by Holly Mohr
My dad’s face showed up in my dreams, off an on, a couple nights ago. He would just pop in, smiling, then pop back out.
It was the earnest smile of my much younger years, the smile he had for me when I was three or four and he was getting ready for work.
During the last “pop in,” I was in that “three quarters asleep, one quarter waking” state, and I was a little confused. For a second, I couldn’t place his face. I just knew I had a good feeling, that he was someone I loved and felt good about. I had the thought that I would be seeing him in a few days, for Christmas, and that made me glad.
Then, waking a little more, I had the disconcerting feeling that maybe I wouldn’t be seeing whomever that was, that in fact, that person was dead. Another millisecond later, I remembered that that person was my dad, and that yeah, he was dead.
In the interim milliseconds, my mind (and heart) argued with me, thinking, no, that can’t be right. (What does “dead” mean, anyway? It is literally inconceivable).
This was my first such dream of my dad since his death in September ’21. I’ve had confused and bittersweet dreams of dead friends before. When a friend from high school passed in 2014, I had recurring dreams of her showing up in front of me, smiling and laughing, assuring me she wasn’t dead.
“Here,” she would say in my dreams, putting out her hand. “Take my hand! See! You wouldn’t be able to feel my hand if I were dead!” And in my dream, every time, I would swear I felt the warmth of flesh, the assurance of a steady pulse. Every time I would dream of her, I would wake up confused and in despair, so sure had I been that my experience had proved the unprovable: she was alive and well (somewhere at least).
I took it as a good sign that my dad showed up that way, finally.
It’s not that I haven’t dreamt of him. It’s that the dreams haven’t been good. He shows up angry, or stressed, yelling about something. It feels, honestly, like being with him (at the worst times, which, let’s be honest, proliferated as the years went on).
This time was different. It felt like being with him too, in a much different way. This version of my dad was the vulnerable one, the kind one that was utterly disarmed by the little girl I had been.
The dream let me remember, and deeply feel, that I miss him.
It’s more than that: I was relieved I could still access him, that version of him (the version I like to think, in my heart of hearts, is the core of him) even in my memory, in my confused heart and mind. Wishful thinking, perhaps, to interpret it as a “real” visit. Even so, I’m glad to find myself wishing for his nearness, especially at Christmas.
Christmas with my dad was not pretty much of the time. His own unprocessed trauma and intense physical suffering did not add up to lifegiving get-togethers, to put it simply. Holidays were a gigantic trigger for him, in an era when no one used the word “trigger” or knew what it meant. I’m working hard in my own adulthood to acknowledge the triggering in myself at this time of year, and to not be swallowed by it. I’m working hard to receive the joy that’s offered all around, and to pour that forth for my husband and children, for those around me, rather than burrowing inward completely.
And in that spirit, I’m letting myself look back on and remember the times that were joyful, even at Christmas, times my dad could still access a lightness to share.
I remember watching Christmas movies with my mom on Christmas Eve, waiting for my dad to get home from his half-day shift. We’d have Home Alone 2 on when he’d come in the door, so happy to see us and get Christmas started. I’d run to him and throw my arms around him, smothering him with hugs and kisses—Christmas had officially begun. He would finish the movie with us, and then we would have dinner.
From there came the dual “reasons for the season”: I would open all my presents, Bing Crosby blaring in the background, and then we would get ready for Midnight Mass. We were a family of night owls, and Christmas Eve celebrated that like nothing else.
Luminarias would be lit all over town, not only in front of our church, but in front of all the churches on the way. When Mass was ready to start, there would be a trumpet burst of “Joy to the World,” just as the clock turned to midnight. If there’s anything more exciting as a child than opening a bunch of presents and getting to shout out songs at midnight and call it church, I’m not sure what that is.
A lot of my sentences have been more like fragments this week. I’m a little numb, a little frozen. The fallout of the last twenty-five years or so has given Christmas quite a different meaning than it had in those early years.
But I believe in hope if I believe in anything. For me, being a Christian means believing in redemption, even beyond the bounds of space and time and materiality and history (but within and among those, too). It means looking evil and sadness in the eye, nodding at them solemnly, saying, “I see you,” but continuing the gaze. It means knowing evil and sadness aren’t the whole story, and that they certainly aren’t the meaning of the story. It means trusting that love wins, goodness wins, life wins, even if I have no fucking idea what that actually means.
The people in darkness have seen a great Light, and I intend to see it too.
I hope you’re seeing the Light, Dad. I hope you’re utterly awash in it. I’d love to hear you singing “Joy to the World” at midnight. You really do have a lovely voice.