by Rhian Ellis
In the year before my mother died, I began to see ghosts. I had never seen any ghosts before, and I was fairly certain I didn’t believe in them, but I kept an open mind. In fact, I wanted to see them. I wanted my ideas about the world, which were mostly practical and utilitarian and more or less safe, to be blown sideways. I wanted to see something I didn’t understand. This is probably a common feeling.
When it did happen, I was in bed and it was at night. I wasn’t sleeping. But I was in the state of mind in which things are strange and shifty. When I was a kid, a Chinese doll on my dresser would sometimes dance in the nighttime shadows, her tiny silk fingers waving. I knew she wasn’t really dancing, but I also knew she was, in a way. Both can be true. So it was not entirely unbelievable, this ghost.
He was black and white, not quite touching the floor, but not hovering above, either. His feet just disappeared into a blur. He was about five foot five and dressed in a uniform of some kind, a ragged one, and he looked like he had been shot in the face. His jaw was loose and hanging. He couldn’t talk but he was trying to; his eyes were pleading; he wanted to say something. I didn’t understand and he seemed to know it and was upset. I hid my head under my blankets. When I pulled them down again he was gone.
For a few days I wondered who the man could have been. He looked like a soldier, an old-time one. Our house was built before the Civil War, but the family who lived there at the time were farmers and survived the war, which was fought far from Dryden, New York, anyway. Maybe he was a WWI soldier, or maybe he didn’t belong to the house at all. Who says ghosts have to be attached to houses? Maybe he belonged to me.
But what did he want to tell me?
* * *
This was in 2013. After several years of ordinary upheaval and strife things were fairly settled with my family and with me. I was getting work done. My kids and husband were fine. My mother, who was in her sixties, was almost five years out from a diagnosis of a particularly nasty type of uterine cancer—and the surgery, the chemo, the radiation—and was doing really well. Pretty well. She and my sister were fighting and not speaking, which drove me, a person who avoids conflict at all costs, nuts. My mother was also losing weight, which, she said, was deliberate.
“I feel great!” she crowed. We talked on the phone every Sunday, a habit leftover from the time when long-distance calls were an expensive indulgence. This regular but limited contact gave structure to our relationship, which might otherwise dissolve into hysterics and tears. “I can feel my hipbones. It’s wonderful.”
My mother, never obese, had been on one diet or other since I could remember. Sometimes she’d lose some weight; mostly she didn’t. She had the same body as every woman in her family, who were part of a long line of short, sturdy Welsh farmer wives. I suppose she didn’t want to look like a Welsh farm wife. When she was young, working as a secretary and living in a flat in London with three other girls, she was so poor all she drank was milk, milk from bottles with the cream on top. She enjoyed talking about this time. She and her room mates covered the walls with tinfoil because the flat was cold and also because it looked kind of sexy. It was the sixties but they weren’t hippies. More like Mods, I think. I have a picture of her in white boots and lots of eyeliner. One of her roommates dated Mick Jagger.
But anyway, I didn’t tell her about my ghost. We were close, but I didn’t tell her anything, really.
* * *
The next ghost was a woman. She wore a long skirt and her hair was gathered behind her head. She was leaning over my bedside table and staring out my window. It felt like she was deliberately ignoring me. But I had the sense that she was waiting for someone, someone who might or might not ever come. I was incidental to her.
The ghosts both gave me the feeling of being loosed from time. Often I have a similar feeling when I drive my car over a crosswalk; what if time folds over, and I run over someone who was in the crosswalk at a different time? What if that’s what ghosts are, evidence that time doesn’t necessarily run smoothly, in one direction? Don’t physicists say that time is an illusion, that really, everything is happening all at once? If that’s true, then of course there are ghosts. We’re walking through each other all of the time.
* * *
In the winter my mother came down with a cough, and also some kind of shoulder pain. The very act of telling this story presages the ending. I would not be telling it if it did not lead to a particular finale. But in living it we didn’t know what that finale was. Looking back, I can’t believe I didn’t know, that she didn’t know, that we all didn’t. The coughing was terrible; our hour-long talks shrunk by half.
Because she and my sister still weren’t getting along, I didn’t go home at Christmastime. I told myself I was on strike; when they got their shit together I’d visit. My mother didn’t seem to mind much. Visitors made her anxious, even just me. And to be honest, I didn’t want to see how much weight she’d lost.
My mother was shrinking; my ghosts were shrinking. The next ghost was a cat. We have cats, but this wasn’t one of them: it had a collar. Our indoor cats do not wear them. But our previous cats, killed on the road that takes speeding, distracted commuters past our house, did have collars, and I felt certain that this ghost cat was one of them. It was probably Sandwich, the stupidest of all the cats, walking in circles on top of my dresser, not trying to communicate anything, because what could Sandwich possibly tell me? I was the one who scraped him off the road, the one who kept the secret of his death’s disturbing particulars from everyone else.
I wasn’t happy to be reminded of Sandwich and the irresponsible pet-ownership that killed him, and I wasn’t happy that the ghosts were animals now. An animal ghost is barely distinguishable from a hallucination, isn’t it? Ghosts mean something; hallucinations don’t. Worse, the next was a small fox, about the size of a baby squirrel. It sat on a pile of books near the bed and paid me little heed. Foxes had been plaguing my chickens, picking them off by twos and threes, but this one? A chicken could carry it away in its beak. If it was a real fox, that is, and not a ghost fox. Not a hallucinated fox.
* * *
My father called one afternoon at the end of March, 2014 now, to say that my mother was in the hospital. Horrible stomach pain had sent her to the emergency room, where they discovered that a giant mass had ruptured her spleen, and that there were other tumors, including one in her lung, another in her liver, possibly one in her brain.
The last email I’d sent her said, How’s your cough? I’m worried. I don’t know if she ever read it.
I drove four hours to meet my dad, then we drove another hour to the hospital.
* * *
Here follows much medical detail, much confusion, creeping horror. She almost died from the bleeding spleen, which the hospital had expected would stop bleeding on its own, then, two days after the surgery to remove it, she had a stroke. No one checked on her for several hours, and then it was too late to reverse it, or treat it, or whatever it is they do.
On the neurological floor they were unaware of the tumors and the fact that she was clearly dying of them, and they treated her like a stroke patient. That is, they didn’t want to give her pain medication or anything that might dull her mental state, which at first was catatonic anyway. When they removed the spleen and the tumor they also removed most of her stomach. She was obviously in pain, though she couldn’t express it.
When she finally could express herself, after a few days on the brain floor, she said, I want to go home.
No, said the hospital. You have to go to a nursing home, a rehabilitation center, you need full-time rehab. Your judgment is bad. You’ve had a stroke. You can’t go home.
This made her cry.
You are in charge of your own life, I told her.
I don’t feel like it.
You are, I said.
We took her home.
* * *
For ten days my father and I took care of her, in the house she and my dad built when I was in college. We put the hospital bed in the living room, so she could see out the sliding doors to the field below the house. Every year she put halved oranges and grape jam on the deck railings for the Orioles; her idea was if they found the food as soon as they arrived in town they’d nest nearby. She had to be ready; she loved birds. So did her mother, and so do I, and so does my son.
Because of the stroke, which was in the right side of her brain, my mother had some delusions. For instance: she did not recognize her paralyzed left side, particularly her arm, as being part of her body. Take this horrible thing away!, she’d tell us, meaning her arm. I tried to imagine what an arm would look like, lying on your bed, when you believed it couldn’t possibly belong to you. We tried to keep it covered with a blanket. They’ll think we stole it from the hospital. Please, there are boxes in the cupboard above the washing machine. You can put it in one of those and take it back where it belongs.
Birds played a part in her delusions, too. There were snow buntings outside, she insisted. I didn’t know that bird. Maybe it was true. Nasty shrikes, she said, were chopping off the heads of the Snow Buntings and hanging the headless bodies in the trees. Look!, she said, indicating the window. See them? The bodies in the trees?
I looked out. Bare Wisteria vines near the window, and beyond them some trees still leafless, then the road, and across that the neighbor’s hay field. What was she looking at? Nothing looked like a headless bird.
Do you see those white coffins? Out there in the field. Why are they white? What are they doing there?
* * *
During the time I stayed at my parents’ house, when my mother was sick, I didn’t see any ghosts. Their house is fairly new and feels that way. However, slightly uphill from the house, just past the big white pill-shaped propane tank, is a tiny cemetery. The white marble stones are sunk deep into the clay soil and bent against the prevailing winds and the names and dates are mostly gone. It’s hard to imagine who could have lived here in the 1840s. Snow blows right off Lake Erie and drops here, at the first big ridge, and every year my parents would get four, six, ten feet of snow on their deck. Imagine scratching a life out here, surviving the winter, with no Shur-Fine, no Conoco station, no Whisky Hill Saloon and their Thursday Night Ribs special. People died in batches in the old days. Cholera, grippe, typhus.
So no, I saw no ghosts there, but I felt haunted—haunted non-stop. In the basement where I slept was the family’s detritus: photographs of half-forgotten people, china and silver inherited from someone or someones, childhood toys, a freezer full of food my mother had stashed away. Her Christmas decorations, her craft supplies. The town, a mile or two away, had a volunteer fire department, and many nights my sleep—and everyone’s sleep—would be disrupted by the desolating wail of the fire siren.
At night I wished she would die. I never could tolerate her suffering. When I was little she’d tell me how much she missed Wales, her parents, her childhood there. I couldn’t stand her unhappiness then and I hated it now. Most of all I hated her knowing that this was the end.
* * *
After ten days I’d set up the visiting nurses, the home health aides, the occupational therapists, and decided to go home to my kids and husband. The morning before I left, Ruby, one of the aides, and I sat with my mother in the living room. I held her hand. She understood that I was leaving but that I would come back soon. The sun was out. It was near the end of April. She cried. I saw my parents in the sky, she said.
A couple days later, late in the evening, she became unresponsive. My father called me to ask what he should do, but I had my phone off. By the time I got the message he had called 911. In the morning I got in the car and headed westward. I was about halfway there when my father called again to say she had gone.
I didn’t stop driving. I called some people, kept driving, felt strange. After some amount of time I noticed that the highway exit numbers were wrong. Exit 4? There was no Exit 4 on Rte 89. Somehow I’d gotten lost. Welcome to Dansville!, said a sign. I’d never even heard of Dansville.
There was a map in the back of the car. I stared at it. I couldn’t figure out how I had gotten to where I was. It was like a dream in which important points of logic are skipped over, or as if I’d slipped through a portal where impossible things happen. For example, it felt impossible that my mother was dead. It still feels that way, when I think about it.
* * *
After the fox, I only saw one more ghost, and this one could hardly be counted as a ghost. It was a tiny, postage-stamp-sized rooster on top of my digital alarm clock. I watched it prance and flap its wings. It didn’t look much like the one rooster I knew, Jimmy, a Buff Orpington of advanced years whom I had recently found dead in the coop.
I had a feeling this would be the last—could they get any smaller or sillier?--and it was, so far. So, what to make of them, my ghosts?
Here’s what I’ve come up with: Maybe at times of intense emotion, grief or ecstasy, confusion or fear, we are pressed up against a kind of permeable membrane, beyond which is everything that is not now, here. You can push your fingers through, perhaps your whole arm. You can feel forces pushing back at you. You can just barely hear things, almost see them, maybe especially at night.
And who knows, maybe this other place is inside your own head.
I’d like to see another ghost. I’d like to see my mom again. I’ve asked, tried to call her into the world for a moment or two. But all that comes back to me is a radiant silence.
1309 Ellis Hollow Rd.
Ithaca, NY 14850
Author of After Life available at BarnesandNoble.com
Rhian Ellis – 1309 Ellis Hollow Rd. Ithaca, NY 14850 – Author of After Life
available at BarnesandNoble.com
(You may view the complete print version here)
(Click to Purchase as a print magazine
IN THIS ISSUE–––
• David S. Warren -
OOO Editor's Notes
• Georgia E. Warren -
• Sue Ryn -
I Never Imagined This
• Mary Gilliland -
• David S. Warren -
Poem to Archie
• Don Brennan -
Take Me To the River
• Peter Fortunato -
• Peter Wetherbee -
Sinister Ballad of a
David S.Warren -
We are Nuts
• Rhian Ellis -
• Garriel Orgrease -
• Daniel Lovell -
One for Miriam
• Nancy Viera Couto -
and the Queen
• David Rollow -
• Franklin Crawford -
When I Have Thoughts
That I May Cease to Pee
• David Rollow -
Review: A. R. Ammons
• Chris MacCormack -
Packages (an excerpt)
The running joke had become that I was being passed off as Billy Gibbons from Zee Zee Top. I wandered the streets of the French Quarter with family and friends of family. Whenever anyone of the group shouted, “Billy Gibbons, everyone, Billy Gibbons!” I was to go “Har har har.” (go to story)
When I Have Thoughts That I May Cease to Pee
by Franklin Crawford
My brain, which I am very attached to even though we’ve never met, is doomed to liquefy and bubble out of my ears, nose and mouth, shortly after I am as dead as the DNC.
It’s not the most pleasant thought my mind ever conjured, given that I suspect my brain doesn’t like to imagine its post-mortem condition any more than whatever this self – this symbiont with whom I share my weathered hide – wishes to dwell upon. (go to story)
by Georgia E. Warren
As soon as I got back to my dorm room I remembered. There was no textbook, we were supposed to research the famous artwork of Milan. The test was to identify and discuss the Italian Renaissance art was located in Milan. It was late. The library was closed. I decided I should go to bed and try to get to the library before class.
But I was exhausted: I sat on my bed ready to take my shoes off and fell asleep in my clothes.
Within a minute a very nice Catholic Nun shook my shoulder and told me I should not sleep in the pews of the sanctuary. I told her the problem about my class. I did not tell her it was thousands of miles away
(go to article)________________________
Reiki: Just The Facts
"Take Me To The River"
by Don Brennan
“Whoa! Where did you come from?’’ I set it down on the picnic table as fragments of memories washed over me. It was an old friend that I had found as a child, on a family vacation, somewhere one summer. Even though it was still covered with bits of soil, it was easy to see that it was loaded with interesting minerals. “I’m going to have to hose you off.”
The next two mornings, I spent more time staring at the stone than reading my book. The words were creating images not from The Celestine Prophecy, but from the day this stone first came into my life.
I had glimpses of it sparkling
in a shallow pool of water at
the bottom of a riverbed.
(go to article)
by David Rollow
The Muse came knocking at the writer’s window on a night of wild weather. Her skin seen through the windowpanes was luminous and pale, except for her flushed cheeks. Her green eyes glistened. Never had she looked more beautiful. Gladdened by this unexpected visit--for the page lay empty on his table and the pen lay untouched by the page--the writer stood and unlocked the window, his heart surging against his ribs as if they, too, somehow, were to be unlocked and his heart set free. (go to story)
by Mary Gilliland
Myth is longing. I lose myself in myth. When I would re-read the texts, or re-imagine them, myth led me out of family problems I could do nothing about. It contextualized the martyred strivings of Roman Catholic indoctrination. (excerpt, go to full story)
Margarida, José, and the Queen
by by Nancy Vieira Couto
Margarida saw the Queen in that summer of 1901 when all the days were damp and filled with the smell of salt. She couldn’t see the future through the fog, but she imagined machines, money, and motion, a city crammed with tenement houses and streetcars. She was fourteen years old. She and her mother, Maria Julia, had just arrived in Ponta Delgada, having said good-bye forever to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, the living and the dead.
(go to story)
The focus of our next Metaphysical Times will be "Memory." (see full size)
© 2018 The Metaphysical Times Publishing Company - PO Box 44 Aurora, NY 13026 • All rights reserved. For any article re-publication, contact authors directly.