My father died in February, 1985, after a nine-year fight with a cancer that was supposed to be "easily treatable" and "no big thing" when the doctors found it in the fall of 1976.
It was probably the hardest blow I ever had in my life. This was the man who taught me what it was to be a dad and a man in this world. He never said, "here's how you do it." He just did. Frank was a gentleman among gentlemen, respected and honored in our town.
Unlike his children.
We grew up in the wrong end of La Porte, Indiana, an industrial town that fell on hard times during the Carter Administration, like so many other factory towns across the country. We lived on Pulaski Street across from one of the local bars, and there wasn't a week that went by without one of us getting into a fight, skipping school, getting drunk or high or both. I think all that trouble just came part and parcel with the strong personalities we all had inherited. Dad did his best, but there was just too many of us, and there were too many outside influences working against us.
1985 was my last year of active duty with the Air Force. My oldest brother was still in the Army at the time we got the calls from home. My squadron commander and First Sergeant found me in the barracks day room watching TV, and had me packed and on a plane in another hour. Allen had a critical job with the Army, and was unable to get home for another two weeks. During that time, Dad hung on in the hospital, waiting for us all to get together one last time. Even unconscious and on dilaudid, he was more stubborn than any freak in a black hooded robe.
After the funeral, I returned to duty with a huge black hole in my life where Dad used to be. My last connection with the concept of "home" was gone. My brothers and sisters all had their own families to worry about. From here on out, I was on my own.
It was six months later when I had the dream. I know that dreams can reflect what is in the heart, but dreams can also be sent.
I found myself in my grandfather's house, where we had moved after my parents split up. Standing in an empty kitchen, I heard the sounds of someone in the basement woodshop. The whir of an electric motor vibrated throughout the house.
Descending the basement stairs, I turned right. My father stood at the lathe, turning a piece of wood. The chisel sent chips flying over Dad's shoulder as he worked his way down the length of maple, rounding the board to begin a table leg.
My heart beat heavier as I spoke my thoughts. "Dad? You're not supposed to be here."
He stopped long enough to check his contour gauge against the wood. "Yes, son. It's okay. I got permission."
I had to fight the words out. A fresh wave of grief washed over me. "Why did you have to die?"
He stopped and put the chisel down. He didn't look straight at me, not at first. He spoke softly, not sad, but wistful. "It was my time. You have to understand that."
The lump in my throat made my voice thick. I silently cursed the fog of tears that kept me from seeing him clearly. I wanted to run to him, throw my arms around him and never let go. But I knew, inside, that I couldn't. Some unspoken command from an undeniable authority held me in place. "I miss you, Dad."
"I miss you, too. But I want you to know something." Now he looked at me, and his eyes held the same love he'd always shown me, even when we'd done something he wasn't proud of. But one thing we all knew, no doubt: Dad loved us. He continued. "I'm happy where I am. And I'm supposed to tell you that we'll all be together again."
He picked up his chisel again, the favorite round-nosed one that he made himself, and went back to work on the table leg. It was time to go back upstairs.
I woke still feeling everything, remembering every word of the dream. My heart still hammered. My pillow was damp from tears. But until that moment, I didn't think I would ever be okay again. Now I knew. I knew that things were going to be all right.
Because my father told me they would.