My Life with Ghosts: The Imminent Passing

In going through some of my old writings from a time during which I lived in a house full of “ghosts” (see my previous posts), I came across this recounting that concerns the death of my father-in-law, Harold. The following excerpt really belongs at the beginning of my collection of stories entitled “My Life with Ghosts.” For this is where it all began…

Harold loved books, At the time of his death, he owned thousands of them. And he loved giving books. I was the lucky recipient of many, usually books about art, which he always inscribed with a kind little message…

My Life with Ghosts: The Imminent Passing 

For months, my husband and I had seen death heading towards us like a bleak tidal wavechurning, angry, and relentless. We tried to prepare ourselves best we could for Harolds imminent passing. Two months earlier, we had been through a dreadful experience when were told that Harold would not make it through the weekend. We experienced every possible emotion during those two days and later, we looked at it as a dress rehearsal for death. But no amount of preparation can help when that moment actually occurs, when the tidal wave finally hits with its violent impact, and you are left tossing about in the grayness that has just swept over you.

Death makes you feel like an idiot for you look around corners, glance into empty rooms, and listen out for the phone, all with the sensation that youve simply misplaced the person in question. If you could only take a few steps back in time to where you were standing just moments before, you’d find that person still living and breathing and talking about such topics as books and travel and what interesting kinds of things you had been doing lately. But because death makes you forgetful, you can’t remember exactly where you were at the moment when the tidal wave hit…and that person’s life is lost for an eternity.

It was about five days after Harold died when it happened. My children, who were two at the time, were taking their afternoon nap on a sleeping bag on our living room floor. I was completely spent, so I lay down alongside them. It was just the three of us in the house…and our two cats who were wandering around somewhere. Soon, I fell asleep.

Something awakened me. A crackling sound followed by a sensation of a breeze traveling through the rooms. But there was no movement of air inside our home. It was more like there was a presence which whooshed its way from one space to the next.

What happened then was both odd and absurd. Ernie, the childrens Sesame Street toy, suddenly called out from their room. “I feel great! he announced happily. Ernies voice is activated by lifting him into an upright position, but as we were all asleep, how could that have happened? I slowly rose to my feet and picked up a flashlight of all things, planning on using it as a weapon if needed. I carefully made my way towards Ernie.

There he reclined in his usual resting place on top of a laundry basket, which was heaped full of stuffed animals. My first thought was that one of the cats must have jostled him. I looked around. There was no sign of either cat. I moved quietly towards the dining room. There was our cat Yoyo, quietly asleep on a cardboard box.

I returned to the sleeping bag and lay back down. But I was unable to rest. I turned my head and looked out the windows. It was an incredibly beautiful day with bright, sparkling sunlight and a calm wind that made everything feel lighter. And I thought about what had just happened. It was as if all that beauty had taken a momentary detour, entered our house, taken a quick spin about, then exited, leaving behind a cloud of peacefulness that hovered lightly, then dissipated.

Harold, a math teacher and an extraordinarily learned man, was also an inventive person who would commonly bypass convention and often devise some original or unusual way to approach anything and everything. I couldn’t help but wonder. Had we been just paid a visit from Harold? And did he use the ridiculous voice of Ernie, not only to reassure us that he felt “great,” but to also celebrate his new-found liberation? It would be just like him to have the last laugh in figuring out some quirky method of communication between the dead and the living.

But the strange happenings didn’t stop there. Many times during the months following Harolds death, our children related to us incidences that puzzled, even chilled us. They claimed, in their earnest two-year-old voices, that Harold, or Danda as they called him, came to visit with them while they played. And, as our twins often do, they spoke simultaneously, telling their stories independently, but at the same time. There was no prompting. They told us how Danda would sit in the big chair by the lamp in the living room, the same spot where he had sat the week before his death. They spoke of how he would watch them play and chat with them. They had complete belief that their grandfather had been there. We did not know what to think.

Harold had died in November. The following spring, after the weather had warmed, we took a trip down to the Gulf of Mexico with the sad mission of dispersing his ashes. We went to a secluded, uninhabited locale along the beach which had been a favorite spot of his. We walked, with the twins at our side, quite a ways until we were sure that we would not be disturbed, all the while carrying Harolds remains as discretely as possible.

When a body is cremated, I had always assumed that you get back a cup or two of light, fluffy ashes, similar to the kind youd find in the fireplace after a chilly winter day. Not so. What you receive from the mortuary is a large, ugly, brown plastic box approximately the size of two large family bibles put together. Inside that is a plastic bag full of the deceaseds remains. The ashes are not soft and delicate and ethereal feeling. No, they are dense, coarse and uneven, and with tiny fragments of bones throughout. The ashes seemed disproportionately heavy, like a black hole where a huge amount of life got sucked into a tiny amount of space.

And there are no recommendations that come with the box of ashes as to where exactly to place the remains. Harold, in his ash form, has probably been in five or so different spots in our home since his death. For a while, when we were using the dining room as a storage spot, he was under the dining room table. At one point, he was in my closet. That gave me the creeps. He made it up to the attic but was brought back down when I begin to fear that we might loose him altogether in the piles of junk. He was then carried down to the basement and placed on a work table, but that seemed disrespectful. Harold finally landed in a cabinet at the foot of the basement stairs which was full of his fathers tools. I came to the conclusion that there was simply no good place to put a dead person. So I was relieved that we were finally at the moment when Harold was going to be launched off into the beautiful blue-green waters of the ocean which he so dearly loved.

We reached a secluded spot on the beach with no one in sight and where we could have privacy in our moment of sadness. Of course, there would never actually be a moment of sadness. Not with twin two-year-olds along.

Lee had worn his swim trunks, and was prepared to wade out as far as needed. But my son, Luc, had his own plans. He wanted to be in the middle of it all. As Lee struggled awkwardly with the plastic bag, trying to sprinkle out just the right amount, for we wanted to save a few ashes to someday sprinkle into The River Seine (Im not sure how the Parisians would feel about that, but Harold loved France), Luc followed Lee out into the waters.

And to our horror, the ashes did not sink gently to the ocean’s floor to their final resting place. Instead, they spread in an ever widening circle, growing and taking on a life of their own until the circle must have been fifteen feet in diameter. In the middle of all this was Luc, gleefully splashing about in the sickly mixture of the Gulf waters and his granddaddy. And just at that moment, perfectly timed, a flock of pelicans flew overhead. Since things were not going as planned, I hoped that the birds were a sign from the heavens that things would soon turn around for the better. Not so.

It happened to be one of those gloriously beautiful days when the Gulf waters were a perfectly clear with just the barest hint of green. The ugly gray ashes were now looking very much like a chemical spill. I looked anxiously up at the sky, fearing a plane or helicopter would catch us in action. And I thought with frustration how, just as nothing had never been normal with Harold, nothing had ever been easy with him either.

I suddenly realized that perhaps this was not the proper method in which ashes were to be sacredly dispensed into waters. Were we supposed to do it from a boat? Were we to have received permission? Would we be arrested? And I hoped that we would emerge from this experience unscathed.

But I didnt have time to dwell on ash dispersing techniques or what laws we might have just broken because my daughter, who was in the middle of potty training, insisted that she had to go to the bathroom that instant. And as every parent knows, you dont argue with a toddler when that happens.

I took one last look at our surroundings, trying to memorize the trees, desperately trying to find some landmark in case we wanted to relocate the spot someday in the future. I fumbled with my camera and managed to take a quick snapshot, and off we raced in search of a toilet.

That was the end of Harold.

It was not long after depositing Harolds ashes into the Gulf when another visit from Harold occurred. Katie and Luc told Lee that he had come and played with them again. After that, there would be no more talk from our children about their grandfather for many months. We felt that the presence of Harold was finally drifting away. We were released.

But there would be one more event involving our children seven months later, long after we thought that they had forgotten about Harolds death. This incident was after we had moved into Harolds house. One night, my son, who was at the time three years old, was going to sleep when he said to his father: God lives in this house. He went on to say: Danda {Harold} is still here. Luc explained that Harold once again,  had come and sat in the big chair in Lucs room while he played. Luc told his father that God is in that chair. Perhaps it was a three year olds way of saying that Harold was now with God. And maybe it was Harold’s way of letting us know that everything was as it should be…

A footnote…Five and a half years later, Lee and I were playing around with Google Earth, revisiting some our favorite spots from our lives together. After some searching, we found Harolds resting place on the Gulf. We zoomed in as close as we were able without the image going too much out of focus. I looked at the beach where we had stood that day and wondered about Harolds ashes. Were they still there? Had they ended up at the base of the dunes and sea oats that lined the coast? Did they wash out to sea from the force of the tide and then drift down to the ocean floor? Or have they long since wandered about the planet, visiting exotic locals here and there along the way? Harold would have liked that–he had loved to travel.

We still have the little bit of ash destined for Franceit rests quietly in the basement with Harolds fathers tools. We have not yet undertaken the last leg of the journey with Harold, but perhaps that time will come someday soon…


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