Talking with a Dead Father, Part 2

My self-consciousness did not diminish when I got to the microphone. I could feel myself wanting to believe. I didn’t want to look like a sucker, grasping at straws in front of all the people in the audience. At the same time, I didn’t want to be so cynical that I missed out on something real.

I didn’t have long to think about these things. Anderson began, “This man is saying that he had a difficult life. He’s saying that he never got a break, and that you knew that, and felt bad about it. He’s saying that he has finally gotten a break, now, and he’s able to relax, and that you would appreciate that. Does that make sense to you?”

“Yes,” I said. It certainly did.

“He’s saying that he’s here with his father. Does that make sense to you?”

“Yes, it does,” I said. That was pretty good, I thought, that Anderson didn’t say, “He’s with his father and mother.” My father’s mother, after all, is still alive.

Anderson continued: “He’s saying that he comes to you as a father but also in friendship.”

That sounded nice.

“He’s saying that he had a hard life, but that he never thought it would be easy, and that you would know that he never thought it would be easy. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said, and I was smiling despite the subject matter. It was funny, how often my dad would say, “William, no one ever said life would be easy.” Sometimes, in recent years, I have remembered him saying that, and thought, “Well, dad, of _course_ no one ever said it would be easy. Who in his right mind would ever say such a thing?”

Seed of doubt

On the other hand, these were all generalizations that could have applied to anyone in the room. Hard life, never got a break, comes to me in friendship – for how many sons would those sentiments hit the heartstrings? A lot, I figured.

“He’s holding a lemon,” Anderson said, sounding a bit confused. “He’s saying that would mean something to you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I do,” I said, and my eyes and voice lowered.

My dad did not like to do things unless he could do them well, and one of the things he thought he couldn’t do well was sing. As a result, he sang only rarely, and tended to stop if he noticed that someone was listening.

Consequently, when he did sing, I paid attention, while trying to seem as if I didn’t. And at least twice when I was young, I had stayed quiet while he sang the refrain from “Lemon Tree.”

It’s an old standard, one that’s been covered by Trini Lopez; Peter, Paul and Mary; and others. In it, a father warns his son about the dangers of love, comparing it to ‘the lovely lemon tree’:

“Lemon tree, very pretty, and the lemon flower is sweet. But the fruit of the whole lemon is impossible to eat.”

To me, the song had summed up the bitterness of my father’s life, and the difficulty of his marriage. It spoke to his confusion – how had things turned out this way? He didn’t know. Maybe it was just the way life was.

Six years after he died, I found the single for “Lemon Tree” in a second-hand record store near Boston. I had to buy it, of course. Didn’t listen to it much, though, once I’d heard it all the way through – I preferred to remember my dad’s version, which was shorter. My dad liked a few other songs, but “Lemon Tree” resonated most, and was the only one I ever bought.

When Anderson told me that the man was holding a lemon, the words slipped in under my defenses. I hadn’t been ready to hear about that.

Don’t make me blush

“This man is saying that he wasn’t a wealthy man,” Anderson said, “but that he passed on the good things – and one of them was you.”

Now I couldn’t stop grinning. Felt like a fool. The predominantly female audience gave out a collective “Awwww…”

I leaned into the mike and said, “Now you’re embarrassing me, dad.” And got the laugh I was aiming for.

“He’s saying that you’ve had a promotion recently, in your career. He’s offering you congratulations. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I said. It was true; I had been promoted about two weeks earlier, to a position I had wanted for quite some time. I hadn’t even told most of my family about the boost. I’d wanted to keep it secret, in case I screwed up and my company took it back.

“He’s saying that he made a quick exit from this life, but you don’t have to feel bad about that – he planned it that way.”

Planned it that way? But why would he have planned it that way? I couldn’t imagine. But I couldn’t deny that the exit had been quick.

“He’s saying he’s seeing all right now; he’s pointing to his eyes. Does that make sense?”

“Yes, it does,” I said.

My father’s eyes gave him trouble his whole life. His tear ducts didn’t make any tears, so his eyes were always dry; I never saw him cry. He had to put drops in the eyes every few hours. He was also nearsighted, and wore glasses, which he disliked intensely. Because his eyes were so dry, though, he couldn’t wear contacts. It was nice to think that he could see well now.

Walking into questions

“He’s saying he can see well now, and he can walk well now. Does that make sense?”

“Um …” I said. It didn’t. He had always been able to walk fine. My suspicions were aroused. Was Anderson somehow guessing his way through this – and if so, had he made a mistake?

On the other hand, did my father merely want me to know that he was physically sound – rather than dead, as he had been when I’d last seen him? We all say things like “he’s up and around” to indicate that someone is well again.

I didn’t know. But it was the first possibly false note.

There would be one more, and it would follow close on the heels of the first. Anderson said, “He’s saying his health is good now – that maybe at the end, it was not so good.”

I made a sound of uneasiness. It was true that my dad had expected to die young, as had his father and his father’s father (none of them had reached 46), but his health at 42 had seemed fairly good. I had golfed with him the day before his death; he had made no complaints that I could remember. Granted that he had a chronic kidney disease, he was, as far as I knew, asymptomatic at the time of his death.

I wondered if Anderson would say something specific about the boat accident. It seemed so obvious, and it would have been so reassuring to hear that kind of specificity.

Earlier, I had heard Anderson describe to a mother the manner of her son’s death, but that was not to happen here. Instead, Anderson said, “Well, maybe you didn’t know about it; maybe he kept it to himself.”

Certainly my dad kept many things to himself. It was possible that he had been in poorer health than he let on. At the same time, it seemed an easy out for a medium: Whenever your target disagrees, you could just say, ‘Well, maybe he never told you about that,’ and move on.

Anderson moved on. “He’s saying that he was a sensitive man, but he didn’t always know how to show it.” No argument there. “He was a hard-working man, and he had a difficult life, but he wants you to know that it was a fulfilling life.”

Hmm. That was interesting – to think that it might have been a fulfilling life. It didn’t look like one – but maybe in retrospect?

“He’s saying something about grandchildren. That there might not be any right now, but there will be soon, maybe in a few years. He’s saying that when the grandchildren are born, you and your family might say, ‘Oh, if only dad were here,’ and he wants you to know that he will be.”

My own eyes were not as dry as his had been.

“He says he wasn’t the greatest dad in the world, but that his heart was in the right place. He says that he appreciates that you loved him, and wished you could have done more for him, but that you did enough. He says that he knows that you wonder sometimes what he thinks about you, and he wants you to know that he’s very proud of you, and happy with what you’re doing.

“He reaches out with love to his family and his wife. He says that he embraces you with love, until you meet again.

“And now he withdraws, so that someone else may come forward.”

I returned to my seat, and began to take notes, so I wouldn’t forget the details. I knew that I would be reporting this to my sisters and brother and mom, and I wanted to be able to tell them all that I had heard, so that they could make up their own minds about what had just happened.

Inside, though, I was trembling. I didn’t even know what I thought about it, let alone how to present it to others.
(Originally published on The Guy Code, June 11, 2000.)

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