She was skeptical when it came to the supernatural, but tried to keep an open mind. She admitted all things were possible; ESP, faith healing … ghosts; a person never knew when the furniture might suddenly slide around the living room or footsteps creak across the attic floor. She wondered later if her openness was the reason she felt the strange sensation – the tingling along her thigh that told her someone pressed a leg against hers. She looked, of course, but the tingling disappeared. The pew beside her remained empty.
She rationalized it as the aura of death in the church – all the black clothes, the sobbing. Maybe she needed to know Uncle Joe was still close by. Most likely, it was her imagination. As a nurse, she knew what grief did to a person.
She shifted her knees towards her husband.
He reached across and took her hand. “You’re cold. Do you want my coat?”
She shook her head no, squeezed his fingers and turned her attention to the urn on the dais. She was cold, she realized, more than the crowded church warranted, but she pushed it from her mind to listen as the minister spoke of Uncle Joe’s virtues; loving husband, hard worker, cherished friend.
Sometime later, the tingling returned.
She didn’t look this time, but stared straight ahead. Her heart raced with apprehension. She sensed someone beside her the way she sensed someone in a dark room – a compression of space, of solidity.
She moved her eyes ever so slightly to the right and down, and glimpsed auburn hair the same color as her own, the bangs brushed across the front like that young singer, Burber or Beaver – she never could say it right. A young boy, for sure, maybe ten years old, with one denim-clad knee pressed against her.
Reaction turned her head, but there was no boy there – just the polished pew and an icicle where her spine used to be. Something brushed her hand, (fingers?), and she was gripped by sadness so deep it ripped the breath from her lungs. A wave of desolation crashed against her and pooled in the corners of her eyes. Her sob was just one more in a chapel full of mourners.
The reception was endless, but it distracted her mind. She stood behind a table and served carrot cake to family she didn’t know and strangers who seemed to know her quite well. The children moved about in solemn groups with paper plates in hand, too new to life to comprehend death, unsure of what to feel.
Every so often, from the corner of her eye, she caught a head of auburn hair among them, one more child shuffling his feet with the others; but always, when she turned, he was gone.
She wanted to believe it was her imagination, her tired eyes playing tricks, but her gut said otherwise and her gut was never wrong. It made her good at her job, knowing when a patient would pass, easing the way for the family. Today her gut told her to believe in ghosts.
In the car, she told her husband everything.
He didn’t drive off the road or laugh it off as PMS; as always, he simply took what she said as truth.
“What do you think he wanted?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never met a ghost before.” She thought back to that crushing sadness. “I think he was lost, but it’s more than that. He felt desperate, incomplete.”
“Maybe he lost something. They say ghosts have unfinished business.”
She looked out the side window and watched the trees blur past. “I’m sure it was a random thing. Did you see the size of the cemetery? I bet that church has a hundred ghosts.”
Someone nudged her.
She stirred and squinted at the clock. “It’s four in the morning. Are you okay?”
“Look at the cat.”
There was enough light in the room to see Rascal on the end of the bed, his ears turned forward, his tail a metronome.
“He sees something.”
“It’s probably a crane fly. Go back to sleep.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I’m not sure why I woke you.” Her husband rolled over and pulled the blanket to his ear. Minutes later, she heard his quiet snores.
She lay in the dark with her eyes half closed and watched her cat watch thin air. The tabby’s head moved from left to right, right to left as though he tracked someone pacing. She listened to his rumbling purrs and knew he wasn’t afraid, just curious and alert. For some reason it reassured her.
Left, right, left, right.
Her heavy eyelids closed.
“Honey, have you seen the phone book? I’m sure I left it beside the computer.”
“It’s beside the computer,” called the voice from the kitchen.
She rolled her eyes, turned and tripped over something on the floor. She lurched forward and caught her balance on the desk. Adrenalin surged and ebbed.
The phone book lay open on the carpet.
She glanced around the living room before she crouched down to study the torn pages. She searched for Puffball’s claw marks, found none and then out of curiosity, scanned the names. Morin, Morris; no one she knew.
She must have stepped over it on the way to the desk. She’d been distracted and teary all morning.
She brushed it off as lack of sleep and closed the book.
Something brushed her hand.
“I think he followed me home,” she told her husband that night.
“Can ghosts do that?”
“I guess they can.” She closed the novel she wasn’t reading, and told him the rest.
“…and all day I found things out of place; small things like picture frames and knickknacks. It was as if someone picked them up, looked at them and set them down in the wrong place. You can see marks in the dust where they used to sit.”
“Sounds like you should dust more.”
She swatted his arm and they shared a smile before the sadness overtook her once more.
“He tries to hold your hand. Could he think you’re his mother?”
Her shoulders tensed as an old fear rose at this suggestion. She pushed it down to the pit of her stomach and tried to ignore the twisted knot it formed.
“That can’t be it. What do ghosts want?”
“Closure perhaps; what if he was murdered?”
The thought made her shiver but her gut ignored the question.
“No, he’s so sad; I think he followed us home because he’s lonely.”
She worked a rough week of night shifts that left her tired and drained. Two of her patients passed and although she knew it was their time, she still lost pieces of herself. She stroked the brow of the one who was ready, gripped the hand of the one who was not and because neither had family, she stayed with them until the end. She felt it when they left – she always did, but this time a part of her went with them, at least a little ways, as she searched for an answer to a worry she had.
She lay awake for hours before he finally touched her hand. She turned her wrist, opened her palm and felt small fingers slip between her own. Again, that sadness, so overwhelming it stole her breath. She realized part of it was her own.
“I wish you could stay,” she whispered to the darkness, “but I don’t think you can. It doesn’t feel right to keep you.”
She wanted to keep him and that was the problem. She sensed his presence throughout the house like a child asleep in the next room – comfortable, safe, hers to protect.
When the doctors took her ovaries, she refused to cry or rage; she was the strong one, the nurturer and yet a part of her was secretly relieved. Her own mother abused her, would she be the same way? The thought haunted her worse than any ghost.
Things happened for a reason. She buried her regrets a long time ago and counted life’s blessings instead, but over the past week something changed; she discovered an empty spot inside herself – a ragged hole of loss the size of a child.
Now a child was here, holding her hand – a child in need of a mother. She no longer believed their meeting was random. The boy found her because they were looking for each other, the two of them drawn together by a bond as old as time, a bond of which she thought she was incapable. The problem was he was someone else’s son, another mother’s loss. Was it selfish to want to hold onto him?
If he was my son, she wondered, would I ever stop looking? She thought she knew the answer now.
She made a decision and tears filled her eyes. The small fingers slid from her palm.
“Thank you for believing in me.”
“We have to take him back,” she told her husband during breakfast.
“I’ll get the keys,” was all he said.
They parked in the cemetery lot and climbed out of the car. She opened the door to the backseat and waited.
“Are you sure he came with us?”
Small fingers slipped into hers. “I’m sure.”
They wandered through the memorial gardens looking for what, she didn’t know; so many faceless names, so many journeys; a forest of granite and marble that resonated peaceful promise. Not even a breeze stirred the trees for fear of disturbing the stillness. The spring air prayed for new beginnings.
They read aloud names and calculated dates. They lingered at every child’s grave, but none called to her. Did she really expect one to? A week ago, she didn’t believe in ghosts, now look at her – the Vancouver Island Medium. Maybe she was crazy, but she had to see it through. She felt she owed this boy something now.
They stopped to rest on the grass, with their backs to the trunk of an ornamental cherry tree. She took a deep breath of the blossomed air.
“Anything?” her husband asked.
She shook her head no.
Her gut told her coming here was the right thing to do, but beyond that, her mind was a blank. What was she missing?
The boy lingered beside her with one leg pressed to hers and gave nothing away.
She sat and thought while her gaze drifted over the tombstones, settling on a man in a gray suit. She couldn’t see his face; he was too far away, but the red roses in his hands spoke of his sorrow and she knew he came here every week to say goodbye, to say, “Wait for me.”
She watched him kneel and place the flowers on the grave, saw his head bow in silent homage…and sat up straight as clarity struck.
She turned to her husband. “We came here to find the boy’s resting place, to return him to his vigil, but what he lost was already here. I think he came to visit his mother’s grave before he died. He sat beside her and begged her to wait, but when his time came, he couldn’t find her. He thought she left him again.”
She glanced at her husband. There were tears in his eyes. Raised by child welfare, he understood abandonment.
It made sense to her now. She was the stranger on the street who walks the lost child home.
She felt something then, from outside herself; the relief and gratitude of a frantic mother.
“She’s here, waiting. She was lost just like you. It’s time to let go of my hand and take hers.”
His small hand squeezed hers and she gasped, but not with sadness this time; she felt love so pure it brought tears to her eyes and shone light into all her dark corners.
She felt him reach out, felt their spirits meet … and just like that, he was gone.
She sighed, closed her eyes and leaned her head against the tree. Something soft brushed her face like a kiss. She felt another and another, and then she heard her husband laugh.
Her eyes opened to a pink snowfall of petals. She inhaled the blessing of this gift; let it fill the empty spot inside. She let go of her fear and regrets. There were other lost children, in foster homes and back streets. She would find one to love and protect it from harm as only a good mother could.