Most of us are fascinated by accounts of hauntings. I know people who believe they’ve been visited, in some way, by a departed person. Genres of literature and film are devoted to the idea that the dead interact with us. I do not believe it.
I do not believe in ghosts. I do not believe that dead people haunt us. If there are supernatural visitors breaking through to our physical existence, they are not people who have passed on but something else.
But I think I understand why human beings have always imagined that they were haunted. It’s because we are haunted.
My mom passed away a year and a half ago at the age of 96. She had lived a full life but she was spent. We had time to prepare ourselves and it was not a shock, neither do we have the regrets of wondering why she had to die.
And yet I am, more or less, haunted. She visits me many times a day. She is with me, or more precisely I am with her, at another time and another place. I find myself in her house watching TV with her, or sitting by her bed in her room at the nursing home.
Or I am living at home, because I’m younger than I am now, and my mom is in the kitchen baking. Or watching her stories while she irons. Or cutting out a skirt.
It’s been over a year since I’ve been in her house but I can close my eyes and walk into her house and I can smell its familiar smell and see the sunlight coming in the bay windows and feel the temperature of the air and hear the TV in the next room. I can go upstairs, I can feel the emptiness of no one being up there anymore, I can hear every creak on the steps, and see every box and bag and pile on the third floor. It is all vivid, fresh, and real, like I was there an hour ago.
I can distinctly hear her voice, I can hear her faux-operatic singing of Happy Birthday to You over the phone. I see her crooked fingers holding a cookie at the breakfast table. I see her straight fingers applying foundation to her face as she gets made up at that same kitchen table, getting ready to catch the train into center City to use her season ticket at the Academy of Music.
As I go through my day, she is there. I am in my kitchen and I look through my window toward her house, and for a split fraction of a second, almost wonder if I should walk down and see her.
I am haunted by my mom because she was the first person I lost who I could miss in this visceral way. I helped take care of her during her last three years and I saw her almost every day. Every day, navigating my way through the ever-changing stream of her dementia. I needed to map that stream, to understand its habits and its surprises, in order to relate to her in a way that made sense to her. In other words, I was trying to think her thoughts.
We are haunted because we still feel the presence of people we have lost. We are haunted by their presence because our senses still remember them as though they just left the room a minute ago. We are haunted by their absence because we miss them and only our factual processes understand that they are gone for good.
Are we haunted because we want to be?
I think the idea of hauntings took root because we really do continue to experience being with our lost loved ones. My mother was not someone whose memory will easily fade.