The medium sat down on the twenty-year old loveseat in my living room. She settled in like an old friend, without looking around, without working to read the weight of my eyelids, the twitch of my mouth. She just smiled, trying to explain the ground rules, but laughing because someone in her head was too loud to let her concentrate. She cautioned us not to lead her, to only answer her questions with “yes” or “no”, nothing more.
“There’s more I needed to tell you about how this works,” she said, preparing a stack of plain white paper and a pile of ballpoint pens to write with through the session. “I can’t concentrate though.” She shook her head.
“Alright. I hear you,” she said to someone other than us. “We’ll just get started then.” Some ghost wanted her to get on with this.
“There’s a woman,” she said.
There is always a woman, but this was why we were here, my mother and I side by side on the sofa. We wanted to hear something from my maternal grandmother. We wanted to know if 54 years ago my grandmother had truly walked into a closet, put a J.C. Higgens .22 caliber rifle to her head and pulled the trigger… or if my grandfather had shot her. We weren’t expecting answers, but we would take anything we could get. We would take it even though neither of us really believed the dead can speak. We just wanted a few more words to chase in a mystery, perhaps a murder mystery, that was quickly growing colder.
“When you hit a dead end, why not talk to the dead,” I had joked, although, I don’t think there are ghosts, at least, not exactly.
Seven years ago I edited a book titled, Is There Life After Death, an anthology of opposing views on what happens after we die. The project required that I not only look at the obvious arguments, but the eyebrow-raising ones as well. I had to seriously read all view points and find a few that held steady on either side.
Most of the arguments I read that insisted there was life after death were laden with syllogisms. “I almost died and saw a light. Heaven is a light. Therefore I saw heaven.” The arguments were hard to get your hands around, all reaction and no logic. No matter how much I read, I wasn’t convinced. When people asked me what I got from working on the book I always shrugged and said, “It doesn’t make a difference what is next. You only get this once.”
I watched the medium and tried to be Fox Mulder. “I want to believe,” I told myself. I do believe in some things, just not everything. So I listened.
“Is there a woman with an ‘M’ name, a Mary maybe?”
“She’s a mother figure?”
The paternal grandmother who raised me was named Mary Evelyn and my mother and I had already joked about her showing up instead of my other grandmother, Barbara Jean. My mother had given me up when she shouldn’t have and Mary Evelyn had given me up sooner than she wanted to as well. The only difference was that Mary Evelyn had no way to take me back. She had died 20 years before. We imagined my dad’s mother pushing everyone out of the way to make a few last minute suggestions about the rest of my life. I also knew it was easy enough for a medium to look me up online or read my memoir and come to this conclusion herself.
“Yes,” I said, suddenly chilled.
My grandparents took me to Knott’s Berry Farm so that we could go to Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant and eat the god awful chicken every Sunday for what had felt like a lifetime of Sundays. I used to beg them to let me stay with my best friend and roller-skate, but my grandparents always made me put on my stiff Sunday clothes and go with them instead.
While we waited to go in to Mrs. Knott’s for dinner we would sit next to a petrified cross-section of a 750 year-old coastal redwood tree. I would lean over the railing and count the rings, trying to believe in things so nearly everlasting. Then when I got bored, I would chase the chickens. Once I caught one of the big white hens that ran feral in the park, tucked her against my chest and carried her back to my grandmother, who screamed. She was terrified of birds. I was only seven or eight and her terror thrilled me.
After dinner, my grandfather would take me to throw pennies in the duck pond and tell me to make a wish. One time I fell in while trying to gather up other people’s wishes. My grandmother clucked over my soaked and soiled Sunday dress. When I did manage to stay dry after the wishing, my grandfather would put a penny in the cracked corn vending machine and let me feed the ducks from my palm. I hated the dinner, but I loved the chickens and the ducks.
“Penny,” the medium said, “Someone named Penny maybe? Or something to do with pennies. Sometimes it’s literal. I can’t really tell. Does that mean anything to you?”
“Yes,” I said.
With a twitch of anger I flicked away tears. Then I rubbed my arms because the chills had gotten the best of me. I had never written about any of this. My mother was staring at me, surprised by the Knott’s Berry Farm connection, but uncertain what else had shaken me. And then we moved on. There were more ghosts waiting in line.
When I was working on Is There Life After Death there was one essay that stuck with me titled, “Science Suggests There Is an Afterlife”. It asserted that even in a time of scientific revelations, supercomputers and quantum physics; nearly 80 percent of Americans believe there is an afterlife. The article promised that we lived in a moment where spiritual beliefs and scientific fact could live in tandem and in fact, often did. Who knew what a parallel universe might hold? And although science couldn’t prove there was an afterlife, it left open the door for believers. Many scientists believe there is something we’ve yet to explain, some inexplicable thread through it all. Maybe they are right.
It took nearly an hour and a half to get to my other grandmother, the one we had been waiting to hear from, Barbara Jean. We ran through half the dead relatives of my mother’s best friend and perhaps heard about a relative or two we didn’t know. My maternal grandmother was the smallest voice in the bunch. When the medium began to speak with her she had to tune out Mary Evelyn who kept pointing to the heart that had failed her and holding up a sign that said “mother”. Then the medium began to talk about three daughters. My mother had two sisters.
My mom and I met eyes and listened while the medium said, “suicide”. She told us that it wasn’t what we thought. She said she kept seeing the woman hold a sign that said, answer. “I keep feeling suicide,” she said. “It feels like my blood sugar dropping.” Yet my mom and I kept looking at the word she had written. Murder. Then the medium talked about a phone call that had been important and a house for sale and maybe a book and that something was missing. None of this meant much to us. She told us that the woman said we had just started talking about her again, looking for her and that she was glad for this.
“She says you have your answer,” the medium said.
Of course we do, I thought. Of course. Questions are for the living, not the dead. The answer is that you keep living. It might have been murder, it could have been suicide, but we keep on living.
The medium wrapped up the session with platitudes, love from beyond and all that. We didn’t hold it against her. How else can you end a conversation with people lost and briefly found again? Of course they would love us. She told us that Barbara Jean said she missed her daughter, my mother, although she didn’t know why the dead said that, after all the dead don’t miss anything. They are always here.
When the medium had left, my mother asked me if I believed.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but Knott’s Berry Farm…” I shrugged.
“Barbara Jean did miss me, you know?” my mom said. “She missed everything.”
We sat in silence for a moment while I drank the bottle of stout I had left out for Barbara Jean. “What?” I said when my mom raised an eyebrow at me. “She’s done with it and it’s not like ghosts backwash.” We both laughed.
“If it was her, really her,” my mom said, “I think I know what she meant. Do you?”
“Yes,” I said, nodding for her to continue.
“She doesn’t want us to find how she died as much as she wants us to find out who she was, to fix what happened when she was erased. That’s the work that needs to be done.”
“Yes,” I said.
Maybe I do believe in ghosts. Or maybe that’s not right, exactly. Perhaps what I believe in is the spirits in our blood. We have what we need, we always do. Sometimes we can’t get to them, these answers inside us. Some scientists have faith in an afterlife and I suppose I do as well, but more than that I believe in this one. I believe in this place I find myself in.
My blood says that the grandmother who raised me, that Mary Evelyn loved me, despite my penchant for chickens. My blood says that Barbara Jean did not walk into a closet and while my six year-old mother slept in the next room, shoot herself in the head. I know these things. And I don’t know if I can prove them, but it is the believing that will set our family upright again.
Were the dead really talking? Who am I to answer that? I’m not a scientist or a medium. I’m just a writer, but I understand living. We’re living with our ghosts. We’re speaking to them. Isn’t that enough?