Last week, Marv called me and asked if I had any interest in attending a séance led by Gary at the nursing home. I didn’t even ask for details, because I immediately knew this was something I wanted to be a part of. I’ve made it a rule for myself that if I’m able, I will never pass up the opportunity for a supremely weird opportunity. For the sake of transparency, I will admit that I don’t know where I stand on the metaphysical world and supernatural occurrences. I was deeply invested in the idea when I was a kid, so much so that I spent $20 of my hard-earned allowance on a good luck amulet that was allegedly so powerful that even a picture of it couldn’t be shown on the website. Turns out, I spent $20 on a polished rock that made no perceptible change in my life, but I still have it today. I would love for ghosts to be real and to be able to tell the future, or at least be told my future, but I’ve never fully been able to buy into any of that, just as I’ve never fully been able to buy into any type of faith. But still, I went with an open mind.
I went to the home this morning to help Gary set up, because when you’re dealing with a bunch of folks in their 80s and 90s, you can’t wait for nightfall for a séance. The staff repeatedly told us that this was not an activity that was sanctioned by the home and that if any of the other residents complained, we had to stop immediately. Gary gave a wave of his hand and called them a bunch of fuddy duddies but agreed to the terms. He had a whole grand plan that we would start with tarot card readings, then attempt to contact the other side. We set up one big table in one of the community rooms, and we arranged all sorts of candles and gemstones and tapestries. Slowly, the residents we had invited trickled in. Gram, the embodiment of a sweet, grandmotherly stereotype, surprised me by being the most excited by this foray into the occult. As she was laying out the cookies she baked specifically for this event, she told me, “I just love the idea of seeing something new after so many decades on this earth.” May we all be like Gram as we age.
Carl surprised me by even showing up at all. Carl and I have played checkers together since I started spending time there, but he had never spoken a word to me, or anyone else in the home in all the years he had lived there. He frequently passed me notes during our games that asked questions about myself. He always wanted to know about me, but he very rarely wrote down anything about himself. There was something profoundly sad about Carl, but he never gave up any information. Despite knowing nothing about him, I cherished our time together, and I found myself talking more to him than to many friends my age. He shook up my role as the friend who always does the listening, and it was disarming. He surprised me one day by showing me he had learned how to use a computer when he found out I had this blog, and therefore knows a lot about what has happened to me in the last year. I know he’ll read this, too, and I know he’ll know that I love him no matter what.
Eventually, everyone showed up, and there were nine of us in total. Gary seemed excited by the idea of our number being divisible by three, because apparently this is significant. He pulled out his tarot deck and started giving everyone readings. When he pulled the Death card on Carl, everyone else burst out laughing and agreed that in this venue, that isn’t the most intimidating or surprising card in the deck, but Carl still looked ruffled. Gary read everyone like a pro. I’ve always admired people who are capable of pulling little bits of people into a reading and giving them enough of what they want to hear and enough intrigue to make it feel real. Maybe it is real. I don’t know anything for certain. Gary told me that the cards foretold great excitement in my future, and perhaps a choice between lovers. I can now say that I have been hooted and hollered at by a room full of old geezers giving me crap about my love life.
Everyone got their reading, and it was time to begin the séance. We lit the candles and turned out the lights and joined hands around the table. We had decided earlier that we were going to try and contact Mary Beth’s husband, Ulysses, who died a war hero. She missed him terribly and never remarried. She was pregnant when he died, so she wanted to tell him about their daughter and let him ask any questions he may have. She had brought photos of him, which we spread around the table. Gary recited some words and then we all closed our eyes and held the image of Ulysses in our minds.
There was a strange electric energy in the air that can probably be chalked up to nine people nervously existing together with joined hands in a small room, but Mary Beth suddenly gasped and said she could smell her husband–juniper with a little bit of citrus. I couldn’t smell anything, but Mary Beth started crying. We opened our eyes and Gary asked Ulysses to make himself known by knocking on the table or extinguishing a flame. We gave him ample time, but nothing happened. Mary Beth gasped again and said she felt something like a wisp of a hug on her shoulders, but that the smell was now gone. She told us with a smile that her husband had gone back, but she somehow knew he was happy. She wiped away her tears and Marvin passed her his handkerchief. We all took some deep breaths and I wondered if anything had really happened or if the power of suggestion was just as comforting as the real thing.
Gary looked at me with his dark, gentle eyes and told me the group had been talking earlier in the day and that, if I was willing, they’d like to try and contact Andrew for me. He said since he had died the most recently, it might be easier to get ahold of him. He explained that my fresh grief was a powerful tool and that the odds of him already hanging around close to this side of the spiritual plane were pretty high, since he was ripped away so violently. I closed my eyes and entertained the idea of feeling Andrew against my skin, hearing his voice, or even just smelling him. He always smelled slightly of sawdust and lightly maple-infused tree bark, and I would give everything to bottle that smell and carry it with me for the rest of my life. I told Gary that I didn’t bring any photos of Andrew with me, and he said I could just pull one up on my phone for everyone to take a look at. I agreed. I had nothing to lose, as I had already lost everything in December.
Everyone took in Andrew’s picture and closed their eyes. I put my phone away and joined them. Gary recited the same invocation and we waited. I wanted so badly for something to happen that my eyes welled up with tears. A memory of Andrew suddenly, almost violently, entered my mind, and it was so vivid that it almost felt like it was happening.
He was driving me home after Thanksgiving with his family, the day after I told him I would move to Nashville with him. The plan for the rest of the night was to watch the worst possible movies we could find, and to break the news to my cats that they were going to be Southern gals in a few months. We were discussing our future together and our hands were intertwined on the gear shift. He was wearing a mustard colored sweater that made his amber eyes glow even more warmly, and he was overdue for a haircut, but I loved playing with the long bits at the nape of his neck. We were talking about what it means to be committed to a person in a partnership, and I told him that I was afraid one of us would get bored. He told me if that started to happen, one of us would do something crazy to shake the other one up. I told him that he might wake up one day and want kids, and even if I decided I wanted them too, there’s a possibility that the brutality of my rape six months prior left me unable to support a pregnancy. He shrugged and said we would go adopt one if we couldn’t make one, and if he wanted kids and I didn’t, he promised he would choose me every time and we would just adopt a high maintenance dog instead. I told him that I was afraid he would get offended or find me cold and distant when I needed to be alone for a little bit. He told me he would buy me a house next door to ours so I could have a cats-only zone to escape to. I asked him what would happen if he woke up one day and realized he made a mistake and felt trapped. He didn’t say anything and pulled the car over. He took my face in his hands and said, “You can’t talk me out of loving you. I love you from the deepest parts of my soul, and it feels like it transcends this world, these bodies. I will love you through my entire life and beyond my death. I will not get bored. I will not feel trapped. If you feel those things at any point, you can leave me and I’ll even help you pack, but that won’t stop me from loving you.” He kissed me long and hard, and all doubt and fear left my body and I saw my entire future laid out before me with this man who made me feel invincible and infinite and really, truly seen for the first time in my life.
I opened my eyes and saw everyone looking at me, most of them crying. Gram was openly sobbing and sputtered out, “I just feel such love right now, I can’t explain it.” Mary Beth squeezed my hand tighter and told me she wasn’t sure what happened or where I went, but she knew that Andrew had been there with me. Gary smiled and whispered, “That was a good one. Andrew, if you are still with us, let your presence be known. Otherwise, thank you for letting us feel the love you have for our girl.” We all paused for a few moments, then released hands after nothing happened.
I don’t know how to explain what happened. I’m a skeptic, so I’m hardly convinced that there was anything supernatural at work, but I cannot discredit the power of human emotion. I think being in a room full of people who were focused on one person, combined with my desire to see him, forced this memory into my mind, and it was so vivid that I felt exactly the way I felt in that car. I think it’s entirely possible for people to pick up on the emotions of others, especially in such an intense setting, and I think that’s exactly what happened. I don’t really believe Andrew’s spirit was in that room, partially because to think so would give me a dangerous amount of hope, and I don’t think I would ever be able to move on if I thought I could reach out to him.
We were silent and reflective for a few minutes, until Carl looked across the table at me and spoke, “I need to talk to you in private.” Cynthia stood up and shrieked, “Holy shit, Carl’s possessed! Gary! Get the demon out!” I would have laughed if Carl hadn’t looked so forlorn. Gary settled Cynthia down, and Carl and I excused ourselves while everyone else whispered amongst themselves. Not a single one of them had ever heard Carl speak.
We went to another room and sat down. Carl wouldn’t look me in my eyes and stared at the floor as he started to tell me his story. He explicitly told me that he’d like me to write about it whenever and however I saw fit.
Carl began by telling me that he has been an alcoholic since he was a young man, and that he hasn’t had a drink in decades, but he has wanted one every day. In his late thirties, Carl drove home from the bar and ran a stop sign directly into a car holding a young couple that had been married less than a year. The husband died on impact, and the wife survived. Carl got very little jail time, and he said he deserved a life sentence. His own wife left him and took their son, and neither one has ever spoken to him again. He doesn’t even know if they’re alive. He wished he had put down the bottle right after that, but he spent several more years in drunken misery, praying to forget but knowing he deserved to remember every moment for the rest of his life. He only stopped drinking when the young widow recognized him in the supermarket a few years later and smacked the whiskey bottle out of his hands and told him if she ever saw him drinking again, she would kill him. He hasn’t had a drink since that day.
Carl told me he wishes he could say he spent the rest of his life making up for what he had done by volunteering at charities and rebuilding homes for orphans, but he didn’t. He has lived the rest of his days in a lasting depression and has only continued to live because he doesn’t feel like he deserves to die. He told me that God has cursed him with a long, healthy, dementia-free life. Carl recites his story out loud to himself every night, but that’s the only talking he does. He wasn’t going to tell me, but then Andrew died at the hands of a drunk driver. He watched in real time how this specific type of grief deteriorated me, and he felt that each day that went by without telling me was a betrayal. He told me he understood if I never wanted to play checkers or speak with him again.
I didn’t know what to say. I have spent so many hours of these past seven months hating the man who killed Andrew. He received a sentence of three years in jail, which didn’t feel like enough, but looking at Carl and suddenly understanding why he always held such sadness in his eyes made me realize that a greater punishment had been put on that man. I regretted all of the ill wishes I had towards the driver, because that is not the kind of person I am. I hate that he is the reason Andrew is gone, but I don’t wish for him to live the rest of his life as an empty shell who chooses not to speak to anyone. I want for him to change his life and make his corner of the world a better place. I want him to pay for what he has done by putting as much good in the world as Andrew would have. I want him to balance out what he has taken away. I’ve always felt that kindness was one of my most cherished qualities, but Andrew’s death made it hard for me to find my way back to that, and I have felt lost in some dark expanse of smoking rubble. It is the driver’s fault, and it was Carl’s fault, but this does not inherently make them bad men, and my anger and unkind thoughts will not bring Andrew back. I don’t want to carry the weight of this anger anymore, and I don’t want the man that killed Andrew to spend 50 years doing nothing but spiraling downwards.
I took Carl’s hand and told him that I want to continue playing checkers with him, but only if he promised to tell me more about himself, because he is more than his worst mistake. I refuse to believe he stopped experiencing life in his late thirties, and I want to find the parts of himself he has hidden from everyone so I can write him a proper living obituary, just as I have for so many of the other residents. I thanked him for telling me and assured him that he couldn’t get rid of me that easily. I hugged him while we both cried, then walked him to his room, as he wanted to be alone for a while.
I returned to the séance just as the group was discussing whether or not they should try and get in touch with Pauline, a resident and friend of ours who passed in October. Marvin groaned and said, “If we let that dirty old woman back into this home, her spirit is going to find a way to give us all simultaneous orgasms just for the hell of it, and that is not something I want to see from any of you. Veto Pauline.” The weight of my conversation with Carl lifted off of me and I sat back down with the strangest group of friends I have ever collected, who have taught me so much about what it looks like to grieve but still make room in your heart for more love. They are an extension of my family, and there’s no one else I would try to raise the dead with.