The dream is not always the same; there are variables in the setting and the details. But it always begins with me, either in the house where I grew up or in the enormous Victorian I now own as a guesthouse, on an upper floor somewhere.
And my father is there.
Even in the dream, I know he’s been dead for five years, and that it doesn’t make sense for him to be completing some home improvement project with me. But that doesn’t seem to matter to him, so I see no need to make it an issue.
It’s like things used to be—Dad will point out something about the job he’s doing so I’ll remember it. “See, you want to drive the screws in a little bit deeper than flush on wallboard,” he’ll say. “That way when you fill the hole with compound, you can sand it smooth, and you won’t see a screw head shining through the paint.”
We work like that for a little while, and I feel the way I always felt when Dad was around—safe, protected and above all, loved. I learn from him (although in the dream I have the feeling it’s something I already knew), and we share a chuckle over something that we’ve agreed not to tell my mother.
Then he asks me to find him a tool.
It’s not always the same tool; this is what I mean about there being variables in the dream. Sometimes, he’ll ask for a pair of needle nose pliers, and I don’t have time to wonder what possible use they might have in hanging wallboard. Other times, Dad will say that there’s a ball peen hammer in his toolbox downstairs, and he’d really appreciate it if I would go down and find it for him.
I have this nagging feeling that this is the last time I’ll see Dad and I shouldn’t leave, but I don’t protest or try to get out of the task. I’m not even sure what age I’m supposed to be in the dream. I’m aware that I’m in my late thirties and have a daughter about to turn eleven, but he treats me as if I’m just a little older than that myself, and again, I never point that out or argue that he shouldn’t.
Downstairs I go, but the house might change from one to the other at this point. It doesn’t matter where I find myself; the dream always seems to make sense while I’m in it. If I start out in the house on Seafront Avenue and walk downstairs to find myself in my childhood home at Crest Road, the shift in location doesn’t alarm me—it always seems to make sense. I note it, but I don’t question it.
This is usually where it becomes an anxiety dream. I head for Dad’s toolbox, and it never seems to be where he said I could find it. I start to wonder why he’s doing a job upstairs without his toolbox, and why he might want me out of the room for just a moment right now. I go from room to room, sometimes into the basement (that’s almost always at the guesthouse, because I have a tool room down there), but in one version of the dream, I can’t ever find my toolbox. I search until I wake up, frustrated and strangely sad.
In another version, I find the toolbox, but the tool Dad has requested doesn’t seem to be there. That’s odd, because in life Dad organized his tools very carefully and logically, so I should be able to locate the item quickly without any difficulty. But someone appears to have meddled with the tools, they’re not where they’re supposed to be, and I begin to get nervous. Dad wouldn’t treat the instruments of his profession so carelessly. I often wake up anxious after that one.
But the third version, the one I’d been having the most often lately, is the worst of all. In that one, I actually find the tool that Dad has asked for, and feeling like a proud little girl who has accomplished something she’s been trusted to do for the first time, I rush back up to deliver the prize. And here, again, there is a variation in the dream. In the only reasonably horrible one, I can’t find my way back to the room Dad was repairing. I rush through the house—or houses—frantically searching for the right door to get me back to him so I can give him the thing he needed so badly and be rewarded with a smile and a “thanks, Baby Girl.” But I can’t ever find my way, the doors never seem to be in the right place, and I wake up just as I think I have finally discovered the right passageway. I’m never happy to be awake after that, and it takes me a few minutes to shake it off.
In the really horrible version, I find my way back to the room, and Dad is gone.
I wake up in a cold sweat after that one, no matter what the weather.