Sean F. Toner
My paternal grandmother's suburban Philadelphia house is aclutter with lingering spirits. Filmy remnants of past generations are caught, dapper and coifed, on tabletop photostands. A boneyard of my uncle Johnny's only companions – folks like Mailer, Eliot, Fleming – lay stacked on moonwhite shelves. And my hell-fated father's evil-eyed paintings hang on chipped plaster walls. These are the still and silent ghosts, the ones who rarely cough up their secrets.
There are more spritely essences knocking about Granny's Tudor-style house, as well. Here a striped tabby gives chase to something only cat whiskers detect. Up he goes, clawing at a wall in a fit of hysteria. Midnight creaking steps, groaning knocks from the furnace corner of the basement, a front door gusting open in stillest winter – all are so suburban, so commonplace, wisps of supernatural excitement that settle into rattles of mundane household laughter.
The immaterial spirit I am most familiar with, however – the one felled, organ-by-organ, kidneys and eyes, by diabetes – is mine. Since my blinding, the world I inhabit is considerably less corporeal than it used to be. My sensory grasp has been reduced from what I can hold with my eyes to what I hear and touch. Feeling, not seeing, is believing now; physical contact has replaced sight as the predominant measure of what truly exists, and I can put my hands on only so little. When I am seated, the chair is real, when I walk, the floor is real, when I trip over the living room ottoman because it has been moved during housecleaning – it is very much real.
I used to know my extended family by visual cues. Now, our occupation of separate worlds and my glimpsing them only in fleeting, dusky memory give my family, and what world I move through, a phantom quality. Sure enough, I know that is my uncle Bob coming through the squeaky back door. I know this from an accumulation of clues: the sound of his car pulling in the driveway, the thud-thud of his adult male footfall, the reverb of a case of my diet soda or his beer being deposited on the shelf by the fridge. But a discussion in the hall, a television playing in the next room, and laughter in the kitchen, have a Poe quality because they sometimes lack context. Day or night, everyone is a voice in a dark hall without candles.
Permanently casketed in this darkness, I am ghostlike as well. I see myself in the style of movie spectres – a sometimes comic, sometimes melancholic diversion from the mortality resident in my failed pancreas and kidneys. I often appear in the kitchen, where my extended family congregates. They back against a wall or counter to allow me unimpeded passage. I march through with arms out and sweeping, and I generally reach the refrigerator or breakfast table without incident. Every once in a while, though, I knock over a beer bottle or trip over a space heater and go poltergeist. I bellow out profanities and slam the kitchen door behind me, repeatedly – tham-tham-tham – and set the church calendar fluttering to the floor.
My family lets these moments float away after me. They know these fits are mere cries of frustration from a cranky ghost, a spirit trapped between being seen and not seeing.
Conversation resumes, the refrigerator is opened and a beer cap hits the floor.
"Don't forget to write," my uncle Bob often says from the kitchen door as I head up the steps and dissolve from view.
* * * * *
Despite it all, I am a generally laid-back fellow. I can often be found in tattered tennis shoes, wispy oversized shirts, and sunglasses. In cooler months, I am the very spirit of fleece or moth-nibbled wool when I make an appearance in the foyer or at the bottom of the staircase. At times during the hyacinth months, one might even spy me through casement windows, outside, pacing the flagstone walk, trying to recover lost moments.
Granny often spots me at the end of the second floor hall. Blood-rich with blarney and post-supper Bailey's she would tell you she is consistently glad for my companionship. She calls me "Sean Thornton" and "The Quiet Man," after the perennial John Wayne, St. Patty's Day, movie. She often summons me when she is alone in bed, door open, the macabre news channel her sole mate. "Come in," she calls to me. "Sit for a moment," she insists. And I drift through her door and settle onto the housecoats and sweatpants piled on her armchair."
Tell me about your day," she offers, pauses out of courtesy, and then speaks of her own days, of her Boston childhood and its moments of mystery. The death rattle of a favorite aunt, summer re-enactment soldiers afoot on the Lexington Green, her, "When I was a little girl, I looked out my bedroom curtains and saw night pouring out of the chimney stacks."
There are times when I wonder if she is aging there before me, moving ever more sorrowful and distant from the days of her youth towards the moment when she passes and becomes one with the soldiers.
"My mother told me not to sit close to Kitty," Granny says of her older sister. "You pale in comparison."
Most of the time, what remains of my diabetes-damaged and surgery-ravaged eyes are aimed in the direction of Granny's face. But there are other moments when the tale is too-familiar, too close to a last retelling, and I drift as if I were glancing around the room. If my lights were suddenly to flash on, would I be looking Granny in the eye? Would my gaze land on the reunion group photo above her bookshelf? Across the room is her dressing table with its triptych mirror. Would I see my face there? Would I recognize it, or at first think it a stranger's?
"Our father used to take us out for drives on Sundays," Granny says. "We'd all pile into the car and he'd show us places we'd never been to before."
I do not ask what kind of car, if all eight of the siblings piled in, whether her mother stayed home and sat on the porch and relished the hours of bird chirps and crickets.
'Do you know her?' as he pointed to me. Pierre just took the cigar out of his mouth, nodded, and up I went onto the reviewing stand."
I've heard the story of Granny making her way onto JFKs Independence Hall reviewing stand – and all her other Zelig-like brushes with political fame – countless times. Her story-pictures from the past and my own memories emerge, visually, from a gray-black chowder in an iron cauldron. They boil up for just a few seconds and then submerge when another image surfaces. My twenty-ish future Granny first catching sight of the man she'll marry at a dance and my own memory of the man in his final years afflicted with Parkinson's and the Granny seated in front of me all have the same half-realized, visually ambiguous quality. They are a hybrid of word and visual. They are half recipe, half cookbook illustration.
Political talk or one-too-many intimacies from her young adulthood compels my arm up, palm at shoulder height, as if to say "Wait. Stop. I've heard this one before." I'm up out of the chair with a wish – "goodnight" or an "adieu" – and I set off down the hall.
"Come back," she calls after me. "You're my confidant," she often says. "This is for your book," she almost always adds. Then when I slip into my room she aims the remote and rejoins the waltzes of death on the television.
* * * * *
The floorboards squeak at the arched entrance to the living room and I am there, facing the mantle clock or my boyhood hockey picture beside it. I am like so many movie ghosts: what remains of my eyes is vacant and aimed at objects I cannot perceive, that exist only by assumption. My fourteen-year-old cousin, Beth, seated in an armchair, watches one of her cable movies, catches sight of this half-present man, says, "Dude, it's Forest Gump. Want to watch with me?"
It does not matter whether it is a film, The Simpsons, or Seinfeld – the invitation is always there. For Beth, I am nothing more out-of-place than too-pale skin, hollow eyes and an unrequitable desire to fit in. There is no reason in her mind why I can't enjoy television just as much as she does. She knows, in some wordless space from whence the invitation comes, that I will take dialogue and soundtrack and Foley to create images, to have a movie of my own playing behind my blanked screens.
I join the fully corporeal for meals, and for the weekday half hour of Jeopardy with my cousins and their parents.
Aunt Lin, in the early days, places a towel over the kitchen TV screen, fends off my cousin Tim's protestations with a "It's to make things fair for Sean."
"Sean went to a prep school. He went to college. You should turn down the volume to make it fair for me."
Tim's flattery aside, he is a worthy opponent. Prep school study habits and the weekday dorms I stayed in are no match for Tim's rapid knowledge intakes on the Discovery Channel, the Science Channel, the History Channel. He has as much a chance of pulling "Peloponnesian War" out of his Corinthian helmet as I do.
I toss off questions like "What is ‘The Turn of the Screw'?" and "What is ‘The Shining'?" and "What is ‘The Tell-Tale Heart'?" But Tim, late in his high school years, just as readily returns fire with questions like "Who is Emmet Smith?" and "Who is Jim Thorpe?" and "What is a two-point conversion?" He doesn't have any trouble with ocelots, supervolcanoes, or space-time singularities, either.
Even here, I am often displaced.
At Thanksgiving, birthdays and during the Superbowl, I hover in the midst of the partiers in the dining and living rooms. According to reports curiosity, concern and even discomfort show on the faces in intervals that range from glances to open gawks. How do I know where I am? Will I bump into that coffee table or will I trip over the hors d'oeuvres savvy tabby Zonk while he mesmerizes the human nearest the tray into giving him the shrimp and schnibbles of flank steak?
I am at first reticent to move myself through a crowd – there are too many bodies to maneuver through, too many voices saying "step aside" or "look out" as I move through. Despite my gluttonous need for attention, there is too much focused on me under these conditions. But a family member calls out, "Sean! There you are," and I am compelled forward through the gathered and join a seance of second cousins standing by the fireplace.
They ask how I'm doing, what I'm up to, and who I'm rooting for in the closest playoff or election season. But I ache for some insight about my partial expulsion from the world they live in, my exile from the visually sumptuous world I used to inhabit. I yearn for a hint that they connect my displacement to something meaningful in their lives. Perhaps the blind seer Tiresias in Woody Allen's "Mighty Aphrodite" initiated a thought. Maybe a visit to their therapist took them on a road past the self-blinded Oedipus and to my door. Wouldn't it be great if the ubiquitous use of "blind" in popular music – the Stones "Beast of Burden," the Platters "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," or the Who's "Pinball Wizard," among so many others – startled them into a thought beyond blindness as metaphor?
Often enough, someone asks, "Can you see anything?"
And I toss back a "only what I imagine," or "only what I remember," or just a simple "no."
These convivial events are no place for me to add that I see only the future, anticipate the electricity being shut off to my remaining senses, that click-click-click-click and I'll be four more kinds of powerless and five kinds of blind. But how much does anybody want to hear about the Afterlight when there is laughter in the room or when there is a turkey in the oven or when the Chargers have the ball on the 49ers' one yard line?
It is not unusual for the cluster I'm standing with to diminish in size until I'm lingering there, swaying a little as I realize, late, that the person who left to refill his drink was the last person standing with me.
I tire after an hour in any group situation and launch myself through the attendees into self-banishment When I reach the foyer and the bottom step, it is most often my escape-envious Aunt Lin who catches me with my hand on the banister.
"Now where do you think you are going, Mister?" she says.
Then she's back in the kitchen to make another plate for my stepfather, my mortician Aunt Kitty, or my estranged but ever-loving phantom mom – a manic-depressive who left me with my father in St. Louis when I was six, but who was always there on the phone, a bolstering oracle of future good fortune no matter how bad things were.
While I cannot speak for all ghosts, I feel I can explain some of their activity. Why do they seem to pay only brief visits, then slip behind a wall or darkened doorway? The act of being seen, but not seeing, can weary this soul, and I imagine whatever horrors and unfinished business keeps others poised between two worlds has a draining psychological effect on them as well. I for one prefer the sanctuary of a room, my room, to shelter me against prolonged interactions with people as well as to protect me from decades-old traumas, childhood traumas, mostly, which I fear will revisit my door.
I spend most of my day in this room, in the middle bedroom, the thin one with the toppled pill bottles and the blood-stained hardwood floors, the socks rappelling from drawers, and the boxers on the floor. I crank up classical or electronic music and it serves as an echo of light, a synesthesia of sorts where the rise and fall of notes form landscapes and cityscapes in my mind. I listen to books on tape, I write using a screen reader and a Velcro-marked keyboard, and I dally with memory images draped with fog and shadows.
I see imaginative versions of what I touch in the same ephemeral way. The texture and the shape of my talking blood glucometer, the woodgrain of the hutch I designed and built post-blindness, the waft of burgers coming up from the kitchen, even the taste of the orange soda present fleeting pictures of what I come into sensory contact with. Then the blood tester is gone, the shelf and the CD I just touched are gone, even the spectre of orange disappears from the world when I move on to my next action.
What else comes into view when I'm sitting still in my room, when I am not concentrating on motion and location?
I picture this room during a childhood visit in the early ‘70s, see the tin lampshade on the lamp over the bed table. The Art Deco bed and desk set pre-date me, become permanent landmarks over the years. Here, I'm six or seven, Dad has brought me on a summer visit from St. Louis with a new girlfriend. Granny, learning diabetes care, holds an insulin syringe. Her dollar bill bribe awaits me on the pillow.
Here I am in the mid-'70s, half way through the sixth grade, freshly released from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. I'm here in the same bed, the same painting of the Walls of Jericho hangs over the dresser, the same crucifix is over the bed. I'm recovering for a few days after a chaotic summer and fall during which manic Mom had turned a weekend visitation into a trek across four states which culminated in diabetic ketoacidosis, hospitalization and a custody hearing. Dad, at the bottom of the stairs, is disgruntled about his victory, about having reclaimed custody and about how I will affect his new marriage back in the Midwest.
Fast forward a year, see the Olivia Newton-John and Farrah wallposters, see the paint chips I've neurotically picked off the bedtable. I'm in the seventh grade, my year of exile from the St. Louis suburbs. Dad, when not fleering and violent, has calmly decided that the best way to save his second marriage from my mishandling my self-care of shots and diet is to banish me to the East Coast.
I picture all the high school and college-years vacation stopovers in this room when I was on the way to my grandaunt's South Jersey summer house. The room is always here for me, welcoming, relatively orderly, safe.
Just as present for me is this sanctuary room in my late twenties. I've been living at the shore, always working at writing, sometimes working in a bookstore, often found as a boardwalk clown. Now I'm back in the room with the Art Deco bed and the saggy mattress after my kidneys failed. Here I retired to after dialysis treatments, the five failed eye surgeries, the double transplant after which I lost the replacement pancreas. In this room I saw so many paramedics, so many consoling visits from family, felt the last affections of my girlfriend, Melody.
This is where ghosts emerge from – in places that have seen an overabundance of action. Now, in the aftermath of all this loss, I haunt this room, mostly, and move through remnants of memory: the Cat-a-Day calendar stuck in April 1995, the spent uncapped needles on the desk, select medicine bottles distinguished by soft Velcro, or the copy of the last book I purchased – Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" – with its youthful, uncracked spine.
* * * * *
Needling chill pokes through old windows. It is a snowy January midnight. Cousin Tim carouses downstairs in the kitchen with football buddies Bear and Moose, and the high schoolers bring out the Trivia game. Flurries of laughter, then low-level disagreement, and finally librarian-like shushings rise up through the floorboards. Minutes into the game, Tim lumbers upstairs, pokes his head into my middle bedroom and summons me. "Yo, Bro. You awake? I need you on my team."
At five-foot-five, one hundred and thirty pounds, I am just as haunted by my high school years – the ones where I was ashamed of my height, my size, all the damage showing from a lifetime of insulin injections – as much as I am by my more recent physical losses. I am ready to strike terror into the kind of guys who taunted me then.
"Bring it on," I tell Tim.
I trail him downstairs, settle onto the available chair, and join into a battle of inconsequential knowledge, fought beer-buzz style. I answer "Charles Dickens" and "Cheops" and "Pizarro" as if I were a Ouija Board in sweats and shades.
Moose's civility grows translucent when it comes to the potentially game-winning question. There's an "Okay, smart guy," tone to his voice when he says, "So, what was the name of Don Quixote's horse?"
"Rocinante," this ghost of vision past answers.
Moose and Bear bring out their wallets, bite back their curses, pay Tim. They head for the door in dejection, nary a word to this conjured true victor. They march out the back door, into the snow, crunch, crunch.
Cousin Tim pats my shoulder, says, "Nice work, Bro," and follows his friends outside with a, "My blind cousin just kicked your asses," as he pulls the door shut behind him.
There is the teeter-tot of a wooden chair on an uneven floor, and then a familiar breathy chirp as Zonk jumps to the table. He sniffs about, divines cold cuts and pizza toppings. In the pause that follows, he might as well be saying, "Wait a damn minute. There was food here?"
The inner glow of fleeting victory warms my spirit this January evening, and though I can't meet my cat's stare, it is most likely there, an unblinking expectation of comfort and feast. I rise, rattle around the fridge, fix a plate of turkey leftovers for the little guy. Then there's a few knuckle knocks along the cabinets, a curse as I knee the china closet, and the creak of steps as I stumble upstairs and tuck myself into the shadows.