[This post first appeared in DaddyElk.com.]
After my father died, in late January 2007, at first he seemed to hang around, mostly at the foot of my bed, threatening to twist my toe to wake me up; or in my office, telling me I might be working too hard; or in my living room, as angelic as anyone could manage to be in baggy jeans and a sweatshirt. He appeared as the father I had always known, scrutinizing, wondering, observing, offering the occasional wry commentary. But it felt as if he had something to tell me, something parental, something he hadn’t written down in the notes he had left to his loved ones in a sealed envelope in the attic.
After a while, he disappeared from my immediate surroundings and moved into my dreams, not as the stressed, overworked, loving-but-hard-to-hug man of my youth, but the still-overworked-but-more easygoing father of my adulthood, the man whose happy voice (“Dav!”) would greet me on the phone or whose hand on the back of my head, wordlessly signaling my need for a haircut, conveyed his affection. In my dreams he seemed no longer to have something to tell me, but was content to stay in the background, silent and supportive, along for the ride–not my actual father, but a more benign and supportive version of him, hovering on the periphery in case I needed him, with his gentle green eyes and thin smile.
Then–wouldn’t you know it?–he started popping up in public, in the faces of strangers. Coors Field in Denver employs retirees as greeters, and once when I entered the stadium one of them looked me in the eye and said, “Enjoy the game, son.” And when I left, the same man shyly put his hand up for a high-five and said, “How about that Charlie Blackmon, huh?” in the same tone that my father would have used on the phone after watching a Denver sporting event on television: “Did you see Carmelo tonight? How about that shot at the end!”
This kept happening—not with any regularity, but every few months or so: I saw him in the slumped, helpful posture of a security guard; in the face of the plumber as he stuck out his tongue in concentration while fixing the boiler; in the ticket-taker’s gentle welcome at a museum. What all these men had in common was that, like my father, they were (a) tired, (b) pouchy-faced; (c) soft-spoken, (d) happy to be of service, and (e ) kind.
I’m in Prague, on a Fulbright scholarship, and the other day I was on a bus with other scholars and commissioners, traveling from a village called Liblice, where we were enjoying a three-day conference, to a 16th Century brewery in Lobeč. As I entered the bus, I noticed something familiar about the driver, but I sat a few rows back and didn’t think much about it afterwards. It had been a gray day and now the rain was falling, and it continued to fall for the rest of the drive, as well as during the brewery tour, and rain, especially a soft rain, has a way of inviting ghosts and memories. And so as we drank some delicious beer, ate a sumptuous dinner, and toured the facilities , my father kept swimming in and out of my consciousness. In fact, I remember using that word, swimming, in my mind—Hey Pop, what are you doing, swimming around in my brain? Do you have something to tell me?—an appropriate metaphor, I guess, since my father was an excellent swimmer, a lifeguard in his youth, and many of my happiest memories with him took place at the town swimming pool or at a Long Island beach. And all of that led me into a half-reverie, half-memory, while standing in the rain outside the brewery walls: one day, while at the beach when I was a boy, my brother and I were tossing a yellow ball back and forth in the surf, and I was swimming out deep to retrieve a throw I had missed, but the ball kept bobbing and drifting out of my reach into the deeper water, no matter how hard I swam, and too late it dawned on me that the ball was being pulled by a riptide, and so was I, and the lifeguard’s whistle was blowing and a motorboat was coming for me but then there was my dad—how he had arrived first I’ll never know—grabbing me from behind, treading water with me, telling me to forget the damned ball, and pulling me back to safety.
And then my mind was swimming, and I was looking up at the sky outside the brewery and I couldn’t hear anything the tour guide was saying and all I knew was that I was in the dark twilight of Bohemia and it was raining a little harder now and my dear father, the best swimmer I have ever known, had been dead for fifteen years.
By the time we all climbed back into the bus for our return trip, the sky had darkened, and the rain had diminished to a drizzle. I sat in the front row this time, to the right of the driver, watching him as he nodded kindly to everyone as they entered, as if to reassure as that while we had been drinking beer, he had been in the bus the entire time, had exited only to smoke a cigarette in fact, and he would now be delivering us safely back to Liblice. Relax, you’re in good hands. He started the engine, sat patiently until everyone was safely seated, waited a little longer until the road was clear, then shifted into gear and steered the large bus down the wet, narrow, country road.
It’s not so much that he resembled my father—he did, but only a little—but that he felt like him. As in, If Dad were a Czech bus driver, this is the Czech bus driver he would be. My father had spent much of his later life in service of others—as a deli owner he enjoyed making extra-meaty sandwiches for his regulars, and as a security guard, stationed in a tiny booth at the entrance to a gated community, he happily did favors for the residents, giving them a friendly wave or engaging in a brief chat as they entered and exited. He was the kind of person who enjoyed helping others to get where they wanted to go.
Hey Pop, so now you’re a bus driver?
This, I suppose, is how the dead stay with us. First in our rooms, then in our dreams—always in our dreams—but also through others. You haven’t even thought of me lately, have you. Well surprise, here I am, all the way over here in Bohemia.
What was it, I wondered as I sat on the bus, staring at the driver again, that my father wanted to tell me in the weeks after his death, hovering in the room with me like that? Quit worrying so much. Give Cynthia a kiss. Go easy on the kids. Write another book.
Or maybe it was what he had such a hard time saying his whole life: Son. I love you with all my heart.
As I make my way toward the age my father was when he died, I can only hope that I will, in a manner of speaking, become him, or rather, become a dream of him, a living, swimming reverie of the man I love.
Until then, I am adrift in some unconscious riptide of mythic destiny, helplessly but willingly surrendering to the inevitable. I am in the ocean, the white foam sparkling in the sunshine, and I am clutching his strong shoulders as he bobs in and out of the strong sea, and then my hands are empty, and I’m adrift, and a soft rain is falling and I’m swallowing saltwater, but then he’s there again, he’s there underneath me, behind me, alongside me, and I swim, alone but not alone, and I gulp the air, but I’m okay.
That yellow ball is long gone. Perhaps it’s still bobbing out there, somewhere in the endless sea.
My father is long gone. And I am lost at sea.
But he is never gone. And I will never be lost.
He lives on in me. This is both a recent discovery and a long-suspected truth. I’ve always been aware that he lives on through my mother, whom he “watched over” after he died; and in my soft-spoken, kindhearted brother; and in my sister, a teacher, helping others her whole life; and in his beloved grandchildren, in whose personalities I see his many influences. But what I am just now realizing is that he lives on in me. Because of me. Through me.
And through others as well. Even in strangers. Even in the Czech Republic, of all places—in the eyes and postures of all the men in their seventies, here and for that matter everywhere, men who quietly go about their business, self-effacing and kind, driving people safely home through the rain.