Photo by Jez Timms

Dreams of My Father

John Townley

Despite being born with his Sun in Pisces, my dad was not a religious man. Far from it–he was a quiet agnostic who read widely on the spiritual affairs of world cultures but wasn’t buying, or even shopping for, a formal creed. He just wanted to know and understand everything, about everything. He was what now might be called a secular humanist, long before that label arose. In fact, he became rather annoyed by my period of preachiness right after I discovered the wonders of mind-altering pharmacopia that opened the doors of perception to a generation in the early 1960s, the attempted suppression of which, like prohibition, tried to throw the baby out with the bathwater. He wisely advised that I tone down my enthusiasm when it might be risking my freedom and get me thrown out with the bathwater, too.

But regardless of his official spiritual ambivalence, he twice found himself–and me–at the heart of unexplainable and deeply meaningful spiritual events, once before and once after his death. The first transpired not long after my harmonica player, Homer, and I nearly found Atlantis off Bimini in 1968 (six months before J. Manson Valentine’s expedition, but that’s another story). I was back in New York City and I woke up to an early morning dream in which I found myself in the upstairs bathroom of my childhood Coconut Grove home, peeing blood. I was terrified, and I was relieved to discover it was only a dream and I was safe in my Manhattan apartment when I awoke. The relief didn’t last long, however, as when I talked to my mom that night on the phone, she gave me the news that my dad had arisen that morning at 6 and had peed blood–in that very bathroom, at exactly the time of my dream–so he was going to see the doctor the next day. That began a long health saga that affected every part of his system and eventually killed him, 10 years later.

After his eventual passing, early on the morning of All Saints Day (a recurring death date in the Townley family) came the second incident. Again, it was just after my return from Florida waters, where this time I had sprinkled his ashes into the sea from a sailboat off Fowey Rocks, that I had a dramatic dream in which my dad appeared. He was seated in the library of the family house in Coconut Grove, but it was well appointed in a way it had never been in real life. His life had been about books (my folks owned the modestly notorious Beekman Place Bookshop on the Upper East Side, hangout of W. H. Auden and other New York poets in the ’30s), but here he was surrounded by elegant, gold-embossed leather-bound volumes, amid massive leather chairs and imposing English antiques. It looked more like the Bodleian Library than my childhood home. What was up?

He explained that he urgently wanted me to know what had happened to him, because it was so amazing and (to him) unexpected–and it was the kind of  thing he knew I was interested in. He said that after he died he went to a terrible place of uncertainty and suffering–he was emphatic about its dreadful quality but not too explicit about the details. He termed it hell, but it seemed more like a sort of purgatory. Then, after that, by the grace of God (his phrase), he was rescued and given this wonderful place to be, to enjoy all the books he could ever want to read and find out everything he ever wanted to know. He was like a perennially thirsty man suddenly given a limitless well to enjoy. I was duly (shall I say, utterly?) impressed, so glad to see him again, and delighted that he was so happy, as the dream faded away.

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