Dad, Dreams, and Death: An Anniversary Reflection

(Dad, caught having too much fun in the Dominican Republic, building a church with the Nazarene Work & Witness Program, circa 2016)

My dead father used to come to me in my dreams.

I had never been visited by the dead before, so naturally these visits caught me off guard. I desperately anticipated them, yet I recoiled all the same.

“Hello, hate to see you, but I’m glad you’re here.”  

Prior to my own living dead visits, I had only been told about these ancestral migrations by others or read about them in books. It is altogether different when the dead appear to us from the depth of our unconscious, visiting us when we least expect it and pressing into us when the only defense against their visit is the wakefulness of the mind at the expense of our body’s nightly hibernation.

These visitations are unlike anything I have ever experienced. They are the soul and mind trying to sew reality back together into a semblance of the fabric that kept my insides in place rather than feeling as if they were spilling out everywhere, all the time. The sky had fallen, and the mind was hurriedly patching its roof before that glorious blue consumed me whole.

Those early visits were an oasis in the desert of grief, full of hugs, affirmations and, of course, all the things I wish I had said to him before he was taken from me suddenly that fateful Monday evening, February 27. This was the tragic burden of sudden loss. In wishing for our loved ones a good, quick, silent death, we sometimes suffer the fate of unexpected loss and the goodbye that is never said.

If hell is an emotion, this is it.

Yes, we would all be so lucky as to die in the blink of an eye, without pain or too much thought. Yet, as luck would have it, we are unlucky to be the ones left to consider it. We can shake our heads attempting to clear the event and all we accomplish is a headache that throbs in the soul.

As with all visits, however, they end. Even when we go home for the holidays, our arrival is the harbinger of our departure. Every hello has an inherent goodbye.

“It is so good to see you, and in any case, I really must be going.”  

The dream visitations exacerbate the chasm between us and the dead. They are far away. They are in a “land” not of our making and in a place that does not take our calls. I would go to sleep hoping I would see him, perchance run into him as I was going about my day. Whenever I was looking, I would often see nothing. When I desired to sleep, he would knock on my mind’s door.

Not every interruption is a welcome one.

The notable commonality with all those visits, and the raw days of early grief, is that the dead feel far far away. They are with us, pleasantly tormenting our senses, hourly, daily. They occupy our minds even when we are engaging in such mundane activities as brushing our teeth or feeding the dog, the clanking of dog food against the aluminum bowl being the sound of hail on the tin roof of the soul.

“Yes! You are there! I see you!” But we know they are not.

The immediacy of the pain is excruciating because of the distance that we know exists between us and them. Greif is at its best not because we feel close to the dead but because we know they are so far away, even if our mind tricks us into otherwise. The very thing that happens to us (grief) because of their passing is the very thing that keeps them from us.

I will never forget the second to last final dream I had of/with my dead father. I wrote of the dream on May 26, 2017:

“The dream had the feeling of closure. Like he was about to cross over, like his spirit had been hovering with us, but now he was ready to go, he knew we’d be ok. I remember hugging him, telling him I loved him, missed him and was sorry. He told me he loved me too. Then he told me he had to go, that he was ready to go, and we released our embrace and I watched as he walked off…his back turned to me. I very much had the sense that he was leaving and would not be back.”

I did “see” him again, on June 28. Thereafter, dead silence.

After that, 18 months of demons having carnival in the dark caverns that comprise my bones.

Not only did my father feel far away, grief removing him indefinitely from me, but I was also removed from myself. It is one thing to lose a father; its another when you die with him. Three days in the belly of the whale turns into months and years that seem like eons.

C. S. Lewis observes this very thing in his book A Grief Observed, that grief divides the living and the dead. They feel close, but grief declares to us they are not. In reflecting on the pain of loss, and its accompanying grief, he observes:

We shall still ache. But we are not at all – if we understand ourselves – seeking the aches for their own sake. The less of them the better…and the more joy there can be in the marriage between dead and living, the better. For, as I have discovered, passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them. This become clearer and clearer. It is just at those moments when I feel least sorrow…that H. rushes upon my mind in her full reality. Not, as in my worst moments, all foreshortened and patheticized and solemnized by my miseries, but as she is in her own right. This is good and tonic. (54-55)

Today is the four-year anniversary of my father’s sudden passing. It is still hard to believe that I write a sentence in which my father is the possessive object of passing, yet it is also hard to imagine it otherwise. Standing at this precipice, however, I am acutely aware of what Lewis describes.

Immediate grief, which succumbs to no time limit, is paralyzing precisely because the great love that connected us to the deceased gives way to a deep grief that pushes them even further into their grave. Indeed, in grief the dead die over and over again. It cannot be otherwise. The deeper the realization of death (permanent rupture), the starker the pain, the more intense the grief.

They enter our dreams, and then they leave, forever, backs turned, walking into the great night.

This is to not say we should not grieve. I have spilled many words trying to describe my own. There is a season for mourning, and I encourage any of those in this season to mourn well and mourn deeply. The deep bellowing of the soul is from a place only death can retrieve.

Yet, Lewis notes what slowly happens when sorrow and grief mistakenly leaves a gap for the light to get in. The gloomy season of a rainy winter being surprised by the sunrise. The pottery of our mind may be cracked, but all the better, we are ruined vessels.

I hear antiques are worth more anyhow.

As visitations of the dead are unbidden, so too are the slow reliefs of the soul, that find us making breakfast muffins for our children and happily noting that we are no longer separated in our grief but joined in our story, doing the very things the dead did when they were living. I reach for the mixing bowl and notice his hands in the cupboard.  

The dead are once again given back their bodies. In a word, they have ceased being a corpse.

Staring at a dead body, touching a lifeless corpse, begets grief. It divides the living and the dead. Yet, Lewis describes what happens in mundane activities, such as when he pours his bath, his minds defenses lowered. There, the deceased can surprise us, coming to us as they are, rather than objects of our mourning. The trick is letting the dead be what they were, and not what they have become in death. Only then will we see them again, at least with what we know as our “mind’s eye.”

As with Lewis’ reflections on losing his wife, many of our dead loved ones would perhaps be appalled at what they have become for us, especially if it is not remotely close to what they were to us in their living. Were they meant to by idols of depression or landmarks of joy?

When I go about my day, and embrace my children, my father comes back to me in all that he fully was: a man that loved his family, a father that gave hugs, an emotional man that would weep when the springs of love burst from his eyes.  He was a man that loved God, and marked up many a holy book, including his Bible, that remain as traces for me of a life lived. Lest I be too romantic, he was also a sinner saved by Grace. I recall many of his sins. I recall my own.

Dead humans are meant to be more than sadistic memories that hold our minds hostage, indulging our own death drive. They are meant to help us live because they taught us to hurt. I have hated all the lessons I learned from his death. I have hated them because I would have rather applied them to him. There is great irony, however: only his death could have taught me so well. The curse is also the gift.

I have now entered the phase of loss that allows me to see him, his imperfections, and his glories. He is no longer dead. He is himself, as is everyone else, in my memory. He is gone, but his name is not death. He is my dad, but you might have called him Mitch.

I can see his smile. I can hear his voice.

Grief has given way to Epiphany.

Last Fall Festival (2016) my Dad would celebrate, with my son and not quite 2 year old daughter