I keep thinking about haunted houses, the ones of our childhoods where we were taught to fear the dead. I think we have it all wrong. If I heard of a haunted house now - gray clapboards weathered by winter after winter - I would make my way there like a pilgrimage, counting those who have passed like rosaries. I would sneak inside to wander the darkened hallways, trying rusting doorknobs in the hopes of opening up a portal to my grandfather, or Frank’s dad, or Kate’s mom. I would press my ear to the walls and listen for the accented Croatian tongue of my brother-in-law’s father. I would turn the knobs on dusty old radios long unplugged, straining to hear the call of the Cubs games I always listened to with my grandpa, the spectral taste of Pop-ems on my tongue. I would climb to the attic and listen for the whispered advice of the dead as I try to navigate the complexities of this life.
I want to be haunted. I want so desperately to believe that is possible.
Tonight, I spent my Friday night coaching my son’s street hockey team. Tomorrow morning I will watch his younger brother play soccer in the rain. I will say the same to both at the conclusion of their games: “I love watching you play.” That will be the end of my critique. I used to say a lot more, praising specific plays and offering advice I thought might develop a greater competitive edge. But, they are just children and I want my message to be crystal clear. I fear that advice about attacking the ball, or looking for the right pass opens the door to misinterpretation. Hearing these ideas, my sons might draw the conclusion that I think the way they play a game is somehow wrong or deficient.
So I just say, “I love watching you play,” because it is a game, that they are playing and one can’t play wrong. Certainly one can spectate incorrectly, but not play. Playing, in the hands of six and ten year-olds, can only be done correctly. It is the spectators who mess it up.
I did not come to this realization by myself. It came from a woman I barely knew who has been dead now for two-and-a-half years. I am plagiarizing her. It was her line when she watched her grandchildren play; she was an expert spectator. “I love watching you play,” she would say after wins and losses, backyard pickup games and league playoffs alike. I don’t know if this is what she said to her own kids when they played or if this was a bit of wisdom picked up the second time through with the experience and distance only grandparents have. I never actually heard her say it myself, but I watched it. As her grandchildren and my boys skated together on our frozen lake during her last winter, I saw it. I watched it in her smiling eyes and uproarious laughter as she sat there on the edge of that frozen lake and watched those kids play. She watched them like a child watches a chick hatch, like a zealot watches a miracle.
Each game concludes and her ghost whispers in my ear, “I love watching them play.”
“I love watching you play,” I repeat to my sons. Then I notice the unseasonably warm breeze across my skin, the play of the setting light on the clouds, the chatter of the kids replaying their favorite moments from the game. I am here, and she is not and that is an instructive realization. Just enjoy it she tells me, just bask in how wonderful it is to watch those two blonde-haired boys race around that field of play. Listen to their laughter, marvel at the simple purity of their stride, love watching them play.
My father, still very much alive, once expressed something strikingly similar. At his seventy-fifth birthday my wife asked him if he had any advice. He brought his fork back to rest on the table for a minute and thought about it. Then he said, “Be good. Trust God. Enjoy.” I try to be good. While my vision of God is blurry at best, I have developed a trust I never thought I would have. But so many moments of my life I do not enjoy. I fret. I worry. I simmer, and stew, and rage. I complain and lament. I ruminate and plot revenge. Enjoyment has been reserved for only the most perfect of moments.
I am certain all the people my friends and I have buried did this too. I am also certain that in some way wherever they are now, whatever form they have taken after this world, they are longing to have those moments back. Death has shown them that even the worst days are good ones.
My father’s mind is faltering. Like some shitty old record player, it has begun to skip and stick. My mom pretends that he does not know it is happening, but I am certain he does. I know for a fact that he can feel the blind spots filling his landscape. His memories are like the operas he loves so much with the harmonies stripped away. They have been reduced to simple melodies. I believe he knows this just as he knows that bar by bar the melodies will someday start dropping notes. I know for certain he is aware of this happening because he is laughing more than he used to. He is good. He trusts God. He seems increasingly determined to enjoy.
He is cracking jokes that seem to unhinge his joints with hilarity. He is teasing everyone from my youngest son to his wife of nearly fifty years. He is showering us all with praise. It is as if he is trying to sow all the joy he can while he is still here.
At age forty, I still turn to my parents at times of great significance. Like a ship loosed from its moorings I test the currents and channels I used to only explore as a passenger. In stormy seas when my parents used to take the helm, I am the captain now. Yet, I keep looking toward the shore to see them standing there keeping a reassuring and watchful eye. I know that someday they will not be there anymore. Someday the skies will darken, the surface of the water will turn to a froth, and there will be no reassuring figures standing there in the sheets of rain. My children will keep turning to me but when it all feels too much I will turn and find no one there.
Most of my friends are in their forties now, and more and more we are walking among ghosts. We are at that age where people who are integral parts of our world have started passing out of it. The generation that raised us is being razed one small tragedy at a time. It has happened to my closest friends and my brother-in-law; it has become a common occurrence among my colleagues. As the leaves outside my window drop from the trees, the air is rich with the scent of my own father’s winter. The loss feels overwhelming.
So I will be searching out paths where I can hear the whisperings of those who came before me. Besides all the Halloween definitions of the word, haunt also means simply to visit often, or to continually seek the company of. It means to stay around or persist, to linger.
There is so much I have yet to learn. There is so much guidance I still need and seek. I hope those who pass choose me as an object of their haunting.