John Elmer, broken, in a cruelly ironic twist, was forced to take the position of groundskeeper at Monmouth College, the institution his family helped establish. He was the focus of endless scurrilous chatter, and his humiliation proved so punishing that in 1925 he eventually killed himself by sawing a tree limb from the wrong side, never to enjoy that the Great Depression was about to level those who levelled him. For decades after, his family would occasionally hear snippets about the old man’s ghost appearing in that tree, sawing furiously. Ethel, for her part, ceased to entice Howell Brownlee. Her allure, it seems, stemmed from the [page 93] promise of endless wealth, and as a pauper, he felt a woman requiring substantially less dress fabric might better suit him. Shortly after John Elmer’s burial, Howell divorced Ethel, leaving her destitute except for the fine flotsam bequeathed her during that unforgettable wedding week. He remarried shortly thereafter, and she opted to die, also in ’25, rather than adjust to a world where poverty and abandonment overtook a person. Though I suspect suicide, no one ever suggested as much, casting her as dead “of a broken heart.”
Life has taught me, though, that while we may very well be haunted by the loss of love and the horror that befalls people, even sometimes deserving – or least not undeserving – people, these horrors rarely kill us. Broken hearts, trauma, loss: these are the conjurers of the spirits who collapse chronology and remind us that the construct of time does little to relieve the terror we inherit as well as create and endure in our own lifetimes to deed to others. Apart from witnessing nearly a dozen of my elderly relatives suffer the horror of terminal illnesses and then die before I was ten years old, I also lost friends to drunk driving accidents and suicides during my teenage and early adult years. I always watched those mourning events unfold with curiosity because they were so unlike my own experiences of such losses in their rawness and wildness. My mother attended the deathbeds of at least half a dozen of our relatives when I was a child and that, coupled with her blithe acceptance of the reappearance of the dead, leant an air of professionalism and businesslike acceptance to the affair of dying. Ours are not a people given to Sicilian outbursts of grief.
Well, except for me. When my partner shot himself, I unwillingly bucked that trend. Given that this was the early 2000s and queer partners had no say-so when it came to their unofficial spouses, I had no control over his funeral or burial according to the law once his mother intervened. A private affair, she only acquiesced and invited me when she realized she didn’t have enough pallbearers; as chief mourner, I bore his weight, literally and figuratively. I made a spectacle of myself the entire time, to my horror, spattering tears on everything and everyone. My grief was unimaginable even to me as I experienced it, and in that period I completely grasped how the narration of these events, which this essay attests, becomes an unavoidable feature of one’s existence from that point forward. I wondered if Ethel felt similarly when she lost Howell. What struck me most intensely, though, was a memory of a story my grandmother shared nearly twenty years earlier when she was becoming accustomed to living alone after the death of my grandfather in 1984. She hadn’t slept a night without him in over forty years, since that snowstorm at the farm. She stopped sleeping altogether for quite a long period of [page 94] time when she started to have dreams that he was knocking at their front door, and when she opened it he stood there as a young man in his GI uniform. At once panicking and overjoyed, the horror of awakening to discover it was merely her mind’s misfiring, or perhaps wish fulfillment, became unbearable.
In those rare moments when she would drift off, she would startle, half awake, certain that he lay in bed beside her. Fear paralyzed her, rendering her incapable of even reaching out a hand to ascertain the truth. She knew he was there; the fact that he wasn’t became immaterial. We – a family bent upon curating our ghosts – dismissed her story as a commonplace occurrence catalyzed by grief and exhaustion. And yet, this experience of haunting exerted tremendous influence over her life and habits. Her home – even her bed, her favorite place – no longer a sanctuary or refuge, she carried on in this fashion from when he died until two years later she had a massive stroke and never returned home again. One night shortly after my partner died, I started having the identical experience of believing him to be in bed beside me – it was even coupled with the same paralyzing fear. Even though I never believed it possible – and I still don’t – the sensation stunned me and made a profound effect on my experience of the world. To this day I recoil at the horror of discovering myself next to someone I loved dearly, unable to move or even breathe, overcome with the slimmest hope and terror that it was real. Not long after, and ever since, I suffer the nightmares that he’s not actually dead and has returned only to awake and immediately force myself to remember reality. I say reality, but that feels inaccurate, imprecise. After all, for hours some nights that becomes my life again. It’s not so easy to dissociate oneself from or to dismiss as irrelevant. It proves impossible and commonplace at once; our minds engage a strain of poetics simultaneously wondrous and destructive. This summoning – this labor of grief – places us slightly ajar from those who surround us, forcing us to live akimbo in a place that exists for the mourner alone – both imaginary and indistinguishably real – in a dimension where physicality takes a back seat to the power of our psychological states and our perceptions of the world, not unlike the circumstances presented in The Others (2001) – sometimes the dead and the living interact with at least one party not knowing who’s who. I never understood this till I was wracked with terror so crippling I simply could not move a muscle to verify the truth, if there is such a thing. I felt like my paternal great-grandmother, Mona, a funeral dresser, who insisted that every corpse she had ever clothed stood quietly at the foot of her bed as she slept, waiting to ferry her on to the next mode of existence, or non-existence, as the case may be. [page 95]
As a person who has always felt different, separated, set apart, the intensity of grief and mourning queered me further. I told no one of my terror at experiencing that my mind could send signals indicating he was actually in bed next to me without providing me the tools to disarm such perceptions. The situation intensified when, three months to the day after his death, I awoke one Saturday morning after a particularly difficult week to find a sparrow hopping around in my house. I have no idea how it entered; I never found any possible ingress. He was not hurt or sick; he was, however, terrified by me. And, oddly, the feeling was reciprocal. In that moment I had uncanny thoughts and vague memories of being told at some point that sparrows are harbingers of death or some other such superstition. Most of all, though, I thought that housebreaking bird might be a sign from Aaron that he was okay and wanted me to be, too. I entertained the thought just as I immediately dismissed it. I’m an atheist and I see death as a zero sum game, but this presence disrupted my thinking, and to this day I consider that event strange and inexplicable. It gives me no comfort, but it also no longer disturbs me to realize that there are happenings which cannot be explained or understood. Such events, for me anyway, forge a strange beauty – utterly ethereal – that fortifies a sense of wonder for the world and this life even as I ingest and transmit so much cynicism.
I felt haunted then, as I do now. I cannot, nor do I wish to, offer a satisfactory explanation for drapes that appear to have volition or birds that nonchalantly appear, just as I cannot offer compelling justifications for lives decimated by murder and tragedy. What interests me most in all this is the complex, and often contradictory, thinking and feeling invested in these experiences and our compulsion to narrate them as explanations for who and how we are when, if anything, their revelation only serves to render us as illogical, incoherent, illegible. Each of us in my family who insists upon giving voice to these experiences of the world and their impact renders ourselves queer (or queerer) by highlighting our unwillingness to abandon the illogical, the abject, the foolish because we rationally know these things cannot happen and that the dead do not physically rejoin us, even in avian form. To me, it’s a feminine way of understanding the world, which is perhaps why we work so diligently as a culture to decry its possibility and generative potential in terms of dimensional thinking and critical insight that comes when we engage that which has been disowned. In my work as an academic, I find myself grappling with these ghosts, and others, frequently, and I’m often surprised what they teach me despite conceiving them as fictions, theoretical lenses. While it’s never been my mission to disprove any of these stories, I find myself in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance [page 96] where they’re concerned, as they are at once perfectly sensible and utterly absurd as the inspirations for a queer sensibility guided by a sense of being surveilled; of living at many margins because of my wonky perspective; for seeing the past as present and inescapable, indistinct. Unlike my grandmothers, I’ve never become accustomed to the memorials that I trod in a way that has helped me cease to notice them, nor have I grown insensitive to the ghosts at the foot of my metaphorical bed. In the end, we’re all traipsing over graves and dressing up the dead, no matter how deep the hole we’ve dug or how distancing the disbelief we’ve designed to keep them at bay.