I’ll claim to have seen only three ghosts in my life, one as recently as December 2009. Two of the sightings don’t make any sense, but one apparition may have been linked to my grandmother. It came to me four days after her April 1995 passing, and I’ve written about it a couple times.
I spend a lot of time interviewing other people about their psychic – supernatural - experiences. By far the most common type I hear about is the spontaneous sound or sighting: absurd, irrelevant, usually modest visions and physical effects that don’t seem to represent any attempt to communicate. These experiences fit the dictum of Archibald MacLeish’s famous, “Ars Poetica”: “A poem should not mean/but be.” These type of experiences may be, but they do not seem to mean. They aren’t coherent. They don’t point to anything. They seem to have nothing to do with anything but who happened to be standing where at the right time.
Then there are others. I do interview people who believe they have been given coherent signs, usually from late loved ones. The experience involves either a potentially psychic physical event, a direct and vivid dream, or an outright sighting - an apparition. This type of experience is almost always linked to a family member or spouse, usually a short time after the earthly death. Much of the time these stories are believable, and with at least the appearance of a message being sent. These cases are often better as signs of life after death, too.
While the generic “haunted house” experience may be a hundred times more common, after-death apparitions and related experiences still comprise a remarkable category. They seem so completely different from the ordinary ghost-sighting that I think of them as a separate and distinct phenomenon. As with anything paranormal, it’s hard coming up with a rigid rulebook. A couple tendencies do stand out in the pattern.
These after-death manifestation experiences usually come soon after the death in question. If you don’t get one within a week, my general rule is not to expect it, though some do come later, almost always on special and significant dates – birthdays, death-days, and other dates that seem more than coincidental.
These after-death experiences don’t come exclusively to a single family member, either. Sometimes several people think they’ve been touched by the same late loved one, typically within that weeklong window. Some of the ones who do get signs or messages aren’t the ones everyone would expect. (I often counsel people in the belief-system that our departed don’t necessarily try to reach those they loved most, but those who need them most. And that only those ready to see it will get this communication.)
Very seldom will someone get a sign or appearance twice, though. You do meet the occasional person who claims to be continually visited by a late beloved, but this is very far out of the usual picture. You also meet people who claim to see spirits every day.
You might think I would have had more signs and messages myself. I am in the ghost-business, to put it in shorthand. I am from a family that, by the time I came of age, was tiny. I was raised with almost no one but my mother, father, and paternal grandmother. When you consider the effect we had on each other’s lives, you would think that each one of them would have put in a strong sign by now, or at least that an author interested in ghost stories would manufacture it out of curious but natural events. So far only the last of them, as I said, my grandmother, has even debatably reappeared.
Psychic experiences were reported surrounding my mother’s last six months on this planet and the 24-hour period around her passing. Her own sister seems to have gotten a dream-vision. I experienced only one of them. I was told about the others. So far she hasn’t put in any after-life comments with me. (The dear had plenty of them when she was here, bless her, with which she was not in the least withholding. Maybe it had all been said. Catch you on the upside.)
My father had been a complete psychic no-show, or at least I always thought so, and he was the one I most expected to resurface. He was the first of them to leave my life, in 1992, and I had a good long time to dwell on it. The emotions of shock and grief were so strong and long-lasting that I spent a lot of time analyzing the simple condition of having them. (Why do I feel this way? Why is it affecting me this way? Why can’t I think my way out of it? When is it going to be over?) I have to admit that it was the start of a dysfunctional grief-spiral from which I think I’m only now coming out. My dad and I weren’t close, and that may have been what made his unexpected and instant death all the more painful. There was so much that hadn’t been said. A random conversation with an old friend, though, this spring made me wonder if he hasn’t already put in his word. The incident took place seven years before.
On the day after Easter 2003 I was heading south on I-77. I’d gotten an early start and by ten in the morning was in the hills of Virginia, I figure about an hour south of Beckley, WV. I remember my mood.
My mother passed away in the winter of 2003. Her death had not been sudden. It had been a long five years, going through the decline of the woman who had given me life. My focus had been keeping her in one piece and as happy as could be while keeping my work going. I’d spent very little time planning how I was going to come out on the other side. I was feeling it all that spring, and long after.
As I drove I was haunted by contrast, comparing my reflections of my mother’s vitality and even beauty as a young parent with images of the utter dependency into which so many of us fall at the end of our lives. I was wondering about the quality and nature of human life. I was thinking about the contributions that I wanted to make to the world and how I would accomplish them. I was also in an emotional wasteland. I'd met some great women in the preceding ten years, but I wasn't ready to be in a relationship.
The mood of the day wasn’t helping. There was a weird, overhanging fog. Where had it come from? The road wasn’t wet. It hadn’t rained overnight. The fog felt frail, too. You got the feeling that one good sunbeam, if it could break through, would fry it up in a minute. But it felt creepy.
Most of us accustomed to New York winters would laugh to think that there could be anything hazardous under broad daylight, with clear windshields and dry roads. But the fog held so close to the road that you couldn’t see as far as you would like, and you lost a lot of your perspective on hills. Those four-mile ups and downs were drives into Mirkwood. Even moving sixty miles an hour I felt like one of the Roman legionaries peering out from that lonely fort at Hardknott Pass in England, Cumbria’s “vapor-turbaned” hills around him.
At one point I was in the clear, having passed everybody in a certain chunk of highway. I came up a long curving stretch that arced uphill to my right and disappeared under a bridge. There was a line of stopped cars in the left lane and no one in the right. I couldn’t see what was causing the holdup, but I presumed that it was an accident somewhere ahead in the right lane. “Funny they don’t have a few signs and flashers out,” I remember thinking. I stopped easily behind the last car, about fifty feet from the overhang of the high bridge, and put on my flashers.
My position felt a little claustrophobic. There was a guard-rail to the left and no shoulder. Otherwise, though, I could easily have been lost in my brooding or into some meditation based on a song I was hearing.
At that moment I heard a voice in my mind as if it was the memory of an old conversation buried in my unconscious. “When you’re at the end of a line of stopped cars, Mase, always keep an eye out. Especially on a highway.” It was my father’s voice. I took a look in the rear-view.
The traffic I had passed was beginning to catch up, in a small herd, led by a thundering big semi, lights off, going 60. The driver would stop easily if he started braking, but he was showing no signs of it, and he had just seconds. So, I realized, did I. Space-in-line-be-damned.
I took a quick look to my right to make sure the lane was still empty, sounded the horn, and flashed my lights to try to alert everyone. I pulled across the right lane and the right shoulder, ducked under the bridge, and got in between two massive concrete pillars. Whatever might be coming wasn’t going to be good.
I had just tucked in when I heard a loud, abrupt sound I would best translate into phonemes as, “Munch!” At the same instant to my left I saw the massive truck fire by in the right lane, rocking from side to side. I could see in a flash the stunned profile of the man in the cab, fighting his own steering wheel as if it had come alive. I couldn’t see what happened, but I felt sure, from the sound, that some part of the rig had taken out a couple of cars. I could imagine my long Outback folding up around me, and then… I felt for whoever had been a car-length ahead of my former place. I was hoping that that twenty feet of bare air I no longer occupied had represented a split-second more in time that could have prevented a hit, or at least turned a tail-ender on someone else into a swipe.
I waited just a second and looked cautiously to my left, into the highway. As if the cars themselves could feel the emotions of their drivers, the line was absolutely frozen. I could almost hear the steering wheels stuttering under the drivers’ hands like the chairs at that study hall back at the Gow School when I slammed a book on a desk and told the senior class bully to stand up. The right lane was still empty. I decided to mosy on out and see what was up.
A hundred yards past the bridge the EMT’s and highway personnel had been setting up around an accident on the shoulder to my right. They - with the overhang of the bridge and the effect of the damn fog - were what had caused everyone to pile into the left lane like they did and stop dead. I could see some of them moving back in the direction of whatever had happened behind me, and others on their walkie-talkies starting to call in reinforcements. In another quarter-mile I saw the outcome.
Ten feet below in the channel of the grassy median, the truck had come to rest, spun around and facing in the direction from which it had come. It had punched a hole in the stopped line of cars, taken at least two of them out, and torn right through a section of the low guard rail. I could have studied the stricken cars as I passed, but I was fascinated by a look into the cab of the rig. Pale, shaking his head, his shoulders shivering, the driver was shocked but physically untouched. He looked like a hockey player after a head-slap or someone waking from a nightmare. I think he’d fallen asleep and had a brutal wake-up. How many lives had that little cat-nap cost?
The stillness into which all that violence had snapped was creepier. As I passed, I thought of that scene in the original “King Kong” where the explorers walk by a backdrop of the gigantic dinosaur the Ape-King has just killed, the still-steaming, trembling corpse big enough to be a fixture of landscape. I figured there was little I could do there and decided to keep driving.
Sixty seconds into the clear of that accident, probably with my first full breath, I thought about that subtle voice in my mind, the voice of my dad, echoing that obscure driving tip I am not sure I was ever given in language. It had almost surely saved my life. I analyzed it as a potential psychic experience and rejected it immediately – not because I didn’t think it could be something, but because there were so many other possibilities for it.
That subtle voice could so easily have been a stray thought or an impression, just a figment of consciousness. To reach a reflexive conclusion that it could have been paranormal, even the psychic message I was seeking, was against all that I was working toward. That’s what the people I interview do, some of them every day. That’s what the ghosthunters do with every orb or EVP: it’s a message, it’s a spirit. I would never try to “turn” a disbeliever in psychic phenomena based on that incident. There was no way to prove that it had even happened, much less what it might represent. I left it as nothing but a curiosity. When I retold the story a few times after, it was always with the theme of, “Wow, look at the close call I had once,” rather than, “You know, I think I heard my father.” It stayed so till a meeting I had with a friend in late April of this year.
Early this April I loaded up the Subaru and headed to Charleston, SC, for a trip that has become a spring tradition by now – the same trip on which the above incident took place in 2003. I was there two weeks before starting my leisurely swing home. I spent a little time in Virginia and central Ohio, and a lot in the southeast. I noticed the differences, some good, some bad, between the Western New Yorkers I live with and the folks I observed. We’re all people, with our good points and our dubious ones. At least some of both seem to be regional tendencies.
I spent time with my mother’s people in South Carolina. I learned that my southern grandfather Will Ward came home from the office and relaxed at night reading Latin poetry. It made me wish I’d been a better scholar. I learned for the first time that my mother’s favorite flower was the Foxglove we saw blooming in Charleston. I wished again that I could have been a better son. Ah, we all grow at different rates.
On the way home I met up again in Granville, Ohio, with my college girlfriend, a Cincinnati girl now a partner in a big Columbus law firm. This is another event that’s become a part of my spring. We are lifelong friends who meet up every April when I pass thru the scene of our alma mater, Denison University. We catch up over a couple cocktails and laugh about our younger selves. We update each other about what we’ve learned about life and the world in the preceding year. We can’t remember any more who dumped who way back when, but trying to figure it out has become a developing joke.
Spring was out early in that part of Ohio, and we talked on the veranda of the Granville Inn. One topic that came up was the close call above. That year we had met up on my trip to the south rather than on the home-swing, so this event was the morning after. I had always meant to tell her about it but kept forgetting on that annual meetup. I related it that evening in late April 2010.
“Why don’t you consider that a message?” she said. It wasn’t until then that it honestly hit me. When I reflect on the importance of that moment – those seconds – I start to wonder. I have to say in fairness that it could have been the outreach of my late father.
Feel free to think I might be stupid for being resolutely blind to it this long. Not only was it against material nature, it might have been against my father’s nature. He was very much a “sink or swim” kind of a guy. Learn or burn. I am sure, too, though, that there was one exigency he would have recognized.
I’m reminded of the story about Marv Levy, four-time Buffalo Bills Super Bowl coach, telling his father over the phone that he had quit his studies at Harvard to be a high school football coach.
There was a pause. “Be a good one,” his father said.
I wonder if there might not be some rule out there that our dear departed have limited reappearances, maybe just one for us each. If so, in my case, there was a pause. And my dad picked a good one.
I am sorry for dwelling so much on my own loss and grief and what I may have learned from it. This is a disorganized, self-indulgent piece, and I don’t have time to clean it up. I have to get back to other work. I’ll end with the dedication of “A Ghosthunter’s Journal” (1999). The Latin phrase is pronounced “ot-kway wa-lay.” It’s part of a formal, honorific Roman goodbye before a separation that’s expected to be long. Familiar now in literary circles because of its use in poems by Catullus and later Tennyson, it means, “and farewell.”
Long drives and rain set me to summing years,
And one poured half that talk we could have had.
Your life summed back. My debt, sir, perseveres
Each page that shines you. Atque vale, Dad.