Thin and thick places: A ghost story from a skeptic

“Conscience is no more than the dead speaking to us.”
Jim Carroll

My Uncle Orville was standing at the foot of my bed. He had been gone for so long I didn’t recognize his features. I sensed him, like when you know someone familiar has entered a room.  Then, in the shadows — of my mind or the dark room I’m not quite sure — a silhouette materialized,  short-cropped hair, square stature, big shoulders. When he told me what he came to say, his voice was rough and calm. I mumbled a bleary response and laid back on my pillow.  My heart jerked too-late. Startled awake, I looked back to the spot. Orville was gone.

The noxious weeds along the dirt lane seemed to make the heavy summer day even hotter. The cattle were nervous and uncooperative at first, perturbed at the idea of movement on such a day and they kicked up dust. My uncle had stationed my cousin Kelly and me at the crossroad and gave us the task of waving our arms and hollering so the lumbering cattle would turn up the winding road toward fresh pasture.

The bored cows settled into a resigned gait under the able hands of Orville and my laughing  cousins who darted in amid the herd with switches in their hands, barking unintelligible orders. My face bloomed with embarrassment as I tentatively wondered which cow I should yell at and if there was a proper way farmers waved their arms as opposed to cheerleaders. As the town kid among my country cousins every step I took seemed awkward. I flinched at stumbling cows, or jumped clear when one shuddered or kicked up its hindquarters, sure that it meant to trample me when in reality it was more concerned with the biting flies bouncing in the cottony heat. I could taste the fear in the back of my mouth.
The calf‘s ghost-white face was funny at first. I was relieved to see such a small animal in the sea of beef. It trotted through the dust, underfoot, drooped head swaying sadly. A small, skinny, black body; blotches like patches hid its eyes in the overexposed daylight. With sudden confidence I yelled louder and stepped forward, “Hey, calf!” In the distance I could hear my uncle suddenly yelling something, but I couldn’t make it out over the groaning cattle. The calf kept coming, oddly indifferent to my boldness. My uncle kept yelling, jogging up the road toward me in his dusty work boots. I kept bossing the calf. Orville’s voice grew more urgent.
I looked back just as the calf crashed into me. Air painfully exploded from my body and the sky above me and road at my feet did a sickening somersault. I slammed into the ground, confused. In the dizzying pain,  I still had time to feel embarrassed.
Orville was immediately there, his hand touching my shoulder. He gently chuckled the warning I hadn’t understood: “Blind calf.” I tried to speak but my wind had not returned and besides it was taking all my concentration to hold back tears. “You’re going to be OK,” Orville said, and I knew I would be.
But Orville would not.

I remember the whispers of my parents a couple of years later. Something was wrong with Orville. Doctors were puzzled at first. It turned out to be leukemia. The cancer took him quickly. At 49 years old, this strong, kind man was gone. At his funeral mourners had to stand out in the street because the church was overflowing. Tales of big and small kindnesses flowed for days on end. I remember wondering if the sadness would ever go away.

“Tell Martha I’m fine.” That’s what Orville told me ten years after his death from the foot of my bed in Seattle. Martha, his widow, had long since remarried another good and kind man. I immediately doubted what had happened. I have always been a pretty skeptical person. My first reason was, “Why in the hell would Orville pick me?” That one still gnaws at me. So I waited. I waited three years before I passed the message on to Martha, worried about what she would think. When I did pass the message on, I was halfway about it.  I let my dad tell her, adding “for what it’s worth” to the end unsure of how it would be received, and a little ashamed of how long I had waited.

Then, it happened again. This time my grandfather, Al Madden, who had died back when I was in high school, showed up in a dream. “Tell Norman his dad is fine.”  Quick and to the point. Grandpa was never much of a talker when he was alive and honestly I was always closer to Grandma.  I was a little scared of my Grandpa. My cousins used to taunt me when I was little that Grandpa didn’t like me because my family had lived out of state. I was a nervous kid anyway, so I usually cried.

The Norman we’re talking about here is my dad’s first cousin, who had recently lost his father. I had gone to the funeral because Norman was close to my dad.  I returned home to Seattle and had the dream. This time, I figured what the heck, nobody would get hurt by passing on the message. Norman didn’t really know me that well. If he considered me crazy, so what. For a time, I like the idea of Grandpa looking out for his grieving nephew, and it made me feel good to help him out. In my writer’s brain I could almost see the two of us getting into a pickup and driving over to Norman’s house to give him the good news. That’s just the way things work in my head.

The ancient Celtic mystics told of “thin places” where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we are able to glimpse the divine. Old tales even tell of people travelling between the two worlds.

When I doubted my experiences with Orville and my grandfather, my mother told me I probably received those messages because I was open to them. My mother no longer believes that of me.

It’s more likely that I collided with myself on that hot dusty road so many years ago, a bleating calf, terrified and blind, stumbling forward into the darkness, chasing ghosts in my own head, desperate to see something, anything, and to fit into his own herd. Perhaps my Uncle Orville and my Grandpa knew I had encountered enough insanity and would be so eager to please that I would likely speak of what I heard in the night. Maybe they knew that I’d seen enough ghosts that one more wouldn’t be such a leap. Or maybe not.

I don’t know if the Celtic mystics believed in “Thick places.” They were Irish so if they didn’t they should have. I have had far more experiences with Thick Places. Places so crusted over with resentment, animosity and fear that the divine has no chance of  breaking through. Places so toxic that even God doesn’t dare tread, choosing instead to wait outside. I know people — families, lifelong friends — who no longer speak to one another because they judge their own sins superior to others.  They find people they once loved unredeemable. I don’t know where such people believe their stories are going to end? Probably the grave.

I never checked to see how my Aunt Martha or Cousin Norman received the messages. I never really wanted to know. Once shared, the messages no longer belonged to me. It’s possible that this was my way of rationalizing  and returning to my comfortable position as skeptic. Regardless of whether I believe, I know deep in my heart that Orville certainly was the kind of man who would not want his family to worry. And knowing his sense of humor he might find it funny to use the little guy who was scared of cows to pass the word. My grandfather was a rough man in his later years as he battled emphysema, bone cancer and congestive heart failure, but his midnight message made me reflect on the kindnesses he showed me, how he used to walk me around the backyard, cane in hand, when I know it caused him a great deal of pain. It reminded me that  my cousins were just having fun with the kid who cried all the time, for what cousin could resist that. I always thought my Grandfather a wise man. Perhaps he knew that there are blessings in simply sharing good news with another person. Maybe Norman wasn’t the only one who needed that message. Or maybe it was all just a dream.

Whether you believe in them, it is good to seek thin places. Or at least be open when you rub up against them by accident. The mystics never claimed they were to be found only on high mountains or in great cathedrals. I for one have learned that ghosts in dusty and dark places can take my breath away.