Monday, February 4, 2008

A Ghost Story - Part One

A funny thing happened this summer: My father came back from the other side.

He has been haunting our family home for some months now, appearing to numerous people, both young and old. While he takes pains to always be a quiet and reassuring presence, his continued manifestations, noise making, dream appearances, and occasional interactions with physical objects in the house have our family and friends wondering aloud to each other if he is letting us know it is almost time for my mother to take her leave of us.

My mother is 86 now, and for several years she has suffered so many injuries, operations and illnesses that her doctors call her a medical miracle. Even a handful of her afflictions might have killed almost anyone else I can think of.

Five years ago, she nearly died of a severe internal hemorrhage and needed an infusion of five quarts of blood. My mother's typical reaction to this dire emergency room visit -- her best friend, who had discovered my mother near death at her home, had rushed her in her own car to the hospital -- was to call me on the phone from her ER bed and say, "Hi, dear. The doctor tells me that I was a few hours from dying tonight, but I'm all right now. I just didn't want you to worry. Well, bye." And of course, she hung up the phone.

Naturally, I had no idea where she was, nor had I even known she was in trouble.

Ten years ago, she had two cancer surgeries in a row. In the past four years, she has had two more major cancer surgeries, two skin cancer surgeries, suffered a broken back, a broken shoulder, two broken ribs and a broken cranium, several skin and tissue reconstructions and one foot surgery. This summer, she went completely deaf for several weeks from a chronic sinus infection, and she nearly died from pneumonia. Tomorrow, she will be released from an intermediate care facility. She has spent the last five weeks in two different hospitals with a critically serious skin infection.

I live in Albuquerque with my partner, Scott. My mother lives at our family home near Santa Monica, where I grew up. She has lived there for 40 years. We moved in when I was 15. For the previous 10 years, we had lived in another house two miles further up the same street. I am 55 now, so this neighborhood of Los Angeles will remain my home for the rest of my life, no matter where else I might live. And my life has been spent traveling, all over the world in fact. I've made seven trips already this year, going back and forth to LA to look after my mother. I am a regular now on Amtrak's Southwest Chief.

By contrast, my mother has hardly left Los Angeles in the 86 years she has lived, except for the occasional trip to visit me in Albuquerque, San Francisco, New York or Connecticut -- all places I have lived --or to visit my sister in Chicago, Pittsburgh or Cincinnati -- all places she has lived. My sister is a travel agent, so she gets around more than I do. In the past 10 years, my mother has hardly traveled at all that I can think of.

I mention this, because I believe the fact that my mother has occupied the same place for so long, including 30 years there with my father, that a kind of sacred space has grown inside that house, a space that the two of them share uniquely. Her house contains an almost electrically charged atmosphere. It feels like the kind of place that Stephen King might write about. Except his fictional house would sit atop a pine-covered hill in a small Maine coastal village, and my mother's real house occupies a sycamore-shaded lot in a quiet enclave 3,500 miles further west, near enough to the Pacific Ocean that the fog creeps in every morning.

When I visit my mother, I sleep in the same small room I first moved into in April 1967, when I was in ninth grade. I awoke early one morning in that room in late 2005, very shaken. It was at the beginning of another long trip there to assist my mother in her recovery from cancer surgery and a broken shoulder (they occurred in succession, two months apart). My father had appeared to me in a very lifelike dream -- the last dream I had before my eyes popped open. He was standing next to his old black Lincoln Continental in our driveway, looking directly at me, dressed in a black suit, his face grim and fixed, like an undertaker, his hand resting gently on the hood of the car. He had never appeared to me before, so I knew this was serious. I couldn't get the dream out of my mind all day. I was very frightened.

I suppose he realized he'd scared me pretty badly, because the next morning, at exactly the same time, he appeared to me again, only this time his manner was clearly meant to make me laugh.

I dreamt I had awakened, and I stood in the door of my old room -- where I was, in fact, sleeping -- looking through the utility room into the kitchen.

In this second dream, my father was standing in front of the coffee maker looking directly back at me, dressed like Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby," with the same silly looking glasses, and the same ridiculous knee-length checked golfing pants atop long black socks and two-tone golfing shoes I seem to recall from one scene in that movie (though I can't find any photos of it).

I woke up laughing at once. I told my mother all about it at the breakfast table over coffee and Entemann's raspberry danish. She said, "I feel your father here all the time, you know." Then she told me about the incident with the orange juice.

(to be continued)

First posted 11-30-07 on the original Whistling Dog.

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