Every October, with its falling leaves and brilliant colors, I’m reminded of my father’s death: October 30 the night before Halloween. My mother had died three years earlier, leaving our father, stroke-ridden, in our house. What was curious, whenever I visited Daddy, I could feel my mother in the house. Her spirit was so strong that it was all I could do to keep from calling out to her as I opened the door. I felt as if her spirit was waiting for him, hovering in the house, concerned for him and for his care by nurses, not wanting to “go over” until he, her lifelong partner, was ready to go with her too. It’s a great love story. And yet, when Daddy died, they were both immediately gone! You felt it. The house felt empty. This was so apparent that I remember asking my brother— “Did you call the limousine for the wedding–I mean the funeral?”
But that wasn’t what I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell about his death. At the time I had a writer’s grant to live for three months at the Wurlitzer Foundation in New Mexico, and I remember that on that morning of October 30 I experienced a very clear “knowing” that I should call my father at 9:00 that night. Moreover, it was clear that the message came from my mother—and how I knew it I could never explain, but I felt as if my mother had come to me in person to whisper gently: “Call your father at 9:00 pm.” I waited all that day, therefore, until it would be time to call.
Somehow, (stupid me!) I was confused by the two-hour time difference between Maryland and New Mexico. Nine pm in Baltimore is 7:00 pm in Taos, but somehow I took the message to mean that I should call at 9:00 pm New Mexico time. (Or was it 11:00 in New Mexico when in Baltimore the clock would read 9:00? Which is totally wrong-way round.) At any rate, that evening I was visiting at another artist’s house, waiting for 9:00 pm my New Mexico time, when I got a phone call asking me to call home. Then I learned that Daddy had died at nine o’clock Baltimore time. I’d missed my call.
I remember being shocked. I remember thinking I was supposed to talk to him one more time before he died, but I had no time for guilt or grief. I packed everything and found my way that night to Albuquerque, cutting my grant short to fly back home. It was only later that it occurred to me I might have misunderstood the message—not that I should call home at 9:00, but that he would be called “ home” then.
One thing stands on my conscience. I wanted Daddy’s body to remain in the house for 24 hours. I pleaded with the nurses. They would not do it. They said they had already called the undertakers and that his body had already been picked up. My sister, calling from France, was crying for the same thing, and my brother—also away when he died—could not be reached. Why did I care? I don’t know. It was some deep, atavistic idea that the soul would need a few hours to wander about, to say goodbye, perhaps, or to get its bearings comfortably before crossing over. It has lain on my heart, this fact that his body was removed so fast.
Death is life-changing. You are never the same after the death of a mother, the death of a father. For one thing, you step one rung up the ladder. For another the date of their deaths are seared into your brain and being, more surely than the birth of your own child.
It was somehow appropriate that he should die on the day before Halloween—and close to All Saint’s Day, the Day of the Dead, which is November 1. In Mexico this holiday is celebrated with skeletons and candles and feasts in memory of those who have passed before, and in France the entire country heads to the cemeteries to clear weeds off the family graves, wash lichen-ridden stones, and set out flowers in memory of the dead. In the U.S., children dress in ghostly, ghoulish costumes and gather bags of sweets without a thought to death.
When my plane arrived in Washington that night, my husband picked me up to drive us back to our house in Georgetown, only to discover the first spontaneous Halloween celebration of Washington DC. (It later became a huge and annual event, a crowded Gala with all the joy of Mardi Gras.). But that night, the spontaneous first, traffic had come to a halt. Hoards of people in costume paraded by some pre-twitter-pre-social-media understanding to one cross-road in Georgetown, and created with their celebratory devils, demons, princesses, vampires, elves, ogres, ghosts and skeletons. It was a total and paralyzing grid-lock. The police were helpless. Every road was blocked.
We sat in the car, my husband and I, and talked about my father.
I know a physicist who tells me with conviction, “There are no ghosts.” I don’t argue. Maybe in my next blog I’ll tell about some of the many spirits I have seen, not only those of my mother, but even of spirits who were strangers. I will add, that I have never met an evil ghost, or dangerous one. But that’s for another time. Right now, I keep thinking about my father, and what a special man he was.
© 2018 Sophy Burnham