For some time now I've been at that tedious stage of life where I wake up at, say, 3:19 a.m. and toss and turn and stare into the darkness, then settle into 30 or 40 minutes of concentrated fretting about some bit of minutia --- a minor disagreement, a financial hiccup, a newly discovered bump --- that, as I lie there, grows into a humongous angstbeast. Sooner or later (usually later) I go back to sleep and invariably, by morning, the previous night's Godzilla of worry has shrunk to the proportions of a strident titmouse.
Of course I like a good middle-of-
the-night mental torment session as much as the next person, but I was nevertheless relieved when my evening disruptions changed in a way that was both strange and pleasant. I began to experience a phenomenon that I can't explain; it falls somewhere between wishful thinking and spirituality, the natural and the supernatural. Whatever it is, I'm in no hurry for it to cease.
Here's what's happened: I live in a small town, in an old neighborhood on a quiet street. During the past few months, a couple of times a week, I emerge from my nighttime slumber, but before the anxiety engine builds up a head of steam, I hear, clearly and distinctly, breathing --- right there in the room with me. And as I come fully awake and listen I recognize it as the slow, measured inhale and exhale of my giant dog, a 200-pound shaggy, black, extremely amiable Newfoundland, who doesn't sleep so much as go into a coma. Sometimes he'll shift and paw the carpet, snag his nail and shake it loose, but he never really comes to consciousness. In and out he breathes with soothing metronome regularity. His utter calm is contagious, and in no more than a few minutes, I drift back to sleep. On several occasions, I've heard him out in the living room or in the kitchen --- he tends to migrate between the same three or four spots through the night, never entirely waking up as he moves --- walking slowly and heavily to a new resting place, maybe turning a few times, then letting himself fall to the floor with a soft thud. I've always found it comforting to hear this great, laid-back creature that resembles a miniature buffalo moving about at night. And I still do.The odd part is he died nearly five months ago.I've never believed in ghosts, but thanks to this new series of very welcome nocturnal visitations, I'm now all in favor of them. When I told one woman this story, she said, "Ah, he's still in the house then." That seemed as likely an explanation as anything I've come up with. And when I asked a friend about her view of ghosts, she thought for a minute, then said, "I guess they're sort of our vapor trails." Indeed.Over the summer and early fall, as the weeks turned to months and my ghost dog repeatedly made his presence known, I conducted a casual, unscientific poll. The poll's sole question was, "Do you believe in ghosts?" And the answers were surprising. These were levelheaded people from across the vocational and social spectrum, and their responses were about 85 percent "yes" to 15 percent "no." Not only that, a goodly number of the believers told me of their own experiences with ghosts.
The very notion of such a thing is a tenacious one. From culture to culture, across the centuries, the idea of a spirit that lingers after death, an apparition, a specter that continues to interact in some way with its earthbound friends, relatives and enemies has been pervasive. From ancient tales and on through the narratives of Dickens and Sebold, the thought that we can, and even should, stay in contact with the departed is a compelling one.
But do they exist or do we create them? Is there a spirit world, an in- between place? Are ghosts the rail we grab hold of to steady ourselves in tumultuous times? And if there are such entities, do we find them or do they find us?
I don't know. I don't have any idea. I do know that what I once dismissed, I've now had first-hand experience with. I know, too, that we're all so terribly concerned with what's real and what's not, with whether something happened or didn't happen, that we've lost all sight of the difference between what's probable and what matters. I suppose that's a ghost's reason for being --- to remind us. Maybe believing in them isn't even the point. Perhaps the more relevant question is whether they believe in us.
Be that as it may, this paranormal turn of events has set me to wondering. Is this the birth of a trend? Given how gaga people are about their mutts these days, can a population explosion of ghost dogs be far off? And if author Susan Orlean's dog can write a cookbook, perhaps my phantom friend is ready to be the first canine to dictate a memoir from the other side (Hollywood, are you listening?). Alas, I suppose not. He never displayed a proclivity for drafting prose before he passed over to the twilight world. And now, by all indications, his oversize spirit is still mainly interested in pursuing his greatest passion: sleep.This essay first appeared in the
San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine