The opportunity to question the dead may come only in our dreams, and many will say that even then we are simply talking to ourselves. Still, if one night I were to encounter my father and could ask only one question, I might ask what it was like to die. If I had more time, if I could settle into the pillows of my dream, I might ask why so very long ago he nailed those five ceramic heads to the wood-paneled walls of our den.
I was in my early teens when those vaguely Irish heads appeared. Even with their wizened faces, they seemed almost puckish, their pale lips wrapped around a pipe or a grin. To the best of my recollection, a couple wore sailors’ caps, and one at least, a rumpled top hat. All were five inches high, the closest these heads got to a foot, and there was no order or design to their placement on the walls. Marooned on that veneered expanse of anemic brown, they seemed quite gleeful, though I sensed a certain wistfulness behind the winks.
I do not remember how they got there. Home maintenance was not my father’s strong suit. When he was very young, he lost his father and one brother to tuberculosis and the second to severe emotional distress, and so there would have been few male mornings over metal and wood. However, he must have put those heads there, and if I squint, I can coax an image of a slightly stooped, droopy-drawered, white-haired man with a Dunhill cigarette, a hammer, a nail, and, quite possibly, a Canadian Club and Coke.
A big-city boy turned small-town lawyer, my father was stolid and shy, with a sweetness he tried to hide. His quiet passions were golf and bridge and the relentlessly disappointing Toronto Argos. He had studied piano seriously as a child, but a tremor in his hand and responsibility for a widowed (and coldly distant) mother put paid to whatever musical ambitions he might have had. He retained a love of music, however, and when he could, he would retreat to the den and the ceramic heads to smoke and listen to the big radio console, though he never seemed to mind if it was not quite tuned to the station. He especially liked organ music, the more mournful the better. Given his early and profound losses, as a boy he must have been used to solitude, and as an adult in a noisy household, he must have craved it—but what did he think about as he sat by himself in the den? Had those thwacks of the hammer given him a sense of control? Or did he feel kin to those laconic souls at sea on faux wood boards? Was he nurturing his inner Irishman or subduing him?
The things we each have and hang onto speak to us, but what can we understand from the things others hold dear? Ultimately, perhaps, little. Trying to grasp another’s essence is like trying to nail Jell-o to a wood-paneled wall—but we should not stop trying, even or especially in our dreams.