicing swept through the crowd. I closed my eyes for a moment trying to understand what was happening, and when I reopened them, we were sitting near the left side of the long stage, barely 20 feet from the stairs the new graduates walk down after their tour of the stage.
I looked across and saw a tall, thin, young man on the opposite set of stairs from us. His face was warm and kind and unassuming, his eyes uncertain, hesitant, yet thoughtful. His hair was a sandy brown in the style that made me think of a young musician or artist – a little too long and shaggy perhaps but intentionally and creatively so. He stood there a bit awkwardly, but did not seem self-conscious in the slightest.
When he placed the ball of his right foot on the first stair leading up to the stage, I could feel everyone around us lean forward like football fans in anticipation of a game-changing play. Surprisingly, the reader of names motioned for this young man to stay where he was. He obeyed without any change in expression and did not move, his right foot keeping its place on the first stair.
The main at the podium stepped to one side, and from behind him came a familiar face, the first one I had seen in this dream. It was a face that in the time of the dream I knew I had not seen in many years. And it was in that moment that I knew why we were there.
Tears began to flow out from me in rivers – old tears, new tears, tears born, forged, and tempered along a long, difficult, and life-changing road. Those are the tears that are stored up until a moment like this when fear and doubt are finally transformed and they shine in the light of day.
This was the J-Man’s graduation from high school.
The woman now at the podium had moved away several years before in this dream, but we had kept in touch and she had been overjoyed when she heard he was officially graduating. She was there to greet him on his first day, so long ago from this moment. I could think of no better way to celebrate his last day of school than for her to greet him on the stage, something she and the school worked out to honor his achievement.
And one by one, everyone who had worked with our son, who are far too numerous to mention here, came forward from the rear of the stage. Many were people I did not yet recognize, but in the dream I knew someday I would. They were the saints of our future, and they joined the saints of our past and present. They formed a long, elegant arc on the stage, like two arms embracing our son and his moment.
So Mrs. Jennifer, the J-Man’s Pre-K teacher, leaned toward the podium with her trademark smile and proclaimed, “It is with pride and honor that I read the name…” and the name Mary and I spoke for the first time just before midnight that magical day over 18 years before now boomed out from the speakers and up toward the sky. And from around us a great roar went up and through the cheering crowd. The student body stood as one, and everyone gave him a standing ovation.
Overcome with awe, Mary and I could only stare at each other in an amazed silence. I put my hand in hers and smiled. My other arm drifted up and found the shoulder of our younger son, every bit like a teenage version of me, and also every bit as proud of the J-Man.
The three of us stood in front of our seats and watched him cross the stage carefully and deliberately. I could see some uncertainty in his eyes as this was not what he had rehearsed. But then he began to relax little by little, and a smile broke out across his face. That smile that radiates from his whole face, the way his lips form and his bottom lip puffs out that little bit – all 100% his mother’s perfect smile. He gave himself to the perfection of this moment.
He walked to Mrs. Jennifer, they embraced – he now towering a few inches over her – and he nearly lifted her off the stage. They laughed like two lifelong friends catching up on old times. She handed him his diploma, and he held it over his head in triumph. The cheers in the crowd redoubled.
Then he turned to those gathered on the stage, and they embraced him each in turn, offering a word of congratulations and blessing. I have always remembered all the people we’ve worked with over these first years, but now I could see the team of dozens and hundreds of people all together now – the ones we’ve been blessed to know and the ones we are yet to know – who guided and challenged him, who believed in him, and who gave the best of themselves and their gifts to help him be the best person he could be, all gathered here in this place like the communion of saints.
He waved to the crowd as he finally made his way toward the end of the stage. As he walked down the steps, beaming from ear to ear and clutching his diploma to his chest, he saw us, jumped the last two stairs, and raced into my arms.
The tears welled up in me again, and I caught his concern. “Don’t worry, this is like smile-crying, only even better.”
The cheering crowds rolled on unabated. But I could only see my sweet little boy, now this perfect young man, who had just achieved something so many thought would be impossible for him to do.
He opened the diploma case and showed it to me.
“The real deal!” he exclaimed.
“And you earned every last bit of it,” I replied.
He paused a long moment, and his body became quiet.
“I did it, Daddy.”
“That’s right. You did. Oh God, I am so proud of you!”
“But you’d be proud of me regardless of what I did,” he said repeating my common saying.
“That’s right, and I always will be. I know how hard you worked. I know how much you wanted this.” A long, wonderful second passed, and I said, “Thank you.”
“Why are you thanking me?”
“Thank you for being my son. I know you don’t think you had any control over that, but that doesn’t matter because I am so thankful that you are my son.” He looked me straight in the eye, then closed them, and put his arms around me again.
“Thank you, too, Daddy.”
In our embrace, the events that brought us to this place began to appear as pictures in my mind, like the collective consciousness of the people here were sharing it with me. They knew he spent most of the first several years of school outside a mainstream classroom. They knew about all the summer school classes he retook to pass some of his core classes. They knew it came down to one grade on one final, which turned out to be the best grade he ever made in that subject. They had finally understood how much of himself he poured into this dream. So many thought this was impossible, and they cheered him because he refused to ever give up. He inspired them to do the same, just as he inspires me. That was the exclamation point next to my pride for him.
His arms opened to encircle me and Mary and Dale Jr., and I closed my eyes and let myself drink in this moment – the four of us together, a family who had learned that our spirit was stronger than any challenges we face. I willed myself to never forget it.
When I opened my eyes again, I saw the first morning light slipping past the edge of the curtain next to my bed. My pillow was damp and cool. I wiped the tears from my eyes, reached for my glasses, and found the floor with my feet. It was time to get ready for a new day.