‘Tis the season for brushes with an unseen world.


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.

You see?

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

Bone Monsters And The Evolution of Vocabulary

In the spirit of Halloween, here’s a spooky story.  And because I am who I am and can’t help myself, there are a few thoughts on dying that follow. (It’s like a tic.)

Without further ado I give you:

My Son And The Bone Monster

One night long ago, on a full moon in July, Father was away on a business trip leaving me, his pregnant wife, and our just-turned-three-year old son alone in the house to sleep.  It was a warm and peaceful summer night, not the kind where spectral things usually wake and wander, yet my sleep was restless and I woke up several times during the night to glimpse something shadowy passing down the hallway outside my bedroom door.  Each time I shook it off and went back to sleep, thinking it was just my imagination playing tricks on me.

In the morning I was jolted from slumber by the high-pitched screaming of my son, and I threw back the covers, leaped out of bed, and ran down the hall before I was even half-awake.

I entered the room to find him wide awake and sitting bolt upright, his back pressed hard against the headboard of his bed.  The bright morning sun streamed through the windows illuminating the entire room, yet he was looking into the empty corner near the foot of his bed as though he could see something.

As I approached the bedside he dragged his eyes away from the corner, looked at me and screamed, “It’s a bone monster!  A BONE MONSTER!!”  And I, of course, responded by doing what every good mother does; I tried to reassure him that nothing was there.  That the suspicious corner was actually empty, that bone monsters don’t really exist, that he’d just had a nightmare.

But he only shook his head in frustration, looked me straight in the eye, and said in a low, urgent, rational kind of voice, “No, Mommy.  Not that kind. This is a REAL bone monster!!!”  His voice rose back up to a scream by the last word and he raised his arm and pointed into the empty corner, as though the proof was right there before both our eyes.

That did it for me. The hair rose on the back of my neck and I climbed onto the bed, scooped him into my arms, and pressed my own back against the headboard.  I flashed back to the strange impressions I’d had during the night, of shadowy things passing down the hallway toward his room, and the coincidence gave me just enough pause to quit telling him he wasn’t experiencing something.  His terror was certainly real.  He’d done a remarkable job for a three-year old of communicating that he understood what a nightmare was and that what he was currently experiencing was something else.  I respected the effort and decided to bail on a rational approach and go with maternal instinct instead.  Here’s what She had to say:

Honey, he’s facing a monster here.  Imaginary or not, are you gonna let this thing fuck with your child?

Well, not when you put it like that.  No.

So I planted myself firmly on the bed, gripped my trembling son against my chest, and crooned ferocious words of protection into his ears.  It’s not gonna get you, sweetheart.  I won’t let it.  I will rip that freaking monster bone from bone…tear its head off, smash it down in the street, and run over it with the car a million times…before I’ll ever, EVER, let it get anywhere near you.  And trust me, I meant every word.

I continued along these lines until Bone Monster seemed to throw in the towel and leave.  I realized we’d won when my son suddenly relaxed, looked up, and told me he was hungry. Hallelujah.  We got up, got dressed, and traipsed out to the kitchen to make pancakes.

As far as I know, the Bone Monster has never returned.

Now, I don’t know why my son and I saw the things we did that night but, since it never happened again, not knowing doesn’t matter.

What’s more interesting to me is that my son called what he was seeing a Bone Monster.  Frankly, the term confused me at first.  (And apparently, only me.  Everyone else who hears the story immediately recognizes that he’s describing a skeleton.)  But when I realized what he’d done…that in lieu of the word skeleton which he hadn’t learned yet, he’d put two words together that he did know, bone and monster…the linguistic elegance of the feat just about knocked my socks off.

Think about it for a second.  The two words he chose had a lot of depth.  Both are multiple use, ancient words that have existed in pretty much every language since the dawn of time.  Bone is steeped in anthropological and folklore traditions as well as modern medical and scientific understanding while monster, still used to describe everything from childhood scary things to giant construction equipment to the heads of despotic political regimes, is quite simply one of the greatest words of all time.  (In fact, with the emotional relief its capable of delivering, I think monster ranks right up there with obscenities.  It can be that powerful.)

So separately they pack a punch, but putting these two words together created a description that was unbelievably sophisticated.  It conveyed not only a physical description of what he was seeing (a collection of bones-sans-flesh that were still arranged in the original shape of some kind of creature) but the intense emotional impact as well (monster–communicating supernatural animation, malice, and immediate threat.)

And it was all because he didn’t know the word skeleton yet.

But children do this all the time, you might argue.  So what?  And of course you’d be right.  Small children are wizards of language right out of the gate, which is probably why we usually take the sophisticated achievement that it is for granted.  I honestly don’t know why I woke up for a minute and saw it this time, but I did.  I goggled.  Positively gaped.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting.  The thing is; It’s not just kids who do this, falling back on old words to describe new thingsIt’s what we all do, whenever we try to communicate about rare experiences. Common names don’t exist yet for uncommon things so if we’re going to try and talk about them anyway, we always have to cobble together existing language in a new way.

And, finally, here it comes…

This is what I feel like I’m up against when trying to talk about my work with the dying.  I mean, I have to use the word dying.  I have to.  Physiologically, that’s just what’s happening.  But it’s also a misleading word, because when I say dying most people hear horror + terror + suffering + death, and then they shut down and that’s the end of the conversation.

For a lot of people dying is the Bone Monster.

But it means something different to me.  After working around it a while, caring for and learning from the people who were doing it, the word dying gained more grace and lost some darkness.  When I say it now there’s still horror in it, of course, but there’s also something strange and luminous involved that takes my breath away.  Its terror is countered by first hand observation of our inherent reservoir of courage, and its suffering is buoyed by my discovery of unsuspected strength.

And death?  It’s still there, too.  But now its death + the dawning awareness that our lives are so irrevocably entwined…our dreams, emotions, cells, and breath are so deeply woven into the physical fabric of the world itself…that on some weird, tangible level that I can see and touch and smell and hear and yet still can’t name, we’re indestructible.

I guess for me, dying is the whole package now, instead of just its worst parts.  I think of it as both Bone Monster and everything that protects us from bone monsters at the same time.  It reminds me of my son’s bedroom that morning; where there was a terrifying source of darkness in the corner, but there was also a fierce, radiant bond of love on the bed. That radiant bond exists in the rooms of the dying, too, and I saw it over and over again, a benign force that seems to emanate from everyone involved but also from the environment.  Almost as though it’s structural, like something we’re made out of.

Sorry, that’s the best I can do.  I don’t have adequate language to describe it except in the most primitive terms, which is incredibly frustrating and part of the reason why I started this blog.  I realize I keep harping on this over and over again.  I think it’s just my way of trying to work out some viable language.

Currently, we have hundreds of common ways to describe the horrible aspects of dying but almost none that describe the beauty involved.  It’s no wonder so many people are still dying bad deaths.  Maybe if we start developing some language for the good parts, too, it’ll get easier to start building good deaths for everyone?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011