I had a dream about you last night. It was strange, like all of my dreams this week. Bone-dry winds tend to bring me dreams like these, or it's the smoke in the air. There was a beautiful man in the dream. He was a real Paul Newman lookalike, so you would have been taken with him. Classically handsome isn't usually my type - I find it so boring - but he reminded me of the old Hollywood film stars in the movies that used to blare from your television, turned up too loud so that you could hear the dialogue properly.
He soon faded into the background, though, because his meaning was to point me to you. You were wearing a red sweater like you always did at Christmastime. You only wore one piece of jewelry, a slender gold chain around your neck, and this should have tipped me off. You always wore so many ornaments, jade pendants swinging from thick ropes of gold, wrists heavy with metal, rings practically dripping off your fingers. You put the tree to shame. The real you would never wear a single delicate necklace.
But I wanted to believe it was you in the dream, so I ignored this detail. I wrapped my arms around you and your head came to just below my chin like it always did. We talked and talked and I told you everything and you smiled indulgently when I told you my plans to run away and travel. We were never perfect and you said some things I hated, but you were always mine. We kept talking and then all of a sudden you sank into oblivion and slept and I couldn't wake you. I knew that you were dying and that I had to revive you. Somehow, I did, but then it happened again. And again. And again. Until I woke up.
The dream felt a little like the morning when I went to your house for tea. I let myself in and you were still in your dressing gown, half in bed, which was unusual for you at a late morning hour. I knew your health had not been good. I didn't want to embarrass you by commenting so I busied myself in the kitchen. I asked how you were feeling, and you said not well but couldn't name what was wrong. I set the teacup and cookies in front of you. Retrieving my own, I sat across the table. That's when I noticed. The tea dribbled out of one corner of your mouth, crumbs falling across one side of your lap. I asked you if you wanted to move to the couch and you said yes, but when I tried to walk you over, you collapsed. I picked you up. I sat you down and asked you to smile and raise both your arms and then I was shaking and calling 9-1-1. The ambulance came and my mother your daughter came and the men, strangely beautiful like the one in my dream, put you on a stretcher. We followed you to the hospital and as I was driving, I thought about how you looked like a flagging sail, half your body abandoning ship. The dream felt like that. Like I was working and working to make you safe but nothing I did could control your body.
The stroke didn't kill you, but you knew you were dying. You knew before any of us did, and so you started giving away small things, quietly and imperceptibly lightening your burden. You gave me a nightlight. It's a silly, plastic thing, with settings for different colored lights, including one that flashes through all of them, which seems to defeat the soothing purpose of a nightlight. The light could turn your guest bathroom into a miniature disco, which I always thought was hilarious. I didn't know why you gave it to me. I hadn't used a nightlight since I was a small child, and other than finding it amusing, I didn't particularly like the light. You gave it to me nonetheless.
Within a few months, you were gone. When I found out I stared at that stupid nightlight and realized it was the last thing you gave me. So I plugged it in.
I never turn it on, but I've taken the nightlight with me to every bedroom I've had since. I've found an outlet for it in my dorm room senior year, in my suite at George Washington University, in my first apartment, in my house in DC, in my childhood bedroom.
The nightlight was plugged in here, at my parents' house, when the fire leapt over the hills last week. I almost forgot it but ran back and grabbed it off the wall. As we drove away I saw flames in my rear view mirror and my hands were trembling, like they were on that day when I followed you to the hospital. I imagined the house burning down and thought to myself that the first thing I would do if that happened was find a room and plug in that light. I would turn on the flashing setting and transform the hotel room into a ridiculous dancefloor and probably scare the hell out of our cats. And my parents would look at me in bafflement and the dogs would bark and then I'd collapse laughing and they'd laugh too and I would feel a sliver of comfort.
Driving and picturing this, I suddenly understood: that's why you gave me the nightlight.