Ghosts on the Bus
Yesterday morning I penned a eulogy to Shira Herzog. But I felt it was perfunctory, even forced. After all, my thoughts were not filled with my experiences with Shira and her accomplishments. They were so many I could only allude to them in my brief obit. But the eulogy felt so impersonal, and attended only to one aspect of her. To the extent my thoughts were preoccupied with Shira, it was not about her successes, but about the long talks we had – or, rather, her long discourses about herself and her marriage – when she was a relatively young woman and she needed an ear to express the turmoil and trouble she was going through. I always thought I was an odd choice for a listening post, but I believe she shared her doubts and fears with me because I was safe, someone who could listen but neither share what I heard or feel I had to do anything about it. In any case, I had no idea about what I could do about anything she told me. I could not even offer advice or much solace.
However, my mind did not rehearse those conversations – I remember them only very sketchily – but rather was fixated with the question why she was not among the ghosts that I experienced on the bus between Barrie and Toronto as I drove down to attend her funeral. Everyone else seemed to be there. No, not everyone. My four grandparents who died when I was between the ages of one and five were not there. I remembered them as very old and tired, though not one of them lived past the age of 55.
My father’s mother was always a walking ghost for me anyway as she wandered through the house on Kensington in the market where my grandfather had a chicken store. She just talked to herself and took no notice of me. She had gone mad when my grandfather left Europe for Canada in 1913 and then was unable to save enough money and get her and the other three children over before the war broke out. She was stuck in Europe and went crazy trying to find food for herself and her three young children. Even though she was not really present in my life, her spectre is more vivid than any of my other grandparents – certainly far more vivid than my mother’s mother whom I only remember indirectly when she died and my mother held me and was crying, but I felt that I was holding my mother even though she was holding me. I was only a year old.
The next generation is more vivid in my memory, but my aunts and uncles also were not on the bus. They were present in memory – in fact I had a distinct replay of my uncle Yumma’s burial in Montreal as we shoveled the clumps of wet soil onto his grave on a very rainy and wet and very cold day in the spring in Montreal where my cousin Sarah, his only child, lived. As we buried him I only remembered him as a presence but never there to talk to me or for me to address him. Yet he lived in Kensington near us and I saw him all the time, but just viewed him as a virtual stranger who talked with a heavy Yiddish accent even though he was the only one of the children to accompany my grandfather to Canada before the war.
I had no memory of my father’s youngest brother who committed suicide and only vague images of my Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary, but they were not on the bus. My aunts and uncles on my mother’s side were far more vivid, but again, only in my memory. They were not spectral presences. Some were as vague as my relatives on my father’s side – such as my aunt Mary whom I only remember as an older person always wearing the same trench coat yet I babysat her children, my two cousins, a hundred times at least. Her husband, Barney, remains far more vivid in my mind even though he died very young – I think he was just in his mid-thirties. He was a carpet salesman and I really liked him.
My aunt Jenny stood out more vividly – even her husband did – for Jenny lived with us when she was being courted and I used to be the tease and bane of her life, one time hiding behind the couch to listen to Jack Benny on the radio even though it was past my bed time. I became trapped when she and her future husband took up occupancy of the living room couch and I took to lightly pulling her hair instigating her to scold her boyfriend – my future uncle – until she discovered me and chased the young culprit through the house until I locked myself in the room I shared with my brother.
Of my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side, my uncle Jack, who was blind and crippled and lived in an institution, is very vivid in my memory, always listening to the radio when my uncle Irv took me to pick him up and take him to his home for the weekend. I remember very vividly his gift to me of a leather belt he had made from leather strips that he had interwoven. I wore that belt until I was eleven.
My aunt Doris I remember as someone always scolding my uncle Nate who seemed to take it all in as his shoulders grew more hunched and he shuffled even more as he grew older. He had been very kind. Doris and Nate lived in Buffalo and they took my brother and me out to a nightclub when I was only ten. We saw Sammy Davis Jr. perform and my uncle Nate taught me how to spin spaghetti on a fork and eat it. Before then I had only ever had canned spaghetti.
My aunt Lil is more vivid, with the very distinct red birthmark or hemangioma on her cheekbone – I think it is popularly referred to as a port wine stain. Her determined walk stands out most vividly in my memory and I looked forward to seeing how she boarded the bus. But she did not get on and I was left to stew in my tremendous guilt. When I began university and was in the same premedical class with my older brother, Al, and my cousin June, aunt Lil came to see us and took each of us aside, I was the only one, to my everlasting shame, who did not accept the one hundred dollars she offered me to help me out with purchasing books and other school expenses. I told her I did not need her money and could manage on my own. I don’t think I even had the grace to thank her for her generosity. I was not rude, but I was not gracious either. I gave no indication of gratitude or sensitivity to her concern. My brother took the money with ease and thanked her profusely. I was left only with my guilt over my ingratitude and rude behaviour driven by my pride. I had never apologized.
Her husband, Tommy is truly a more ghostly presence – a very kind but also very quiet man – my aunt had married a Christian who attended a Plymouth Brethren Church. But he was a true ghost for the most vivid memory is his funeral where I became so enraged at the pastor using my uncle’s funeral, my uncle Tommy of very cherished memory, to try to convert us to Christianity. If my wife had not held me back, I was determined to get up and throttle that pastor.
Four of my aunts and uncles are far more vivid than the others – my aunt Gladys because she was also my mother’s best friend, and her husband, my third uncle named Jack, who used to corner me to talk in detail about cars when I have never cared about cars or been able to distinguish one car make from another, let alone different models for each maker. Gladys was another story. She was always smiling, was very pretty, baked the best Chelsea buns in the world and she and my mother bickered all the time – “It is so.” It isn’t.” “I know it is.” “Well it isn’t.” It was too bad they did not have Google then, or perhaps not so bad because they might not have had anything to bicker about.
My most vivid memories are of my uncle Irv, even though he died young when I was in my teens – and my aunt Rose remembered as a cultured lady of great refinement. Almost every weekend, I stayed at their house, babysat my cousin Sue and her two twin brothers, Steve and Gil. Betty-Anne came along later when I no longer babysat for them. On Sunday morning, my aunt Rose would often tell me about the play, or sometimes opera, or at other times a movie they had seen the evening before; the world of drama became in my mind a great symbol of culture though I had never seen a live performance until I was seventeen.
My uncle Irv was a surrogate father. He took me with him to the market to buy crates of oranges and to the Cheerio Toy Company that he managed for his cousin until that cousin absconded to Israel and the headlines on the papers I delivered read: “Yo Yo King Escapes to Israel”. He had evidently not paid taxes. I had never met him but in family lore I was told that he had invented the yo-yo in the thirties while serving time in jail.
None of them were on the bus though. Not my father nor my mother. Not my wife’s father or her mother who was one of the kindest and most considerate people I had ever met. They were not like ghost students who never came to class or like my colleague in the philosophy department who became a ghost professor because he became so mad that we could not permit him to go in the classroom. My parents and my wife’s parents just were not there.
But my wife’s brother, David, who passed away relatively recently, and her younger sister, Janice, who died quite a few years ago before even her mother or father had died, were both on the bus. David appeared as a spectral presence with a twinkle in his eye and a slight sideways grin in contrast to Janice, who always seemed to be someone who lived squelching the anger within her as she made the greatest effort to be pleasant.
David and Janice were both there and each had gotten on the bus even as its door was not open and we were speeding down Highway 400 at 110 miles an hour. The bus door, even as it was closed, seemed to serve the same purpose as the ribonuclease membrane that allows yeast cell ghosts to pass through without anyone knowing how the crossing took place. Up until Barrie, Ontario, I had kept busy reading the papers I had purchased and doing sudoku and the crossword puzzle. But by the time we reached Barrie, it had grown too dark to read and the light at the seat was not working. I had started to write on my computer until I caught the sign pasted on the inside of my window. I was sitting in the second row and the sign said that laptop use was forbidden because the reflection in the glass interfered with the driver’s line of vision. I closed my laptop and within minutes those spectres started to board the bus.
I do not now remember the order. I do remember thinking how clichéd they looked for their presences were drawn from movies where they appear as translucent figures with the lights and sight of signs that we passed clearly visible through them. These were full bodies and not just faces, but they were not solid. They even lacked the bare substantive presence of the cadaver we were supposed to cut up in first year medical school.
That cadaver was an old lady who died in her eighties and had probably only weighed 70 or 80 pounds when she died. She was a ghost that haunted me in first year medical school but I never told my anatomical partners that this was the reason I had organized the anatomical philosophical society whose first dictum was that you were not allowed to cut up dead bodies because we were primarily concerned with the spirit of what it was to be a human. I did not even have the knowledge or presence of mind to offer the excuse and enter the debate on the side of those who argued that anatomical teaching itself was a ghost of the past and that cutting up cadavers had little relative educational benefit even though we spent half a day every day in first year meds supposedly cutting up a corpse. I did not even know the word “prosection” then or that living anatomy and use of radiology were far better educational tools. I simply argued that I did not want to be educated in necrophilia. (Our Filipino instructor training to be a surgeon kindly spent every Friday dissecting the poor old lady and showing us the full week’s work as he got his practice using the scalpel.)
Though full bodied, the ghosts that boarded that bus were not zombies. Their spectral presences moved with the same style they had when they lived. But why were they there? I had written often of ghosts, of how the ghosts of romanticism had infiltrated the bad thinking when we developed Rochdale College, how the New Left in the sixties, as much as it tried to distinguish itself from the old left, was haunted by old and obsolete ideologies that made their presence felt in different ways. In writing about the international financial world, I discussed the ghost ideas of development theorists, who, in contrast to Albert O. Hirschman, still operated on the assumption that problems of development could be cured simply by filling the missing financial gap for investment when, in reality, the real gap was the belief in a financing gap. This ghost of past ignorance haunted the efforts to foster development. The Harrod-Domar growth model to calculate investment needs was a misleading chimera that just failed to be confirmed by any reality check.
Of course, some ghosts had a powerful effect on subsequent periods in history such as the phalanx depicted in Homer and the massing of the hoplites to still their fears and keep them marching towards enemy fire. Those ghosts dictated military strategy for centuries long after that strategy had been made obsolete by the new technologies of weaponry.
So my scholarship had often been preoccupied with the presence of illusionary ghosts that haunted and deformed the present. But these were real enough presences from the past even though they lacked substance. But I never took these ghosts to be real in any physical sense. They were only part of a real experience, not of the real world. They were projections of my imagination and not actually present in front of me as clear and distinct as each of these images were. I knew that these visual presences belonged to the non-living but I was a total atheist when it came to the spiritualism that became such an important part of nineteenth century life.
Further, these were ghosts that belonged to the culture of film and had nothing to do with Hamlet’s ghost or the ghosts that haunted Lady Macbeth, in part because these ghosts were not really haunting in any way. They were friendly ghosts – no, not actually friendly since they never directed any attention towards me. They simply appeared and disappeared like ghostly dancers on a stage. Their one distinctive character was their lack of physicality even though I could recognize their faces and the ways their bodies moved. These ghosts were not figures from the past that had become physically reanimated. They had nothing to do with that dominant tradition of spectral tropes.
But why was I having this experience? I was a clear product of enlightenment thought informed by the necessity of empirical proof, reason and sceptical of anything that failed to satisfy these inter-subjective criteria. I knew that no one else on the bus saw the figures I saw boarding the bus. But the ghosts were real enough. Each spectral appearance had a name and a particular character. But they were not objects in experience but just a being-there of that which had been absent, for some for many years. An enlightenment scholar does not believe in ghosts. I do not believe in ghosts, especially not in ghosts blamed for cheating on exams as the negative effects of the policy of “No Child Left Behind” is felt and as a recent New Yorker article documented so brilliantly.
One of those ghosts really puzzled me. Only with a great deal of trouble and wrestling did I figure out that it was Dian Marino, an academic colleague and graphic artist from Environmental Studies at York University whom I barely knew. She did not belong to my department of even my faculty. I knew her husband, Chuck Marino, much better because he was in the Department of Psychology in my faculty. Dian died about twenty or so years ago. She had been relatively young, but like Shira had breast cancer. I suppose that is why she came onto that bus. More than likely, it was more because she had fought breast cancer for years, as had Shira. But she survived twelve or thirteen years, twice the length of time Shira had though Dian had not been given a death sentence of four months when she was first diagnosed as I recall. Like Shira, they discovered metastases. For Dian, those metastases had spread to her bones. Yet she survived for another half a dozen years after that diagnosis, as Shira did, beating all the odds.
Like Shira, she had dear friends who helped her. Like Shira, though she had her fears and was angry at her fate, she was determined to go on with her work. My memory of her was that she was totally forthright about what she was going through but was not inviting pity or any treatment different than that of any colleague. She was focused on her myriad of projects. Shira was not on that bus, but Dian Marino, whom I barely knew, was.
Though I do not remember Dian to have been like Shira – she eschewed the language of fighting cancer in favour of a sort of zen approach of acceptance and going with the flow. While Shira kept up her Pilates exercise routine, Dian had told me she loved massages. Like Shira, she had her own way of coping with the fear and rage she must have felt – and the overwhelming sadness that she would not watch her grandchildren grow up. But what they most feared, they both fought strenuously against – the propensity to be treated as different, of people around them walking on tender hooks all the time as if the person had already left the real world. They both insisted on maintaining a substantive presence and of being treated as if life goes on and that they are as fully part of it as they can be. They refused to be isolated and denied their last months of living while eschewing being patronized or becoming receptors for pity. They remained agents and constructors of their own lives, in Shria’s case, even to determining her own funeral service down to the last detail.
Dian Marino loved flowers. Shira had the poem (and song) by the Israeli, Neomi Shener (who also died from cancer), read at her funeral, “The Honey and the Sting” rather than the far more famous, “Jerusalem of Gold”. Like Shira, whatever the criticisms of Israel, she and Shira never failed to regard Israelis as “Anashim Tovim,” – good people.
Neomi Shemer “To the Honey and the Sting”
Every bee that brings the honey
Needs a sting to be complete
And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.
Keep, oh Lord, the fire burning
Through the night and through the day
For the man who is returning
from so far away.
Don’t uproot what has been planted
So our bounty may increase
Let our dearest wish be granted:
Bring us peace, oh bring us peace.
For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.
Save the houses that we live in
The small fences and the wall
From the sudden war-like thunder
May you save them all.
Guard what little I’ve been given
Guard the hill my child might climb
Let the fruit that’s yet to ripen
Not be plucked before its time.
As the wind makes rustling night sounds
And a star falls in its arc
All my dreams and my desires
Form crystal shapes out of the dark.
Guard for me, oh Lord, these treasures
All my friends keep safe and strong,
Guard the stillness, guard the weeping,
And above all, guard this song.
For the sake of all these things, Lord,
Let your mercy be complete
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.
Bless the sting and bless the honey
Bless the bitter and the sweet.
But Shira was not on the bus. Yesterday morning, she was very powerfully brought back to a living presence by the magnificent eulogy her son, Kobi, gave at the funeral. But she was not on the bus and I do not know why. Janice Carmichael, who also died of cancer, the mother of one of the best friends of my son, Daniel, and a friend of my wife, was there, but in reality I barely knew Janice. Kathleen Ptolemy who was not even a friend but a representative of the churches whom I worked with on the Boat People campaign, was there. She too died of cancer at a relatively young age. So, as I wrote, were Nancy’s brother and sister, David and Janice, on that bus.
These spectral images had nothing to do with the ruach hachodesh of the Tanach. There was nothing holy about them. They were not present as a divine force and especially not examples of the perfection of the Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian god-figure of Christianity. They were not even conduits through which God was delivering messages as the Baha’is believe for they offered no messages at all from some other place.
Others who died of cancer also boarded the bus – Jim Cameron in overalls and an Ozark beard who also smiled out of one side of his mouth, came on and reminded me that I had failed to drive up to the Bruce Peninsula to visit him before he died. Though he said this, I actually did not hear the words and he never faced me. Sam Mallin and Sam Ajzenstat, fellow philosophers, also got on the bus, but Sam showed no interest in continuing our long held discussions about Kant versus Hegel. And Sam Mallin totally avoided preaching to me about my bad eating habits. Though their parents did not board the bus, my cousins, Steve Duviner and Betty-Anne Duviner, both got on, Steve with a shuffle and a grunt of dismay, Betty-Anne with a bright smile in spite of the suffering she had endued all her life.
But there were also relative strangers – my graduate student, Andrew Forbes, who was targeted and murdered in Northern Kenya by a killer on a motorbike. Strangest of all was the ghost of an African student when I ran the student co-ops when I was a grad student. He had jumped out of a third floor window with a noose around his neck. He was a powerful very handsome man with large muscles. When I stood on a chair to cut him down, I was shocked that he was still breathing. After he was rushed to the hospital, his ghost re-inhabited his body and he lived, at least for several months until he tried again, this time “successfully”.
There were many others, but three stand out. I went to high school and university with David Berger. In the bus we were talking together, at least, I think we were though I was not part of the spectrum or appeared to be talking back. The scene was in the Hart House library. I had left medicine and Dave wanted to talk to me about leaving as well. He had only a year and a half to finish. I talked him out of his decision. Though he had missed six weeks of school, he went back, and after writing some supplemental exams, he passed. He trained at the famous Menninger Clinic and became a renowned psychiatrist. On the bus, he went directly without passing Go from that Hart House library to a brown-tiled shower in what was then called the YMHA, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, where he grimaced in pain, collapsed and died of a heart attack.
Harold Wise was also on the bus. He was part of our group in Medical School and had gone to the USA to become head of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in the Bronx. He had learned from the local shamans to appreciate the benefits of folkloric medicine. On the bus, he was in the Toronto General in a room that I recognized as my friend, Milton’s, when he was sick and supposedly in the last few hours of his life. I could not see Milt, but I did see Harold lie on the bed right on top of what must have been Milt as I had seen in real life, for it was my turn to sit by Milt’s bedside. But Milt was not a spectral figure on the bus and, though blind since then, weeks ago we celebrated his 78th birthday. I had witnessed Milt brought back to life and Milt joked with Harold that he did not know Harold had become a homosexual. I wanted to talk to Harold and apologize for laughing at his ideas, but Harold seemed totally disinterested in any apology I had to offer.
Of course, the most vivid person on the bus was my brother Al. He came on the bus when four spotlights lighted up the middle of the road where road crews were working all night on the highway. At first, I was so blinded by the lights that I did not even know it was him. But unlike any of the others, he came to sit down beside me. But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t even turn to notice me. He stared ahead indifferent to my presence. Maybe I should talk to him about sports, I thought. What a ghost thought from the past. That is how I got him to talk to me when we walked to school together. But nowadays I know absolutely nothing about sports, not that I knew that much then.
Al sat there, but without the enormous anger that was eating away his brain as the blastoma took over his life. I did not think it appropriate to talk about the anger I felt that he had allowed his wife to become an exterior blastoma and separate him from his family and his own children as he took eighteen months to die. Unlike Shira’s, his fight to keep on living was not an inspiring one. I so wanted to talk to Al and, even more, for him to talk to me. But he just sat there for a while – it was probably only five minutes – without my being able to interpret his expression. Then he got up and left the bus through the same front door, of course without opening it.
Then Barry Luksenberg got on, my youngest son’s close friend with whom he had gone to Vietnam this past February and who ended up wiping out on his motorbike on a road north of Hue. He, at least, had died instantly, but my son carries his death with him as a ghost in his life as I carry Al’s. I wondered if Barry is to my son like Al is to me, a ghost limb. I feel the pain but am unable to see or manipulate the limb. In death, Al had not become reanimated. He remained as cold and indifferent as the living cadaver that his wife kept in her living room whom we were allowed to see for short visits each day when he was in a coma for the last few months of his life. I can never forgive the pain Al’s wife caused my mother.
I knew these dead were only spectral figures and were not coming from an afterlife to visit with me. Their visits were too reminiscent of my strongest memories. They were apparitions, as much products of the movie industry as my own imagination. Perhaps that is why I have such a great love of movies. They allow me to revisit the ghosts of my past. As Jacques Derrida had written, “ici le fantôme, c’st moi in the Spectres of Marx. Here, I am the ghost, or, in this case, ghosts.
So the question remains. Why was Shira not on the bus? Perhaps it was too soon. She had not been buried yet.