Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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One summer when I was a child, my parents rented an old beach house. My sister and I believed it was haunted: objects moved when we weren’t looking, and at night we would see shimmers out of the corners of our eyes. We told our parents, but they didn’t believe us.
Our grandmother did. She often talked to the ghosts of the people she had loved. My sister thought it was silly and made fun of our grandmother behind her back, but I realized that she was more sentimental than superstitious. She had lost so many people close to her, and it gave her comfort to speak to them. Her mother had died when she was a little girl, and her brother had died in middle age. She had also outlived three husbands.
When our mom died at fifty-three, my sister and I were devastated; for our grandmother it was a grief I pray I never experience. Pictures of our mom went up, and she, too, became part of our grandmother’s conversations with the dead. My sister still made fun of her, but my grandmother and I grew closer.
After our grandmother died, I put up a picture of her. It wasn’t until I went through some hard times that I started to talk to her. I talked to my mom, too. It helped, but when I told my sister this, she made fun of me. I reminded her that ghosts are real, that we had seen them in the beach house that summer. She brushed it off.
Then she died — at forty-one. I put up a picture of her, too, and talked to her through struggles with parenthood, business, and addiction.
There’s a picture of the three of them that I hung up: My sister, a little girl, is holding me, a baby. My mom is snuggled close to her, with my grandmother’s arms wrapped around my mom. Their heads are all close together, looking down at me. I talk to them when I need their love, advice, and support, which my mother and grandmother freely give.
My sister’s ghost? She makes fun of me for talking to them.
I can no longer use the name I gave my daughter, one that I had fallen in love with many years before. It is now considered a dead name, but my child is not dead. He is now a beautiful young man, more confident and settled in his new gender, excelling in college, and pursuing a new career.
When he first came out, I met with parents who had been through similar experiences. One couple took down all the pictures of their son’s childhood, because they did not want to remind him of his years as a girl, but my son wanted to keep all the photos on our walls. In the past four years I have added more, documenting the transformation of a girl to a young man.
I know that to be a good mother means embracing his transition, and seeing his new confidence helps. He goes to school on the other side of the country, but we are possibly closer than ever, texting frequently and talking every Sunday. When he comes home, I still hold him tight, bury my head in his hair, and breathe deeply.
But the truth is that I pass those pictures several times a day, and they evoke bittersweet memories of my daughter: giving her a bath; her body pressed against me while I read her a bedtime story; buying her a bat mitzvah dress and dreaming of shopping for a wedding dress as she slipped it over her head. I tell no one how I feel, not even my husband, who has moved on seemingly effortlessly, or my other children, who would be aghast.
I never let on that, as much as it hurts, I will keep her ghost close to my heart for as long as I can.
In the mid-1960s I was on an archaeological dig at a former nineteenth-century post and supply depot, twenty miles north of Winnipeg, Canada. We had excavated numerous outbuildings but were still looking for a blacksmith shop.
The male crew members slept in the engineer’s cottage, and we women slept in the barracks, which had once been the provincial mental asylum for women. This didn’t cause us any concern — we were university students filled with vigor and idealism.
One night in the men’s cottage, a member of our crew heard loud sobbing. He contacted a psychic from Winnipeg, who came and told us that she detected the spirit of a young girl in the cottage. The psychic said she was able to release the girl’s spirit, but on our walk back to the fort she stopped abruptly in a flat, grassy field and sank to her knees, saying something had happened in that spot: an explosion; a fire; many people had died, including a lot of children.
We were mystified. There was no visible sign or physical mark there. One of us tagged it with a survey pin, and we started digging. What we found was the blacksmith’s shop we had been searching for — the remains of a log foundation with a stone forge.
A later search of archival records revealed that on May 24, 1877, fort employees, their families, and other spectators had gathered at the blacksmith’s shop to celebrate Queen Victoria’s birthday. A post employee had brought a barrel of gunpowder to the forge to fire off homemade rockets, and the powder had caused an explosion that had killed many people, including children.
I wish I could recall the psychic’s name. She helped us find the blacksmith’s shop, but she also drew back a curtain on the spirit world to show me a glimpse of what lay beyond.
My father was a stranger to me when I was a child. We rarely spoke; I can’t recall a single conversation. When he drove me to doctor’s appointments or school, the silence between us filled me with anxiety and a feeling of inferiority.
For a while I tried to get his attention by throwing a rubber baseball against the house and catching it in the glove my mother had reluctantly purchased for me. I was a tomboy and thought my athletic prowess would prompt a response from him. I’d time this performance for when my father came home each day, but it didn’t matter. He remained distant, and I took it to mean I was not worthy of his attention. I came to dislike him for it, and as I grew older, I convinced myself that I didn’t need him anyway.
After I graduated from college, he appeared to me in a dream. I was working as a counselor at a summer camp, and before bed that evening I’d been talking with a good friend about my father. In the dream I saw him in bed, clutching his chest in the throes of a heart attack. I woke, startled, at 3:00 AM. Seven hours later a relative called to tell me that my father had suffered a heart attack overnight and died in his bed at home. My friend drove me the two hundred miles back to Pittsburgh. I was in shock, unable to speak. Why would he appear to me, of all people, as he died?
For weeks after the funeral he haunted my dreams, writhing in pain, his body torn and mangled. Each morning I woke in distress.
One night this haunting culminated with a dream in which I was present. I stood at one end of the bridge I’d walked across for years going to and from school. The bridge spans a massive rail yard, and my father was approaching from the opposite side of the tracks. He was calm and whole again, clearly coming to see me. But once he’d taken a few steps onto the bridge, he stopped short, his hands tucked into the pockets of a long coat. There was no other sound as his voice traveled across the distance: “Everything’s all right now.” Before I had the chance to reply, he turned and disappeared. I never dreamed of him again.
It took decades for me to tell my family about these dreams; apparently I am the only one to whom he appeared.
Rosemont, New Jersey
When I taught music at an elementary school, I prepared a lesson around Halloween. There were some Jehovah’s Witness children in my classes, and I was told they would need to be excluded that day if I used Halloween songs.
I decided to bring in songs that alluded to the holiday but were vague enough not to be pegged to Halloween — songs about pumpkins, for example. I also decided to sing them a song called “Bringing Mary Home,” about a man driving down a lonely road on a dark and stormy night. He sees a little girl on the side of the road and stops to give her a ride. But when they arrive at her house and he opens the car door to let her out, she isn’t there. A woman comes out of the house, thanks him for his kindness, and explains that she and her husband lost their daughter in a car accident thirteen years earlier. Every year since, on that day, a different stranger has come to the house thinking they were bringing home a little girl.
When I sang this song for a group of second-graders, they listened raptly and were silent after I finished. Then one said, “Sing that again!” So I did, and they started asking questions and sharing stories about ghosts — either ones they had seen or ones that they’d heard about from family. This went on until class was over. I never did get to the pumpkin song or any of the others.
The same thing happened in all my classes that day. All I had to do was ask, “Have any of you ever seen a ghost?” and they would share their stories and questions.
It became clear that children need to talk about death. The topic is so taboo in our society that we either avoid it or talk around it.
Fort Bragg, California
For years, after dropping off my three sons at school, hockey practice, or music lessons, I’d sense a presence in the backseat of my van. Sometimes I’d pull over and check to be sure no one was there.
It was never threatening or frightening. At times it could be a source of comfort. I had a wound that needed healing: When I was twenty years old, I’d gotten pregnant. In the 1960s there were few options for a woman in my situation, and families went to great lengths to hide an unwanted pregnancy. They’d send their daughters to homes for unwed mothers, or the teen’s mother would go on an extended vacation with her and later pass the baby off as the teen’s newborn sibling. There were a lot of shotgun weddings.
Roe v. Wade was still in the future, so abortion was banned in the United States; many women went to illegal clinics or drove to Mexico. A single mother raising an illegitimate child was shunned.
My parents, still reeling from the death of my brother two years earlier, were scandalized by the pregnancy. I was sent to live with my older sister in a different part of the state while my father and my brother-in-law arranged for a private adoption.
The last time I saw my daughter was when she was born in 1969. She weighed less than four pounds, and her chances for survival were slim. I wasn’t told if she survived; if there were any birth defects; if her adoptive parents had accepted her or she’d become a ward of the state.
I stumbled through life in a fog, numbing my sadness with parties and alcohol and spending an inordinate amount of time in grad school, as if that was the only “career” I could manage. Things got better, but there was always that terrible shame. Ten years later I married and had a son. Another ten years later I remarried and had two more children. As I raised them all, the presence in the backseat grew stronger.
In May 1998 I received a phone call from a private investigator who asked me if I had given birth to a child in 1969. My first reaction was horror and shame. Was he going to tell me that my worst fears were true? That she had died or been born disabled?
But by the time my oldest son graduated from high school, I had connected with my birth daughter, her adoptive parents, and my two beautiful grandchildren. The presence in the backseat evaporated overnight. My daughter and I think of it as a manifestation of our mutual energy: we had each been thinking of the other for years.
There was a man I used to see regularly around the small town where I lived. He was neat and old-fashioned, with well-trimmed hair and a mustache, but his face was ashen, and his eyes were glazed. There was always a cigarette between his pale lips or in his trembling fingers. Shuffling along with his slouched shoulders and small frame, he seemed caught between worlds.
One morning I saw him heading in my direction on an empty street. When we were close, he lifted his gaze from the concrete and locked eyes with me. His brow furrowed, and with fear and desperation he gasped, “Please, help me!” He grabbed the upper sleeves of my shirt. “Brother, please, help me!”
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “What can I do?”
“Can I have a cigarette?” he croaked. I handed him one, and he pulled from it hungrily as I gave him a light. His eyes softened, and he relaxed for a moment, leaning against the wall of a building. But after a couple of puffs I saw the panic return.
He grabbed my collar, yelling, “Oh, God, please help me! I killed them! I killed them all!”
He let go of me and started sliding down the wall. “Men, women, and children! We mowed them all down like dogs!” He choked up as he held his index finger like a gun. It seemed he was confessing to some sort of war crime.
By now I was sitting on the cold concrete with him as he sobbed: “We killed every last one of them!” I sat with him quietly, my hand on his shoulder.
Thirty years later I continue to pray for his soul.
My great-grandmother died the day I was born. Growing up, I didn’t know much about her, but in grade school I became convinced that our guest room was haunted by her ghost: I felt a presence in there that I intuitively knew was hers. It wasn’t scary; it was comforting.
For years I would go into that room, sit on the couch, and talk to her. I was a shy child with a learning disability, and our one-sided chats were a valuable outlet for me to talk about my favorite teachers, fights with my brothers, and crushes I had. When I was thirteen, I cried and told her I planned to end my life. By saying it out loud, I realized that I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through with it.
When I was sixteen, I told her that having a ghost in the house was starting to freak me out; I loved her, but I needed her to go. After that, her presence was gone.
That was more than twenty-five years ago. This person I never knew might have saved my life.
A month after my husband and I were engaged, I saw a FOR SALE BY OWNER sign in front of an old farmhouse on eighty acres of meadow. There was a small barn in back, and we needed a barn: we’d sealed our engagement by buying two horses. I pulled over and wrote the phone number down, and we made an appointment to see the place that weekend.
The house had weathered white aluminum siding and looked like it had been built between the World Wars. The door was answered by an old woman, who welcomed us in as her hunched and frail husband struggled to get up from his chair. The two of them showed us around while the woman told us their story: They had bought the house fifty years earlier, after they married. They’d raised two sons there but just couldn’t keep the place up any longer.
The small rooms had narrow windows that were nearly obscured by overgrown juniper bushes, and the kitchen had never been updated, but when we stepped outside to walk around the yard, I fell in love.
The gardens had been lovingly maintained, with fruit trees and grape vines and extravagant beds of asparagus and strawberries. The woman showed us the raspberry patch with pride, saying she must have made a million pies over the years. “His favorite,” she said, patting her husband’s arm as he leaned on her for support.
I felt sorry that they had to sell their home, but the woman seemed happy that it would go to a young couple just starting out, and that I was so enthusiastic about the gardens. The man just looked sad. He died shortly after we bought the place.
The first spring we lived there, I felt like I was unwrapping a present from the old couple each morning when I stepped out my door. As soon as the snow melted, I raked a thick blanket of rotted leaves off the garden beds and found green shoots emerging. Snowdrops, grape hyacinths, and daffodils bloomed on the shaggy lawn. The asparagus was delicious: we would eat it raw, warm from the sun.
My parents were coming for a Fourth of July picnic that year, so I stayed up late baking and cooking the night of July 3. There were enough raspberries for only one pie, so I made an apple pie, too, and placed both of them on the counter to cool. I was still working on the potato salad when the hairs on the back of my neck stood up: I felt like someone was watching me. I looked out the kitchen screen door. No one was there. Our dog, who slept in the barn, hadn’t barked, but I still stepped out to look around. The moon was making shadows on the grass. Maybe that had spooked me?
When I went back into the kitchen, the raspberry pie was gone. The pot holder it had been sitting on was still hot, and the apple pie was untouched. I quickly went to the bedroom; my husband lay there sound asleep with our baby. I checked the front door. Locked. I went outside and looked around again. The night was quiet. No tracks or prints in the mud around the door or window.
We had a bumper crop of raspberries that summer, and they produced until the first frost, but I never found a trace of that pie or the pan it was baked in.
Lake Orion, Michigan
I used to live in Snoqualmie, Washington, a small town in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, less than a two-hour drive from Mount Rainier. In January of 2012 a man came to our house to borrow mountaineering gear from my father. I had met him before, when he’d stopped by to discuss the current climbing conditions and his various ascents. It was raining hard as he carried to his car the ice axes and crampons my father loaned him. Then he drove off. Days later we heard that he was missing, his car still parked at Paradise Inn.
About seven months passed before park rangers in a helicopter saw his partially buried body dangling over the ledge of a broad crevasse on Paradise Glacier. His gear was strewn across the bottom of the crevasse: a silent museum of his last struggle for life, enveloped by ice.
I hiked to Camp Muir last summer, coming up the rocks until I reached the steep, snowy slope. I could hear the tons of snow and ice that hung off her peak cracking and groaning. From the snowfield leading up to Muir, one can look out and see overlapping mountain ranges. In the gentle breeze it was easy to forget that people die on this mountain every year.
Some say there is no glory in the death of a mountaineer; that it’s a tragic, unnecessary loss of life arising from a selfish and trivial pursuit. But perhaps this is the only death an adventurer wants. Maybe the climbers who perish on Mount Rainier become a part of her.
When I was younger, my father told me stories about climbers on Rainier who, weary from exertion at such high altitude, would see someone who was not actually there. These presences were comforting, often talking climbers through near-death experiences or guiding them up or down the mountain. Scientists explain this by citing low oxygen and extreme stress, but what if these are the ghosts of those who died on the mountain, trying to help those who have come after them?
I used to have nightmares about that man, lost on the mountain, battered by the weather and unable to escape. I hope that the ghosts were there with him as he fell asleep for the last time.
When I was five or six, my mother used to say the ghosts of her family frequented our house on the Jersey Shore. My grandmother, Sarah, had died when my mother was twelve, and my mother claimed she could smell her perfume. She also said she could see my great-grandfather Max, who carried a walking stick and drank vodka out of a juice glass, and his sister, Mina, who sang soprano in Yiddish. My mother assured my father and me that they had come to protect us. After all, she explained, ours was the only house on the block that hadn’t been robbed.
I only half believed in my mother’s ghosts. Since I couldn’t see or hear them, how could I be sure they were really there? And why would a ghost need a walking stick? But when I rode a two-wheeler for the first time, the wind steadied me, and I wondered if Max and Mina and Sarah had something to do with it.
After my parents divorced, I went to a boarding school in northern New Jersey, and they moved to opposite sides of Manhattan. Whichever parent I visited bad-mouthed the other. Caught in the middle, I asked Max and Mina to come rescue me, but they never appeared.
When I attended high school in Brooklyn, I moved in with my mother and my stepfather, who had recently suffered a serious heart attack. He spent hours sitting in the bedroom, staring into space. My mother’s unhappiness was like a gray cloud. She told me how much she missed her mother.
One night she retrieved a Ouija board from the back of her closet. We sat in the dimly lit living room with the board balanced on our laps.
“Let’s see if we can get your grandma Sarah to talk to us, maybe even let us see her,” my mother said.
My heart was beating fast, and a strange energy ran through my fingers. In the shadows of the room I thought I saw a woman in a white-lace dress, with dark eyes and high cheekbones like mine, looking our way.
We sat quietly, knees touching, conjuring my grandmother’s ghost to comfort us.
New York, New York
I once worked as the director of a nineteenth-century house museum that had a few ghost stories. I fitted those tales into my talk when I gave tours to visitors.
One summer afternoon, while waiting for a special program to start, a young boy asked if I knew any ghost stories. His parents explained that he was obsessed with ghosts, and whenever they drove past the house museum, he would ask if it was haunted.
He beamed as he listened to my tales about the house and some others about the surrounding area. When I ran out of stories, I asked if they wanted to see something we normally didn’t show the public. The boy was ecstatic, so we made our way down the narrow stairs to the basement, which was closed to visitors. A massive hearth that had once been used for cooking and heating during the winter dominated the room.
I led the family to a corner and pointed to a reddish-brown splatter of paint at the base of the wall. “No matter how much we scrub, the stain just won’t go away,” I said quietly.
The boy turned pale, ran up the stairs, and locked himself in his family’s car. He refused to come out for the rest of their visit.
I apologized repeatedly to his parents, but they smiled. “Don’t worry about it,” they said. “You just made his day.”
A month after my forty-nine-year-old son died in his sleep, I was awakened by someone rubbing my calf. My husband was not home, because we were preparing to move to a new house we had built, and he had gone ahead. I ran downstairs to lie on the couch, unable to fall back asleep. In the morning I noticed that two photos of my son’s daughter on the refrigerator had been turned upside down. A few nights later I woke to the sensation of someone tapping on my foot.
After two months of this I was sleeping with the bathroom light on. One night I had just opened a book to read in bed when the mattress yielded to a weight, like someone sitting on the edge of the bed. I lowered my book and spoke to that indentation, asking if it was my son. There was no response, but the weight suddenly disappeared.
A week later, the night before I was to move to the new house, that weight lay down next to me. Wide awake, I turned on my right side and talked to that presence until I fell asleep at 4 AM. It was gone when I woke up.
I have been in our new home for seven months, and that weight has not visited me here. Maybe I said everything that needed to be said.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
On an eight-hour road trip from Colorado to New Mexico my boyfriend and I drove well into the evening, mesmerized by the hues of the setting sun over the desert. Our trance was broken by my car’s blinking fuel light. We were in the middle of nowhere: no buildings, homes, or signs in sight. It had been hours since we had driven through a town with a gas station.
When I finally got cell-phone service, my GPS showed two nearby stations, located at either end of a small town a few miles ahead.
The first station was boarded up. Its pumps had been removed, and the desert had reclaimed the abandoned structure. It took about five minutes to drive through town. There were no other cars, no people walking around, and no lights. Each building looked more desolate than the last.
The second gas station had a car at every pump except for one. We pulled up, and I got out to put the nozzle into my tank, but it wouldn’t pump. It just clicked. I tried to troubleshoot the issue, but I kept getting a strange error message before the power completely shut off. Exasperated, I headed toward the storefront to find an attendant, but the doors were locked. Inside, the place was barren. Every shelf was empty, and the counter had been ransacked.
As I walked back, I noticed that no one else had gotten out of their car. Every single driver and passenger just sat in their seats and stared straight ahead. No one looked at me as I walked by. A strange sensation began to overwhelm me.
My boyfriend had lost all the color in his face. “We need to get the fuck out of here!” he said frantically. We sped away, both of us too spooked to speak.
We did manage to find gas before we completely ran out. On our return trip we passed through the same small town. When we drove by that gas station, drivers were pumping their gas, going into and out of the convenience store. Everything seemed normal.
I recently found a picture of my older son, taken when he was around eight years old at a classroom Halloween party. The frame is made of craft-store foam and decorated with jack-o’-lanterns and witches. He is dressed in a long white sheet with two eyeholes cut out. I can still feel his reproachful gaze.
That was the year I forgot to make him a Halloween costume. Between evening work as an adult-education teacher, going to school part-time, and juggling school drop-offs and pick-ups with prepping dinner and homework, I was perpetually scattered and short-tempered.
That morning, at the moment we needed to leave the house, he was frantic. “Here!” I told him in a fit of inspiration, grabbing a white sheet from the bathroom and tearing into it with the scissors. “It’s a classic!”
When I saw him after school, waiting in his normal clothes amid pirates and robots and Harry Potter characters, I knew it hadn’t worked. He waited until we were safely in the car and down the street to throw the sheet at me and shout that he’d been the only one without a proper costume. All the kids had laughed at him.
We were one of the few nonwealthy families at his upper-middle-class magnet school. He rarely invited friends home, and those who did come over were from the neighborhood or had single parents. He often returned from after-school playdates at friends’ McMansions with stories of art studios, climbing walls, and vacations to Hawaii. Those moms volunteered at the class party and made the frame I am holding in my hand. Those moms were not too busy to make a Halloween costume.
The ghosts that haunt me now are the many small things I did not do for my sons when I had the chance.
When my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, my older siblings were living far away and busy with work and children, so I was the obvious choice to stay with my parents and help out. I was twenty-four years old. It was the most difficult time in my life but also the most rewarding. My mother was my best friend. For three years she carried on with humor and love, in and out of remission and through many surgeries. There is not a thing we did not talk, cry, or laugh about. She was fifty-six when she died.
Thirteen years later I was married and had just moved into a new home when the phone rang. A woman with a friendly voice asked for someone I didn’t know. She immediately apologized, but I assured her it was no bother and asked what number she was trying to reach. She gave me the number, and I told her she was off by just a few digits. We laughed, and she apologized for interrupting my day. Part of me did not want to hang up, but I told her goodbye.
Then I realized: the number she had given me was the phone number from my childhood home. I felt faint and sat down on the bed, thinking about the woman’s voice. I had not heard it for thirteen years, but it was definitely my mother’s. I started to cry, wishing I had recognized her voice and asked more questions. But there was an overwhelming sense of happiness that I had not felt since she died.
And then I laughed. It was my birthday.
Wheat Ridge, Colorado
In college I lived in an off-campus apartment with a woman I didn’t know well or like very much. Her name was Sylvia, and she spent most nights at her boyfriend’s, so I often had the place to myself.
One night I was watching the news when I felt the urge to turn toward the hallway that connected our bedrooms. I saw the translucent figure of a little girl in a white nightgown walking out of Sylvia’s room. She had long red hair that flowed as if a breeze carried it.
I turned away, then looked again. She was still there, but she stepped toward the doorway and disappeared.
It was just my imagination, I thought. Tired eyes can be deceiving.
Weeks later Sylvia and I were home together one night, circling each other in the kitchen. We sat down to eat at the small table in the living room. To break the silence, I went to turn the TV on when she abruptly spoke.
“I know this will sound strange,” she said. “The other night, when you were away, I saw something in the apartment.”
I put my fork down.
“A small girl with long red hair. Dressed in a nightgown. Walking from my room to yours.” She shrugged. “Definitely a ghost.”
I shared my experience with her, and we spent the rest of the evening talking about who the girl could be. Maybe, before this apartment complex was built, there had been a house here, where she had lived and died tragically. We made plans to go to the library the next day to look up old records.
I want to say that our friendship blossomed after this, but the truth is we never went to the library. A few weeks later we moved out of that apartment and never saw each other again.
But I can still see the little girl so clearly in my mind, as if over time she became as solid a presence as most people in my life.
Rochester, New York
I grew up with an extremely domineering father. He was also intellectually curious, funny, insightful, and kind, but he demanded respect from his wife and children at all times.
As he aged, he had a series of strokes that robbed him of his speech, balance, and judgment, but we had to pretend that he was still lucid and physically sound: no grab bars in the bathroom; no handrails for the outside stairs; no ramp for wheelchair access. As his coordination and balance worsened, it was heart-wrenching to watch him try to move around without help.
One day, about a year before he died, I was home for a visit. My mother was working and had asked me to sit with Dad. He picked at his lunch, then smoked his fifth or sixth Camel of the day, holding the cigarette in unsteady hands. When he finished, he said he needed to go to the bathroom. It wasn’t far, but, given his precarious balance, I offered to help.
He ignored me, took a few steps toward the bathroom, then fell to his bare knees.
I held out a hand, but he wouldn’t take it, pushing himself up with the arm of the chair he’d just left. Once on his feet, he swayed, took a step, and fell again.
He struggled to stand, panting from the effort, but stumbled once more. His knees started to bleed.
“Dad, I can help you,” I said, trying to take his arm. “Lean on me.” This time he pushed me back harder.
I became enraged. “You stupid old man!” I yelled. “You’d rather break your hip than let your daughter help you!”
I was horrified by what I’d said. He looked at me with hatred and lurched into the bathroom while I went to fetch my mother for help.
My father refused to say my name again until he died in 1979, referring to me as “that girl” if he spoke of me at all. I visited him a few days before his death, and he turned away when I tried to kiss him. It broke my heart.
As time passed and I learned more about strokes, I let go of my anger. By refusing my assistance, my father had been clinging to the last remnants of his manhood. He could not see how dangerous it was because his thinking was impaired, and his pride was all that kept him afloat.
In 2019 I heard from my niece, whom I hadn’t talked to in about a year. She said a medium she regularly consulted with had just told her that someone was insistent about getting a message to “Helen,” which is my name.
The message was apparently from my father. He wanted to tell me that he was sorry for the way he had treated me and that he loved me. I hadn’t realized until then how deeply wounded I had been by his behavior. I sobbed over the phone.
I don’t believe my niece knew about this incident with my father; I hadn’t ever talked about it with her mother. How would a medium even know about me? But it doesn’t matter where that message came from or how it found me. What matters is that it helped me heal and forgive.
Oak Park, Illinois
I hung on every word of the Readers Write on “Ghosts” [May 2021] in which a mother whose name is withheld describes her emotions regarding her daughter’s transition into a man. The words she so bravely put to paper are the same words I keep to myself.
I, too, can no longer use the name I gave my daughter. I, too, know what I must do to be a good mother, and that my other children would be aghast if they knew my thoughts. Like the author, I love my child and strive to be supportive and embracing. Reading my inner thoughts expressed by another mother resonated powerfully. I’m grateful that you published them.