Before he died, I was lucky enough to have some good conversations with my dad about the big D.
"Jennifer, when I die," he once said, "I am going to haunt you. Then you'll know I'm still around."
"That sounds good, Dad," I replied, laughing. "Promise me that will happen."
Then he died on September 15, 2001-- my second week of college.
I took a week off of school for the funeral proceedings, contemplated dropping out for the rest of the year, decided against it, and returned to Valley One at Western Michigan University. I can't remember going to class at that time. I think WMU had a rule that if your parent dies in your first week of college you automatically get a 2.0 without trying-- that's how it seemed to me. I do remember working because I didn't really know what to do with myself except make sandwiches at The Den, wait tables at Ruby Tuesday, and look for another job to fill my time. I searched through the classifieds and found a job cleaning rooms at The Henderson Castle in Kalamazoo, which is a creepy place in itself.
I enjoyed the odd job of being a haunted house tour guide that October. I had to don a black robe, paint my face a little, memorize a script, and guide people through what we called, "The Haunt." I would get there after dark, get dressed up, and freak the eff out of people. Everyone who worked at The Haunt was fun and interesting. I didn't talk to anyone about my dad dying just a month before this job started. I just wanted to scare people and flirt with the older guy who played Pennywise in the It room (this is weird if you know that I greatly dislike clowns).
On Halloween, The Haunt was hosting a séance in one of the rooms of the Depot. They had an open spot and wanted to make sure the room was full, so they asked if any of us (the actors?) wanted to fill a seat for free. I've never been one to turn down something free. I quickly volunteered myself and found a seat in the circle.
As we sat and waited for the séance to begin, I found my grieving self very focused on my dad. Are you going to be here, Dad? I thought, over and over again. Will you be here? Will you be here? Will you be here? I snapped myself out of it and snickered at my questions. Working for The Haunt for just a few weeks had helped me see that there was really no reason to be freaked out by ghosts-- it wasn't real.
I'm going to have to interrupt myself to tell you three things that you should know before reading about the séance:
1. Only my parents call me "Jennifer." I never let anyone do it-- until I went to Senegal in 2010 because it sounds so good when someone with a French accent says, "Jennifer."
2. My dad had cancer in his throat, which caused his voice to sound very raspy in his last few months.
3. My dad loved music and musicals from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. He sang to us all the time.
4. Our family had a lot of money issues-- my dad's medical expenses were not cheap.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled séance.
The séance began. I didn't know anyone in the room. The medium was a man wearing a navy blue sweatshirt, black jeans, and a baseball cap. He looked like someone's grandpa. I don't know why I remember in such detail what he was wearing. I'd never gone to a séance, but I thought the medium would be woman wearing a turban with moons and stars all over it. He sat on a chair in the middle of the circle and asked everyone to hold hands and not to let go, no matter what happened. Then he said things I don't remember, something along the lines of, "We welcome you to this safe space, spirits, blah, blah."
The lights went out. I was on the edge of my seat.
I felt a warm breeze blow across my face. Nice trick, Mr. Medium, I thought. I couldn't see anything, so I didn't know where the breeze was coming from. Then, I felt a chill at the base of my neck that made my scalp prickle. My eyes squeezed shut in anticipation and also because I always close my eyes when I'm in complete darkness. It makes me feel like I'm in control.
"Kiss me once and kiss me twice and kiss me once again. It's been a long, long time," the medium sang after a few tense moments of silence. My palms went sweaty and I probably gripped the hands of the people on my left and right harder than I should. I knew this song-- my dad loved Bing Crosby. Dad? I thought.
"Jennifer, Jennifer," the medium said in a raspy voice, "I miss you so much. I don't want you to worry about money. I want you to be happy. I love you, Jennifer. I miss you." Then he moved on to a different "spirit." I can't remember the rest of the seance because I was freaking. the. eff. out.
I wish I could say that at that moment, I thought about the conversations I had with my dad about haunting me and smiled at the whimsy of it all. I didn't. The séance ended and the lights came on and I was having a full blown anxiety-grief attack in front of a room of people I didn't know. "HOW DID YOU KNOW THAT STUFF ABOUT ME?! WHO DID YOU TALK TO?" I screamed to the nice grandpa medium, who was staring at the snot running out of my nose in alarm, "How COULD you? He JUST died!" I was crying an ugly cry and a few people in the circle started crying too. The pain was palpable.
The medium sent everyone out of the room and sat down across from me.
"I'm so sorry for your loss," he said. He had kind eyes.
"My dad just died," I responded while gulping in air to stop my sobbing hiccups. "He'd love that song you sang, he called me Jennifer, he worried about my future and money-- we were just emailing about it the week before he died. He loved me. And he died before I could get home so I didn't get to say goodbye even though he said he would wait for me, he didn't. How did you know that? How did you know to say those things?"
"I didn't," the medium said. "It's just a script that I wrote this morning. I feel so terrible about this. This séance is just like a stage play. I'm just so sorry." He took both of my hands and sat with me while I got myself together.
I left the séance room and saw that almost everyone from the séance was waiting for me. "I'm fine," I said in the nasal tone of someone who just finished an intense cry. The people surrounded me, hugged me, and dispersed. I probably gave them quite a scare, but maybe not the one they were hoping to get on Halloween night. A nice couple, who were probably the age I am now, sat outside with me while I smoked a calming cigarette and got myself together. They followed me back to the dorms in their car.
What do you do after losing your shit in front of a room full of strangers? I don't remember, except that I woke up early in the norming of November first, climbed down from my lofted bed, and sat on the futon in our dorm staring out of the window into the darkness thinking, Too soon for haunting, Dad. That was WAY too soon.
***Note: It's been thirteen years since the séance and when I look back with my adult eyes, I see that maybe it was all a coincidence. Maybe I, in my grief, took everything the medium said and made it relate to me because I
I recently emailed the owner of the haunted house and asked him if they still do a séance show on Halloween. They said they only did it the one time because of audience reaction. My bad. Happy Halloween month, everybody!