Searching for something in my sleep

One of the last conversations I had with my old friend Mike was about dreams.

It came as little surprise to me that our sleeping minds worked so differently. We both were lifelong writers, but we came to it in different ways.

I wrote as a way to escape a humdrum childhood that had no real drama. I grew up the youngest of four boys on a farm west of South Bend. We seemed isolated. In our rare trips away from the farm, we ended up with aunts and uncles living similar lives in Ohio.

Ken Bradford

Mike wrote because he had stories to tell. The oldest boy in a rough-and-tumble family in Gary, he knew about steel mills and union halls and petty criminals. He and his pals went on unchaperoned adventures, pedaling their bikes through neighborhoods where danger awaited.

At my core, I had been a bit of a wallflower who wrote as a way to avoid having to speak. He was brash. His typing fingers couldn’t keep up with the tales he needed to reveal. Years later, Mike still was that way.

We had not seen each other for several months. He had been quite sick with a second bout of cancer. Our lunch – sandwiches and a beer apiece – was an excuse to sit and talk for four hours.

I had been having odd dreams, and I told Mike about them. Often, they were like two-hour movies with cast members from throughout my life. 

The dreams followed the same general script. High school acquaintances – kids I knew but never spoke with – would be driving me around in cars or vans. We would go to football games in places like Omaha, where I’ve never been. 

We would stop at libraries and police stations. I knew I was there because I was supposed to write something, but I didn’t know what my assignment was. I had a deadline looming.

In one of those dreams, my father was at a bus station we visited. He was in his 40s, wearing a short-sleeve white dress shirt. He recognized me and said hello, but it didn’t seem urgent that we talk about anything in particular.

What interested me was that this was the first time I had dreamed of my father. He had died 20 years earlier after 18 months of colon cancer. My last gaze at him had been when he was shriveled, tired and awaiting death.

Why was he back now, healthy and whole, in such a non-consequential way?

Mike didn’t have an answer for that, except that he had a dream story of his own.

His father, who also was named Mike, had come from a family that expected early sunsets. Older Mike had died at age 42. So had Older Mike’s brother, and so had their father. Forty-two was the family limit.

I knew some of this because I was working with Mike at the South Bend Tribune the year he turned 42. It was the same year he learned he had terminal cancer.

It was one of those sudden things. He wasn’t feeling well. If I recall correctly, a blood test had some weird numbers. Further tests found cancer on his liver. He had just a few more months, tops. There was nothing that anyone could do.

A couple nights later, Mike’s father appeared in a dream. He had been dead more than 25 years and he picked this time to show up. Older Mike, sitting in a chair, told younger Mike, “This isn’t what is going to kill you.”

And it didn’t. Mike took a bus up to Rochester, Minnesota, and spent a week at the Mayo Clinic. The answer ended up being simple. Surgeons removed his thyroid gland and scraped cancer cells off his liver, and he was cured.

Older Mike showed up in a few more dreams, usually in times of crisis. Mike would lose a job, and his father would encourage him to be patient. He would have family concerns, and his father would tell him to keep doing the right thing.

And then, 20-some years after he beat the disease, cancer came back. This time, it was attached to his spine. Mike would be walking down the street and suddenly lose all feeling below the waist. He would fall and have to wait half an hour or so before he could pull himself back up to his feet. He had surgery to remove the cancer and needed therapy to improve his ability to walk.

His father appeared. “You have more time,” he said.

Unfortunately, Older Mike wasn’t specific. Just a couple months later, my friend was back in the hospital. The last time I spoke to him by phone was while his mind was addled by medicine. Another month later, he was dead.

That was a little more than a year ago. I mention this because of another dream I had recently, about three months before my 96-year-old mother died. 

I was with a group of people I knew from my church Sunday school. We were on a long train with cars similar to double-wide trailers. We were walking through a series of these cars – one was like a grocery and another was like a school classroom. We were on a mission to find something, but I wasn’t sure what.

We reached a car that was filled with bookshelves, similar to an old-fashioned library. There sat my friend Mike, legs crossed and reading an old magazine. I wasn’t surprised to see him there. He looked up and said, “Just catching up.” That was all, and I continued with my group to another car to keep searching.

Over the years, I’ve studied dream interpretation. The main thing I’ve learned is that dreams often are less about messages and more about how they make you feel. I don’t know why I was searching that train or why Mike was in the library car – just as I don’t know why I’m still stumbling through life while my father, mother and Mike are not.

I just know I feel slightly better when I wake up after these dreams. If I found my answers in a dream, I suppose the search would end. Instead, I’ll continue to see all sorts of wondrous things.

I have more time left, as far as I know.