My dad made a lousy corpse. Reposed in the casket, draped in the finery of his clergy robe and stoles, there was an eiree emptiness to the scene. I had approached the bier to pay my respects. But while it looked like him, something was terribly off.
It took me about two hours to figure it out. The cadaver had no grin. In life, John Smith had a continual grin. It was even present through his last moments of lucidity. In fact, the only thing the family had left to do in his final days was bait that grin: tossing out names, places, memories… The flickering grin was the last part of his personality to expire.
All through is life, the grin had been the outward manifestation of his inner dreams: the gauge indicating to us that his indefatigable imagination still lived. This lifelong dreamer constantly painted his memories with whatever color amusement is, and he perceived any future in whatever shade would accent hope. The grin signaled that the dreamer and the dreams lived on.
You couldn’t help but grin yourself when you found out the latest concoction brewing in his mind. For example, he had a lifelong dream of being a farmer. He didn’t want to be a full-out farmer, with tractors and fields and herds of livestock; he was far too busy to milk cows every day. Rather, he imagined himself a gentleman farmer, continuing his work as a full time pastor while leisurely dabbling in those charming amenities of rural life.
Thus we became the owners of a chicken ranch, of sorts, in 1967. My dad came home one day with fifty cute cockerels. He knew someone at the nearby hatchery, where baby chicks were separated shortly after emerging from their shells. The pullets (females) would go on to become productive egg laying hens. And the cockerels (males) were killed. My dad imagined that this was an affront to his gender. He also imagined how many chicken dinners we might get if he could raise some of those roosters. And so he came home that day with 50 pardoned chicks.
At this point it is important to note that my dad grew up as a city boy, not a country boy. While his dad started life as rural peasant in the hills of Tennessee, my dad himself grew up in the industrial metro-east of St. Louis, surrounded by oil refineries, glass factories, and steel mills. His dream of starting a chicken ranch in the shed behind our small-town parsonage went off half-cocked, lacking a few pieces of pertinent information. For example, he never dreamed that a gaggle of growing roosters would establish a pecking order and then attempt to kill the individual at the bottom. At first he tried to medicate the victims while yelling and kicking at the offenders. But after a time, we found ourselves going out every morning with a shovel, finding the latest carcass, and burying it. When we were down to less than thirty birds and my dad felt his dream of chicken dinners slipping away, he went and got the axe, boiled a big pot of water, for plucking off feathers, and gave us boys a chance to see what it looked like for chickens to run around our yard with their heads cut off.
Dreaming, exercising his imagination, creating, innovating...that was how he fed his desires. It was how he picked locks to get at what he fancied. It was how he survived, found happiness, and overcame fate.
He dreamed of places he would go. And those dreams eventuated in journeys to every state except North Dakota. He dreamed of visiting the land of his daughter-in-law, and so he and my mom cashed in their savings and went to China. He had always dreamed of going to Europe, and even though he was approaching ninety, he talked my mom into giving it a go. That trip threw the rest of the family into a panic as he refused to go with a tour group or depend on a travel agent. They just bought a couple plane tickets and took off, and only survived the trip by the grace of my niece, who was already in Belgium, and perfect strangers in all the other countries, who look out for those elderly who appear lost and clueless. My siblings didn’t want to let them go. But I had a secret agreement with my parents: I would defend their independence, even if it killed them. That was what made me their favorite son, occasionally.
The places dad dreamed of going presented him with one major obstacle: he lacked the wealth needed to travel in style. His dreams were always bigger than his bank account. But fortunately, dreams are made up of more than just imagination: they also feature flexibility and innovation. And so at first our family did our travelling with tents. After a few years of getting soaked and flooded out, my dad bought a camper that a friend of his had made out of plywood, plumbing pipes, and plastic curtains. These many years later it is hard for me to imagine that this rickety contraption was a sane way to travel the country.
But camping wasn’t the only scheme up his sleeve. He had lots of relatives and friends around the country. And he imagined that all of them might put us up for a night if we were passing through town, or even staying a few days. My mom, on the other hand, always imagined that being a really bad idea.
When my parents got older and my dad imagined how fun it would be to drive a big RV around the country, my mom again expressed a minority opinion. When you are talking with an incurable dreamer, your opinion is always in the minority, no matter how many people nod along with you. And so my dad got his big RV. He also fancied himself to be a good driver. But not all fantasies are true. His RV always had a dangling side-mirror, or a crack in one of the bumpers, or a taillight shattered, or dings and dents here and there.
There is always a risk to imagination, it isn’t always reliable. My dad was driving around Springfield, Illinois during a week of heavy rains a few summers ago. Flood warnings were all over the media. On this particular outing my mom saw the water lying in the street ahead and told him to stop and turn around. He, however, imagined he was invincible and kept going. The fire department had to rescue them from four feet of rushing water. So, the next day my dad started imagining what car he would buy next, since his Accord was totaled. He also had to start imagining where he could get another auto policy, since the insurance company reckoned they had paid for enough for his dreams and decided to cancel him.
Sometimes my dad would be content with just the dream itself and he would have no need to fulfill it. He constantly lost himself in novels and movies, especially the ones that featured smart-asses, rebels, and irreverent protagonists. I think the fictions gave him some relief from a number of demanding roles he played in life. He was a good husband, a good father, and a good pastor. But to be good in those particular positions requires surrendering oneself to a tight fit, to expectations and restrictions that are not always mentally healthy. He discovered that an innovative way to maintain one’s mental health in the restrictions of stolid roles was to enter a book, a TV show, or a movie. When reading a novel or watching a show, he became transfixed, utterly absent to those he loved. He came away revived to imagine and innovate his way through real life once again.
Dreams can both hurt and heal. I was with my parents when they went to China, when he was already in his eighties. We had all been out to dinner and Jie and I had another event to attend. My parents were tired and decided to take a taxi back to the apartment where we stayed. Jie wrote the address down for them, as well as her cell phone number, and we went on, thinking they’d have no trouble getting home. There were hundreds of taxis driving about. Unbeknownst to us, however, no taxi driver would pick them up. Evidently there were stories of older American couples exposing taxi drivers to too much liability. My parents stood on the street for over half an hour, rejected, increasingly humiliated and frightened. (We had no cell phones to communicate at that time.) Suddenly a young woman leaving her office building for the day noticed their plight and took sympathy. She not only hailed them a taxi, but also went with them as insurance for the taxi driver. She even paid for the taxi. And afterward she called Jie to report what had happened.
The next day my dad whispered in my ear that he thought the young woman did all that because she was really smitten with his looks. So no, his imagination wasn’t perfect. But that’s how dreams are. In order to be powerful enough to assuage our humiliations, they risk distorting what is true about ourselves and those around us. My dad had several physical problems on that trip and wasn’t 100% himself that night. But in that whispered remark, I not only caught the power of his imagination, I also understood how much energy it took him to keep, in normal times, to keep his imagination from distorting others. He was quite the dreamer. But the fact that he whispered and then dropped the matter demonstrated that his genuine respect for others always caught up and prevailed, even over his vivid dreams.
In his dreams he rearranged himself and the world around him. He dreamed that he could go to college, even though his grades in high school were mediocre. He dreamed that he could become a pastor, even though his father discouraged it and tried to talk him out of it. He dreamed he could win people over with his grin and his affections and his charm, even though he was often around people who thought themselves smarter or better than him. He believed he could walk into any room and help people, even though they seemed beyond reach: a man strangling to death in the hospital from a respiratory disease, a spouse whose world collapsed when her husband ran off with another woman, parents brokenhearted from the behavior and betrayal of an adult child, a mother and father out of their minds on the day their teenaged son was killed in a farm accident. He dreamed he could just walk right in, stand his ground silently and shed tears with them, and be a touchstone of meaning in a world falling apart.
His dreams came from all over. They were patched together, an amalgamation: shards of memory, snippets of stories, whispers from my mom, praise from his grandmother, maxims from his father, adorations of his mother, legends from the Bible, impressions and vignettes of people he admired, testimonies from his peers, heroic adventures from novels and movies. And with those dreams he built his life, he unlocked his desires, and he shaped many of those around him. He showed me that without dreams there is no way to burst through the resignation, entrenchment, and inertia that can overprotect us in this difficult and challenging world. In this respect he left me his keys...and a license to honor my own dreams and imagination.