A Ghost Story
It was the first time I entered Mom’s apartment days after she died alone there in her bed. I should have been there, but I wasn’t. Perhaps I could have prevented it, but I didn’t.

That was almost twenty-five-years ago, a quarter of a century.

Her death was the first of someone close; my first encounter with the magnitude of what had previously been just a concept: death. A vague reality doesn’t sink in until it happens, when someone close dies. Still in shock from encountering this reality and the loss of a loved one, I approached her apartment.

It was left to me to deal with her stuff, her very personal belongings. She had a will that described what to do with her monetary assets, so I’m talking personal stuff, stuff that chronicled her journey here on earth and marked it as meaningful for her and those who loved her.

A few years before she died she started asking friends and relatives to tape their names to the bottom of certain knick-knacks she had collected over the course of her life, the things they would like to have after she died. So, that part was okay. I could easily honor the commitments she’d made before she died. But there were lots and lots of things that hadn’t been claimed.

There would be no problem dealing with the hoards of toilet paper and Kleenex. And soap... boxes full of those tiny bars of soap you get when you stay at a motel. She and my father used to own a motel. And there were drawers full of lipsticks and other cosmetic paraphernalia. I still have some of her lipsticks. I wear my mother’s lipstick to this day. I have a friend who tells me that’s not a good idea, but I do it anyway. It makes me feel close to her, damn the health risks.

Oh my, what to do with her clothes, many of which she made herself. She was a very skilled seamstress, a tiny woman, about five feet tall and not an ounce over 85 pounds.

The things that would be most difficult for me to deal with would be the things she treasured, artifacts from her travels and mementos commemorating life events. Pictures. Oh my, the pictures... and old newspaper clippings, letters, all things that meant much to her, many of which had yellowed from years of storage in boxes in her closets. I wanted to make sure her things ended up in the possession of those who would treat them with respect and treasure them as she did. This was the one last thing I could do for my mother, and I was almost catatonic with fear of not getting it right–Mom was a stickler for doing things right.

Mom’s second floor apartment had a private entrance. I stood on the stoop facing her door contemplating the magnitude of my task. I took a very deep breath, put my key in the lock and turned it. As I tentatively nudged the door open a crack, I heard voices coming from upstairs in her apartment. Who’s up there? I stood like the salt statue of Lot’s wife before I found my voice and called out, “Who’s up there”? Whoever was up there ignored my query; they kept on talking as though I hadn’t shouted. I listened carefully. Who’s she talking to? Ghosts? I reluctantly ascended the steps and was somewhat relieved that the voices sounded like a soap opera on her television. Gathering my senses, I searched for a rational explanation. The police had gotten the call to check things out. They had found her dead body. My brother had been there before me. He said he had met with the mortician and saw to it that her remains had been taken to the funeral parlor. I could not believe someone would have left her television on. ...All this passed through my mind while I climbed 15 steps.

When I reached the top of the stairs I was met with a foul smell, like rotting meat.

I have to tell you I was freaked. I knew her body had been removed, but was it really? How could I trust what I had heard from my brother on the telephone? I tried to play back his exact words in my head. I could be mistaken. Would I find her body still there in the bed where she died? Could this odor be the remains of her corpse, or possibly the smell of her essence not quite gone? Was her rotting dead smell lingering to remind me of something, some essence of her being? Was there some kind of meaning in this? Was it to remind me that I was out of town when she died? Was I supposed to feel guilty because I had forgotten to leave her a phone number where I could be reached in case of emergency? If she was there, I reasoned, she would know I had lugged a truckload of guilt up those stairs.

I was her only daughter, after all, and her best friend. She and my father were divorced and she and my brother did not get along. My children loved her and treated her well. They stayed in touch even after they moved to distant parts of the country and were in the stages of beginning their own adult lives. But I knew her intimately. She depended on me, and I had let her down.

Oh, yes, the voices, they were indeed coming from her television. I needed to turn it off so I could think. I picked up her remote controller and punched the off button. It wouldn’t go off. I tried several times. I shook it. I threw it on the floor, picked it up and tried again. Frantically, I wondered, did she want it on? Was she telling me to leave it on? Was she there, watching and listening? This is crazy thinking. I needed to have some measure of control to feel grounded in reality. I walked over to the set and punched the off button. My anxiety increased. It still wouldn’t go off! Now, feeling like I had totally left my senses I thought, if I don’t get this television to go off, surely I will go crazy. In my panic driven state I yanked the plug from the wall. When the voices finally stopped, and the picture faded, the eerie silence that replaced “As the World Turns,” was even more devastating. I felt like I had pulled the plug on my mother. It was as if I had just killed my mother, like I had cut off her life support and all possible communication with her.

Now what?

Her knitting was on a table next to the chair where she would sit and knit while watching television. She knitted sweaters, slippers, Afghans, and a poncho for me–I drew a picture of that poncho and, weeks later, there it was: like magic. Her fingers wound around the yarn in every quarter inch of all those perfectly measured stitches, these precious items. She knitted stuff for my kids and baby items for my infant grandchildren as well.

Still freaked by the voices that had refused to be silenced until I pulled the plug (on my mother), I took a deep breath and settled myself into her chair. I fondled her unfinished knitting project, the yarn that had been in her hands a few short days ago, and tried to think, what would she want me to do? I don’t recall if I said the words out loud, but I sure did wish it. Mom, if you‘re still here, please, tell me what to do. Give me a sign, a clue, anything.

Then, like I was in a trance, I got up moved toward the cabinet behind her chair. I don’t recall thinking about it. My body just moved unconsciously. Something moved me. Something commanded my hand to open the cabinet door and I stood staring at a pink envelope. It seemed to emit a glow, a florescence. It was inscribed with my name written in my mother’s hand.

I stood looking at it for a while before I could even bring myself to touch it. ...I think it was a while, but I have no comprehension of how much time had passed. When I did touch it, I became aware of my body, blood draining from my head to my toes. I felt faint. My hands shook as I opened it, frightened by what I might find. Would she chastise me for not being there when she died? I wanted to believe Mom was still there, that she was not really dead and gone forever. I needed her to be alive, for me, but the prospect of dealing with her ghost, her spirit not yet gone, was just too scary.

The tears slowly escaped from behind my eyeballs and rolled freely down my cheeks as I read the note inside the pink envelope. It said, “Marilyn, I trust you completely. Use your own judgment. I know you will do the right thing. Luv Ya, Mom.”

I’m sure we’ve all read ghost stories like this, some more bazaar than others. If my story ended here, however, I would lead you to believe that my mother’s ghost was real, or at least to think that I believe my mother’s ghost was real.

Atheists, those of us who claim to have a naturalistic worldview, are no less vulnerable to these experiences than people who subscribe to a theistic worldview. It’s not too difficult to figure out how our ancestors plugged in the god of the gaps to explain that which they didn’t understand. And, it’s oh so tempting.

I like to tell this story because it keeps me humble. It reminds me not to be too harsh in my criticism of the credulity of others.

However, I sometimes find it difficult to comprehend that some people who claim to be atheists simply because they reject the gods of organized religions can, nevertheless, accept a panoply of supernaturalism: paranormal beliefs, extra-sensory perception, psychics, astrology, foretelling, living past lives, ghosts, spirits, and communicating with the dead.

We can be vulnerable to every new something based on pseudo-science to challenge our rejection of the supernatural. For example, “The Law of Attraction,” promoted by Oprah Winfrey, asserts what you think creates what you feel, and these feelings flow from your body as magnetic energy waves over vast distances, which then cause the universe around you to vibrate at the same energy level as your feelings. Or, the movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know?” that distorts quantum physics to support a mystical viewpoint. Then there’s this guy, Peter Russell who wrote, From Science to God. He states, “Although science doesn’t realize it, once it embarks upon this exploration (of consciousness) and begins to delve into deep mind, it is going to find itself confronting the one thing it has avoided and denied for so long–the nature of God.”

It boggles my mind.

So, do I believe in ghosts? Actually I don’t. I could have embellished my ghost story with the addition of the sound of footsteps and the banging on walls, or with shadows lurking in the hallway all of which I experienced in my state of discombobulation. However, after I came to my senses, I thought it better to tell the truth.

A little detective work produced a more rational explanation to my “ghost” experience.

With some help from my husband, who knows way more than I do about how electronics work, I discovered that the inhabitant in a neighboring apartment had a vacuum cleaner that was on a sound frequency that would turn my mother’s television on, and her off switches were malfunctioning.

What about the note? This one is a no-brainer. It seems obvious to me that Mom knew I would be the one tasked with disposing of her things after she died. Older people tend to think about these things.

I knew she kept her stash of gift cards, and various other items like paid bills, etc in that cabinet. It made perfect sense that if I were looking for some sort of instructions from her I would look in that cabinet. The envelope was pink, my mother’s favorite color. Upon further inspection, however, it didn’t actually glow like neon.

Oh, and the rotting meat smell? It was just that, rotting meat. She had apparently taken a piece of meat out of her freezer intending to cook it before she died. It lay rotting on her kitchen counter.

I also found a number of notes tucked away in pockets and drawers stating, “Marilyn, Luv Ya, Mom.”

Am I disappointed that I cannot communicate with her spirit? Well, no.

She lived and she died like all of us will. My fondest memory is the way she anticipated the difficulty I would have dealing with her death, and the task with which she charged me.

Where is she now? I’d like to think her body became stardust, and her mind simply ceased to exist, like a line in a song by Donovan says, “Deep peace of the flock of stars to you.”

When I was a little girl, I knew she loved me. Don’t ask me how, I just did. And I loved her like a little girl loves her mother, because I knew I should. When I grew up, I no longer loved her like a little girl loves her mother–because I should.... I’m not that good. I loved her because there was a wise and caring person inside my mother, a person whom I loved.

In a year from now I will be the same age Mom was when she died. If I have become as good and wise as she was, my life will have been worth the carbon footprint I leave behind and with no regrets.

 —M. LaCourt

I am a great fan of James Randi and his James Randi Educational Foundation. The foundation offers $1,000,000 to anyone that can demonstrate paranormal abilities under laboratory conditions.

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Marilyn LaCourt