The Ghost of Christmas Past
Sometimes I wander around my hometown all lonely and lovesick and surrounded by ghosts, stuck with this awful longing in my gut and my broken heart beating out of its chest. There are ghosts everywhere on these streets, I think they’re always there but I see them clearly when I don’t get enough sleep and I’m walking the bleed in time between late night and early morning – the edge time when everything’s creeping under my skin and my eyes are all glassy and fragile but the most incredible things make themselves painfully clear. I see ghosts everywhere then: ghosts in the buildings, ghosts in the flickering subway station lights, ghosts in the cracks in the sidewalk, ghosts in the names of streets, ghosts in the clouds in the sky, ghosts in the faces of the other people walking by me. Layers of ghosts like crystal onions or the cracked and peeling paint walls of abandoned apartment buildings telling stories in their colored lead rubble dust stories.
I first started believing in ghosts from watching myself and the way I haunt places from my past, from watching how I’m drawn to places long after I have any reason to still be there. Something just brings me back to the old places that might not even exist anymore, something deep inside that has its own map of the city carved into its graying eyes. Sometimes it makes me cry or worse just make me stonefaced and cold, body frozen stiff, mind catapulted through time to another place. When I get into those spaces in my head I swear I coexist in a different reality than the other people walking around me -- I’m made from something else. It’s like no one sees me standing there, I’m transparent – I’m just passing through on my way to somewhere else. I’m from a different time and I’m just haunting my old territory but I can’t touch it because it’s not actually there anymore. Except in my head. And then I think about how many others there are that are just like me, wandering around in a world constructed and insulated and sometimes set aflame by their old memories.
I don’t really know what happens when we die, if there’s an afterlife or if our individual consciousness lives on in another form, in another body. I don’t know if there’s a collective consciousness that we somehow become a part of, that we return to. I don’t know if we take any of this with us when we go – all these stories and memories and love and friendship. I don’t know what happens to all my dead friends – do I get to be reunited with them up in the sky or at another place and time? Have we been meeting each other like this throughout history -- amidst wars and revolutions -- working in the fields and riding on the freight trains and surviving in the middle of the cities and reconnecting with each other once again in late night forums on the internet? Who knows? I don’t really know.
I don’t really know what happens when we die, but I know people leave their marks, whether etched in stone or the written page or silver screen or in the faces of their children, and that energy sticks around and affects our lives. There is a continuum. We carry the dead with us in our language and the way we speak it. We carry pieces of the people we love in our hearts and our eyes and our tongues, even in our slight limps as we walk down the street or the knots in our backs when we come home from work. We carry the dead in the stories we tell and the way we tell them and even in the choices of who we decide to tell them to. If there are powerful people who played important roles in our lives, they burn impressions into us with their words and actions and visions, literally leaving IMPRESSIONS on us that we take with us no matter what situations we find ourselves in and wherever we find ourselves walking down this winding road of life. This is how brilliant people live on long after they actually die.
By the end of his life my father was like a dying sun. He was a striking looking man: he had a bright red beard and piercing blue eyes and a loud commanding voice until almost the end. Even from his deathbed he burned red hot with an intensity that was too much for a lot of the people around him. I was so young when he died that most of my memories of him are washed out and spotty, like faded 70’s Technicolor film shot from the perspective of a kid who loved his dad so much and thought he’d be around forever.
The last few years of my dad’s life were spent hooked up to a machine to help him breath, mostly in bed, back and forth from home to the hospital, surrounded by piles of newspapers and books and yellow legal pads full of blue felt tip scrawl. My dad was born with the genetic disease Cystic Fibrosis, an autosomal recessive condition that causes the secretion of abnormal mucus in the lungs and problems with pancreas function and food absorption. He violently coughed a lot and was in pain most of the time and it colored his relations with the world around him. It gave him the perspective of the perpetual underdog. His face would get purple with rage when he was angry. He had a bad temper but he was a brilliant man. He channeled his rage into newspaper articles and books about corruption in city politics. I definitely have always tried to take after him in a lot of ways.
A couple weeks before he died they cut a whole in his throat so they could stick a tube down into his stomach. He couldn’t talk anymore, his voice was gone. I watched his beard go white in a matter of weeks and the fire leave his eyes. The last time I ever saw him was the night of my 13th birthday. He was scared and depressed and silent, trying his best not to show how much pain he was in. He died two days later, a week before Christmas, and suddenly there was a big empty void in my life where a dad used to be.
That was 17 years ago. I still see his ghost all over this city. And I hate Christmas.
My dad’s best friend Jack Newfield suddenly died three days ago. They went to Hunter College together back in the 60’s and wrote a book about corruption in New York City politics in the late 70’s. It’s part of the complicated and intense legacy I was raised with that I’ve been trying to make sense of for years. My dad was from a dying era, he wrote with a manual typewriter years before the Internet existed. I wonder sometimes what he would have thought of the work I do now and the world going on around us. I wish so badly I could talk to him sometimes. For the past two years since I moved back to New York I’ve been going over to Jack and Janie’s house and talking about politics and history and music and my dad. I just discovered all these old writings of his at my step-mother’s house a couple weeks ago that I was so excited to talk to Jack about but now he’s dead. Just like that. Dead right before Christmas. I was supposed to be back in sunny California by now, back from the crazy art show opening, back from the chilly grey streets of my hometown. But I stayed for Jack’s funeral and now New York City’s got me through the weekend.
The last time I spent Christmas in New York I was a lonely miserable wreck and shortly thereafter ended up being checked into the psyche ward for catatonic suicidal depression. The old ghosts caught up with me and I wasn’t ready for them. That was six years ago already. I have a lot more coping strategies now. I take really good care of myself. I make sure I sleep and eat well and exercise. I take my medication. I don’t let myself spend too much time alone, I force myself to be around friends. I have this incredible website community I’m a part of that I can reach out to. But all these years later I still have that familiar painful longing in my gut, my heart is still broken like it has been since I was 13 years old, I still see ghosts of my dead friends everywhere when I don’t sleep enough, and in the end I think that’s just how it is and how it’s always going to be.