I have been seeing my father quite a bit in my dreams over the last six months. These dreams are so vivid that several times I have woken up unable to tell if it was a dream or a memory. He appears just as he was before he died; a fearful-looking old man with snowy white hair, a swollen body and a stern expression.
It is fast approaching 20 years since my father died. Children born in that year have finished their military service and are all working by now. If he had not been in my dreams so much lately I would have forgotten that he has been gone so long.
My sister phoned me. She said: recently, when she is very tired, our long-gone father visits her dreams too. But she has never heard him say a single word. “Does he have something he wants to tell us?” she asks me. Quietly I hang up the phone. I find myself lighting up a cigarette and placing it on the desk. “Dad,” I ask silently, “is there something you want to say?”
My father was a man of few words. Since childhood I had observed the deep, thoughtful expression that always followed when my father lit up a Long Life cigarette. It was a formidable expression and during these periods even I, his most cherished eldest daughter, would not dare interrupt him without a very good reason. It was only later, as my father grew old and I slowly grew up, that I gradually learned from his own lips: during those years when he sat silently smoking he was remembering the home on the Chinese mainland which he had been so far from for so long. The yearning was like a war wound that would stab at his chest without warning, leaving him gasping for breath.
I did not understand. Or at least I was not able to empathise back then. It was not until I left home myself that I came to know the kind of suffocating agony he had described. Yearning was such torment! For me, no matter how far I am from home, I can always go back. But my father? With Taiwan still under martial law, how could he relieve that heart-piercing, bone-splitting homesickness? Never able to return.
I lit a cigarette for my father. The older he got the more he smoked, especially in the two years leading up to his death, and it is now one of my few remaining memories of him. Did he know then that he was going to die soon? I vaguely remember that a few weeks before he passed away he took my hand and said: “My girl! I'll be able to see your grandmother before too long. How I've missed her!” I was 17 at the time and knew that a few years earlier we had learned of my grandmother's death in a letter from family and friends in Hong Kong. How could my father be going to see my grandmother soon when she was already dead?
I was too young and did not pay any attention to him. I simply put it down to homesickness. I never could have guessed that in just a few short weeks my father would have a stroke in the shower and never regain consciousness. He died quickly without any pain, too quickly even to leave any words. The regret would torment me incessantly over the next few years. It was only then that I finally understood the pain my father felt at not being able to return home to China because, no matter how many times I went home, I would never again see my father's silent figure.
Ever since then, when I think of my father, I like to light up a cigarette too and immerse myself in the memories of the time we spent together. So much so that smoking has become a habit. I can almost see my father in the smokey haze. He does not say a word, he just looks at me. Just like when he was in this world, just like when he left it. And so he lives on.
The first cigarette was nearly out and my father's not-quite-dream, not-quite-real figure still hadn't appeared. Why was he constantly in our dreams these past six months? I began to consider my father's various anniversaries. Was it his birthday? No, his birthday was long passed, the day before the Qixi Festival. Was it the anniversary of his death? Not yet, that will be in the coldest part of the year, after lunar new year. Then what else was there? I realised with a start that there were only two days in the year that were significant anymore when it came to my father.
Father, is there something that your children have forgotten? My father's ashes are in an urn in the cemetery so that one day we can finally return him to the mainland home he had never stopped longing for. I think this is the wish which, in the end, he never had time to put into words. Several years ago, I managed to make contact with a distant relative in my father's hometown. I told her about my father's death and my intention to return his ashes. There was a sudden silence at the other end of the line before she said indifferently: “He’s gone, so don't bother. It doesn't matter where you put them!”
What hidden meaning was in these words? Did she want us not to return the ashes? I had no idea and it would have been rude to question an older relative like her. And so my father's ashes remain in our cemetery to this day. That was seven or eight years ago now. Is that why he's appearing in our dreams? My sister and I have been to his urn to burn incense and let him know about it, but he has never visited our dreams like this before.
I lit a second cigarette and tried to speak with my father through the curling smoke. My thoughts searched through the past: what happened after we tried to return his ashes? I thought for a long time, recalling my sister's angry complaints, my mother's silence and the quiet sobs of my father's friends. Why were they crying, these people who, like my father, had grown old far from home? I could not remember and the anxiety of it drove me to light myself a cigarette. As the first breath of tar entered my lungs, I suddenly remembered these words: “You can’t go back while you're alive and then you die and they still don't want you!” They were said by a good friend of my father's, who came from the same town. He cried as he said it.
Two years ago he too was taken by an illness. We heard his ashes were also placed in a temple, and because it is in the south, my sister will sometimes visit to burn incense at Chinese New Year. After all, he never re-married after he came to Taiwan and he has no descendants to make offerings. He and my father were like brothers, so why shouldn't we show our respects for him too. I remember back then that my father had once joked: if I go first, your mother should be entrusted to his care. We all knew what he meant.
The second cigarette went out all of a sudden – no wind, no reason, just out – even though there was still a long section remaining. It was just as I thought of my mother. Was my father visiting my dreams because of my mother? My mother has aged quickly over the past few years and the change in her is like the change in my father before he died; her hair is white, her body swollen, she grows quieter. The only difference is she does not smoke. Is my father worried about his wife, who grows old far away with our tribe in the south? I picked up the phone and dialed that familiar number. Someone picked up at the other end and my mother's hoarse voice came down the line. I started to tear up: “Mum, it's me!”