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This is the third episode in the series, Spirits of the Fall: True Stories of the Season, eerie occurrences, real-life horrors, ghosts and second sight.
Visits From Beyond
Last Night I was sitting with friends on my neighbor’s porch between the firepit and patio heater; it was not our normal gathering. At 66 degrees and muggy, the host turned off the heater and I drank Courage Tea, a blood-red concoction brewed in honor of the discussion about Alice Hoffman’s new book, Magic Lessons. Set in the 1600s with the plot overlapping the Salem witch trials, the protagonist is skilled in the so-called Nameless Arts and the porch setting was ideal. Nighttime in fall, the crackle and smell of burning wood in the stone pit, the chairs encircled by autumn’s clutches, the branches heavy with dying leaves. A brown oak leaf flitted onto my shoulder.
We talked about the idea of witchcraft and healing today. Where are the healers, the mediums, those blessed with second-sight or extrasensory perception? Are they in the medical field? Are they psychics or shamans or priests? Many still practice the healing arts around the world and in the United States. Healing isn’t only about the body; it is also about the soul.
Years ago, a colleague asked me to go with her to the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, located northeast of Orlando. They have a webpage now, which lists certified mediums and healers. When I clicked on Healers, there are 37 names. The site also has 40 certified Mediums with a note that all have undergone a minimum of four years of training. There are PHDs and a medical doctor. The Reverend Dr. Sheldon Ganberg is a medium and a healer who earned his Ph.D. in Spiritual Psychology and Counseling at the Union Institute and University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Dr. Ganberg’s doctoral dissertation was based on his work using Journey Beyond Time © , a Shamanic Counseling process to help individuals who have experienced physical, emotional and spiritual challenges.
The camp has been active since 1894 with approximately 57 acres and 55 homes. From the site: ‘Those who reside here have chosen to live in a community of spiritual people where they can worship and work in harmony with their beliefs. The About Us page notes that “We, as Spiritualists, welcome you, no matter what your religion of origin is or where you are on your spiritual path: a believer, a skeptic, or simply curious.”
The spring when my friend asked me to go, I was two of these things: a skeptic and simply curious. When we arrived and I entered the visitors building, I was instructed to look at the wall for a card or name that made sense to me. My friend found a medium and I found one. The cottage was small and I remember entering through the screen door, the ceiling fan slowly turning, the only light from outside. The medium invited me to sit. I did not wear jewelry and dressed simply, no adornment or accessories. I was in my late twenties, married without children, working in a challenging job. I said nothing in the way of conversation and she did not ask me questions. We were opposite each other in the dim room and she said she ‘gets symbols’, then proceeded to tell me about the next year, month by month. I wrote it down afterwards. She saw an old man, a gentle figure who patted me on the back. She said there was change, a different job, new clothes, a confidence and new knowledge. That the next year was ‘gold’ and the best year of my life, a light shining on me. She said that children would be wrong now with so much change. Finances and health are good. The gentleman was with me, helping me along the way.
I was a skeptic, with a head for math and the rational. I remained skeptical and figured this advice could apply to anyone. I haven’t looked at the notes for decades. I did leave that difficult job. The money and responsibility in my new role was like ‘gold’ and I was the youngest manager at a top tier company. I did not have children then, since the timing was wrong. I don’t know if it was the best year of my life, but it was a beautiful time. The light shining on me. Good health, good finances, professional success.
I’m inclined to grade the medium better now, twenty years later. It’s clear that spiritualism, the practice once known as the Nameless Art is alive and well in the 21stcentury.
I talked about this spiritual camp with my friends after discussing the book. The host mentioned that her son came to her room every night as a little boy, asking about death, wondering where people go when they die. Every single night. He had lost his grandfather when he was just one year old. And for years he went to her about the people who came out of his bedroom wall after he went to bed. She asked him to point to the spot and she hung a poster there. When she talked to him the next day to see if they still came out of there, he said no. Then he pointed to another spot on the wall where they entered his room. This went on for years.
My husband’s father Joe who we called Pops died in the spring, just before we moved away from Florida. He was not a particularly religious man and had said that he did not want a funeral or services, that he only wished for his three sons and their families to visit, if they wanted. This caused a stir among extended family but the sons respected his wishes. Two of them were in the Army and needed to travel to pay their respects.
Pops and I had a passion for music. He loved to listen to me play piano and would on occasion sing when he knew the lyrics. He bought me songbooks of tunes he liked and music he thought I’d enjoy. During his visits, he would be thrilled to join me and listen or sing. He was fully present, no phone or book or other distraction. It was unsettling at first because I’m not a performer. Yet, I learned to play for him. He always thanked me for the ‘concerts’ I gave.
Before Pops died, he had been in a nursing home for months, recovering from a removal of a brain tumor. It was benign but so large it was affecting his daily life. He never recovered. I had been playing Celtic tunes, arranged for piano by Phil Coulter. The funeral home had prepared the body for viewing. As I approached the casket to say goodbye to Pops, I noticed the music. I had to blink back tears. It must be a standard set for funeral homes but it was a song meant for me. I shook my head in disbelief. It felt that Pops wanted me to know he was well, that things were ok. He had never heard me play this. It was one final song together.
Here’s the tune I heard when I said goodbye to Pops.
The Town I loved So Well – Phil Coulter arrangement
Both fathers, Pops and my own father, were sick then and living near us for care. They sat in wheelchairs on the front porch one day, looking at the grandchildren playing on the lawn. Pops asked my dad how he was doing and my father did the same. They both kind of grunted.
My father said, “I’m waiting.” He had been suffering for years from neurological disease, frontal temporal dementia, the doctors said.
A year later in Connecticut, not long after my father turned 75, he was living in my house. Over 200-pound Irishman, he was too much for my mother and she did not have the constitution for caregiving. My brother took care of him, then when my sister-in-law was expecting their next child, my father came into my care in Connecticut. He had taken a bad fall and gave himself a good gash on the head. I was worried and asked my friend Kate, a medical doctor, about the amount of blood loss. She visited to check on him and said hello. I didn’t think there would be much the doctors could do for his head. He would likely be confined to bed which is where he slept on his side in the dark, as he did all day, every day. He took meals, but his balance was off and he did little else but sleep. The blood stained his clothes and I had to search for something he could wear.
My dad died the next day. When I put him to bed the night before, he had just left the bathroom and was standing at his bedside. He stood, staring across the bed at the framed picture of my mother, the only item there.
During the chaos of that fateful day, with the ambulance and the police, so much happened. My father had a sealed will which my brother needed to locate since none of us, my mother included, knew my father’s wishes for his final arrangements. The letter made us laugh, a comfort to read during those dire hours, the wit and humor of his words written when he was himself.
Later, my mother and I talked on the phone. She was a woman of omens and dreams. She might warn me to avoid travel, to be wary. She would share dreams when her sister visited, her closest who died young. She wanted to talk about her last dream. There was a calm in her voice and on the phone, as I listened. She said something to this effect.
He came to me. Your father. There was a light around him and I was in my bed, resting. He sat down at the end of the bed, Linh. And he forgave me. She sobbed, a quiet deep shake I could feel through the phone, hundreds of miles away. He was at peace. It was peaceful.
I was glad to hear it, secretly relieved. The burden of care and their physical separation was hard for all of us. I asked what he said. She said he hadn’t spoken. He didn’t need to because she understood.
Eminently pragmatic and observant, she was perplexed about one thing. His clothes. I would never buy him such clothes. Terrible. I don’t know where he would get them. Brown pajamas?! I don’t understand. Brown pajamas.
I caught my breath. I was standing at the top of the stairs by the landing. There wasn’t anywhere to sit. The only clothes I could find after my father gashed his head were an old pair of PJs, brown pajamas.
Some things remain hard to explain. I didn’t care about the brown pajamas the way my mother did, as a fashion faux pas. I’ve been skeptical of her superstitions and lived with them all these years. But, this time I knew that she saw him and I was happy my father visited her, because I believe he was thinking of her when he went to sleep his last evening in this world. They had a tough marriage, two very different people, both stubborn and loyal. I guess that happens with a spouse, family, friends, even animals. They make an impression, they are part of us.
That night on the porch with friends, we talked about the potency of death, and the extrasensory experience many have when a loved one crosses over. The worldly connection is broken. We talked about the familiar or spirit animal which chooses the witch or person. The book’s protagonist Maria’s familiar was a crow, one of the smartest of birds. Like friends, an animal familiar understands the manners, the voice and music, maybe the memories of its human. When my mother-in-law Beth died, she asked us to take her dog Belle. A boxer who is over eleven now, Belle reminds me of Beth and it’s hard to describe. Beth also loved music and she played guitar and banjo and fiddle. Belle grew up in a house with music. I inherited Beth’s violins and no matter what music I play, Belle is there, at my feet, or standing and listening, for the love of music is imprinted on that old dog.