I still saw Cormac for a while after he died. Always as I slept. The dream always followed the same basic timeline. It was the last time I ever spoke to him. In the dream, as it was in real-life, I am unaware that in a week or two he would fall from his bicycle on the Luas line between Harcourt Street and Charlemont and his warm, kind heart would be stopped forever.
I met him outside Theatre L in University College Dublin’s Arts Block. I was on my way to a lecture and saw him furiously typing emails – presumably about some sort of rally or protest to take place soon. I stopped and I spoke to him at length – those who know me will know how much I talk; those who know Cormac will know how much he talked too. There is no surprise whatsoever that I ended up fifteen minutes late for that lecture. It was a Critical Theory module, something I suspect Cormac would have found intensely interesting.
When I emerged, he was still there. Still bashing away at the keyboard. I spoke to him again. He was about to leave for the City Centre, to Leinster House. He had recently been elected Chair of Labour Youth. I got the slight feeling I was keeping him from his work so we agreed to go for a pint soon. Then I left.
It is odd to think that not long after that, Cormac would no longer be around. It is equally strange at this point to imagine that Covid-19 was never a factor in his life. He never experienced the mask-wearing, the lockdowns, the itching for a pint. The ongoing pandemic has become such a by-and-by of everyday life that it is hard to imagine that there are people who never had to consider such things. I often wonder what he would have made of it all.
I had that dream on a few occasions. Sleep has always been a tricky enough negotiation for me. Up until that point, I experienced intermittent bouts of insomnia. This happened every few months – maybe three or four times a year. The insomnia was replaced by this dream.
For a while I considered the idea that this was not a dream at all and that it was time-travel instead. The consistency of the timeline within the dream – as well as the fact that, during the dream, I did not know what was about to happen – puzzled me. It made some amount of sense that this was entirely real, and that I was reliving this event by time-travelling back to it, in a Groundhog Day sort of fashion. Ultimately, whether or not it was time-travel is irrelevant – once I was up, life goes on as usual, and Cormac has not returned. I checked several times. I admit now that nothing will ever be different simply because of a dream I had.
About a month after Cormac died, I went to Berlin for the weekend with some friends. The ins and outs of that trip are fuzzy and unclear (and to be honest I’d like to keep it that way). When I got home, a bout of insomnia followed, but this time, the occasions where I did sleep were marked by night terrors. Night terrors are no fun whatsoever. This lasted for about ten days. I was a ghost haunting UCD’s campus during that time. At some point, however, amidst the night terrors and insomnia, I had another dream about Cormac. This one was different. On this occasion, we were still outside Theatre L, but nobody else was around. It also looked slightly paled, as if a graphic designer had toned everything down. Another big difference was that everything seemed slowed down. Not quite in slow-motion, like in a film, but slightly off the pace of real-life. That’s how I know it was a dream and not time-travel.
This time, I knew what was going to happen – that Cormac was not long for this world. I don’t think he knew. I don’t know why I didn’t try to warn him. Maybe it’s because I knew it was a dream.
We talked for a long time. About unimportant stuff, in the grand scheme of things – but don’t they always turn out to be the conversations you remember most?
After a while, I knew it was time to go. I knew what was going to happen to him, but there was no long-winded ‘goodbye’ or any of that. There was a brief “see you later”, and I gave him a hug, and I left. I have not seen him since.
My insomnia has not returned since those couple of weeks. Maybe, in dealing with my dream about Cormac, something else was put to bed, too.
We have spent the last year or so living with various levels of Covid-19 restrictions. Cormac did not live long enough to see any of this happen. As I mentioned, it is strange to think that a person I went to school with has gone before the most seismic event in living memory. Cormac died in December 2019 and I have tried to write about it many times since, but always failed. I wonder what he would have made of the year that has happened since.
Patrick Freyne wrote that the death of a schoolfriend caused, for him, a realisation that you can die in a stupid, meaningless way. Until I read those words I did not know that I had the same realisation. When I was a teenager I used to cross the road without looking and weave in and out of passing cars as I did so. I don’t know when I stopped doing this, or whether it has anything to do with this epiphany. I do know I haven’t done it since then. This may also just be a factor of me growing up – though the people closest to me would tell you that is yet to happen.
Recently I dreamt about death for the first time in a long time. In this instance, it was me who was dying. I was brought into a room by a doctor and told that I had about a month left. There was nothing in the way of diagnosis or explanation, besides the fact that I was, indeed, dying. This information, ultimately, changed very little. I still went to work. I still walked every day. I still did everything I usually do except I was very sad whilst doing it.
In this dream, I received a call from my optometrist to tell me that I was due another eye test. For some reason, I went along with it. Though I was going to be dead in a few weeks, I scheduled an appointment for a week after I was supposed to already be dead. This reminded me of life more broadly. Nietschze might argue that art is a howl against death. I would argue that everyday life itself is a quiet rebuttal of death. We are all going to die. What is everyday life – listening to the radio, kissing a partner, petting a dog – if not a modest decision to cold-shoulder our date with eternity?
I woke up before I reached the end of this dream – that is, before I died. I think that’s the point. I like to think I have a gentle awareness that someday I am going to die, but that I am not anxious or death-stricken.
Richard Dawkins, the unwavering atheist, wrote that “we are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” Dawkins was not anxious nor was he death-stricken or racing towards life’s finish-line with vigour. What he meant was that the potential number of people who could have been here instead – instead of you, instead of me – means that the fact we get to experience death itself means we have experienced life. That certainly makes us the lucky ones.
I’m sure there are more dreams to come about death. I have not dreamt about Cormac in a year, but I can still imagine his face, still hear his voice. One day, that will fade. For now, at least, he is as alive as anybody else inside my head.
Shane McDonnell is a student from Dublin. He is studying English with Creative Writing at University College Dublin. His work has appeared in Sonder Magazine, Silver Apples Magazine, The Wells Street Journal, The New Word Order, ‘Brevity is the Soul: Wit from Lockdown Ireland’ and Caveat Lector.