“I’m not making it up,” I say. I know she doesn’t believe me.
“I know that, Grandma.” No, you don’t.
“Yes,” Maggie says and then sighs. I know she thinks I’m nuts. She’s sitting in the visitor’s chair next to my hospital bed. Her elbows are resting on her knees. “It’s happening to pretty much everyone with your condition.”
“I know. It’s lovely,” I say, and I mean it.
“Lovely? How can you say that?” Maggie asks.
I think a moment, trying to find a way to get her to understand.
“Do you love Michael?” I ask. I don’t, her husband is a jerk.
“What? Of course I do, what kind of question is that?”
I ignore her and push on.
“So,” I say, “if, Heaven forbid, he died, you’d probably give anything to see him again?”
She sighs again, seeing where I’m going.
“Grandma… it’s not the same.”
“I’m a dying old lady dear, not a child,” I smile as I say it, “so, don’t give me that because bullshit. Back up what you’re saying or you don’t have an argument.”
“The doctors will have a cure soon,” Maggie says, changing the subject slightly. “They’re trialling it right now, in New York.”
“Nice? Grandma, you can get better!”
“I don’t want to get better.”
My statement leaves the room silent. The regular hospital hustle and bustle is the only sound.
“How can you say that?” Maggie finally asks.
“I’ve lived a long life, a happy life. But I haven’t seen my Fred in fifty years. Now he’s here, in this room, the same as he was. You want me to give that up?”
“It’s not real,” she says. After a pause, as I’m about to agree with her, she tries a different tact. “You’ll die without the cure.”
I nod. How can I get her to understand?
“We all die, honey.”
“But… but… I give up!” Maggie throws her hands in the air, stands and walks toward the door to my private room. “I’ll be back in a little bit, I can’t… I just can’t deal with this now.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say to her back as she leaves.
Then I’m alone; except I’m not. Well, that depends on who you ask. Some of the experts say I’m hallucinating, that we’re all seeing things, all the many millions of us.
The disease only started appearing a few months ago but it’s affecting a lot of people. Thus, the rush for the cure. It’s not just old people like me afflicted, no, it’s everyone from teenagers all the way up. And it’s deadly, over time. It takes months to kill you though. And it’s in that time that you have the gift. Or curse, depending on who you ask.
To me, it’s a gift, one hundred per cent.
I became a widow at thirty-five, my dear Fred dead of a heart attack at forty. Heart disease, what a bastard. Of course, now it’s avoidable for the most part but we didn’t know that back then. Anyway, he was snatched away from me.
And now I get to have him back.
He’s smiling at me, has been the whole time. When Maggie was going on, as she does, he rolled his eyes, like he used to. He’d do that whenever something annoyed him. Even after all these weeks I still can’t believe it’s real. I mean, sure, I know it’s not real; but it’s the next best thing.
Maybe it’s my memories of him, called to the surface in high definition. The disease, as it runs its course, causing chemical changes or something. I don’t know. I don’t care. He’s as handsome as ever.
“Not as beautiful as you, dear Rita,” he says. He can read my thoughts too. It’s convenient.
“Come now, Freddy, I’m old and wrinkly. And possibly insane.”
“You’re not insane.”
“Well, if you are a figment of my imagination, that is what you’d say. Because you’re just a part of me and I’d be telling myself I wasn’t crazy.”
He’s shaking his head. “You over think everything. Just accept it, don’t analyze it. For once.”
“You know that’s asking a lot of me.”
“I do. Top of your class, first female PhD from the university here. Most wonderful skeptic that I know.”
“Knew, dear,” I say, automatically correcting his tense.
He shrugs. “I’m here Rita. I’m dead, yes, but I’m here.”
“But how is that possible?” I ask, knowing he doesn’t know. We’ve had this conversation several times in the last few months.
“I’m here,” he says again. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Oh, yes, it is.” But it’s not, not for me. I need to know things, why they are the way they are. And, of course, as I have the thought I remember he can hear those too.
“Liar,” he says, smiling.
“Freddy… I can’t believe you’re a ghost.”
“Then call it something else.”
“Ghosts don’t exist.”
“Neither did atoms, or DNA or black holes, until fairly recently, as far as us humans knew. Isn’t it possible this is real and it’s just something we don’t understand?”
That isn’t my Freddy talking. He wouldn’t have known DNA from dinner. So, is he simply my memories of him, attached to my own thinking processes? That seems very likely. Of course, if he is a ghost, assuming that’s possible for a moment, then perhaps he has access to all knowledge.
“You’re doing it again,” he says.
“Over thinking it.”
I shake my head and am about to answer him when Maggie walks back into the room. She doesn’t say anything, just sits in the visitor chair again. I give Fred the look and he nods. We have an agreement that he’ll keep quiet when people are here. It’s weird enough that this is happening but I’m sure I’d look completely bonkers if I started talking to myself. That’s how it’d look anyway.
“I didn’t expect you back so soon,” I say to Maggie.
“Yeah,” she says, looking at her feet. She looks up, looks at me. “Gran… help me understand. My parents are dead; aside from Michael you’re all I have.”
“You know I’m not going to be here forever. All…”
“Things die,” she says, completing my sentence and tossing my words back at me. “Yes, you said that. And I know it. But there’s a cure!”
“Most likely. Why don’t you want to live?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to live. But I have lived. I’ve travelled. I’ve studied. I raised your father. I helped raise you. I’ve seen and done so many things. Most of them alone.” I sigh. “Maggie, how do I put this?” I pause, thinking. She lets me, doesn’t interrupt. Fred is looking between us, listening, silent. I smile. He always was a good listener. “When I die I know that’s it.”
“There is nothing else. They will incinerate my body and all that was me will be gone. I will cease to exist, except in your memories.” I smile, it’s a lovely thought, to be kept alive in someone else’s mind.
“No buts. That is the way it is. Oh, yes, theologians would argue differently. But they have no proof and I… I have no faith.”
I wave my hand at her. “You don’t have to agree, you just have to respect my beliefs. Or non-beliefs in this case.” I smile. She smiles too. I continue. “So, the bottom line is that, when I’m gone, I won’t see my Fred again. We won’t dance the Watusi in front of the pearly gates.” I pause, inhaling. It’s tiring, all this explaining. “Let me have this time with him.”
She’s not ready to do that yet.
“But, if he’s actually there then… how do you explain it? Isn’t he a ghost and doesn’t that tell you there is something else after you die?”
I nod. “Yes, dear, you’d think that, right? I haven’t accepted that he’s really here though. He’s most likely a play my brain is putting on, some old memories the disease has caused to come together. The brain’s a funny old thing.”
“What about the French farmer?” she asks, as I knew she would. Everyone knows that case.
In another city, not far away, there was another patient with the disease. He has since died but, anyway, he was an orphan, raised by the state, who never had any family that he knew of. The disease made a French man appear to him, a man he didn’t know and had never met. The patient didn’t speak French and couldn’t understand a word that the man was saying. It was frustrating for both parties. They brought experts in, translators, psychologists. They studied him, interviewed him. The translators found that the French the patient was repeating back to them was perfect. The ghost — that’s what people are calling the figments, no matter what they actually are — was a farmer from Montreal who died twenty years ago.
“What about him?” I ask.
“How do you explain it?
“I can’t, not really. I can speculate. The patient lived alone for years. It’s possible he picked up French and no one knew. It’s possible he spoke French as a child and then stopped using it, but it was still there, locked away in his memories.”
“And what about all the details, the farmer and his life story?”
“The patient could’ve read about the farmer somewhere.”
“I’m just saying, there could be an explanation. It doesn’t have to be ghosts.”
“But, what if it is?”
“Don’t you see,” I say, “it all amounts to the same thing. You’re trying to convince me that I should try to live because Fred here — yes, he’s right here, sitting on the bed — is an actual ghost. Well, if that’s the case then Heaven is probably real too. Then I should welcome death because I’ll get to be with Fred all the time then."
“Or,” I continue, “the other option is that he’s not really here, that he is a creation of my own brain and memories. In which case you think I should try to live because it’s fake, false. But, in that case, I’m right and there is no Heaven, nothing after this. Well, I will tell you now, clearly and plainly, I would give everything, including my life, for the time I’ve had these past few months.
“Either way,” I finish, “death is not something to avoid.”
Maggie is silent a minute, no doubt thinking it all over.
“I don’t want to lose you,” she says. Her eyes are glistening with the start of tears.
“I already told you, I’ll always be alive as long as you remember me. Now, no more of this, I’m still here. Don’t put me in the grave just yet.” I smile, hoping she’ll do the same.
It’s weak but she does. “Okay.” She sniffs and wipes at her eyes with the back of a hand.
“Good. Now, is there anything you’d like to ask your grandfather?”