The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall
Halloween approaches, so it felt like a good time to tell a couple of recent stories about a sense of presence; those moments where a person inexplicably feels the intimate, invisible presence of someone or something benign.
The two stories I’d like to relate here involved the sensed presence of loved ones who died, one fairly recently and one some years back, but experiences of a sense of presence can also, of course, involve the presence of religious figures, friends, acquaintances, or even strangers, and can happen in all manner of situations from childhood isolation to survival scenarios. But I think the majority of people are most familiar with it during bereavement, where studies put it’s occurrence at anywhere from fifty to sixty-three percent and possibly higher.
As such, I think the experience deserves to be talked about more openly, but then perhaps that’s just me.
The first story is from my sister-in-law and involves the recent loss of our nephew Cam who could sing like nobody’s business. I’ll never forget the first time I heard him open his mouth and start belting out White Christmas. My mouth dropped. Everyone’s mouth dropped. It was unexpected in the way that Susan Boyle singing The Dream I Dreamed was unexpected, only Cam was fourteen and not as polished yet. But still. See for yourself. He starts singing about eleven seconds in.
Anyway, my sister-in-law was working alone a couple weeks ago and, out of the blue, one of Cam’s favorite songs popped into her head and she found herself singing it aloud, which wasn’t the strange part. What was strange was the fact that she was singing it perfectly, because before that moment she hadn’t really known all the words. But somehow she was singing them all anyway. She confided that in that moment she could feel Cam there with her, sharing the infectious joy he found in song while he was alive and which, it seems, he continues to enjoy afterwards.
Her story made us all laugh and helped lighten the load we’re carrying at his loss a little, which, IMO, is the real, deep, and abiding gift of these kinds of experiences.
The second story was my own and it happened on my mother’s birthday a few weeks ago. She died four and a half years ago now so, unlike with Cam, I’m already past the initial disorientation of a world knocked sideways by her loss, as well as most of those sharp pangs of grief that used to accompany each memory.
In fact, I didn’t even remember it was her birthday until around noon when I was out shopping and glanced at a calendar for the first time that day, at which point I remembered and felt the usual brief wind of loss I feel each year, quickly followed by all the other, sweeter memories that fill the lion’s share of my heart now. I savored them for a moment and then folded them away again, going on about my business until I got home, at which point things turned decidedly strange.
While putting everything away I wandered over to the dining room table, a piece of furniture which we never actually eat at but instead use as a long-term depository for all the official papers we’re trying to avoid. It’s kind of like a limbo world for documentation…behind the veil so to speak…and as such it’s usually invisible to the naked eye. Or at least to my naked eye, as I trained myself long ago to ignore everything on it.
So I’m not sure why I walked over there that day, or why, out of everything lying there, I happened to notice the back of an old greeting card lying near the corner, a little ways away from everything else. I absentmindedly flipped it over and thought it looked familiar but couldn’t place why. So I opened it up to read the inscription and that’s when the memory came flooding back.
It was the last birthday card my mother ever sent me, a scant three months before she died…back when I knew she was ill but didn’t know yet that she was dying. I’d found it among my things shortly after she passed and grieved over it for a long time before finally putting it away in a box of secret treasures I keep on a high shelf in the closet in the back room.
Which is where it’s been for the last four years. Or so I thought.
I stood there for a long time just staring at it in my hands, confused and reeling a little, trying very hard to figure out how it escaped the box and made it’s way back out onto the dining room table for me to find on her birthday of all days. I wracked my brain trying to recall when I could have taken it back out again, why I would have, but came up with nothing. Nada. (Which isn’t necessarily saying much since I’m forgetting a lot these days.) But still, it felt very strange.
I’m hardly a died-in-the-wool skeptic when it comes to the possibility of unseen mysteries. For instance, I have no problem believing that we’re all bound together in intricate, beautiful, and frequently mysterious ways, and that the love we forge is probably the most enduring of all these links. It’s long seemed to me that if anything was strong enough to transcend the boundaries placed between us by death, love would be the likely culprit as it seems capable of transcending just about everything else.
But on the other hand, I’m a practical woman and as such lean towards practical explanations. While I have no problem entertaining the possibility that my mother’s love could bridge death, I have a harder time believing that her hands could. It seems unlikely that she could have pulled down the box, opened it up, rifled through the contents, found the card, and then carried it out to the dining room table to leave it there for me to find.
I’m not saying that she couldn’t do that, mind you…I’ve seen a lot over the years and have decided to stay open to all possibilities. But still, there are just other, simpler explanations that seem more likely.
However, the timing of it all was truly serendipitous and that’s what took my breath away. While that birthday card could have been sitting on the table for a very long time without my noticing it (our unfinished wills have sat there untouched for six years now…yes, six) the fact that I walked over, picked up the card, and opened it on her birthday of all days is what made me feel the brush of some vast and unseen mystery. I couldn’t help but wonder if she’d reached between dimensions and nudged me.
In any case, as my overwhelming love for her spilled out to meet her undying love for me, in that moment I really could feel her there again in the room with me, her presence fresh and sharp and immediate, surrounding and enveloping me like a warm and gentle cloud of Mom-ness.
I don’t know. Perhaps, as the tradition claims, All Hallow’s Eve really is a time when the veil grows thin and we’re able to reach across the divide and touch one another again. I love the thought.
Happy Halloween to all!
copyright Dia Osborn 2013