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Author Topic: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday  (Read 4872 times)

Joel

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Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« on: July 24, 2007, 10:07:05 pm »

You turn fifty this year, Ghost.  I don’t know just when, because I don’t know the date of your death.  I don’t recall that you meant much to me in life.  But in death your influence was profound, and I think it’s time I got some things off my chest.  Maybe it’s way past time.  Or maybe I should just keep it to myself.  Time will tell, I suppose.

I know that it wasn’t your fault.  You didn’t choose the manner of your death, its duration and its agony.  If you had been given a choice, I firmly believe you wouldn’t have died at all.  I don’t blame you for the horror that followed.  Not really.  With my mind, with my rational thought, I don’t blame you at all.

But it isn’t a matter of reason, of rationality.  In a way, it was you and the manner of your death that brought it all about.  My unreasoning heart, the heart of the little boy that experienced the horror, does blame you and I can’t make it stop.

I’ve tried.  For over forty years I’ve tried.  Tried to put it all behind me as the done thing it is.  But that little boy won’t go away.  He never understood it at all, you see.

I have almost no memory of you.  I have stories from others; loving, almost worshipful stories.  Some that are difficult to believe.  No one ever actually told me you charmed little birds from the trees, or miraculously healed the wounds of injured strangers.  But that was the impression the little boy took from some of the more impassioned stories he heard.  He didn’t believe the stories.  If the stories were true, why were you so callous toward him?  Why did you leave him in such circumstances?  I believe the stories were true in their essence; that you were gentle and kind and beloved, that you had a passion for life and your children.  But the little boy believed they were lies.  No saint would have left him to the horror.

But I mentioned memory.  Each time I reach back for some remembrance, only one emerges.  I wish it were a different one; I wish it reflected better on me.  But I was only a little boy, not what I later became.  Of course it isn’t as though what I later became reflects all that well on me, either.  But again I digress.

The memory, yes.  I will tell you the memory.

It had to be when I was three, because I couldn’t have been younger.  And of course I couldn’t have been older because then you wouldn’t be in the memory.  I couldn’t know that then, that you were going to die.  I never understood it at all; you were just this important person who belonged in the house but were never there.  I was playing Paperboy; I had taken a section of the previous evening’s newspaper, rolled up each sheet very carefully, and placed them neatly in a little cloth bag.  Then I went to every adult I could corner and tried to sell each for a dime.  Most sent me on my way.  Then I went into your room.

I remember that the room was dark, and smelled bad.  I know the scent now; it was medicinal, not unclean.  But all I knew then was that it smelled bad, and I didn’t like it.  I wanted to leave the room, but first I wanted to play the game with you.

The only really vivid part of the memory is the sound of my own voice.  Isn’t that strange?  Is it something unique to children, I wonder, that they don’t hear their own voices as they really are?  I have always wondered.  I was very proud of my voice, very pleased with it.  It sounded very adult to me, not at all lisping like that of other children my age.  Not at all halting or uncertain of grammar.  I remember wondering that my voice was so precise, like that of an adult.  Probably this was a false impression.  Certainly, as with so many things, I will never know.

In any case, at that moment I was being very crisp and adult and professional.  I was a paperboy, after all, and it was an important and very adult occupation.  I am uncertain whether you offered hugs or kisses or any affection at all beyond the sound of your voice, which was very affectionate.  But I am certain I would not have accepted them.  One doesn’t do such things on duty.

I wish I had chosen some other game that day.  I wish I had crawled into your bed, into your lap.  It is my only memory.

As I write this, I wonder suddenly if that is the reason that I will do no paying work for friends.  Is that why I want the favors and obligations exchanged between us to go deeper than money?  Is that why on some deep unreasoning level I have always had an aversion to dealing with money?  Because on that day so long ago, I sold my only memory of you for a dime?

Whatever:  I tell myself I was only a little boy, and I didn’t know what it was about.

And then you went away again.  Maybe you came back on other occasions; I don’t know.  But it is certain that one time you went away and didn’t come back.  Not ever.

I think there must have been a funeral.  I have flashes of many adults in the living room, of somber silence, of wearing my suit when it wasn’t time for church.  Of bewilderment.  Yes, there must have been a funeral. 

But no one explains these things to little boys.  Or maybe someone did, and I just don’t remember.

I must speak to you now of my father.  He didn’t take it well, your going away.  It was this that brought about the horror.  So you see, I know with my mind that it wasn’t your fault.  In business, I later called this the Designated Scapegoat Rule:  The last one who left is the one to blame.  And he never – quite – left, did he?

No, never quite.  But as I said he didn’t take it well, your leaving.  He told me no stories about your life.  He told me no stories at all.  I grew up with many assumptions that later proved false, because he told me nothing. 

You know, on second thought I don’t want to talk about him.

I will speak, then, of my siblings.  Two, the oldest, left immediately to engage in what later proved incredibly foolish marriages.  A third, my next oldest brother, left to join the Navy a few years into the horror and as I look back on the chronology he couldn’t have been much older than sixteen at the time.  He had to have obtained our father’s consent for that, and I never knew if he twisted our father’s arm to get it, or if he faked it somehow, or if our father simply didn’t care.

In any case that left two:  My youngest brother and myself.  We bore all of it, and we bore it alone.  We were never friends, my brother and I.  There was something wrong with him from the beginning.  Of course there was something wrong with me as well; it twisted us both but in different directions.  In any case we were no help to one another at all.  But he died and I lived, and I guess that makes me the winner.

The winner is the one who finds a way to live.  Yeah, he wins the whole pot.  It doesn’t matter at all that there’s nothing in the pot.  He wins.

Shall I speak of the manner of my brother’s death?  I know, in my reasoning mind, that if you had lived it would have brought you no pleasure.  But then, if you had lived he would not have died.  At least not the way he did. 

No, let us not speak of it.  Let it be enough that the manner of his death was sufficient to satisfy the deepest desires of any sadist, and that before dying he brought down the lives of others as well.  Yes, that is enough.

And that leaves me.  We moved around a lot in those days, during the horror and its aftermath.  My father had trouble finding jobs that lasted, and always moved on to another town, another rented house.  I eventually graduated public school in the twelfth institution I ever attended.  I was an earnest, bookish, somber boy with a hell of a problem with lasting friendships and a perversely fierce desire to please.  And when I was thirteen I tried very sincerely to throttle another schoolboy to death.  I’d have succeeded, too: He was well on the way.  But he chose a very public setting for the insignificant insult that triggered me, and I did not care that all those people were present to witness his murder.  So they saved his life by prying my fingers from his throat, one by one.  I remember my howls of frustrated rage at them.

I got detention for it.  In those days adults didn’t take such things very seriously.  But the incident changed my life, oh yes.  Because I sat alone in that room, and I reasoned that if  I had killed him as I wanted to my life would have been taken from me and put into the hands of others; that I would have lost what little I had regained.  I didn’t care about the other boy at all; I didn’t care about the injustice of killing him for an insult that at most had earned him a punch in the eye.  No, I actually rather regretted that my desire to murder him had been thwarted.  But I reasoned, you see, that I mustn’t go about doing such things.  It would only bring trouble, and I already had lots.  No, it mustn’t ever happen again.

I could think of only one way to keep it from happening again.  And so there, in that room, I performed a sort of amputation.  I would never act on my rage again.  Never, not once.

And I never did.  I never acted on any passion at all.  I denied the very existence of passion.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that there are other passions besides rage, and that one can’t live very well without them.  It was the only one I was familiar with, and by then our acquaintance had become intimate.  I was only thirteen, and I didn’t really know what it was about.  I thought I did.  In a way, I was a very old thirteen-year-old boy.

I realize this makes me sound like I was a rather disturbing child.  I suppose in some ways I was.  But I never lost my conscience, the way my brother did.  I didn’t hurt kittens, or set things on fire, or anything like that.  I didn’t mutilate myself, the way he did, or commit his slow suicide.  And as with so many other things, I mostly got over it.  Sometimes too much.

But the old injuries keep bearing new fruit.  Which is, of course, how I destroyed my marriage and very nearly myself.  You can forget the pain, but it never forgets you.  And that damned little boy is still there, making his demands, guiding my mistakes.  He’s the one I should have strangled.  I would, if I could only find his throat.

I wish I could express how the years of the horror changed that little boy.  It taught him how to hate, what to fear, the cold solace of isolation and denial.  I tell myself, every time I catch him trying to guide me into some new tragedy, that I’m not that little boy any more.  That I needn’t live with his hurts any longer.

But let me tell you something that might give you some idea of the problem that kid faced.  I once lost the lower half of a leg.  Not to some doctor’s antiseptic knife, no:  It was pulled right off my body through violence, the stump mangled into hamburger.  The pain was exquisite, it was indescribable.  And during my stay in the hospital and afterward, people always used to comment on how well, how stoically I coped with it.  I didn’t tell them – because I still really didn’t understand it; I was only a teenager – that I’d endured far worse damage than this.  Mere physical pain, after all, is finite.  Its span is limited.  If it doesn’t kill you, you heal.  What’s so bad about that?

I’m writing this letter to you, Ghost, because I must come to grips with the events your death brought about.  I went to visit my father some months ago, and an incident that happened there brought back the size and scope of the problem.  He’s a very old man.  He’s going to die soon, knows it, and is in his way as desperate to come to grips with the events of long ago as I am.  But he never understood it, either.  He never understood it half as well as that little boy.

It was a pleasant visit, really.  I genuinely thought I was at last able to set aside my old resentments and just be his son.  He still couldn’t talk about you:  He tried, but even then after all these decades he was stopped every time by tears.  But then he asked me a question, a question he had clearly been steeling himself to ask.  And the question told me that there would be no discussion of those days, because he didn’t begin to understand what had truly gone on and I didn’t begin to have the cruelty – or the strength – to educate him.

“Your older brother told me a few years ago,” he said, “That she used to lock you and your younger brother out of the house every day until just before I came home from work.  Why didn’t you tell me that back then, so I could have put a stop to it?”

I was dumbfounded.  I didn’t have any clue how to answer.  I couldn’t do the honest thing, tower over him and roar, “Put a stop to it?  What were you going to do?  You were never home.  As soon as your marriage went sour you just took yourself elsewhere and left us there.  Had you said a word of it to her she’d have denied it to your face, you’d have pretended to believe and dropped the matter, and we’d have been left with the backlash.  It was bad enough when she didn’t have anything particular against us!  And as for locking us out – hell, you stupid old fool!  It was the kindest thing that psychopath ever did to us!  Then the worst we had to deal with was the rain!  Would you like a compendium of all the things that happened when she did let us in the house?  Or when she came outside looking for us with blood in her eye?  You won’t believe the half; she was pretty damned good at not leaving bruises.  Shall I tell you of the time another boy accidentally slashed my wrist open with a rusty can – I still have the scar – and when I ran home wailing like the frightened little boy I was she bound up the wound but then beat me for making a mess and made me clean my own blood off the floor?  Or the time she destroyed all my underwear because she was angry about the way I once shit myself in fear of her?  Or would you like to hear of some of the bad things that happened?”

No, I couldn’t say that to this honest, self-deluded old man.  I don’t remember what I said, but it was another evasion.  If he truly believed that was the worst of it, then to tell him the whole truth might kill him right there in his chair.  So I said nothing of consequence in reply, probably just that it wasn’t all that bad.  And he accepted my answer and, once again, dropped the matter.

And there it lies.

I don’t blame you for any of these things, Ghost.  You just died; you didn’t kill yourself.  And I don’t know what good writing all of this could do.  You’re not to blame.

If the truth be told, I blame him.  He did, after all, marry that person.  He brought me and my brother into her orbit, and then he left us there.  But he’s not a bad man.  He’s really quite a good man.  He just wasn’t a strong man, and I needed a strong man.  And he never learned to heal, and I so desperately needed a father’s instruction on how to heal.

And so now I live alone, which is the only way I can live.  I rise in the morning, and I lay down every night.  Sometimes, maybe a little too often, I take my dinner in liquid form that brings oblivion and hides dreams.  I don’t often feel sorry for myself; how I despise people who go on and on about…the very things I’ve been going on about.

It isn’t all bad, you know.  I’ve learned how to make friends, some of them quite close.  I laugh often now, and I’ve even learned to cry.  I’m crying right now, in fact.  See?  I’m making progress.  If sometimes with no warning I feel my chest expand in panic, well, it always goes away in time.

And someday, if I live long enough, I may finally learn what it’s really all about.
« Last Edit: August 13, 2007, 10:38:58 am by Joel »
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Jac

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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #1 on: July 24, 2007, 10:48:16 pm »

Oh, my God...
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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #2 on: July 24, 2007, 11:24:57 pm »

Quote
And someday, if I live long enough, I may finally learn what it’s really all about.

It is the sad nature of this beast we are, that the most we can often hope for is...just that.

This was a brave thing to share, Joel. You did so beautifully.

Now. I got something in my eye. Gotta go.
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padre29

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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #3 on: July 25, 2007, 01:52:32 am »



Just wow Joel...there is not much to be said.
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cowardly lion

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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #4 on: July 25, 2007, 07:00:14 am »

Very well spoken, Joel. 

I hope that's not quite as autobigraphical as it's written.  And if it is, remember you're among loving friends now.
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coloradohermit

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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #5 on: July 25, 2007, 08:19:34 am »

What a powerful piece! If autobiographical, I can't imagine the courage it took to relive and write.  Thanks for sharing it.
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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #6 on: July 25, 2007, 11:17:19 am »

I hope it's fiction.
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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #7 on: July 26, 2007, 01:12:14 pm »

He's the best one we've got.
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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #8 on: July 26, 2007, 10:15:14 pm »

He's the best one we've got.

You know what? It's well past time somebody put together the Best Of Joel Simon thread to sticky atop the Writer's Block.

Guess I just volunteered myself.
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Pagan

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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #9 on: July 26, 2007, 10:30:16 pm »

Quote
You know what? It's well past time somebody put together the Best Of Joel Simon thread to sticky atop the Writer's Block.

Guess I just volunteered myself.

Good idea. It needs to be done, and I've been falling behind trying to keep up with Joel's stuff.
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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #10 on: July 28, 2007, 01:49:37 am »

What a powerful piece!

Yeah,  that pretty well sums up my reaction to it -- powerful stuff!
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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #11 on: July 28, 2007, 04:34:55 pm »


Whew

This is gonna take a minute ......

Whew

Thank You Joel

May you find the Freedom you seek.

I'll Always have the time.   Just Ask ........
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Re: Letter to a Ghost, On Its Fiftieth Birthday
« Reply #12 on: August 13, 2007, 05:25:48 am »

Due to time constraints, this is the first time I've ventured into this room since all the furniture got rearranged. And, this is the first thing I read after wandering in.

I'm struck dumb. My heart goes out to you, John-el.
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