Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Living With Ghosts

Someone I met once who spends his days designing complex computer programs argued with me that when we die, it is as if someone turned the power off on the human machine. Click, and that’s all, folks. I leaped into the fight with my Catholic sensibility. “What about the soul?” I insisted.

He assured me that the soul was a story we told ourselves in the hope that we can pull off the ultimate cheat: survive death. But once the plug was pulled, he said, we are gone.

My life teaches me that there are, in the end, many things we haven’t a prayer of ever understanding. There is fate and there is destiny; don’t forget luck and intuition and falling in love for a far from complete set of life’s intangibles. These are the mysteries of us. So, I’m not overburdening the list of life’s unexplainable dimensions when I make the following statement: I believe in ghosts and things that live in the space just north of reality, and I have proof of their existence because I have lived with them.

Cathy is my first cousin. She’s a few years older, and had what I would call, a paranormal past. To understand what happened when we shared an apartment for a few years, we must go back and examine that past.

One hot summer, my aunt Phyllis, Cathy’s mother, found herself in the final stages of her life. It seems while she was working as a nurse, a sterilization machine exploded, and she inhaled toxic gas. It was a death that took several years to finish, and Phyllis was tortured every step of the way. Everyone who lived in her house was tortured as well. Cathy, her youngest daughter, took care of her daily, and was forced to watch her mother slowly slip away.

Finally, and with great agony, Phyllis died. She died right there on the living room floor in a pool of bodily fluids and her head in Cathy’s lap. After the coroner removed her body, they had to bleach the carpet to remove the stains. They were left with this large, yellow patch in an otherwise unremarkable piece of 1970s shag.

After a funeral that was as much about sadness as it was about relief, everything was supposed to get back to normal. But that was when the yellow patch in the carpet began to move. According to Cathy, it shifted by degrees around the living room.

But that was not all.

Once, Cathy came home to an empty house after school to hear Elvis Presley singing “Love Me Tender” behind the locked front door. He was my aunt’s favorite singer. Cathy quickly unlocked the door, but the music stopped and the empty house went silent. She walked into the living room. A hint of movement caught her eye: the turntable on the record player was slowly turning.

Years later, when I moved into her two bedroom, two bath apartment, she had occasion to tell me more. We sat around her dining room table drinking a screw-top wine and eating Chicken Parmegiana. “I see things,” she said. “You need to know that upfront.”

“Like what?”

She didn’t want to elaborate. She was not comfortable with the details, and probably thought it would not be a good idea to tell her new room mate what she experienced. We drank more wine and I insisted she tell.

“Okay,” she said. “You know why I didn’t drive until I was twenty-two? The Ouija Board told me not to. If I drove before eighteen I would die in a car accident, and I would be the one behind the wheel.”

I stared at her. “The Ouija Board told you all that?”

“And remember how I used to take the bus to college? Well once I went into this old abandoned house when I was waiting for a bus, and there was all this broken furniture. I picked up this old purple beret I found on the floor, and when I touched it, I saw people dancing in the 1920s.”

All of this came out in a rush, and she looked like she was going to cry, so I didn’t ask anymore questions.

Knowing all of this history did not stop me from sharing the apartment with her. I just figured it was her personality, and I needed a place to live. End of story, or so I thought.

Almost as soon as I moved in, strange things happened. When I was home alone, brushing my teeth, watching TV, or studying, I’d see this shadow, like a mist, pass by in my peripheral vision. If I looked, nothing was there. After a few minutes, I might glimpse it again. I never felt fear; no hairs went up on my neck. I’d just catch a glimpse, look, shrug my shoulders, and go on with whatever I was doing.

Soon, I began to see the mists more frequently, but only when Cathy wasn’t home. They became more defined: one was white and one was dark and gray. The glimpses lasted longer. They lingered just on the edge of my field of vision, but if I looked directly at them, they disappeared. Still, I wasn’t afraid. They just did not seem to be something to fear.

The day came when I walked through the living room to the kitchen and the darker mist passed to my left going in the opposite direction. For the first time, it had a vaguely human shape. Suddenly, I knew what it was doing. It had gone to the kitchen to get water and was returning when it passed me in the living room. The thought just popped into my head: water. I had no idea how I knew this. It was time to get some answers.

When Cathy came home from work, I asked her to sit down at the dining room table. “I don’t want you to get weird on me,” I started, “but I’ve been seeing things in the apartment.”

“Things?” she said with hesitation.

“Mists. Misty things. One’s dark and the other is light.”

Cathy’s face turned red. “The black one’s Mama; the white one’s Tina’s mom.” Tina was the room mate I replaced. “Tina’s mom committed suicide.”

“Let me get this straight. You see them as people?”


“So they’re recognizable?”

She looked down. “Yeah.”


Cathy looked at me. “Mama goes to the kitchen all the time to get water for her burned throat.”

Now, I was scared. I tried to reason through this. “Your mom didn’t die here, and Tina’s mom didn’t die here. So why are they walking around this apartment?”

“They’re here because they know I can see them,” she said.

“Why are they black and white?”

“The colors are easy. Mama didn’t want to go because she wanted to live longer. She was so angry about the accident taking away her life. That’s why she’s black. Tina’s mom is finally at peace. Her death was a big relief and now she’s happy. She wanted me to tell Tina for her, and I did, right before she decided to move out.”

Made sense to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay after these revelations. “Did Tina see these things?” I asked.


Cathy didn’t want to talk anymore, so I dropped the subject. I slept every night with a light on, and I tried never to be alone in the apartment. Still, I continued to see the mists.

Months later, I got married and moved out of Cathy’s apartment. In our new place, I did not see the mists, and I felt a lot more at ease. Within a year, Cathy called to tell me she was moving out. She offered us some decorative fans to hang on the wall that did not go with her new house and decor. We met for dinner later that week to pick them up. At home after we said our goodbyes, my wife hung them on our wall. That night, while washing up at the sink, I saw the mists again, one black, another white. I panicked. I ripped the fans off of the wall and took them to a dumpster a block away. I was through with them. Sure enough, the mists disappeared.

Cathy and I have lost touch. The last time I saw her was at my mother’s funeral. She has a family now, and a life elsewhere, so we only see each other at funerals.

If there were an afterlife, I would hate to think it involves hanging around a crummy apartment. May be ghosts are our own projections, a way of keeping people with us after they’re gone. Possibly, some people see them and understand their pain or happiness because it mirrors their own. As for Cathy, she never seemed comfortable with her ability to see into the spirit world, and she did not like to talk about it.

I think the ghosts we leave behind in this world are just the misty echoes, the fleeting glimpses, of who, for better or worse, we once were. We live in the memories of those we have encountered in our lives, and this is the reason the living are sometimes haunted by the dead. For human beings about to cross the threshold of this reality into another, death is a chance to shed this decaying shell of a body for another life somewhere else.


  1. I have, Paul, as recently as this morning, while passing through Salem’s old downtown section on my way to the library, felt quite strongly that we are ghosts in our daily lives, and that there is no proof, nor need there be, that this world we inhabit is the real, concrete one we ascribe it to be — that in the present moment, seeking and struggling, we are already adrift in, if not an afterlife, an immense dream that has grown familiar partly because it is shared, and partly because of our frequent passage through it. How closely related are we, in this transient human form, to each other; how closely related to all else that we can, cannot, or do not yet perceive? Very closely, it seems to me. As part and parcel of this universe, we have been here before, we linger, and we return, charged particles of the whole. In my mind, this makes the existence of ghosts and spirits and much else inevitable. Things and beings are fluid; they overlap; it is thought, even, that universes do the same. These feelings we have, these visions and intimations, these dreams, these things we can see and yet put our hands through — who’s to say where and when it is all taking place? Who’s to say that our very own activities are not disturbing someone on another plane, in another time?

    Thanks for your beautiful piece. Thanks, too, for your inspiration, demanding me to think and write.

  2. William, I am about to start reading a book called "The Atman Discovery" by John E. Whiteford Boyle. The book details a meeting of a group of British and American writers in the 1950s here in California. One of these writers was Aldous Huxley. Evidently, using the major dogmas and beliefs of the world's religions, combined with quantum physics and analytical psychology, these writers found deep overlaps and connections, a sort of universal theory of everything. When I read your comment, I immediately thought of the book jacket and why I wanted to read the book. I think you are right, and that we just might be "ghosts in our daily lives." Thank you so much for writing and commenting, and linking up with your blog.


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