My father sits in a small metal side chair, the kind you find in a hospital room, a blank wall at his back. He wears his Sunday suit, the silver tie he saves for weddings. He crosses his legs, looks at his fingers like I have seen him do a thousand times. Silent, we wait together, for I know not what. I want to lean into him, and I wonder what he is thinking.
Daddy’s fingers are thin and nimble, the skin taut, the kind of hands a doctor needs for his work. I notice he is not biting his fingernails or the skin around them, something he has done most of his life. A tiny thing, but significant, it seems.
We wait together like we used to during my mother’s many surgeries. Broken hips — too many times to count — a knee. Her back. In those times I knew he was worried, so I tried to draw him through it with my chatter — about children, neighbors, work, anything but politics.
This is the first time in many months Daddy has not been lying in a hospital bed, with me trying to keep the one-sided conversation going. I’m talking to him, effusive in my glee at finding him all dressed up and sitting in the chair.
But here’s the thing: It’s a dream. My father died in April.
Right after Daddy died, I was hopeful he would visit me. I climbed in bed each night, wondering when it might be. I had dreamed of others in my life who had died. Why should Daddy be any different?
I was sure he was coming. It would just be a matter of time.
And he did come, swiftly, standing in the front hall of my childhood home in his Sunday suit, next to the mirror, his hair grayer than I remember. I hugged him, feeling such joy at the warmth of him, telling him I knew he would come, and then he melted away.
But he came again, this time sitting in that chair, in the shadows, while the world goes on around him. And that’s where he has been in a half-dozen dreams since. When I see him there I’m overcome with joy. I feel the knot in my throat, thinking I might cry, just watching him sit, in a room that is neither cold nor hot, so thrilled I am, happier than I have felt for a very long time.
And then the alarm startles, the dream fades, and I am back to day, feeling the ache of a world without Daddy in it.
I am a dreamer. Both night and day. Those who know me well know I often don’t hear the conversation, don’t even know anyone is talking to me. Not solely because I have lost some of my hearing, which I have, but rather I am lost in what I am thinking.
Daddy knew that about me. Once, when I was about 9, he called me a liar because I had no idea where my sister was. I didn’t. Had she told me? In my memory, I see her form sliding past me in the family room as she says something. I was lost in a book, until his words stung. Was I that? A liar? Is that all he thought of me? I spent years trying to prove otherwise.
We've been looking at the scriptures of Advent during my writing class at church. We're trying to find where we fit in the story of the virgin birth in the manger with the shepherds and all that. Since I was a child, I’ve used my dreams to figure out the world. The ages-old Christmas story takes on a new slant when I read about Joseph, who learns in a dream what he should do with his not-yet-wife-but-oh-so-pregnant betrothed.
So how do I fit in this story? It feels presumptuous to think God is speaking to me in my dreams. Who am I to be that important? Yet Daddy's not the only person in my life who has died but who has come back in my dreams — my mother-in-law, my grandfather, a childhood friend who was not always so nice — and so, I wonder.
In early February, as Daddy lay fighting pneumonia in the hospital where he practiced medicine for 50 years, he told me he would not get better. “You’ll have to take care of your mother,” he said. I knew then would not survive this fight and that this was his directive to be followed. But how in the world would we manage?
In the months since his death, the days and decisions have been dizzying. A new home for my mother, a new town. Our home, an empty shell. And yet, there are days when I’ve almost forgotten he’s not still there, just on the other end of the phone when I call, sitting in his chair with the dog in his lap. Except the number we had my whole life doesn’t work anymore, and only my mother answers the new one.
I don’t want to live in a dream world. I want to be awake and alive. Occupy the now. But it feels like I am waiting for Daddy to say something, when he comes in my dreams. I suppose I am looking for specifics — Joseph certainly got them. Like what do to when Mama won’t take her medicine correctly. Or the intangible, like what heaven is all about. And has he found the dogs, like we asked him to when he was dying, and our grandparents?
I’m looking for comfort, too, that despite the fact that he is not with us anymore, all will be well.
The move was difficult. Watching my mother as her cherished things were boxed up and loaded into the truck proved heart-wrenching. The packers worked quickly, so we worked behind them, gathering up personal items from his desk, tossing some, keeping others. That first afternoon, we found something torn from a magazine in a small catch-all basket on his desk. It was a poem, no given author, that read in part:
You mustn’t tie yourself to me with tears. I gave you my love. You can only guess how much you gave me in happiness.... let your grief be comforted by trust . . . I won’t be far away, so if you need me, call and I will come. Though you can’t see or touch me, I’ll be near, and if you listen, you’ll hear my love around you, soft and clear.
We felt him there, at that moment and knew he had left the words for us to find, right when we needed them most.
So I will keep dreaming, in hopes the next time I need him, he'll show up again and this time be ready to talk.
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To read daily meditations during Advent from the writers of St. Michael's, visit holymichael.org, and download These Holy Mysteries.