Do you believe in ghosts? My mother did. She believed her dead grandparents, Max and Frieda, visited her while she waited for her organ transplant. She believed they stood beside her bed and turned on a lamp when she thought of them. She believed love survived. Love could make a light bulb glow.
After my mother died, I heard rustling in her empty bedroom. I heard hangers rattling in her closet. I heard a crash. I heard footsteps, then silence.
The morning my mother died, I sat on the sofa in my apartment and read The Washington Post. I sipped coffee and lingered over each section of the newspaper. This was a ritual my mother and I shared when we were together –– coffee and newspapers. When I set my empty coffee cup and crinkly newspaper down on a table, the room turned salt-lamp pink. Then the walls swirled like water. When they stopped moving, when the pink faded to white, I knew my mother was dead. I turned on my cell phone and listened to a stream of voicemails that had collected while I slept. But I didn’t need a voicemail to tell me what I felt in my entire body. A void opening. A void that would never close. Yet, in the moment before this forever void opened, when the room was still pink, I felt intense peace. I felt the way I felt when my mother held me. Safe from all harm. Protected.
A year after my mother died, she screamed my name in the middle of a dream. She screamed me awake. Groggy, I walked to the kitchen of a tiny apartment I shared with a roommate. I walked to the oven, which I saw had been left on all night. I opened the oven to check the pilot light. Sure enough, it had blown out while I slept. Gas flooded my nostrils then, and I snapped out of my dream-daze to realize I had a throbbing headache. I turned the oven off. I called poison control. I opened all the windows, then left the apartment.
I have had countless dreams of my mother since she died. This dream is the only one where she has ever spoken.
The day before we moved into our house, I met a man who delivered our rugs. I carried the heaviest rug upstairs by myself. First, I laid down a mat. Then I laid the rug on top of it. I listened to “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” while I worked. I sang with Lucinda. Singing always makes me feel less lonely. I stopped singing when I heard footsteps in the hall. I heard footsteps enter the bedroom, and I froze. Because it felt like someone else was now in the room with me. It felt like this someone was watching me. I stood up and left.
I didn’t tell anyone about the presence I felt in our bedroom, not even Carl. I loved our house, and I didn’t want anything to be “off.” I hoped I was just being weird and imagining things. My aunt and her husband came to visit. They are both sensitive and intuitive. They both believe in ghosts.
Upstairs, my aunt said, “There’s a man here.” We stood outside the bathroom. I hadn’t told her about the footsteps in the bedroom. I hadn’t told her that on the night we visited the house with our realtor, I’d stood in this same spot and looked toward the master bedroom. I felt profound sadness then, all consuming regret.
My aunt lifted her hand to her head, which had begun to ache.
“He’s coming into your bedroom,” she said.
She told me the man died suddenly. She said his family had lived in the house, and that he didn’t want to leave. Then the man appeared to my aunt’s husband. He walked through the linen closet and into our guest room.
The next day, I hoped the ghost story was bullshit because I did not want a ghost. Still, I looked up the man’s obituary and learned he died after collapsing from a brain hemorrhage in the house. I imagine he fell in the same spot where my aunt and I stood, where her headache bloomed. The house passed to his son’s family. In the 1990s, his son’s widow sold the house to the owner who proceeded us. The man’s family had lived in our house for more than fifty years. I can understand why he wanted to stay. I can understand his grasping toward the past, toward loved ones, toward a space they shared together, toward a love that survives death.
On my aunt’s instructions, Carl and I stood outside the upstairs bathroom one night. We stated our intentions for the house. Carl thought this ritual was silly, but he held my hand while I promised we’d take care of the house. I told the man he could stay, and that we would make space for him. “This is a place of healing,” I told him. “A place of compassion.” I told him his family wasn’t here anymore. I said, “Go to the light.” I said, “Go to them.” Then the light above us crackled and flickered and dimmed. The bulb never returned to its former luster.
One night I couldn’t sleep. I left our bedroom and went to read in the guest room. I’d been having symptoms of anxiety and insomnia for months. Inexplicable weight gain. What’s wrong with me? I asked no one in particular, then fell back to sleep. A few hours later, I awakened to the feeling of hands on my neck. A firm pressure. I sat straight up in bed and turned on the light. I woke Carl up.
“Who do you think it was?” He asked me, half joking. He does not believe in ghosts, and yet he entertains my belief.
Was our ghost warning me about a medical condition involving my neck? Or was it my mother trying to tell me something? I wanted to believe I’d imagined the hands or invented them in a dream. But the touch felt real. Almost human. I could not ignore it.
A month later, I lay on an endocrinologist’s examination table. He palpated my neck. After an ultrasound, he diagnosed with with autoimmune thyroiditis. My question of “What’s wrong with me?” was finally answered. It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but at least I had a diagnosis. I could begin to heal.
Since my diagnosis, I haven’t felt hands on my neck. I haven’t heard footsteps. No more lights have crackled or flickered or dimmed.
In gothic traditions, ghosts interrupt silence. They tell secrets, solve mysteries. They are Freud’s unheimlich ––the uncanny, the return of the repressed. Ghosts defy erasure. Gast. Geist. Gaeston. Most languages have a word for them. Language gives shape to the invisible, to the life force that underlays death. We fear ghosts because we fear death, because we insist on separating life from death. Ghosts challenge this belief in separateness. They insist endings can also be beginnings. I am not afraid of ghosts. All the ghosts I’ve ever known were driven by the same beautiful blazing engine: Love. I believe in ghosts because I believe in love.