My great grandfather was a riveter. My grandfather was a steel worker. My father was a carpenter. I’m a psychiatrist. You can imagine their disappointment when I didn’t want to work with my hands. I loved sitting in my father’s woodworking shop, built into the side of our suburban home, just being around as my father made cabinets. I would take scraps of wood and ask him to cut out swords from them, so I could go play pretend in the woods. It had been several decades since I left my hometown of Green Bay for…well…really anything that wasn’t the countryside. So many years had passed, and I can still remember the smell of sawdust that followed my father like some cloud of paternal grace.
All sons want to follow in their father’s footsteps, but I can’t for the life of me remember when I felt that I couldn’t follow mine. Perhaps in my rebellious youth, where misplaced disdain for my father pushed me away from such blue collar work. By the time I had left high school, I was all too eager to move into the dorms for college life, and there I found my calling in psychotherapy. I was the only true-shot arrow in a legion of directionless philosophy majors, taking psychology courses because it fit with some ill-conceived ideals of how their “new” perspective on the mind would take the world by storm. Feckless as they were, you had to admire that naïveté. I, on the other hand, had no illusions of what it meant to get into the head-shrinking game. I wanted to peer into people’s minds and help them make sense of it all, a cartographer marking the mares of their gray matter moons.
I wouldn’t say I had become bored of my small practice, but I certainly wasn’t overly surprised by some of the people who came in anymore. The influx of patients with gender identity issues or anxiety was great to see. Not that I love seeing people in trouble of course, but it’s great to see people seeking out help. However, what I struggled with the most was grief; depression due to loss was something that I could never quite grasp – how do you comfort someone knowing they will never get back what was lost? Like some funny twist of fate, I soon had myself a more…specialized issue.
I first thought it would have been a fluke, some isolated incident that happened as I was packing up to go home for the evening. A pale, translucent figure appeared in my office, sitting in my second-hand, worn-out patient’s chair. The very first session was really little more than what I could only assume were disquieted sighs breaking an admittedly eerie silence – I had ended up staying for an hour, afraid to move if it would spook the spook. To see if this would continue, the next week I had decided to stick around, and I was surprised when it reappeared in my chair, the same time as before. On that second week, he, I think it’s a he, given his foggy silhouette, didn’t say much in the beginning, save for some sobbing. I’d considered the sobbing as a breakthrough.
On what would be week three if the trend continued, I refrained from even packing my things, and instead sat back in my chair, waiting with a notepad in my lap. If this became a consistent occurrence, I figured perhaps I could publish my notes, or join the ranks of weirdos online. Although, I suppose maybe they weren’t as weird as I thought. When the time came, six o’clock, the patient’s chair was still empty. Oddly disappointed, I turned away to file the usual nightly papers, and of course that’s when he appeared. A watched pot never boils, after all.
“Oh, hello,” I said, taking care to hide my startled tone. I slid back into my chair without breaking my gaze on the murky silhouette. Couldn’t be too careful around something that doesn’t exist. The ghost’s blurry head nodded up and down slowly, and then remained cast toward the floor.
“Glad to see through you again.” I was a classic case, hiding my unease behind some vague semblance of humor.
“What would you like to discuss today?” I scribbled the fact that the ghost kept their head down.
I didn’t expect much, given the previous sessions, but then a strange echo escaped from the ghost.
“…I dunno…” Its voice carried with a Doppler effect, as if it was coming and going all in one breath.
BREAKTHROUGH – IT SPEAKS! I wrote on my notepad.
“That’s fine, we can talk about whatever you’d like, this is a comfortable, safe space,” I pulled out the basic spiel any psychiatrist would say as I tried to keep my composure. I left my outburst on the yellow pages. “Do you mind if I ask how you found my office?”
“…just seemed like the place to be…”
“Fair enough.” I wrote down that my office was now the Bermuda Triangle of Burnaby, British Columbia. “What’s on your mind?”
“Anything at all, from the incidental to the important. What matters is that you feel okay with saying whatever you want here. Even if it doesn’t make sense,” I pushed.
“…I miss poutine…”
My eyebrows perked.
“Ah…I s’pose. Did you have a lot of poutine in…uh…life?” I asked, tripping on my last words.
“…here and there…just always liked the taste…”
“Comfort food?” I crossed my legs.
The ghost’s head bobbed for a moment. I scribbled down “intermittent moments of depression.” Gathering breath through my nose to speak, I could have sworn I smelled a hint of baking French fries in the office.
“I like poutine too, probably a little too much,” I said as I patted my less-than-ideal stomach. “Is there anything else you miss? Family, or friends maybe?”
The ghost remained silent. I suppose I should have been happy that they spoke at all.
“Do you mind if I ask your name? So we can be more comfortable, and maybe for my documents?”
The name went down on the pad, as well as gender.
“Any last name?”
Toby’s silence was my answer.
“Is it because you don’t feel comfortable telling me? Or…maybe you don’t remember?”
“…the latter…I think…”
“Head as fuzzy as the rest of you, huh? Well, you could probably tell by the place, but I’m Dr. Ramis. You can call me Arthur. Some people call me Art.”
I smiled. The ghost was open to things, it just took a while, just like any other patient. I thought maybe this wouldn’t be as difficult as I had feared.
“Do you mind if I share an idea with you?”
“Our first couple of sessions, you seemed pretty sad, right? Given your…uh…condition, so to speak, maybe you’re sad about dying?”
It really wasn’t an area I felt comfortable with. I struggled enough with living people dealing with the loss of loved ones, and here was Toby, the loved one dealing with the loss of himself.
“Do you remember why you were crying in our first sessions?” I asked.
“…I didn’t remember things…took time for it to come back…Felt sad that I was lost…”
“Ah…but you are remembering now, right? You remembered poutine.”
“…slowly…” The faint smell of poutine appeared again.
“It’s okay, I’m sure it will all come back over time. We’re both here to help you, right?”
“…I’m sorry to take up your time…”
“Oh don’t worry about it. So my cat won’t get fed for another hour, he’ll live.”
Toby’s head rose, and that blank countenance, devoid of significant features other than the grooves of eyes and a nose, looked my way.
“…You have a cat…?”
“Yeah, got him off a lady who was moving and couldn’t take him with. He’s older, but he’s my little buddy.”
“…I think I had a pet, too…a dog…”
“Yeah? Do you remember what kind?”
“Oh, that’s a nice breed. You’ll have to tell me its name when you remember.”
“Cute name.” I giggled without even thinking, it just erupted from my heart.
“…What’s your cat’s name…?”
“Algernon, the former owner had a sense of humor, I guess. Do you remember how you got your dog, Booster?”
The ghost’s form had become a little more solid, enough definition to see a subtle shrug come from the shoulders.
“Alright. It’ll come back to you. Can I ask what brought you here? To me?”
“…seemed like the right place to be…was lost…needed guidance…”
A short “hm” shook in my throat. We conversed about light topics for the rest of our session, mostly incidental, surface-level things, to establish a comfort zone for Toby. Progress was slow, but progress nonetheless. I, myself, was quite at ease, as opposed to the first times I was in Toby’s presence. When I glanced at my wall clock to see the time, it had been exactly an hour, and when I turned back, Toby had disappeared.
Upon returning home from my session with Toby, I sat on the couch while my girlfriend, Dana, was reading. I was suddenly fixated on the topic of ghosts. Dana was snuggled up close to me, our faces aglow by the light of my laptop as I searched the ‘net for legitimate information on the living impaired – however one confirms the legitimacy of such things. Thanks to the limited experience I now had, it was a little easier to find what sources to follow on the subject, and which were still the weirdos typing up information in a dank basement underneath a naked lightbulb. Not that I knew much, but I could now corroborate that ghosts indeed could project their feelings or thoughts onto a space. There was the smell of poutine, and the odd playfulness I felt for a moment when we talked about Toby’s Pomeranian. I wondered if it was intentional on Toby’s part, but concluded it was most likely a passive quality, given the apparent newness of his ghostliness. I was eager to see what developments occurred in the course of our next sessions.
“What are you looking at?” Dana poked her head closer to the screen. “Ghosts? Suddenly wondering about your dad?”
“What? No…” I closed the tab.
“Gonna hold a séance and find out if he left you anything?”
“Cut it out,” I whined, closing my laptop.
“Still not gonna talk about it?” Dana set her head on my shoulder. Her fingers grazed my forearm.
“There’s nothing to talk about.” I rubbed my eyes, and pinched the bridge of my nose.
“Don’t you think that’s unhealthy?”
“Nope, there’s nothing to say. It’d be unhealthier to dwell on it. What’s past is past.”
Dana patted my arm, kissed my neck, and got up from the couch. I stared at the closed computer in my lap, and my thoughts returned to Toby. I worried about being able to help him, not because he was a ghost, but because I had years of material that could be used to help with grief that I didn’t even believe in myself.
Another week had crept by, and I sat at my desk to record anything I could remember regarding Toby and phenomena related to ghosts. The young research student in me was far too pleased with the prospect of corroborating theories I gathered from the internet. I read over some of the lines I had recently typed, and noticed Toby sitting in the patient’s chair out of the corner of my eye.
“Oh, hello again, Toby.” I checked the wall clock, six on the second. “You’re always so punctual.”
I relocated to my chair and clicked my pen. Toby’s head remained level this time. The ghost was still a blurry, translucent figure, but the definition was there. It was as if the discovery of what Toby knew brushed away some the phantasmagoria.
“How are you feeling today?” I asked.
“…can’t complain…” Toby’s voice was still an echo.
“Do you have anything you would like to talk about? Goals you would like to shoot for?”
“…I’d like to keep talking…if we could…I want to remember…”
More corroboration: ghosts often have disjointed memories. I scribbled it down on the pad. I figured that if we continued, Toby might remember more, and quite possibly become less of an apparition, and more of a person again.
“Of course. Do you remember any of your hobbies? My girlfriend and I have been reading books to discuss with each other recently.”
“…I liked TV…but books near the end…”
“Any particular reason the switch to books?”
“…TV was occupied…didn’t like being in the living room…” Despite the slow way Toby’s words reached my ears, I sensed a bit of hesitation. I had to push.
“What was wrong with the living room?”
Now there was a development. I felt a shiver after Toby’s words, and it almost distracted me from noticing his eyes becoming more pronounced amidst the blur that was his face.
“Mind telling me about it?”
Toby was silent for a few minutes. The clock ticking on the wall was the only sound between us.
“He’s a jerk…” Toby finally said.
It was the first thing that came out of Toby with any brevity. The lights on the ceiling and the lamp in the corner dimmed with the anger in Toby’s voice. There was definitely some issues there, so much so that it imprinted on the room in a troubling way. I wrote both observations down.
“Sounds like there’s some hostility there,” I said.
“I don’t think…I’m ready…to talk about it…” Toby responded.
I nodded, thinking of another angle.
“Did you feel uncomfortable at home? Or was it just around your father?”
“I said I don’t want to talk about it yet, okay…?” Toby’s skin filled in, a beige veil spilling over the translucent flesh at the outburst, something that I gathered was yelled a lot. Not just the skin, but Toby’s clothing started to take shape. Nothing out of the ordinary, just the standard fair which, if I had to, I would have assumed it was the attire of someone who died within a handful of years. The most telling thing, however, was the darker stripe I saw crossing his neck, thick like a collar.
“Alright. Not at the moment.” I decided to try another angle. “Change of subject: do you happen to remember anything else on your own? Maybe how you came to be in your current condition?”
I had already known, but I thought it might have been good for Toby to realize it. They say ghosts exist because people who die either have unfinished business, or can’t seem to accept their death, despite the very obvious afterlife as a ghost.
“…wanted…to get away…” Toby said without hesitation.
“…parents…” I suddenly smelled sawdust, it brought me back to the times I sat on my father’s worktable while he put together cabinets.
“Your dad.” I specified.
“He wouldn’t try to understand…”
“What I wanted to do,” Toby said, his voice completely discernible now, with no audio anomalies. “He didn’t want me to go into physics. I wanted to study the stars…and how they work. He wanted me to join his law firm.”
Pangs of guilt washed over me like a cold wave, undulating from Toby.
“So you…killed yourself?” I couldn’t beat around the bush forever.
“There was no other way to get out.”
Instinctively, I wanted to toss out the platitudes about how life is important and that there’s plenty of reasons to live, but what was the point of reaching into that bag? It would have been an insult to talk like that. It was silly that it had taken me so long to come to the conclusion that I wasn’t exactly approaching this the right way. Sure, I used my expertise as a psychiatrist, but what do you do when your patient has already passed away? Normally, at that point it was a clear failure, but this, with Toby, starting from that point was something different.
“Y’now…my father…he died a few weeks ago.”
“Were you close?”
“As most fathers and sons are, I s’pose.” Not really. Or at least, maybe when I was younger, still living in the ideality of my father’s shadow. “After he was gone there was a lot of things I wish I could have figured out.”
Sometimes ghosts aren’t simply the people who die. Sometimes it’s who they leave behind, holding onto things they can’t pass on. Those apparitions of things left unsaid, business unfinished, come from both sides of death. I knew that now, and I wondered how anyone could ever deny the existence of the lingering dead, when it’s so prevalent in life. Ghosts do exist, and sometimes it’s us.
“I came from a long line of blue collar guys. It was all honest work, but at some point I decided I wanted to help peoples’ minds. My father wasn’t too happy about that.”
“Did he hate you?”
“Not sure. Over the years we didn’t talk a whole lot; stubbornness is hereditary. I think I was always worried that he was disappointed in me, and now I’ll never know. To be honest, I didn’t even know he’d died until after his drinking buddies held the funeral. Only really called him up on his birthday, and this year…his friend picked up instead.”
It wasn’t really protocol for the psychiatrist to reveal so much of their own feelings, but really, what were the protocols for treating ghosts? All the standard ideas went out the window when Toby’s translucent posterior hit my patient’s chair.
“Did he seem like the kind of person who would be disappointed?”
“Maybe he was sad that we wouldn’t have a connection like he did with his father, it’s not like there were many things for us to talk about otherwise.”
“I think it’s unreasonable for them to put so much pressure on us pleasing them.”
“Certainly, but I think it’s also telling of them. We’re from different generations after all, our interests won’t coincide forever. I used to follow my father around all the time, because I looked up to him. I can understand his not wanting to lose that.”
“Are you sorry for becoming a psychiatrist?”
“No, and I don’t think you should feel sorry for wanting to be a physicist. I think it’s just hard to let go.” The room felt a little warmer as I spoke. “I think we both understand that, too. Right?”
Toby nodded. Color returned to his figure, although still washed out and vaguely translucent. He had come so far from when he first appeared in my office as a blurry silhouette.
“So Toby…why did you stick around? Why come here?”
“I miss my family. I hate that my anger at my dad made me do what I did, and I can’t take it back. I can’t even tell them I’m sorry.”
“Unfortunately sometimes we just can’t take back what we do or say. I’d imagine your father is just as regretful as you are. It might seem like he’s always so upset, but things like this tend to force a perspective on us.”
“Maybe your father knows, too. He might be proud of you for all the help you’ve given to others, and…me.”
“You could be right.” I nodded.
Toby rose from the chair, and the room brightened as well. I stood up in kind.
“Thank you, Art,” Toby said, holding out his hand. “I think it might be time I passed on.”
“It was a pleasure, Toby. I hope you’ve found some peace.” I reached out to shake the ghost’s hand, and my palm passed through his fingers. “Oh, right…should’ve known.”
More corroboration: ghosts are definitely incorporeal.
“I hope you find peace, too. I’m sorry about your dad.”
There’s that old adage of how as we teach, so are we taught, and I think that might apply for my line of work as well; as we treat, so are we treated.
“Thank you, Toby. In my line of work, I like to say ‘I hope that I never have to see you in my office again.’”
Toby smiled, and between my blinks he disappeared. I, too, smiled, alone with the last imprint he left on the room – an imprint of peace.
My practice continued, and Toby’s imprint remained. The level of comfort we had built together he left as a parting gift. I never really felt stressed when I sat in my office, and my patients opened up to me a lot quicker than I ever really expected. More importantly, I had found a level of confidence in an area I never had before.
“Right this way.” I guided an older man into the room with my hand pressed lightly on his back.
As he sat down, he took off his green cap, clutching it in his wrinkled hands. He looked to be on the losing side of fifty. I took my seat and set the tip of my pen on my notepad. The old man’s eyes were red and glossy, and as his white mustache gave the impression of a perpetual frown, the rest of his face followed suit.
“So, Martin, what brings you here today?” I asked.
It took the man a moment. He sniffed, rubbing a leathery finger under his nose.
“Well uh…my wife passed away last month and I…just haven’t felt the same.”
“I’m sorry to hear that Martin.”
“My daughter said that if I’m feeling so bad, maybe I should talk to someone about it. I never really felt comfortable talking to people about stuff like this, though.”
“That’s okay, Martin.” I chuckled. “My father was the same way.”
“Do you…think you can help me, doc?” Martin had the biggest puppy dog eyes I had ever seen. There’s just no way I couldn’t help.
“Well Martin, I just so happen to have some experience in that area.” I smiled. “Would you like to tell me about you and your wife?”