Other Writings

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and has won the Foreword INDIES LGBT Book of the Year Award. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

I suppose it should be expected. If I had written a cookbook, people would be sending me recipes. But I wrote a book about ghosts.

To the day she died, Mom insisted she saw Dad standing there in the kitchen in broad daylight. He had been dead for ten years.

Along with those skeletons hidden away in most family closets, it seems that families have one or two ghost stories stuck in there as well. In almost every public reading I’ve given, or in meetings with book discussion groups, someone has shared a story with me.

I was fifteen, and my brother was away fighting in the Pacific when I saw him outside my bedroom window. He was grinning, like he was joshing with me again. I never told my ma. And I didn’t need to wait for the telegram. I knew what it meant.

These stories were not told in a sensationalistic way, but more like a confidence shared.

During his final hours, my husband would ask who was that standing by the door. I would say there’s no one else in the room. Just me. And soon he would ask again. There’s no one there, I’d tell him. Now, I’m thinking, maybe there was.

Some spoke even matter-of-factly about their experiences.

There was a ghost upstairs in our house when we were kids. I don’t remember any of us ever being scared. We just got used to the noises and took it for granted.

This was true of my German grandmother. For her the paranormal was...well, normal. She dreamed things before they happened—what’s called precognition. It was nothing special to her. She accepted these experiences without needing to understand them. My mother, too, had experiences, but she didn’t like to talk about them. They frightened her.

Near the end of her days, as my grandmother was lying in the hospital, she said to my mother, “Ah, Lili, don’t worry. When I die, I will come back and tell you that I am okay.” I’m sure she meant that to be reassuring.

But Mom would have none of it. “No, Ma, when you’re gone, you’re gone. Don’t come back.” What’s telling is that neither of them doubted that, had she wanted, my grandmother could indeed have “come back.”

I wish I’d been there. I’d have told Grandma that I would love to receive a postcard from the other side— Having a wonderful time. Wish you here (or maybe not that). Don’t forget to water the delphiniums. Unfortunately, my mother’s and grandmother’s “gift” did not extend down to me. Apparently, I possess all the psychic sensitivity of a potato.

What has also struck me about these accounts is that not one of them was frightening or even spooky, as in all those lurid horror films and novels (Yeah, okay, I have a couple of lurid scenes in mine, too.) Mostly, the stories speak of tenderness and love that momentarily reaches from beyond the grave.

I was ironing, and suddenly I felt my son kiss me on the cheek, just like he did when he was living.

How do we (the Potato People) begin to understand these accounts? One’s imagination playing with itself? A wish masquerading as a hallucination? Perhaps an exaggeration of something that “kind of happened”? Or just maybe these people did see, hear, and feel what they said they did.

I am asked whether I believe in the supernatural. I answer like Frank, the therapist in my novel, that I neither believe nor disbelieve. I’m not even sure what I’m being asked to believe in. Like him, I’m pretty sure the final word on reality isn’t in yet.

Ultimately, what paranormal experiences may suggest is that we are living in a much different universe than we think are. Confined to our three-dimensional reality in a multi-dimensional universe may be like believing the room we inhabit is the whole house, whereas it’s just one in a vast mansion of rooms. To paraphrase the evolutionary biologist J. B. S. Haldane, the universe is not only stranger than we think; it’s stranger than we can think.

So, like the character in my story, I’ll continue neither to believe nor disbelieve until the final word on reality is in.

And I still wish that my grandmother had come back to tell me she was okay.

This article first appeared in The (Longview) Daily News, July 27, 2008.

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