“Tommy, I need to talk to you. Don’t ignore me, don’t be afraid of me just listen. I’m serious… Thomas Steckel….” It was my sister’s voice. I was laying in bed at 3:30 in the morning in the midst of another struggle with insomnia and I was hearing my sister who had been dead for nearly 50 years. I was scared shitless. That was the first night.
I once overheard someone say that my sister’s death was ironic. She died in 1969. At the time I was fighting in Vietnam. I survived the war, but Linda, "safe at home," died. She was driving home with Benny Esteves, her boyfriend, from the Senior Prom when Benny’s car skidded off the road into a power line. Benny had had a few and the roads were slick from a thunderstorm half an hour before. So those were causes. There was no reason.
So to some people I suppose it was weird that instead of her getting word that I died in Nam, I got word in Nam, that she’d died. They sent me straight home. I never found it weird or ironic, to me it was terribly sad. Well, it was more than that, it was a great tragedy. How the hell do I go into a war, see combat and live while my sister dies on the night of her goddamned senior prom? I had PTSD just from what I went through in the war. I saw the top of Billy McAfee’s head blown off and a guy named Hertzenberger trying to hold his guts in after a fire fight and I’d watched Fergie Scanlon step on a land mine and get blown in the air, some body parts separated. I’d also seen a VC fall to the ground after I shot him. He was dead. I'd killed him. It felt good and awful at the same time. I was in combat for the better part of seven months and saw a lifetime’s worth of awful shit. Not just saw, heard and smelled too. Those screams, those explosions, they never clear out of your head. The smells linger too. Especially the smell of death. Then add to that my sister's death. I could have used a psychiatrist. Bad.
“Tommy, acknowledge me, I know you’re scared but I need you to say something to me so I can begin a conversation.” I tried to speak but could only manage a frightened grunting noise. “I need to actually hear words, Tommy, words.” The best I could do was, “hi, Linda” which came out like a question from a shy little boy. “That’s better.” That was the second night.
Yeah, I had plenty to work out from the war even before Linda died. Linda and I were born three years apart and always pretty close. We saw life the same way and were both determined to make good. We wanted to get as far away as we could from our parents and the kind of life they lived. Oh we loved mom and dad, we just couldn’t abide all the pettiness that comprised their life. They were forever sharing office politics from their respective jobs, or neighborhood gossip and talking ill about friends and relatives. Status was everything to my parents. They were pretentious, vane and insipid. They only had cursory understandings of politics, none of philosophy or literature and though they attended church weekly, (another font of gossip) they didn’t really seem to care about or understand religion. They were there to keep up appearances. Still they were loving parents who were firm but fair and gave us whatever we needed without spoiling us. That us also includes my younger brother, Mark who was eight years younger than Linda and eleven years my junior. Once Linda died my folks started spoiling Mark who was a total misfit in the family and at school. He went from one fad or belief or philosophy to another. By high school Mark was a self proclaimed communist and halfway through college he took off for Cuba and we never heard from him again. I can’t tell you much more about Mark, I don’t feel like I ever knew him at all. Strange kid. Strange adult. As for my parents they were devastated by Linda's death but carried on as usual, only with an overwhelming sense of sadness. When Mark left it was like another death and their socializing became infrequent. They both died in their late fifties from lung cancer, they were chain smokers.
“Tommy. Big brother. I need you to really listen and to really talk to me. Can you do that?” I managed some garbled sounds and a fairly clear, “okay,” but my heart wasn’t in it. I was scared. And so it went each night for a week, with me too scared to communicate with the ghost of my dead sister.
Linda wasn’t sure what she was going to do with her life but had decided that college was going to be the place where she’d figure things out. Linda had been accepted to Barnard College and was excited to go there and be exposed to new ideas. She’d have been a raving success at anything she tried. Linda always got straight A's and was active in all manner of school extra curricular activities and led an active social life. For my part, once I got home from Nam I was going to take advantage of the GI Bill, study engineering and have a long happy career. That’s actually what happened, minus the happy part. I studied at the University of Michigan. It was a successful if somber four years. I did well in school but the shadow of my sister's death was like a cloud that kept the sunshine out of my life.
For me everything has gone perfectly according to plan and yet I’ve been miserable pretty much the entire time. I met and fell in love with a wonderful woman, named Cherry and had two children. I had bought my dream house and have had nothing but nightmares since the kids and then Cherry left. I rattle around the place alone, lonely and feeling worthless. Cherry had been barely able to stand my moodiness but when I added over indulging in booze to the mix she took off. The kids are grown and live in other parts of the country. I have only a few friends. I was always too busy with work to socialize or meet new people. I was a successful engineer with my own consulting firm. I hid in my job. I hid from my family and from my depression. When I sold the firm and retired I used alcohol to hide. I don’t blame my misery on Linda’s death, or my time in Nam, or my parents or anything else. It just is and the worst thing is that I’ve never dealt with. No counseling, no psychiatry, no 12 step program, no meditation, no yoga, no hobbies. I’ve wallowed in it.
So then Linda had started visiting me. Each night for a week. We weren’t exactly making progress. It was just this disembodied voice variously coaxing and hectoring me to talk and me being resistant, mostly because I was scared. But what was I scared of? Was it the idea of a ghost? Fear of being haunted? Or was it that my sister was going to get me to explore my problems. It’s undeniable that I’ve feared facing reality at least since the twin experiences of Vietnam and Linda’s death.
I finally vowed that on the eighth night I’d engage with Linda. I thought it better not to drink that day which believe me, was no mean feat for someone such as myself. Oddly, despite my struggles with insomnia, I fell quickly asleep that night and slept soundly for several hours before the call of nature awakened me and I had to pee. Back in bed I couldn’t get back to sleep. It was 4:00 am.
“Tom, are you going to talk to me this time? You really need to.”
Without hesitation I replied in the firmest voice I’d yet mustered in responding to Linda, “yes, I’m ready to talk.”
“Well it’s about time. I’ve been trying to talk to you for a week but it’s impossible if I don’t get anything back. No more sitting there and grunting and there’s nothing to be afraid of, Tom, I’m your goddamned sister.”
“I know that Linda, but you’ve also been deceased for decades, so this is kind of -- not kind of -- very strange.”
“I remember when we were kids you said you didn’t believe in ghosts. It was that night mom and dad were at the Jenkinson’s and Larry Kyle’s father got stinking drunk and fell all over the hors d’oeuvres. It’s all people talked about for awhile. Anyway we were watching the Munsters and during a commercial we started talking about ghosts and you said they didn’t exist.”
“Jesus, Linda how can you remember all that?”
“Tom, I remember everything. Every damn detail.”
“That must be weird.”
“You’ve no idea.”
“Where are you? Is it possible to see you?”
“I’m just here and no, there’s nothing to see.”
“So I guess I know why you’re here.”
“Yeah you’re hear to lecture me about how miserable I am and about my drinking and how I need to stop wasting whatever I have left of my life and to tell me that life is precious.”
“You were always a quick study, Tom.”
“So that really is it.”
“Yup. I guess I don’t need to say anything. My mere presence has done the trick. Fancy that.”
“But tell me, Linda, how is it possible, I mean you talking to me and what’s it’s like and what — ”
“Sorry big brother, no can do. Even if I tried to explain things you wouldn’t understand it. Anyway this is about you. What kind of steps are you going to take?
“AA, for sure. First thing. Then I’ll renew my gym membership. I don’t know, beyond that I’m not sure. Maybe get a shrink, maybe try to re-activate my social life. Hey, who knows, maybe I’ll write my memoirs.”
“Sounds like you knew the answers all along and my work here is done.”
“Do you have to leave, Sis?”
“You’ve certainly gotten over your fear of me. I can’t stay. But I’ll tell you this: if you don’t follow through with what you’ve just committed to or you backslide, it won’t be me who comes calling.”
“Bye, Tommy. I love you.”
I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up I looked on line for the nearest and soonest AA meeting. Then I researched psychiatrists. After a hearty breakfast, sans Bloody Marys, for once, I went to the gym. I was doing all the right things, taking all the right steps, motivated and determined. I was still depressed as hell but maybe that would pass eventually. It's never too late to try.