The first time I saw a ghost I was 20 years old.
It was Epiphany weekend and we were opening presents at my grandparents’ house in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, when from the love seat in the living room, I looked up to see a woman, dressed in pink with a high auburn bun, standing in the adjacent dining room. She then moved to a set of windows and vanished.
My breath hitched.
It’s important to note that even “Scooby Doo” scares me, that I’m 41 years old and afraid of the dark, and that while binge watching “Stranger Things,” I made my children sleep in my bed and not the other way around. I am a classic scaredy-cat, afraid of my own shadow, and yet, the pink lady revealed herself to me.
Why, God? Why?
I don’t know who finally noticed that I’d stopped talking, moving, or even blinking. But I eventually squeaked out an anxious, “I think I saw a ghost.”
At this, Grandma perked up.
“Was she wearing pink?”
That’s when the hairs on the back of my neck rose.
“Was her hair piled atop her head?”
I could hear my heart pounding.
“And she was walking to the windows?”
Why was no one panicking with me? I’d have gotten a bigger reaction out of seeing a cockroach cross the dining room.
“Oh, well, that was my mother then. I often see her. Where the dining room windows are used to be a sunporch. She loved that porch.” Grandma took a sip of her cocktail before adding, “She was likely going to take in the moon and relax.”
She said this like it was completely normal to have her dead mother roaming around the house, like everyone’s dead relatives are just hanging out at home, like I know you’ll never be able to close your eyes again, Annie, but don’t worry. She’s just taking in the moon!
That night I didn’t sleep. My grandparents’ house was built before the Civil War and our family had lived in it since 1890. Rumor was Grandma’s mother, the infamous pink lady, held seances in the library of the house and that one time the table around which they contacted the dead levitated. So how many other spirits were hanging out, taking in the moon?
I got my answer a few days later.
In a corner of the dining room was an upright piano. Should my grandparents and their friends have a rousing cocktail hour, it usually involved the piano where classics were crooned out with the aid of Jim Beam. Before she passed away, my Great Aunt Edith was usually the one tickling the ivories. Then Grandma took over. But they had similar playing skills and almost identical sopranos, making it easy to mix up the two.
So when I was walking downstairs a couple of afternoons later, having put the ghost of my great grandmother behind me enough to be upstairs alone in the daylight, I heard Grandma on the piano singing. I found it a bit early for a rousing cocktail hour even for my family. But when I got to the bottom of the stairs, through the side transom windows that divided the living and dining rooms, it wasn’t Grandma whom I saw at the piano. It was Aunt Edith–Aunt Edith who had been dead since I was 13 and at whose funeral I got sick off of pea salad.
Once again, I couldn’t move. Then I blinked several times. This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be happening. But Aunt Edith played on peacefully, and then she was suddenly gone. She dissolved completely, like smoke softening in the air.
I ran to the kitchen and breathlessly cried, “I saw Aunt Edith! I saw Aunt Edith!”
Grandma, again unphased, asked for the deets and when I was through, all she said was, “You have the gift, Annie.”
I prayed I was unworthy.
“You can see beyond.”
“I don’t want this gift,” I adamantly said.
“You don’t have a choice,” she smiled.
So that was it then. I saw dead people.
The following year, my grandmother passed away. Not long after that, like a complete idiot, I agreed to see “The Sixth Sense” in the theater. Sweet baby Jesus, tell me that I’m not some ghost therapist like that poor kid, I thought. It isn’t an exaggeration to describe the time that followed as my having applied the buddy system at all hours at my grandparents’ house. If I was gonna see dead people, I’d at least have an arm to clutch if the ghosts tried to take me with them back to whatever sunporch in the sky where they convened.
But I never saw any ghosts again. As time moved on, I convinced myself that the phenomenon was in my head and that as I’d always thought before, ghosts aren’t real. Then something truly beyond logic happened long after I saw dead people, something that convinced me none of it had been born from the imagination of a paranoid scaredy-cat.
I had just given birth to a chubby, little round-faced boy who had my eyes. I was all at once weepy and energized, like I could have a good cry and then climb the highest mountain ten times over. But then it started—the bleeding. And soon, I wasn’t weepy or energized. I was warm. I was cozy. I was somewhere else in this serene place where the physical world was bustling but I was contentedly still. The experience was sort of like when you’re at the beach and children are splashing nearby, someone’s speaker plays music, seagulls squawk about, and yet, you’re able to find that quiet place in the roar of the waves to slip away.
I turned my head and saw my husband holding my baby boy whose finger was wrapped around his.
“Don’t close your eyes, Annie. Stay with me,” he pleaded. His eyes looked desperate.
I moved my head just an inch and lost track of him. I closed my eyes for what felt like the most luxurious hour. I felt the sun on my skin. I felt the softest blanket laid upon me. My head nestled into the cushiest pillow. Even my toes were swathed in warmth. Far away I heard doctors shouting orders, the rattle of instruments on metal tables, and my husband’s pleas to look at him. But I didn’t join their panic. I was the most peaceful I had ever been.
Hours later, when I finally held my baby, it was explained to me that I’d lost three quarters of my blood and I’d be receiving transfusions overnight. My teeth chattered. I was shaking. I noticed heated blankets piled on top of me. Apparently, as I began to bleed, my body temperature dropped significantly and I was ice-cold.
“But I wasn’t cold,” I argued. “It was lovely.”
It was only then that I became scared, only then that the hairs on the back of my neck finally stood. I know what I had experienced. It had to be real and yet there was no explanation.
Some could explain that my ghost encounters were a reflection of myself in the glass of the transoms, or that the sound of Aunt Edith was an echo from somewhere in the house or outside. They might explain that my experience in the labor room was a slip of consciousness. And they may be right. But one thing became clear to me in the weeks following childbirth. The ghosts themselves never scared me. That warm place wasn’t scary. What scared me was that something I never thought was possible just might be. And I knew then that explanations are just a band-aid solution we use on our psyche to prevent us from believing something beyond the safety of our norm.
I know enough to know that there is no proof I’ve seen dead people. And there is no proof that I’ve been beyond this realm. I only have my story, and the fact that to me, it was all quite real. It’s like Dumbledore says to Harry Potter, “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Outside, the air is brisk and the mood is haunting. Ghosts, goblins, and the spooktacular Halloween season is prime for a good scare. And whether what spooks us is born from fantasy or not, what makes the hairs on the back of our necks stand up doesn’t always need an explanation.
Maybe spirits are closer than we think? Maybe the journey to the afterlife is luxurious? Maybe seeing beyond means seeing beyond what scares us and into possibilities safe from logic? What’s so scary about that?
Maybe that’s the gift the pink lady was trying to give me.