I THINK we were in Brunswick, or maybe one of the other suburbs of Cleveland, where most of my extended family lives. We would fly out to visit once or twice a year when I was growing up, but time went on and the frequency tapered, and I never got a handle on the geography of the area.
I was eight years old, and we were in town for my grandfather's funeral. We were staying at my grandmother's house, where—for reasons I've never asked about—my grandparents kept separate bedrooms. I don't remember why, but it made the most sense for me to sleep in my grandfather's room. My mom asked if I was sure I wasn't scared. I was sure.
The night after the funeral, I woke up in the middle of the night. I was on my side, facing a far wall. The sky must have been clear because the moonlight was illuminating the wall's empty surface, the shadow of a potted palm the only disruption.
As a child, I had a particular fear of being sneaked up on. If I stayed up late watching horror movies with my brother, I'd slide back to my room sideways along the walls of the house, up the stairs and down the halls. Having my back exposed was bad, but now it was too late to move. I'd already seen the shadow of a figure on the wall by the foot of the bed, a man a little hunched over like my grandfather, peering at me.
I knew who it was, and I knew he was benevolent, but I was terrified. I couldn't move, and didn't want to turn over to face the reflection's owner, panic rising as it crept a little closer, bending over as if to find out who was sleeping in his bed, or—more likely—to say goodbye. I managed to whisper, "I'm sorry, Grandpa... but I'm so scared," and asked him to leave me.
He obliged, and in the morning I didn't say anything. I didn't want to upset anyone further. We went home soon after, and over the years I gave it some thought. Eventually I decided that no matter what it had seemed like, it must have been a dream or my imagination. Maybe I told the story at a slumber party or two later on, maybe not.
During a visit from my grandmother when I was in high school, she and my mom were at the kitchen table talking about my grandfather and that house in (I'm just going to go with) Brunswick. Other people had reported my grandfather appearing to them in his former bedroom, during the relatively short time between his death and when my grandmother sold the house. Most who saw him noted his gentle demeanor. "I knew he wouldn't hurt me," one of them told my grandmother.
I chimed in from the kitchen counter, surprised (and if I'm honest, pleased) at the tacit acceptance of the possibility that my experience had been supernatural. It seemed plausible.
I'm not sure what I believe now, but I can accept either version of the truth. It seems to me that if there's a way, once we're dead, to linger with the living (a phenomenon we don't understand), our interactions, or our presence, would resemble what it was in life. You might be able to recognize your family members by their silhouettes, at least, and for many lucky people—maybe even most people—it wouldn't be desperate or fraught. It could be peaceful.