I DREAMT OF MY FATHER LAST NIGHT
by Eve Toliman
I dreamt of my father last night. He looked handsome driving the car; calm and steady. I was young. He was 42. In a small, crackly voice, I thanked him for not killing himself. I had to say it twice. The first time, he didn’t understand and turned to me so he could hear. I saw his unlined face, hair swept back as it always was, looking down at me as I sat in the passenger seat. I thanked him for not killing himself. I told him how much it meant to me and I knew it had been hard for him.
Then I woke up in the dark and I knew it wasn’t true. He was still dead. Most of my life, my father has been a ghost.
I have a handful of memories: riding on the back of his bike in Central Park; waiting on the stone stoop of our building for him to come up the stairs from the subway; peeking through the glass doors to the room where he painted, forbidden to us after I used his brushes and left them scattered and soiled. I remember his paint-stained hands, reaching for them to hold mine.
I have imagined sometimes that my older selves visited my child self and that they kept her from dying after he did — that they soothed her into living. But last night it occurred to me — then why didn’t they visit him and save him too?
I rationalized that his death opened worlds for me, that his ghost self showed me things a living father couldn’t — but when I feel like this I don’t believe any of it. They’re just stories from a sad child’s brain.
The movie of my life is shown on an old reel-to-reel projector that breaks down at this spot, over and over. My father is 42, the frames slow, skipping through multiple, similar images of his face turning toward me, hair swept back. I am little, watching, waiting.
When I slept again, I dreamt of people in boxes and bags. Other people held them captive for their own good; in cramped, dark spaces, arms and legs pushed up against their bodies. They told me to sit on a box to keep the man from getting out. When I sat down, the box felt live and hot. My stomach hurt.
I dreamt that my father’s drawings, luminescent pastels of torsos and faces, were cracking. I showed them to my son whose hands look like his grandfather’s. I wanted him to see before they were all gone. Then I sprinkled water on the dry chalk to see if that would keep the pictures from flaking off and crumbling. The creamy pastel turned to grit. A sandpaper face re-adhered to the vellum. It was harsh, bleached and skewed, missing a piece of the eye, but still there.
Shortly after 9/11, I dreamt of taking a ferry across a muddy-brown canal. There were no people in my dream just this destination. I lost a sandal on the way, so I arrived barefoot, the strap of my other white sandal looped through my fingers. The ferry dropped me at a concrete embankment. I walked up the steps and entered a cool dark building. I walked through the underground corridors and emerged in a gray daylight with round dirt hills stretching as far as I could see. I walked for a long time through these endless, dead hills before I woke up.
After that I dreamt of a shiny, coal-black man with long wavy blond hair and piercing blue eyes. He was naked, his phallus like obsidian, hanging to his knees. Old men watched lazily from rickety, folding chairs as he walked, strong and upright, into a clear green sea bordered by three volcanoes, one live.
Through time, these kinds of dreams overtook me. I slowly slipped into the blackness that had chased me for years. I slid into the void. Since then I recognize a bit of death in everything. These gaps feel like friends and I have grown to love emptiness. I come home to nothing and feel peace.
But how to make my peace here, among the living and their ghosts? This world that we have made together, it confounds me. I want to give people beautiful, happy things that make them feel beautiful and happy too, not stories from a sad child’s brain.
Uneasiness follows me all day after I dream of my father. Shame. A sense of failure and doom. I am caught in a box, my arms and legs pushed up against me, no room to move.
I have been trapped like this before. I stop resisting. I steep in the shame and failure. Without mental defenses, there is a lot of space. I explore the edges, lightly touching everything, searching for its quality. The feelings spread thin and dissipate. Physical sensations heighten, cold air on my face, the sound of paper, the sole of my foot on uneven ground. The borders of my body become crisp as the borders of my mind and heart dissolve.
There is an article in the morning newspaper about the Indian cotton farmers. Thousands of these farmers are killing themselves every year. I cannot understand this number, it is too big for me to hold. But I understand the expression of the woman in the news photo as she holds up a picture of her dead husband. And I understand the unerasable feeling when something wrong can’t be made right. Genetically modified cotton seeds promise great yields and look like a way out of poverty. But these patented seeds and the many special conditions they require all cost a lot of money. It’s a desperate gamble. One missing piece, an unexpected turn of events and the poor farmer is plunged into debt so deep that suicide looks reasonable by comparison.
In a way my father was undone by a costly gamble too. He was an artist. But there was a glitch. His feelings overwhelmed him. The doctors offered what they had. One new medication after another, each correcting the last, as his personality deteriorated and his desperation mounted. The names of new drugs floated around our house like dust. By age eight, I knew more pharmaceutical brand names than cereals. His feeling capacity, the thing he needed most to do his job, was plunged so deep in debt that with the last of it he destroyed the threat of further damage.
To care invites discomfort. It complicates things. ‘They’ become ‘us’. We are in it together, tangled and messy. I didn’t know what to do for my father. I don’t know what to do for the Indian farmers. I don’t know how to make our world more humane. But I wish I did. I find a measure of peace in the void so that I can rest uneasy here among the living and our ghosts.
Today I will send cash to my friend who runs the food program. I will hug my children and make us lunch. I will take a walk. I will try to be a little kinder than I know how to be. And I will watch. And I will wait.
Maybe my older selves are still looking for my father and maybe they will save him. It’s just not done yet.
Or maybe his older selves found us both and as they eased him into peace they held me here in this uneasy place of care, visiting me in dreams and gaps.