Greeting our ghosts


I never thought that I would believe in ghosts.  I never saw myself as someone who would see the shades of those  gone on before me.  But then my father died.

At first of course, I dreamed of him, thought of him, mourned for him every hour of every day and night. The feeling of his loss was as tangible as the feeling of holding his strong hand. It was his absence that was real to me.

Thanksgiving came that year, just two months after his death. My family was here, saddened but together, gathered around my crowded living room with our wine and our laughter and our rapid fire conversations.  As I moved in and out of the room, refilling glasses, stirring things in the kitchen, hanging up coats in the hallway, I kept catching little glimpses of Dad, standing tall and strong, behind the recliner where my brother in law was sitting.  That little space was slightly darkened by the crowd, and I kept thinking that I was seeing the shadow cast by one of my brothers. When I looked directly, there was no one there, but as I turned away again, he’d reappear.  Although I couldn’t see him with my eyes, I knew that he was smiling.  I felt his happiness.  I felt him somewhere inside me, beside my heart. There was no questioning it: Dad was there with us, as much in the room as we all were.  It broke my heart and gave me such comfort, all at once.

In January of that same winter, my son gave a speech at his High School, one of several young people being inducted into the National Honor Society.  They had been asked to talk about an adult who had influenced their lives. Unsurprisingly, Tim had written about his Grampa.  As we listened to the speeches, I kept catching a little glimpse of an older man, sitting in the middle of the auditorium, just back from the glow of the stage lights.  He sat alone; he was proud and smiling.  I couldn’t see him with my eyes, but when I looked away, he was there. It was Dad.  Again, I felt him inside me, and knew without doubt that he was there.  On the way home in the car, I debated telling Tim what I had felt, not wanting to distract him from his happiness at that moment.  To my great surprise, it was Tim who said to me, “Grampa was there, Mom.  I could almost see him, sitting right in the middle of the auditorium, looking up at me.” I never doubted him for a minute.

And then, in the spring of that same year, I had an experience that will stay with me for all of the remaining days of my life.  My choir, the local choir with whom I have been singing for the past 12 years, performed a piece of music by John Rutter, called “the Requiem”.  It is incredibly beautiful in any circumstance, but for me it was an experience that changed my entire system of belief.

Like any Requiem, the lyrics of this piece are based on the words from the Bible. They are the words that were spoken by the priest at my father’s funeral.  “May eternal light shine upon you….”  Every time we sang this haunting music, from January to May, I filled with tears on the last piece, the “Requiem Aeternam”.    I grieved for my father all over again, every Tuesday night, as I sang this beautiful music with my friends.

When the time came in the Spring to have our dress rehearsal, I wondered if I would be able to make it through the last movement without breaking down in tears. It was a cold, rainy April night, filled with fog and mist and the last remaining breath of winter.  I entered the church where we would be performing, finding it unexpectedly cold and dark. The choir gathered, in jackets and sweaters and scarves, on the ornate altar.  Our director gave us last minute instructions, the instrumental musicians arrived and set up in front of the altar, and we began to sing.

The church was dark everywhere except for the small area in  front where we stood huddled on the altar.  The first five or six rows of empty pews were touched by the light, but beyond them there was a murky darkness that held the cold and damp of an April night.  As we sang each movement, I kept looking up from my music, into the center of the church.  My eyes were drawn, over and over again, to a seat in the center of the church. There he was again, seated just beyond the reach of the altar lights. My father, nodding his head in time to the music, smiling his gentle, proud smile.  He knew, as I did, that this music was my last gift to him, to thank him for everything that he had ever given me in this life. To thank him for the grace with which he faced his death, and the gentle way that he passed over.  I sang, my eyes on that place where he wasn’t quite visible, while tears poured down my cheeks. I sang with a depth and beauty that is rarely mine to give. I sang as if every atom of my soul was poured into each note.  That night, in that dark church, I said my final goodbye to the man who first showed me the meaning of love.

And I know, in a way that can never be expressed, that it was truly and really and most certainly him sitting there that cold night. I know because three days later, when we gave our public performance, I was sure that he would be with us.  I felt certain that he would be there for my mother and my siblings, and for me. I searched every inch of that well lit crowded church for any sign of him, but he simply wasn’t there.

Last night, as we came home from school together, Katie told me tearfully that she has been seeing her childhood friend, Alex, who left this world in October.  “I see him in the shadows, under the trees, just beyond the reach of the light. I see him watching us, and I know that it is really him, looking back on the place where he was happy.”

Good bye, Alex.  Good bye, Dad. I hope that somehow you have found each other out there, and that you are both moving to a place where there is eternal light.

3 thoughts on “Greeting our ghosts

  1. Amazing, moving post Karen. I so enjoy you’re writing. It reminds me of my one and only clearly vivid ghost experience. I was working on the wall in front of Nana’s house. Nana was hovering and giving me “pointers.” I convinced Joe to take her to the store while I finished the patch job. I was alone, working on the wall and I had this unbelievable feeling of a presence behind me. I never actually saw him (although I kept looking over my shoulder), but each time I looked away, I felt it much more strongly. In my mind, he was quietly watching the work I was doing, peeking over my shoulder. I knew, without a doubt, it was your Grandfather, whom I’d never met. To this day, I know it was my introduction to him. Many days later (maybe even weeks) I mentioned it to Joe. He asked me to describe him. While I never really saw a human form, I could only describe the feelings he exuded. Joe says it was definitely him. I think about that day often.

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    • I love that story, Auntie T! I can see Grampa, quietly and gently checking in with you. That would be just like him.
      I had a very vivid dream of him, just after he died, before his funeral. He was sitting on the edge of my bed, telling me to take care of my Mom, and to let her know that he was fine. When I woke up, I smelled and felt him, right there with me.
      I do believe that the power of the human spirit is something that doesn’t just evaporate; it stays around to keep on loving us. Isn’t that so reassuring?!

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