There was one recurring dream that I had when I was a child. I would be standing just outside the side door of our house where there were a number of steps leading up the hill to the door. Looking down the street I could see a column of soldiers marching up from several blocks away, in perfect formation, covering the pavement from one curb to the other. As they reached the corner where our house sat the first several rows would all do a sharp turn and start coming down the side street, and then stop at the bottom of the stairs and turn sharply toward me. It was then that I would see that the man at the head of the column was my father, coming home. It was also then that I would wake up and the dream would end. No fanfare, no three-gun salute, no hugs or words from my dad. I would open my eyes before any of that could happen and wish that it were not a dream, that if I ran from my bedroom to the side door of the house and looked he would be standing there with his fellow soldiers, waiting for me.
The only memory I have of my father is that one dream that would never come true. The only images I have of him are my memories of photographs of a man forever young. Still, I know he is part of me in some ways and I am like him.
My father died of a massive heart attack when he was only forty-one years old. I was just days past my second birthday. As a result all I know of my father is photographs, some items from a scrapbook, and stories told by others. I grew up without memories of him. I think I knew the word deceased much earlier than most kids because I often had to write it on school forms under “father’s occupation”. The entire time I was growing up, in a different era and in a small school system, I was the only one in my class from a single parent household.
For some reason I have been thinking about him a lot lately and I’m not sure why. He has come up in conversations. Someone posted a photo the other day of the place where he worked at the time of his death–the Savanna Army Depot–and many, many people posted about working there or that their fathers or grandfathers had worked there. I posted asking anyone who may have known my dad to contact me to share stories because I want to know what he was like. Nobody did, but I still know instinctively that I am like him in many ways, even without those stories. As a child I always wanted to know more (and I guess I still do). I would ask my mother questions about him until I’m sure she tired of answering them. It didn’t occur to me that she probably suffered with each question being a fresh reminder of what she had lost.
My mother now is 92 and even when she looks at her favorite picture of him, as a handsome young Army man, a picture she fell in love with even before she met him, she doesn’t know who he is. She most often doesn’t know who I am, though I can usually tell she knows I’m someone close to her and someone she should love. The other day she told my sister she was going to heaven, so maybe underneath it all I’m thinking that she and my father will be rejoined in whatever realm lies beyond this one, and maybe I wish that for her. She has been without that love for so long. She deserves to have her suffering end and be bathed in nothing but light and love.
Maybe these thoughts about my father are also or actually about my mother, whose time has been slowly winding down for several years now. Maybe they’re about me. I had my own heart attack nine years ago and I’m now nearing sixty years old. Maybe they’re about mortality in general, about how we are all going to die and even when there are memories they fade like old photographs. One day you can’t remember what the person sounded like any more. Sometimes your thoughts of what they looked like are fuzzy and are influenced by those old photographs. Generations down the line the lives we lived may be nothing more than names and dates on fallen tombstones or a brief mention in a Bible or genealogical work. And a thousand years from now we’ll all just be unnamed parts of the mass of people who lived during this particular historical epoch.
That idea of there being nothing left of us but dust is so final and so scary in some ways.
But then I think of my father again, and I know that even without memories he lives on in me and my siblings, my nieces and nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews, and even in my great-great nieces, none of whom ever knew him except for my generation, but all of whom carry on some of his features, his humor, his loves and likes in their genes. I also know that those who influence our lives are carried on in the way we influence others and they influence others on down the line. This, I guess, gives me comfort. When my mother’s time finally comes it will only be the end of her physical presence. Her spirit will continue. She will live on in so many ways through so many people and we will do our best to honor her by carrying her influence for generations to come.