This piece first appeared in gal-dem’s UN/REST print issue
One night early in the new millennium, I was tearing through the streets of central London, running so fast it felt like I was flying. The black starry sky was melting into the purple streaks of early morning. I was breathless and lost and looking for something just out of reach. I stopped and squeezed my eyes shut. When I opened them, I was looking down the street I grew up on, in a quiet suburb of London.
Then the knowledge poured into my brain, like the first burst of rain after a heatwave. I’d been looking for my dad all through the night, but he’d managed to stay just out of my sight. I kept following his voice, and it had brought me home. At the bottom of the stairs I could hear his footsteps somewhere above, always a few seconds ahead of me.
One morning soon after, I was having another detailed, technicolour dream about trying to my find my dad. It was becoming a habit. I was in the phase of sleep just before waking, when memory kicks in.
In those last moments before I abruptly woke up, I almost felt in control of the action. We’d been calling to each other up the staircase, a load of crossed wires and “What?” and “Can’t hear you!” like any other house before the day really begins. Then I’d gone up to see him, and we were talking in the hallway, as we’d done a million times before. Behind me, my bedroom door was open and the bed I was sleeping in at that very moment was neatly made and totally empty.
My dad had appeared in front of me like it was no big deal that he was alive and well, dressed as though he was going to work. He wore a red jumper I’d given him a couple of years before. It was redder than it had been when I’d bought it, better than new. His hair was thick and wavy and black beyond belief. A previous version of my dad, one from a photo album.
He was laughing and poking fun at me as I related my long search for him, cracking out silly dad jokes with the ease of a practised magician pulling out bunting from his sleeve. Of course he’d been at home, getting ready for work. It was a weekday morning. Where else would he be?
I asked my dad if he wanted a cuppa, as I always did, but something was nagging at me… Why did I have such a strange feeling that too much time had passed since we’d last spoken? Just as I felt like I’d managed to take hold of the story, I was pulled out of the dream and into those first few moments of being awake. Before my conscious mind could even catch up, I was already feeling around for my mobile phone — a Nokia 3210 back in those days — with only one thought: “I have to text him, how long has it been since I texted him?”
I paused. Certainty dissolved in the watery early morning light. It had been months since I’d contacted him, yes, because he was dead. I’d forgotten that he was dead. The dream had been so convincing that I had to relearn the fact of my father’s death. I pulled the duvet over my face and wished I could scream. When I did look up from my bed, I could see that red jumper hanging on the back of my door, faded and slightly frayed at the cuffs.
My dad died a few weeks before my 20th birthday, in April 2003. The immediate aftermath is mostly a blackout, memory shocked into failure. Months later, I found myself needing to be reminded of his loss every morning. The absolute unfairness of that waking moment — which left me suspended between the reimagined past and the new day — was a sudden jolt that took the air out of my lungs. This daily ritual was so cruel. Why was my subconscious using my memories against me?
That’s how each day starts when you’re in the throes of raw grief — a heartbreaking deception that makes you question your own sanity. “The mourning process is messy and individual,” science journalist Alice Robb writes in her book, Why We Dream: The Transformative Power of Our Nightly Journey, “but for most people, the work of grieving continues in sleep; in vivid, unforgettable dreams, the dead come back to us.”
My dad once said the exact opposite to me about the people he’d lost: “They never come back to tell you what it’s like.” That moment was over 15 years ago, but I can still see his faraway look as he told me. The years since have only added possible layers of meaning to that sentence. I can’t now ask him what he meant, but with all that I’ve learned, I guess that he’d found the dreams too full of hurt. They were best forgotten or repressed. As Alice Robb puts it: “Dreams like these, though painful, can help the mourner understand that the deceased is really gone.” Now, many years removed, I can see that. It’s one thing to know a fact intellectually; it’s something else entirely to feel its truth.
Accomplishing this huge task felt like living two lives at once: the physical toil of getting through those terrible days and the dreams working on my subconscious at night. When that battle between the memory and the subconscious is done, the dreams will simply end. You will have learnt to believe that a different world is possible.
The title of this piece is taken from Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children”, which begins by addressing parents with a bold statement: “Your children are not your children.” It goes on:
“You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
Parents have to accept the reality that their children are “the arrow that flies” and will, in most cases, live beyond them. Similarly, each of us has to understand when the time has come for us to move forward without the person we’ve loved and lost. There’s no magic that will let them join us in the house of tomorrow.
If I can compare the experience to anything, it’s like learning to ride a bike without stabilisers. My dad taught me how to do that with laughter and great patience, but also a determination that I hadn’t seen from him before. No amount of charm or complaining got me out of these lessons.
At the park, he would hold on to me for just long enough to get that balance right, then… he’d let go and watch me try to cycle away from him. Yes, I would fall off, get hurt, cry; but, rightly so, he gave me no choice except to get back in the saddle. So we would go again: pedal, push, glide, crash, until I Iearned to defy gravity, and was able to leave my dad behind.