When the person you love most in life dies, it doesn’t hurt. The word “hurt” implies that you can feel something, but the truth is, all you really feel is numb.
I had a year and a half to prepare for the death of my father, starting with a phone call to my homeroom class. This was 1985, long before cell phones, and I was a senior in high school. Our classroom had a wall mounted rotary phone in it, but it could only be used for communicating between the classroom and the administration building. When it rang my teacher picked it up, listened intently, and then hung up. “You need to go up to the front office, there is a phone call for you”, he said somberly.
When I arrived there and picked up the phone it was my mother on the line. She began to give me the “facts” in her WASPy style, a style of which I have much too often heard come out of my own mouth in the ensuing years. It’s done in a measured concern type of tone that tries to convey the message, “yes, we have a situation here, but let’s take it step by step and not get ahead of ourselves.” I stuck with her until the part about a “brain tumor” came up. Everything after that was a blank.
During a presentation at his office, my father had frozen on a word. He could not get it out of his mouth. Then he had a seizure and fell to the floor. After being rushed to the hospital, he was given a cat scan where they found the source of the problem, one those pesky cancerous tumors had decided it would call his brain home. The next year and a half had many moments of sorrow and pain, and surprisingly, some of joy as well. But still, nothing in those eighteen months could prepare me enough for the day we lowered his casket into the ground.
In the twenty-five plus years since, I have thought about my father often. He was without a doubt the greatest person I have ever known. At the time of his death I loved him more than I had loved anyone else in my life, and only with the birth of my children have I loved someone more. I always say he was like me, but without the “asshole” part, because he had all my good traits and none of my flaws.
I had long since come to accept the fact that he would not be there with me for the important and special events in my life. Yet the only thing that I could never come to peace with was that he would never get to meet my children–or they him. Then I had something amazing happen to me, something I never would have expected, and something I never would have believed. I had a dream.
Once I was at a party, and there was a lady with a decent size group of people standing around her. As I listened in to the conversation, I figured out that she did dream interpretation. She was being peppered with all sorts of questions from enthusiastic and hopeful people, wanting to find out the hidden message in their dreams. Questions about unicorns, and rainbows, and swimming with dolphins. It was a regular new age conclave. I walked right in the middle of it and said to her with a straight face, “I had a dream I was in a pit of naked men, covered in honey. What do you think that means?”
Suffice to say, that is how I generally feel about dream interpretation. But this dream I had was such a powerful dream. A dream where you can hear, and smell, and feel the people in it. You know, like that dream you had about the girl who sat in front of you in social studies, but never gave you the time of day. A “sheet changing” dream.
In this dream I was at home with my wife. My daughter was playing in the yard. With her grandfather. My father. There he was, albeit somewhat older, doing his patented “I’ve got your nose” gag, and making her squeal with laughter. I watched from inside the house, as my wife went about making dinner. It did not strike me as unusual, that my father was alive and well, and playing with his two year-old granddaughter. I just felt a sense of calm, of peace, and of all things being right with the world. Then in an instant it changed.
My daughter suddenly turned and ran into the street. A sense of fear and dread that only a parent can understand ran through my core. I saw cars at the end of the street coming her way. I saw the joy of my life ending. I saw my reason for living gone. Almost instantly my father ran for her. I followed out from the house, but he had a head start and was closer. She ran down the street and though he tried, he could not catch up with her. I pushed my legs furiously, seeing that the cars were closing in and my time running out. I passed up my father, and came within a few feet of her. I made a mad lunge forward, stretching out as far as I could, and scooped her up into my arms, and to safety.
I awoke to a stillness in my room that clashed with the frenzy of my dream, and at first I was disoriented. Slowly I began the process of coming back to reality, where you remind yourself that “it was only” a dream. Then suddenly, something inside of me made me stop. Something made me want to not only hold that dream, but to make it real. For the first and only time in my life I chose the Orwellian concept of “doublethink”, where you not only choose to believe something untrue is true, but forget your choice to do it, and it becomes reality. I chose to believe that my father had visited and played with my daughter because the feelings associated with it were as real and as valid as anything else I have felt in my life.
I also chose to understand that my father chasing after my daughter, and I passing him up and bringing her to safety was a metaphor. That the days where I would watch my father at his workbench, slowly and steadily bringing to life some project that my young mind couldn’t conceive of, were, despite how much I longed for them linger, gone forever. I had gone from being the admirer to the admired, from the protected to the protector. A message telling me that I had passed from just being a son, and now was a father in my own right.
That dream helped me to understand that my children could “meet” my father every day, through me, from the parts of me that were from him. It is years later and I now have a two year old son. As I watch him play, and learn, and grow, I look forward to the day my father comes to visit him as well.