Above the Clouds
After six months, the first dream finally arrived.
No one else, Love, will sleep in my dreams.
You will go, we will go, together, over the waters of time.
No one else will travel through the shadows with me,
only you, evergreen, ever sun, ever moon.
―Pablo Neruda, Sonnet LXXXI
After a long day—for all my days are long now—I drifted off to sleep the other night and, for the first time since he left us, dreamt about Enzo. Below is the story of my dream. —CA
It was a cold December evening, and we sat by the shore of the Potomac River, its wide expanse stretching out before us, as a sunset tinged in hues of gold and purple began its descent on the horizon. As Christmas approached we had come to a small waterside cottage to escape the city. We sat, father and son, watching the deep currents flow past us toward the Chesapeake, which lay just beyond the horizon.
After discussing school and where his friends were headed for the holidays, we sat in silence, as was our custom, each of us contemplating the end of the day in our own way. After a few moments of stillness, Enzo looked at me and spoke.
“What do you think it’s like?” he said.
“What?” I replied.
“Do you mean the process of dying or what comes after we die?”
“I mean the moment we die—the instant when we go from life to death. What do you think it’s like?”
I pondered his question for a minute, as I watched a distant sailboat moving slowly south along the far shore toward the Bay while the cold air swirled around me.
“I suppose it’s a release,” I answered, “a letting go of some kind. We’re given a breath of life at birth, and we don’t think much about it during most of our lives. In fact, most people only really contemplate it as they get older. In our final moment, I imagine, we give that breath back, as when we let a breeze steal a leaf from our hand. One second we hold it tightly, and the next it floats away beyond our grasp.”
“Do you think it hurts,” he asked, a worried look in his eyes.
“I don’t think so, no. I remember the moment I almost died. It was painless. It occurred one late afternoon, when I was seventeen, as I was riding my motorcycle on a wet road. A car suddenly bumped me from behind. All I felt was a thump against the rear wheel. I tried as best I could to keep the bike upright, but it slid out from under me, and I fell onto the road. It seems crazy now, but I remember looking up and seeing the car’s front license plate just as I hit the ground.”
“What went through your mind?”
“Honestly, all I could think about was how stupid it was to die this way, with no purpose or meaning. I was just out for a ride and, suddenly, I was about to lose my life. The pointlessness of it all struck me the most. I closed my eyes and prepared to die. I was at peace in a strange way. There was no pain, no fear even, just regret.”
“I see,” replied Enzo, as he looked away from me. “But you survived.”
“Yes, I was lucky that day. I closed my eyes expecting never to open them again, but a few seconds later I found myself lying on the side of the road with the bike on top of me. I pushed it away and tried to stand up. It sounds silly, I know, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t paralyzed. I was barely on my feet when I looked down and saw that my left sneaker, which had been white, was now soaked with blood. I fell to the ground just as some strangers came running over to where I was lying.”
“They took you to the ER?”
“They did. When I was waiting to go into surgery, I finally began to feel terrible pains in my leg. I suppose I had been in shock until then. The orderlies wheeled me into the O.R. that evening and the surgeons operated for hours. I think I woke up at three or four in the morning.”
“You must have been glad to be alive.”
“I was then, but now I am not so sure,” I replied looking down at the ground.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, had I known all the sorrows of life that were to come in this world, I would prefer never to have awakened. ‘He whom the gods love, dies young,’ the ancient Greeks used to say.”
“You would have missed a lot,” said Enzo. “And I would never have been born.”
“I suppose so, but what was the point of it all? Besides having you and Dino, and perhaps writing my books, I don’t think I have done very much with my time. Maybe I would have been better off dead. Instead, I wasted the life that was given back to me. I don’t know…”
Enzo looked at me but didn't reply. He traced his chin with his right hand and shook his head a little to clear the curls of hair from his eyes. As I looked at him, I recalled the day of my accident and the moment I awoke in the intensive care unit and saw a white dot pulsing on the black screen next to my bed. I found the beating of my heart hypnotic, and I looked at the screen intently, ignoring everything else in the room until I fell asleep again.
“Dad,” said Enzo, after waiting for me to return to the moment.
“I'm glad that you woke up. I think you have done more than you let on.”
“That’s kind of you to say,” I replied. “I suppose we can’t measure the value of our lives by how long we are on this earth. Some people live a long time and are never happy. Others die young after having done a lot of good in the world. Once someone’s life has run its course, the number of years lived is irrelevant. All that remains are the memories of the person and the impact he or she left on the world.”
“You know what I think?” asked Enzo, as he looked at me again.
“No. What do you think about dying, Enzo?”
“I think,” he began, “that it’s like when a child lets go of a balloon and it flies up into the sky. I think we float upwards, looking down as we rise higher and higher. The higher we go, the smaller things seem to us. Eventually, we’re so high that even things that were very important to us in life no longer matter that much. At some point, when we fly high enough, we just disappear into the clouds.”
“Then what happens?” I asked, placing my right arm around his shoulder and touching the back of his arm.
“I think our souls go back to God,” he answered. “That’s what the Church says.”
“That’s a very nice thought,” I replied.
“But you don’t believe it, right?”
“I don’t, but my lack of belief does not mean that the idea is mistaken. I reached my conclusions about God after much reflection. And every person has to try to answer these questions for himself. You’re young. You have many years ahead of you to think about them, and it’s not unusual for someone to believe one thing at eighteen and something entirely different at fifty. That’s the way it is for human beings.”
“I know,” said Enzo, using a small stick to draw clouds in a patch of sand in front of his feet.
Before us, the river had turned from turquoise to indigo, and the last light of day was reflected in the rippling waters flowing quietly within the descending darkness. On the other side of the river, the first flickers of artificial light began to appear. Behind us, a small lamp on the back porch of our cabin came to life, and its dim glow produced shadows that blended into the final remnants of daylight. The cold breezes moved around us with slightly more force, and the lone sailboat voyaged farther into the distance.
“You’re in a contemplative mood,” I said to Enzo with a smile.
“You know me. Lots of stuff in my head.”
“You’ve always been pensive, even when you were a little kid. You remind me of myself at your age.”
“Hey, it’s getting cold. We should probably head inside,” I suggested, looking over my shoulder.
“In a moment,” said Enzo.
“While I have you here,” I replied, “let me ask you something. Christmas is coming. Is there anything special you want me to get you?”
“Nothing? You sure?”
Enzo thought about my question and then looked at me out of the corner of his eye.
“I don’t need anything,” he said with a soft laugh.
“There must be something?” I said pleadingly.
“I’ll think it over. Maybe something will come to mind. I’m pretty happy as I am.”
“If there’s nothing you want, perhaps we can take a trip together,” I said. “Let’s get on a plane and head up high above the clouds. We can see if you were right,” I added with a smile.
“When you said our souls rise into the sky when we die. I’m sure that once we’re far above the ground, we’ll know if you’re right or not,” I joked. “You know, when I used to travel all the time, I would sometimes take very long flights to Europe or Asia, and I would wake up in my airplane seat in the middle of the night to look out the window at the endless fields of clouds below. They looked like a dark grey desert floating in the night sky. I imagined stepping out of the airplane for a walk over the clouds, roaming across them like a celestial Bedouin. I even imagined finding a beautiful oasis in the cloud desert above the earth. If we go there when we die, it wouldn’t be such a bad place to be,” I declared, staring up at the few clouds that floated above us in the night sky.
Enzo looked up at them as well and said, “maybe I’ll write a poem about it.”
“You should. You could be a real poet one day,” I told him. “You don’t just hear the sounds of words. You hear the sounds within words, which is essential to poetry. They’re the sounds that reverberate across phrases, like notes on a piano that fuse mysteriously, sounds within sounds, enhancing meaning or beauty. You should write more poems. That’s the only way to become better at it.”
“OK, I will,” he answered and then fell silent.
“So—nothing for Christmas?” I asked one last time.
“Maybe a book about clouds,” he replied with a chuckle.
“It’s a deal. I’ll find one. If I don’t, I’ll write it for you myself,” I answered.
We laughed and looked across the Potomac, as darkness descended over the world. In the cold air, the little yellow lights glittered from the houses across the shore like tiny stars, and, far away, I thought I could make out the top of the fading mast of the sailboat that had left us behind. I felt Enzo’s warm body next to mine, listened to his steady breathing, and thought about the chief joy of fatherhood—the privilege of helping a boy turn into a man. I also thought about Christmas and how its story of a martyred son echoes through the ages.
I was about to speak, but suddenly I began to understand that I was in a dream, one that would soon be over. Despite that realization, it felt wonderful to see him, to feel him next to me, and, most of all, to hear his voice for the first time in six months. I wanted so much for us to stay together longer—to make our moment last forever—but I understood the impossibility of my wish. I leaned over and put my arm around him one last time and whispered, “I love you” as I lay my forehead on his shoulder.
“Love you too, Dad,” I heard him whisper as I felt myself begin to drift up and away from where we sat. I could still see him, but I was no longer at his side. As he dissolved into winds and shadows, I left the riverbank, knowing it was time to return to the world of the living.
A moment later, I awoke into darkness.
‘Above the clouds,’ I thought as I lay in bed, feeling a lump in my throat. It’s the title of an old song by Paul Weller I had been listening to the day before. In the song, a man laments his past, bemoans his self-doubt, and tries to find the courage to keep living. No doubt my first dream with Enzo had been formed from a fusion of its words, the memory of the riverside house we went to on his birthday, and my thoughts about our first holiday season without him. Strangely, later that day I would find out that his mother also dreamt about him for the first time this week, which perhaps suggests an evolution in our grieving that finally allows us to recall him as we sleep.
Lying awake in the dark, thinking about my time by the water’s edge, I gave in and wept. Mine were not tears of sadness this time. On the contrary, I felt only joy at having spent a moment with my boy. When the tears had passed, I recalled yet another song by Weller, a simple lullaby that he wrote after becoming a father. At peace, I hummed it to myself as I drifted off to sleep, hoping to dream once more of Enzo, both of us together in the infinite expanse that lies high above the clouds.