Helen Chappell - November 2007

The Light of Her Life


Helen Chappell

     As the days grow shorter and the weather gets cooler, it’s that time of year when the ancients believed the membrane between the world of the living and that of the dead briefly parted. The spirits of those who had left this world would return to visit. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing depends on your point of view. Some people think the dead should stay firmly and quietly moribund, and some think nothing would be better than to spend some time with the spirits of those who have moved on to what is, hopefully, a better place than this. In other words, Happy Halloween! I know, I know, it’s just past Halloween, but give me a break. It’s my favorite holiday.
      I like all things mysterious and spooky and altogether ooky. I’ve been hoping to see some ghosts lately myself, but so far, everything has been depressingly mundane, commonplace and sensible. Noises in the night are likely to come from the heat pump or the cat, rather than a spectral visitor, and I’m afraid my chances of any supernatural experiences are slim to nothing this year. But, dear reader, you know I wouldn’t let you down. This Halloween could no more pass without a ghost story than a trick or treater without a Snickers bar.
      A friend in the Northwest told me this story, and without comment, I’m sharing it with you. Naturally, I’m leaving my friend’s name and exact location out of it, because he has a very respectable job in a high tech company where the only miracle is the owner’s incredible money.
I hope it warms your heart rather than chills your spine. It certainly had that effect on me.
     “It appears,” my friend writes, “that you have some interest, professional or otherwise, in the supernatural (I bought at least four of the Sam and Hollis mysteries but haven’t read them yet). So you might be interested and/or insightful about my little family ghost, if you want to call it that.
“My father died in 2001. He lived a rich, full life and did not go before his time. In fact, he stayed about six months (or three years, depending on how you look at it) too long. When my mother returned home from the hospital there was a voice mail from him that said, ‘I’ll be waiting for you, love.’
     “They had been married 54 years and had known each other since about the fifth grade – which is what happens when you grow up in a place like Malin, Oregon (pop. 592). I myself never lived in Malin except the summer after I graduated high school when I worked on my uncle’s farm, but in ways that my suburban upbringing can’t match, it’s where I’m from and it’s home, a place of hardscrabble, high desert potato farms, not too different from Oysterback, in the way that all small towns are the same.
     “Of course, my mother hadn’t checked her voice mail in about a week, and it’s entirely possible he had called her from the hospital during one of his last lucid moments wondering where she was.
     “A couple of days after the funeral, when things had quieted down some, the lamp beside her bed mysteriously came on. My mother swears that had never happened before. It has continued to do so, unbidden, at random intervals over the last six years. Seldom does she go more than a week without a light, and when she does it’s pretty traumatic. She’s always said that she understands that he will have to go away sooner or later, and keeps hoping he won’t.
     “I have swallowed my skepticism, and not investigated possible explanations. It’s important to her. My wife is inclined to believe, so I don’t talk about it at home either.
     “A couple of months ago, my mother finally decided it was time to move. We had long thought that the light, more than anything else, was keeping her in the house long after keeping the place up had become onerous. We didn’t know if her moving was a sign she was ready to get on with her life. We have been very fortunate so far in that she’s 81, her physical challenges aren’t overwhelming, she can still live by herself (and demands to). This past week she’s moved to a smaller (by 200 square feet) house with a smaller yard and no swimming pool.
     “My wife and I will be moving into her old house, which I own jointly with my sister. We’ll have to sell our house to pay my sister off, but that will come in time. My sister and I have so far avoided any of the jealousies that attend dividing up the estate (but that’s another story).
     “In fact, moving into the house Mom lived in for 38 years while she’s still alive will probably produce episodes of For Better or For Worse-like hilarity. Or the kind of FBOFW-like hilarity we should get if Lynn Johnston was [still] paying attention. We’ll see how Mom reacts when my wife paints the family room and redoes the bathrooms. By the way, I haven’t ever lived there. They bought it the year I graduated from college.
     “So last night Mom calls to tell us she had a light in the new house. Same lamp, of course. My wife was weepy. I don’t know what to make of this, if anything. But it’s kind of a good story.”
      Yes, it is kind of a good story. And maybe every once in a while we need a ghost story that’s not about scary stuff, but about how love has the power to transcend something as permanent and immovable as death. It’s a good story for Halloween this year.
      Eat a Snickers bar for me, kids. With any luck I’ll be living out the dream, as well as the subject of my next column.