My friend knew his father was dead the second he rounded the corner, walking off the ferry after work toward the house he shared with his wife and son, across the street from his parents’ house, the house he grew up in. The flashing lights of the aid car and fire truck all but announcing what he immediately sensed to be true: Yes, we are indeed inside your parents’ house and we’re sorry, but he was dead in his chair faster than your mother could call us.
The next night his three-year-old son mentioned talking to Grandpa.
“You had a dream about Grandpa last night?”
“No, not a dream.”
He didn’t worry about explaining the difference between a dream and reality; that was a conversation for another time. Instead, he asked what he and Grandpa had talked about, hoping there might be aspects of the conversation he could hold on to, something gleaned from the innocent wisdom of a child that would help him through his own grief. The son was able to articulate only that they hadn’t had a conversation so much as that Grandpa had talked to him. Last night, after the big trucks went home. Of that much, that it was last night, the boy was certain. He didn’t say to his son, “But Grandpa was dead last night.”
My friend is a disciplined and pragmatic man, not one to believe in ghosts, but he is open-minded enough to have been comforted by the idea that his kind father might have visited his son after he died, leaving him with words that seemed to ease his departure for his loved ones. It was that story that I held on to when my dad died.
He died suddenly and unexpectedly (and, yes, those are two different things) when he was 49 and I was 28. I had little experience with the death of any close relatives or friends: At 28, I still had three out of four grandparents. In my shock and grief the first days after he died, after I had almost accepted that I couldn’t go to sleep for a year and wake up with the nightmare behind me, I tried to will myself to dream about my dad, that he’d appear and tell me that everything was all right and then I’d feel better. We didn’t have that sort of conversation while he was alive, so it made no sense to expect one after he died, but I’m lazy and that sounded a lot easier than working through grief, and it worked for a three year old. Every morning for about a month I’d wake up only to recall that there was no message from him to recall. After a while I forgot about my dream of having a dream that would make easier the fact that he was still dead.
It wasn’t until a few days after the fact that I realized that I had indeed had a dream about my dead dad. I was in line for a ride at Disneyland, one of those lines that snakes around inside a building so artfully that the masses never fully comprehend that they are being herded sheep-like toward a hidden destination. The last time we had been to Disneyland was with my mom and dad when our son was about three, and this was the ride my mom didn’t want to go on because she knew it would make her sick, but Dad told her it was all in her head. Essentially, he told her to quit being such a baby and so she went, and felt sick for the rest of the day. Sheep-like tendencies run in my family.
My dream was noisy and busy, as Disneyland should be. I was toward the end of the line and looked up a few rows and a few levels above to see my dad, in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of black pants he might have worn to work (he didn’t wear jeans, or white shirts that often; now that I think about it, I was probably seeing him in black and white, although the surroundings were definitely in color). He was just standing there minding his own business. I wasn’t surprised to see him, and there was no sense of urgency to get my questions answered. It didn’t occur to me to ask him how he was, which would have been the caring or, at the very least, the polite, thing to do, what with him being the one who died so young and all a week before his son’s wedding, and who would never really know the grandchildren he had and was going to have.
I told him that it was hard and he said, yes, it is. I couldn’t hear too much else of what he said – which wasn’t a lot – because of the noisy, happy people in line. It didn’t occur to me to try to reach him by cutting in front of people in line. I just don’t cut in front of people in line, even to have a deeper conversation with a dad I was not likely to see again, dead or not (I’ve already mentioned the sheep-like business). He was there and it was no big deal and I don’t remember how the dream ended.
I’d had the dream I’d forgotten about wishing for, but I didn’t realize that it was The Dream until a few weeks later. It was more of an afterthought: One day I thought about that dream I’d wanted to have, and then realized that that must have been it. There was no thunderbolt, no slap-on-the-forehead recognition that I’d had The Dream. Just a slow realization that, hey, I did have my dream. And that it hadn’t helped.