I grew up believing there were no such things as ghosts.
I was taught that every unusual event had a rational explanation. If I couldn’t find an explanation, it just meant I hadn’t found it yet. My father was firmly in the camp of not believing in anything supernatural. We enjoyed a good ghost story, but we knew they were just stories.
Yes, we believed in God and we believed that God could do anything he wanted, but we were taught — at home and at school — that God wasn’t acting in supernatural ways in the world since the end of the Apostolic Age (which was covered by the second half of the New Testament). It was a nice, neat little theological explanation by which we could believe God did miraculous things back then — but there was nothing supernatural today, either good or bad.
That all changed — at least for my father — shortly after my grandfather died. My father’s long-time belief that everything had a rational and natural explanation changed after he was visited in the night by my dead grandfather.
I don’t remember how long it was before he told me the story, but he was nervous at first to tell about his experience. He seemed concerned that I would think he had lost his sanity, but he obviously had a strong need to share the story.
I have no idea who else eventually heard the story, but it wasn’t anything he talked about except with people he knew well and trusted. He had never believed that there could be any crossover between the natural world and the world of the dead — and this experience shook him badly, because it forced him to rethink much of what he had believed.
My grandfather died when I was about 21. I was a pallbearer when he was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Jasper, Ala., but I remember nothing about the day other than missing work. My father was hit hard by his dad’s death, even though we had expected it.
As best I can remember it, here’s the story as he told it to me.
It was the first night after the funeral and my father was in bed with his second wife. He woke up to realize that someone was in their room. He sat up and saw that the bedroom door was still closed, but then he saw his father standing next to the bed.
My father said there was nothing scary about it to him. My grandfather didn’t seem threatening. He didn’t appear to be a “ghost-like” or shimmery figure. He just appeared as he had in real life, except that he could now walk and move around in ways he hadn’t really been able to before he died.
My father had always been fascinated by dreams and he told me firmly that this experience wasn’t a dream. He was fully awake and didn’t feel as though he was drifting into sleep. My grandfather told him that everything was OK for him now. He told him that he wouldn’t be seeing him anymore, but that he wanted to say goodbye.
My grandfather touched him in some way, although I don’t remember the details of that part. My father said he felt his touch — just as he would from a living person — then my grandfather told him, “Goodbye,” and he disappeared.
About 15 years ago, my father told me something else. As he got older, my grandmother started to come visit him — and he said this happened over and over again.
Unlike the visit from my grandfather, my grandmother never spoke in these visits. My father said she would simply sit with him. She had never been a talkative woman in life, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if her spirit were equally quiet.
He said she appeared at random times. He said there was nothing ever scary about her visits, and he said that the visits became more frequent as he aged.
Sometimes, he said, she would sit in the passenger seat of his car while he drove in silence. Sometimes, he said, she would sit with him at home. As he first told me this story — obviously concerned that I might not entirely believe it — he told me something else.
“She’s sitting in that chair over there right now,” he said. “I don’t think anybody but me can see her, but she’s here.”
I never knew what to think of my father’s stories about experiencing the spirits of his dead parents. I know that he had been hyper-rational about such things when I was growing up, but something about these experiences had caused him to be uncertain about what to believe about the spirit world.
I’ve had enough experience of my own with supernatural things now that I am certain there are things which we don’t understand. I don’t pretend to be able to name them or explain them, but I know that there are parts of this natural world about which we have so little understanding that we call them “supernatural.”
I can’t remember now exactly when this took place, but I was at Oak Hill Cemetery — the one where both of my grandparents are buried — about 10 or 12 years ago with a close friend. I don’t remember what we had come to look for that day, but we were driving through the manicured green cemetery as dusk approached.
As I got to a place where two paths crossed in the cemetery, I suddenly caught something out of the corner of my eye and quickly stopped the car. I saw something, but what I saw wasn’t possible.
For a brief moment, I saw a very old black hearse that was a carriage drawn by horses. (I don’t recall now whether it was one horse or two.) There as a man in black with a formal old hat sitting in front driving the horses. But in the blink of an eye, it was gone.
My friend looked ashen. She asked me if I had just seen what she saw. We compared notes and had seen exactly the same things.
This friend is smart and rational. She’s not prone to panic. She’s not prone to seeing things that aren’t there. Neither am I. But we both saw what we saw — just in that blink of an eye. We were both convinced that we somehow saw the image of something which had appeared in this cemetery in the past — an old horse-drawn hearse from the days before cars.
I don’t know what to believe now about the supernatural. I know there are things which we don’t understand, but I also know that we can convince ourselves of crazy things on the flimsiest of evidence.
I don’t want to see my dead parents. I don’t want to see any spirits. Unlike my father, I would be terrified to see such things. Whatever there might be that waits on the other side of the divide between life and death, I prefer to wait many years before finding out what it is.
In the meantime, I’ll walk a little faster and my heart will beat a little harder every time there are things which go bump in the night.