My father died at 97 in his sleep. Born in 1900, he was orphaned of both parents before he was five. He became, against all odds, a model father. How did he learn, with no example? I suppose that the absences in his life acted as negative guides for what he gave to my life. I won't here tally all the virtues of a man who did not finish even grade school (from which he was pulled by his foster parents, who put him to work on their farm in southern Illinois). He and my mother divorced when I was a pre-teen and I was raised by my mother; I thought, for a long time, she was the strong, smart one of the two, but time revealed he matched her and I'd vastly underestimated him, whose abilities were hidden by his radical lack of education. He was definitely fully compos mentis till the end, even managing a memorable deathbed joke. The peacefulness of his death was appropriate for a peaceable and sweet man.
When I learned my father had died in his sleep I began to wonder about the possibility of someone dreaming just before death and about the nature of that dream. With age, I've gained respect for not only my father but also the human body; 16 years of Roman Catholic education (eight from nuns and eight from Jesuits) left me wary of the body and of earth-centeredness in general, and my life's journey has, in part, been a return home. Much more athletic now than I was 30 years ago, I'm amazed at what the body, with its brain, can do, whether it's shooting out an arm for balance when I slip in the shower room or never failing me when I recite poetry for an hour in public. Thus, on the occasion of my father's death, I imagined the body communicating to itself—and to the human self dependent on it—that it was about to die. But what dream image would it employ?
I decided not to manufacture possible images but simply try to “dream” while awake, adopt a meditative posture and let the images rise to the surface. I remember thinking of six or seven images before I selected the four represented in “The Last Dream” and arranged them in their current order. The rocky ledge seemed the most fundamental, suggesting some kind of precariousness in nature; like my father, I am seldom unaware that each day is a gift, not to be taken for granted. With music as a passion of mine, the second dream is perhaps the most optimistic of the four, giving an aesthetic closure to a whole life. A teacher for 30 years, I naturally conflated in the third image chalk dust and the dust to which we “shalt return,” their mix flammable, apocalyptic.
None of the images seemed as appropriate, however, as the fourth one, which, unlike the dangerous ledge, dramatic chord, and surreal outburst, convinced me by means of its understatement. What's more humble than an underfed dog—like the human organism in extremity—minding its own business? Maybe it lacks overriding purpose and maybe it can't entirely help itself, but it's working hard and fully present; it inspires a familiar phrase: “Good dog, good dog.”
The source of “The Last Dream,” while personal, is kept at a distance in the lines, the buried engine running the whole. The poem may be stronger for not directly entangling my father in it. As to the speculation about a last dream, we can't of course know the answer. Anyone who wakes to tell us hasn't experienced it. But if the dying do dream and the dream tells of final moments, we'll know the dream is the last thing we'll know.