I will turn 50 years of age this coming November (2014). With each passing day, and with each pass by a mirror, I realize how much I resemble my deceased father. With every unexpected glimpse of my own reflection in a window, or even the shape of my shadow, some vestige of my father continues to live in this world of things.
I did not have a very good relationship with my father; at least not until the final years of his life. Even still, my memories of him are dominated by his taunts and jabs, his criticisms and jeers, his insults and chides. As a result, I've spent much of my life making every effort not to be like him.
But, as every parent of young children knows, it can be alarming just how readily the very same phrases and tones that our parents uttered at us will be heard coming out of our own damned mouths, sometimes even unpracticed, impulsively; as if they were imprinted somehow upon our very DNA.
Whenever this happens, I make it a point to stop and take note of it, soak it in, and then pour out as much self-loathing and disdain as I can muster, all in an effort to inoculate myself against being like him; to reject the “inheritance” of his ways; to refuse to carry on the “tradition” of his ridicule- and embarrassment-based parenting.
Tonight, upon my return from Wal-Mart, I walked up the steps leading to the porch of my home, only to notice the stark shadow being cast by my body onto the stairs from the street light behind me. There was no denying it. That dark shape might as well have been the shadow of my father.
One night recently, I had a dream about my father. It was one of those intensely vivid and lucid dreams, and while I knew in my dream that my father was dead, he nonetheless came to visit me in some sort of incorporeal state. It's not that he was a ghost or some other haunting figure. It was simply my dad and all that he could be without his body; his pure presence, without the frailty and all the encumbering infirmities that had become so much a part of him in his final years. And without the burdens and obligations that doubtless fueled his impatience with and disappointment in life and in me.
In the dream, we simply spent some time together, walking around the back yard of the house where we used to live, but we didn't talk; at least not with words. The communication was transcendent, I think without actual words, but with a certain intuitive knowing of what we each really wanted to convey to the other, emotionally and factually, from the depths of our hearts, with understanding, acceptance, and reassurance.
As it is with such dreams, it seemed so real, but at the same time, even within the dream, I knew it wasn't and that it was temporary, that I would have to say good-bye, that I was required to. For the first time that I can remember, I really wanted to be there with him, with this version of him; my dad, without the stresses and the pressures that brought out the worst in him and in our dynamic. Eventually, in the dream, there came a point at which we knew that we finally understood each other, that everything was okay, and we bid each other a final farewell.
I hasten now to say that I do not believe in ghosts, nor do I tolerate, let alone accept the idea that anyone, including a soi-disant “spiritual medium” can contact the dead. But this was nonetheless something very significant for me. Not because it really was my father -- because it wasn't -- but because it was my own conception of my father coming to terms with me, and myself coming to terms with that conception.
Every time I shave off my mustache or my beard or both, I am reminded of why I dislike the appearance of my whisker-less face, and it's because I look even more like my father. My wife really prefers my face without the beard and mustache, and since my most recent removal, she has told me yet again.
This time, I haven't let it grow back, as I usually do. As I approach the half-century mark, I feel it's time to embrace my age and everything that attends it, even if it means looking more and more like my father. There's a sense in which, although he has been gone for nearly 7 years, he still lives; in my memories, in my dream, in the similarity of my appearance with his.
When that morning arrived and I opened my eyes, I was struck by the intensity of the emotions I still felt upon waking. It wasn't a sadness, but rather a profound sense of resolution and satisfaction, that he and I, after a lifetime of tension, competition, hostility, disappointment, and disapproval, had finally buried the hatchet in the most irenic and innocuous way imaginable, without words, without gestures, without anger. I felt like it was a gift, but not one that came from God, or from the Universe, or the Fates, but a gift from myself; telling myself that it's okay to forgive my father and to remember him, not as the man whose demeanor toward me caused so much frustration, confusion and pain, but as the man whose presence in my dream exuded his true personality, without the weights and shackles of this world that typically exacerbated our strained relationship. I know now that, despite however flawed and misguided was his way of expressing love and concern for his children, he was someone who, underneath it all, was a kind, gracious, and tender man, who loved his son the only way he knew how.