I have a friend...
I’ve had a couple of occasions recently where I’ve had to recount this really weird series of events that happened around me a few years ago. Since October is the best time for spooky stories, I thought I’d share this one with you today. It’s rather long, so if you’re not feeling up to reading a lot, maybe skip it and do something else more pressing. But if you’d like, please read on – I’m betting you won’t regret it. It’s hair-raising and just too fantastic to believe, but I assure you, it’s all true, to the best of my memories.
About fifteen years ago, give or take, I was a caregiver to both of my parents who were terminally ill, both at the same time. This part of my story begins after both my father and my very dear Maine Coon cat, Sid (Siddhartha), had passed, about a year and a half after, when my mother was starting to decline as a home hospice patient. I was working at a magazine and had the good fortune to be laid off from that position right when my mother was losing her ability to get out of bed on her own. Every day when I left the house, I agonized over leaving her at home alone, without help. Home was the only place I wanted to be. She was the only person I wanted to spend my time with. Not having a job is nothing I would ever have wished for, but considering my priorities at the time, it was a real blessing. Unemployment gave me the opportunity to give my mom the round-the-clock care she was starting to need, but wouldn’t need for long. For two whole weeks, I had the chance to do just that.
It was all pretty routine, my first week of unemployment at home. Get up in the morning, make the coffee, ask my mom what she wanted for breakfast, prepare it. It was predictable. She always wanted the same few things, but I always asked anyway. Until one day, when she asked for strawberries. She hadn’t asked for them before, but we had them. I prepared a bowl, brought them to her bed, and fed her. She was, at this point, too weak to even lift her arms and feed herself.
I asked, "why strawberries today? You’ve never asked for those before."
"I had a dream about a man last night, I think he grew strawberries."
"Who was this?"
"An Italian man. He came to the bedroom and started opening drawers, packing my things. He said he was my friend, and he was going to help me move."
"Was this someone you knew? Was it Jimmy’s dad?" (My older brother's father was an Italian serviceman in the Korean War.)
"No, no, I don’t know him. I only know he likes strawberries. And I think he’s rich." (She cackles, like it's some hilarious joke.)
Things were predictable again for the rest of the week. She reverted back to asking for pickles for breakfast. She had another packing dream, this time my dad came to help.
One day, my brother came to the house. It had taken some time, but he was finally able to settle her arrangements. He wanted to tell her about them. Because she was so traumatized by the Korean War, she had pretty strong wishes for her burial. She didn’t want to be buried in the earth; she was terrified of drowning. She didn’t want to be cremated; she was terrified of being burned. That left mausoleums. There was one not far from our house. My brother managed to book the very last open spot. It was at the very top of the building, near the ceiling, far from the earth and so high, floods probably wouldn't reach it. When she heard about this, she was content, and after that, she let go. The decline was quick and she was gone within a few days.
About a week after her passing, we went to the cemetery to watch her being interred. She didn’t want a funeral, so no one was invited to this. It was just me, my boyfriend , my brother, and his wife. We wandered around the great hall of the mausoleum while the cemetery workers prepared to operate the lift that would insert her coffin into the empty slot. I stopped to look at the granite slab that would eventually entomb her. It was leaning against the wall with her name taped to the side where a plaque would eventually be mounted. It had a second sheet of paper taped to the other side. This slab was made for two.
"Huh. This other person is named Rocco. That’s Italian. How weird."
My brother was standing next to me, so I started to tell him about mom’s dream. The funeral director was in earshot and overheard me recounting the story. He took a few steps closer, asking questions about when she had this dream. What day, exactly, did this happen? He looked a little spooked and said, “I’d have to check the papers to be sure, but I think she had that dream the night he died. He’s very new here, too. We just moved him in. He's so new, his plaque isn’t ready. They’re neighbors now... This is giving me goosebumps.”
My brother agreed that it’s pretty wild, the coincidence of it. And that’s exactly what it seemed like then, just a coincidence.
My mom was moved in, we all said our goodbyes and see-you-laters, and left.
I spent a few weeks after in limbo, grieving, not really sure of what to do. I had just spent an intense three years with the burden of caregiving, to not just one, but two very ill elderly people at the same time. It was habit now. I was still very thankful to be unemployed at a time when I really don’t think I could have managed to even pretend to go through the motions like a normal, healthy person. Now was the time to decompress and grieve my losses: my mom, my dad, my companion cat. I lost them all within two and a half years, one after another. It had been really, really rough. I was broken. I needed time. I needed help. I started going to grief counseling.
A few weeks into counseling, the last few weeks of living with my mom came around as a topic. I started recounting the story again: how I lost my job; how I spent the last few weeks taking care; the dreams she had; and how on that last morning, I went to her bedroom to ask about breakfast and she could no longer talk, staring at me with this terror in her eyes; the trauma of being the one to give her the morphine shot to help her pass; and finally, going to the mausoleum. I start to talk about the granite slab with the papers taped to it, my counselor interrupts me: It was Rocky, wasn’t it?
I hadn’t gotten to that part yet. I hadn’t mentioned any names. How did he know? I asked.
"Oh, I knew him. He was a hospice patient, too."
I started back into my story, picking up at the part where the funeral director engaged me with questions at the mausoleum. My counselor confirms, yes, he died that same night my mother had her dream. He'd read both their charts and remembers the timeline clearly. I'm starting to get a little spooked. How did he know this? How did he come to be so familiar? My grief counselor continues:
"Because they were both hospice patients, I knew his wife. I counseled her, too, for a few weeks after he passed. You know, during our sessions, he visited her, too. He told her not to worry about him, he would be just fine, he had made a new friend, and he was helping her move."
"Yes. She had a dream, too."
The night my mother died, my boyfriend moved into my mother's house with me, as per my mother's wishes. She didn't want me to be there alone.
Over the course of that first year, living in the house, he had recurring dreams. Sometimes, a really scary, crabby old white guy would show up in them, asking about my well-being and threatening him if he did me any harm. After comparing notes, I'm pretty sure it was my dad. My boyfriend had never met my dad before but the behaviors, the way things were said, and what the mystery man looked like all matched up to what my dad was like. One morning, after we had started planning our wedding, my boyfriend woke up and said, "I saw your dad again last night and he didn't say anything to me. He just watched me for a while and looked pretty satisfied. I don't think he'll be coming back to me again." And he didn't.
And lastly, somewhere around that same time, my boyfriend had another dream, but this time about my mom. He dreamt he was at a fancy dress party, one full of people he didn't know, where everyone was having a great time. He saw a more youthful version of my mom, sitting on a couch with two young Korean women. They were embracing each other, laughing and talking, and really glad to see each other, as if they hadn't seen each other for a long time. When he woke up, he felt good about seeing her happy and with old friends. But when he told me, I just couldn't believe it.
What I knew, and that my boyfriend didn't know, was that my mom had two younger teenage sisters that she was very close to but had lost when her whole family emigrated on foot to South Korea. My mom had lost almost her whole family on that trip: her parents, her sisters, all except one brother. And I say "lost", but I what I really mean is they died from exhaustion and starvation from walking for weeks. They walked on rural roads lined with useless paper money, belongings that were discarded to lighten walking loads, and the bodies of those who couldn't go on. My mom never talked about it. I only knew because my older brother had told me, once, a long time ago, about what she had gone through to be safe.
I have a friend! Many thanks to Dr. Bill Racicot, for sitting through a few Friday-immediately-after-work co-working Zoom sessions to write, as well as his time proofreading my mess. He's a technical writer, a speculative fiction editor, and a medievalist. His whole life has revolved around words. Now he's learning to draw pictures, too.