It all started with ghosts, which is strange for somebody that didn’t believe in ghosts growing up. I mean, as kids we’re taught to believe in heaven and Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, but ghosts aren’t part of the curriculum. Instead, ghosts appear as we get older, and haunt us in ways that weren’t anticipated.
There are lots of ghosts around me now, and I’m increasingly comfortable with their presence. These spirits aren’t necessarily from beyond the grave, although that particular variety is well represented. My grandfathers and great aunt, my childhood friend who died in a motorcycle accident, my friend that died unexpectedly in his sleep two years ago. Sure, they are there, but so are the ghosts of the living, the ones that move in and out of our lives like ethereal vapors. Childhood friends, former co-workers, even strangers we met on a plane between Denver and Anchorage. They can appear at any time, random and unexpected.
I am currently harboring a ghost from my past that has rematerialized (or that I conjured up, to be more precise), and it’s hard to describe the phenomenon. I am confused and nervous, excited and tentative with this ghost, as she is very real, and although she has spent nearly thirty years in a supernatural state, she has recently become very natural again.
Thirty years have passed like water through my hands. Lifetimes have gone by, and the world around me has changed. But not her, not the ghost: she remains as she was, unaffected by the caprices of time. She was only in my life for the briefest of time – mere minutes when measured by the persistent calculations of a clock. Two brief encounters were all we shared.
However, she gave me a memory that I have retained and will remember until death. Innocent and unexpected, permanent and affecting, how could so much of life be defined by mere minutes? She is as she was.
Ghosts are romantic, and romance is a luxury of the dreamer. The demands of life overshadow the extravagant nature of romance, and we all change. It’s hard to reconcile romantic aspirations with the grinding realities of car payments, bills and responsibilities (as the ghost so eloquently explained to me). From the distant vantage point of age, I can see her in analytical terms: my first love, my first kiss, my first desire, my first failed relationship. A quaint thing, looked upon fondly by a man who found love elsewhere and built a life. Ghosts are not to be brought out into the light of day, for fear of – what?
I am too old for recriminations, and I’m beyond my social insecurities. So perhaps I am afraid of the past, of meddling in affairs best left dormant under the dust of the years. I am afraid of the ghost, I am afraid of me, I am afraid of whatever it is that motivates this séance. Am I seeking closure? Enlightenment? Meaning? These expectations are not realistic, so maybe it’s a simple need for contact across the crevasses of time.
Strange, how easily the ghost and I slip back into contact. Comfortable like a soft, worn pair of denim jeans, easy like a favorite chair. How can something so long lost be so easy and comfortable to pick up again? She is everything I expected her to be, and nothing I could have guessed. Two lives that once shared a common moment spun off in wild directions, navigating completely different courses, satisfactory and happy, but both curious to what the view is like from the other side.
Over the years, I have thought often but less frequently of her, and what she meant to me, but mostly in a selfish way. I knew in my heart, whenever life wasn’t going well for me, that things would have been undoubtedly better with her. I knew that our days would have been filled with laughter and love, intellectual discourse and self-discovery, and explorations of the body and soul in an idyllic mountain cabin in Moosejaw, Canada. Like a secret place I could go to, where life was fulfilling and serene and – different.
It’s all bullshit, of course. The real world is full of unromantic minutiae like tax forms and empty toilet paper rolls and farting in bed. The ideal is far better than the reality, and it is only now, at this point in life, that I can really accept this. So why all the deep thoughts, the re-connection; what is the relevance of the ghost in my life?
Maybe it’s about forgiveness, taken to a spiritual level. I have felt all these years that I handled her heart carelessly, and that when she grew tired of my predictable words and effortless prose, she did me the greatest kindness of moving on with both of our lives. I didn’t try to stop her, to convince her otherwise, and so, and so, and so… she was gone.
They say the hardest person to forgive is yourself, but I disagree. It’s easy to rationalize your own actions and decisions, and find ways to justify the past. But it can be hard to reconcile the rationalization against the realization, when you know that deep down inside, you feel regret.
Her and I exchanged endless letters through many of our teenage years, full of wit and angst and the kind of promises that only love-struck teenagers are capable of. I still vividly recall the magic of getting a letter – an actual by-gawd letter, something that doesn’t exist today! – and eagerly devouring every word, and then reading it a second and third time, trying to extract every nuance, every provocative phrase out of it. After crafting a reply, each letter got filed into a special shoe box in my closet, where it stayed years after I grew up and moved from home. Suddenly, mysteriously, this box was returned to me by my father a few months ago. I discreetly put it in the garage, away from the prying eyes of my wife and kids, not sure what to do with it.
Suddenly, spectral activity was abundant, and the ghost was in my head again. There are a lot of things I don’t know, but some things I do: I am 42 years old, happily married, two kids with a house and a business. Meanwhile, the seventeen-year old inside me was back, and he cherished those letters, and frankly didn’t care who they might hurt, and what feelings they were causing the old man he lived in.
So a few weeks ago, while the kids were out of town with the grandparents for spring break, and the wife was working extraordinarily late, the old man rattled a few ice cubes into a tumbler, anointed them with scotch, and put on some soulful music. He sat in chair on his patio, and opened the box up. The smell of dusty old paper and memories came out as he opened each letter and re-read it. After each one, he smiled, and carefully folded the letter, put it back in the envelope, and laid it on the fire crackling in the hearth of the patio’s fireplace.
He was saying goodbye.
It wasn’t enough. Now that the ghost had been allowed into the mansion, back into his brain, the memory required closure, and so he found a contact for a person that the two had in common, and got word to her that he was still among the living. When she responded back, the lines between natural and supernatural were blurred as she, too, is among the living. Both spirits reconnected, but they are spirits out of time, and they have no place to be and no place to go.
Fondly, slowly, it becomes clear what this is all about. It’s about recognizing where each of us has been, and where we are. There’s no way to know where our lives go from here, but one thing is clear. Ghosts are real, and have a claim on the past.