Short Story: “Dreams and Memories”

An old man is troubled by the fact that his late wife spent her final years reminiscing about memories that never actually took place. A doctor visits him with some unorthodox advice.

Is imagination any less real than a recollection? © Take Photo /

September 02, 2023 23:07 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: If something happened that only you know about, in what sense is it more real than a dream?

“So, what’s the problem?” I said, and he looked at me like I was mad.

“Is your hearing worse than mine, doctor?”

This old man had spent the last two hours, telling me and re-telling me about his late wife who spent, according to him, the final months of her life unable to distinguish between dreams and memories.

When she reflected on their time together, she recalled extravagant trips to far-flung locations. Flights. Cruises. Sleeper trains. She talked about Australia and New Zealand, China, the Pyrenees, visiting 29 of the 50 US states. Setting foot, at least once, on every continent.

Wonderful, vivid memories about exploring the world with her husband.

But none of it was true. And this was playing on the old man’s mind.

“We used to sit together,” he said. “Hold hands. Listen to the box. Tell each other stories. Make each other laugh. We didn’t travel. We never traveled. I’d have loved to take her but I… we went to Aberdeen on our honeymoon, see, 1964, and there was a minor Typhoid outbreak, if you can believe it. Ever since then, the idea of traveling has given me the willies.”

I enjoy speaking to older people because they give you space to think. If you take several minutes to answer a question, they’re happy to wait; their hands don’t grab for the nearest device. Nor do they chatter on simply to fill the silence. I probably took about five minutes before I responded, but I doubt he’d have minded if I’d taken an hour.

“What I’m about to say to you, Mr. Wheeler, isn’t exactly medical advice or… we’re not trained to say this but it’s… it’s a personal belief, I suppose. When it comes down to it, I don’t believe there is a difference between a dream and a memory.”

He looked up, his weathered face betraying no emotion, and he waited for me to continue.

“Two scenarios for you, ok. In the first, you’re old and you’re sitting in a chair thinking about all the things you might’ve done. In the second, you’re old and you’re sitting in a chair thinking about all the things you really did do. Either way, you’re old, you’re sitting in a chair, and you’re imagining things that don’t exist.”

“But they do exist,” he said, “the times we spent together do exist.”

“Then where are they?” I shouldn’t have phrased that so forcefully but, for once, he gave me no time to think.

“They’re here. And here.” He said, pointing first to his head, then his heart. 

“And what about dreams,” I said, “where do you imagine they are?”

His shoulders slumped and the silence returned. I couldn’t tell if he was considering what I said or if he was annoyed by it. “The dream I had last night,” I said, “it’s more substantial than many of my most cherished memories.”

In the next silence, I wasn’t sure if the conversation was over. “But we could have done it,” he said. “If I had the chance, I would’ve. I’d have taken her all over the world. We used to talk about it but…”

Another silence. Another chance to think. 

“The things she said to you, can you imagine them?”

“Sorry? Oh, you mean can I imagine being with her in New Zealand or whatnot?”


“Yes. Yes, I’ve seen pictures of all the places she talked about. I’ve read about them too.”

“Could you close your eyes and picture it right now?”

He nodded.

“If you can imagine New Zealand with your wife, that is better than a memory. Whether you place her on a cruise ship, or on a sun lounger or in that chair in your living room, you’re still creating her, you see. We don’t store memories like MP4s or reels of film, we create them again each time we look upon them. And over years the same memory can change and distort.”

“To be able to picture New Zealand with your wife, you must have a wonderful imagination, Mr. Wheeler. I can guarantee that many people who have been to New Zealand won’t remember it as well as you do. And while they will consider their memory as inferior to the now long-distant real thing, you can go back to each place and be there just as much as you were when you first visited.”

“You said you’d have gone traveling with her if you had the chance. Well, Mr. Wheeler, you do have the chance. All you have to do is close your eyes and you can take her wherever you like.”

This next silence really was the end of the conversation. He was falling asleep and perhaps getting ready to embark on his next adventure.

The one downside of talking to older people, aside from their tendency to fall into a slumber, is that they generally give much less away. I left Mr. Wheeler, unsure if I’d helped him or made him more confused. 

That evening, when I relayed the conversation to my wife, she strongly suspected the latter.

“He never remarried?” she said.


“And he spends his whole time talking about her? Remind me, when did his wife die?”


“Fifty-nine years ago,” I said. “Six months after they got married. They went to Aberdeen, she ate some contaminated tinned meat, horrifically unlucky, and she died of Typhoid. But he acts… no, he fully believes, they spent a whole life together.”

“And don’t you think, as a doctor, you should tell him the truth?”

“The truth?” I said, putting the lid back on the urn and returning it to the shelf above our bed. “The truth is nothing more than dreams and memories.”

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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