Monitor Board of Contributors: My Dad as a ghost
The Groerer house shortly after it was constructed.
The Gfoerer family on the back patio of their house, sometime in the 1960s. From left to right: Peter, Michael, John, Mother Lois, Joe, and My dad, Gordon.
It was a summertime whim. We had been to Niagara Falls and on the way back to Concord decided to drive through the Western New York town where I grew up, Tonawanda. It had been a couple years since my last drive through and not much seemed to have cha
It was a summertime whim.
We had been to Niagara Falls and on the way back to Concord decided to drive through the Western New York town where I grew up, Tonawanda. It had been a couple years since my last drive through and not much seemed to have changed. The Erie Canal was still there, so was the Rivera Theater and the high school. Of course the real point of interest was the old neighborhood, and the old house. Mother sold it a couple years after my father died and that was that. No looking back was allowed, just the once every few years drive-by to make sure it was still there. Now it was time for another.
What is the lure about these kinds of things? You stay away for months, for years. You forget and then you forget again the memories. But you never take time to really bury them. They tug, they pull, they linger unseen until you take the turn up the old street.
I drive slowly. Kids are at play, and I always drive slowly on this street. I notice the trees that are no longer there. I notice the trees that have grown. The houses are sometimes different colors, but they are all there just as they always were. Nothing is new except a fence here and there or maybe a car with New Hampshire license plates.
The house gets closer. I stay in the present as it comes into view, but memories are sitting on every sidewalk waving me to come back. I slow the car and everyone in it stares out the window while I provide a narrative. And just as I prepare to accelerate back to New Hampshire, the front door of the house opens. My foot touches the brake instead of that pedal I had intended. Windows go down, eyes meet, conversation forms like rope halting forward motion.
Before I know what has happened, I am parked in the driveway, ensnared, somewhat willingly, in a moment I never expected.
Twenty years had passed since I was last in this house, and more than 40 years since I lived there. I have driven by only two or three times over the years, and never stopped, never pulled in the drive or thought about knocking on the door. Now, there I was, about to get a tour. It happened so fast, so unexpectedly, like tripping and falling over Niagara Falls. Splash, throw me a life preserver on my way down. Yes, I know the way.
Is it always true that the house you grew up in looks smaller than you remember? The walls seemed closer, the ceiling nearer my head, the stairs narrower and steeper, the kitchen sink lower. It is as though the house shrank. Memories of childhood must not adjust to current measurements. You will always be 10 years old in this space.
Not much had changed. Everything had changed. Their piano was where our TV had been. Their TV was where our piano had been. My father’s beer tap on the patio was gone but the shelf he built for the outside television was still there.
I shared stories, told them things about their house that they never knew. I was the John whose name was still painted on a wall in their basement and they were curious to finally meet him. The upstairs bathroom finally had a shower. Beer was still consumed on the patio but the fiberglass roof my father installed had been replaced by asphalt shingles that didn’t leak.
The tour took on a pace all its own. Time had stopped, shifted into reverse, then jumped back forward to the August day it had been a few minutes earlier. I was back in the car, thankful for the experience, thankful to have it draw to a close.
The engine may have been started, I don’t really remember. What I do remember is being asked to come out on the front sidewalk to answer a last question.
“I don’t really know how to ask this, but I need to,” the mother of the house said.
Then she asked.
“Did anyone ever die in this house?”
It was my parents who built the house back in 1954. It was my mother who sold it to the current owners. And it was my father who died in the living room back in 1990.
I remember the moment clearly.
The prostrate cancer was beyond reversal. The doctors let him check out of the hospital to live out the days he had left at home. A hospital bed was moved into the center of the living room. From it he reigned for a few more days, unable to move anything but his lungs and to speak short bursts of words. I was told that when they wheeled him in he looked around somewhat groggy and simply said, “This is my house.”
I wasn’t there for his last months. I was here in New Hampshire, immersed in a documentary about the life of former governor Sherman Adams. It seemed an odd thing, to be so focused on Adams while 500 miles away my father was dying. But deadlines are deadlines, and fathers are supposed to live forever.
The day after the documentary premiered I got the call. “There is not much time left.”
That night I was back in the family house with the family.
The hospital bed in the living room felt strange, out of place, appropriate. I walked up to it, took his hand and told him I was there. There was no response except his labored breathing. It wasn’t my father lying there. But it was.
Conversation went on around him as people came and went. Neighbors brought food and sad eyes not yet ready for tears. The hospital bed dominated the room like an oversized ugly coffee table that nobody wanted to say goodbye to. There is a saying about the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. That was my father at that moment – looming large in the middle of the living room as we all waited for him to leave.
It came the next day, I think about 6 in the evening. We made a circle around him, holding hands, listening, waiting for the last breath. The room became very quiet, very still. We did not know it was his last until there was not another. For a while we all stopped breathing with him. Then we started taking in air again as stillness seized his body forever.
My father died in the living room of his house.
Now the house belonged to someone else and they wanted to confirm what they suspected. They wanted to know who was making the sounds they heard at night in the upstairs hallway. They wanted to know who the presence they felt sharing their living room was.
They assured me that it was a happy spirit haunting their house. They were just trying to understand who it might be, hoping I may have an answer. I couldn’t offer positive identification. However, I did add some facts to the puzzle.
It is an odd thing to think of my dad as a ghost. Ghosts, after all, are lost spirits, perhaps unable to come to terms with some aspect of their life. I would never put my father in that category. The thought is at once amusing and sad. Amusing as a concept. Sad if it is true.
It is a thing that I suppose can never really be known for sure. Ghosts, UFOs, Big Foot, Loch Ness, I lump them all into one big file, not to be opened for fact checking until I die. Then all will be revealed. The slate is cleaned and all questions are answered, at least that is what I believe. That is what I felt when my father died. All the things he never understood about who I was, I believed were made clear to him that night in the living room 23 years ago when he left us.
But what if he didn’t really leave? What if he is still there, waiting, still trying to figure it all out or maybe catch some dream that was eluding him? Or maybe he just wants to keep a close watch over his house. Whatever the reason, I am left wondering, what do I do now? Do I have a responsibility here to find out why? Do I need to go back there and help him out? Does this mean drive-bys are not enough?
There are no plans at the moment for a next trip to Tonawanda. But then there weren’t really any plans for our recent visit. It was a summertime whim – a drive-by look at a house full of memories not yet ready to be buried.
Watch out for that sign post up ahead.
(John Gfroerer of Concord is the owner of a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)