Hours after I’d gone to bed—this was August of 1989, I was 11—my mother woke me by walking into my room dressed in stupid clothes. Stuff she never wore: a fuchsia and turquoise striped T-shirt with little white-capped sleeves, and turquoise short shorts. She looked like a child. She clutched a handbag in front of her with both hands.
“Mom?” I said. More accurately, I asked it. This was not the mother I knew.
But she didn’t answer. She just looked at me, and it felt as though every system in my body turned off so I could focus my energy on seeing her. There was something primal about my body’s response—fight or flight.
“Mom?” I asked again. She cocked her head. I saw the door through her. Not behind her, through her.
Fight or flight’s odious cousin, paralysis, kicked in, and I froze. She started walking toward me, nothing but kindness and curiosity in her eyes. She absorbed me with them. It was terrifying. A translucent creature who looked like my mom was coming purposefully my way.
In the movies, ghosts possess you via the TV, splatter blood on the mirrors, and throw knives at your head. Mine just walked into my room, but it was as frightening as if it had done all those things.
I closed my eyes and pulled the covers up to my neck. I lay down, hoping for sleep, but I had to look again. When I opened my eyes, her face was pressed right against mine, almost a mirror image, my mother’s face made of mist inches from my nose.
I closed my eyes and waited for morning.
My mother is alive, but I fully believe I saw a ghost. My feeling then, as it remains today, is that my ghost either was family or took on the shape of family to reach me. Nothing happened except I saw the ghost, got scared, got more scared, and then it was gone, but it’s why she appeared at all that’s bothered me.
At the start of the seventh grade, it was a great story. “I saw a ghost this summer.” People played along, probably assuming I was disturbed or telling pork pies. One teacher said, “Your father just got remarried, didn’t he?” All pity and truth.
She surprised me by saying that her father had come to her many times, standing at the foot of the bed. She said she’d been terrified, not knowing what to do. Grasping for resources, she called Toni Morrison.The next summer my family visited my grandmother in Pennsylvania. I slept in a guest room at the end of a long, narrow hallway that led toward a full-length mirror. I went to bed in a dark room that smelled of Grandma: the afghans she’d crocheted, the curtains she’d sewn, the meat she’d fried for dinner that night. Ready for sleep, I shut my eyes, and then I heard someone walking down the hallway. The footsteps sounded unfamiliar, but maybe it was just Mom going to the bathroom. The pacing didn’t end at the bathroom, though. It went back down the hall, then toward my room. The creaking footfalls stopped outside my door—I counted one, two, three—and then started again.
Even I thought I might be hearing things. I willed myself to get up and look out into the hall. As I turned the door handle, I felt every bit of friction, saw every subtle change of light against the brass.
I pushed the door open. My eyes focused in the low light of the hallway. It was just a hallway. The mirror at the end reflected only my frightened face.
Technically at the border of adolescence, I felt like a small child. I needed my mother. I went to her, frightened of what that mirror would show behind me along the way, knocked on her door, and heard her stir. She must have felt some urgency in the knock.
“What is it, sweetie?” she whispered.
“I hear footsteps.”
“Let’s go back to your room.”
She got me tucked in while I explained what I’d heard and that I was scared because of what I’d seen the previous year. I’m not sure I’d ever told her about that before and she listened with grave concern. To this day, I don’t know what she thought, but no matter what, her listening made me feel better. Moms are panacea.
She left quietly and I shut my eyes. I rolled over, rolled back, and then opened my eyes again for an instant as I got settled on the pillow. There in the rocking chair between me and the window was my grandmother, staring at me. The familiar look of inquiry and caring. An almost familiar sight: a living family member constructed of colored smoke.
A few years ago, I was invited to a book party for Erica Jong at a palatial apartment across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The elevator arrived in the coat room. The space was full of wealthy Republican elites, top ranking magazine editors, and well-established writers. I knew only one person there, so I decided to combat any potential awkwardness by chatting with strangers.
The highlight was a conversation I had with an accomplished novelist with a famous father. She very graciously asked me about what I was working on, and I told her I was beginning a second novel, a ghost story. She asked if I’d ever seen a ghost. I confessed I had, twice, not expecting much in the way of belief, but she surprised me by saying that after his death her father had come to her many times, standing at the foot of the bed, trying to speak.
I can’t define the eternal, but I caught a glimpse of it.She said she’d been terrified, not knowing what to do. Grasping for resources, however, she called Toni Morrison—a solution not available to most of us. The Nobel Laureate advised her to speak plainly to the ghost, to ask him why he was there. To say to him, You’re scaring me, please tell me what you need.
My new acquaintance took Morrison’s advice and got her answer. She didn’t offer to share with me what it was. I didn’t ask.
My ghosts haven’t visited again, but I rarely speak of them. Some close friends and my husband know—and sometimes I’ve found myself at parties chatting to near strangers from out of town, and it comes up. You trust the people you really trust, and also the ones you’ll never see again. When my mother was sick a few years ago, when we nearly lost her to colon cancer, I thought to myself—with evidence to back it up—maybe it’s true that people are never really gone. Maybe, even if I will never get to hold her, to smell her hair as we hug, to hear her voice and all the love in it, maybe there is mystery enough in this world to keep her somehow alive. Thinking these things did not alleviate my feelings. It did not make me less angry, less fearful, less deeply injured by the prospect of her loss. But it made our crisis seem more connected to something bigger.
Before the publication of Natalie Angier’s science book, The Canon, I was reviewing a galley for a radio show I worked on, and came across this passage. It left me weeping at my desk:
The law of conservation of energy is, in effect, a promise of eternal existence. The universe is, practically speaking, a closed system. Its total energy will be conserved. More will not be created, none will be destroyed. Your private sum of E, the energy in your atoms and bonds between them, will not be annihilated, cannot be nulled or voided. The mass and energy of which you’re built will change form and location, but they will be here, in this loop of life and light, the permanent party that began with a Bang.
I can’t define the eternal, but I caught a glimpse of it—two translucent bodies with watchful eyes and matterless hands that grasped nothing.