My grandmother visited me after she died.
I know that stuff is supposed to be for Halloween, but today is All Souls’ Day in the old Christian tradition, and Catholics still observe it. Today is the day when the Church celebrates the souls of all the dearly and faithfully departed. So my ghost story gets told today.
My grandmother died on Easter Sunday, 2000. She’d been sick for a decade: Alzheimer’s Disease and emphysema. And she’d never really had any medical treatment beyond the tanks of oxygen her brother-in-law, who was the only doctor she trusted, prescribed. He was a psychiatrist and he was eleventy-two years old, but he was the only one she trusted. She’d always been afraid of doctors, and years before, she had made my grandfather promise he would never put her in a nursing home. He never broke that promise, even though she was a mean Alzheimer’s patient. Her character had always been one of strength, fortitude and stubbornness. That was multiplied tenfold in her illness. It was a tragedy, but we found ways to laugh about it because we’d never stop crying if we didn’t.
Hey, she met someone new every day. Usually my aunt.
Anyway, she died at home on Easter Sunday. She was not the first loss in our family, but she was the first loss of someone to whom I’d been close. Frankly, as everyone in the family damned well knows, I was her favorite grandchild. So when I went to bed on that Easter Sunday night, I made her a deal.
“I don’t want to see you,” I told her spirit. “And I don’t want to hear your voice. I’m okay with other stuff, but I swear to God, I don’t want to see you. Got me?”
Would that my mother had told her the same thing. One night, months after my grandmother’s passing, my mother was jolted awake because her bed shook. She thought at first that my father had twitched in his sleep, but no, she says… this was a more powerful, singular spasm of the mattress. She opened her eyes, and standing beside her bed was a whitish… something. It didn’t really have a shape, but it was there. Mom says she sensed right away that it was her mother. She rolled over quickly to wake my father, but by the time she turned back, the figure was gone.
This is apparently how my mother found a pair of tweezers she had been looking for for days. My grandmother, turns out, may or may not have shown up to put the tweezers back in the pocket of my mother’s robe, where they had not been the day before.
A few years after that, my parents were visiting a house they own at the Jersey Shore. My mother woke from sleep and looked down at the foot of the bed to find my grandmother standing there, in her trademark plaid pleated skirt, collared shirt, pullover sweater and brooch. She lingered a few seconds, then faded away.
Sneaky old thing.
For my part, my grandmother upheld our deal. I never saw her and I never heard her. At least, not while I was awake.
One night about a week after she had died, I dreamed of her. And not in a good way. I dreamed that my cousins, sisters and I were all gathered in the parlor of the funeral home where she had been laid out. It was the night before her funeral, and we were all, for some sick reason, spending the night there. My cousins and sisters were lying in sleeping bags at one end of the room, with all the flowers. I was on the other end of the room. And I was not in a sleeping bag.
I was in the casket.
With my grandmother.
I was lying on my side, knowing that she was right behind me.
Suddenly, the casket on its setting began to move. With increasing speed, it rolled toward the other end of the room. Terrified and paralyzed, I knew what was about to happen: the casket would crash into the pile of sleeping cousins and sisters, topple over… and my grandmother’s body would fall out on top of me.
I woke up before it happened.
A short time later, I dreamed that my parents, sisters and I were at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother had just died. She was laid out on the couch, wearing the dress in which she’d be buried. I sat near her head and noticed her neck was at an odd angle. When I tried to adjust it, I felt something in her ice-cold skin change.
She began to wake up.
My parents and my grandfather were overjoyed, but I knew this was very, very bad. I scooped up my little sister and ran into the kitchen, where my other sisters were eating Chinese food.
What the hell? We never eat Chinese food.
In the living room, I could hear the cries of happiness. It seemed only I knew we were doomed.
The nightmares kept coming, for months. With each dream, my grandmother was more undead, more decomposed, and coming closer to catching up with me. In each dream, she would stare at me menacingly – from the dining room window of my old house. From the backyard of her home. From the curb as I ran to the other side of the street. The conscious part of my brain knew I was dreaming and tried desperately to wake up the rest of me, willing me to move a leg or an arm, something that would rouse me, but I was literally paralyzed with fear (and limbic sleep). I often woke up shaking, sweating, crying. Once, I woke myself up cursing her back to her grave.
It was horrible. Why was I seeing these awful things about my dear grandmother, who was stern, to be sure, but doted on her grandchildren and would stop at nothing to protect and care for them? Why was she becoming a monster in my dreams?
The Christmas after she died, we visited my grandfather. I made a point to have a picture taken with him, just the two of us. When I had it developed (developed!), I got doubles. I got two of the same pewter frame and kept one for myself, and sent one to my grandfather. He placed the photo on my grandmother’s dresser in their bedroom.
Sometime near the end of January, as I got ready for work, I walked out to my kitchen to get a drink, passing my living room on the way. Blind for want of glasses or contact lenses, I noticed something laying on the back of the couch. Puzzled, I walked over to it.
It was the framed photo of my grandfather and me.
It was laying face-up on the back of the couch, atop a handmade afghan.
It was supposed to be sitting on the end table… on the other side of the couch.
I looked at the cat.
The cat looked at me. “What?”
I looked at the end table. At the photo. At the cat.
“What?” she cocked her head.
I looked the photo – cat- end table – cat – photo – cat.
“Oh for crying out loud,” she seemed to say.
Could the cat possibly have dragged that heavy pewter frame across the back of the couch without disturbing the afghan or dropping the photo behind the furniture?
It was impossible.
Shaken, I picked up the photo and put it back where it had been the night before. I finished preparing for work. “Stay,” I said to the photo aloud as I walked out the door to head to work.
But as I drove, I suddenly remembered a dream I’d had the night before. I dreamed of my grandmother. I realized I had awoken sometime in the night, once again terrified. But now, I could not remember the context of that nightmare. I couldn’t recall what had happened that had left me so afraid when I awoke in the dark.
Now, all I could recall was the way the dream had ended.
My grandmother had finally caught me.
And we sat together, and talked. And I told her that I missed her and that I loved her. And she hugged me.
To this day, that is the only part of the dream I can recall.
I suppose, for what would have likely been the only time in my life, I may have been sleepwalking that night. I suppose I may have gone out to my living room, picked up that photo of my grandfather and me, looked at it, and put it back where it didn’t belong.
But I don’t think I did it at all.
I think my grandmother came that night.
And I haven’t had a nightmare about her since. I have dreamed of her, yes. I have, from time to time, smelled her Ciara perfume (once, I smelled it while I was on a plane that was entirely too small, sharing a flight with a Catholic Cardinal I recognized. I smelled that perfume and thought, “Oh, we’re either really blessed on this flight or we are going down.” The airline lost the Cardinal’s luggage.) I sometimes hear an ice cream truck play “You Are My Sunshine,” the song she always sang to me when I was small. Last night, I heard my downstairs neighbor playing it for her baby boy. I always think of her and smile when I hear that song. But I have never seen my grandmother, and the nightmares have never returned.
And that photo, in its pewter frame, never again moved from its station. And my grandfather’s copy still sits, alone, on my grandmother’s dresser.