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After my father’s death, my mother kept talking to him. Whenever we visited her, it made us uncomfortable. My husband Peter, my son Joe, and I would be sitting in the television room, and we’d hear her voice from the hallway as she walked up the stairs to her room.
Dearest Jim. I’m sorry.
The words sounded whispery, eerie, uncanny. No wonder. She was no longer talking to my father the person. She was talking to my father the ghost.
He haunted her relentlessly. In her mind, she told me later, she kept seeing his dreary room at the Presbyterian Care Home. He was recovering from cancer surgery, his fifth operation in eight years. There, he developed the infection that shut down his kidneys and ended his life.
“Why didn’t I spot it?” she asked me. “Why didn’t I realize?”
I had no answers, only lame replies. “You couldn’t help it. It’s not your fault.”
For eight years, she’d sat by his bedside through many hospitalizations and recoveries. She couldn’t see that he was tired, ready to leave behind the repetitive and painful surgeries, the astringent smells and blinking lights of the hospital rooms that had become his second home.
Sometimes, when she sat with us in the evening watching television or talking, her lips moved soundlessly, intoning secret words. But throughout the day, always in another room, her voice floated out to us:
I should’ve seen it.
I should’ve known.
Was it grief, despair, or maybe incipient dementia? Peter and I looked at each other and shook our heads, knowing that if we spoke about her, she’d hear it. She was sweeping the living room or washing dishes in the kitchen with her usual rattle and clatter, as she carried on these secret conversations. The walls of her house were thin. You could hear the toilet flushing in the upstairs bathroom, mice scuttling in the sealed-off attic. It wasn’t a house built for privacy. Did she know we were listening?
Sometimes I wandered into the next room, and asked her, “Did you say something, Mom?”
Her eyes turned opaque, darker, crafty. “Oh, no.” She spoke in a different voice now, nonchalant and dismissive. “I think maybe I sighed.”
Our house had always held secrets. When my mother was four years old, her own mother died after a botched operation for what was probably abdominal cancer. But in her house, the word cancer couldn’t be spoken. Sunk in depression, her father sent her to her grandmother’s house. For a year she lived in a tiny North Carolina town with Grandmother Rae. They slept in the same room, and Grandmother Rae talked late into the night, about nursing her children through scarlet fever, about leaving her husband for a lover and then being dragged home. In her nightly stories, young women died of a fever, or a broken heart. Her own daughter, my mother’s mother, was a martyr to a cruel marriage, an insensitive husband. Grandmother Rae’s stories, my mother said, were wild, sometimes incomprehensible, always fascinating. Death and disaster made an appearance sooner or later. Grandmother Rae lay back on her pillows, dipping snuff from a porcelain jar, painted with tiny roses. She ground up chicory so my mother could dip too, without ever tasting tobacco. Grandmother Rae used a dainty little brush because she was a lady and couldn’t sully her fingertips. She’d spit on the soft bristles so the chaw would stick to them, then swipe the brush lightly against her gums. My mother used a twig, stripped of bark and raveled, at the end, into silky strands.
I never knew if my mother’s imagination of disaster came from those early years, when she listened, in the glow of a single lamp – a small circle of light in the cricket-haunted darkness – to a fierce old woman, her lower lip bulging with stories and a chaw of snuff. But as my sister and I grew older, strange and fantastic narratives entered our lives, shuffled into the ordinary days and activities that we took for granted. My ten-year-old friend Charlene, my mother thought, was blackmailing me into doing her bidding, because she’d peeped through a window and seen my mother doing exercises for a tilted uterus. Charlene thought my mother was unnatural, evil, perverted. A gang of boys was forcing my older sister to have sex against her will. The fire department said that a fire in our house was caused by faulty electrical wiring. But my mother knew it was really her fault: she’d lit a small fire in the living room fireplace and forgotten to put it out. Imaginary disasters came to live with us, so real to my mother that I almost believed they were happening. And there was always an underlying moral: she was to blame for the evils that haunted us. My father finally forbade her to talk about her delusions. That was worse, because she hinted at them, or cornered me for long, repetitive conversations and then swore me to secrecy.
Having grown up with my mother’s phantoms, I didn’t want to hear her conversations with my father’s ghost. I turned up the television or the radio to drown her out. I sang to myself, went for long walks. I told my son Joe not to pay any attention. “That’s just Grandma,” I said. “Just the way she is.”
When we returned home to the city where we lived, miles away, I knew that her ghostly conversations continued, but now I didn’t have to hear them. We could exchange cheerful platitudes on the phone, talk about the weather, talk about nothing.
Years later, my mother moved across the country to live with me. She was getting older and feebler. She had severe arthritis, and her heart wasn’t strong. By now she’d stopped talking to my father. Now she could talk about him, with more joy and less pain. The old paranoid delusions were still there, ensconced in her mind, but they’d faded like old photographs, sepia-tinted. No longer frightening, they seemed quaint, seasoned with a gloss of nostalgia. Sometimes I sat with her for hours, listening to the stories she needed to tell now – no longer fantasies, but memories of her childhood. The terror of being banished from home at the age of four. The deep conviction that her mother’s death was her fault. The nightmares conjured by her Baptist Sunday school lessons: if she wasn’t saved soon, immersed in the mystical warmth of Jesus’s love, she’d be cast into outer darkness.
And just as I was beginning to understand these bits and pieces of my mother’s life, captured in half-explained stories, her heart gave out. Now I was the one sitting in a hospital room holding her hand. Now I was the one talking to someone who seemed half a ghost, speaking through a haze or morphine and fading memories.
Now she wanted my stories.
“Tell me about the time you won the Girl Scout merit badge,” she said.
“I never did. I hated Girl Scouts. Maybe it was you?”
“No, you did. You told me you did.”
Shamelessly, I made up stories to please her. I talked about hiking in the woods under a full moon, kindling a fire by rubbing sticks together. About the wind singing through the pine branches, the music of crickets in the humid air. Like Grandmother Rae, I talked on and on, lulling her into a morphine-fueled sleep.
Now that she’s gone, I’m still talking to her. Not aloud. Maybe I’m not as daring as she was, not ready to embarrass myself in case someone walks by and hears me.
Instead, I talk to her silently.
Should we have helped you more? I used to ask her. Maybe if you could’ve talked about your mother’s death, you wouldn’t have lost yourself in so many imaginary stories. Maybe you wouldn’t have suffered quite so much.
But if I’ve learned anything from my mother’s stories, it’s that the past can never be repaired, only understood.
So, when I talk to her now, I just say, tell me more.
And I know that she will tell me more, speaking not in some ghostly voice, but through the cracks and crannies of my memory, fragments that float into my consciousness from some oblivion where they’ve been buried. For millennia, we’ve all been talking to the dead, and maybe it’s time we admit it. The ancient Romans set up altars in their houses so they could commune with their ancestors. My husband, who lived three years in Thailand, recalls Spirit Houses, shaped like temples and barely bigger than birdhouses, placed in backyards so the dead could rest comfortably, not too far away from the houses of the living. Although I’m a lapsed Catholic, I haven’t forgotten the masses and prayers for the dead that are only an indirect way of talking to them, channeled through the voices of angels and saints. In November, we’re told, the dead come closer, pressing up against us on twilit nights. In the Catholic church, the month ushered in by Halloween and All Saints Day quickens with intimations of mortality, reminding us of the one sure link we share with the dead: that one day we’ll all join hands.
Now I understand that my mother’s conversations with my father’s ghost were not a source of embarrassment; they were part of a long process of healing. Twenty-first-century America is one of the few societies – out of a long succession of times and places – where we refuse to talk to the dead. Is this a strength or a weakness? Talking to the dead, aloud or silently, is a form of mourning and coming to terms with loss, a commitment to learning from the past, and a means of forging connections between where we’ve been and where we’re going. Maybe it’s time to say a few words to the people who’ve walked through that dark doorway ahead of us. Not out of fear, but with joy and curiosity. And then to pause, waiting, listening for an answer.
Copyright 2022 Elizabeth Gargano
Elizabeth Gargano is an associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.