Talking to the Dead

I wonder if there is paperwork in heaven

My father was contemplative. I’m being very contemplative today and as per my usual, I find myself contemplating ABOUT contemplation in the midst of it.

Dad smoked. Dad smoked a lot. Today, I have found myself wondering if one of the attractions for smoking was that he could simply sit and think, but be “doing” something. Our society isn’t very good about celebrating those who do a lot of sitting and thinking and nothing else.

The older I get, the more I do this too. And, I don’t have a cigarette in a pocket to use as an excuse to step away from everyone and sit and think. I play Candy Crush instead.

Recently, a Facebook friend said they “smell ghosts and always have.” This isn’t a new idea to me. But, for some reason, this week that has really stayed with me. Sitting inside my bedroom with a fan going and a window unit blowing, I smell cigarette smoke. I’ve decided it could be one of three things:

  1. Our house is so old and has so many cracks in it — while my sense of smell is almost a super-power — that if anyone on the block is smoking, I can smell it.
  2. The ghost of my father is visiting me and finds it hilarious to blow cigarette smoke in my face.
  3. I have a brain tumor.

Most days I am certain that it is number 1. Some days I worry that it is number 3. Rarely do I think it is number 2. Today, I found myself feeling more contemplative than usual and I tried an experiment. I talked out loud to my dead father.

I realize for many of you this is no big deal. I imagine there are many people, my mother included, who speak aloud to the dead all the time. I have done it exactly one other time. It was shortly after he died and I was crying, sobbing really, in grief. I said out loud,

“I miss you so much. I just want to SEE you again.”

As soon as it was out of my mouth, I recanted,

“I take that back. I DO NOT want to SEE you. That would scare me to death! No need to make yourself known to me. I know you are in a better place.”

Before I could get out of the bed this morning, the smell of cigarette smoke was so strong that it was burning my nostrils. I thought about my Facebook friend saying she smells ghosts.

What would The Sixth Sense have been like if the boy said, “I smell dead people.” Not the same, is it?

So, I lay there contemplating. I contemplated all the times I watched Dad sit and contemplate. He did it a lot. Whether he was in a chair in the garage smoking or sitting at the kitchen table drinking a giant plastic cup filled with sweet tea or laying on his own bed holding a book but not really reading it, he was contemplating. He was a thinker.

I long to lead a contemplative life and then I don’t acknowledge the contemplation I participate in daily. This is why I sometimes feel crazy. This is why I wonder what others must think of me as I share these personal stories. Trying to reach for something that is already in your hand seems crazy.

Through my contemplation today, I thought about the Great Cloud of Witnesses. I thought about what I think happens after we die. I have no clue what happens after we die. I believe our spirit continues. Because it brings me enormous comfort and I believe God loves me, I believe that I will see Dad again. I believe I will meet his father, the grandfather I never got to meet. I believe I will see Hubby’s grandfather again and Granny and Josie and Elvis (he was our cousin, so I don’t think I’ll have to stand in line when I do.)

I don’t know what I think about ghosts or hauntings or visitations. But, I did speak out loud to my dead father today. I asked him to put in the paperwork to change his scent from cigarette smoke to fresh-baked cookies. Every few minutes, I take a deep breath in through my nose to see if it has happened yet. I’ve had some relief from the cigarettes, but so far, no fresh-baked cookies. I imagine there is a lot of paperwork to change such a thing, though. It will probably take time.

I said other things too. I told him that I miss him. I told him that while I’d like to see him in person again, that I still don’t want to see him until I’ve died too. I know some people can handle it. I’m just not one of those people. In fact, I think my father could handle it. I think he saw ghosts. Maybe when I’m older and braver, I’ll open myself up to it. Not today.

I told him I’m really pissed that he left us. Usually, I scoff when someone says such a thing on television. I’ve been watching Yellowstone. Kevin Costner, in frustration and fear, shouts out to no one “Goddamn you for leaving me alone.” He was talking to his wife. She died young after an accident riding a horse. I’m sure she isn’t too happy about it either, Kevin! It never made much sense to me to blame the dead for leaving. But, it never made much sense to me to blame God for taking either. Shit happens.

But today, maybe because I’m feeling more contemplative or maybe because I woke up to the strong smell of cigarette smoke, I am just pissed that he kept smoking no matter what. (Of course, he tried to quit. He tried many times. He always picked them up again.) I thought about my teenagers and the influence he could have on them.

I told him I needed him longer. That I needed him to live not just until I had kids, but to help me raise them too! I told him that Kid #1 misses him and needs him, needs his guidance right now in a big way. There are things that Dad could say and do that would mean so much more than if Hubby and I try to say them and do them.

I also told him that I don’t know how he would be handling Kid #2. I said the truth to him out loud. The truth is that I don’t think he would be very happy about having a transgender grandchild. He would still love us the same. I think he would still scoop Kid #2 up in his arms for a big bear hug and tell them how much he loves them. I just wish he was here to see it. To see what my kids are becoming. To help me discern my ever-changing call, to make us laugh. He always made us laugh.

We elevate and inflate the being of someone who has died to something that isn’t really true. I know this. I do it all the time with Daddy. I remember too. He could be selfish. Sometimes he treated my mother so badly that it was embarrassing — earlier in life, not so much in the last years. He could be lazy — at least lazy enough to ask Mom to bring him a glass of tea instead of getting up and getting it himself. I don’t think my kids realize that when I send a text message, “Bring Mama a Diet Pepsi,” that it is some screwed up way to honor my father.

Screwed up, no doubt.

I spoke with my dead father out loud today. And, I realized another reason that I don’t do it regularly. I feel like I’m cheating on God. Talk about radical vulnerability! This is where my contemplation took me today. And, it is true. I feel like if I’m going to have a conversation with a being unseen, then it best be God.

I have Roman Catholic friends who have tried to explain praying to the saints to me. Keep in mind, I am literally figuring this out while I am writing this. You are on a strange journey through my mind! Think of it as a portal to Being John Malkovich — just not as interesting.

I believe in the saints. I believe that there is a Great Cloud of Witnesses as written about in the Christian scriptures. My Catholic friends will say, “If Saint Joseph can put in a good word with Jesus for me, then I’m going to use all the help I can get.”

It makes sense. Except that I’m protestant, so I’m arrogant enough to believe I can go straight to the Source. So, if I’m going to have a conversation with Jesus aka Holy Spirit aka God, then I’m just going to get right to it and address God directly. I don’t think my father can do anything in the afterlife to help me. I don’t think I do. I believe the witnesses cheer us on, so to speak. I believe they provide strength and their wisdom is somehow mysteriously shared with the living, but I wouldn’t ever think I could say, “Hey Dad, will you ask God to make my kids express their love in the way I want them to?” I would just say, “God, help!”

It is weird, I understand. But, I realized today that this feeling of cheating on God is one reason I don’t “talk to ghosts.” I couldn’t even write that without adding the quotation marks. This is obviously a theological issue that needs further contemplation. I did, however, believe that I had to say it out loud if there was any chance at all that Dad would actually hear me. Because to believe that my dead father could hear my thoughts would feel like putting him on the same level with God. And, Dad would be the first to warn me against that kind of nonsense.

I don’t smell the cigarette smoke right now. It isn’t quite fresh-baked cookies, but the smell is definitely more pleasant. I imagine one of the kids has a pizza in the oven downstairs.

I do feel a sense of calm and peace. I sense my mentor, Josie, nearby guffawing with my Daddy at how ridiculous I can be. I imagine them laughing and nodding and poking fun all while loving me more than I ever dreamed. I look forward to seeing them again.

Who knows?

Maybe I’ll start speaking to the dead every day.

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T. H. McClung, she/her(s)

T. H. McClung, she/her(s)

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In no particular order: Writer, pastor, Mama Bear, LGBTQ+ ally, wife, preacher, watcher of TV, seeker, mystic want-to-be