When we picked Tommy up from of overnight camp this summer, we noticed that his two front teeth had really come in. Just a week and his smile looked different!
It looked just like Shawn’s.
Claire and Austin once had the same teeth, but braces have straightened them. Shawn never had braces, and I always found his crooked smile endearing, though it was a bit out-of-place in polished Washington, DC. Still, it was a part of what made him who he was. And now Tommy was smiling just like him.
We spent the next few weeks in a little cabin on the river, visiting Nana and Pop while we waited for the big kids to finish camp. The air was cool at night and I slept well, content in the knowledge that my family was happy and safe.
A few nights after we arrived in the cabin, I had a vivid dream about Shawn. It was one of those really long and winding dreams, the kind where you can partially wake up in the middle and then fall back asleep and it continues. That happened to me at least once, as though the dream wanted to tell me that it wasn’t quite done yet.
In the dream, Shawn was healthy and alive. He looked like he did when he was really into CrossFit, though I noticed less that his body was in shape and more that his eyes sparkled. He seemed delighted to see me, though for the first time in a dream, he understood that I might not feel the same way.
He was right. I was scared. “How are you here?” I kept asking him, though he never gave me a good reply. Finally, I said, exasperated, “But I watched you die!”
He smiled at that point, a kind look in his eyes. It was as though he understood that my reaction was normal. “Look,” he said, smiling broadly and pulling at his lip a bit to show off his mouth. “These are Tommy’s teeth.”
And they were. This detail was what told me he was real. I still fought against believing that he’d actually come back. I went into another room and tried to separate myself from him.
I was confused. Why was he back in my life?
It wasn’t that I wanted him to be dead, of course, but that I needed him to know that the life I have now is the life I have now. “I can’t go back to you,” I said at one point. I cried then, in the dream.
He seemed to get my fear. “It’s okay,” he said, which somehow made me feel a bit better, though I kept him at arm’s length.
I looked for Chris. Where was he? In some other room nearby, the kids played.
Chris appeared and I went to him and he comforted me. He knew I was overwhelmed, though he wasn’t. Shawn knew how we both felt, too. Both of them just wanted me to feel okay. Chris rubbed my back and Shawn sat across from us. “It’s okay, I promise,” Shawn said, and Chris nodded, as though to confirm this statement.
Then Shawn asked Chris about the kids. For the next few minutes, Chris talked about our kids with Shawn listening. There were questions and answers and it was as though I wasn’t even there. At one point, they both laughed.
And slowly, I started to feel calmer.
Shawn had more to tell me, he wanted me to know. But as dreams go, we kept getting interrupted or needed to do something else. Mostly, Shawn kept wanting to talk to Chris about the kids, though we all knew we couldn’t go in the next room and see them, as that would overwhelm them.
Throughout it all, Chris kept his arm around me, which made me feel warm. The fear had left me at that point, and now I could finally look at Shawn as he spoke. He was happy, I realized.
And I felt good, too.
I woke up to the drip of the coffeemaker. Light was streaming into the cabin and I could hear Tommy moving around in the bed next to me. It took me a long time to open my eyes, as the memory of the dream pulled at my mind. After some minutes, Tommy crawled in bed next to me, his eyes still partially closed. Chris brought me a steaming hot cup of coffee, and I sat up a bit to drink it. I watched as Chris stroked Tommy’s head.
“Hi, Dad,” he said, which I noticed, as Tommy often calls him Chris.
“Hi Buddy,” Chris said.
Tommy stretched and then he pulled us both close. “Tommy sandwich!” he said, and then he smiled when we all hugged.
It was Shawn’s smile on his face.