A Journey to Conjure Those Now Gone

Memories that Stick and Haunt

, as I was heading to bed, I found myself rummaging through my handwritten journals.

I was looking for my notes on a framework I had once used to assess and address my life’s imbalances. I remember the word shape and diagrams of that journal entry, but for now, those notes are lost to me.

Scanning my indices, I flipped through all kinds of notes, and exhumed a heading I had buried: “The Seventh Day.”

Years prior, to be more precise, I stumbled upon that idea while puttering alone around Miami. I had recently divorced and was heading to a friend’s wedding; I traveled with two other friends and met up with another.

I found some alone time and space at a café and jotted down an idea into a travelling Moleskin. I sat with that idea for years, rolling it around, and began writing more about it in .

I was thinking of a situation in which the main character wakes up one day and can only interact with people that will die within the next 7 days. As I worked on the idea, I realized its a logical conclusion.

I don’t see myself completing it, and in these days of Covid-19 (Covid 🔍), I’m not looking to delve into that space.

Those words, and the time I spent looking for a now lost idea, must have registered in my psyche…

I punch the four-digit code into the manual keypad and open the familiar steel door. My hands again full of things for the gathering.

I step into the stairwell of concrete cinder blocks and tiled steps leading to a familiar place. Slowly, I descend one hand on the guide rail; the other balancing my gifts.

The smell of old basement carpeting greets me; the familiar scent of the gathering place of those now gone. The stairs end and I turn.

To my right is a small kitchenette where we each bring our dishes. Ahead of me a large open room.

Having set down my offerings, I walk out into the large open room. On one wall several couches congregate around a dark red-bricked fireplace; Here we'll sit and talk.

Along the furthest wall, a row of exercise bikes wait for their riders. Instead of wheels, these bikes all have a metal cage that guards against fingers reaching in to touch the spinning fan blades. There is where we stretch our legs and move about.

In the corner between the bikes and fireplace, a pool table waits for us to play. There, we'll play a more physical game than Pinochle.

Along the nearest wall is that beige and metal long mobile coat rack. Several folding tables rest against the wall and there's a cart loaded with 30 metal chairs. Here, we'll hang our coats and share a meal.

These memories and me start setting up the tables for our ghostly guests to arrive…

…I roll over and drift awake. I lay in bed holding to a dreamscape that I wasn’t ready to release. There were no faces; the guests had yet to arrive.

I wanted to see them. I miss them.

Years ago, in a different life, that basement was where a family of mine would gather. Four generations gathered there; some were my relatives and others my then-wife’s relatives.

At each gathering, we’d bring some already prepared food and prepare a bit more. We’d set up the tables for dinner and table games; it was here we first played Settlers of Catan.

The youngest generation would jump between exercise bikes, the pool table, napping on the couches, and sitting on laps to help pick a card to play.

We’d spend the day; And once spent, we’d tear it down, clean-up, and each head home.

As I write this, tears sting my eyes.

I’ve divorced most of that family. And see the others little.

I hold dear memories of George, Maxine, Laura, Leroy, Liz, and Juanita. I was looking for them last night. None of them my blood relatives, but still part of my family.

My mind must have tried to conjure them in our once common meeting space; that basement, not part of anyone’s house, but instead a place that the retirement center residents could reserve for a day. Maybe I could reserve it for the night?

Leroy, my grandfather-in-law, was the first to die. I was still married into that family. When I got the call, I was at the dining room table, playing chess with my son and oldest daughter.

I don’t recall what came next, but do recall a funeral service of shared stories and congregational laughter as everyone remembered Leroy’s humor; It was unique and kind and not all that funny but such a part of him you couldn’t help but laugh with his genuine humor.

He tells a joke, a Leroy we called them, and starts laughing. If it were a particularly funny joke to him, he’d buckle over a bit, and tug at his socks as though trying to pull them up to his knee.

It’s a different feeling to be clearly within the family as you grieve.

Laura died next, a tragic fall ending her life. By then, I had divorced, but even so, she would bring me cookies and fruit cake.

She would stop by, give me a hug, and gently ask how I was doing; Not to pry, but to just say between those words “I care about you.”

I can’t recall if I waited in line for her visitation or if I even attended or was I invited back into the fold?

What’s an ex-grandson’s role in the funerary concerns of a family? To this day and forever, she’s my Grandma Garber. But in those moments, where do you stand in line for the dead?

Maxine died a few years later. She always wanted me to come and visit her and George, but it hurt too much.

To watch as dementia ravaged someone you only met when you were an adult comes with unique challenges. In those final years, I assumed her calling me Jeremy was her remembering me, and not her grandson Jeremy—my former brother-in-law.

I admire that she became a nurse in her 50s and would speak her mind, never punching down, only punching up.

And once Maxine died, George’s watch drew to a quick close. After seeing Maxine out, he lasted about a month.

Always dutiful, George bought presents for my new step-daughter. He just forgot to give them to her and I had forgotten to check-in.

So, as I understand it, when his family went to clean out his apartment, they found a few unsent cards and gifts for a girl they’d barely met.

I think of the words that George told me, “I think I’m incredibly lucky, I always had enough and I’m not going to be around for the real bad stuff to come.”

He clarified that he meant the looming climate crisis and the escalating unchecked vitriol of politics. That was or so years ago.

I shook my head and thought: George, you were a Depression-era orphan who fought against the Nazis in World War 2. You saw the grimdark reality and know that that was nothing compared to the events just past your horizon.

I hold that conversation close to my heart. He showed such concern for a future he wouldn’t see.

I never made it to Juanita’s funeral; She lived up past Detroit. That hurt felt different, she’s a generation closer in that family forest. A reminder of mortality and time’s incessant movement.

After her generation, I’m next in line; But in year two of a raging pandemic, does death even have lines anymore?

Earlier this week, I saw a map of projected cicada brood. They’re slated to return to Indiana after a 17-year hiatus.

Corey, has it been that long? As cousins we’d play, you always knew how to get your older brother in trouble.

In another life, my now ex-wife, my dad, and I drove the four hours to say our farewell. Corey, at your funeral in Southern Indiana, I remember the air thick with cicadas.

My dad, himself divorced from that family of mine, made the trip and said farewell to his ex-nephew. It was a strange space for him to go. I see that now.

At a funeral, where’s the space for the ex-family members? What hurt wound does their presence reveal? Are they with the living or the dead?

A few years ago, at Liz’s funeral, I sat in a crowded room with my father as he mourned the loss of his partner and my step-mom. His siblings, children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews joined him. As well as some of a family no longer his; My mom’s siblings and their children.

Somehow, at least for me, it felt right that my mom’s relatives were there. Each person showing the widower that he was part of their family.

The memory of that crowded church room still haunts me; That day I sat in confusion and mourning. I had ripe wounds of trauma delivered by the deceased and members in that room. But duty-bound, I sat and felt my own kind of pain.

In that room, I remember thinking back to two or so months prior and even the years before. I thought of the confoundment of a long boiling misunderstanding given room to grow and nurtured by the dead.

I recalled the recent verbal onslaught launched against my partner by another family partisan. That partisan, sitting a few seats over in that crowded room, had recently come into my home not to understand but to elocute and land rhetorical points.

I don’t know if they left satisfied or vindicated. Since that time, I’ve drawn up and articulated a hard boundary. So far that boundary’s remains untested and unchecked. And I’m reminded, not all ghosts are dead.

On that hard and cold metal church chair, I thought of the letter I wrote that I had hoped to share before my step-mother died. In the month before the funeral, I had gone to her house intent to deliver that letter.

When I arrived, I saw the time for that letter had passed. The cancer had gained full control, and from her pain-wracked body, a weak and frail voice asked to die. That was not a time to air grievances, but to sit silently with my dying step-mother.

Silent, I’m in that crowded basement room, guarding against the ghosts that sought entry. Vigilant, I blocked their visit; this was not a safe space for me to grieve. I would do so on my own time and terms.

I drift back to this moment but quickly shift to another.

The phone’s ringing. It’s my father. He’s calling to let me know that he’s put his name in to reserve a home at that retirement center. We talk a bit about that basement he could reserve.

I think about the coming years. Of once again opening that steel door and taking those steps down; Of moldering carpet greeting me and the other guests. Who will be the living and who will be the ghosts? Is there a difference?