Outside my window in Chicago it is snowing. I am overlooking a back yard that looks like a New England forest. Pine trees and garden bridges, amber soil and dirty snow. Snow that only looks that way after a January rain.
My grandfather, John Borowiec, passed away last Thursday. I have been listening to polka music all evening and all morning. He was Polish, born of first generation immigrants. He ranked E-4 in the Marines, a small rank but a committed one, loyal to what opportunities he attained. This became a pride in my family. Photos of his uniform and medals worn brightly in photographs on my grandma’s wall, photographs and medals proudly adorned during the funeral services. Services that I missed due to distance. But I held them here, a thousand miles away, in my home in candlelight. A fixture on a mantel adjacent Norman Rockwell Americana, comically soothing and whimsical at once. This morning, my cousin live-texted the funeral services because I could not be there. There is something so magically profound about technology. My cell phone now holds a photo of my grandfather in his casket.
I have learned that it is not scary to talk about the dead. They come back. They came back in stories and remembrance. They shoot right up through your body and take form. They become being as you pause to reflect and listen. I knew the second my grandfather died. I picked up the phone to find no voicemail only to receive the phone call that instant. I knew because I couldn’t think of anything else and because the only thing that became important was opening my mouth and giving his story form, honoring his life: a person who imprinted so much of himself onto me. In the good ways.
And I became brave. I became brave because everything that distracts me from the most honest intention no longer has voice and I can only listen to one thing: my heart. It’s like time travel. The grandest, most beautiful and unexpected phenomenon.
I experienced it almost a year ago when my mother passed prematurely. She was 53 and I have been haunted by her ghost since. In her memory, I haven given that ghost life in multiple forms and those forms wrestle with me each day. They challenge me and, in so doing, I have become a conduit of her spirit: the form who held me and coddled me as a child and the one who tormented me in my adolescence. In my adulthood, I honor both of those forms, or I try. I tell her stories, no matter how harrowing, because that is how I break from the imaginary chains and how I dream. And she is there with me when I do this. Not in the way that someone says the dead will always be with you because they don’t know what else to say, but in the way that my mother’s voice strikes right though my body sometimes and demands attention. So I give it. When I can and when it is reasonable, I give it.
I am working on a writing project in prose vignettes that focuses on cemeteries and the afterlife. Each poem is a gravestone. I have been working on this project for a few years, before persons of my direct familial lineage passed through this life. Perhaps I have more to work with now, but I am not grateful for it. What I am grateful for is the gift of life. What other realm than the realm of the dead can remind how frail, how beautiful, how bleak and how temporary the navigation of life is? Only one of the vignettes is completed. A few others are in the works. The voices in the vignettes will not come from the voices of my family, but from the voices of ghosts who have no voice. They will be fictional characters based on a grim reality, the way cemeteries look on overcast days in January.
In a fight for the good ghosts, my attempt is to dismantle the demons of addiction, lethargy, tardiness – demons that hold grudges and self-aggrandize, the ones that threaten and terrorize.
I plan to build an army of ghosts from the hearts of those I love. Their conduits will come with an industrial sewing machine and the most shimmering spools of thread, a wood stove, a tool shed, and a chopping block.
My grandfather tended the Saint Paul Cemetery in the small town of Warren, Massachusetts for many years of his life, a resting place of rolling hills and immigrants and Korean War veterans.
That is where he will repose when the ground thaws in the spring, and the ghosts of generations will dance to polka music.