In most head counts my international family totals five: my wife and two sons, plus my mother-in-law and then yours truly. This reckoning, however, fails to include my father-in-law, who at times will visit for days on end.
The reason for his omission is simple: The man has been dead for years.
“He came again last night,” my wife’s mother will announce in the morning. “He stood right there in the corner for the longest while, just staring at me.”
Now, of course, is the popular season for Japanese ghosts. Not only does tradition say departed ancestors all book trips home in August, but people also consider the chills that come from relating such encounters to be a welcome break from the summer heat and humidity.
Yet, in our case, “Grampa” drops in during whatever season he wants. So far the only person to see him is my mother-in-law — who has also convinced her daughter.
“Mother said my father visited again! That’s three nights in a row!”
“It’s just her imagination!” I argue back, product as I am of a skeptical Midwest family with twisted views of the supernatural. While we refuse to acknowledge ghosts, at the same time we firmly believe the Chicago Cubs will one day win the pennant.
Sixth sense aside, my mother-in-law has also entered into that pleasant state of mind that some call transcendence and others call senility. Though typically alert, she has been known to hold happy conversations with inanimate objects. On one occasion she also asked me to remove a dish of cake, explaining she couldn’t eat another bite. An easy enough chore since we had no cake and she was, in fact, lying in bed.
Another time she told me I was handsome.
“See! She’s losing touch with reality!”
But my wife thinks otherwise.
“Why does my father come? Is he just lonely? Or is he trying to tell us something?”
This last question unnerves me. I never knew my father-in-law when he was healthy. Before we met he had already left his personality on a brain surgeon’s operating table. He would patter quietly about and gawk into space, oblivious, it seemed, to everything.
Except, oddly enough, on the morning of our marriage he grabbed my wife’s wedding shoes and tossed them down their pit toilet. An action I always took as a desperate comment on his soon-to-be son-in-law.
Shortly thereafter he entered a hospital and never came out. If he is returning now to tell me something, I fear it won’t be hints on what stocks to buy. It will be words I don’t wish to hear.
“How come your Japanese still stinks? Why don’t you get a better job? And don’t you think my daughter deserves a better house? A better car? A better husband?”
“He never speaks,” Grandma sniffles. “Even when I beg for him to take me along.”
“Uh, you don’t believe in the paranormal, right?” I ask a down-to-earth Japanese colleague, upon having confided about our family specter.
Her answer is immediate: “Years ago a close friend of mine was hospitalized. One night I dreamed I saw her waving goodbye, so the next morning I dropped everything and rushed straight to the hospital.”
The woman raises her eyebrows.
“To find my friend had died during the night, about the same time as my dream.”
An answer from yet another steady-Hideki:
“In meeting a business associate at his hotel, I arrived early and went to call from the courtesy phone. Nearby stood two girls talking. Suddenly – from right at my elbow – came the most heart-rending sob I have ever heard in my life. A woman in desperate grief.
“I whirled about and searched all around. There was no one within 10 meters, except for the two girls – who didn’t seem to hear a thing. Yet, the intense crying continued. I stepped over to ask the girls if they heard what I heard and as soon as they looked at me, the wailing stopped.”
Hmm. But this is not Oz and I don’t believe in ghosts.
My wife kicks me awake. It is in the middle of the blackest night I can remember.
“There’s a noise downstairs!” she whispers, her eyes wide in the dark. “There! Can you hear it?”
I hear nothing. Only the thumping of our hearts.
“There it is again! It’s coming from Mom’s room!”
“No! It’s something different!”
Then she hushes in my ear. “I think you had better check!”
I remind her whose mother it is and she reminds me whose husband I am.
So I shiver out of bed and creep down the stairs. I listen. And hear nothing.
But then it comes . . . a soft pattering. I stick my hand in Grandma’s room and fumble for the light.
Will he be there? Standing and staring as I knew him? And ready to pop the questions I dread?
I squeeze back the door and flick the switch. Then scream!
For on the wall next to my face is a roach as big as my thumb. It patters away.
My mother-in-law rolls over, sleep in her eyes. “I don’t want any more cake,” she protests.
Back upstairs, my wife is breathing hard.
“Was it him? Was it my Dad?”
“If it was,” I tell her with conviction, “I am sure this time we would have heard him.”
That is, if ghosts laugh.