THE CLOSEST THING I HAVE TO A GHOST STORY
It’s almost Halloween, the best time of year for ghost stories. The closest I’ve ever come to encountering a ghost was when the ocean ate one of my only remaining connections to my father.
This isn’t a spooky story, but it is a haunting one.
My dad killed himself when I was seventeen. Life was not kind to him. It systematically broke him down until he couldn’t bear to exist anymore. I watched him erode, helpless to stop it.
I have very few of his belongings. There is almost nothing left on earth to physically link us together. The object that means the most to me is the wedding band he gave to my mother when they got married (they divorced when I was a toddler). It might not have been his possession, really, but it has come to embody my only remaining connection to him. For me, it symbolizes a time when his life was full of hope and happiness, a time when his future was bright with possibility. I cling to this ring. I never take it off. There is nothing I own that matters more to me.
When I was in my early twenties, my mom wanted professional photos taken of me and my sister. It was a very windy, chilly spring day. We stood on the photographer’s deck over the ocean, arranging our bodies and our smiles at his direction. We were outside for so long that my fingers shrank from the cold. The wind whipped my hair into my face, and as I reached up to brush it from my eyes, the ring fell off of my pinky, bounced across the deck, and dropped through a hole in the boards into the ocean.
I was utterly devastated. It felt like I had lost my father all over again.
We searched for the ring, and so did the photographer, over and over again in the coming days and weeks. Countless times, I scoured the ground when the tide was out, but the ring was gone, swallowed up by the sea.
Eventually, I had to give up, but I was acutely aware of the loss every day. My hand didn’t feel right without that circle of gold around my finger. Until the ring was gone, I didn’t realize that I’d touched it constantly, unconsciously; that I twisted it around whenever I was thinking; that I rubbed my pinky finger against my ring finger when I was nervous or irritated.
My mom gave me a delicate wooden ring my father had carved for her when they were high school sweethearts, but it wasn’t the same. It was too fragile to wear, too inert. Just an object, not a link.
About ten months later, I got a call at work from the photographer. He told me that he had no idea why, but a sudden urge had swept over him to search for the ring one more time. He went outside, looked down, and there it was, glittering on the ground amid the rocks and seaweed and mud and detritus.
As he spoke, every hair on my body stood up. A cold feeling rushed through me. I glanced up at the calendar, did some calculations, and realized it was the anniversary — almost to the minute — of the last time I ever saw my dad alive. The anniversary of the day he gave me his most precious possessions, and said goodbye to me forever.
I was overjoyed to get the ring back. But I didn’t anticipate how much pain it would bring with it.
I’ve been an atheist and a skeptic since I was a little girl. In my bones, in the very center of my being, I’ve always felt with stone cold certainty that we snuff out like candles. That when we die, our light does not become something else, but vanishes entirely. Like all faith, I struggle with this belief. I yearn for the comfort of knowing there is something else for us after death. I want more than anything to feel that the people I’ve loved and lost are not gone from me forever. But that never feels like truth to me.
Everyone who hears the story of the ring has a powerful reaction to it. When it came back to me, everyone I knew said, over and over again, that it was a message from my father. That it was his way of telling me he’s all right now. His way of telling me to let go of his pain, and my own.
Hearing these things tormented me. My desperate desire to believe this was true always collided with my unshakable conviction that when we die, we are gone entirely and forever. And with each collision, I felt a little more crushed.
That hurt has faded over time. My skepticism is flavored with a small dash of agnosticism now. I love hearing other people’s stories about interactions with the supernatural. I even envy them. I can’t shake the feeling that if there is something after death, it will never reveal itself to me, specifically because I want so badly to see it.
The other thing that’s changed is how I feel about people’s reactions to the story of my ring. I like when people hear it and tell me they believe the ocean gave it back to me as a message from my father. I can’t really believe it myself, but their conviction is like a little flame, and its warmth comforts me.