Memoirs of the Living Impaired
By Douglas James Troxell
The timing of my death could not have been worse.
Thirty-three years old. Alone at home with my three-year-old son. Wife working the night shift at the hospital. Life insurance papers left unsigned on my desk in the office.
The crossbar pressed into my chest, robbing me of breath. The pulsing pain felt like a python wrapped around my heart. My back, neck, and jaw screamed to be heard over the symphony of pain. My wife warned me not to work out when she wasn’t home. I dreaded the lecture I’d receive until I realized I wouldn’t be around to hear it. Had the attack happened at any other time I might have been all right, but being in mid-rep did me in. My arms went numb and gravity did the rest. There was no phone in the basement, and I left my cell in the living room upstairs.
Like I said, bad timing.
Bad timing was kinda my thing. Before I got married to Laura, I worked the local comedy circuit and missed meeting Jerry Seinfeld when I skipped a gig to watch a Jets game. The Jets lost. Then another night I skipped a gig because the owner had stiffed me on a previous job. A talent agent showed up that night and signed a guy who couldn’t even hold my comedy jock strap. After my failed run in comedy, I got into newspaper advertising. Yeah…newspapers in a digital world.
Timing is everything.
I was more than content to die right there until my son, Jason, wandered over to see what all my sweating and grunting was about. He didn’t say anything. He flashed his sweet little close-lipped smile he uses when he doesn’t know what’s happening. I smiled back through the pain. I knew I couldn’t die there on the workout bench with my son watching without at least giving it the ‘ole college try. I prayed to every deity I could think of, focused all my energy on my arms, and pushed with everything I had left. It hurt like a pineapple enema but I managed to get the crossbar onto the rack. There was a short-lived burst of triumph before I realized it only meant I’d die someplace else.
My body betrayed me. I scooted off the bench and my legs refused to obey my commands. My hands turned into stone claws. My heart bit and clawed to break free of my chest. It was a full-blown mutiny.
Jason laughed, thinking I was playing some kind of game.
Death wrapped its fist around my heart. The pulsing pain subsided just as quickly as it arrived, but it left me weak and immobile. This all happened in a matter of seconds but it seemed to drag out for an eternity. I’m not sure how long I faded out, but when I was aware of my surroundings again, I felt Jason’s little hand stroking my hair. He wasn’t laughing anymore. Tiny streams stained his cheeks. He didn’t know what was happening, but his eyes told me he knew it was bad.
“Don’t cry,” I said to him. I didn’t want my final image of this world to be terror etched onto my son’s face. “Hey. Hey. What do you call a cow with no legs?”
He started giggling even before the punchline. It was one of his favorites.
I never got to finish the joke. A tidal wave of pain washed over me. When pain has you in its grip, you’ll do anything to get away from it…even if your only option is death. Anything is preferable to the pain. Dying is a selfish thing. In that moment I should have been thinking about Laura and Jason and the life insurance plan I never signed, but all I could think about was myself. About the end of me. About everything I wanted to accomplish and never would. About everything I wanted to be and never would become. In that moment I regretted every decision I had ever made and every decision I would never get the chance to make.
But then Jason’s voice brought me back. “Daddy?” I heard him calling as if from a cave. “Daddy?” I opened my eyes and found Jason staring down at me with his mother’s piercing green eyes.
My boy was the last thing I saw before my heart stopped beating.
The pain disappeared instantly. I had no sense of my body, almost as if I was suspended, floating in water. All the emotions were still there—the guilt, the shame, the fear—but nothing else. No pain, no breath, no heartbeat. One may not be aware of those things all the time, but when they’re gone, you notice. There’s a hollowness to it. A nothingness to it. You are a shadow of a shadow.
I felt the Light before I saw it. It washed over my guilt and shame and reflected only the love I felt for my son. The Light filled the entire half of the basement behind me. It was not harsh or glaring or offensive. It radiated warmth as a feeling and not so much in temperature—like an Easy Bake Oven. I was a little disappointed how cliché the whole thing was.
My wife told me after she gave birth to Jason that she had never felt a more basic instinct, an undeniable force that told her it was time to push. That’s how I felt about the Light. Every ounce of me pushed me toward it, reflected the faces of all those I had ever loved and every happy memory I had ever experienced. My mother’s embrace, winning my middle school talent competition and having my father tell he was proud of me, that time under the bleachers with Jillian McMichael who was way out of my league but she was trying to make Corey Jawkowski jealous, Laura accepting my terrible wedding proposal when I forgot to kneel, seeing Jason’s smile for the first time. The Light was all that was good and my entire essence yearned for its embrace.
But Jason’s soft whimpering stopped me, held me back. It took a great amount of strength to turn my focus from the Light. Jason knelt next to where my body should have been, but it was inexplicably absent. His breath was going in and out in tiny gasps.
“No more joking, Daddy,” my boy pleaded through his sobs. “Get up! Get up!”
A tsunami of guilt washed over me. I didn’t want my final act as a living being to be abandoning my son. Laura wouldn’t be home until the next morning. That meant Jason would be alone in that basement until then—almost 12 hours. The space heater was still on. I couldn’t leave him alone. I couldn’t.
The light pulled harder, summoned me toward it, and it took all my will power to deny it, to turn from it. Instead, I went to Jason. I placed my hand on his cheek. There wasn’t any of that ghost bullshit they’re always depicting on TV or in movies. My hand didn’t pass through him or anything like that. I ran my hand through his hair, but there was no sensation of touching him. The hair did not move. I couldn’t feel its texture. It was a lot like touching a statue or a wax figure. The gesture seemed just as hollow for the boy. He began to hyperventilate and cry harder. I tried to hold him, but I didn’t have a body anymore. There was no warmth, no heartbeat, no comfort. I glanced over my shoulder and found that the Light was gone. Nothing but concrete behind me.
Eventually the boy calmed. I talked to him and told him cheesy dad jokes and even though he couldn’t hear me it seemed to help him relax. Eventually he curled up next to where my body should have been and fell asleep. I watched over him all night while the fluorescent lights buzzed overhead and the space heater clicked on and off. I tried not to think about my son sleeping next to a corpse in a basement for too long or how Laura was going to raise Jason with me being gone. I watched my boy curled up on the basement floor sucking his thumb and tried to focus on that.
That’s how Laura found him the next morning. Her scream will forever be carved into my memory.
The first few weeks following my death were the hardest. Laura did not deal with it well. To be fair she didn’t expect to be a widow at 32, and we were ill-prepared for the loss. I usually handled our finances and didn’t leave any instructions or a will or anything behind so she was on her own. She ignored Jason more than she should have. Part of her, no matter how illogical it was, seemed to blame him for my death. It was a lot to deal with.
I comforted her best I could, but it only seemed to make matters worse. I tried talking to her or lying down next to her while she slept, but my presence only seemed to make her more upset. She’d break down in tears or scream obscenities or pound her fist into her pillow. Eventually I avoided her for her own good. I figured she needed time to process the whole thing. Maybe she couldn’t see me or hear me, but she knew I was there.
Instead, I focused on figuring out the whole “being dead” thing. Being a ghost isn’t nearly as much fun as they make it out to be on television or in movies. That Casper guy is full of shit. It took me two weeks to figure out how to pass through walls and other solid objects (the trick is to focus on what’s on the other side of the object rather than the object itself). Until I figured it out I kept getting trapped in rooms until either Laura or Jason opened the door. Like I said before, you can touch objects, but you can’t manipulate them or “experience” them no matter how pissed off you get (Patrick Swayze, you liar!). You have to concentrate really hard to hear people’s conversations. Otherwise it just sounds like someone left the TV on in another room. Speaking of television, here’s a fun fact most people don’t know: Ghosts can’t watch TV. Even if it’s on all you see is a faint gray glow. Same with the computer. So if you were planning on spending your afterlife watching internet porn, forget it! Oh, and music? Another big, fat NAH. You can’t hear it. Don’t ask me why. I’m a ghost, not a scientist.
The nights were the worst. I never realized how long the darkness lasts when I was alive. Without the necessity of sleep to transport me to the dawn, I staggered through every second of the darkness. I’d watch Laura and Jason sleep, but that was as exciting as it sounds. I tried to go for walks in the neighborhood, but I barely made it out of the front yard before I’d be right back in Jason’s room. No transition. No warning. Just POP! Right back inside the house. I figured that meant I was attached to the house. Ghosts have territories and the house was mine.
Most nights I sat in Jason’s room and talked to him while he slept. I’d tell him jokes or reminisce about times when I was still alive. Sometimes he’d smile or utter a few words and that at least made me feel like I was alive again. If I couldn’t be with my boy anymore at least I could visit him in his dreams. Most nights, though, there were no smiles and my boy’s lips were silent. It was just me and the darkness. I sat in the shadows praying for the Light to reappear…but it never did. There was only darkness.
The worst day in the wake of my passing was two months after my death. My birthday. Laura was still in bad shape. She baked me a cake. She made Jason wear a party hat. She lit candles and dumped the cake down at the dining room table where I used to sit. They sang “Happy Birthday.” When they finished she blew out the candles. Then she broke. Her legs seemed to give out beneath her and she crumbled to the floor and cried under the table while Jason cried in his high chair. That was a bad day.
That bad day seemed to stretch out over the next year. Somehow Laura managed to pull the money out of her ass to stay in the house. Had I left a will or post-mortem directions the first thing I would have told her was to dump the thing. The house may have just been a simple ranch style home, but it was in a decent school district and the taxes were sky high. An apartment would have been fine for Laura and Jason, but I knew why she hesitated to leave. Too many memories and abandoning the house would be too much like abandoning me. Little did she know that that was exactly what she’d be doing. Although I knew leaving the house was the financially wise decision, I was terrified of them moving and leaving me behind.
Time moves differently when you’re dead. It’s less sequential and more neurotic, like a stoner who periodically remembers he’s still enrolled at the local community college. I first started to notice it a little after the first anniversary of my death. One morning Laura’s hair was different than it had been the night before. She had bangs all of a sudden (which apparently is a big deal for a woman). I checked the calendar in the kitchen and found the calendar had been flipped. The previous day there had still been two weeks left in the month. Two weeks gone. And I was glad because the time was starting to become unbearable.
Time passed. Jason became a little boy. Laura kept my memory alive as much as possible. She’d show Jason pictures of me or play videos from birthdays or holidays (and to think of all the shit I gave Laura about the videos she took on special occasions). Jason watched a video of us playing in the backyard every single day for months. He’d talk to me at night…not that he could see or hear me. He’d tell me about his day or tell me jokes I used to tell him. He’d tell the jokes, pause, then say the punchline. Then he’d laugh at his own joke. I’d answer him when he spoke to me. I knew we weren’t really conversing, but it was nice to pretend. It was nice to hear him laugh , to hear his voice, to see him keeping my memory alive. Eventually Laura would burst in and tell him to shut up and go to bed and that would be the end of our late-night gab session.
Laura became increasingly irritable. She was often short with Jason even for minor offenses. As time passed she spoke about me less and less to our son and he’d have to beg her to let him watch our videos. There was no birthday celebration that second year. She avoided the basement at all costs. My pictures started to disappear from the shelves. She cleaned out my side of the closet. I knew she had to move on—and I wanted her to—but it still felt like I was being erased. The problem was I was still there, like a coffee stain you just can’t get rid of. No matter how hard she scrubbed, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Near Christmas that year I heard Laura screaming in the bedroom. I rushed over to see what was wrong. She sat in the dark screaming at someone to leave her alone. She cried and screamed and it took me a while to realize who she was yelling at. It was me. She was screaming at me.
“Leave me alone!” she screamed. “Can’t you just leave me the hell alone?! You left us! You abandoned us! Now leave us alone!”
I drew close to her, but she shrieked and broke down into sobs. The door creaked open and a small, frightened voice asked Laura if she was all right. Jason tried to be brave, tried to hold back the tears. He was the man of the house now, but he was still only a frightened little boy. Jason climbed into bed with his mother and they cried together. I held them both, but I knew my embrace brought them no peace and it never would again.
I was dead. There was no denying that and nothing would change it. Whether or not the Light would return was unclear but one thing was not: Things in our household would need to change if my family was to survive my death.
* Part II will appear next month.