When my brother was 5-years old, my family took a summer vacation to the Outer Banks. Just a few months before the trip, which had become tradition for us by that point, my grandma suffered a brain aneurysm and died in a Pennsylvania hospital.
She was a kind and gentle woman who, I’m told, loved two things in particular: dressing to the nines and playing music. Her instruments of choice were the organ, the accordion, and the dulcimer. I wish I would’ve had an opportunity to know her better, given my own love of music. But life, as we currently know it, doesn’t give a damn about what we want.
In the living room of that beach house on an otherwise normal summer day in the ’90s, my brother was putting on his shoes and preparing to follow my aunt and mother down to the beach. As he finished tugging on his shoestrings, he glanced into the kitchen and saw a translucent woman with big white hair standing in front of the sink, washing dishes and casting a friendly smile his way. Terrified, my brother sprinted out the door to chase down my aunt and mother. He was shaking and crying by the time he reached them. When they asked what was wrong, he told them about the dish-washing specter.
My brother is 27 years old now. To this day, he truly believes he saw a ghost. His story has become part of my family history, and it’s been recounted time and time again, usually at holiday get-togethers. It’s broadly accepted that the old woman standing at the sink was my then-recently-deceased grandma, who as my aunt put it, “was always in the kitchen, washing dishes and tidying things up.” When my brother brings it up nowadays, the reaction among family members is generally the same: there’s no reason not to believe he didn’t see something. Yes, children have crazy imaginations. But surely something real had to trigger such an extreme fear response.
My brother is 27 years old now. To this day, he truly believes he saw a ghost. His story has become part of my family history, and it’s been recounted time and time again, usually at holiday get-togethers. From left, me, my brother, my aunt and my mom.
I suspect that most people have similar paranormal tales — stories told and retold so often they become as tangible as old photo albums. Whether such supernaturalness exists in the objective world, or merely within our overactive minds, is a moot point, really. It serves the same purpose either way: namely, to snap us out of the persistent illusion of everyday life, to remind us that the physical world is merely the foreground of an infinitely expansive and layered existence. There’s so much more going on behind the scenes than we’ll ever know. Our brains are simply too limited to comprehend the massiveness of it all.
I’ve never seen a ghost. This fact upsets me. I’d love nothing more than to have my worldview upended by witnessing something inexplicable. The closest thing I’ve had to a paranormal experience is an episode of sleep paralysis during college: My eyes shot open at 3 in the morning — I know this because I looked over at the glowing numbers on the microwave across the room — but when I tried to get up, I couldn’t. It felt like 10 blocks of cement were resting on my chest. That’s when the dread set in.
I’ve never seen a ghost. This fact upsets me. I’d love nothing more than to have my worldview upended by witnessing something inexplicable.
Other people who’ve experienced sleep paralysis report feeling heavy demons sitting on their chests. No such demon appeared to me, but I could sense its presence: the malicious bastard was somewhere in the shadows — most likely with six heads and a forked tongue — waiting to suck me down to the underworld. As I laid in bed, I hallucinated that the door to my dorm room flew open and hundreds of people streamed in. They were walking around frantically, as if traveling at warp speed. The hallucination felt so real that when I finally wriggled my heavy body out of its temporary tomb, I asked my roommate why he’d invited so many people over when he knew I was sleeping.
“Dude,” he responded. “What are you talking about?”
Sleep paralysis, while strange, is generally understood by science. According to WebMD, “Researchers believe…it’s caused by a disturbed rapid eye movement cycle because it mostly happens as people are falling into or coming out of REM sleep. During that stage, their brains normally paralyze their muscles anyway — so they don’t act out their dreams.” But other experiences defy such tidy explanations.
Take, for instance, the totally frightening thing that happened to my mother during my childhood: she dreamed that she awoke in the middle of the night to someone pounding on our front door. When she opened it, a blood-drenched woman stood there, pleading for help. To dream something like that is scary enough, but the next morning, word spread throughout the neighborhood that a nearby woman had been brutally attacked by her husband the night before. She’d limped to the entrance of our neighborhood, where someone pulling out onto the main road in a truck discovered her and promptly took her to the hospital.
We lived in the second house on our road. The family in the first house was on vacation. So if the guy in the truck hadn’t been leaving at that precise moment, the bloody woman likely would have appeared at our front door. And my mother probably would have answered it. And her worst nightmare would have become reality.
How to explain this? Could it be that there exists a cosmic wavelength, a universal consciousness, that certain people (or all people, at certain times) can tap into? Did my mom enter into this stream of higher awareness in her dream, and thus know that a bloody woman was limping toward our house? Or did my mother retroactively believe that she had the dream, after she’d heard what happened? Paranormal experiences could be mere tricks of the imagination — projections created by flawed psyches that crave the weird and incomprehensible. But maybe the authenticity of these experiences is completely irrelevant, in the same way that a great novel consisting solely of fictional events can capture a deeper truth about the human predicament. Reality blends into fiction blends into reality, so on and so forth.
I can think of several other moments that toe the thin line between the two. My wife, Caitlin,and I were house-sitting for an elderly gentleman several months ago when Caitlin woke up at midnight, scared out of her wits. Shaking, she demanded we leave immediately, because a figure had appeared on her side of the bed and stared directly into her eyes. I was dismissive at first. But it was obvious she was genuinely shaken, so we gathered our belongings, loaded up the dogs we were watching and got the hell out of there. On those dark, winding country roads, in the pitch black night, she told me what she’d been afraid to mention while we were still in the house: “It was a little boy,” she said. “And he was looking right at me.”
We spent the rest of the week dogsitting from the comfort of our own (unhaunted) house.
Forget the child ghost for now, though. Instead, I’d like to tell you another strange thing about my grandma. She’d have these dreams, these premonitions, about the forthcoming deaths of loved ones. This is how my grandpa describes the dreams in his biography:
She was kind of spooky, too. When she was about three years old, her grandma died. And the night before that happened, Flo [my grandma] had a dream about it. That same thing would happen throughout her life. She’d have a dream and tell me that someone in the family was going to pass away. She didn’t know who, but she knew it was going to happen. And by God, she’d hit it. Spookier than hell. I know it scared her, too.
I can’t help but wonder if my grandma foresaw her own death, if during one of the nights leading up to her fateful aneurysm, she dreamed of the grim reaper or a graveyard, and thought to herself: “who’s next?” I’ve also wondered if, on some level, she knew it was going to be her, that this dream was somehow different — like maybe she’d seen a tombstone with her name on it, or some other cliched symbol like that.
In the years following her departure, as my brother’s story of the ghost washing dishes at the beach house became entrenched in family history, my grandpa’s radio started clicking on in the middle of night. He would’ve written this off as a strange anomaly, he said, if it’d happened only once or twice. But the fact that it continued for years, at random, made him believe that grandma was checking in on him.
My grandpa died last year, but a few months before he passed, I visited him at his home just outside of Pittsburgh, which he built with his father after returning from WWII. Before I left, he gave me grandma’s old dulcimer. It wasn’t in working condition, but I figured it’d make a memorable keepsake. So I put it on display in the office/music room/reading room of my house and let it rest.
On July 29, 2019, I received a call from my aunt at 8 in the morning. Grandpa had died. He’d had congestive heart failure for a while, and had been admitted to the hospital the previous day due to low blood pressure. That evening, he left his hospital bed to use the restroom, and according to the nurse, when he returned, he laid down, took one last breath, and died. Simple as that. Here one second, gone the next. He’d always said the last thing he wanted in life was to spend his final days — or weeks, or months — cooped up in a soulless hospital, suffering. One swift breath ensured that would never happen.
After I received the phone call from my aunt, my wife and I ate pancakes at a local breakfast joint and spent the morning reminiscing about my grandpa. “It just doesn’t feel real yet,” I said, tears welling in my eyes.
Later that afternoon, a strange thing occurred. I was playing guitar in my office/music room/reading room when, out of nowhere, my grandma’s dulcimer inexplicably plucked a single, out-of-tune note. Puzzled, I looked over at the weathered instrument, attempting to discern what could have caused the strings to vibrate.
Maybe the tuning pegs were settling, like a creaky old house: I’m sure there’s a perfectly sound scientific explanation like that. But what I like to believe is that unseen elements were at play: that my grandpa had been reunited with my grandma in a distant realm of the universe, and that the two of them were sending their love over a cosmic wavelength, across all of space and time, to remind me — ever so gently — that the here and now isn’t the only thing that will ever be.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.