A String Between Two Tin Cans

Visiting a spiritual medium to unravel family history

I sat in my car and waited to talk with the dead. I was early. A storm was coming and I watched the clouds darken in the rearview, the leaves on the trees an electric green against the slate sky. Mourning doves cooed, and as I rolled down the window, closed my eyes and breathed to calm my nerves, I felt like I was in my grandparents’ yard in West Texas — something about the smell and the sounds and the mood — but it was just a moment, nothing more, and I was back in Austin off Slaughter Lane. Back in an ordinary neighborhood with houses built in 1980s-style with tan vinyl siding and limestone, a little rundown. The streets have names like Chisholm Trail and Cattleman Court, Independence Road and Texas Oaks Drive. The medium lives in a small house at the end of the street, and I wonder if her neighbors know that she hosts séances inside.

The medium lives in a small house at the end of the street, and I wonder if her neighbors know that she hosts séances inside.

My family believes in ghosts. My mother goes to readings, would tape the Montel Williams show whenever Sylvia Browne was coming on — her inclinations part of a bigger thread that involves nights in a dead woman’s house, superstitions, unexplained lights on country roads, and the presence of my late uncle, whose calling card is dimes in unexpected places. For me, the paranormal has always been more of a fascination — I can’t say I believe in ghosts. I’m skeptical. But I do believe in haunting, as a state of mind, as pattern making, as meaning making, as an action, as part of living with grief. As an act of faith, even.

Waiting for the medium.

Before I have a chance to knock (or a chance to turn and run), a dark-haired woman opens the door and says, “I thought I heard you coming.” Her name is Thumper. She’s wearing a muumuu and is barefoot, and as I start to introduce myself she hugs me. I follow her inside and she stops to adjust the thermostat. “The temperature fluctuates like crazy in this house — go figure!”

Every family has a mythology. Questioning mine feels like a threshold: after this I’m in or I’m out. If I go to the medium and nothing happens, I worry I’ll feel disconnected. But what if I go and I’m moved, am a believer? Wondering if I will have the courage to let go of my skepticism scares me even more, I think.

My cousin is who referred me to Thumper. She consults with Thumper on past selves — once my cousin settles relationship issues from another life she can overcome present day bladder infections, or something like that. Thumper’s business is called The Angelic Way and her website lists house cleansings, naming rituals, shadow healings, and licensed marriage officiant under “services.” Her Yelp page is a mixed bag: one woman claims Thumper saved her life, another woman wrote Thumper told her she had a poltergeist, turns out she was actually having epileptic seizures.

Her Yelp page is a mixed bag: one woman claims Thumper saved her life, another woman wrote Thumper told her she had a poltergeist, turns out she was actually having epileptic seizures.

I’m unsure what to expect during my session. Beforehand I wrote a note to my late uncle and grandfather asking them to show up. It’s them I miss and want to hear from. And because I write about them often, memories of them haunting me in more ways than one, I feel like I need a kind of reassurance. To verify their identity, I’ll need specific clues that no one else would know but them. My mom went to see a medium several years ago and said my grandfather told her to make sure Kay can get in. Kay is the nickname of my grandparents’ neighbor, and at the time, my Nana was falling a lot, and Kay, who had been given a house key, was able to pick Nana up off the floor. A stranger couldn’t have known that, my mom always says. When I told her I was going to the séance with Thumper, she warned me that my uncle is not as vocal as my grandfather. “Mark doesn’t like to talk,” she sighed. “But maybe he will for you.”

In the moments after Mark died my mom found a single shiny dime on his bedside table. She swears the dime wasn’t there before, that it simply appeared. Since then she’s found dimes in random places like windowsills or in my dad’s pants pockets — my dad, who never carries change because he hates the jingle, the weight. Once, I found a single dime in each of my shoes. The day I moved into my first apartment I found one by itself on the empty closet shelf. The first time I went over to my fiancé’s house I counted four dimes, no other coins, on his coffee table. I realize that, subconsciously anyway, I was looking for dimes in those moments. I was looking for a sign. But their discovery didn’t, still doesn’t, feel unsatisfying. Like my mother, I obsessively draw lines between the dots in the constellation of dimes.

I was looking for a sign. But their discovery didn’t, still doesn’t, feel unsatisfying.

Dimes seem apt because Mark was one for trinkets. His bachelor pad in Houston was full of knickknacks, haphazardly arranged amidst the chaos of dog bowls, broken furniture and beer cans. At Christmas we were always waiting for Mark to arrive — always late, our patience thin from delaying the festivities. He’d then stay up through the night drinking, start a bonfire, and then leave first thing in the morning. I remember how he’d open just one or two of his gifts and leave the others wrapped, taking them back to Houston to open, a treat for later. But what I remember most about him at Christmases were his gifts to me: a wooden cowboy statuette, a chipped but pretty vase, a real alligator head from the bayou that both fascinated and frightened me, a four foot tall plastic giraffe, toenail clippers, a box of raisins. Now, the dimes don’t scare me — I think of them as another one of his odd gifts.

Thumper’s house smells like incense. Less predictably, the hallway she leads me down seems like that of any family home, a high school senior portrait of her son hanging alongside landscape paintings. The session room is small and dark. She closes the door behind us and I get the sense that this is a little girl’s old bedroom — the door and the moldings are stenciled with pink and purple stars and moons. There is a golden Brahma statue that has been bedazzled with rainbow glitter. I sit on a black futon matted with dog hair while Thumper sets her phone timer for one hour, tapping loudly with her claw-like acrylics. Something about Thumper — her tiny frame, or her overbite making her look like she is perpetually holding back a smile — puts me at ease. She explains how she’ll write notes as we go and speak whatever comes through from the other side.

There is a golden Brahma statue that has been bedazzled with rainbow glitter.

Thumper sits, hand over her heart. “Spirit is telling me to look into your eyes, your big brown eyes.”

I try to keep eye contact without giggling. I feel like I’m in one of those mockumentary movies and this is a skit. She nods as if in conversation, gesturing, pausing for a response I can’t hear.

“I know her eyes are lovely. But, what are you wanting me to see?” she says. I blush — it’s too warm and Thumper’s still staring at me.

“This is a soft, feminine presence. She’s shy, so I’m going to have one of my people help,” she says, breaks eye contact and dramatically waves one of her arms in the air, like she’s motioning someone over. She believes the presence in the room is my great aunt, my paternal grandmother’s sister.

“Did she have eyes like yours? That seems to be her signal of recognition.”

I shake my head. I never met my great aunt and can’t verify. Can’t ask about it, either. My paternal grandmother is named Mary Magdalene and sent all eleven of her kids to parochial school — me telling her about the séance would upset her almost as much as when she learned my mom is a Democrat. My grandmother believes in archangels and that if babies die before they’re baptized they’ll go to limbo — so, why not ghosts? Is it that big of a stretch from believing her sister went to heaven? It all seems kind of arbitrary. But also kind of connected.

When my mom went to her séance several years ago, the medium gave her a message from a late friend, her hairdresser when she lived in West Texas. The message was “tell Helen I’m alright.” And so next time my mom was visiting her parents she dutifully stopped in to see her friend’s mother, Helen. When my mom relayed the message, Helen’s face shriveled. “No thank you. I’m a Christian,” Helen said, closing the door. But for me, going to church and believing in past lives had always seemed related. In fact, my mom would go to her séances with friends from our church. She didn’t have a Catholic or religious upbringing like my dad did — maybe that’s why I got a mix of both worlds growing up — but I’d like to think it’s because the two camps are not so exclusive. Believing in heaven and believing in ghosts are both exercises in faith. A faith in the unknown.

“I’m sensing your great aunt is not who you really want to talk to,” Thumper says after a lull.

“I was hoping to communicate with my mom’s side,” I say and tell her about my grandfather and Mark. She writes their names down, concentrating on my grandfather first. Almost immediately she starts nodding and chuckling to herself, scribbling notes.

“Your grandfather says, You say jump, I say how high?

Hard to explain, but totally something he would say.

“Was he in the military?”

I nod.

“He says, You want my permission, well you got it.

Thumper continues talking or interpreting but I can’t hear my heart is drumming so loud. There is no way she could have read the letter I wrote in my notebook on my desk. No way she could have known that this was the signal I’d been waiting for. Tears sting my eyes. Thumper hands me a tissue.

There is no way she could have read the letter I wrote in my notebook on my desk. No way she could have known that this was the signal I’d been waiting for.

“Sorry. I just wanted to hear that,” I say, pressing the tissue to my face, embarrassed I’ve let my guard down.

“My darling, it’s ok. May I ask what you wanted his permission for?”

“I want to write about his life, but I feel like a voyeur.”

“You got your answer,” Thumper says, and looks off. “He’s a funny man. He thinks you should write with a picture of him on your desk. For inspiration.”

I laugh.

“What you’re writing…it’s a tribute of sorts. He says he’s humbled.” I’m sure my tears egg her on, but still. I feel a lock opening in my chest.

Flannery O’Connor wrote in her essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”

The “mystery” in her fiction is probably referring to grace in the Catholic sense, but I see mystery applying to fiction broadly — not just in the enjoyment of fiction, but in the process of writing it. I feel like the more true to life I write, the more mystery there is. At the heart of every character, at the seat of their greatest fears and desires, are the eternal, universal questions about life and death: the questions no one has the answers to. Being open to surprises and ambiguity makes fiction interesting, like life.

The act of writing requires faith in the unknown.

Maybe my writing about my grandfather is a sappy tribute. It’s cathartic, for sure, also frustrating. But that’s the reason I write: to bear witness to the events, places, and people of the past that haunt me. The questions I’m asking have answers I might never arrive at. But maybe I’ll get close. The act of writing requires faith in the unknown.

Thumper circles Mark’s name with her purple pen. A horsefly is in the room with us, dumbly knocking against the windowpanes and buzzing around Thumper’s head. She doesn’t flinch. It circles but neither of us acknowledges it. Finally, Thumper speaks.

“I called on your grandfather to pull him through. I’m getting the word surprise. Was Mark an unplanned pregnancy? Or did he die young? Before your grandfather?”

“The latter,” I say.

She hovers one hand over Mark’s name and the other gestures in a come hither fashion. “There were things he didn’t get to do. Not dark regrets, but a kind of feeling when he died, like, oh crap I could have done more things. Was he planning on taking a trip?”

I shrugged. Didn’t think of it during the session, but it’s true Mark didn’t change. He taught at the same middle school that he and my mother attended in Houston, and lived a couple streets down from their childhood home. He never married. I remember what my mom and aunt discovered when they cleaned out Mark’s house, like that he’d wanted to go on a cruise to Mexico that summer, a colorful travel brochure under a refrigerator magnet. In the closet my mom found hoards of still-wrapped Christmas presents.

Thumper lowers her voice. “Mark’s hesitant. He says I don’t want to talk about it.”

If there is an afterlife, people probably don’t act much differently there than they did on earth, I reason.

When I was ten or eleven, Mark came to visit us out in California for a few weeks during the summer. In the years we lived out West, that trip was the only time we could get him to come stay. He was sober then, his face thinned out, his speech clear and his hands steady. My little sister and I convinced him to get a “summer cut” like our dog and shave his head. One weekend we took a trip to June Lake. I remember us standing on the beach, shivering in our swimsuits as the wind came off the glacial water. The lake was sapphire. So pretty I had to splash in it. I dipped my toes and screamed with pain and delight. Mark dared my sister and I to dive. I told him if we did, he would also have to go under. Thinking we would chicken out, he agreed.

For a moment my heart stopped and when I surfaced and sucked air it was like being born again.

The cold took my breath, a hard thwack in the chest. For a moment my heart stopped and when I surfaced and sucked air it was like being born again. Mark dove in and yelled, shocked as my sister and I. He was happy then, surely. We were. As everyone was drying off and getting back in the car our teeth chattered and our bodies shook with life.

The summer I was seventeen we watched Mark die. His skin was swollen and jaundiced and there were bags of fluids hanging from poles around his ICU bed at St. Luke’s. Tubes up his nose, tubes snaking into his arms. The last time I touched him he was cold and unresponsive. He stunk. And to this day the smell of unwashed skin and disinfectants — the smell of hospitals — makes me gag. After that summer, I couldn’t stand the sight of blood or broken skin. The sight of wounded bodies, physical reminders that we’re flesh, made me dizzy. Death is ugly, if the physical fact is all there is.

Some of us seek answers. For me, yearning is the powerful part of grief, more painful than sadness. My parents think that Mark relapsed that summer, and realizing he wasn’t capable of certain things anymore — like that trip to Mexico — he decided to take the drinking to its peak, to push himself over the cliff, and by the time he realized people would be hurt by his fall, it was too late. My Nana thinks something must have happened to Mark at the school where he taught. It was a neighborhood with a gang problem so bad that there had been a murder on campus. He saw a kid stab another in the temple with a screwdriver, held the wounded boy as he died. A drive-by had happened outside his house, his wall dotted with three neat bullet holes. A few weeks ago, Nana and I were talking on the phone, and she mentioned Mark’s best friend, Steve, who’d sent her flowers for Mother’s Day.

“I want to ask Steve about what was going on with Mark. I think, something must have happened at school again, to make him so sad. But I can’t ask him. Just can’t.”

“I’m not sure knowing what happened changes anything,” I said. Maybe Nana was afraid to know the truth. But nearly ten years after his death, she still yearns for answers.

“I talk to him and your Pawpaw everyday. Everyday. My dogs must think I’m crazy,” she said.

Before I went to see Thumper I did some reading on the paranormal. One of the more interesting articles I found, in The Atlantic, was about ghosts, schizophrenia and consciousness. The article described how Swiss researchers found that when sensorimotor signals get confused in areas of the brain that deal with self-awareness, movement and spatial orientation, we experience a “feeling of presence.” The researchers were able to simulate this sensation in a lab with robots. It basically revealed that our brain doesn’t always understand what our bodies are doing, or even that they are actually our bodies. In other words, the ghost is you.

Our brain doesn’t always understand what our bodies are doing, or even that they are actually our bodies. In other words, the ghost is you.

I told my mom about the article and she replied that it was interesting, but doesn’t explain all of the things she’s seen and felt. She told me that to think haunting is solely a brain malfunction rings false. “What causes the signals to cross in a non-schizophrenic brain, anyway? Maybe a ghost,” she laughed.

My session with Thumper is winding down. Nothing comes through from Mark, so she reads my energy. She hovers her hand over the sheet of paper and says, “Your people want you to know you’re never alone.”

And when she says this I feel warm, also sad — I don’t want her to snip what feels like the string between two tin cans.

“If you are worried and in need of guidance, call on your grandfather. Just talk to him,” she says and reaches to rub my shoulder. But isn’t that what everyone wants to hear? That they’re not alone? I can’t ignore the obvious. What Thumper says is generic, accurate for any person who self-soothes by seeking out her services.

But isn’t that what everyone wants to hear? That they’re not alone?

The skeptical me can discredit Thumper. But I can’t fault her for embracing the mystery in the reality and the reality in the mystery, to paraphrase O’Connor. As a writer and reader of fiction, I can’t. I can’t fault her for trying to make others believe in something bigger, to manipulate them into feeling connected. But fiction is a lie by definition. Thumper claims to be telling the truth. The distinction between fiction and faith is huge. Yet, in their telling of truths and lies, both writers and mediums, at their core, are trying to make meaning. Writers and mediums take raw details — our trinkets and our tics — link them and imbue them with purpose. For me, such storytelling is as essential as breathing.

I heard my Nana talk to ghosts over Thanksgiving five or six years ago. I was on break for the holiday, staying with the rest of my family at my aunt’s house. Even though it is crowded, all of us want to stay under the same roof. I share a pull out couch with my sister and my Nana. We act like it’s a nuisance to sleep three people to a bed, but I secretly enjoy being cocooned in blankets and wedged tight between them — it’s safer there.

In the middle of the night I’m woken up thinking Nana is asking me a question, but she’s sleep talking. Her eyes are closed and she lies flat on her back. In the dim bluish light I can see the lines and veins on her delicate skin. I’m often afraid if I squeeze her too hard I’ll bruise her. A tuft of downy hair blows across her forehead as the ceiling fan clicks. She’s mumbling low and I can’t quite make out what she says. She kind of sighs, like she’s shared an inside joke. In her sleep she speaks to him and I wonder if in her dreams he replies.

I wanted to open my mouth and say I love you. I’ll see you on the other side.

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