I had a dream about him last night. It has been nearly three decades since he died, but there he was. Alive. We met in some kind of diner. A breakfast joint. Maybe this was heaven?
He was running late, I was already sitting in a booth, sipping coffee. When he arrived, his first words were: “Did you miss me?”
“No,” I said.
He studied my face to see if I was joking. He could tell I wasn’t.
I couldn’t quit staring at him. My God, it really was my father. He looked good, too. Slender, red hair, tucked-in shirt, slacks. I’d gone so long without seeing him that I’d forgotten what he looked like.
But it only takes a moment to bring it all back. I could even smell his trademarked hair oil. The day after he died I confiscated his pillow and it was covered in this same scent. I slept on that pillow for five years.
“You really didn’t miss me?” he said. There was that easy smile of his. He wasn’t offended.
“No, I really didn’t miss you.”
He ordered a Coke. And I suddenly remembered that he always drank Coca-Cola. He never was a coffee drinker. Hated the stuff. Just one of the many things I’d forgotten.
Then I started thinking about the differences between us. There were hundreds of them.
For example: he was always well-dressed, whereas I always looked like I crawled from beneath a Chevy. He was a hard worker; I sleep in on weekdays. Everyone called him “handsome”; nobody has ever ascribed that word to me. He was a planner; there is nothing I love more than cancelled plans.
When he was alive, he expected great things from me, but I failed to deliver. From a young age I knew within my kid brain that I would never accomplish the things he hoped for me.
I’m not saying I disappointed him, but I don’t think I ever made him so proud that he wanted to shout publicly, “That’s my boy! That’s my boy!”
The waitress approached our table. She removed her notepad and said to him, “You want the usual, John?”
I couldn’t believe it. They knew him by name in this heavenly place. They even knew what he ate. He had lived a whole lifetime without me.
After we ordered we didn’t speak much. He was in a good mood, but I felt myself clamming up. Maybe I was mad.
Throughout breakfast I kept remembering the day after his suicide, when I was a boy. Back then I had this horrible notion that he wasn’t really dead. I don’t know why. It was some kind of denial thing. It used to keep me up at night.
To put my mind at ease, my mother finally called the sheriff’s department and asked the deputy to assure me that he was indeed dead. The deputy—God bless him—sighed and gave it to me straight.
He said, “We used dental records to identify the body. Your dad’s teeth were about all that was left of him. So yeah, he’s definitely dead.”
My insides turned to water. I hung up the phone and cried. But in the back of my mind I always wondered, what if he’d kept on living? What kinds of things would he be doing? Would he have new hobbies? New friends? Would he still read novels? Would he still go out for breakfast on Saturday mornings?
Maybe that’s what this place was. Maybe this was his perpetual Saturday morning.
He finished his breakfast and said, “I got something I wanna show you.” He was already sliding out of our booth. “C’mon, it’s in the parking lot.”
Parked outside the cafe was a huge flatbed trailer attached to a truck. On the trailer was a disassembled 1957 Cessna 172 Skyhawk airplane. The wings were removed, the fuselage was strapped to the trailer, the propeller was red.
“I’m gonna restore it,” he said, slapping the wing. “Gonna take flying lessons.” He looked like a little kid.
He always wanted to learn to fly. Flying was his frustrated dream. But the dream never materialized. When he died, his garage workshop was plastered with posters of jets, biplanes, F/A-18 Super Hornets, and A-10 Warthogs.
He kicked the landing gears of his new prize. “So do you like the plane?”
I refused to show approval because no matter how old I get, there is still a little piece of me that wants to punish him for what he did. What did he want me to do? Throw a party? Congratulate him? He ruined my life and now he’s playing Charles Lindenberg?
He obviously noticed my hardened face.
After a few moments, he said, “You know I don’t blame you for not liking me anymore. I get it. But, gosh, it’s so nice seeing you again.”
I said nothing.
At first I was struck by the tenor of his words. Because, oddly, they contained no sadness, no apologetic undertones. Then I realized that here in this holy place there was no sadness or guilt.
Here, he was free. Here, a man was unencumbered by the weight of his crimes. Even the worry lines on his face had disappeared. This truly was heaven. I was sorry I ever hated this beautiful man.
He took one step toward me. He didn’t ask permission, he simply enfolded me in his two skinny arms, just like when I was a child. My tear stained face was soon buried in my father’s shoulder. There was that smell again.
“I was lying,” I said into his shirt. “I do miss you.”
“That’s my boy,” he said.