I don’t believe in ghosts.
I barely believe in people.
It’s been ten months since my mother died and twelve months since my sister died. Still waiting for “signs,” like a chump.
Oh, I see signs, make no mistake. But they are bad ones. Maybe “signs” implies too much stock in an afterlife. Signifiers? Reminders? Reminders of the end. Not signs of where my mom and sister are now. I mean it: not one tweak, one cold spot, one floating feather weighted down with supernatural significance.
Today is the anniversary of my sister’s death. My husband drove like hell to get us to Ohio before she died. Other Ohioans may appreciate the serendipity of speeding down I-80 without a single state trooper pulling us over. When we reached her house, my family was gathered in the living room. I ran up the stairs to Lynn’s room, our sister Lisa trailing behind.
She touched my elbow as I turned into the hallway. “Wait,” she said, “I want to prepare you.”
But what can prepare you? A year later, and I still see Lynn’s wasted, yellow skin…her jutting teeth and cheekbones from the fifty-pound weight loss since her diagnosis less than two months previously.
But there is something else I see, too. As I sat next to Lynn for the next couple of hours, I noticed that she kept moving her legs, and the blanket kept slipping off her feet. I re-covered her feet several times, tucking the blanket underneath, but still she continued moving. The hospice nurse checked in periodically. I am not one to use the term “angel” lightly—or at all—but I think in human form, angels look a lot like hospice nurses. The nurse frowned as he saw me tucking the blanket in. I explained Lynn kept moving and the blanket kept sliding, but he nodded before I was finished.
He said, “Restless legs in the dying are a sign of pain,” and went for the morphine.
Lynn’s daughter, my niece, had arranged for her to get a beautiful pedicure in her last days. My niece’s friend was a nail technician, and she came to the house and lovingly attended to my sister’s feet. She painted her toenails a light, happy blue with tiny yellow and white daisies on her big toes.
The blanket slides. Blue toes and flowers. Cover her up. But still the blanket moves, like it’s a living thing. Yellow skin and cold feet. Blue toes up again. And now the hospice nurse, his auburn beard and green scrubs, his halo and his morphine bottle.
Blue toes, blue toes. A sign, a reminder. I see them when I close my eyes. I see them at the pool a year later, pedicures on my friends, who are gorgeous, living women. Flip-flops and cheery sky-blue toes and sunshine and iced tea and kids running. June days. In my gut I feel a stab of grief, an automatic, Pavlovian response when I see these summery pedicures in shades of sea. Sky blue is the color of death for me, not black. How perfect her toenails looked then, glossy and lovely, and it twists me up because I think that even now they still look like that in the dark and lonely underground.
Two days after my mother died, a drunk driver crashed into the the front of our house, and it’s only been the last week that any of it is getting repaired. The front steps bow to the street in a permanent curtsey, flanked by dead evergreens, like my house is abandoned or wants to be.
Every time I pull into my driveway and see the wreckage of my house, I see the wreckage of my mom. Another sign, another reminder. Am I putting undue emphasis on a broken house? Like my broken mother in the hospital? She fell in their apartment and broke her shoulder, and three days later she was dead. Old people move so slowly when they’re alive and so quickly when they die.
My mom, too, used to put stock in signs. We had a lot of discussions about that. She loved a good ghost story, I will tell you that. When my grandpa was dying, Mom begged my dad to fix the sagging purple martin birdhouse that Grandpa had put up in our yard. In her mind, she saw the birdhouse as a portent for Grandpa’s future. The more decrepit and crooked it became, the worse my grandpa’s prognosis grew. “Fix it,” she ordered my dad—she, who never ordered anyone to do anything. My dad got out the ladder and his toolbox many times that autumn and jury-rigged the birdhouse into a semblance of a standing structure.
Grandpa hung on for a few more weeks, and the birdhouse, propped up by a two-by-four and an old swing set, listed to the south whenever the winds shifted. One evening I found her standing in the backyard wearing my dad’s coat and smoking a cigarette, gazing up at the birdhouse.
“It’s not fair,” she said.
“No, I guess not,” I said.
“I don’t mean that. I mean me, what I’m doing to Grandpa. I thought fixing the birdhouse would save him, but all I’m doing is prolonging his suffering. I’m not being fair to him.”
Maybe through her strange brand of Midwestern voodoo, she really felt that propping up a birdhouse could interfere with the natural order of life and death. I almost said something, but I watched her drag on that cigarette, its ember glowing in the diminished light, and I changed my mind.
“Take it down, Jim,” she called to my dad.
Grandpa died days afterward. I don’t know where the purple martins went. But birds are resilient creatures, unlike people.
Exactly one year has gone by since Lynn died, and still no signs. One time after I made my bed, I stood there and waited for an indentation to appear on the covers. I asked out loud, “If you’re here, can you please just sit on the bed so I can see the indentation?” I hear about bed indentations all the time on those ghost-hunter programs and haunted hotel shows, and those people don’t even want to see them. So why not me? I waited and waited, but nothing.
“Let’s go see a psychic,” Lisa suggested recently. “Like a two-for-one deal.” This is what it’s come to: pooling our money so some huckster can fleece our grief.
“No,” I said, “I’m not doing it. Those people are fakes, but they have good intuition and know what to say to make you believe in ghosts.”
My mother, a thrifty woman, would never approve of us spending money to hear her messages from the Great Beyond. If anything, she would refuse to communicate on that principle alone.
I talk to them in the car a lot, whenever I’m by myself. But nobody answers.
I talk to them when I go for walks at Butler Lake because it’s a beautiful place of open fields and flowers and paths and birds, everywhere birds. But nobody answers. I listen and watch for signs—a bird, a flower, a butterfly, anything, anything—and I see those things, but they are not signs. Maybe they are signs of beauty and nature, but they are not signs of my mom or sister reaching out to me.
Yesterday, I walked the shady path that goes from Libertyville High School to Butler Lake, and a black and blue butterfly followed me. It flew in circles around me as I walked, and I stopped and waited. Back of me, front of me, and all around.
“Lynn?” I said.
It fluttered by; the dappled sunlight through the trees glinted off its sky-blue wings. And then it flew on. I watched it fly away, and I understood that I was in a place where nobody knew my heart even a little bit.