My dad, Robert Meredith White, was born in 1910 in Laud, Indiana. He enrolled at Indiana University playing trumpet in the marching band, pre-law. He went into the Marines at age 20, into the signal corps (radio) and was sent to China to guard the international settlement. He went back to school for engineering but never finished his degree.
Dad’s birth certificate was burned in a fire at the City Hall, so the first time we needed it was when he died in 1977. Mom had to get a replacement. I was 15. I’ve lived 46 years without him, his subtle jokes, his joy of music, his work ethic, his temper, his love of fudge and chocolate-covered cherries, his cigarette smoke clinging to his cold winter coat as I ran and jumped into his arms when he came home from work at night in the city (Chicago). The cold and smoke, the rough tweed of his coat against my cheek, the exuberance of running to him at the end of a long day, gave me good memories for a life without him.
When I was little and sat in his lap in his big chair, we used to play a game. He would hold his hand up with the back of it facing me and I would put my fingers in between his fingers and try to race them through before he closed his fist and captured them. When I won, and my fingers were free, I’d laugh and try again until he was fast enough to catch them. Then I would scream and he would tickle me until I fell out of the chair and rolled on the floor to get away.
Sometimes he would stop our game and show me an ugly white scar on his hand. I would trace my finger over the ridge as he told me he got injured playing softball and they didn’t have disinfectant so they poured a bottle of alcohol over the wound. Only a few years ago, when we received his military records, we found that he had broken his finger playing baseball at the marine barracks in China in 1932.
I took a picture of my father in his chair, one of the last taken of him. We shared a love of cameras and film. He’s thin but wearing a powder blue button-down shirt and brown corduroy pants. Behind him is a cord to the speaker for him to hear better, and to his left, on a table, is his ashtray.
Last night I dreamt I was finishing a mission—I am often a spy in my dreams—and was leaving through a subway turnstile. In front of me is a man in a fedora and trench coat. I didn’t see his face, but I felt this was my dad, who always had one of John le Carré’s spy novels on his nightstand.
I’ve had some stern discussions with the dead people in my life. Don’t show up while I’m awake, I tell them in no uncertain terms, my imagination is too wild. Come by in my dreams, where I can accept your presence. My dad has only shown up in two dreams all these years. One was to tell me I would meet an amazing gardener—which I did a year later. Another was a dream with him just sitting in his chair.
And, last night, we finished a mission together.