brian dennehy was my father

M. and I stole away for an hour last night, before dinner with friends, just the two of us. It is rare these days that we have the chance to walk alone together, in daylight, so we went for coffee and wandered around a bit in the places we used to go.

I told him about a dream I had long ago. I dreamed that the actor Brian Dennehy was my father. He was a large man, imposing in stature, threatening. He made me help him dig these long ditches in the snow. We were dressed in heavy wool coats but our feet were only wrapped with cloth. We dragged bodies wrapped in blankets across a desolate landscape, buried them in these ditches. I watched as he doused them with gasoline and set them on fire. I woke with that image – these fires burning on the snow.

In my dream, while the fires burned, my father led me through these long corridors in an unfamiliar house. I passed by rooms where people were laughing, sipping champagne from fine crystal glasses. On the walls of the corridors hung portraits of people I did not know. All I knew was to follow my father where he led me.

I only have a handful of memories of my own father. A few years after my parents divorced, he moved down to Florida, where he eventually remarried. I visited him once there, when I was already in college. His apartment was dark, he kept the drapes closed all day. It was rare to see any of the other residents. We sat by the pool in the afternoon and at night, we played cards by lamplight, hunched over his low coffee table. He slept in his reclining chair, insisted that I take the bed. I slept fitfully in the heat. I had troubled dreams. I moved my flight up by two days, explaining that I needed to get back for something that had come up in school. I would like to say that had I known it would be the last time I would see him, I would have stayed. I am not certain that is true.

There is so much I don’t know about him, about the things he wanted from his life. He played such a small role in my own life – absent, enigmatic.

After we set the fires, my Brian Dennehy father took my hand, led me into the house where the people drank champagne. He sat me down on an upholstered bench, knelt down, unwrapped the cloths from my feet. Beneath our coats, we were dressed for the party – me in velvet and tafetta, my father in a tuxedo. Neither of us wore shoes.

He led me past a closed door. There were voices coming from the room, laughing. I lingered there and he disappeared around a corner down the long hallway. I knelt by the door. There was a keyhole and through the keyhole, I could see a white bed, untouched. The sounds grew louder but I could not see anyone.

When my father left New York, he gave me his guitar, which I have never played. He gave me a shoebox of cassette tapes that he had recorded of himself telling stories about his life – growing up in the Bronx, about his half-brother that he had met only once, about what he had seen in the war (which he referred to only as “the big one.”) I started listening to them, but soon after, my apartment was broken into, and that box was one of the few things taken. It wasn’t until years later – years after his death – that I began to understand what I had lost.

I woke from the Brian Dennehy dream unsettled. It was early when I woke and I tried to will myself back to sleep. For many weeks, I walked around with that image of the fires burning on snow.