When I started to dream about my father, every one started like this:
Me: It’s good to see you.
Him: It’s good to see you.
Me: I thought you died.
Him: I didn’t die. I was somewhere else.
And then the dream goes the way it will, the way all dreams go, to lunacy, and then it ends, always, before the cancer rots his insides, as it did in real life, turning him sallow and gray so suddenly that after he was in the hospital just a few days I could see, for the first time ever, the outline of his cheekbones. He was 59 years old. I was 15.
For years, decades, I did not dream of my father. I thought of him. I resented him occasionally for my imperfect childhood. Never was he in my dreams. Sometimes I wondered why that was. Everyone dreams of the dead, sooner or later.
It wasn’t until 1900 that Sigmund Freud published his landmark work, The Interpretation of Dreams, which advanced his theory that all dreams are wish fulfillment; that the unconscious is entirely animalistic, instinctual, and sexual, and dreams a way of concealing one’s basest urges from the waking mind. This was disputed by his protégé, Carl Jung, who agreed with Freud on the existence of the unconscious, but viewed dreams as a window to it. Nightmares, according to Jung, are the mind’s way of smoothing over a past trauma through repeated exposure to it.
The science and study of dreams and their meanings, if they have any, continues. There is considerable scientific evidence in favor of the theory that all of it is meaningless, that dreams are simply the product of “activation-synthesis,” a random process by which electrical brain impulses gather indiscriminate thoughts and images from our memories, mainly in the deeper recesses of the amygdala and hippocampus.
In the meantime you can’t blame a man for trying to figure out why he has started dreaming about his father, 35 years dead and buried. Dreams that drive him to boxes of curled, dusty photos and conversations with long-forgotten relatives in service of reconstructing a man and a life he never satisfactorily knew: what 15-years-old boy really knows his father?
My father was the fourth of four children, born in 1922 in Newark, N.J., to a pair of German immigrants. His father, John, made a decent living as a tool-and-dye man even during the Great Depression, but he was an incurable drunk and most days headed straight to the bar after work to drink away all that currency. If it wasn’t bad enough that his family went hungry while he drowned his demons, they also caught hell when the bars closed and he and the rest of the regulars spilled back onto civilization. He handed out 3 a.m. beatings like so many whiskey shots.
When little John, their first-born son, was still in his short pants, his mother would send him down to the bar to try to liberate some grocery money. He’d peer through the windows from the curb, trying to assess his father’s degree of drunkenness. If he saw some indication of retreating wits but general lucidity, he’d hang around outside, kill some time.
Eventually, when the old man was good and sloppy, John would slink in, wedge himself into the crowd, and try to slip a few bills out of his father’s pocket. He’d catch a beating for it later — if someone in the bar ratted him out or if the old man’s stupor was such that he could still detect and recognize a close relative. But he’d catch a beating later anyhow, so what was the difference?
Frequently, John protected his little brother, my dad, from their father. Seven years older, he took the brunt of it, the way dutiful eldest sons of drunken brutes always have. By the time my dad was old enough to really understand the hell of it, the worst had more or less passed. The old man was still a drunk, but he wasn’t around enough to terrorize everyone. He’d disappear for days, weeks at a time. Drunken binges. Eventually he moved out altogether.
I know this because when I was about 10 years old I asked my dad to help me fix a flat tire on my bicycle — the second flat I had gotten that week. He’d just gotten home from work, was tired, and as he wedged the handle of a claw hammer between the frame and the tire to keep the wheel in place, he snapped, “Do you think my father was around to help me do this kind of stuff?”
A few years before that, my grandfather had come to live with us, the result of having been evicted from his apartment and arrested following an incident in which, while hopelessly drunk and, probably not coincidentally, naked, he chased his landlady around the apartment building in which he lived while waving a butcher knife. It seems now a curiosity that my parents subsequently made available to him a basement bedroom in a home where three young children lived, and even more so given our proximity directly across the road from the neighborhood tavern. The arrangement was doomed at the start.
I remember my mother berating him in the kitchen for doing the inevitable, and my father, standing behind her, looking defeated, ashamed, trying to keep the peace. “Grandpa” moved out a short while later and recalling now the interactions between he and my father, I get the sense that if my father resented him for his myriad and profound failures, that resentment was equal in measure to the desire for his approval.
Years later, when Alzheimer’s consumed my grandfather and landed him in a nursing home, we visited him. “Dad, don’t you recognize me?” my father pleaded. “No!” he snapped and turned away. The ride home was silent, and grandpa died in that nursing home at 96 years old in 1985, outliving both his sons. I’ve always felt it a minor tragedy that in his last years he had no recollection of what a shit he’d been, the disease effectively absolving him.
In her comprehensive book, The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives, Dr. Rosalind D. Cartwright submits that dreams reveal, “how we think about ourselves, and our relations to significant others and the world about us.”
Dreaming, then, is, in part, a kind of mood regulator. “The dream process that actively mediates the negative mood associated with some waking experience seems to have the effect of stabilizing a better morning mood and that mood progressively improves.”
I did not shed a tear at my father’s funeral. I don’t know how I could be expected to. It would be like expecting an adolescent maple tree to weep at the loss of the sun: He’s too naïve and it’s too large for him to comprehend. So he goes on for a while just being a maple and for some time nothing changes. He’s a maple. I pondered that perhaps the sudden and regular appearance of my father in my dreams represents a kind of delayed grieving, and that maybe these dreams will somehow bring on the “closure” that is so coveted and revered among mourners and survivors who appear on daytime talk shows and crime dramas. Maybe the dreams mean I have never “processed” the loss.
“That’s a hypothesis. It’s not been my clinical experience,” Dr. Pauline Boss told me in an email. Boss is the author of several books about grief and loss, most notably Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief. “I don’t believe in ‘closure’ so there’s an element of grief that we live with when we’ve lost someone we love and I consider that normal that you might be sad at a certain time five years, 20 years, a generation later,” she wrote.
“I think the proposition I would put forth is the more a person can discuss their dreams the more likely they are to be on the road to health, and I don’t mean closure or recovery,” she said. “We live with loss across the lifespan. You don’t get over it; you learn to live with it.”
Boss said she still dreams of her father, who died 20 years ago, and of her younger brother, who died from polio at age 13, the summer before Jonas Salk’s revolutionary vaccine effectively eradicated the disease worldwide.
My grandparents divorced in the early-’40s. Given my grandfather’s chronic absenteeism, it didn’t much matter. My dad, at 19, was already a man, even if he didn’t entirely look it. Taking after his mother’s side of the family, he stopped growing at about 5’8” and retained a generous layer of baby fat, which made him look younger than he was (and which clung to him for the rest of his life). Moreover, whereas his older siblings each portrayed a classic German stoicism informed further by the harshness of their upbringing, he was outgoing and garrulous, with a large personality and generous sense of humor.
As a middle-aged man he kidded around with the waitress and with the mechanic and with the cashier at the supermarket, and with the kids when he got home from work. Photos taken during his youth show him grinning merrily.
He dropped out of high school and in November 1942 followed his big brother into the Army to save the world from the Nazis. Basic training was at Camp Edwards in Massachusetts. It was from there that he began writing endearingly self-conscious love letters to his sweetheart back home, a tall, curly-haired, and freckled brunette with whom he’d fallen in love not long before.
Priscilla Bescherer was born in Newark in 1925, the second-youngest of seven children who raised her when their parents died few years later. She was fun-loving and energetic and, like Bill, loved to laugh. She had a magnificent space between her two front teeth, and, as he would later discover, an explosive temper that complemented a remarkable capacity for self-pity. More than anything, she wanted kids.
They married in 1943, and shortly after, he was shipped off to Luzon and then New Guinea. He achieved the rank of “Technician 5th grade” before being honorably discharged in January 1946. He went to school and received certificates in tool-and-dye making, and later landed a job as a machinist at an electrical instrument company in Newark. Soon they moved to the suburbs and for the next 10 years tried unsuccessfully to have kids. To help fill the hole their childlessness created, they took in foster children, and then in 1957 adopted a baby girl and named her Patti Ann. My father was 35 years old.
The romantics believe that when we see the dead in our dreams, it is because they are reaching out to us from another existence — the afterlife. The Internet is lousy with all manner of paranormal mystics, psychics, and others who claim to connect with the dead and in many cases offer to teach you, for a small fee, how to do the same. I wasn’t able to convince a single laborer in the paranormal arts to speak with me, but one, Anne Reith, co-director of the Impart Wisdom & Wellness Center and director of the Institute for Mediumship, Psychic, Astrological, & Reiki Training, invited me to quote freely on the subject from her blog.
It is actually easier for spiritual entities of all kinds (e.g., deceased loved ones, guides, angels) to communicate with us while we are sleeping. Why? Because when sleeping, we are in that ‘in between place’ between our Earthly reality and ‘the other side of the veil’ (the spiritual world). During this time, our rational mind and our ego are not engaged. Things can happen in our dream world that we would normally stop or discount while awake.
There are several characteristics associated with “true” visitation dreams. One of these is that they feel “real.” Also, the dead person typically communicates a strong message of reassurance, and the dreamer will immediately recognize the unusual vividness of the dream. “The person (or animal) will almost always appear in the dream to be completely healthy and behaving in a loving manner. They will rarely appear sick or injured. They will never be angry, disappointed, depressed, or punishing.”
My mother became a Girl Scout troop leader and a vocal PTA member. She was active in the neighborhood and, among other adventures, spearheaded a fund-raiser for the muscular dystrophy association. She filled scrapbooks with family keepsakes and photos, and later, to help make ends meet, took a job as a waitress at a local diner. In 1966 my parents adopted my twin sister and me and although they now had by most standards a satisfactorily-sized family, they continued taking in foster children for the next five or six years. And, one after the other, my fun-loving, hard-working, ever-popular mother brutalized them.
It was not uncommon for her to beat these poor children for trivial offenses, and to viciously berate them. I recollect her screaming at one little boy, who was crying for his mother and couldn’t have been more than five years old, “Don’t think you’re going to back to your mother, because she doesn’t want you!”
A similar scene took place with an older boy, probably around 12, just on the edge of puberty, whom my mother accused, not for the first time apparently, of masturbating in bed and thus soiling the sheets. His fervent denials roused her to a vicious frenzy — she towered over him, belaboring him, slapping him, humiliating him, until finally he gave up on convincing her of his innocence and yelled, “I’ll stop!”
Whenever this happened, it was my father who pulled her off the child, saying, “That’s enough, that’s enough.” He couldn’t bear the violence, a softness for which she ridiculed him. After one incident, in which she challenged a misbehaving six-year-old boy to a fistfight in the bathroom, she turned her ugliness on him, presumably because she’d had to do the dirty work. “What kind of man are you?” she demanded. “You’re no man.” He sat smoking at the dining room table, defeated, embarrassed, and said in reply, “Thanks a lot.” I, in my pajamas, stared at him from a few feet away.
It was his fault she didn’t have a dishwasher, like her sisters did. It was his fault she had to work. It was his fault we didn’t live in Florida, where she always wanted to live, for reasons that were never clear. If there was something wrong with her life — and there always was — it was his fault and she wasn’t shy about letting him know it.
He almost left. After one explosive fight he emerged from the bedroom with a worn, brown suitcase at his side. He stopped and surveyed my sister and me, both sobbing. He put down the suitcase, approached my sister and knelt down. “Why are you crying?”
“Patti said you were leaving!” she bawled, and the sobbing began anew. He looked at us hard. He stood up. “I’m not leaving until you two are 18.” He turned and took his battered suitcase back into the bedroom. Later, my mother made us lunch.
I asked Dr. TJ Wray, author of Grief Dreams: How They Help Heal Us After the Death of a Loved One, how common dreams of the dead are among mourners, and what purpose they serve.
“Grief dreams are a universal experience among mourners,” she wrote in an email.
First, they help us to absorb shock (particularly in the aftermath of the death of a loved one); second, grief dreams help to sort our emotions. These emotions run the gamut from extreme anguish, to anger, to remorse, to even relief. Third, grief dreams can continue our relationship with the deceased. For example, in cases where a child has had a complicated relationship with a parent, dreams can help the survivor resolve problems and issues that were roadblocks in life.
It’s true that my relationship with my father was complicated, at least in my thinking. When I got a little older, I often defended him against my mother’s barbs, only to have him scold me for speaking to her disrespectfully. He frequently took me to the barbershop with him, or to the market, or to the mechanic, and got up early on Sunday mornings to help me on my newspaper route, but during these outings we barely spoke. He showed me how to put chlorine in the pool (because “someday I won’t be here to do it”) and how to cut a two-by-four in half (“let the saw do the work for you”) but had to be harangued by my mother into playing catch with me in the backyard (the only time that occurred). In the year before he died, I started boxing. Three times a week he drove me to and from the gym, and when I won and got my name in the paper he bragged behind my back to friends and neighbors. He never attended any of my fights. I’ll never know why.
Ian Wallace, author of The Top 100 Dreams: The Dreams That We All Have and What They Really Mean, believes that dreams are not things that happen to us but, rather, episodes that we create during sleep toward gaining a deeper, better understanding of ourselves and our lives. “As we journey through life and become more mature and experienced, we often begin to connect with personal qualities that may have seemed less available to us when we were younger,” he said.
“In my experience, if either of the parents died prematurely, then it is quite common for the dreamer to create a series of vivid dream episodes when they themselves reach the age that the parent was when they passed on,” he said.
My father quit smoking the day his brother died. He’d taken it up as a kid, had been at it probably 45 years. Winstons. My mother was on him all the time to quit, but he wouldn’t. For as far back as I can remember he had a consistent smoker’s cough that my sister and I used to locate him and my mother whenever we got separated from them in a department store or supermarket. When he laughed very hard it would get caught it his throat and turn into a coughing fit and my best memories are of the few times I was accidentally hilarious at the dinner table, the way kids sometimes are, and got him laughing so hard and coughing so much that he had to stand up and walk around to get his breath back. It was glorious.
In the summer of 1981 my father’s telltale smokers’ hack took on a new feature — a ghastly kind of whistle at the end that seemed something not intended to come out of the lungs of a human being. While in a department store shopping for clothes for my upcoming school year, he confided to me that he’d been getting pains in his back, and night sweats. He said that if he knew it was too late, that his quitting smoking had been pointless, he’d start right up again. In my early-teenage naiveté and narcissism it barely registered: I left the store without the slightest idea that he could be dying.
He took little apparent joy at being alive. He rarely laughed anymore or kidded round. At a restaurant one night, my sister and I bickered. He scolded me and then proclaimed, “Jesus Christ, what am I alive for?” On the positive side, he and my mother started to spend time alone together, to go out to dinner or a movie. They held hands. Then one afternoon in September my mother got off the phone with a doctor and told my sister and me that our father was sick and would be going into the hospital. When he got home from work she led him into the living room and told him what he already knew: It was cancer. He lay on the couch, put his hands over his face and wept. She told him: “Don’t worry. It’ll be okay. We’ll just have to move to Florida.” She was confusing his lung cancer with emphysema, whose sufferers supposedly fair better in hot climates. Or, she was trying to reassure him.
The next morning we prepared to take him to the local hospital, which had a well-earned reputation for being one’s last stop on the way to the morgue. I walked into the dining room to see my father on the phone. He saw me and waved me away. I stood where I had stopped and heard him say into the phone, “Hello, is this the number where people pray for you?”
In the hospital, the doctors told him that they would give him chemotherapy and then remove his poisoned lung, and maybe even replace it with a new, younger one. Then they took us in another room and told us it was hopeless, that he soon would be dead. He figured it out quickly enough and a couple days later the pastor from our church came in and during an otherwise muffled conversation I heard my father say loudly, and not altogether unhappily, “I’m not afraid to die.” My mother hushed him — “Oh, knock it off, you’re not going to die.” But he was. He knew it. And he was okay with it. He even started joking around again and of all the patients around him who also were waiting to die, I was told later that he was the nurses’ favorite.
For the next several days we all sat with him, all day and mostly watched him sleep, the IV bag dripping sweet serenity into his dying veins. Someone decided it would be best if we didn’t miss any more school, so I was sitting in class when he died on an otherwise ordinary Thursday morning on September 17, 1981.
Now, 35 years later, it is good to see him again.
Photo courtesy of the author.