Preface: I’ve been writing about my mother for a few months now, both before her death and after. Part of me has resisted continuing. I think that’s because I absorbed, without thinking about it, a kind of cultural discomfort with a “protracted” grief experience. No one wants to have an extended dance with pain, but I wish we didn’t so often ask ourselves, as if there were something wrong with us, why we aren’t “over it yet” or why we feel the need to keep talking about it. So I’m going to write my field notes here, because that’s where I am. And then I’ll stop when I’m not there anymore. And if I’m lucky, maybe it’ll make sense to some of you still there too.
I’m a board-certified agnostic about a lot of things, chief among them the afterlife. I have no idea what, if anything, happens after we die, and it always seems odd to me when people are certain about it one way or another, having never been dead themselves. While I always appreciate a good spirituality with robust metaphor and abundant goodwill and love, I’ve always considered religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists to be two sides of the same coin.
So I can’t say I believe in anything particularly, because I don’t really have a basis to do so. But if I’m honest, I lean away from a conception of an afterlife that looks anything like the framework of this world. And yet, as I make my way through my practical reality, I tend to see through that prism anyway. Put another way, my intellectual orientation doesn’t always match my emotional orientation — a perennial issue for me.
In his memoir about dealing with his mother’s death, Sherman Alexie writes that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he sees them all the time. I understand.
If you think about an afterlife as involving some part of a person’s spirit sticking around to communicate with their still-Earthbound loved ones, I would’ve expected my mother’s soul to move along quickly. She’d been described by others since her birth as fiercely independent, and to be sure, she never really seemed to need the presence of her children, or anyone, really. Tempted by the possibilities that are supposedly present in such a conception of an afterlife, surely she would’ve dropped her Earthly connections like a hot rock and zipped off post haste: Smell ya later, losers. I’m outta here.
This is how it was when my grandmother, my mother’s mother, passed away three years ago. I was really close to my grandmother, but I never felt her around, never dreamed about her, never saw those little telltale signs, nothing. This bummed me out at the time, because I desperately wanted one more connection with her. I didn’t believe in her ghost, but I very much wanted to see it anyway.
When my mother died, I didn’t believe in her ghost and I didn’t expect to see it, because – well, I don’t know why. But it probably had something to do with the fact that she was deeply averse to vulnerability, to needing anyone or even, sometimes, wanting anyone. She was often unwilling to do things for others if those things made her feel exposed or insecure, and she could be uncomfortably blunt about letting you know it. Given a choice between doing afterlife-y things and sticking around to help us feel better, I expected to be on my own for self-care. I expected her death to be, I suppose, an immediate and wholesale break – almost, to my old lizard brain at least, an abandonment, even. And yet, it hasn’t been.
There are subtle things, but not so subtle ones as well: How my dog kept opening, with his nose, the books I brought from her house, even days after they’d been sitting on the hearth, as if there was a treat in the pages he couldn’t find. There are vivid dreams, the tapping on my back when there is no one around to tap me on the back. It’s how when my husband got up to go to the bathroom one night, he grabbed my foot and tickled it – except he didn’t. (But my mother would’ve relished framing him for it.) It’s the fact that I still just feel her around.
I get that there are explanations for these things that comport with the laws of physics and science. The books had my mother’s scent on them, which my dog had come to associate with getting treats after years of her bringing him goodies. Hypnogogia, the transitional state between wake and sleep, is fertile ground for hallucinations and lucid dreams. And feelings of her presence are, well, feelings. Our mind reaches for the things it wants to see.
But the insistence on providing “rational” explanations misses the point. It doesn’t really matter why I’m seeing the ghosts. I don’t really care why I’m experiencing these things. If they are the product of my mind, then they are still the product of my experiences with her. And what a wonder, all by itself, that our minds produce this kind of salve to help ease us down the road of loss. It’s a connection; I’m not picky about the exact nature of it.
And if it is “her” in some sense involving her continued agency, then what? I surely don’t know any more now than I did before. Either way, it’s her. The ghosts are what they are, and I don’t need to know the details. I’ll just appreciate them, here in the comfortable space between knowing and not knowing.
I wrote this while listening to an instrumental Christmas music playlist. Two seconds after I wrote the last sentence, Clair de Lune came on. (I wrote a piece about my grandmother’s and my love for Clair de Lune that my aunt had me read at her funeral.) Was it serendipity or a nudge from my grandmother after complaining about never having experienced one from her? It doesn’t matter. She was here for a moment, with me again.