This is not a post about suicidal ideation, but if you find themes of death triggering, I recommend sitting this one out.
Have you ever thought back to some of the crazy theories you had as a child—before science and facts cured you of your ignorance? For instance, I had a friend who thought that pregnant women gave birth by vomiting the children out. In her mind, it made perfect sense. Her mother was always nauseous when pregnant with her little brothers, so how else would they get out? Thankfully, we have sex ed in Jamaica.
For me, my crazy theory centred on death.
An Early Fascination
I had always been a morbid child. I’ve been told adults felt uncomfortable when left alone with me as a baby—including my parents. I had an unnerving way of looking at people that made the hair stand up on their arms.
I was also a sickly child. I frequently suffered from fevers that escalated to the point of hallucinations.
I remember lying on the bed one afternoon. Mom sat by my bedside mopping my brow with a cool, damp rag. “Make it stop. Make it stop!” I screamed.
“Make what stop?” Mom asked me.
“The bed,” I answered. “It’s spinning.”
My hallucinations were also not pleasant. I frequently blacked out and re-awoke to an old man chasing me around the house. Sometimes, I ran up and down the stairs, screaming. Other times, I locked myself in the closet, in hopes he would disappear.
My short story, The Man in the Closet, is based on these experiences.
A Strange Coincidence
When the man stepped from the static and into my world, horror gripped every part of me. No soothing words from my mother ever got me to calm down.
I would sit on the floor, pull my knees up to my chest and start rocking to and fro.
“He’s coming…” I would tell my mother.
“Who’s coming?” she would ask me.
In a few minutes, I would be tearing through the house. If she tried to grab me and tell me to stop, I would fight tooth and nail.
Long after the hallucinations stopped, I would still turn the oats boxes around. I forget the brand now, but it was an American brand with an old man on the front and he reminded me of the man that used to chase me.
One day, while visiting a cousin overseas I did not grow up with, I saw her also turn the oats box around. It was the same brand. I was shocked. At this point, I was fourteen years old.
“Why did you turn the box around?” I asked her.
She didn’t reply.
“Did you used to see him, too?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she replied.
Nearly a decade later, I learned that another cousin who grew up on the other side of the island also used to see the same man on the oats box. He didn’t chase him, but he apparently used to scare the crap out of him at night in his room.
Coincidence? Who knows. But, why did we all see the same man? And, I’m the only one who had a history of fevers. My other two cousins were physically healthy.
The Crazy Theory
When I was a child, I assumed the old man was a ghost—or as we would say in Jamaica, a duppy. How else could I explain something so inexplicable that seemed every bit real to me? Why else could I see him when everyone else tried to reassure me that no one was there?
It didn’t help that I had a strange fascination with cemeteries. There was a Catholic cemetery across from the Catholic kindergarten I attended. That kindergarten also had a playground. But, guess where I liked to play at night?
Then, I heard a song that worsened matters. I forget the musician, but it was a Christian gospel song about the resurrection of Jesus:
Arise, my love
Arise, my love
The grave no longer has a hold on you
My parents had begun to play it often for Easter celebrations and TV programs mirrored the same theme. Night after night, we watched movies of death and destruction in the time of Jesus and his ancestors. I was 100% sure the people who died on TV died in real life and I started to wonder about the courage to volunteer to do such a thing.
But also—what was it like to die?
A Continued Obsession
When I was about six years old, my paternal grandmother died. We were very close and that loss taught me what death was. Yet, it didn’t quite sink in the way it should have. Every time someone got up in church to see her in her coffin, I got up too and trotted up behind them, so I could get another look.
“Interesting,” I thought. “Death doesn’t look so very different from life. Is she sleeping?”
I was at her bedside when she died. I heard her last words when she looked toward her friend and said, “I can’t tell my hands from my foot.” Then, she fainted away out of existence and her daughters cried out in anguish at the loss of their mother.
I watched them lower her into her grave and thought maybe I might see her again. She might appear to me the way the oats box man had. But, she never did.
Shortly thereafter, my maternal great-grandmother died. She, I have seen.
A Passing Illness
My great-grandmother was the first bi-racial child born into her Irish family. When I knew her, she was already old. She cared for me often because I had a tendency to bite children who bullied me and quite a few parents had me on their whoop-ass list.
When she died, a sickness took hold of me. I had not experienced that kind of sickness since my younger days of fevers and hallucinations. Mom feared I was relapsing into that sickness again. It continued all throughout my great-grandmother’s funeral. It ended when they buried her.
For some time, people shunned her home. She had lived there alone and it was eerily quiet with no electricity.
But, I would take my little flashlight and my CD player and hop across the path that connected it to my grandmother’s home. I spent hours alone in the home every night and I have no real recollection of what I did there.
A Strange Intruder
One afternoon, while I was in high school, I visited my grandmother’s house. She was doing the week’s worth of ironing on the back verandah and humming a tune to herself. I sat quietly with a book, but then I looked up and saw something that should have alarmed me, but did not.
“Mama,” I said to my grandmother, “There’s a woman in the bedroom.”
“Oh?” My grandma responded, calmly. “What does she look like?”
“Sad,” I answered. “She’s in Richard’s room, staring at your bedroom door and she looks very sad. She’s wearing a blue dress and she is light-skinned with curly hair.”
My grandma stopped the ironing and looked me dead in the face. “You don’t know who that is?”
“No,” I answered. “Why is there a woman in the room?”
My cousin peeked over my shoulders, trying to see this invisible woman.
“That’s my mother.”
I laughed. “But, Mama. She’s young!”
My grandmother didn’t argue with me. She came to my side and looked into the room. I turned to look at her, but when I looked back, the woman was gone.
“That was my mother,” she said and she looked as sad as her own mother had.
An Angry Avenger
When I was in university, I crossed paths with the other cousin who the oats box man had terrorized. By then, my great-grandmother’s house had passed to me and I had lived there throughout high school and community college. But now, I attended university at the other end of the island.
When I returned for the weekend, my cousin decided he would stay in the house with me, despite its poor state. This paternal cousin, unbeknownst to me, was on anti-depressants and had stopped taking them. He had been snapping at me and being utterly disrespectful all week, but I paid him no mind.
“I don’t know why you put up with him,” Richard told me. He had come to spend the night as well. I’m his favourite cousin and we didn’t see each other much anymore.
The following morning, we woke up to some strange sounds in the neighbouring bedroom. At first, we thought it was my paternal cousin mimicking a ghost with “Ooooooo” sounds. Richard and I laughed but didn’t leave our room. The noise persisted. As we listened, we realized it wasn’t quite a ghostly “Ooooo!” It was more like “Mmmmmm!” like when someone can’t speak.
We rushed into the neighbouring room. When we did, my paternal cousin bolted upright on the bed. “I’ve been calling you for an hour!” he yelled. “There was a woman! Holding me underwater!”
At this point, Richard and I were laughing. My paternal cousin had the entire bedroom to himself. We were the only three people in the home. The doors were locked. And, obviously, aside from the cold sweat seeping into the sheets, he was dry! What water?
“Describe her. Tell us what she looks like,” Richard mocked him.
He described my great-grandmother. As far as I know, they have never met. We also have no pictures of my great-grandmother, which is why I never recognized her when I saw her in her youth. Even more interesting, he saw her as I did: young.
My Mother’s Story
There’s a story my mom likes to tell of my great-grandmother. It isn’t of any specific incident, per se. Rather, it’s just an illustration of a personality quirk my great-grandmother had.
“I never knew how old your great-grandmother was. Even now, I had no idea how old she was when she died. Every year you would ask her how old she was on her birthday and the number would be one year less! One day, I asked her, how come the number was getting smaller instead of bigger and she cursed me out good and proper and told me to stay out of grown folks’ business. I never asked again.”
My mother also often talks about the last time she saw my great-grandmother. One day, while she was re-telling the story, I told her of the time I saw my great-grandma at Mama’s house. I thought I had told Mom the story before, but apparently, I hadn’t. When I told her what great-grandma was wearing, she broke down into tears.
I was confused. “Why are you crying?”
“That’s what she was wearing the last day I saw her,” she said. “You weren’t there. I came to say hello and there was a man in the house that I had always disliked. So, I told her I would visit another time.”
“‘I have something to tell you!’ she told me, excitedly. But, I left out of annoyance that the man was there, and now I’ll never know what she wanted to say.”
A Continued Curiosity
I sometimes wonder about the things I’ve seen and experienced that make no logical sense. People ask me if that isn’t evidence of God and another life. I tell them no, it’s evidence of human ignorance. I would much rather admit I do not know than create a comforting hypothesis.
Is my great-grandmother watching over me from the Great Beyond? Did she attack my unruly cousin who had the awful idea to disrespect me in her home? On the property where she was buried? Or, are we all just quite mad and sharing common delusions across countries and city lines?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that I still think about death. I still wonder what it’s like to confront that final breath and whether there is truly anything in the Great Beyond.