If I accept that death is final, and that there is nothing more, then goodbye should have been my final words to my boy. As a man of science my brain tells me that death is indeed the end of everything we are. Death is the seceding of order from life’s harmony and structure. Death is the ultimate expression of entropy; our dissolution into chaos and randomness – the doorway to oblivion. However, as a father – as well as a son, my heart tells me that there is something more; an intangible, imperceptible spark that continues past the extinction of life’s flame. There was a time where my heart and my brain were in agreement that death was the end of everything. My brain and my heart are no longer simpatico and my father is to thank for that.
About a month before my father succumbed to the cancer that ravaged his lungs, we had a conversation about death. At the time I was incredibly uncomfortable about the topic, as I knew my father’s own end was imminent. My father tried talking to me about his and by extension my own, mortality. I remember my father’s dismay when I told him I believed that when we died that was it – nothing more, a one way ticket to nothingness. Ever the showman, I stood up and turned off the lights in the room and told my father “You want to know what happens when you die? You just saw it. Light’s out. The end.” My father shook his head, but instead of a look of disgust or horror, I saw a smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye that he reserved for when he was keeping a secret that he knew would drive others crazy. My father knew something and he couldn’t wait to prove me wrong.
“You are wrong, Richie”. Those were his simple words – words that anyone who knows me irritate me to know end. “I feel sad that you don’t feel comfortable talking about this, but I KNOW there is something else after I die and I am going to prove it to you, Mr. Science!”, he said. My father then went on to describe his grand plan to prove to me that there was something more after death. He rationed that the only way to make me, the ultimate skeptic, believe that there is more to life after death was proof. I remember scoffing at the idea, asking my Dad how he could possibly prove it to me. As I stared him down, growing more and more frustrated with the direction of our conversation, I saw the light bulb go off in his head. ” Well”, he added with a smile of satisfaction ” we will just have to perform an experiment: Here’s the plan..”
The plan was amazingly simple and effective. My father’s idea was to give my wife, Samantha, a secret password that only she and he would know. Upon my father’s death he vowed he would return to me in some way and utter the password and I would have the proof I required. I remember laughing out loud at the notion and only went along with his plan out of sympathy and a sense of appeasement. At the time I did not realize that I had already forsaken my beliefs in science as I had a preconceived outcome that I was SURE of – a scientific no no. My father told Sam the password after I had left the room completely and went upstairs to our bedroom. I returned only after Sam had given me the ok, and for the remainder of our days together my father and I honestly never spoke another word about his grand experiment.
I was at my father’s side on the day of his death. My memory can paint a perfect picture of my father’s eyes the moment I walked into his room that morning. Though we didn’t speak, my father’s eyes actualized a fear that I had never before seen in them. The man I had looked up to as the epitome of strength and courage, a real life Superman, looked weak and afraid. To see my father whittled down to a husk of his former self and struggling mightily for mere wisps of breath filled me with hopelessness. I am sure my eyes belied the false sense of strength I was attempting to convey to him.
As things settled and my father became aware that both my sister and I were at his side the look of fear resigned to one of contentment. As I stood there comforting him and telling him how much I loved him the look of fear morphed into a look of peace and contentment. Though functionally mute for several days, he managed to hoarsly utter his last words to my sister and I: “I love you”. Not long after I felt the life slip from his large, once powerful hand, and I knew he was gone. I said, “Goodbye Dad, I love you”. I said goodbye to my father without a moment’s hesitation. It was natural, and poignant. According to everything I knew, my smug assurances told me that the light had turned off forever. Everything my father ever was ceased and he entered oblivion. Goodbye, Dad.
Exactly one month after my father passed I awoke from the first dream I had about him and found myself unable to get back to sleep. I quietly and stealthily slipped out of bed and walked down the stairs to our kitchen and sat at our computer. I sat there for about an hour or so before Sam must have awoken to realize that I was no longer in bed with her. She immediately came downstairs and found me at the computer and asked me what was the matter. I told her that I had a nice dream about my father, and went on to describe the dream.
In the dream my father was not dead, far from it in fact. In the realm of my unconscious mind he was alive and well with my family and me seated next to him at his picnic table at his house in upstate New York. In the dream my father was doing exactly what he would have been doing had he been alive: holding court. He was telling jokes, teasing people and playing his guitar. I remember the satisfaction I felt of seeing my father alive and all seemed to be right in the world. Then things changed. Like a storm cloud that sneaks over the top of a tall mountain changing the weather in an instant, my dream clouded over with the realization that my father was dead. All of the merriment ceased and my family all disappeared. I was left at the table with just my father, and in my dream I asked my father what was the password. He never answered. Instead, I was greeted with seemingly nonsensical images of dogs and world war fighter pilots and I awoke in disappointment.
I remember looking at Sam’s face as I described the dream, her sympathetic eyes filling me with an easiness to press on and tell the whole story. She smiled and acknowledged the salient points with a chuckle and continued to smile throughout… that is until I got to the last part. Never before in my life had I seen mere words draw the blood directly out of someone’s face until that moment. Ironically, it is I who would have been able to say I had seen a ghost, as her face took on the alabaster hue of an apparition. Upon hearing my description of dogs and fighter pilots, Sam immediately gasped, placed her balled up hand to her mouth and shook her head as if to dislodge a thought that had no reason being in her head. She hesitated a second and then uttered the words I will never forget: “The password your father gave me, I, I can’t believe this”, she stammered, “the password was Snoopy and the Red Baron!”.
We both stood there in awe and disbelief for several minutes. Ever the skeptic, I asked, and re-asked if she was sure. Samantha said that she wasn’t sure if the password was just Snoopy and the Red Baron, but she knew that was the main idea. She was without doubt on that. Unable to shake my skepticism, I then asked her if my father put her up to acknowledging any password I may have heard or seen just to mollify me and give me a sense of peace. I felt guilty about the inquiry, but needed confirmation. Sam vehemently denied that she would ever deceive me, and honestly her reaction was as genuine as can be. My father and Snoopy along with the Red Barron had given me pause. The reality of the ultimate finality of death that I was so sure of was now shattered and I scrambled to put the pieces together into a new mosaic of reality that incorporated this phenomenon. While I will always stop short of saying that what I received that day was proof (after all some part of my subconscious could have known the password somehow already) I now had evidence to doubt my previous belief. My father didn’t give me faith that there is something more after we die, but he did give me doubt that there isn’t anything at all. For a scientist, doubt is healthy. It keeps us honest. It gives us hope. A month after his passing, my father gave me the greatest gift he ever did while alive: the gift of possibility.
This possibility of something more after we leave the mortal plane is the reason I never said goodbye to Rees. On the day we laid Rees to rest, surrounded by only my closest family and two very special friends, I bid farewell to his corporeal form. I kissed his head, its coldness a stark reminder of his true absence, and ran my hand through his hair one last time. I sang to him my last lullaby and I grasped his tiny hand one last time. In the finality of that moment, I did not say goodbye; I said auf Wiedersehen, until we see each other again. The possibility that I will be with him again, and that he is with me now, is all I need to keep despair from claiming my soul. Thanks to my father, my original Super Hero, I now look for Rees in my dreams, and listen for his giggle in the rustling wind. I look for his smile in my rear view mirror, and close my eyes to see him riding on a tractor with my Dad, their mutual grins telling me everything will be ok. I know one day I will see both of them again in the that same place where Snoopy is flying against the Red Barron…