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Third Death

My father has had three funerals. The third (though perhaps not final) one, was last night.

In reality, Lewis died in 1997. Cancer. Aged 52. He had a real funeral. I was there. The next two funerals occurred only in my dreams, yet they seemed real at the time, and their impact during the waking hours was keenly felt.

You see, during the intervening nineteen years, Lewis has come back to life in my dreams, many times. It is more than simply having a dream about him. During these nighttime images, it is noted that Lewis shouldn't be there, that he died of cancer and is resting six feet under. How, then, could he be alive and, seemingly, healthy?

It was in October 1996 when I heard the news that dad had terminal cancer. My first reaction was that of anger. It was a selfish anger. I wasn't irate at Lewis losing years off his life, or that his fourth wife would become a widow, or that his 2-year-old son would become fatherless. I was indignant because there were still things unresolved between us and, at age twenty, I feared (correctly, as it turns out) that I didn't what it would take to confront them.

The return of Lewis over the years has been a subconscious attempt to resolve the issues I had with him. The first time he came back, it was in a dream just a week or so after he was buried, wherein my lifelong fear of him announced itself with a dark, lightning-filled dreamscape in which dad came rising, angrily, up through the ground. He arose through a sloshing tar pit, unspeaking, but I knew he was coming for me.

Over the years, the resurrections have been much less threatening, though still unsatisfying. There was the series of dreams where he was back, alive, just as he always had been, though he'd fallen on hard times. For whatever reason, Lewis had decided not to go back to his last wife and child, and was instead taken-in by my mom. I lived with her, in the dream. There was no hint of a rekindled romance between them. Dad was simply there until he could get back on his feet.

In the sequence of dreams that followed, it was much as it had been during the years my parents were married. Dad would be gone during the week, working on construction somewhere, and would return home on the weekends. He would be distant, though friendly enough. I wanted to talk with him, to ask his advice on things that were now going on in my life. At times, I did. He offered vague platitudes, nothing more.

One day, in yet another excursion into my nightly stupor, Lewis died, again. The cancer had come back, taking him much more quickly this time. There we all were -- friends and family -- in a different funeral location this time, saying goodbye. "Are we really doing this again?" I asked a faceless family member, who nodded their head in the affirmative.

Then, a few years later, a new set of dreams began and, somehow, dad was back. Incredulous, I would ask people (never him) how this was happening him. "He fought back the cancer," they would say, shrugging, not seeming to fully understand it themselves. This time, dad was thinner than he'd been in his prime, the excuse being that the cancer wasn't completely gone, but that he was managing to keep it at bay.

Over the next few years, I would dream about dad every few months. It was nearly always the same: He was living in a plain, white house in a nameless small town a few miles from Champaign. He lived alone, though admitted to having the odd woman around for company sometimes. He was almost always smiling, the same, skeletal smile I remember him having in the months when he was dying. It was a forced smile, a smile that masked unhappiness.

I visited Lewis in that little house so many times. On each occasion, I was hoping for a breakthrough. Nearly every time, I left disappointed. Our visits were always pleasant enough, but I never felt especially close with him. We'd make some small talk, then I'd leave. 'We're never going to have a connection,' I'd think. Awaking the next morning, I'd shake my head and hope for better luck in the next dream, if one were to occur.

Last night, the dream returned, and I was informed -- again, by some faceless family member -- that Lewis had died. He had, yet again, lost his battle with cancer. Once more, I'd not had a chance to say a proper goodbye (if such a thing truly exists). We hadn't had any kind of meaningful conversations. Nothing had changed much from where it was in 1997, the 'first' time he had died. On this occasion, the funeral was sparsely attended. I didn't recognize anyone there.

The dream has bothered me all day. Of course its contents were sad, but that isn't what has gnawed at me most. It is the realization that, almost two decades later, my mind is obviously not satisfied with our relationship. I took a drive later in the day and had one of those ugly cries, wherein the tears are accompanied by soft moans.

It starkly registers that, just when I think things have calmed down, emotionally, when I think my 40-year-old self has reflected all it can and come to sort of closure with the past, the brain says no, you must torment yourself more. Your father must rise, then die, again. And that is the cruelest cut of all, when you do it to yourself.


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