About a month ago, my dad appeared at the doorway to my bedroom. He was smiling like usual, wearing his favorite striped terry-cloth robe. It’s still hanging in my closet. I was happy to see him; I’d been struggling with something and whether it was with words or a hug, his presence is always a help to me. He entered the room quietly and sat on the edge of my bed. I began speaking and started to cry. The grin he was wearing didn’t waver at all, he he waited and listened with total attentiveness, the kind you rarely find. His calm demeanor and ease despite my tears comforted me, as though he knew something that I could not. When I paused he said “Be strong Mary,” like some kind of Indian warrior, but less warrior-like. He continued to smile as he spoke and reminded me, “You want to make sure you’re loved for the right reasons.” This felt like both a question and an answer. It sounds a little vague, but I could feel distinctly that I was heard and he understood me. His words were minimal but powerful; they gave me what I needed. I felt lucky to have him. Then, it was over.
The brash sunlight in my bedroom bursted in through my blinking eyes as I left one world and awoke firmly in this one. It’s bizarre but it usually happens the same way: In the first moments of consciousness, the dream plays out in its entirety in reverse, in maybe one or two seconds. But this recollection doesn’t seem to happen in my mind. It’s as though it comes from the center; my gut or chest. Then, it arrives in non sequitur bits and pieces and my mind immediately begins to reassemble them in order. In those first moments of wakefulness, the experience feels so entirely tangible and fresh, so within reach, I’m convinced if I close my eyes tight enough it will all come back to me. But most of the time there’s no going back. While the dream itself is sacred, there is something Holy in waking from it too. I have felt God there. It’s as though dreams give access into the eternal, and in those first blinking moments, the human mind hasn’t caught up yet. In this little pocket is where we can sit with the phenomenal before our thoughts flood in and diminish it into something digestible; something that makes sense.
The dream visit is like the Cadillac of post-death interaction. It’s a chance to see and hear and feel someone that you don’t have physical access to anymore. I feel extremely grateful when I have dreams with my dad. Beyond the refresher for my senses, there is power in them. I was given advice and comforted yes, but I felt actual love through that dream. I drew strength from it and I’ll treasure it among the other great memories I have of my dad. And that had me thinking. I’m always hearing people say that dreams “aren’t real” or shouldn’t be examined because they’re just imagination or a meaningless summation of random events and mostly just aren’t true. Of course, this has roots in pragmatism. A dream that your best friend is living in your refridgerator doesn’t mean that they are, hopefully. But I’ve been thinking a lot lately of dreams I’ve had with my dad, especially this most recent one. I’ve been recalling it, as though it were a real memory. And I’ve been trying to discern what the difference is between an actual conversation like this and the one we had in my dream. Didn’t it really happen? Isn’t it now a real memory? When you read the first paragraph, did you have reason to think it wasn’t real? It did happen. Not in our dimension but in some dimension. However unorthodox, there is still meaningful interaction between us. I don’t pretend to understand how it all works, but I know it is true. It feels as real as a phone call with my brother last week, or the heat of the sun burning on my neck.
Two weeks ago, we celebrated his 67th birthday. We always cook his favorite meal and group-text photos of the food like a bunch of nerds. We caption them with the funny things and phrases he always said. It’s happy. It’s a chance to remember him and hear his stories and the awesome things he did or the weird songs he sang on his guitar. It’s all an opportunity not just to celebrate but to know him better, which I’m perpetually trying to do. For a long time I didn’t allow that to happen. Since I didn’t truly grieve him until college, I entered my twenties still knowing and remembering him as my 12-year-old self. There was a chunk of time when I shied away from talking or hearing about him, afraid it would make me cry which I hated to do in front of other people. It pained me to see other people cry over him too. Grief was something I had to learn, it didn’t come naturally. And whether I had cut myself off intentionally or was just too young to process it all, I had also cut myself off from getting to know him further. I unknowingly stunted our relationship, which I assumed was something that couldn’t grow once he was gone anyway. I was wrong, as it were, and so occasions and stories were just reminders he was gone.
It wasn’t until after facing and enduring the big parts of grief that things changed in a big way. I could finally begin to know my dad as my older self, not as a 12-year-old. I began understanding and appreciating him in new ways, and my love for him grew. It was then that our relationship began to evolve past sentiment and allowed for interaction. He existed as more than just memory, which was so fulfilling in my life. I found myself looking forward to any occasion regarding my dad. I love(d) to hear peoples stories about him and the wide open way he loved and lived. New stories and photographs all offer another glimpse into his life and who he was. I’m still putting the pieces together. Even the stories I’d heard before took on new meaning, because unsurprisingly, you process a story or memory much differently as an adult. I allowed other peoples sadness and I allowed my own because I knew it meant we loved him well, and that was in itself a comfort. A connection. All of it, including the dream, reminded me that he was still my dad and some part of him wasn’t gone, he or it was still there somewhere, maybe in that pocket between life and the dream.
I know that enduring the pain of losing him and reaching out to him again as though he could still hear me is what opened up our “line” where things like the dream happen. But truthfully the contact is not always so blatant. Most of the time I have to look in the minute, the subtle, in things that are easy to dismiss. And I find him there. In heart shaped leaves. In a fly that won’t leave. In being so unconditionally loved and taken in by my family, including my stepdad, who my mom says my dad helped arrange. I find him in my nieces and seeing my brothers as fathers. In the morning. In rain. He loved the rain and was always reminding us that it was a sign of balance. Since his death he has continually shown up to special occasions with rain, if even a two minute shower. It’s raining now.
Getting to know my dad so many years after his death is a surprisingly positive and treasured experience for me. It’s been a privilege, really. Death is mostly talked about in hushed tones and at the risk of sounding morbid, which I’ve been accused of once or twice. But my dad has made death feel less serious, somehow. When someone dies we label it as “bad” and when someone young dies we call it unfair. And while losing someone you love is one the hardest experiences in life, grief is not stagnant. Nothing stays the same, including the pain. And when you endure it, you also open the door for incredible things to happen. You’re brought intimately close to the lifecycle and there’s a sacredness there too. I don’t think it’s over when it’s over. I also don’t think people die and stick around to play with light switches. But I do think the line of communication is still there. It just involves reaching for it and experiencing someone using a new kind of language. It means being open to things you don’t completely understand.
I’ve always been aggressively curious and sometimes the weight of life and the worlds mysteries become too heavy and I get discouraged. Even mad sometimes. But getting to know my dad after his death and developing our relationship and talking with him while he sits on the edge of my bed…it superseded the comprehensible a while ago. It left me with far more questions. It’s made me an implicit part of something I don’t fully understand and for that I am so grateful. Because that’s most of life, anyway. We don’t actually know why we’re here or what happens to us when we’re not, but we go after it and love people and try to have a good time anyway. Knowing him has been a humble reminder that life and love and the infinite universe unfold despite our human comprehension. It reminds me that we don’t always need the answers in order to experience the fullness of life. Sometimes we get so caught up with thought, intent on answers and knowing that we limit ourselves from the phenomenal. Some things are beyond the realm of understanding, beyond words and category, and these are all but reasons not to embrace and cherish them as the miraculous treasures they turn out to be. I am looking forward to more. The rain has stopped now.
This post is many weeks late. Chronic tardiness was my beloved dads only vice and he passed that on to me. So I’m sorry dad, but also I blame you. -Love, Rudy
Health, Happiness, Happy Birthday!