Last night, I had a vivid dream. I dreamed that I held my father as he died.
The last time I saw my father was a warm night in mid September, 1997. I remember tufts and threads of what happened that evening — like most of my memories, much of what I have left is images. There was a golden harvest moon hanging low in the sky, and a small bean bag penguin on a hospital nightstand. I still know where that penguin is; the moon has long since slipped away.
I spoke to my father for a while — it seemed like a while to me, but a one-sided conversation is always harder than you'd think — about the moon, about quotidian scraps from my life, about the penguin, his head cocked to one side as if evaluating you. It was only when my father stirred a little, began to surface from the soma sleep they kept him in most of the time that the spell was broken. All of a sudden, I realized that I'd been talking to myself. I burst from the room, struggling to hold in the tears that I knew could only shame me.
At his funeral, I watched my relatives cry, and felt proud of myself for being so strong that I didn't need to cry. I'd taken my feelings, I thought, and balled them up, put them so deep inside me that I wouldn't need to think about them. To this day, I don't know how I drew strength from watching my grandfather mourn his firstborn, but I was two days twelve years old, and I despised myself. I played Taps at his grave on my bugle, proud that the Boy Scouts had taught me how to handle the situation.
A month later, I was staying with maternal relatives in Israel. I'd been pulled out of school for a week, given a ton of work to do while I was away to keep ahead, and sent to spend the week with my twin cousin, three days younger than I and celebrating her Bat Mitzvah, and the rest of the family. I know today why I was sent there, but at the time, it seemed like a vacation.
My youngest cousin had asked me to sleep in his room. He barely knew any English at that point, but was so piqued by the idea of his oldest cousin come to visit that he had asked for this. I had to flee his room one night so that I could cry without waking him. I cried for most of an hour, not knowing where the tears came from, unable to stop them, though I tried as best as I could.
Losing my first love was like losing my father again, the second time in my life that I had trusted somebody so unquestioningly that their leaving my life would cut me so deep. For months, I mourned her. It's clear to me now that the debris of my father's death still haunts my life. The wounds of my father's death reopened the night she broke up with me; that night, I cried and was not ashamed for the first time in ten years, nearly to the day. The next morning I got her on Skype and showed her, one by one, those relics of my father which I still have, which I didn't once in four years show her. A fishing lure, a photo of us smiling under an arch, a picture ID, a pair of glasses. It didn't matter to Kelly; I was already dead to her. But it mattered to me.
I remember my father going to my grandmother's gravestone the day after my uncle's, his baby brother's, wedding. My father, a large man of six and a half feet, choked up as he said to the grandmother I never met, "Well, Mom, the little chucklehead finally got married." It's the only time I can remember him crying.
My father was an alcoholic. It took me years to admit it, and I will spend my whole life despairing that I will become one myself. For a very long time, I refused to drink for fear that I would become addicted, an echo of my father's worst trait.
I recently started taking cooking classes and cooking frequently. I've discovered that I love to cook, and have a natural knack for it. Discovering this was an echo of one of my father's best traits. It remains to be seen whether I will be able to tell my child stories of such breathtaking fantasy that she'll go to sleep, sated like Shahryar, and I can sleep soundly another night.
My mother always used to tell me that she thought he could understand her when she spoke to him while he was comatose. He was like this for most of the last few months. I always used to tell my mother that he was going to get better. Nobody ever really explained pancreatic cancer to me. For years, I held it against my parents that they had lied to me, but it wasn't that. It was that they couldn't bear to break my spirit and introduce me to true despair.
I found a folder of things remaining from the grief counseling that the family went through. One is a sheet of things I'm feeling. The first is "severe annoyance," my refusal to coöperate with the grieving process. There's also "coping," "happiness," "sadness," "drowsiness." But the one that stands out to me is "deceived."
The penguin still sits on a shelf in my mother's kitchen. Nobody ever gave her a name.
Last night, I had a vivid dream. I dreamed that I held my father as he died. But it was OK. I loved him.