I’ve been meaning to tell you, Mary, what happened before you came to visit us. It was during the time when we were just coming to know our new house. All its echoes and odors. Its secret atmosphere.
Mary – well, why am I calling you Mary now, after all this time, when I’ve never called you that in the quiet, intangible place where we talk. There I call you Pinkele, the emphasis on the first syllable, the Yiddish diminutive le. For little. Little Pink. Pinkele. Long ago, when I’d gotten that first email from you, the address was pinkele@, a cybername chosen by you then to reflect your fledgling company, Pink Elephants. Everyone – clients, colleagues, collaborators, friends – read it as Pink Elly. But to me, it was the Yiddish diminutive, and you became forever Pinkele.
We weren’t speaking for years. Our tangible selves had drifted far, but in my mind we spoke and I always told you everything. I followed you in the world. The world you can enter through a silver device on the table, where words typed into boxes stand in for the living. And finally, you called. I was walking around the house, washing surfaces, talking quietly with you while you sat wrapped in a blanket, two state lines away from me, unable to walk on your own, fading. Unable to walk but wanting to come home, to the town we’d shared. And so you came. Came here and stayed in the downstairs room. Your packages of emergency supplies occupied half a shelf in our refrigerator. Talking to you out loud about the elements of life we’d shared, I saw that it was neither a conversation resumed after a long, silent time nor a new one arising from present circumstance and the pressing issues at hand.
But Mary – Pinkele – I was not trying to talk about this. I was telling you about our house. A couple of years before, my family left the old neighborhood where you and I and our families had once shared countless dinners and coffees. Countless words. You left town, we left town, the neighborhood carried on.
We didn’t even stay away a full year, but during that time our simple little stretch of three or four houses got too expensive for us, and we had to move to another section when we came back. This house, the one you visited last fall, halfway between the two. It was a very plain-looking house, but we were grateful to have it. It had belonged to an elderly woman who’d purchased it when it was new and spent most of her life there. She’d finally succumbed to Alzheimer’s and moved to a nursing home. The single bathroom in the house still had the safety bars in the shower when she passed on and her California-based relatives sold it. I had the sense that she’d been a kind, ordinary woman, but really no evidence to back that up.
Almost from the start, we noticed a strange scent, and couldn’t quite figure out what it was. It traveled just a bit between one end of the hallway and another, between a small bedroom and the bathroom just outside its door, the very bedroom you stayed in when you were here. The room where you put your suitcase with the hats you’d come to need, the clothes that remained after you’d given away most of what you’d had. “Here, take this,” you’d told your sisters, your children, your friends from church. ”I don’t think I need it anymore. Take it, really. Please.”
It was a few weeks after we moved into the house. We had a guest from out of town, and just before we went to the airport, we noticed the smell, a little fishy, a little like ammonia, we couldn’t tell which. It might have been the dog, who tended to be nervous whenever there was change, but my children and I didn’t think so. In any case, all I could do about it, given the impending visit, was to light some incense in the hall. When our guest left, we noticed, so did the unusual scent.
And then another guest, and another. For a year and a half, we had the same strange situation. Preparing for the arrival of some visitor or other, the scent would suddenly begin to surface in the room, then out into the hall. When each guest left, so did the scent. We checked the vents and found nothing. We experimented with putting the dog in another part of the house for hours at a time, and managed to prove to my husband that it wasn’t the dog after all.
I’d read once that a typical sign of a house-haunting (not that I believed in it, mind you) was the repeated appearance of a strange ammonia-like smell. I’d jokingly mentioned it to the man who was my husband. I was raised by very practical people and have never believed in the supernatural world, though the natural world I’ve always held in high regard, so he knew I was only joking. At least at first. “Our ghost seems to like us,” we’d say, or “I wonder how she feels about the hot pink-and-orange walls.”
It dawned on us that we’d never once encountered the smell without overnight visitors either in the house already or just about to arrive. The room it came from was our daughter’s, and reflected her taste in decor. When she moved upstairs and we started moving our son’s things into the room, though, the smell briefly surfaced. “Our ghost doesn’t like change,” we commented. “Maybe she’s not used to little boys,” and then, after some weeks went by, ”She seems to have warmed up to the dinosaurs and action figures.”
We joked and whispered and began to believe, as there was no other explanation, and it had become so predictable. I liked to say, by then, that I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I did believe in our ghost. At no point did we feel afraid, or even haunted, since we were sure she liked our family, but still, we didn’t want the kids to know, at least not the little one, who tended, then, toward fear. Unlike me, though, he has always been fascinated by the supernatural and would have tried to befriend the ghost. If we’d mentioned her.
It was around this time, Pinkele my friend, that I’d heard from you again. The autumn before, I knew that your illness had come back and you’d left your house in Kentucky to move to the northwest, near your daughter. After awhile, I couldn’t get a reply from you. I checked the website, Pink Elephants, and, finding no updates, I was scared. Every now and then I ran into another friend, another colleague. “How’s Mary?” they’d ask, looking worried, scarcely making eye contact as they asked the question. I could have called your husband, tracked down your daughter, called one of your other friends who still lived in town. I could have, but didn’t. “If I hear anything, I’ll let you know,” I’d tell the friends who inquired.
Finally, the call we shared. You, dear Pinkele, wrapped in your blanket, unable to walk. This was last year sometime. You were back in Kentucky.”Hey, you,” you said, laughing. “I would have called or written sooner, but I was in a coma!” And Mary, Pinkele, my Little Pink, I confess I was relieved. I thought I’d missed you forever as you made your way out of life.
You told me you’d been dumped by all your church friends as you’d lost your faith to your impending death and stopped believing in your God. As you fought – your laughter and your clever songs the weapons – to keep life from escaping you altogether, these former friends abandoned you because, they said, you were going to hell for sure. There was some irony in this, that you, my deeply religious friend, were struggling with your lack of belief in the God you’d sworn by all your life while I, practical, nonreligious devotee of the natural world, was struggling with my skeptical, new, one-time belief in the supernatural, the ghost I was convinced still resided in my home.
My sister visited during our resumed communication, and I had to work pretty hard to mask the ammonia smell which, true to form, kept coming and going in my son’s room. A room which served, as well, as the guest room. As my sister left, and the ammonia scent just after, your call came. You summoned me, you summoned Rachel, and Rachel and I came to you there, two state lines away. That wonderful afternoon we had with you. Reading poems and stories and singing.
Rachel and I decided to spring you from that place where you were living, and dying, where you were with your husband. We’d spring you, to give you some days or weeks to be celebrated by friends, to celebrate living again while you still had that option.
It took some doing, but we arranged for you to come. To record your last songs. We threw a big party for you, with friends and guests and performances and a giant Pink Elephant cake that barely fit in my car.
You stayed with other friends; you stayed with me. With my family. The days you spent with me were a gift, a treasure for always, my Mary, my Pinkele. I had the chance to give you a sweet, warm place to fall or rest or dream. ButI was scared. My children hadn’t really remembered you before this, and now that the loss of you was so near, it troubled me that it would become their loss, too. The little one was particularly drawn to you, and though we hadn’t told him a thing about your condition, began climbing up next to you on the couch to talk calmly, deeply with you about death and what it brings. As if, in advance, to befriend the ghost you might become.
And this, Pinkele, is what I was trying to tell you. To ask you, perhaps. It was not until after you’d left our home and gone back to Kentucky, after the party, the recordings, the couple of weeks of email and phone calls right up until the night you died, that I realized that there had been no ammonia scent in the room for a long time, since my sister’s visit before yours. And though many friends and family members have come and gone since that October evening when you disappeared from life, it has never come again.
In memory of Mary LaFleur
(Many thanks to Ibrahim, who asked that I post this here today).