Was it just a dream...or something more?
Jun 5, 2017
I lost my father to a heart attack when I was 15.
He was only 48 years old. Two weeks before, he had gone in for his annual exam and the doctor had given him a clean bill of health. One morning he was alive; that night he was dead.
In the aftermath of his death, my mom and three older siblings often recounted the last words Dad said to them, the last moments they spent together. For a long time, I didn’t tell anyone about my last encounter with him. I wasn’t sure anyone would understand it. I wasn’t sure I understood it myself.
Dad worked the four-to-midnight shift as a laboratory supervisor at Faulkner Hospital, five minutes away from our house. He was a great provider but not a great source of emotional support. That was more my mom’s job. Dad just wasn’t the “I love you” type. Yet he and I had an unspoken bond. We both loved reading, and he introduced me to the classics. He was a gifted sketch artist and painter. Every so often, he’d teach me drawing techniques. We shared an obsession with astronomy. One night, we stayed up late to watch the Perseid meteor shower from our backyard. Just me and Dad. I’ll never forget it.
The night he died, we were celebrating my oldest sister’s first teaching job out of college. I thought maybe Dad could take a break from work to join us. I paged him and he called back. “Dad, can you make it home?” I asked.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I can’t get away right now.”
“Okay,” I said with a sigh. Our celebration wasn’t complete without him.
Then Dad said something I didn’t expect. “I love you, Kat.”
I was so surprised, it took me a moment to respond. “I love you too, Dad,” I said.
I went to bed around 10 o’clock, thinking of Dad and still puzzled by what he’d said and why he’d said it. I wanted to see him, to talk to him when he got home, but I knew I’d be fast asleep by then. I lay underneath my bedroom skylight, staring at the full moon before I drifted off.
Darkness enveloped me. Slowly my eyes adjusted. I was standing on a winding path lined by tall trees. Where does this lead? I wondered. Where did it come from?
I tensed, too afraid to turn around; the weight of the darkness was heavy and intimidating, like something physical. I looked to my left. From a branch of a leafless tree, a large black bird looked down at me. It was much larger than a normal bird, and had the eyes of a human—big, dark pupils with stark white irises. It didn’t move from its perch, only turned its head to follow me, every step I took. We looked at each other. It seemed to speak without words. I know you. I know everything. I see it all. There was no escaping its watch. Those eyes outshone the surrounding darkness.
Someone clasped my right hand. I looked away from the bird and down at the fingers interlaced with mine, holding me in their strong grip. Dad?
There he was, next to me, staring straight ahead, in some kind of trance. He didn’t acknowledge my presence, as if he was in one realm and I was in another. Whatever he saw in front of him, he was completely mesmerized by it. Should I call out? Shake him? I didn’t dare. I just walked forward in step with him. Silent, but with so many questions. How did we get to this place? Why were Dad and I there together? Where were we headed?
The darkness pressed in closer. The black bird kept its watch. I peered into the shadows ahead, struggling to see what my father saw, what he couldn’t turn away from.
My eyes grew as big as the bird’s. A bright-white oval light shone in the distance, growing bigger, coming toward us. Whatever fear I had vanished. The light was wonderful, warm, enticing. The glow lit my face and my dad’s, taking us out of the darkness, drawing us closer, pulling us in. The light split into its constituent parts and pastel rainbows danced across us—yellows, pinks, blues. The hues shifted against one another like the colors of a kaleidoscope.
No words could describe it. Did Dad feel what I felt? Did he see what I saw? I couldn’t see him anymore—the light, it blinded me. . . .
A hand grabbed my shoulder and shook me. The light vanished. My eyes were open, and I was in my bedroom again. Still dark, but not like before. Mom’s face, wet with tears, emerged from the shadows. She was standing at my bedside. The bedroom door was open; I could hear my siblings in the hall. Mom didn’t go into the details, not then. She just told me that he was gone. Daddy was gone.
“I know,” I said, still in the fog of sleep, unsure of what was real. “I was with him.”
Mom didn’t ask me what I meant. Maybe she hadn’t heard me. Maybe she thought my mind was still in a dream. Was it a dream? How could my dreams know what I needed to see that night?
In the days and weeks that followed, I was left alone to wonder about that walk through the woods, the strange bird, the vision I saw. Even now, in my most painful moments of missing Dad, I recall the way his hand felt in mine, the warm light that welcomed him, and I’m overcome with an inexplicable peace. My dad isn’t lost. He’s right where I left him the last time we were together.