My older sister raised two strong, smart children, worked with autistic kids for over 20 years, sheltered my mother and father in their old age and has met something as dead as a post in her home, and as physically near to her as if he were a person standing in a check-out line at the supermarket. She is funny and sober, a hard-working grandmother with reams of common sense, but for years as a young woman she could not attend viewings where the dead were shown to mourners. She has seen them standing at the top of her stairs, looking down at her. One time she opened a closet door at home and faced a man who she had just seen fixed within a coffin at a funeral home. She knew he was dead. She closed the closet door and sat down for a while. She could not attend the funeral of our maternal grandmother who was to be shown in an open casket beforehand. In a nightmare she had seen ‘Nanny’ turning and twisting inside a glass box. She did not want her appearing again in her kitchen or basement. She stayed home.
We all have our fearful landscapes. Mine has never been the closed-in room in the lonely house or the mournful cemetery. I imagined a long street, barely lit. All the houses are dark, the streetlamps black or flickering. Nothing moves. I am alone and standing in the middle of that street, listening intently and shading my eyes so I can see more precisely. Then something upright and big appears at the limits of my vision; its head is all wrong. I think it is looking my way. Then it begins to run towards me. It is not human.
I do not know what to make of my sister’s visions. I do not doubt her, and yet I believe in science. I have never seen the dead come back nor heard them nor felt any whisper of their presence, and yet I have a healthy respect for the rituals and rites governing their laying-in; let the beloved dead stay dead. Lord, keep me safe from waking-visions and from faces materializing in the darkness.
Raised Catholic in the 50’s and 60’s, I was invested at a young age with teachings about guardian angels and the miraculous transformations of saints, and with lurid renderings of Purgatory and Hell and the Devil. I was purposely named after St. Michael, the arch-enemy of Lucifer.
In ninth grade a certain priest was assigned to teach religion by a foolish Bishop – he lasted about two weeks. He stood in front of his classes, virtually speechless, stunned, but no one tormented him, not even the worst bully. He carried the strongest and strangest quality of spiritual power I have ever felt in another person. One day he was gone. Later we heard that he was living at a nearby Jesuit Novitiate, in separate quarters so that he could be undisturbed in his prayer. We heard that he was the exorcist for vast regions of Church territory.
The after-life was always close by, the dead a breath away.
Frankly, I cannot imagine the madness a ghost would have to endure. All the stories have them trapped within a place – a graveyard, a house, a path, a specific wood, a battlefield, a hill, a barn. They stay there, only there, roaming back and forth, shutting doors, moving papers off desks, causing cold to descend upon the living in a spot in the hallway or bedroom, waiting, waiting … waiting.
They remind me of some collared dogs trapped within electric pet fences; their lazy owners never take them for walks and rarely play with them. They shuttle from point to point, mindlessly barking, seeming to eternally wait for someone to appear to remind them that they can respond to a kind, sympathetic presence.
If it happened to me, if I awakened from death to find myself so confined, I too would go mad. I think I would shave the middle of my head, paint my fingers red, ricochet off solid objects like a stream of mercury and howl until I could be released.
When I was training to be a high school teacher, no one ever told me that I would be attending funerals by the score; that a part of my responsibility would be to try and comfort the living for the unimaginable loss of vigorous and ardent young men and women. Suddenly … suddenly, I find that ghost stories no longer amuse me. I know lots of such stories, but I think my days of telling them are over.
Now I understand that the good nuns of my youth had it right: when the dead leave this sometime “vale of tears”, we should wish them only God-speed and mercy and peace.