The latest resentment chewing into my chest is that even now, in her last moments, my thoughts are not of my grandmother. They are of him, what will happen to our ghost when she’s gone.
He manifested almost immediately after death, my grandfather. So much unfinished business. Not his, you understand. The dead are dead and gone, as Grandmère says. Everyone dies without feeling finished. It’s when we can’t let go of the energies that make the mere thought of them crackle and spark, when their memories have charge that flows through us, that’s when you get a ghost.
Thirty years. He died when I was eight. I still can’t think of him without a sour shock to my body, like licking a battery, a punch so swift I lose my breath and feel my heartbeat halt. I wonder for a moment: will it ever start again? Or will I keep waiting for my lungs to overpower my fear, waiting, waiting for a deep breath to keep me from sobbing, to keep me from dying, frozen in my tracks?
My memories are what keep grandfather’s ghost larger than life. Grandmère’s memories are what keep him handsome. Human shaped. Crinkled around the eyes as if he smiled kindly more often than not. If ghosts had eyes, I suspect his would twinkle. None of that comes from me. And it’s just the two of us now.
The fingers that are too long, that end in manicured but razor sharp claws, that must be me. What will they grow into, unbound by my grandmother’s love?
In the beginning, he haunted so many that he blurred around the edges. His shape pulled and pulsed with the ideas of him, unique as fingerprints, forced into reconciliation by whatever quirk of the universe binds them into ghosts.
Most people refuse to acknowledge them.
Some see their ghosts in crowds, out of a corner of an eye. It makes them feel warm. Maybe sad. Maybe relieved to remember the shape they fear is dead. Most people wonder at the absurd complexity of the human mind, laugh about their inventions.
What it is, is a wrinkle in reality. Not a hallucination.
They’re real enough to touch us. Or can be. And anything that can touch you can hurt you.
Grandmère and I have been living with him for so long now. Everyone else has untwisted the fist of fingers he clenched around their heart. Some people can do that. Sometimes time takes care of your ghosts, and their power just fades. For us, he hasn’t faded. He’s seated at our dinner table. Pacing nearby as we sip our first cup of coffee. Stalking one of us, unpredictably, as we try to go about our day. Hovering too close for me to shake a sense of dread. Standing close enough to Grandmère for her to wilt towards him fondly, like a plant twists toward the sun, wanting to caress and comfort what can’t be held.
Those without Sight sometimes visit and cluck at their teeth softly, projecting a sadness on the way we have molded our lives around a hole. They see how we dance around a man who’s been gone for years, as if his absence continues to have weight, keeping us in orbit. They’re not wrong about the tragedy of it all, but he’s far from gone. We do what we do to keep this spirit tamed, whatever it takes to have him haunt us instead of consume us.
I am afraid. The monster I know is about to be mine alone. Irony, irony, I don’t know what he will look like then, what he will be capable of, what he will want from his whispered existence when he is bound only to me.
She lies still, her chest rising and falling. Her breath is not peaceful. It comes and goes irregularly; none of her remaining moments can be taken for granted. She keeps her eyes closed, for now. I do not know if she is asleep.
In the corner, seated in the armchair where I might sit to be comfortable while I keep my vigil, the ghost stares at me. I can’t detect his eyes, but I feel them, with penetrating pain exactly as I remember my grandfather’s savage glare. I have gotten used to a more generic menace from him. An unhurried malevolence.
I perch on the radiator, watching Grandmère. I form words in my head that seem to be prayers for mindfulness, that I might be here and now, in moments that will never come again. I keep stealing glances at the ghost.
When I was six, old enough to remember the day itself but very little of what came before, I was brought to my grandparents’ house. My mother said she would be back, but she didn’t explain that when she returned, it would only be for short and strained visits. Grandmère let me figure that out on my own. When I want to be generous, I think my mother did not know how to raise a child with Sight. She gave me to her own mother, free and clear, and walked away.
Grandfather wanted to free me from the alienation that Sight brings, but managed only to strip away joy. His rules ate into my tenderness like iron shackles. His spitting pronouncements turned my every growth into shame. He did not want me in their house, grafted to the wrong branch of the family tree.
Grandmère told me every day that I was a gift, a gift my mother gave her, and she allowed me my peculiarities. She never asked me to deny the shades I saw, the auras that crackled around people and foretold on them. She simply insisted I live in this world too, the thuddingly practical one, with its predictable time and sensible progression of cause and effect. To learn to be with people who lock themselves inside their skulls and share themselves with painful and inaccurate drips of words, and learn to love them, even.
Grandfather was one of them. The unexceptional.
That word, I use it narrowly. He was, of course, an exception to many expectations. He must have been, knowing now the robust phases of his manifestation. Sometimes I wonder if I remember him at all, or just the hollow that has taken up so much space in my life with Grandmère.
I shudder as the ghost flickers and seems to grow.
Grandmère is so small in this bed. Too small, I think, for someone who has been everything to me. Sadness should open up my memories of her, let me coast through white waters of rushing emotions. Instead, I find myself locked into the present.
I don’t want her to be gone. I don’t want to be alone. I am ready to be done with this horrible stasis. I cannot wish for her death to hasten. I cannot sit another minute in this room. I cannot leave, for even a moment.
There is no one to use words with, to wedge open my closed throat with stories of Grandmère, to force open the locked door to my memories happier with questions. I am alone.
I am almost alone. Grandmère takes another shallow breath.
I feel too old and too young. The chapters beyond Grandmère will add up; I have many years left. But I have not known life without her, not really, and I am not hungry to start over.
These moments must be the reason that people seek each other out, sew their lives together. I should have – could have – chosen differently. Circled others, remained in their constellations. I might have been able to call on someone to be here with me.
Grandmère was all light and the ghost was gravity, pulling so strongly we could not fight for long. As you are falling, you make choices – do you reach out in hopes of saving yourself, or do you make sure you will not pull anyone else with you into the darkness? I flailed, I think, but did not dare use my claws to dig in…to anything or anyone. Staying free of deep connections was protection and sacrifice, willingly made. Grandmère never told me to, but I knew she was proud of my grace.
It was right; the ghost was our responsibility.
Grandmère killed him – to keep me safe, to keep me with her. Grandfather made allowances for her Sight, but could not stand it in me, she said. I don’t remember the details myself. He would have sent me away, she said. I remember her comfort, her matter of fact explanations. Her anger, her sorrow. I’d give anything to have clear memories, the kind you can rewatch and see differently as you change. I thought eight was old enough to be an adult, to shoulder a grownup’s burden. But the ability to lift something heavy is not the same as being ready to carry it. A child grows differently, weighed down like that.
I think of bicycles, swallowed by trees and lifted from the ground. All it takes is being chained to one for a few decades.
I think of Grandmère, teaching me to ride, the summer after, on a bike I didn’t know I wanted, but grandfather bought. He told Grandmère it was something all children should learn, as close to flying as people could come. She knew where it was hidden in the barn, waiting for my birthday.
I stand to stretch my legs, knowing the nurse will be in soon to check vitals.
The ghost stands too. He crosses to my grandmother’s bed, her bird body. She does not flinch as he reaches for her clawed hand. I do.
She sighs, deeply. I cannot make out from her aura what it means. The same sound could be contentment, frustration, fear, exhaustion – anything, really. Breath is breath.
I have watched the glow around her fade into colorless shadow, like watercolors oversaturated until they are barely more than a meaningless stain. I don’t know how to say anything to her like this.
The ghost is still, over her. I think he looks hungry.
Time has slowed in this room. I can feel it sticking to my skin, like sweat on a windless night.
He turns to me, slowly, slowly. Soon I will be alone with him. He raises a hand to half-heartedly acknowledge me, but does not leave her side. He stands between us, still trying to part us.
I search Grandmère for signs - of life, of protection, of peace. I know she will not haunt me. We are not unfinished. Not in this way. This is the blessing of a long decline. Love is never finished, but…two people can come to terms with each other’s mortality.
Grandmère has always said that Sight is a miracle, and her belief – in God, in the church – it has never wavered. I am agnostic at best. I nearly smile, realizing that here, at the very end, I am the one who is certain she is going to a better place, and Grandmère, for all her talk of heaven, cannot bring herself to let go of this world and plunge into the next.
I fill with rage. I will not be kept from her by this thing, glowering in front of me. I kneel next to her and take her hand, fighting through the terrible cold that already embraces it.
The ghost, utterly faceless now, shifting to new form, is solid enough to grasp my chin and turn my head towards him. He strokes my cheek, slowly. My skin crawls and I do not scream.
“I love you,” I whisper to Grandmère, staring at him with unbroken defiance. “I will be OK. I promise. You can go when you are ready.”
She sighs again, and her hand squeezes mine, ever so faintly. Together, we are warmer than the specter that overlaps us.
When time starts again, it speeds and I am startled out of my senses. Everything happens fast; the alarms, the bodies that stream into the room and begin calling to each other in loud loud voices, the kindly nurse who moves me out of the way.
I lose track of the ghost and cannot find him. My fear overtakes me, and they think it is grief as I mutter “No, no, no no no no…” My voice hurts my throat.
I don’t even know what I am looking for anymore.
Then I see it, a multi-legged thing made of sinew and bare muscle, and teeth, teeth everywhere. It emerges from the huddle of doctors over my grandmother’s body, and it moves with the unholy speed of a predator. I am frozen.
In no time, it is upon me, and I cry out. The nurse sees my tears, which flow as this thing twists around and over me, to my back, through my back, bringing me to my knees. I feel it rip into me, eating its way into my chest from behind, curling itself into the hole it has made. The pain is enormous.
The nurse hugs my body, I see the tears she sheds for my orphaned situation. But she does not shed them for me. I am here, by the chair, watching Grandmère animate my body. It looks directly at me, and smiles. The tears glitter at me, but there are no more being made. She lets them linger on her face, in her eyes; my last, incomplete act.