Until this morning, September was a time of open windows, Indian summer coming through, a smell of sun and warmed earth, cricket-song recalling Septembers past and Septembers yet to come. Until this morning, I had no fear of September.
The windows in my study were open this morning, the scent of wildflowers dying under a cloudless sky lending a tender poignancy to the essays I was grading. When I looked up briefly to savor the slowing of the earth’s rhythms as they prepared for the season’s turning, I found that I was no longer alone. The spirit of my father stood next to my chair. He was wearing the gray and white flannel shirt from L.L. Bean I had given him for Christmas sometime around 1990.
I tried to think. The spirit of my father couldn’t have been borne through the open window on the warm September breeze. My father died on the Ides of March--a poignant harbinger of a changing season, yes, but not this one. Where had he come from, and what was he doing here? “Lynn!” he exclaimed, so happy to see me, “When did you get here?”
As soon as I heard the hoarseness in his voice, I knew which incarnation he was, “I live here, Dad. This is my home.”
Befuddlement slackened his face, “When did I get here?” He looked around the room, “Where’s your mother?” I thought to close my eyes, but when I opened them again, the unwelcome incarnation of my father was still there. Living on borrowed time Dad. Medical miracle Dad. The Dad we cursed with seven more years of life that day in the sunny alcove of Brookline Hospital in our tight little family group. Like Eos wanting eternal life for her beloved Tithonus, we knew but didn’t reckon with the laws of unintended consequences.
“Where do you live now?” the spirit wearing my father’s L.L. Bean shirt said. I willed him to go away. As hard as I could, I willed him to go away--but he wouldn’t go. He just stood there next to my chair, stooped and befuddled, looking at me, looking for answers, wholly unaware that any answers from me would disappear into the Bermuda triangle of his brain never to be seen or heard from again.
“I live here,” I said; “I’m in New Hampshire.”
“Where do I live?” I again thought to close my eyes. This was too much: A spirit should know where it lives. Its home would be on some plane of existence unknown to me, the same plane of existence where reside all of those Divine Mysteries my father cited to explain the suffering of the innocent, the incalculable cruelty of mankind, the same plane of existence where all is revealed.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“How did I get here?” He shuffled into the hallway. “Where’s your mother?” I reached for my cell phone to call my mother to come and get him, until I remembered that she had stopped driving and sold her car when the bottom fell out of her depth perception.
“What day is it?” the spirit of my father said.
“Saturday.” I waited, but he didn’t ask the month or the year. I thanked God for small favors.
“I don’t think I finished my sermon,” he said; “I drafted it but I didn’t finish it.” His eyes were darting around the room: my desk (actually my father’s desk), my chair, the computer, the window, the printer, the bookcases with books piled helter skelter, “I need to finish my sermon,” the spirit of my father said. “I have VFW tonight, and I need to finish my sermon for tomorrow. Can you help me?”
Of course not. When it comes to matters of faith, I am no help at all.
Now my eyes were darting around the room, looking for some way out of this madness the Ides of September had wrought. I spotted the box of sermons my mother had saved and given to me when she sold their house. In keeping with good stewardship, my father had typed them on the back pages of leftover church bulletins. They were all nicely nestled in a photo box. I slid the box from its bookcase clutter, removed the lid, and held the box out to him, “There are some in here,” I said.
He took the box and looked at the page on top, “Thank you, dearest, but I already delivered these.” He shook his head, “I never recycle a sermon, don’t believe in it.” He was still holding the box, and it finally dawned on me that something wasn’t right here. He was holding the box in his two hands, the same as I had held it. How could that be? There was some kind of trickery happening here, some kind of deceit. His spirit could appear to me as an image, certainly, but it could not resume its corporeal form. That box of sermons should have been on the floor.
“I once had difficulty with homiletics,” the spirit of my father said, “But now I don’t.” Still holding the box, he sat in the armchair under the reading lamp, took the first sermon out of the box, and started reading it. His eyes were steady, and some of the slackness had left his face.
Apparently, he had no intention of dematerializing any time soon, so I figured I might as well get back to grading essays. We spent the next hour in companionable silence, he and I, as the smell of Indian summer drifted through the open windows. Then he stood up, upending the box in his lap. The sermons spilled onto the floor, “Where’s your mother?” he said; “Where has she gone?”
“She’s at home, Dad.”
The slack befuddlement descended over his face once again, “She doesn’t live with me,” I quickly added; “She lives on her own.” It was a small lie, albeit a very large fib.
“But I’m at your house,” the spirit of my father said; “Why am I at your house?”
“Don’t you remember?” I said, trying to trick his poor, befuddled brain into inadvertently producing the answer I needed. What are you doing here? Why have you come on the poignant September breeze when you died on the Ides of March, in the heavy dank slog of mud season?
He shook his head, “I’m going to find your mother.” He shuffled into the hall, headed for the stairs. I followed him, fearful he would fall. He navigated the stairs without mishap, opened the front door, and walked outside. So this would be how the spirit of my father would leave me? Just walk out the front door? It seemed reasonable enough. Then I saw him heading for the garage, and I realized he had taken my car keys. I was going to have to drive him to my mother’s.
I grabbed my purse and ran after him, reaching the garage just as he was opening the driver’s side door of the car, “Why don’t you let me drive, Dad?” I said; “I already know the way.” He handed over the keys without objection and got into the passenger’s seat. We fastened our seat belts. I started the car, and the radio blasted the Black Keys.
“Barbarous cacophony,” the spirit of my father said, pronouncing judgment on Black Sabbath instead. I turned off the radio and put the car in Drive, knowing full well that I was about to make an already untenable situation even worse. How would my mother explain the presence of her husband’s spirit in her tiny assisted living suite? How would she explain him to her caregivers? Who would take care of him? Where would he sleep? She would never, ever have the patience to explain to him where all their furniture had gone, what had happened to their little blue house in Maine, what had happened to his scrapbooks and his motorcycle and his Big Band cassette tapes. She would never, ever have the patience to explain to him how she had gone from the giver of meds to the taker of meds.
When we got to Exeter, I stopped at the Phillips Exeter Academy crosswalk to let a flock of phone-gazers wander into the street, “St. Andrew’s!” the spirit of my father exclaimed; “I taught there. Arrogant little bastards.”
I let that one pass and resumed driving. Arriving at RiverWoods, I parked at the Monadnock entrance. Inside the lobby, I didn’t want to take the spirit of my father up the back stairs, so we had to wait for the elevator. On the other side of the sliding glass door in front of us, a wheelchair held a despondent old woman cradling a baby doll. An ankle bracelet showed beneath the leg of her sweatpants.
“Do I have nursing home calls today?” the spirit of my father said; “Did I forget? Where’s my prayer book? I don’t have my Communion kit. I need to go get them. Wait right here.”
“No, Dad,” I said, “You didn’t forget. We’re going to see Mom.”
The elevator doors opened, and he followed me in, “Joan’s in a nursing home?” He shook his head; “No. No. No nursing home.”
“She has an apartment here,” I said as firmly as I could, trying to adjust his misfiring synapses with the quick turn of a syntactical wrench. The elevator stopped, and we got off. We made it all the way down the hall without either of us tripping over the ugly new carpet, being accosted by a nurse, or interrogated by an Alzheimer’s sufferer about the occurrence of lunch.
As the two of us stood in front of my mother’s door, I held my breath, pinched the absurdly small knocker between my thumb and forefinger, and knocked. My mother’s voice called out, “Come in!” I turned the knob and pushed the door open without entering or standing aside. “Joan?” the spirit of my father called from behind my shoulder, “Is that you?”
“Lynn?” my mother called from the bedroom, “Is that you?” Her voice got closer, “Is there someone with you?” I had no choice but to stand aside as the spirit of my father took a step forward to embrace his beloved Joan as he cried out her name.
“Oh, no,” my mother said, taking a step back; “I can’t have this. I won’t have this. I have to take care of myself now.” She closed the door. The spirit of my father looked at the closed door in disbelief, his faith finally shattered.
“It’s all right, Dad,” I said, turning from the door; “You can stay with me.” There was nothing left for the two of us to do but trudge back down the hall, past the white board telling us the date and the weather outside, and get back on the elevator. When the elevator doors opened and we got off, the despondent old woman had managed to get herself, her baby doll, her wheelchair, and her ankle bracelet too close to the sliding glass door to the lobby, which in turn had triggered the lock on the door leading outside, meaning the spirit of my father and I couldn’t get out until an employee came to punch in a code on the keypad to unlock it. For our part, I explained the delay as a malfunction of technology, not the vain desire for an escape to a place that no longer existed.
On the way home, I again had to stop at the Phillips Exeter Academy crosswalk, this time to let a gaggle of phone swipers scurry into the street, “St. Andrew’s!” the spirit of my father exclaimed; “I taught there. Arrogant little bastards.”
This time, I didn’t let it pass, “I remember,” I said; “I didn’t last teaching high school either.”
When we pulled up to the house, he asked me where we were and why I had brought him there. I told him that we were in New Hampshire and he could stay with me. Once inside, he and I stood uncertainly in the living room, each of us transfixed in our own version of time, I suppose, unable to break free. Finally, I said, “Would you mind if I finished grading my papers? I told the students I would get them back on Monday, and some of them are pretty hard to get through.”
“I remember,” the spirit of my father said. He followed me up the stairs to my study, where he resumed his seat in the armchair under the reading lamp. The breeze from the open windows had scattered the pages of his sermons around the room. I gathered them up and sat on the floor to put them in order before replacing them in the box. When I was finished, I looked up, and the spirit of my father had gone, leaving me with the image of September sunshine through a hospital window, my father’s hands grasping mine, his eyes fierce as he tried to speak around the tube down his throat:
Elizabeth Gauffreau has published fiction and poetry in Foliate Oak, Serving House Journal, Soundings East, Hospital Drive, Blueline, Evening Street Review, and Adelaide Literary Review, among others, as well as several themed anthologies. Her novel Telling Sonny has just been released by Adelaide Books. Learn more about her work at http://lizgauffreau.com.