I was driving down Main Street in Santa Monica last week and I thought I saw my mom’s second husband. My stepfather Carl.
He died in 1993.
A week before I graduated high school we got the call that he died in his sleep, a call so unexpected that you move the phone away from your ear to look at it and make sure it is really a phone and that its really a voice on the other end saying Carl died in his sleep last night. So we boarded a plane and flew from New Jersey out to California to help go through boxes and pictures and things that had belonged to him. My mother and Carl had divorced a few years before. Looking back I can see what a complicated beautiful mess this relationship was, what a complicated beautiful mess all relationships are really.
Why were we the ones to fly out and sort through a dead man’s stuff? I think now, from the vantage point of 20 years too late.
I am here now in Atlanta, just outside of Atlanta actually, down south in McDonough, at my sisters, where we just finished a fundraising walk for my oldest nephew who has Prader Willi Syndrome. PWS, as its called, is a rare genetic disorder with a host of shit that goes along with it but the most well known and unfair is the feeling of starvation the people who have PWS experience.
Blaise, my nephew, was eating out of the trash can tonight.
You catch him and he hugs you right away because he knows how to manipulate. Like we all do. It’s heartbreaking to think that he has to manipulate for food. The other kids today at the walk ate like they were never going to see food again whereas with Blaise we have to be constantly vigilant. He can literally eat himself to death. He can have a piece of banana. He can have just more snack, just one more, then that’s it, really that’s it, this is the last one.
My mom and my sister and me get together. And we fight. We are transported back in time and every reaction is a reaction to something in 1993 or in 1978. And Blaise is in the garbage eating banana peels.
All relationships are complicated beautiful messes.
Filled with ghosts.
We flew to California in 1993 a week before I graduated and went through pictures of Carl’s ex-girlfriends and then we spread his ashes out in the ocean in Malibu. I was so thin that people thought I was dying and I quite liked that. It made me feel something and nothing at once. Pretty much how most people feel when someone dies anyway.
Last week I saw a man on the corner, leaning into the light post, waiting for the Walk signal. He had a wetsuit on, a beard, barefeet, surfboard. I almost got into an accident right there on Main. Carl? It wasn’t him. Surely it couldn’t be. We went through his things and we drove to Malibu and read poems about him as his brother rode out on a surfboard and left him out there on a wave.
But God it made me miss him. It made me remember. Maybe that is why we see ghosts? So we don’t forget?
He would run to the beach barefoot. Then he would come back to the condo we were living in and chase me. I hated how he smelled after his run. You have b.o! I would yell and he would laugh and laugh and run around the sofa and try to catch me in his barefeet. I would laugh too even though I was equally mortified.
What if we had no ghosts?
What if every moment we were, we just were? What if there was no prior? No history? What if you could just be with your family and not be transported back into childhood with all of its ghosts?
The bare feet are what got me with that man on the corner the other day. That and the red beard. The signs were all there. Remember me!
The ghosts are alive and well here in Atlanta. Maybe that’s what drives my nephew to the trashcan to find food. My younger nephew Maddock looks just like my father Mel. He asks us Why he died? Why Grandpa Mel died?
Tonight he came in and tattled on his brother Blaise (who had taken my iPhone and called certain friends 40 times) that Bwaise is cawwing people.
He told me: Bwaise called Grandpa Mel.
I don’t know, the signs are all around us. The ghosts never want us to forget them so they send missiles and food in trash cans and memories and red beards and other things to wake us up. The trick is, the real work is, to not pay too much attention to them.
To just acknowledge them with a nod, and keep on keeping on.
It’s funny, I have been wanting to write about this since I saw my dead stepfather’s ghost on the street in Santa Monica last week, and then tonight someone who took my classes religiously and then moved away sent me this blurb he wrote:
God give me the strength and the energy to be the superhero that I am today. And give me the insight, to see the signs, that point the way to the light.
Then he said:
YOU ARE A SIGN HOLDER, JENNIFER. YOU TOTALLY POINT THE WAY.
Maybe I am somebody’s ghost already.
They are everywhere.