As I turn off my phone my husband Mitchell, who has obviously heard me, comes out from his home office with a worried look on his face. He knows I have been talking with my 93 year old English aunt, my father’s older sister whose husband of 73 years, my Uncle John, died about 18 months ago. I try and keep it breezy because, oddly enough, that’s how it feels.
“She talks to him through a medium once a week or so. She sees him other times, but she can’t summon him except through the medium.”
He at least pretends to accept this for a moment as he follows me into the kitchen where I pour myself a coffee. “But, honey, you do know that….”
What? That it sounds crazy? The whole, I-see-dead-people-thing? I am aware. But I will tell you something, and that is this — I know nothing. A hodgepodge religious background (baptized and then a generous dose of Catholicism mostly through my grandmother, large exposure to the culture if not the teachings of Judaism through my husband and friends, a decent amount of Buddhist doctrine through yoga classes and reading on my own) has given me little if any foundation in a belief system of an afterlife and I have pretty much always felt that, well, dead is dead. You live on in the people’s memories of those you have known or in some way touched. Maybe your DNA and/or emotional messages you have left in the children you have borne and/or raised, or, if you are lucky enough, the art that you have created. Like that Sondheim song, “Children and Art.” Once you are gone, you are gone. Done. Sad, very sad, no doubt, but thinking that people you loved who have died are living on somewhere else? I wasn’t even tempted to believe in that. But, maybe, just maybe, I have been thinking that this whole death and dying thing is not going to be so simple.
In 2013 two people who were important to me, one of them being my Uncle John, died. The other was my first boyfriend who died as suddenly as is humanly possible (or so we were told and I like to believe) in a car crash. A close friend of mine lost her step-son to suicide. And, just to top it off, six months apart, my cat and dog died. So it was a year of a lot of exits. Some, like my 14 year old Golden Retriever and my 93 year old Uncle, to be expected. Others seemed much less in the natural order of things. As these deaths began to accumulate, my feelings about the whole thing were, well, stirred up.
Now that I am in my late fifties, it’s kind of hard to escape death. Friend’s parents are starting to go, and my parent’s generation of movie stars, writers, artists and politicians, not to mention my parent’s own friends and some aunts and uncles, have been getting in line and filing out for a while now. And when I visit my mom and dad, even if they don’t mention it outright (which they actually often do), it is always, always there. In the way the apartment is too warm, in the way the place feels, smells. In the couch that will never be replaced, even if it sags. In fact, everything about their home tells the world that nothing new will ever happen here again.
Shortly after my Uncle died my Aunt sounded almost cheerful. You have to understand, my Uncle, up until the last few months, was beyond vigorous. He was a very avid golfer who (this is England) WALKED the course until he was 90. Around the house he was like a humming bird, never still. For years he and my Aunt ran a country pub and it was the perfect job for him, combining two of his favorite occupations, drinking and socializing. I completely adored him, but I always had to prepare myself for a visit, because he would, when I was like, thirty-five, exhaust me in the best possible way. We weren’t related by blood but it didn’t matter. He had the tightest, fiercest hug, when you were wrapped up in that hug, especially when I was young, it was like nothing bad could ever happen. But, and I am grateful I didn’t see this, some health issues took hold quickly in his 94th year and apparently changed him, I can see it in the few pictures taken of him towards the end. He looked seventy for twenty something years, and then suddenly he looked his age. Gaunt, hair white, a lifelessness in his face. But more than that, this man who, rarely, at least to me, seemed anything but happy and grateful, grew depressed, argumentative, agitated, frustrated by his own limitations. So, according to my aunt, there was a relief in him going, because, as she said to me five days after he died, “he clearly didn’t want to be here anymore.” She was sad, and worn out by the whole experience, yet she seemed as okay as you can be when you have just lost your life partner of over seventy years.
But a couple of months later my Aunt sounded different on the phone. It became obvious that the earlier reaction was one of shock. Now she sounded so….lost. “I miss him, I just miss him so much. And I miss how well he took care of me, does that sound selfish?” Well, yeah, maybe, but who cares? My cousin Sally Anne, Shirley and John’s daughter, told me that John was sending her and her brother and some of her own children messages— that he was, perhaps primitively, communicating with them. From…beyond. You have to understand, this is not a religious family. They would go to the country chapel down the road at Christmas time to see the children’s pageant, and that was about it.
Right around this time Jonathan, the aforementioned old boyfriend, was killed. He and I had been together off and on for six years throughout high school and then college and remained remarkably close friends for decades after. In the aftermath of his death, I was sort of thrown back in time, I went to his house to see his parents (a house that looked exactly as it had looked when I was in high school) and I helped a bit with the planning of a memorial for Jonathan and I gave a speech at it. I dug up old letters and pictures that I hadn’t laid eyes on in decades and donated them for the occasion. His sister Susan, who is still very much in my life, used one of these pictures, something I had taken in college when he was nineteen, in a Buddhist ceremony, the purpose of which is to let go of the dead person. To nudge them on their way if they are stuck. I am respectful, but it all seemed a bit full of gobbily-gook to me until the end of the ceremony when they lit a copy of that picture ON FIRE and we all had to watch his image as it was consumed by the flame, just as his body had been a few days before when he was cremated. It made Susan feel better. Me? I was traumatized.
And then it got kind of….weird. I had a dream about Jonathan where I walked into an unfamiliar but kind of timeless small suburban living room and he was there, looking as he had when he was around thirty. He was sitting on a beige upholstered chair and he rose when I came over to him. Amazed by it all, I asked him if we were ok (our last contact was several years ago and hadn’t been the friendliest) and he nodded and smiled at me with a kind of beatific unconditional love. He then hugged me, a full intense, good-bye hug. The next day Susan calls me and says, “I had the most interesting dream about Jonathan last night, where I walked into an unfamiliar but kind of generic small suburban living room and…..” I think you get the picture. It was exactly my dream, except she asked him, “are YOU okay,” so it was slightly customized. I googled it, it’s a pretty classic “visitation dream.” But then a few days later when I was in yoga during savassanah (the quiet time at the end of class where we are all laid out with our eyes closed, looking a bit creepily like the victims of Jonestown) he kissed me. It was like he was hovering above and he just went in for it, it was like a stolen kiss, sort of like a dare from a fourteen year old schoolboy in 1963. But he wasn’t fourteen, he was, again, around thirty, which for some reason seems to be his visiting age, because whenever Susan “sees” him, in waking reverie or sleeping dreams, he is about that age, too. The irony is that Jonathan himself would find all of this ridiculous. He was not only anti organized religion (as, interestingly, was my Uncle John) but one of the least spiritual people I have ever known. And one can make a clear case (I have made it to myself) that all of this is just my (and his sister’s) unconscious speaking to us. But it sure felt like visits. And although I still think about him quite a bit and will suddenly remember something from our time together very clearly and sharply, I don’t feel he is around any more. More than a year after his passing, he is for me distinctly gone, and if he appears in the occasional dream it doesn’t feel like a visit.
Back to my English Uncle John. The pub I mentioned that he and my aunt owned and ran was built in the 1600’s, all of the children (who lived in the upper floor) remember either directly seeing ghosts or finding evidence of ghostly mischief. When my cousin and her family moved into Winston Churchill’s summer home (an estate where the original parts date back to the 1500’s) for several years they all felt a malevolent presence, particularly in one bedroom, and although it was by far the prettiest and largest of all the rooms, none of their five children would sleep in it. So, there is history here with ghosts and spirits and the like with this family. I have always been interested but I never believed in any of it.
Several months after Uncle John died and others in the family were regularly receiving messages from him, my Aunt became quite frustrated, hurt, really, that she hadn’t been contacted. But through a medium in the local village, a medium I must say would NOT take money from any of them since it wasn’t her full time gig (yes, sometimes small English villages are just as eccentric and colorful as we think they are) she started to be able to contact him. Nowadays when she talks about him when I visit her or, more often, on the phone, it is as if he is still around. Oddly enough, I have gotten used to it. She reports that he is well, that he looks around 40, that everyone “there” thinks he is so good looking (he was an exceptionally handsome man) and he assures her that she has a few more years before she will join him but, no worries, he will be waiting. They also squabble about things that happened seventy years ago. My father, who, I will remind you, is in the moderate stages of Alzheimer’s, says that he thinks his sister Shirley has “gone around the bend.” But, you know what? She hasn’t. She is sane. She has no cognitive impairment from what I can tell, she is completely clear. In one conversation with her she told me that John said that my Dad would most likely be dying soon, (which is quite possible) but that he would take very good care of him, the way he took care of a puppy they brought back to health in 1947. I told my Dad this (minus the you-will-be-dying-soon part) and even though he doesn’t really believe any of it, he teared up at the thought of his brother in law, who was ten years older than my dad and a big brother figure, bringing him into the fold and watching out for him.
In an effort to prepare myself, as if I could EVER prepare myself, for my parent’s passing, I have been going to websites about taking care of people when they die, how to recognize the signs, what it’s presumably like for the dying person, what to expect. I have no idea, of course, if I will be there when the time comes for either of my parents, but thinking ahead gives me a sense of control. (Yeah, like, who am I kidding?) In any case, many of them talk about a veil lifting between life and death, that witnesses to a death can sometimes feel it. I wonder if all of this, the visitation dream, the conversations with between my aunt and uncle, if it’s kind of like lifting up the curtain, getting a bit of a peek and then letting it fall again.
When I had breast cancer twelve years ago I distinctly remember a feeling of just lifting that curtain for a moment, taking a quick peek and then closing it, I mean, really closing it. But I have felt since that experience much more aware of the other side, whatever is beyond that veil. I wish I could tell you that I actually SAW something, but I didn’t.
But my time WILL come, and I am more acutely aware of that these days. However, in the meantime, my husband and I brought home a puppy several months ago, almost a year to the day that our sweet old girl Phoebe died, quite courteously, (she hated being a bother) in our kitchen in the middle of the night. And if things work out the way they are supposed to, sometime, while my husband and I are in our seventies, this puppy will grow old and die. And knowing that, more clearly than ever with a new dog who has already stolen my heart, can be almost too much to bear. But then there is that new puppy smell. Or that moment when you show her the ocean for the first time, or when she stalks and then pounces on a sun ray on the rug. George Carlin famously said that when you bring a pet home, you’ve just purchased a small tragedy. You know it’s going to END BADLY.
Absolutely. Which, like all of it, makes the whole thing even more worth it.