Wednesday, November 19, 2008

For Frank

Who's there?
Duane who?
Duane the bathtub! I'm dwowning!

But seriously...

Why I Believe in Ghosts

My mom died when I was seven. Those of you who know me know that I am not morbidly sentimental about this -- it happened and it was sad and of course I still think of it, but this is not a sob story. It's a ghost story and in a strange way, it's a nice companion piece to my earlier post, "Mother's Love."

Anyway, about one month before she died, we had moved to a new, larger small town in Wisconsin where my dad had gotten a better paying job as a refrigeration specialist at an ice cream factory (seriously, people, you cannot imagine how many friends you have when your dad works at an ice cream factory. But that would come later.) We were temporarily living in an apartment across the highway from the factory. She died quite unexpectedly and there we were -- me in a new town, awkwardly trying to make friends in an already-established group of second graders, my dad working a new job while trying to learn his role as "Mom" -- and both of us dealing with a fresh and painful grief. We had been the Cleavers in our life before she died. We lived in a white house with three large gardens and shrubs which my dad trimmed into geometrical shapes. I remember Mom handing him his lunchbox every morning as she kissed him goodbye and greeting him every evening with a brandy and seven. She was always there to meet my bus after school, always had dinner made by 5:30. And after she was gone, life seemed strange indeed. We were living in a noisy apartment on a highway, Dad was working swing shifts, my next oldest sibling had just left for college, dinners were burned and now featured Spam and instant au gratin potatoes. I had to spend a lot of time alone until we could find a babysitter so the rules on days when he worked till 4:00 were as follows: come home from school, unlock apartment door, lock apartment door, turn on TV and wait for Dad. And don't open that damn door for anybody, you hear?

About two weeks into this new life of ours, I got home and did exactly as directed; I was getting used to it. But on this day 4:00 came and went, and then 4:15, and then 4:20, and then 4:25. And then hysterical crying, and then some screaming. Of course, in my heart, I knew he was dead. And I would have to live alone in that apartment and I would have to cook all my own meals and nobody would ever tuck me in again, and... KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! WHAT?! AND NOW MR. STRANGERDANGER IS AT MY DOOR! AND HE'S GOING TO KNOCK THE DOOR DOWN AND KILL ME WITH AN AXE AND THEN WE'LL ALL BE DEAD!!!! The knocking and crying continued for a few minutes and then there came shouting (a stranger's voice -- LET ME IN! UNLOCK THE DOOR!) and then hysterical, terrified shrieking. And then the door unlocked and opened and my dad walked in and I almost evaporated with relief and happiness. The neighbor had heard me crying and it was he who had been trying to get me to open the door, poor guy. Anyway, as I sobbed into my dad's tight hug, I remember him saying, "I'm sorry, I'm so so sorry..." over and over. It was a pretty intense afternoon.

Years passed and we never spoke of this. Actually, I hadn't thought of it much until he brought it up one night as we drank coffee before he left for work. During the summers as a teenager, I used to stay up until my dad went to work when he worked the overnight shift or I would wake early to see him when he got home. We had our best conversations at these times and if nothing else we would watch CNN or Johnny Carson together. I don't know why he chose this particular night to bring up this memory, but without warning he asked, "Hey. Do you remember that time I got home late right after your mother died and you were so upset?"
"Yeah." (Christ, who wouldn't?)
"Do you know why I was late?"
"I had gone to the liquor store and got chatting with a guy and I forgot."
"That was a rotten thing to do."
"It's okay. We ended up okay."
"Do you know what happened that night when I went to bed?"

And this is why I believe in ghosts. Apparently, he had just gotten into bed and had not yet fallen asleep. He said the mattress started gently shaking. He got out of bed to stand on the floor and it stopped. He got back in and it started shaking again, harder and harder. He said he was terrified. The mattress started shaking so violently, in fact, that he was thrown out of bed and against the wall. Then it all stopped and he spent the rest of the night on the sofa, scared out of his mind. He said he knew it was my mom, and he knew she was pissed at him.

So why does this make me believe in ghosts? It's not even my own experience, after all. Well, I don't believe out of a misplaced, sentimental notion that my mom would care so much about me that she would traverse the unknown realm between the living and the dead just to protect me and punish those who might cause me pain. It would be nice to believe that, but... This story made me believe in ghosts because my father, a World War II veteran and the most fearless man I've ever met, was terrified and shaky just telling me about it six years after the fact. He was a sceptic in the extreme and didn't have time for any of "that nonsense."

"I never forgot that, you know," he said, squinting at the wall through the snaking smoke of his cigarette. "And I've never been late getting home or picking you up since then. You probably don't know that, but I haven't been late once with you, not for anything."

And this is why I believe in ghosts.

**Disclaimer: my father became an overnight alcoholic after my mother passed. He drank a quart of brandy and a fifth of schnapps a day at his worst. Fortunately, he would later go on to conquer this demon. I realize, however, he may have been drunk and had a vivid dream that still left him frightened years later -- but if that's all you can think, then you've missed the point of my story.


Beverly Hamilton Wenham said...

I love this story for so many reasons. For me it's the part of a root that going to grow in to one hell of a mighty tree some day.
I think I love your Dad too. I 'm glad he helped make you who you are.

How weird is it that my sign in word was Blackula!

Ruthie Burman said...

Writing memories from our life can be tricky (and legally dangerous, lol!). I had a feeling you would be the kind of person that can get away with writing these challenging stories while balancing the seriousness, a dash of sentimentalism, humor and just a deep sense of loss. I like it when I am surprisingly touched by stories, without being manipulated.
I look forward to read more of these on your blog. Thank you soo much for sharing this story.

Eva said...

I meant to read this story yesterday and got completely lost later on. I actually believe it and it's totally chilling. Your poor Dad must have had such a shock... Did more things happen in this appartment later on or was it the only occurence? That reminds me of my own ghost story but more about it another time...

Ana said...

Thanks guys for reading this...

Eva -- nothing happened in that apartment but the house we bought ended up being horribly, painfully haunted. Would LOVE to hear your ghost story! DO TELL!