a gift from a friend

Here’s the backstory: About ten years ago, one of my best friends died of cancer. There were three of us, best friends who did everything together, laughed, cried–in fact, just go ahead and imagine all the cheesy cliches you can think of because what you’ll end up with will probably be pretty close to what we had.

We had a good run of it, roughly ten years as best friends, from the beginning of middle school, through all the awkwardness of the early teenage years, through all the stupid drama of the mid teenage years, the excitement of learning to drive and going to college and gaining independence in the late teenage years, and the beginnings of learning to be adults as we entered our twenties — accelerated and shaken a bit by a bout of cancer in one of us.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been going through old journal entries from the last few years, and I came across the inspiring one below. At the time of writing it, I was in the throes of graduate school, competing with colleagues and grant deadlines and the sometimes unpredictable nature of the biology I was studying.

(Side Note – As I write this, I am reminded of a sentence Rita Levi-Montalcini wrote about reading old letters to a colleague years later: “In reading them, I have relived one of the most intense periods of my life in which moments of enthusiasm and despair alternated with the regularity of a biological cycle.” –it’s so true! Research and the outcomes of experiments affect your moods with an intensity that is really hard to control or understand when you are in the midst of it, and I see it as I go back and read through all these old journal entries. Also, great book, by the way, by one of the greatest biologists who ever lived and one that I highly recommend. It’s called In Praise of Imperfection by Rita Levi-Montalcini.)

Anyway, I was so stressed out and trying to get as much done as fast as possible, and if you’ve ever done biological research, then you know that the timing can be out of your control because sometimes things grow faster/slower or are ready sooner/later than you planned, so you have to keep an eye on it and be ready to continue on with the experiments when the samples are ready, even if you’re not.

And on top of that, there’s life and stuff, and in the case of the entry below, my car needed to be taken to the shop.

Through lots of going over our schedules and figuring out how we were going to pull this off, my husband and I worked it out such that he would take the car in one day and one of his friends could drive him back, and I could pick it up the next day, and one of my friends could drive me there to pick it up. Truthfully, I was too busy to pick it up, so I was going to have to squeeze it in, but my husband’s schedule was even worse than mine, and we really needed our car for the plans we had that weekend, so I had no choice.

So now that you know a little bit about the context, here’s the entry I wrote the evening after I picked my car up from the shop (everything in parenthesis was added for this blog post):

Last night, I dreamed my best friend (the one who is still living) bought a red VW Beetle convertible, used and kind of rustic. Now that I write this, I wonder if the top had a problem…but it was down in the dream, so I do not know. I just remember she was driving around, and I was in the back seat, and my other best friend (the one who is deceased) was in the passenger seat. In my dream, we knew this was a special occasion, that she was visiting us from beyond the grave and that we only had a few precious hours together as the three of us again.

We were laughing and having so much fun all into the night. I looked down, and in my lap was my high school schedule and some homework assignments. I realized I haven’t been to class in a long time (a really long time, when you consider I was in graduate school). In fact, I couldn’t remember starting the school year, which meant I’d been skipping classes the whole year and may not get to go back (to high school) to finish! But since it was the dead of night and the school was closed, there was nothing I could do about it right then. So, I put it aside and decided to deal with the stress of it later.

For hours, we continued laughing and having fun, and then the clock said it was 5am, and the sun was coming up. For a moment, I got really stressed out remembering all the work I had to do before school started. We told our (deceased) friend we had to get back. She got out of the car (presumably to go back to the afterlife), and I got in the passenger seat. Immediately, we missed her, and the car ride gew quiet. But then, she was in the back seat, again. She said before she left, she had a gift for us.

I looked back, and she was holding these little boxes the size of individual butter servings you get at restaurants, but they were different colors. She opened them, and they were full of lotion that looked like a gel, and they were each different sweet smells.

Then, we were laughing about something else, and in an instant it was like we were all twelve again, laughing until we were crying. A whistling in my ear started waking me up and pulling me back into this reality. –This whistling started happening some time in September, and it happens when I lay down to sleep and when I wake up. I am quite sure it is stress-related.

As I was coming back to reality, I imagined asking her for advice, wisdom she somehow acquired from going through the process of death, and I imagined her telling me to slow down and stop stressing out so much. As I came back into consciousness, I realized I was actually smiling in real life, and maybe even laughing out loud a little bit, too. I was so grateful for the feeling, and I thought, “What a gift.”

I spent the day in an inexplicably happy mood, optimistic and jolly for no reason, even though I was still stressed out about my experiments and trying to stave off burnout. I kept thinking about the dream and the happiness it brought me. And for some reason, I just could not get that red VW Beetle convertible off my mind. I did as much as I could in the day until I had to stop to go pick up my car from the shop.

When I got to there, the guy I was supposed to talk with was on the phone, so another guy started closing out my ticket. He shouted the ticket number to someone in the back so they could get my keys and bring my car around the front. I pointed to my car outside the door, saying my car was already out front, but he told me the plates didn’t match so that wasn’t my car. I figured he knew what he was talking about and that the car out front was just a car that looked like mine. He then started telling me all the things that got fixed, and the list didn’t sound anything like my car at all, especially the part where the top was having trouble raising and closing. I started to ask about it, but he interrupted me and told me the total was $1200-something and put the bill in front of me to sign. I looked up at the top, and it said it was for a red VW Beetle Convertible. I smiled to myself as I remembered the happy feelings I had in my dream, and I told him, “Oh, I don’t have a Beetle Convertible.”

Just then, the guy I was supposed to talk with finished his phone conversation and told me he had my ticket, so I went over to his desk. It was for the correct car this time, and he closed out my ticket, and everything was normal.

As I was driving home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how random it was that my ticket got mixed up with one that was for a red VW Beetle convertible. And a part of me could not help but think it was a sign, some sort of confirmation that my friend sent the dream or that the universe did or that I had that dream for some specific reason. Like the dream that happened to have a red VW Beetle convertible in it and the incident with the ticket for a red VW Beetle convertible were somehow connected. Then, I immediately put that out of my mind because I’m a scientist and that kind of thinking is ludicrous.

After dinner, I decided to go back to the lab because there were still some things I wanted to set up for the next day’s experiments and I had not had a chance to get them done before I had to leave to pick up the car. I was extremely tired, but if I got the setup out of the way tonight, that would save time tomorrow.

My husband said he would come with me and just hang out while I set everything up. (We did this sometimes because we were both graduate students with busy schedules, so sometimes this was the only way we would get to see each other and catch up.) It’s about two hours worth of work that just requires following a protocol and does not require much brainpower, so it’s ideal for talking with someone or listening to a podcast — but of course I would rather have the company, so I took him up on the offer. Plus, it would be close to midnight by the time I left the lab, and there have been some muggings around campus lately, so he wanted to come with me for that reason, too.

As he drove, I kept thinking about the dream and wondered if I should just go back home. Maybe I was working too many hours and needed a break. Everything in my gut was telling me to turn around and go home and rest.

I shoved the feelings aside–it was just a couple of hours of mindless setup, after all, and I had it on my to-do list to get done today. But since it was on my mind, I started telling him the story of the ticket mix-up. I got as far as the guy telling me the car out front was not mine, when my husband interrupted and asked, “Oh, was he talking about the Beetle convertible?”

Mind you, I had not yet told him anything about any convertible, especially not the one that had been on my mind all day, nor the dream it was from where I got to see my best friends. I stopped dead in my tracks, speechless, and looked over at him. “Why would you ask about a convertible?” I asked.

“There was a woman in front of me when I dropped off our car, and she had this old Beetle convertible that sounded like it had a lot of problems.”

Well, if the dream was my brain’s way of saying I needed to slow down and rest, then a coincidental error that results in someone literally putting the words “red VW Beetle Convertible” in front of my face to remind me of that dream must be a sign, right? And if that was not enough (clearly it was not, for I was on my way to work), then my husband mentioning it out of the blue must be some sort of sign, right?

I racked my brain for any memory of him telling me about it yesterday. It would make perfect sense that he may have mentioned the convertible in passing, which would explain why I dreamed about one, and that would link all of this together.

But we had not spoken to each other before dinner today (I said our schedules were busy…), and we definitely had not talked enough for him to tell me about something as trivial as dropping our car off at the shop. There is no way I would have known about the convertible at the shop, and there was no way he would have known about my dream.

“Was it red?” I asked with unintentional intensity.

“Uh…I don’t know,” he said. “Why?”

“Turn around,” I told him. “Let’s go back home.”

“What about your experiments?”

“I’ll just set them up in the morning.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said. “I need to slow down.”

He got off the interstate at the next exit, and we headed back home, where I am now relaxing and taking a break from thinking about my research and instead am taking time to reflect on these events.

Now, think what you will about whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not communication can occur between the living and the dead, whether or not dreams have meanings, and whether or not there are signs from the universe or a deity or whatever. Regardless, my body and my mind were clearly telling me to take it easy and that I was dangerously close to burnout.

But if it was a sign…then I like to think that I interpreted the dream correctly: I need to slow down and enjoy life. I need to do what I love and what makes me happy. I need to be with friends and laugh so hard that I cry, to be kind, and to show others that that is what it’s all about.

But most of all, I need to be a friend like she was, someone who makes people feel happy and loved and accepted and who leaves them with memories and feelings that continue to bring them happiness long after passing. That was her gift. It is a gift to be able to make someone literally smile and laugh ten years after you have died. And the happiness I feel when I remember her is a gift I like to think she has given to me, one that I honor and strive to give others when I am gone.


3 comments

  1. (Three last points, for closure’s sake: (1) The whistling in my ears did go away after that round of particularly stressful experiments ended, and it has not returned (nor have I been as stressed out since, so I am quite convinced it was some kind of stress-induced tinnitus, probably combined with or facilitated by listening to audiobooks through headphones for so many hours in the long days). (2) I was able to get everything set up in time for the experiments the next day, and they worked out just fine. I was no worse off for taking the night off. And looking back, all the warning bells going off were probably my mind telling me not to do the setup because I probably was too tired and would have messed something up and would have had to redo it in the morning, anyway. Or worse, I would not have noticed the error and would have messed up the experiments <– This is why taking breaks is so important in research! (3) As you can imagine, since this incident, every time I see a VW Beetle, especially if it is a red convertible, I remember the dream and the pleasant feelings I get when I remember my friend. It reminds me to be kind and accepting and to conduct myself in such a way that will leave others with a happiness that will outlive my own existence.)

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  2. Wow . . . What a great post! Although I am not a scientist or ever worked in that realm, I can relate to being overwhelmed and having “something” (for me the Holy Spirit) say in a whispered feeling—STOP—you are dangerously tired!
    I was a secretary all of my working years and really managed my life quite well. I raised two children (alone with the help of family), rarely ever missed a day of work, arose at 4:30 a.m. three days a week to walk, attended a comprehensive Bible study for seven years (did the assignments before going to work) married again at forty-two, and finally retired on my sixty-fourth birthday after 29+ years of service. (I started at a County government on my mother’s birthday so thought it fitting to retire on mine).
    All of that to say that I am busier now than when I was working and have trouble keeping up with what used to be the incidentals of life.
    As you saw, all the things you were so concerned about got accomplished and well! A friend told me once that I was like a soap opera—constantly changing scenes . . . And the same holds true today except that I create the scenes myself.
    I loved reading about your dream and appreciate all the detail. I felt like I was watching a movie. 🙂 It amazes me that you remembered it so clearly. I lose mine as the day wears on.
    Well, enough chatting for now. Thanks so much for sharing. I will look at red VW Beetle convertibles differently now. 🚘

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    • My dreams are super vivid when I’m stressed, so they are easy to remember–especially because they also wake me up, probably BECAUSE they are so vivid and detailed! It’s like it’s too much for my brain to process, so it’s like, “Okay, get up. You’re basically awake with this dream.”

      It is hard to believe you are busier after retirement with all the things you had going on during work. You got so much accomplished! But it sounds like you’re busy in a good way 🙂 Very inspiring!

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