I Had the Dream

Jeffrey K. Actor

I RECENTLY SHIFTED from part-time work to complete retirement. I closed my laboratory, published my final research findings, and handed over my teaching duties to a bright-eyed, newly minted assistant professor.

After I cut the career cord, my retired friends cautioned me that I’d likely experience a multifaceted, work-related dream, similar to those described by Andrew Forsythe in a recent article. They just didn’t tell me it might be a nightmare.

Sure enough, a few nights after retiring, I had “the dream.”

I found myself at my own surprise retirement party, conveniently held in my office, which—in a sort of Lewis Carroll way—had miraculously tripled in size. The distorted room was decorated with banners and balloons.

Dozens of vibrant students and young professionals were in attendance. Oddly, I didn’t recognize more than a handful of individuals, and those I knew weren’t work colleagues. I stood distant and apart from the guests. No one ventured in my direction to shake my hand, clap me on the shoulder or give me a much-needed hug.

Rather than interacting directly with me, the guests began taking my books, lab equipment and office supplies. Perhaps they desired keepsakes to remember me, although none asked me to sign any textbooks. They also took fancy chocolates and my espresso machine, items I never kept in my office in real life.

I politely asked the dream people to return the chocolates, but no one could hear me. People continued to arrive and remove contents, ignoring my watchful gaze. Eventually, someone arrived with a dolly and took my desk, chair and computer. Oddly, the monitor and mouse were left behind.

As the dream progressed, my former department chair informed me that I needed to say a few words about my career accomplishments. I excitedly thanked him for the opportunity to speak, even if it represented a public speaking experience at a moment’s notice.

After a minute to gather and crystalize my thoughts, I was given a microphone. By the time I took the podium, however, everyone had disappeared. The office was now stripped to bare walls. The only remaining artifact was my framed graduate school diploma, which hung askew.

I scanned the room, seeing only a few scattered chocolate bar wrappers and coffee beans. Eventually, an elderly gentleman with a broom arrived to sweep the floor.

Retirement parties are supposed to be a confirmation of our achievements. Remember what Warren Buffett said about knowing who’s swimming naked when the tide goes out? Well, I felt like the guy waiting for the tide to reverse, wondering if I’d accomplished anything of value.

To make matters worse, I suddenly sensed I’d lost my phone and car keys during the “celebration.” That pushed me over the edge. True anxiety set in. I hurriedly left the office, with my heart racing and blood pounding in my ears. I ambled aimlessly down empty corridors, hearing muffled conversations taking place behind closed doors. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally exited the complex.

I soon found myself walking within a small wooded grove with a bubbling stream. At that point, I stood perfectly still and simply watched dragonflies flit about, just out of reach of hungry goldfish below the water’s surface. Eventually, my anxiety departed and I welcomed a returning sense of calm. Along with that feeling came an abstract satisfaction of discovering a world outside my work that was presumably always within reach, albeit unbeknownst to me before my departure.

I awoke, realizing I had just experienced “the dream.” As a confirmation of survival, my phone was beside me on the nightstand, next to my keys.

Now, I’m certainly not an expert on dream interpretation. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or a retired molecular immunologist—to see this dream as an expression of fear about losing my career identity. Perhaps it was an unconscious coping mechanism to help me move on to whatever new adventures await.

Of course, the dream may also have been a manifestation of an undigested bit of beef that I ate the night before. I’ll likely never know.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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