Ghosts: In Memory of Elizabeth Webb Cheney
My mother died on November 3, 2018. She was, in so many ways, my first reader and my first editor. Five days before her death, she asked me to write her something to read. I went home that night and wrote the following essay. I brought it to her the next day. Her eyesight had weakened, and she didn't have a lot of stamina, but she was able to read a couple paragraphs of it. It turned out to be the last thing I wrote while my mother was alive. I read it at her memorial service, and numerous people asked to have a copy of it, so I am posting it here for all who are interested.
by Matthew Cheney
A reader of horror stories, and a fan of horror movies, I am familiar with ghosts and hauntings. As I’ve grown older, though, it seems strange to me that ghosts are typically represented as frightening, that being haunted is considered undesireable.
Certainly, screaming banshees flying through the ruins of gothic mansions at midnight aren’t exactly comforting. But I’m thinking of a different sort of ghost, a different kind of haunting. I’m thinking about the ghosts who hang out at the intersection of Memory Lane and Imagination Street. I’m thinking about how we keep what we love alive.
I live in a haunted town, and I live in a haunted house. The town is haunted because it is the town where I was a child, and I went away, and now I have returned as an adult. Things I remember are not there anymore, and yet still, in my memory, and in my imagination, I see them. Roads ghost in different directions, ghost signs signal businesses now long gone, ghost trees sprout through otherwise solid buildings. The grocery store where I shop regularly is haunted, because I remember when it was called Food Town, and then when it was called Shop & Save, and now it is called Hannaford, and the aisles and products and cash registers in Hannaford are very different from the aisles and products and cash registers in Shop & Save, and they are even more different from the aisles and products and cash registers in Food Town. But I have those memories, hazy though they are — those memories of this same place in its various incarnations, and so it is, for me, a haunted place, because even though the older memories grow even hazier with every passing day, still, they rise up in my mind now and then, and they remind me of what once was here, in this place, with me. Like ghosts.
Just the other day someone mentioned the name of a former Plymouth State English Department professor, Henry Vittum, and immediately I saw in my mind a memory of his face. His ghost was there with me, for a moment, at least. (Hello, Dr. Vittum. Nice to see you again.) And then he was gone.
I live in a haunted house because it is the house I grew up in. I lived the first eighteen years of my life there, and then returned after my father’s death almost eleven years ago to live there again. I was wary, at first. I didn’t know if I was ready for the many ghosts that live in that house, or if they were ready for me. I didn’t know if I was ready for the ghost of my father, especially. The first week was difficult, but less so each day, and then … it was just home. Every wall, every floor, every surface, every object in the house was haunted, but I came to enjoy the haunting. I never feel alone there. The house is very quiet, which I like, but it is never silent, never empty. Any time I feel lonely, I can just look over there and see some of my childhood friends, or over there and see a Thanksgiving dinner, or over there and see the first dog I ever knew. (His name was Luke. He’s a good ghost. Aren’t you, Luke? Yes, you’re a very good ghost, Luke, yes you are.)
I’ll admit, I had nightmares when I first moved back to the house after my father’s death. I still do, occasionally, once or twice a year. Mostly, they were nightmares about my father coming back and wanting to know why I’d gotten rid of so much of his stuff. Didn’t I know he was coming back? What was I thinking?!? Sometimes, the nightmares were darker, scarier. (Sometimes, yes, there are bad ghosts. I’ve learned some protective spells, though, with which to vanquish them.) Most recently, in the nightmares, my father comes back, gets annoyed for a little while, then realizes he likes what I’ve done with the place, and it’s fine now, and he can go away again. He’s become a much better ghost than he used to be.
Outside of my dreams, though, he has never been a terrible ghost. I got rid of many of his things, but I came across some of his DVDs the other day. They’re nothing I would ever watch, but I was glad to have them, and they made me think of him, made me remember watching movies with him, and for a moment his ghost was there, haunting me. (Hello, Dad. I can’t believe you think The Notebook is a great movie, it’s so not you, but whatever. I’m glad it gave you joy. Nice to know you had some happy nights and days here.)
Death is hard. Even the good deaths, the deaths where someone has lived a long, wonderful life and dies peacefully, with no regrets, before they have suffered even for a moment. The best possible death. Any death is sad because it’s an ending to a story. But here’s the thing: I write stories, and I know that endings aren’t really endings. They are simply a spot where we happen to stop telling that particular story. Even the ending of the planet, when either the sun blows up and swallows the entire Earth or the sun sputters out and the Earth turns into a frozen rock floating in space — even then, it’s not really an ending ending, it’s just a change.
This is something I’ve learned from a couple of Buddhist friends. (Don’t hold them accountable to it, though. All misinterpretations are mine.) What I’ve learned is that death isn’t an end, it’s a change. It hurts — for us, the living — it hurts, sure, yes, absolutely, it hurts. That goes with the territory. If it didn’t hurt, it would mean it didn’t matter, but the people we love matter to us more than anybody. We are greedy creatures, we want good things to continue forever. But, of course, even the greediest of us know that our stories are finite. The pain comes from them not being finite together. My story isn’t done yet, and yet a loved one’s story is ending, which is to say changing, which is to say I feel pain and hurt, because I, too, am a greedy creature.
Which is why I’m grateful for my ghosts. As hard as the facts of death are, no loved one has ever really left me. I am haunted. Happily haunted. Haunted by the memory of wonderful people who aren’t here in this time and place with me now, exactly, but who once were, and therefore I can conjure them in my mind, and I can bring them back here or go back with them to a moment we shared together. I can say to my aunt Meredith, who died when I was very young, “Thank you for giving me the book The Velveteen Rabbit. I know I paid more attention to some of the toys that I got during that birthday party, but of the gifts I received that day, it is your gift of The Velveteen Rabbit that I remember the most.” And when I tell her that, I can see her smile. I don’t remember a whole lot about her, but I will never forget her smile.
Or another moment: It was only for an hour or two, thirty-something years ago, that my grandfather Ken and I sat on his porch and read books from the local library together. Only an hour or two, but I’ve revisited that memory so often over the years that it’s like we spent days together on that porch, quietly reading, enjoying each other’s company. I was young when my grandfather died, but he’s been with me as I’ve grown older.
And so I cherish my ghosts. I revel in being haunted. This is what I keep coming back to as sorrow threatens to overwhelm me. When I feel that deep, physical, jaw-clenching, word-destroying, scream-inducing ache of grief, I try to take a deep breath and get myself to a point where I can think of a good memory, any one good memory, and I can focus on it, and I can let the good feelings of that moment come back to me, and I can summon a ghost to hold my hand and join me here, now. (Hello, there. Hello. Good to see you again.)
And our ghosts remind us that no ending is an end, it’s just a change. And that just because one story ends, that doesn’t mean all others should. This is the hardest thing I’ve had to learn from the ghosts, the hardest task when haunted. But it is a worthwhile task, a necessary task — the most necessary task — because these ghosts are people I cherished in life, and continue to cherish. I remember them and keep some part of them alive through my remembering. My story continues, and I bring them along with me. I will continue to try to live well, and to live happily, because I owe that to my ghosts. It was hard enough for them to leave us; I must try not to make it harder on them afterward. My ghosts get to travel to places they’ve never been before, they get to see things they’ve never seen, to have joys that were never available to them in their own lives. I will go to Paris and I will eat a baguette underneath the Eiffel Tower and I will stroll through the Musee d’Orsay and the Louvre, and I will have a strong cup of coffee at a tiny café, and my ghost will be there with me, and I will say to my ghost, “Do you remember the art book you gave me when I was in the second or third grade? Look — there’s one of the paintings I so loved back then, and here we are now, together, seeing it up close, the real thing,” and my ghost will squeeze my hand and smile, and we will continue on together, looking at other paintings, and starting new stories.