Posts tagged ‘portfolio’

September 4, 2009

“Ripples”

This is the longest piece I’ve posted here, and the first in some time. Enjoy.

Rain sheets over the natural wood roof, echoes on the walls’ marble. They are not tiles, but divided mausoleum slots. My grandmother’s dark mahogany casket slides roughly into the open slot, and we pallbearers heft a rose-quartz marble square in place, leaving her tiny corner indistinguishable from the dozens forming four high walls around us.

I know she would have rather been cremated, but I’ve kept that quiet to please the rest of the family. We are a small clan; I count five blood relatives in the seats as I return to mine. Maybe ten others are related by marriages former and present. Mine are the only dry eyes—even the priests are tearing up. This woman was loved fiercely.

The wall is sealed, the flowers laid. Umbrellas open as we leave the mausoleum and negotiate the muddy cemetery paths to our cars. Tim, my best friend places a hand on my shoulder. It’s the biggest show of empathy I’ve ever seen from him. And I’m not even hurting. Not from her death, anyhow.

“It must be easier that this happened now than say, a few months ago,” he says.

“Why?”

“Well y’know, now that we know about the soul. The Metaphysical Fabric and all that.”

I turn to look at him, shaking my head. “Doesn’t mean she’s where she wants to be.” He quickly retracts his hand.

 

I was excited too, when the news exploded across the planet. It sounded like something out of Clarke or Asimov: rogue scientists discover the existence of “spirit.” They called it the Metaphysical Fabric. Every news network had a different talking head explaining the concept with complicated graphics, charts, 3-D animations, and so-called experts on this new and ludicrous discovery. My favorite involved a group of middle school students encircling a rainbow parachute, holding it up by the edges.

An on-scene correspondent stands apart from the rainbowchute ring, telling the audience that the boys and girls holding edges represented the entire world. I wondered briefly if the students had been sifted and sorted for the appropriate ethnic diversity, and assigned a particular stripe of the chute’s nylon to clutch—should the Asian girl the hold yellow, or would that be too cheesy?

“Sentient beings,” says the reporter, “create a metaphysical field…a fabric, if you will, between each other.” Close ups of smiling children trying to stay still, trying to smile through boredom and forcibly-combed hair.

Back to the reporter. “Our emotions and actions send ripples…” Cue a boy, somewhat late, making a big wave in the parachute, forcing the opposing side’s arms to raise. “…across the fabric, affecting the entire human race. And sometimes, large-scale events…” A girl walks over to the parachute circle holding a dodgeball. “…can affect us all at once through the fabric.” The ball is tossed, landing in the center of the chute, sending concentric rainbow ripples out to the photogenically giggling children.

Close up on reporter. “Some scientists, now calling themselves ‘metaphysicists,’ believe that moments of sensitivity to this Fabric explain otherwise inexplicable clairvoyance, empathy, and perhaps even the appearance of ghosts. If a person were to make a strong enough ripple at the time of death, their effects might be felt after the time of their passing or until the metaphysical disturbance they created had been neutralized. Ghosts may be our final ripple in the Metaphysical Fabric. For Action News, this is…”

 

Everyone latched onto the ghosts. Paranormal sightings skyrocketed in the weeks following the birth of “Metaphysics.” Nobody seemed to care that the term already referred to a branch of theoretical philosophy. This, they argued, was real. It mattered more, so it won the name. The old Metaphysics just became “Advanced Epistemology.”

 

            My grandmother deemed the whole affair nonsense. Actually, she called it a load of bull. About a week before her heart attack, we had tea on her patio. Her favorite time of year, as August betrayed its true allegiance to autumn, letting the tips of oaks and maples redden, and sycamores to surrender green altogether. Even in her eighties, she sat with perfect posture. Even her walker appeared positioned genteelly by her chair. I asked her why she couldn’t believe in a link between all people.

            Why would something so vital to human existence, she said, be almost impossible to discover?

            It was a good point. I wondered if we had lost our attunement to the Fabric millennia before. Could Metaphysics explain the magic of ancient religions? Secretly, I hoped so.

            A breeze blew across the table. It was afternoon, and the table sat in the shade, and the wind came colder than I expected. She pointed to my goosebumps.

            “See? That’s how we deal with the world. Five senses—no more.”

            “So no ghosts?”

            She shot me a wry grin as she leaned in. “If any family has ghosts, it’s this one. But I’ve never seen anything spookier than an evening fog. Once you’re dead, you’re dead.”

            “You don’t believe in any kind of hereafter?”

            “Nope. And when I go, I don’t want any kind of religious burial either. Your mother will want a Mass and all that. I want to be cremated, not even buried. Promise me you’ll do that.”

            “I promise, Mom-Mom.”

 

            The death hit my mother the hardest. Mom’s one confidant in the world had been ripped from her. She went back to drinking, becoming more reclusive each day. I expected this, but not the insistent pleas that I come visit her. Whenever Mom went back to the bottle, she usually didn’t let anyone by her house. But this time, even at her most incoherent, she begged me to come by. A day or so before the funeral, I did.

            I knocked on the back door—the family door—expecting the worst. Mom drunk meant a fight, meant opening old wounds. She came to the door, motioning for me to come inside. I shook my head. It’s the house I grew up in, but I don’t return if I can help it.

          Mom opened the door. “Come inside,” she said. No slur in her words, and her eyes were fully open.

I cocked my eyebrow. “Why?”

“I need you to see something.”

“What?”

“Just come in.”

“Fine.” I sighed like a teenager.

Mom led me into the TV room. Instinctively, I check the tables and counters for glasses half-full of liquid that didn’t look like water or fruit punch. No glasses at all. Curiouser and curiouser, I thought.

She stood in the center of the room and pointed to the velvet high-backed chair beside the sofa, the one Mom-Mom always sat in when she visited. “Look, she said.”

“Look at what?”

“The chair. What do you see?”

“A chair.”

Mom dropped her arms in a huff. “No, you don’t see her?”

“Mom, do you see someone in the chair?”

“Your grandmother’s here.” She said it through tears, but joyful ones.

I looked again. “Mom, I don’t see anything.”

“She’s here. She looks good. Healthy.”

I went to my mother’s side. “Mom, how long have you been seeing…ghosts?”

“Since about a week after she died. I’ve been trying to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”

“Mom, I’m sorry, but I don’t see her.”

She looked crestfallen. “You should. I mean, we know they’re real now…”

I shrugged. “I’m sorry.”

Mom took a deep breath, and tried to shake off her disappointment. “Well, since you’re here, I have a few questions about the funeral arrangements. Reading selections, that sort of thing.”

“So we’re doing a Mass and funeral—the whole shebang?”

“Of course. Father Franey—you remember him?—well Father Franey has agreed to come back to celebrate the Mass. Wasn’t that nice of him?”

“Wow. Yeah.”

             

Poring over selections from the Old Testament on the sofa, I saw her. She was poised as ever, hands folded on her lap. I recognized that look, even half-manifested and transparent—Mom-Mom was disappointed. She made no noise, but mouthed two words over and over. I knew what she would say even before I processed the shape of her lips.

You promised.

“I’m sorry. It’s for her.”

My Mom walked in from the dining room. “Who are you talking to?”

“No one. Just reading passages aloud to see how they sound.”

“Oh, that reminds me—will you do the eulogy? I don’t think anyone else will be able to keep it together long enough to speak.”

Mom-Mom’s gaze darkened.

“Sure. It won’t be long, but I’ll do it.”

“Thank you.”

Once Mom left the room, I turned to give the ghost a helpless shrug, but she had vanished.

 

That night, I tried in vain to compose six hundred words summing up my grandmother’s life. Nothing came to mind. You can write through happiness, through sadness, through depression and elation. But guilt? It’s all-consuming. I went for a walk around the neighborhood.

An hour later, I found myself by St. Helena’s Catholic Church, where I had attended Mass as a child. St. Helena’s, whose threshold I’d never seen my grandmother cross in life, only to be dragged across it in death.

I couldn’t tell Mom about seeing the ghost. That was the damnable thing about this Fabric madness: it was as though the world had given validation to everyone’s private mysticisms. Madness and blind wishes, fluke happenstance and old-fashioned hoax all became natural miracles of Metaphysics. If I told her about the ghost, it would grant license to her self-indulgent pity, and send her deeper into the bottle. There were enough emotional ghosts in that house without genuine phantoms adding torment.

As I walked the shortcut home through the St. Helena’s cemetery, I worried I would see a misty figure over each grave. I saw only one, outside the mausoleum building where my grandmother’s body would rest.

You promised.

“I know! I’m sorry. It’s not up to me. Mom wants the Mass.”

You promised.

I threw up my hands. “There’s nothing I can do. She needs this.”

You promised.

I said “I’m sorry,” once more, and ran home.

 

The end of Mass came soon enough, and Father Franey motioned for me to approach the lectern. “Now, Regina’s grandson will say a few words.” Mumbles. Nods. Teary smiles.

It doesn’t matter what I said. I said lies. Placations for a family who needed thick memories of the woman. Looking out into the begging eyes of those assembled, I realized why my grandmother wanted to be cremated. She wanted to be let go, and these people who so fiercely loved her would not release her. And every word of the eulogy was another fracture in the promise I had made her.

When I sat down, my mother whispered some words of compliment to me. I was focused on the cemetery outside, on the mausoleum.

 

My grandmother stared at me from the mausoleum’s doorway throughout the funeral, her gaze never faltering. Mom kept looking back and smiling, knowing she was there. Everyone else looked toward the casket and the work of the pallbearers. When we processed out, the ghost had vanished again.

 

As I get to my car, I hear Mom shout. “Look! She’s there, by the door!” There she is, again, staring at me and only me.

Everyone turns back to the mausoleum, gasping as they do. They all see. They all believe.

“I thought I saw it before, but I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“I saw people looking back during the burial, but I didn’t want to be rude.”

“We’re all feeling her ripples in the Fabric…”

You promised.

I throw down my umbrella and bolt to the mausoleum door. “Enough!” I shout. “There’s nothing here to see. Look at yourselves, torn up by grief. I miss her too; I miss her terribly. But she’s gone. She’s gone.” I look to my side. Mom-Mom smiles austerely. “Let her go. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”

The wet, black crowd before me nods slowly. I hear murmurs of assent; I see people wipe the tears and apparitions from their eyes.

“Of course.”

“No such thing as ghosts. It’s nonsense.”

My grandmother fades slowly, mouthing different words to me before we all let her go.

Thank you.

 

The funeral procession drives off to a restaurant; I remain behind. They might still believe in ghosts, but not this one. Promise kept.

 My shoes are caked with mud, my pants soaked through. Alone without even a ghost looking over my shoulder, I let fall my first grieving tears. They splash in the puddles by my feet, but the rain wipes their ripples from sight and memory.

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