One October night, when I was twelve, my sister Kimmy and I broke out a Ouija board. Our bedroom was my house’s Halloween destination, and my little sister Kimmy was my assistant in its macabre design. We sat on her bed among the cardboard tombstones, and asked the board innocuous questions: Who were we going to marry? Where would we live in the future? The indicator moved on its own across the board’s shiny surface, giving us lukewarm answers; naming the shy kid in my class and saying we’d live in Florida, unlike New York or Paris. I turned our attention to the ghost in the board, asking if it could move something. The planchette paused for a moment, then in a single, steady motion, spelled out the word CUP. I set an empty paper cup on top of the board and we waited, pressing our clammy palms together as the room grew quiet. After a long moment, I felt cold air run over my body in strange, illogical streams. I looked up at the air conditioning vent, but the black-and-orange paper chains hanging in front of it were still. Between us, the cup started moving, jerking in tiny steps over the black letters. It tipped up on its edge, rolling around on its rim before settling back down. My body went cold. Kimmy stared at me with huge, frightened eyes. We dropped each other’s hands, but the cup was still moving. In what seemed like slow motion, it tipped up, teetering once more on its edge. Finally, it fell over, rolling off of the board onto her bedspread. We hurled ourselves off the bed and out of the room, our feet pounding down the stairs to where our mom was watching TV back in the normal world. We never played with the Ouija board again.
I realized then that there were things in this world I couldn’t explain. As an adult, I know that a Hasbro game has little to do with the possibilities of life after death. But I still don’t know how the cup tipped over.
The tired realities of adulthood have kicked in these past few years as I’ve started to lose people. Kimmy died in the fall of 2016 after a lifetime of opioid addiction, and my dad followed two and a half years later from brain cancer. When Kimmy died, she had been in bad health for years, long since having given up on any kind of happiness, and at thirty-two, she was tired. We sat in her hospice room, the sharp autumn light cutting in on a Thursday morning, abandoned pumpkin scones on the table, as she took her last breaths, like a quiet clock running out of batteries. My dad, my sister Lindsay, and I flanked her bedside. I felt, for the first time, the sudden strangeness of arriving with a person and leaving without them.
My sisters and I are all generally skeptics when it comes to the afterlife, but we have our moments of doubt. Lindsay, a doctor herself, still pokes her head into church once in a while. She swears she felt something warm leave the room when Kimmy died. Sarah, my youngest sister and a true believer, has the creepiest stories, usually involving her two-year-old daughter, Harper. She loves to try to freak us out.
“I never told y’all about this, but I used to see outlines of people in my room when I was a kid. I think Harper sees them too.”
Nancy thinks we’re all full of crap. “What did she say?” she asks.
“She just keeps talking to people that aren’t there. She’ll talk about the lady in her room all the time. Aaaand I come in there and she’s alone,” Sarah says.
“It’s called being a kid,” Nancy says.
Weird stuff happens to me, too. I sometimes hear a voice whispering my name, “Jenny. Jenny.” It comes from over my shoulder, as if someone is right behind me. I grew up with so many siblings yelling my name that I’ll turn around expecting to see someone.
“That’s fucking freaky, Jenny,” Sarah says, like her kid doesn’t see dead people.
My dad passed away in the spring of 2019, a year after his diagnosis. He didn’t want to die, and when the time came for us to take him to the hospice, he was furious. At that point, he was bedridden and unable to speak, which didn’t stop him from communicating how disgusted he was about the whole thing. My dad’s passing was not peaceful. He was aware of the robbery of it all until the moment he left. At 65, he had the health of a person 20 years younger. He hiked the Appalachian Mountains by himself. He was an avid scuba diver, full of stories of the creatures he saw under the sea. He skydived professionally. When he died, Lindsay didn’t feel warmth leave the room. We were all too much in shock. The constant work and horror of his dying distracted us from the reality of his death, and we hadn’t prepared for what would come. We were camped out in his hospice room watching Disney movies on the night he passed away. We were behaving as we always did, laughing and talking. At the time, I knew he would die, but I had no idea he would be gone.
On the mantel in my Chicago apartment is a photograph of my sisters and me standing on a slab of cement surrounded by scrub pine, on what would become our big grey house on 32nd Avenue in Vero Beach, Florida. We’re dressed in the neon colors of the 1990s JCPenney sale rack, Lindsay and me smiling, Kimmy staring into space and holding Nancy’s hand, Sarah toddling out of the frame. That house would encapsulate our young adult lives. Within its walls, Kimmy and I built paper graveyards. I would become a cheerleader and run cross-country. She would dye her hair green and start running with the wrong crowd, and over time we would talk less and less. The house itself was always full of noise. I hid in rooms alone, safe with the sounds of my family outside. Even now, I love being in bathrooms at parties. I like to be alone and not alone. I like when there’s life on the other side of the door.
The house grew quiet after we grew up, its long hallways taking on a life of their own as the air whispered through the empty rooms. Kimmy came home between stints in rehab, but mostly my dad lived there alone. When his cancer was in its later stages, I moved home to care for him, sharing shifts with my mom and my sisters. Many days we went for walks around our neighborhood in the evenings. The streets around my house are shaded by tall, mossy oak trees. The light glows through patches of green as the sun sets every day. Our simple conversations were familiar, despite his loss of much of his language.
I recorded one of our walks in the voice memos on my phone. Sometimes I listen to it when I’m awake in my bed in Chicago. There he is, alive as ever. He’s talking in halting sentences about how much he liked church that day, which he had slept through. He shouts as the light hits my browning hair, revealing that I’m over my black dye phase, which he hated. I know exactly where we are in space at each point in the conversation. I’ve walked these streets my whole life. I remember the lights in the windows of our house as we got back home. It’s a thirty-five minute recording on a metal device in my hand. If I close my eyes, my dad is still alive.
Things you might have seen that spring if you passed by our house:
My dad and me walking, his steps halting, his Irish flat cap in place. My mom in the window starting dinner as it gets dark.
Lindsay and me pushing our dad in a wheelchair.
Lindsay and me drinking Target box wine out of plastic sippy cups as we walk late at night.
Lindsay and me screaming at each other in the street early one morning.
A nurse arriving, built like a linebacker, walking in calm, measured steps.
An ambulance parked on the front lawn, the doors of the grey house wide open.
A hot, sticky morning. My family walking. I carry a coffee mug, spilling it as I step. Lindsay holding Harper’s tiny hand as she ambles along. Sarah carrying a new baby boy. Nancy holding her dogs, pulling in opposite directions on the green lawns. My mom wearing sensible shoes.
A long time. Mail builds up in the mailbox. Flyers collect on the front door.
A sign announcing the house is for sale.
The sign is gone.
In Chicago, I get a letter from a lawyer, asking me in to relinquish my rights and those of all my heirs and successors to Lot 17 on 32nd Avenue in Vero Beach, Florida, in perpetuity. An old Florida homestead law. The last of the paperwork. I sign it and drop it in the mailbox.
After the funeral, I listen to Fresh Air at my reception job in Chicago to distract myself. Sister Helen Prejean is famous for her work with prisoners on Death Row. Terri Gross asks her about heaven.
“What if heaven, what if my sister Mary Ann is right here by my side, but I can’t see her?…It’s called the Communion of Saints in the Catholic Church. Not that it’s a literal place, of course, but what if they have crossed over a threshold in which they have moved into way of being that is somehow connected in love with everything? Maybe that is the heart of what it all means.” It’s a beautiful podcast. I reach to call my dad before I remember.
I have dreams where my dad tries to communicate with me. One night I dream we’re floating in inner tubes in the middle of the ocean. We realize we can talk to each other this way, that we’ve found the crack under the door. We’re both excited, my dad laughing like he always did. I feel myself waking up and I tell him I’ll come back, that now I know where to find him. He waves goodbye as my eyes open, back in my bed in Chicago. Nancy has a similar dream, except that she can’t hear him. When he talks, it sounds like static, but he jumps around, dancing, so happy to see her.
Christmas is bad, in the waning days of 2018. My dad’s sickness approaches its final stages.
After dinner, in our big grey house, Harper runs laps around the kitchen with her Moana doll. Sarah drinks coffee while I finish the apple pie.
“Wanna know something crazy?” Sarah says. “We were in the living room and she goes, ‘Mommy, who’s that?’ And I was like, ‘Who?’ And she’s like, ‘the lady with green hair looking in the window.’”
She sips her coffee. “Nobody was there.”
Harper runs back into the living room and plays with her toys under the Christmas tree. We follow her to the couch, where my dad sits holding the new baby. The tree flashes back and forth between colorful lights and white. Everyone trickles into the living room while Harper bangs out a happy ruckus on her tiny pink piano. It’s a typical holiday, the last one we’ll spend in this house, though we don’t know it yet.
Later that night, my sisters and I walk around our neighborhood. You can see a lot of stars from our street in Florida. The vast, black Atlantic roars a five-minute drive from our house. We stop in the middle of the road to find the Big Dipper. Sarah points it out to Harper, who wails when she can’t see it. We all do our best to help her, all of us little humans who don’t know anything. If it hadn’t been for Copernicus, we’d still think everything floated around the Earth. We’d believe in ghosts, and demons. We’d rest our faith in the simple answers of heaven and hell, reward and punishment, seeing each other again. We keep walking, Harper sniffling into Sarah’s neck, for the moment giving up on the mysteries of the universe. I lag behind, watching them, alive, here for a moment. Maybe, given enough time, it will all make sense. I’ll know why the cup tipped over. I’ll know where my dad is, and my sister. Maybe the answer is beautiful. Or maybe they’re just gone.