I don’t believe in ghosts but I do believe in the stories of my friends have who have experienced what I guess I’d call ghostly encounters. And that dichotomy between not personally believing but believing that others do confuses me. I’ll just add that bit of confusion to my ever-expanding list of that which I can’t fully understand.
There was one time when I literally begged for the ghost of my father to appear to me. I said it out loud. I can still hear the catch of desperation in my voice from when I said it and I can see the moment without even having to close my eyes: crumpled into a heap of limbs, wearing boy-shorts and a tank top, my bedroom filled with a stagnant humidity even though the air conditioning was on at full blast. It was very late at night – or very early in the morning, depending how you look at the passage of time – and I’d just lost the man I once thought to be the love of my life, the only person I ever imagined having children with. It was too late (too early?) to pick up the phone and call anyone in the hopes of hearing something comforting (It’s not your fault; You can do better; It was the possibility of it all, not the person you actually miss) and I didn’t really know what to say anyway if someone actually picked up the phone. A few days earlier, I did call my brother at two in the morning. He was living in Arizona so it wasn’t two in the morning for him, and besides, he rarely slept anyway. I bawled so hard that the face of my phone turned cloudy and I didn’t say much, but I felt his goodness as a small comfort when I gulped out that I was getting off the phone because I didn’t even know what to say and I heard him breathe sharply and then say, “I’ll stay on the phone with you. I’ll stay on the phone with you all night if you need me to.”
Even today – even after all of those years have passed and I am completely over that person – my eyes still fill with tears when I think about who my brother was to me in that moment. He was a pseudo-protector, a person who knew he couldn’t really help. It made me feel vulnerable to know that nobody could really make me feel better.
It frightened me more than anything ever had.
For the first years after my father died, I was terrified that I would see his ghost. I feared it most when I would wake up in the night and before I’d even open my eyes to see what time it was, I’d say some version of, Please don’t let daddy be in this room. Please don’t let me see him. I’m not sure what it was that I was so afraid of, but it was a gripping, tangible fear. It was real – and even then I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I guess I’ve always believed in the knowledge that I could often be very wrong.
On the night I tried to summon him – overruling every logical thought process I’d ever had – he didn’t show up. I think I was only able to forgive him because I didn’t expect him to.
I’ve learned over the years to forgive, and it might be a lesson I’ve learned too well. I have no desire for bitterness to run within me. I think that kind of anger might fuel some people to do some very brave or strategic or foolish things, but I almost don’t have the capability for that kind of emotion. The bitterness within me stays within and I can feel it poisoning my insides, corroding the things I care about more than I care about the anger or the revenge or the memories of what once was. I can’t seem to project the pain. I can’t seem to actually want to learn how to master such a thing, even though it might sometimes serve me well.
Even though I don’t believe in actual ghosts, I am still haunted by people who are still in my life. I think about the things some of us have never said to each other and all of the things I wish I could say. I think about how afraid I am to lose them and how the seismic shifts in affection we have experienced probably means something profound and that I wish emotions like adoration and total affection could sometimes last for longer than it does. I think about days I wish I could relive and nights I pray that I could redo in an effort to push things to a place that once made me feel joy. I think about words I did say and all that should have been rephrased and repackaged and that it might be very nice if we could choose the moments we could experience all over again like they were the very first time.
Sometimes it’s the reminders that bring the ghosts forth. I can hear a song or see a headline or pass a product in the grocery store and I’m suddenly transported to another time, another place. It’s hard for me to be swept through memory to a former time, so I tend to first remember what actually happened and then I mentally engage with the memory until it almost becomes something different and what actually ends up happening is that I feel the regret all over again because my new created memory isn’t real and it never will be. The loss magnifies, right there next to the kale and the broccoli.
There are some people I can’t communicate with like I communicate with others. There are blocks built up between us, and I didn’t place all of them myself and the other person didn’t either. But it’s the former relationships we have both had that are built out of emotional cement and hurt that helps to create the barriers. Plus, some people are far too defensive to ever really allow themselves to experience any kind of breakthrough.
Not everybody is worth the communication, and that’s something I’ve learned to be a certainty. Not everybody is able to listen – really listen – to what you have to say. And then there are some things I guess I never want to hear anyway.
It’s strange to be at a place in my life where I can actually feel things begin to change for me and it’s not always easy to guesstimate who will be there when the changes are complete. Some people I couldn’t imagine not being a part of my life have surprised me, and after a lot of reflection and reliving our interactions, I’m finally done second-guessing where it was that I went wrong. Some relationships simply aren’t meant to be, including some you were born having.
I will never be somebody who doesn’t believe that the help and the kindness and the benefits of the doubt that you lavish onto another should be reciprocated. I don’t do things in the hopes of that kind of exchange, but when kindness is shown, I do think it should be returned. I am over being hurt by the inequity, though. I think that the sadness and questions might always haunt me, but I no longer expect things from some people and, more importantly, I no longer expect that I will understand them or their motivations or the origins of what might be envy or resentment. It’s not worth it anymore to try.
When you engage in a solitary exorcism, it can feel lonely but it also feels freeing. It’s the kind of practice that can only be done when you have tried everything else. It can only be properly executed when you have been honest with yourself and you know a reconciliation might not be at all possible.
It’s hard, though. In most relationships that matter even a little bit, there are other people involved and you cannot let the expulsion of the metaphorical demon come between the rest of you. You cannot project the bitterness you can’t seem to make yourself embrace for the person who has wronged you onto the people who never meant to hurt you.
You must make an effort to remember everything clearly, accurately. You must then work to not blame yourself for things that were never your fault.
But just like I don’t believe in ghosts even though I spent an evening and a dawn trying to conjure up a physical manifestation of comfort, I suppose that I can also close the door and know that it’s for my best – but I don’t have to lock the door and maybe I can fashion the door itself out of a screen that can be cut and wood that can be easily penetrated and filled with holes so that I can still have the latent hope that maybe a swift and strong breeze will eventually come through.