On Saturday morning, I make my way down the stairs to the kitchen, and Dad is sitting there in the breakfast nook, facing the window, a cup of coffee in his hand. I catch a faint whiff of tobacco. There’s something natural about his presence, not surprising or shocking or horrifying. I’ve been looking for him all this time, and now he’s here.
“Dad,” I say, taking a chair opposite.
He’s been dead more than thirteen years, but that seems too obvious to mention.
“Why are you here?” I ask instead.
He looks at me, the corners of his brown eyes crinkling as he smiles.
“You dreamed about me last night.”
He’s often in my dreams, not as the focus but as a background character, just someone who’s there.
“I summoned you?” I say.
He sets down the coffee mug, which features a faded Toronto Blue Jays logo. It’s one of his, one I inherited when Mom cleaned out the old house.
“I wanted to come,” he says, “but I have only this one day.”
“One day,” I say, and I see what this is. It’s an opportunity, the chance any son would take to see his Dad one more time, to say and do the things he always regretted not saying or doing. I think I should probably break down sobbing, reach across the table and grab him in a big bear hug, but we were never that huggy, and I feel no need to sob. I’m more worried I’m about to waste this time.
My hands shake a little as I prepare a simple breakfast, just juice and toast. Dad looks at the newspaper on my tablet, says, “Things have changed, but not really.” He has that faint, calm smile that I remember, as he just sits there, sipping his coffee, as I eat my toast. This is like so many mornings, long past.
I remember the car.
“I need to show you something,” I say, filled with sudden purpose.
My wife Janine, who always gets up before I do on weekends, is in the garden, not so much gardening as admiring what she’s accomplished so far. Her face goes slack as Dad and I emerge from the back door.
“Look who’s here,” I say.
She advances and throws her arms around him.
“Oh!” he says, a little awkward, but then he slaps her back and adds, “It’s good to see you!”
She looks stricken as she steps back, hands going to her mouth, face flushing.
“What’s going on?” she says.
“We’re going to the garage,” I say, realizing this doesn’t answer her question, but I’m eager to show Dad the ’68 Mustang. He’d always wanted one, but life got in the way.
In the garage, his face glows. He doesn’t have to say anything.
“The gearbox has been leaking a bit of oil lately,” I say. “I don’t know why.”
Dad lights a cigarette. That’s what killed him, but I don’t object, because it’s also a part of him.
“If I had time, I’d take a look at it,” he says. “Might be the humidity, but also because the car is just old.”
Janine is in the doorway, watching. Behind her, my son appears, hair dishevelled and sleep still in his eyes. He adjusts his glasses and says, “Grampy?”
“Look how big you’ve gotten!” Dad says.
Tim was five when Dad died, and is eighteen now. His thirteen-year-old sister is trailing behind him, carrying a banana which I assume passes for her breakfast.
“Suzy,” I say, “come meet your grandfather.”
She was born about three months after Dad died, and this is a moment I’ve wished for many times. She’s shy and looks down. She’s been hearing things about this man all her life, has seen pictures and videos, and I imagine he must be something of a legend to her.
“Very pleased to meet you, finally,” he says.
I’m like a soda bottle that someone just shook before popping the cap, and have to walk away, back into the garden. I can hear Tim talking, voice rising in giddy excitement, telling Grampy all the things that he’s been up to lately. I hear a welcome ring of laughter from Suzy.
When I go back into the garage, Janine is alone.
“Tim wanted to show him his room,” she tells me.
She seems a little embarrassed by her earlier loss of composure, and I encircle her with my arms. She lays her head against my shoulder and whispers, “We’ve been given an amazing gift.”
Tim convinces Dad to go for a walk down to the creek, and Suzy goes with them. I stay back and try to decide how to make the most of this. It starts to rain, and Dad and the kids return, laughing as they try to dodge raindrops. By now it’s lunch time, so we eat and Dad and I have a beer and watch some of the ball game. I haven’t been watching baseball since he died.
Later, we take the Mustang for a spin. I let Dad drive and just enjoy the look of satisfaction on his face. When we return, the rain has stopped and we have a barbecue on the patio, then sit in the deck chairs while Suzy gets her three-quarter sized guitar and sings us a song, something she’s usually too self-conscious to do in front of her parents.
As the last note fades, Janine looks at me with a sad smile and, wiping at her eyes, asks, “Would anyone like tea or coffee?”
Time is passing too swiftly, and shapes swirl and blur around me. The night is warm, the deck chairs comfortable. Dad and I are alone and he’s just a dark shape marked by the point of light from his cigarette tip, like a tiny orange star.
“This is a cozy spot,” he says. “You’ve done well for your family.”
And I think of all the years that I couldn’t settle on a degree program, how I’d worked for a non-profit and couldn’t get a job in the field I’d eventually chosen, and how my relationships with women, until I’d met Janine, had been ridiculous and childish, and how stupid I’d felt a lot, and how frustrated…
“I know how you used to feel,” Dad says. “And why you were so touchy for a while there.”
It’s true. He and I had been close, very close, especially when I’d been a kid. There’d been no drama, but sometimes we create drama from nothing.
“When you got older and things didn’t work the way you wanted, you thought you were a loser and I was disappointed.”
He chuckles, but in fondness, not mockery.
“I need you to know something,” he says. “I was never disappointed in anything you ever did. Not when you were in school and not after. I know you thought I was, but I wasn’t. I knew what you didn’t, that life can’t be planned and doesn’t always go how you want it, but you accomplished more than you think, and I always thought you’d been awfully lucky to find Janine, and when Tim came I was never so happy in my life.”
I can’t speak. My throat feels stuffed with cotton.
“I’m going to have to head back soon,” he adds. “Right now, actually.”
I can’t bear it. I never asked for this day, but I don’t want it to end. I feel like I need to do something to mark it, make some gesture. He did this for me. I need to do something for him.
I still have the key to the Mustang in my pocket.
I give him the key.
“This was always for you,” I manage to say. “Maybe you can fix that leaky gearbox, wherever it is you’re going.”
He holds it, looks at me.
“More than anything,” I tell him. I don’t want him to refuse it, and he doesn’t. He nods and slaps me on the arm.
I stand in the garage as he starts the car. Janine and the kids come out of the house and we all watch as Dad waves and backs out of the driveway, then as the car rumbles down the road to the stop sign, brake lights flaring, turns right and disappears around a bend.
The night is quiet.
“You saw him, right?” I say to my wife. “Did I dream that just so I could hear something I must have wanted to hear for years?”
“No,” she says. “And don’t try to explain it. Just let it be.”
The next morning is like every other Sunday morning. Janine is in the garden, and I make myself coffee and go outside. She just smiles and says nothing.
I go into the garage, half expecting to see the Mustang still there, but it’s not. There’s just an oil stain on the concrete, and the faint scent of yesterday’s tobacco.