My father sitting in his favorite chair, smoking
After college, I began to study dreams. Finally, after ripping through all those thousands of pages of UCLA curriculum, I had time for leisurely self-exploration. I read Man and His Symbols and started keeping a dream journal. Around 9 am, I would wake up, immediately roll over, grab my spiral-bound journal, and write down whatever I could remember from that ethereal world.
Looking it over during the day, I began to see meanings. It helped me see my life as something with shape, form, and mysterious depths. But they were depths that could be plumbed, if I just tried hard enough. Everything could be deciphered. After all, I was an adult now.
What I was trying to do, I suppose, was take control of my life. Supposedly, every person had an unconscious self that made you do things. It made you lazy or aggressive or mean, even if you didn’t want to be. It wagged you like a tail, and yes, Hemingway was right, the iceberg of your needs and desires was almost entirely submerged. All the action was underwater.
I so wanted to decipher those hieroglyphs. I so wanted to make things better in my life.
One morning at dawn, I awoke from a particularly emotional dream. I had been talking to my father in a parking lot. It was in my hometown, and a department store loomed behind us. But it was the anguish in our conversation that got to me. Awake in bed, I cried for a bit.
I immediately knew what it meant.
To understand the dream, you have to understand my father. He had never been a terribly assertive man, and in fact, sometimes seemed to be so self-effacing that he harmed himself. He never asked for anything. When his wife decided the family would go on a Caribbean cruise, he wanted to stay behind to save money. And he never wanted to spend money on himself, and in fact, basked in his spartan ways.
Smoking seemed the embodiment of that self-effacement. Taking a drag, he looked so solitary. It was all he seemed to need, that cigarette, that smoke hovering around the eyes, that heat he breathed into his lungs.
My father smoking in his favorite chair.
That November, I asked Dad what he wanted for Christmas.
“Oh, don’t get me anything,” he said.
“I am going to get you something,” I said. “Tell me what you want.”
“Nothing. I don’t want anything.”
“What, you want me to get you a Shakespeare play?”
“No. Did you know I haven’t read a novel in 25 years?”
There was always more than a hint of pride in the statement, a sideways slap at the English major who thought he knew more than his father.
“The last novel I read was The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. Did I tell you that?”
“Yes, several times.”
“You know he couldn’t write unless he was completely drunk.”
“Have you ever tried that?”
“All right. So don’t ever get me a book.”
“Then what should I get you?”
“A carton of cigarettes.”
“Yeah, right. You know I’m not going to buy you cigarettes.”
We went on like this for ten minutes, round and round, until something perfect came to mind.
“You really like macadamia nuts, don’t you?” I said.
“Okay, if you absolutely have to, you can get me that.”
“A jar of macadamia nuts?”
As an adult, I was starting to appreciate my father in a different way. Once, he was my hero perched high on a pedestal. Now, I was learning to hug him, even though it made him feel awkward.
“What does he expect me to do when he does that?” he used to privately ask my mother.
Sometimes I even kissed him on the cheek, which really threw him. The fact is, I was realizing as an adult in how many different ways that I loved this man. I so enjoyed wearing a hip 1950s style shirt I found in his closet. I was fascinated about the details of his troubled youth. I wanted to spend more time with him, although it was sometimes difficult to fit into our busy schedules.
Come Christmas Day, I arrived at my parents’ house early. With the family sitting in the living room, we casually unwrapped presents, but as always, Dad held back. He always lingered on the outskirts of the group, like a satellite orbiting a planet. While we tore open gift after gift, Dad was leaning on a railing, smoking and watching.
“Dad, it’s your turn,” my sister finally said.
Dad picked up my gift first, but looked at it a bit puzzled. The package was larger than our agreed-upon jar of macadamia nuts. He tore off the wrapping paper, and what he found inside seemed to disappoint him horribly.
“What?” I said, smiling.
“That’s too much, it’s too much.”
I smiled. It was four jars of macadamia nuts. In the store, one jar had seemed paltry and ungrateful. This man had put me through college without requiring that I get a part-time job, as my friends’ parents had required. He’d coached my Little League team during a year when I was a star. At age 4, he’d taught me how to run as fast as the wind. I figured I’d set him up with macadamias for a couple months.
Later that day, we had a moment alone while the women in the kitchen were cooking.
“Dad, I want to tell you about a dream I had,” I said.
The author at age 25
“It was about you.”
I recounted the dream, but as I reached the end, my voice was cracking and there were tears in my eyes.
“You were…you were threatening to cut off your own thumbs,” I said.
It was the thumbs that had really gotten to me. You see, I had discovered a new way of being in the world. I wanted to tell him that you didn’t have to hide your emotions and kill your own desires, that in this day and age, you could spend money, you could wear colored shirts, you could tell your child that you loved him, you could give him advice, because he would listen. I was telling him that he didn’t have to hurt himself all the time.
But while there were tears in my eyes, my father was having a whole different experience of the conversation: He was laughing. In fact, he thought it was ludicrous.
“I was going to cut off my thumbs?!” he said with a grin.
“David, I’m not going to cut off my own thumbs.”
“No, that’s not what I mean, I know you wouldn’t….”
“…I mean, why would I cut off my own thumbs?”
“I know that, it’s just that….”
But try as I might, I couldn’t quite explain it. In the end, I had that sense of hopelessness you sometimes get when you try to enlighten a parent.
I changed your diapers, the parent always seems to say with just a slight grin. I knew you when you didn’t even know how to go potty, so don’t try to tell me anything.
Later that year, though, he did cut off his thumbs, in a manner of speaking. He was in a dark mood all that autumn because of office politics. Apparently, Dad’s supervisor had accused him being an alcoholic, which was absolutely ludicrous if you knew my Dad at all. Perhaps what that supervisor had seen were the effects of a lifetime of smoking. Or perhaps he was just trying to put his boot on my Dad’s neck, as power players sometimes do. One day, Dad sauntered up to me with that ever-present cigarette between his fingers.
“Don’t be surprised if someday, I just disappear,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
There was a quiet anger in his voice.
He took a drag on his cig.
“Because I’m sick of it all.”
“What would you do?”
“I’d just become a hobo riding the rails.”
It sounded to me like someone hurting himself because others had hurt him. I looked at him with as much love as I could muster.
“Dad, I would really miss you.”
It wasn’t long afterwards that I saw my father sitting on the stairs at home with his shirt off. It was so alarming that I remember it as if it were yesterday. My father had become frighteningly skinny. The mesomorphic father who had always been my hero was so thin that I knew he was sick.
“Dad, you’re too skinny,” I said. “There’s gotta be something wrong with you. You’ve gotta see a doctor.”
He wouldn’t listen to me that time, either.
My father at age 21
- My father approximately age 58
Thumbs, lungs, cigarettes, hobos, death, it’s all mixed in together now. He never went to the doctor. And three years later, he was dead.
Now that I’m older, I realize that it didn’t have to happen that way. He could have stopped smoking. He could have reached out to us. He could have accepted our love. It could have been easier for him. The problem was, the person who was telling him to change was his own son. And who listens to his own son?