October 22

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Going Forth with Ghosts

There are ghosts all around me. The stories of long-deceased loved ones mingle with decomposing dreams. They warn me: embrace every day, every minute, every breath.


The last time I see Grandpa Ike, it is 2009, sunny and cool in the Dallas suburb where he lives with my grandmother. Grandpa is in good health for a man in his 80’s. He still drives his oversized van to and from Wal-Mart and Sunday School and Rotary Club. He laughs in the slow, dry way of older folks whose lungs have weakened but whose hearts are full.

Over ham sandwiches and Diet Cokes, Grandpa tells my mom and me, “I’m not afraid to die. I just don’t like the idea of missing anything fun. There’s so much life left to live.”

But only a month later, my Grandpa Ike is gone—his body, anyway. His spirit is still here. He hovers over every Broadway tune, every hearty barbecue sandwich, every stroll up every aisle at the grocery store.

As her own time approaches, my grandmother sees him regularly. She says to my mother—her daughter: “Your daddy came to visit last night.”

We never doubt her visions. Grandpa loved my grandmother more than anything else on this earth. Of course he dotes on her from the afterlife.

An old wooden trailer sits rotting in a Montana field

Nearly six years after Grandpa passes, I am freshly divorced and plummeting toward something like love—though it isn’t, not even close. The fall is as exhilarating as it is terrifying, and I deny the desperate need to pull open my parachute.

I did not choose a “year of yes,” but I say yes by rote and ad nauseam, finding relief in each distraction. I walk through every open door and break down a few closed ones. I’m zig-zagging from lonely beaches to filthy bars, from soaring mountains to anxious cities, from the stimulation of strangers to the solidarity of friends who know me.

Every plane ticket is permission to run. Every packed suitcase excuses me from my next lesson.

My grandfather’s rash curiosity thrums in my veins.

“Don’t you need time to grieve?” a friend asks.

That friend has not seen me sob in the Starbucks drive-through line. They aren’t there when the wrong song plays at the wrong time. Not there when an item of clothing, a scrap of paper, a box of cereal conjures the ghosts of my grand plans. Not there when I bury my plans for the future that will never be.

Old outbuildings on abandoned land in Montana

“I don’t know how to grieve,” I tell my friend. Instead, I paint rainbows over my sadness. I get lost and call it adventuring.

It is true that we all die alone, and truer, still, that we all live alone.

Even within reach of warm arms and steadying hands, we walk solo along every path, our feet making marks that can never be unmade—even when they vanish.

Two energies cannot occupy a single space. Two mouths cannot taste the same bite of food.

But you can sit in the chair beside me. You can let me hear your footsteps alongside mine.

Beside a desolate stretch of Montana road, I trespass into a cluster of crumbling barns. Mice scamper through the molding hay, and white splatters prove the presence of birds among the rafters. Warm breath in cold silence. Persistent life among marching decay.

A few miles outside Canada, I eagerly inhale the new air. Maybe I can replace the fog that weighs me down?

An alpaca rancher introduces me to the thick lashes and soft clicks of her herd. She cups their muzzles like the faces of children.

The bent frame of an old window rests crookedly in its hole in an abandoned Montana outbuilding

There are ghosts all around me.

My skin tingles in their presence. They know things I do not know, and their knowing makes me braver. It prods me to act. It shows me something true.

An aching acceptance expands beneath the burden of truth only an old man can speak—a man with a month left to live, a man with aching bones and unwilling joints and a tired heart buoyed by decades of joy.

In the pink light of Paradise Valley, I choose a hike that feels unpleasantly like exercise. Halfway up, a much older woman in pink spandex breezes past me. She pauses only to say, “You can do this. The top is closer than you think.”

I let myself believe it. And when I reach the summit, I cry.

There is so much life left to live.


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