I’ve been having some rather vivid nightmares lately.  About ghosts.

Now, in the echelon of Things That Scare Me, ghosts rank pretty low.  I’m always the one who will happily go into a graveyard at night.  I work in a theater that’s allegedly full of ghosts, and the only thing I’m frightened of is the possibility of offending them by referring to the Scottish Play by its actual title.

And yet the last couple of nightmares I’ve had – the ones that lead me to actually cry out in my sleep (prompting Coombsie to rouse me) – have involved ghosts.  Ghosts moving me against my will through the house.  Ghosts pulling down my bedcovers.  Ghosts controlling the elevator in which I’m riding.  The other night Coombsie woke me up as I was yelling: “I can’t make it stop…I can’t make it stop.”

I’ve perused enough dream analysis books in the Occult section of Barnes & Noble to know that these dreams are not about ghosts so much as they are about CONTROL.  Or, more to the point, my lack thereof. 

Coombsie and I live, daily, in a situation where we cannot control a lot of what is happening.  We cannot control my mother-in-law’s steady decline into full-blown dementia.  We can’t stop it from happening.  This is not something that my mother-in-law is going to “beat,” like other people beat cancer, or Lyme disease.  It is slowly and insidiously going to rob her of nearly everything that makes her who she is, and we are powerless to stop it.

The funny thing is that I’m just having these nightmares now, when we finally have daily help in place.    Coombsie’s brother takes her to his house when we need a weekend off.  She has three different nurses/aides that are with her on weekdays.  They fix her lunch, take her shopping, help her around the house, and one of them even reads In Cold Blood to her for about an hour or so a day (this might seem a tad inappropriate to most, but pre-Alzheimer’s, my mother-in-law was a HUGE Truman Capote fan…when Coombsie and I were first dating, she gave me a copy of Music For Chameleons).  They are all so wonderful and I don’t really know how we managed without them.

With a little of the pressure off, it would seem that my subconscious has kicked into overdrive.  Because I’ve felt like I’m not allowed to collapse into a weepy puddle for fear of upsetting people, I’ve pretty much maintained a party line of “everything’s OK” when asked, which of course is totally the WRONG thing to do.  Now that we’re not feeling quite so alone in this, the stress is coming out in my dreams.

I’m a recovering addict.  My whole illness feeds on a need for control, a need to know exactly how things are going to unfurl.  And that’s just not possible.  It’s even more impossible when living with someone with Alzheimer’s.  If she’s having a series of fairly lucid, “good” days, we cannot assume that this is going to remain the case.  Now that the days are getting shorter, her moods can turn on a dime.  This is called “sundowning,” and it’s very common in people with dementia.

More than ever, I’ve had to practice the things I was taught at the very beginning of my recovery:  first things first, easy does it, keep it simple, live and let live.  I hate that shit.  Platitudes are so irritating because they’re so often true.  I have to do this one day at a time.  I have to stop worrying about next weekend, and Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and a year from now, and focus on what I can do today.

But it’s scary, this having so little control.  It’s scarier than ghosts.

The Dead


You know as well as I do that the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long. Gradually, gradually, they lose hold of the earth … and the ambitions they had … and the pleasures they had … and the things they suffered .. and the people they loved.

Of all the themes explored in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, this is the one that always kills me, in every production I’ve seen and in every re-reading I’ve given it.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

It flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught, particularly if we were raised Catholic. What are saints after all but the dead, whose very purpose is to take a keen interest in the living, delivering our petitions to God himself and interceding on our behalf? And have not most of us, at some time, believed that our loved ones are “smiling down on us,” or somehow present in our times of despair?

I grew up with ghosts. One in particular lived in my Nana’s house. He had followed her and Pa from Ireland, to take up residency in a third floor bedroom. We lived in terror of Monaghan (although for later generations of cousins, he was the friendly spirit who inhabited lamps that suddenly grew brighter). My sister and I have seen “ghosts” for as long as we can remember…but what exactly have we seen, really? Psychic imprints that we’re more in tune with than are others, perhaps. Residual energy from lambent happiness, or abject despair. Certainly these things don’t come when called, or we’d have gone into the paranormal connectivity business long ago.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

It’s a series of lines that shake me every time I hear them or read them, even though I am no longer affiliated with any formal religion or religious practice.

This is, I think, because I want to be more important than I am. It’s standard formula in tragedy: one loves, and the other is loved. When loved ones depart, I want them to miss me, be as involved with and interested in me as they were when they were here…more so, since the shedding of one’s mortal coil would imply an immediate grant of omnipresence. You can be with me all the time now. I can sit here sobbing on my bathroom floor and I will somehow be comforted by you, because you cannot bear to see me grieve.

I suppose it makes sense that Wilder’s line is still something I cannot quite wrap my brain around, after all these years. When you have been hurt by living people long enough (and we all have; I don’t pretend or presume that I’ve been hurt more than anyone else), sometimes you want to believe that the dead will intercede, drifting in as haze and enveloping us in some misty and mystical comfort.

“..the dead don’t stay interested in us living people for very long.”

The living don’t stay interested in the living for very long, either. At the absolute nadir of what was the biggest heartbreak of my young “adult” life, I wanted to believe I could send my pain in a telepathic package, to the other side of the country where my erstwhile beloved had gone. (Oddly enough, I had enough good sense to not rack up horrific phone bills by calling him, to vocally plead my case and beg him to come back. Even at drunk o’clock in the morning, an odd sense of self-preservation would kick in and keep me from making an ass of myself, at least in that regard.) I wanted to believe that we were so connected that he would feel my sorrow from 3,000 miles away. Comebackcomebackcomeback. He did, but with his new girlfriend in tow.

The living move on. We lose, and we lose, and we lose again, and yet most of us eventually will laugh at a joke again. Most of us will find new loves, new things to be fascinated by. We are scarred, certainly, but we move on. We do this in part because we are programmed for survival.

And this is, perhaps, what Wilder had in mind when he wrote those lines. The living move on because they must. And so it stands to reason that the dead do the same.