I can still hear the notes leap from my father’s fingers on the strings. Like prisoners presented with an open gate, melodies spun out of his hands and skipped across the evenings. On those childhood nights, his songs stood sentinel over my dreams, ushering me out of wakefulness and into sleep. I loved this music, and I assumed it would always be mine.
The concept of transience, however, caught me in a stranglehold one Wednesday evening when my father began to play. All of a sudden, as my eight-year-old brain lilted its way from lullaby to lullaby, I realized that he wouldn’t be able to sing to me forever. How do we handle this kind of collision with mortality? Even now, especially then, I wasn’t big enough to deal with such a loss. I could not comprehend a life empty of the singer and his song.
There is no real solution when pain so stealthily encroaches on the pristine certainty of childhood. For the next three years, nightmares painted themselves garish and immutable across the ceiling of sleep. Visions of violence stalked the dark corners of daydreams and I imagined my dad injured or killed countless times. Sometimes in my dreams we’d be driving and I would look over to find him abruptly disappeared from his seat, seat belt still buckled, gas pedal still depressed. He left me, helpless and alone, speeding down a highway through the nowhere land of loss.
These dreams disappeared of their own accord. Mostly I think I just stuck them in the back of my mental file cabinet, neatly sorted alongside all those other things that I understand only insofar as I don’t understand them at all (see “Passing Away” and “Pantyhose”). With these profundities safely tucked in storage, I survived middle school, graduated high school, and left for college.
Going to a university halfway across the country finalized my acceptance of distance from my dad—or so I thought. I missed him a lot, to be sure, yet purely as one of the most important pieces of my life all the way back in Kansas. We would keep in touch over text or through phone conversations every few days. But I turned 19 two years ago. On my birthday, I received the following email from him:
“Well…here’s the story. It doesn’t take long to tell, and perhaps I’ve told it to you before, but after our very nice phone conversation on Saturday afternoon, I had a flashback. I was driving home and Eric Clapton’s song “Tears in Heaven” came on the radio. You know the history; he wrote it in 1991 for his 4-yr old son after the little boy died in a tragic accident. A couple of months or so before it came out, your mom was only a couple of months into her pregnancy with you. One day she sat down by me and said she might have had a miscarriage. She wasn’t sure, but it was possible that you had gone away. I wept so hard…I was so afraid…so broken even by the thought. I have never felt a loss like that, before or since. Praise God, it turned out not to be the case, and you were still with us. The song, when it came out a few weeks later, hit me right in the heart. I had felt some part of what he was singing about. And every time I’ve heard it since, I get that same feeling. God helped me understand, by holding me in limbo for a time, how precious you were and are to me. I’d not heard the song on the radio for years, but God played it again for me after your call to us that afternoon…just His gentle reminder of what a precious gift you are, and of how I know.”
Everything ends. Only love in its many forms manages to outlive the transience of our time on this planet. For there is permanence in loving and being loved that deeply. It changes a human spirit forever, and cannot be stopped by something so empirical as the distinction between this world and the next.
I acknowledge the fear that on occasion still dances around my dreams. I nod to the vast uncertainty that stretches behind my birth and beyond my last breath. But I am not afraid. Here and now, there and then, I am my father’s daughter. I know that when I see him on the other side, he’ll be singing.