Here’s my story. It’s all about survival. — Madonna, “Survival”
It started simply enough. The week before Christmas, I worked a fifty-six-hour workweek. Six days. I’ve done it before with little problem other than being tired. However, this time, I couldn’t sleep between my night shift and my early morning shift; I ended up not sleeping at all for three days.
Then the coldness started. Without warning, from my left shoulder, a chill cascaded through the left side of my body. As if someone stood right behind me. The presence hovered for a few minutes. I told myself it wasn’t a ghost. But some part of me believed it was the ghost of my father, who’s been dead for nine years, and I couldn’t shake that feeling no matter how hard I tried.
I’d like to say I have no idea why he’s started to haunt me now, after all this time, but I do.
It started with a nightmare I had in July. There is no other way to say this, no way to soften the words. In the dream, my father rapes me. He uses peanut butter as lubricant.
My mother watches from the doorway. I am not an observer. I am in the moment. I am screaming for help. There is no help.
I scream louder.
I wake up. I am crying. I don’t go back to sleep.
I can no longer eat peanut butter.
For months, this nightmare was mostly gone from my mind. Until, the anniversary of my father’s death in December, at which point came the inability to sleep.
The lack of sleep made being awake strange. It intensified the feeling of something standing behind me. Now, I couldn’t dismiss the sense of it.
On Christmas Eve, I went to the doctor, and he told me what I was feeling was due to lack of sleep. He gave me a sleep aid.
As a kid, I woke in the middle of the night because my father, in a drunken stupor, would turn on the oven and stumble off to the couch or his room to fall back asleep. I’d have to turn the oven off. Sometimes, there were cans of pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese strewn across the counter. In some part of his brain, he intended to cook pizza, but abandoned it.
Other times, I didn’t hear him, and in the morning, there would be clumps of peanut butter spread across the counter. Plates and glasses dirtied.
There were the times when I’d wake with my father’s arms choked around my chest, his crotch pulsing against my butt. My voice got lost in my throat. I tried to pull myself away from him, toward my wall. I just wanted it to end. His grip was a vice. I finally worked one arm free, elbowed him in the chest. He grunted. Woke a little.
“Dad,” I whispered.
He woke up more, rolled out of my bed, and went back to his own.
It had been twenty-seven years since I woke to find my father in my bed. But the lack of sleep, the dream from July, brought it all back. Each and every cold breeze conjured the ghost of my father. Like he was watching me. Standing directly behind my left shoulder. There was a tingle, a slight pressure as if he meant to whisper in my ear.
In the last few weeks, I had also stopped hearing music. My whole life, I’ve had an active and rich interior life. I hear snippets of songs, think about scenes from movies, mentally sketch things I want to write or read about.
During the two weeks of crisis (I have no other word to describe it), my mind felt blank, with scary things lurking just beyond the light. It reminded me of the first season of Stranger Things, when Eleven went into the blank space where it was quiet, just the thin layer of water she stood in.
I worried the productive, fun interior life I had wouldn’t come back. I would have to adjust to this new norm. Would I still be able to write without an interior life?
I worried I was losing my mind. Dementia runs on my father’s side of the family, and I wondered if this was the start for me. Friends and my therapist reassured me that I’d feel better once I caught up on sleep.
Truth is, I’ve never dealt with the things that happened to me as a child. My therapist told me that this was going to be a long, difficult journey. One I must take if I ever wanted to be free.
Why do I tell you this? Because I don’t know how to release the ghost without talking about it. Talking about it is how I will survive.
As suddenly as it disappeared, the music returned.
I’ll never be an angel
I’ll never be a saint, it’s true.
It was Madonna’s voice. The song: “Survival” from Bedtime Stories. I kind of wished it had been a different song, something a little more like “Music” or “Who’s That Girl”—just something fun. But I’m glad a song showed up at all.
My dreams had also been impacted. I could sense having them, but barely remembered them. For most of my life, my dreams were very rich, vivid, and detailed. After songs came back, so did my dreams—the first big one a movie-like dream I had about getting married.
It was set a few years from now. I was happy and excited to be marrying a man, the man I had fallen in love with and knew I had to spend the rest of my life. I couldn’t see his face, but I could sense the love radiating off of him toward me, and I could feel the love I had for him glowing back at him.
We were in a sunny place. Soft beams of light shone through the floor to ceiling windows that made the interior of the church feel warm, beautiful, safe. The church was packed. All of my friends were there. The murmurs of the guests made the sanctuary a place of comfort. It overwhelmed me in the best way possible. They would wave at me as they went to their pew or a few of them came over to hug me, to wish me the best. It felt amazing.
My mother, whom I haven’t spoken to in three years, appeared in the church. She didn’t wave or speak to me. She found a place to sit. Even though she didn’t want to do anything to end our disagreement, she cared enough about me that she wanted to see me get married. I left her alone and let her stay.
I went into the lobby of the church, stood at the open door to see the pink-streaked sky as the sun started to set. My father appeared next to me. He told me he had been watching the front door to make sure everyone got in on time. This dream took place after he had died. I knew it was his ghost speaking to me. I knew he didn’t feel comfortable going into the sanctuary.
“It’s okay,” I told him. “I understand.”
“You don’t have to worry,” he told me. “I want you to be happy.”
I started to cry in my dream. I started to cry as I wrote this.
I came out of the closet the same year my father died. By the time I saw my father, he was on life support systems and his organs were failing. He couldn’t speak. It seemed as though he was looking at us, but he couldn’t communicate. My family and the doctor told me to talk to him as I normally would because he could hear us. I hadn’t told either of my parents yet about coming out.
There were a couple of opportunities when the other members of my family went to get something to drink or take a break, and it was just me and my father in his hospital room. If I was going to tell him, this was my chance. Then what? These were the last couple of days of his life. It seemed strange to make it about me. At least, that’s what I told myself. I didn’t tell him. I didn’t tell any members of my family at that time. We had medical decisions to make, and I kept the focus there. My father was taken off life support machines. He died in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2010.
In my dream, he wished I had told him I was gay. But in the end, he was very happy for me.
“I wish you nothing but the best,” my father said as he squeezed my shoulder. “Get back in there.”
I walked back into the sanctuary. I could sense all the love and happiness as I walked down the aisle to the man I loved.
Bruce Owens Grimm has published essays in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review online, Ninth Letter, The Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, Older Queer Voices, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and elsewhere. He has attended residencies and workshops at The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Vermont Studio Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), and he received a Lambda Literary Residency fellowship to attend The Sundress Academy of the Arts residency. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More information can be found at www.briankornell.com.
Read earlier installments of CULTLAND here.