My father passed away in 1986. He was 75; I was 34. To say that he was a gentle, humble and uncomplicated man would be understating the obvious. He didn't only epitomize those terms, he defined them. By trade, he cut diamonds; by profession, he loved his family. He had few friends, fewer hobbies, and loathed the limelight. He could sing and croon with the best of them, but try telling him that and the only response you'd get would be two flushed cheeks and a subject change.
He raised a small family in Poland before the War, but they were murdered by the Nazis. I know almost nothing about them. Miraculously, he survived six years of concentration camp torment and came to America in 1947. Here, he re-married, had two sons, and dedicated his life to us. He never uttered the words, "I love you." He breathed them.
When he entered Mount Sinai for bypass surgery early Monday morning on March 24th of that year, he was nervous and wan. Nine hours later, after the surgical team bravely circumvented five clogged arteries, they wearily happened into the waiting corridor and pronounced the operation a success. To have imagined that he would die there six months later, having never gone home again, would have been impossible. As the saying goes, "The operation was a success, but the patient died."
My mother, my brother, and I lovingly and dutifully did everything we could to will him back to health. Every single day we'd gather at his bedside - staring at monitors that we didn't understand, singing songs that we knew he loved, telling stories that we couldn't even tell if he heard - praying, hoping, rubbing, coaxing, grooming, practically forcing his eyelids open…but we never really had any reason to expect any improvement. It was so sad.
Then, one day, in early September, he woke up. Just like that. Suddenly he was coherent, lucid, and very much alive. The only ones more shocked than we were, were his doctors. I summoned all my children to the hospital and he spoke to each of them lovingly. We even discussed the distant possibility of his coming home.
But like the flame of a candle that springs to life, flickering and crackling and dancing with implausible vigor seconds before it is stifled, Daddy fooled us all. Two days later he was gone. No warning. No premonition. Just the classical, morbid hospital phone call that shattered the usual morning scuttle, "I'm sorry, your Dad died this morning." Just like that. The ordeal was over.
I remember my eulogy. I cried my way through it, disjointed and mostly incomprehensible. Later I heard that friends were surprised at my overt and intense display of grief.
"The man was barely conscious for six long months," they reflected, "why did he react like he wasn't expecting this? Was he in total denial?"
I missed Daddy so very much. I wanted to see him again and feel his unspoken warmth and affection.
Admittedly, it was a good question. But perhaps they hadn't heard about Daddy's sudden, but short-lived two day recovery. Perhaps they had never personally experienced unconditional parental love. Or maybe they just didn't understand that death and mourning follow no rules.
And so I found myself in the ensuing months missing Daddy so very much. It wasn't easy. I wanted so much to see him again and feel his unspoken warmth and affection. Life went on, but something…something very special was missing.
It was more than a year later when I had The Dream.
It was a winter day. I was walking to my synagogue, just two blocks away, when I saw Daddy standing on the corner. He was alone. He looked wonderful. In real life he was short and stocky, but in the dream he almost looked tall. His white starched shirt gleamed in the brilliant sunshine and his large-knotted necktie protruded just a bit too much, as usual. He was wearing his favorite medium grey, double-breasted overcoat and his best and proudest smile.
I was a block away when I first saw him. Amidst my elation at seeing him, I felt confused. Had he actually come back to visit me? Or maybe he never died, after all? It never dawned upon me that this was only a dream. It couldn't be. The details were so sharp; the scene so perfect.
I started running towards him. He just waited at the corner for me to arrive. We hugged. I was so happy.
"Let's walk," he said.
He told me things were well with him, wherever he was, and that they allowed him to pay a quick visit with me.
"Where shall we walk to?" I asked.
"Let's go to the bank," he offered.
I was not surprised. The bank was one of Daddy's favorite places. He loved to go there. Not that he had any money, mind you. Maybe because of his mistrust of authority he felt he had to make sure the few dollars he had were still there - safe and sound. In those days, depositors held bank passbooks into which the teller would stamp your current account balance after adding in the interest that had accumulated since your last visit. He loved watching the pennies grow.
Daddy liked big banks, with very high ceilings, grand echoes, and elaborate architecture. And if the bank had a very secure sounding name, like Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, that helped too. Clearly, he never would have put a dime in Apple Bank.
And so we walked to an enormous bank -- probably the biggest I had ever seen, and took our place on a long line. Unlike most of us in the current ATM era, Daddy never minded waiting on line for things. It was part of his patient pace of life that we loved so much.
There was so much I wanted to tell him, and so I did. I wanted him to be proud of the things I was doing. He listened. He nodded. He smiled. But after a few moments, he reached into his coat breast pocket and pulled out a newspaper. I was surprised, but only mildly. After all, Daddy loved reading the papers -- Yiddish, English, daily, weekly -- that was his chief relaxation after his day in the diamond district.
I wondered which paper he had with him and I asked. He turned it around so I could see it for myself. The headline read, "Kol Yaakov, (The Voice of Yaakov)." I did not recognize it.
"What paper is that?" I inquired of him.
"It's your paper," he said.
He saw that I was puzzled, so he explained further.
"You can tell me everything about yourself if you like, but frankly, I really know it all already."
"You see, where I am, they know that we want to keep track of what is happening to our loved ones. So, every day, this personalized newspaper, Kol Yaakov, is delivered to me. It is a full description of everything that you, Yaakov, are doing here on this Earth. I guess they know I like newspapers. So, you can tell me everything about yourself if you like, but frankly, I really know it all already."
I looked at Daddy with a blank kind of gaze, not sure what to say next. After all, whatever I could say he knew already. Daddy returned my vacant stare and then he patted me, ever so gently, on my left cheek. I could actually feel it.
I could see he was proud.
And then he was gone. Again. No warning. No premonition. He simply vanished. I was left, standing alone, on line, at a cavernous and strange bank.
I awoke with a thud. I sat up in bed. Where had I been? The questions flooded my sudden and abrupt consciousness.
"If what I saw was real, why am I not at the bank?"
"Was Daddy really alive?"
"Perhaps his death was a dream?"
"What time is it?"
With the exception of the time (it was near dawn), I could not answer any of the questions. The line between dream-state and reality was so blurred at that moment that I felt wedged into a kind of Twilight Zone. It was really weird. The vertigo lasted for several minutes.
Like a panic-stricken child drowning in the untamed rapids, I felt myself frantically trying to grasp onto every minute detail I had just experienced. The images were slipping away fast. "Maybe if I close my eyes really hard, I can go back to the bank and see Daddy again," I mused in quasi-desperation. But, of course, there was no going back. It took a few moments, sitting in the motionless shadows, but reality crept in -- there was no place to go back to. It was all just a dream.
Crestfallen, I let my head slump to my somber pillow, as I stared at the useless ceiling above. The very first gesture of morning would soon beckon through my window. A new day was approaching. It would be a sad day. Not just another day without Daddy, but the day after I actually thought he was here, only to be awoken by the stark truth that the visit was only an illusion.
"A dream that has not been interpreted, is like a letter that has not been read," says the Talmud.
I was familiar with the dictum of the Sages that the meaning and portent of a dream is influenced by the interpretation ascribed to it. It's hard to understand, but somehow, through some lofty process or course of action, the significance of every dream is very much dependent on how it is explained.
"But this dream needs no interpretation!" I argued to no one. It contained no mystery, no unique or peculiar symbolism. Many, if not most dreams, contain bizarre, or at least, far-fetched circumstances or scenes. Some even seem to foretell or warn of events that could be forthcoming.
Not my dream. No. This was different. No Josephs need apply here. There was, it seemed to me, nothing in my dream that required any analysis or explanation of any kind. Daddy came, we embraced, we walked, we talked, he explained how he got all his information about me and he left. And it was beautiful.
And then it struck me. Perhaps it wasn't a dream after all. Maybe it really was a visit, albeit a nocturnal one. So what if I was asleep when it happened. The fact is, I really did see him. I heard him; I even felt him.
A calm, inner peace descended over me. Rather than feeling disappointment, I felt privileged…fortunate…perhaps honored. What I thought was only a frustrating illusion may just have been a most spectacular reality. The teaching of the Talmud was never more true - I discovered the dream's meaning through my own interpretation.
So many of us wonder whether departed souls, so close to us, have much of an inkling of the events that transpire on this world. Somehow, we want to believe that they do. I don't wonder about that any more.
But more than that, my way of thinking about dreams in general changed that day. It seems to me that too often we paint the line between reality and imagination with a brush far too wide. We tend to place them in totally different bins. Maybe we shouldn't. Dreams - both night and daydreams - are important. They can be a window for our innermost yearnings and an opportunity to reach for what is great within us.
Just another lesson that Daddy taught me.