Still Learning From Dad

By W. Ralph Eubanks
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

"Just take it one step at a time," my father told me recently when I asked for advice on handling a newly minted teenage son. "Don't be too hard on him and make sure he trusts you and feels that he can talk to you."

It's good advice, but my father's been dead for 30 years.

The conversation with my father was only a dream, a fantasy of having my father to advise me as I guide my children to adulthood.

Having your father at your side to impart his wisdom is the unconscious desire of lots of men, especially those like me who lost their father at a young age. A longing for my father always grabs hold of me in the weeks before Father's Day, especially in those moments of envy of friends who can drive across town to visit their father and share an adult father-son moment. Rather than being able to share my adult life and successes face to face, I can only have conversations with my father in my dreams. Or perhaps when I see him staring back at me when I look deeply in a mirror at my now middle-aged self.

I was only 18 when my father died -- still a little boy lost in a big man's shirt. The day after he died, he told me in a dream that I shouldn't worry about him. "I'm okay," he said in a direct, disembodied voice that was unmistakably his. I didn't even see his face. Still, the dream made me feel better. And the boy I was then thought of that dream throughout his funeral to keep himself from crying.

Since that day, I've dreamed of my father regularly, sometimes constantly. In time the voice gained a face and came to look exactly as he did when he was a seemingly healthy 52-year-old man, months before his body was ravaged by lung cancer.

Even as I near the age of 49, these dreams won't seem to stop. I know that our conversations aren't real, yet they persist. On my honeymoon 18 years ago, I felt that I had to tell my bride of these dreams that sometimes interrupt my sleep. She can tell when I've been dreaming about him. Sometimes she asks what my father said to me, as if I had had a late-night phone conversation rather than a dream. And over the years, I have found a strange comfort in these talks, no matter that they are just products of my imagination.

But the dreams have changed as the years have gone by. At first, I was still Daddy's little boy, the one who followed behind him in a freshly plowed Mississippi field, carefully placing my footprints in the same place as his. Our relationship in my dreams mimicked the one imprinted in my childhood memories. Years later, we became equals in my dreams, just two men sharing time together. This change happened when the first of my three children was born 14 years ago.

"Make sure you enjoy him," my father told me one night in those brief hours that a newborn baby allows a parent to sleep. In another dream years later, my father was playing with a dark-haired boy. He told me, "I'm going to keep him awhile until you're ready for him." About the same time, we discovered that my wife was pregnant. Nine months later, I was holding that dark-haired boy in Sibley Hospital.

My father always gives good advice. I've taken it all to heart and have thoroughly enjoyed fatherhood.

In three years I will be the same age as my father was when he died. Perhaps that's why I seem to dream of him more and more these days. But unlike my father, I plan to be physically present to my adult children, to be there to give them advice if and when they need it and sometimes even when they don't ask for it. I'm determined not to leave them with the longing that has followed me all of my adult life.

No, my father didn't tell me in a dream that I will live to a ripe old age. Men of my generation are now living longer than men of my father's vintage and in a few generations will catch up with women in the life expectancy game. That's welcome news for men like me, and it has made me determined to do all I can to live a long life.

I exercise regularly. Unlike my father, a pack-a-day smoker, I don't smoke. Most important of all, I'm willing to visit my doctor regularly to make sure that my outward, healthy appearance isn't masking a serious illness. I accept rather than deny the vulnerability of my mortality. I've made that leap because, more than anything, I long to share with my children what I can have only in my dreams. ยท

W. Ralph Eubanks, a District resident, is the author of "Ever Is a Long Time: A Journey Into Mississippi's Dark Past" (Basic Books, 2003). Comments:

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