I’ve heard it said,
“A man becomes a man
when his father dies.”
I’ve searched for its origin
to no avail.
It’s 1:25 a.m. as I sit and type this. I closed my eyes to fall asleep around midnight, less than an hour and a half ago. It was only in the last thirteen minutes that I finally composed myself, after what felt like a full 10 minutes of loud and uncontrollable weeping, the result of a dream. I’m now sitting at my computer, still reeling with emotion, the dream still fresh in my mind, but it’s also vanishing with each passing second. Here’s what I remember of that dream:
I had stopped, on my way home from somewhere, to explore some sort of abandoned facility. I recall thinking that I had been there for about an hour and it was time to move on, although I don’t recall at all what had grabbed my interest and motivated me to stop. I guess I didn’t think I was going to be very long in satisfying my curiosity, because as I was returning to my car, I saw that I had left it running with the headlights on. In order to reach my car, I had to climb a steep muddy hill. It was a slow and arduous clamber; sufficiently steep and slippery to warrant the use of my now muddy hands. Just as I arrived at my car, I suddenly found myself in the lobby of some random building, straddling the seat of my bicycle. As it usually goes in these kinds of dreams, none of this narrative dissonance was alarming. I simply surmised that it couldn’t have been my car whose lights were left on. I even looked at the light on my bicycle, relieved that it was not on and that I hadn’t confused that car, or whatever it was, with my bicycle.
As I was exiting this building, a man was entering. He kindly helped me to get my bicycle through the glass double doors. I didn’t really look at him, I just said, “Thank you, sir,” and noticed his black running shoes. He said nothing in reply.
Inexplicably, I entered a second building, carrying some stuff, like a gym bag or something. As I was going through another set of glass doors, a man held the door for me. It did not occur to me until I saw his shoes that this was the same man who assisted me with the doors in the previous encounter. I again said, “Thank you, sir,” again without looking up. With a chuckle, the man replied, “You're welcome, ‘sir’,” stressing the “sir” part, as if mocking my pronoun choice.
I recognized the voice and the mocking tone immediately. It was my dad, who had been gone for nearly a decade. It would be ten years this coming September. He walked ahead of me as I entered the building and I followed him, bewildered. I was speechless. How could this be? Am I dreaming this? Is this really my father? He looked strong, vibrant. He had that familiar gait and seemed to be enjoying the comfort of his black running shoes.
At first, I assumed this must be a dream. I then called to mind a principle that my dream-self had long ago established; a bulletproof maxim that would assure me of how to know whether I was dreaming if I ever saw my dad: I could know with confidence by ascertaining his appearance, and note if there were anything out of the ordinary. In other words, my dream-self was certain that, if I ever saw my father, I would know that it was a dream as long as his physical appearance in that dream aligned with the way I always remembered him; that is, nothing unusual. (Note that I have never actually reassured myself of this—nor have I ever conjured up such a maxim while fully awake—but apparently in dreams we need to steel ourselves with this kind of strategic forethought.) But upon examination, there was indeed something unusual. His hair was a little longer than he used to wear it. I immediately scanned my memory—that is, my dream-self’s memory—to account for this, but from what I could remember about him, and judging by all the photos I'd remembered seeing of him, he had never let his hair grow very long. So here was something absolutely unusual, something out of the ordinary. It was all the proof that my dream-self needed. It really was him. This was not a dream. I was stunned to my core and intractably nonplussed.
As I continued to follow him into an office area, he glanced back a couple times to make sure I was following him. He had a cheeky grin on his face and seemed to be deliberately not talking or explaining how he was alive, or where he had been all this time. He seemed to be enjoying my shocked befuddlement, which is exactly what my dad would do in such situations. He loved to get one over on people.
Still following, or more like staggering incredulously after him, he started to talk and his tone sounded like he was giving an explanation. But it was as if my amazement had shut down my ability to coherently hear his voice and to process his words. I heard the words “sheriff” and “found me” and “Super Bowl” and “$250,000”. But none of that mattered in that moment; I felt like it was no longer important to have those questions answered immediately. Now that he was back, we had all the time in the world and we could fill in all the details later. All that mattered was that my dad was back, and that he was alive.
He was still talking as he turned to face me, and I couldn’t bear it any longer. I dropped my things and ran up to him and embraced him. The disbelief, confusion, and shock were supplanted by a torrent of euphoric joy. I’ve never cried for joy, neither in real life nor in dreams. That’s the stuff of movies and fiction. But now I was doing it, for the first time, and it was amazing; the release of sheer untrammeled happiness. Everything movies and books had depicted and described about what tears of joy feel like—I was experiencing all of that and more.
I don't remember ever hugging my father; not once. But I hugged him now. I squeezed him tightly and I was weeping. I can still feel the warmth and solidity of his back under my forearms. I couldn’t believe he was really here, solid, and alive.
Pointing out the obvious, as my dad was wont to do, he laughed and, almost teasing, said, “I guess you really missed me.” Not almost teasing; he was indeed actually teasing, which is exactly how my father managed emotional situations. We just stood there as I continued to squeeze my arms around his waist and to press the side of my crying face into his stomach, while he sort of patted my back and chuckled again at his amusement of, and perhaps his discomfort from, my emotional display.
I awoke on the couch, sobbing loudly and heaving tears of joy, still immersed in the flood of boundless elation. Split seconds elapsed as my eyes cleared, and the dream state evaporated. The solid ground of reality again began to coalesce before me. The dream seemed so real—all of the dream-self's imagined built-in history, discursive thought processes, and familiar perceptual strategies, as well as the unbridled force of the emotions that I actually felt—that I had to force my awake-self to bring to mind the true contents of my memory: seeing him incapacitated in the hospital, intubated, with his chest rising and falling in a grotesquely staccato and unnatural cadence; the machine breathing for him, or at least for his withering body. Awake-self now seized upon those memories of him, and deliberately pictured him in that wired and tentacled hospital bed, in a cruel coma from which he would never awake. Then came the unbidden memories of the confused and frustrated ambivalence—and later, the profound regret—I felt when my sister called to tell me that they were taking him off of life support, and my decision not to turn around and return to the hospital to see him die.
Amid my gasping sobs and hot tears, the distinctions between dream and reality were taking hold: There was no unexplained disappearance or presumption of death. That's the stuff of movies and fiction and now, my dreams. There was no mystery about whatever became of my father; just the cold reality of his funeral and everything that attended the entirely non-mysterious, completely explicable, and utterly unambiguous tragedy of his death.
All in a matter of seconds, as those memories emerged and cleared the hypnopompic fog from my mind, my tears of joy had shifted abruptly to that of pain an mourning and loss. As clarity and reality returned, I was still blubbering, but now my hand was over my mouth, trying to quell the sound and the deep sadness. It was only the second time I had heard myself sobbing as an adult, and it sounded so strange. My wife and young sons were sleeping upstairs, and I didn't want to wake them, but I couldn't stop it. Something was being released. Nearly 10 years of not grieving for the loss of my father.
As I finally composed myself, I knew I had to write all this down. And now, as I sit here, not even an hour later, that dream—which, less than an hour ago had me so powerfully gripped and unable to distinguish it from reality—is already now fading and eluding my grasp. I’m getting distracted by the ridiculousness of the details and by the observation that joyful crying doesn’t sound much different from mournful crying. It also occurs to me now that, when I embraced my father in my dream, we were both standing, but my face was only as high as his stomach, and my arms were around his waist and lower back. I had become a child again.
Now I am remembering how, shortly after my father died and I had returned to work, a co-worker, an older colleague who had also lost his father, asked me if I had cried yet from my loss. I recall being somewhat taken aback by such a personal question, but I answered and I told him, no, I hadn't. He said, “You will; it will hit you eventually.” I acknowledged what he said, but the years went by and it never happened.
It’s now 2:41 a.m. and I’m exhausted. 5:30 a.m. will come quickly.
“You taught me the courage of stars before you left,
How light carries on endlessly even after death.
With shortness of breath you explained the infinite,
How rare and beautiful it is to even exist.
“I couldn't help but ask
For you to say it all again.
I tried to write it down,
But I could never find a pen.
“I'd give anything to hear
You say it one more time
That the universe was made
Just to be seen by my eyes.
“With shortness of breath, I'll explain the infinite,
How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist.”