Who’s there? Wolfgang peering into my parents’ bedroom on August 1, 2016.
My gaze remained fixed on my computer – as it always does, when I become engrossed in either a news article or my own writing, leading to that vicious brand of dry eye syndrome – and not paying much attention to anything around me. But, out of the sandy corner of my right eye, I noticed Wolfgang lift up his head. It wasn’t a gradual rise, like he’d heard the refrigerator door open and hoped someone was reaching for a snack. Rather, it was more of a sudden jolt, as if a wayward noise had startled him. Often, I don’t hear those same noises. As a dog, millennia of canid sensory attributes finely-tuned and ground deep into his mind and body, he can hear a bug crawling in the next room, on carpet, with a rainstorm battering the house around us; he could see that same bug – minuscule as it may be – ambling across the carpet.
But this was different. No refrigerator door; no bugs; just…something. It was enough to make me stop; giving my eyes a much-needed break. Then I saw a shadow; a nanosecond of movement. Wolfgang whipped his head around, and so did I.
A couple of years ago I wondered, in an essay, what it would be like to be deceased. I’m in no hurry to find out, but as both a spiritual person and a writer fascinated with the gothic (even the macabre), I’ve thought about it for most of my life. It’s become an especially important matter to me in the three months since my father’s death. Raised Roman Catholic, I was taught to believe in angels and saints. But, when I heard an elderly nun once say “there’s no such things as ghosts,” I couldn’t reconcile the two. Angels exist; ghosts don’t. What’s the difference? My first views of angels came from the stained glass windows of the church where I became an altar boy in the mid-1970s. I acquired a more salacious vision from John Phillip Law’s “Pygar” in “Barbarella.” (I actually prefer the latter.)
Having divorced myself from the Catholic Church years ago, I seek emotional fulfillment in the simplest of things: reading, writing, exercise, music, vodka, and, of course, Wolfgang. I still believe in a Supreme Being, but I don’t subscribe to any religious ideology. It’s too confining. Yet the concept of an afterlife has remained a constant fixture in my mind.
Over the past three months Wolfgang’s behavior has become more curious. His attention is being constantly diverted. He lifts his head and stares at something – or someone – in the distance. He’ll just hold that gaze – not for a few seconds, but several minutes. One night, as I worked on my computer, and my mother sat in the den reading, Wolfgang perched himself just outside my parents’ bedroom…and stared straight ahead. He didn’t move for what seemed like an hour. Finally he stood and entered the room. Turning to his left, in the direction of a nightstand, he sat after a few minutes. And remained there for the longest time. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I left him alone. After a while, he ambled back to a spot near me and plopped down…still looking ahead into my parents’ bedroom.
“What’s that?” I asked him. I knew the answer.
His eyes, bright pools of dark chocolate, bored into my face. Those eyes – and his animated expressions – always conveyed more than the average person.
Of course, I’m biased – not just because he’s my dog. More so, because I love dogs – and most animals for that matter – than I do people. Animals don’t gossip; call you names; cut in front of you while driving; throw a self-righteous attitude in your face; or believe the world revolves around them, and science just needs to prove it. In other words, animals don’t piss me off just for the hell of it.
I’d have no problems pulling out a gun and firing into the windshield of a car whose driver almost ran me off the road because they were engrossed in their cell phone. But I’d think twice about putting down a dog that bit me out of its own fear.
México won’t execute drug kingpins because they don’t have the death penalty. Yet, they retain the brutal tradition of bullfighting and conduct rodeos where horses routinely break their necks. Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks that’s twisted.
I created a controversy on Facebook about five years ago, when I stated that I’d rather see a thousand drug addicts and / or sexually-irresponsible people died of AIDS than see one animal suffer because of human neglect and abuse. Just about everyone missed the “drug addict” and “sexually-irresponsible” part. How dare I think someone who fucks around like a rabbit on Viagra shouldn’t cry too loudly when they come down with something a tad bit more severe than gingivitis. If political incorrectness was a course, I’d fail miserably.
“What’s that?” I asked again. He just looked at me, and I gathered he was telling me exactly what was going on. Domesticated animals comprehend a bevy of our words. How many of their vocalizations do we humans understand? I just had to figure out what those expressions meant.
And I finally figured it out. He knows things; meaning, he sees and hears things that are there; others who are there.
And I know that who’s often there isn’t visible to the eyes of the contemporary human; our brains having become too cluttered with practicality and technology. Yet, even before now, I had proof. Nothing that can be verified independently, but proof to me nonetheless.
One weekday in the spring of 2011, as I crouched before my computer – making a concerted effort to launch my freelance writing career, while trying to ward off the dreaded office-chair butt affliction – I sensed someone move behind me. At the same nanosecond, Wolfgang bolted into the hall from his spot near my chair; a modest growl spilling from his snout. Both him and that ubiquitous figure unnerved me; giving my eyes that much-needed break.
But I kept my focus on Wolfgang. He stood in the hall, looking towards the den. His head cocked to one side slightly and – apparently satisfied no danger lurked – returned to his place near my chair. He circled around that few square inches of carpet, before plopping down. He sensed my confusion and tossed me a comforting gaze. “Don’t worry,” his eyes reassured me. “I got it settled.”
Settled what? He sighed, exasperated. I’m certain he was thinking what a naïve dumbass I must be. In retrospect, I’d agree with him. But I stepped into the hall and peered towards the den. That figure – that someone – I thought, was an old woman. I returned to my chair.
Wolfgang gave up trying to explain it to me and resumed napping.
Then my mother came out of her bedroom. Hugging the doorframe, unsteady from a midday slumber, she gave me a confounded look and asked, “Where’s grandmother?”
I squinted at her. “Who?”
“Where’s grandmother?” she repeated.
I hesitated, equally confused. I knew who she was talking about, but I didn’t know why. “Why are you asking me that question?” It really startled (upset) me.
She woke up and rubbed her eyes.
I turned briefly to Wolfgang. I was trying to tell you, his eyes said.
Aside from my mother’s three siblings and their father, I only met a handful of her relatives – all from her father’s side of the family in Michigan. I got to know the Mexican side through antiquitous photographs and stories; ghost stories, in a way, stuck in my mother’s memory.
My maternal grandmother died in México City on Christmas Day 1940 from some miscellaneous stomach ailment. Her own mother, a widow by then, had returned from living in Washington, D.C., where she worked as a nanny for the daughters of a U.S. Navy admiral. Along with being a good cook and natural-born caregiver, she was self-educated, which included teaching herself English, and an opera aficionado. She stepped in to help her son-in-law (my grandfather) raise his four children.
She had led a life mixed with hardship and religiosity (the latter supposed to hinder the former). But then again, what woman born in 19th century México – or anywhere outside of royalty and the industrial elite – didn’t? At the age of 14, a handsome, 21-year-old young man with steely blue eyes spotted her in the yard of school she attended, introduced himself and decided to make her his bride. A few months later her mother dropped her into a wedding dress. He gave her five children, two illegitimate children, a bout of syphilis and an early widowhood. By the time my German-American grandfather, Clarence, arrived in México City with an uncle selling farm equipment in the mid-1920s, my great-grandmother’s husband was already gone. When my grandfather met the brown-eyed beauty named Esperanza who would become his wife, he apparently was smitten. He actually courted her, and it was a little while before they got married. My great-grandmother didn’t want to impose her marital tribulations upon her own daughters. Clarence and Esperanza married in 1927.
Esperanza’s mother was a curiosity, my mother recalled. Not even five feet tall, her internal organs were switched; her heart, for example, rested on the right side of her torso and was too big for her body. They could see the veins on the sides of her neck pulsate, a feature that made her wear high-necked clothing. Her eyes were more golden in color; “ojos de un perro,” is how she described them – “eyes of a dog.” But, more intriguingly, she also bore enough personal faith to build a bridge between her heart and the spiritual netherworld.
Supposedly women possess that unique ability more than men. I believe women are just more willing to admit it. Acknowledgement of contact with “The Other Side” is conceding, in a way, a dependence on the inanimate – the emotional. And men aren’t permitted such comforts. In México, in the U.S., or anywhere they want to call home and be considered valuable. But I feel that having no spirit is akin to having no soul.
Shortly before the death of someone my great-grandmother knew – a relative, a friend – she would encounter a mysterious figure; a woman cloaked in black with a veil-like accoutrement almost completely covering her face. She’d mutter the name of the individual – whoever was about to die – and then vanish.
My mother and her older sister, Margo, never really believed her, she told me. Their grandmother was just an old woman with a strange little mind carved up by Roman Catholicism and too many health problems. Until one afternoon shortly before Christmas 1940.
Esperanza had fallen ill, and no one could figure out why. My mother and Margo accompanied their grandmother to a local open-air market; the type that were so common back then and now quaintly occupy a spot on travel shows. A woman, clad in black, suddenly stood before them. All Margo and my mother remember was hearing their own mother’s name – Esperanza. It seeped through the woman’s lace veil and into their ears; a sound that abruptly instilled an overwhelming sense of dread in the two girls. Hearing them both recount the incident some four decades later made my skin tighten. Less than two weeks later, Esperanza was gone.
My grandfather was headed back to Michigan in the summer of 1942, when the train he rode stopped in Dallas. A job ad in a local newspaper caught his attention. It offered something like $20 per day as a machinist, a fortune in those days. He applied for and got it. He moved into a nearby boarding house and, within a year, had managed to save enough money to buy a house in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. In September of 1943, his four children arrived with his mother-in-law, after a three-day trek by train from México City. He felt he had to move. As an American in México during a global war, he didn’t just feel out of place – he was out of place. By then my great-grandmother had secured her role as de facto matriarch.
She died in Dallas in August of 1963; less than three months before I was born. At the funeral, my mother almost passed out, as much from the emotional loss as from the intense heat. Standing outside in Texas during August is not a pleasant experience. My great-grandmother had blessed my mother’s stomach just days earlier; holding a tiny wrinkled hand above my restless unborn self, her other hand clutching an aged crucifix.
My father’s older sister, Amparo, was at the same funeral. She knew how close my mother had been to her grandmother and (knowing those damned Texas summers) had brought a large jar of cold water. After my father helped my mother back to the car and had her drink some of that water, my mother looked up. And, as she recalled years later, she spotted a small figure dressed in black some distance away – a woman with a black veil covering her face. “Go away,” my mother said into the hot air, and the woman left.
That crucifix, now over a century old, hangs unimposingly above my bed – just as it did throughout my childhood and through the three apartments I lived in before returning to my parents’ home a few years ago. And, thinking back now, on that spring afternoon in 2011, I realize Wolfgang must have seen my great-grandmother. Her presence most certainly startled him at first; he’d never seen her before. But she assured him she meant no harm; she’s one of us.
On another nondescript afternoon, I was trying to help my mother find a pair of small scissors. She always kept them in her nightstand, but she couldn’t even find the scissors there. I looked through it, too, albeit with a greater sense of frustration. I was enmeshed in one of those “Moods.” How did I end up like this? Unmarried, childless, 40-something, scarcely employed with a bad back, helping my mother search for a pair of miniature scissors.
I turned to see Wolfgang. “Really?” his eyes bemoaned with a frustrated sigh. “This is bothering you?” His gaze slithered around me and towards the nightstand; he then scampered away. “You’re getting on my last nerve!” he grunted.
I almost followed him, but something made me stop. Look again, I heard in my subconscious. I opened the bottom drawer of the nightstand and filtered through a menagerie of items. My fingertips grasped a small envelope, which held a black-and-white photograph…my mother’s maternal grandmother. It was her passport photo, probably taken in 1943 in preparation for her move to the U.S.
My father had said frequently he hoped he’d go before Wolfgang. He’d grown so attached to him that the dog’s death would be too much to handle. I told both my parents a while back, though, I believed he’d go before them. I also told them that we needed to prepare ourselves for his inevitable demise. In 1985, when we had to put down our beloved German shepherd, Josh, we had never considered the impact such a death would have on us.
Now my father is gone, having passed away in this house – just as he wanted – and Wolfgang keeps tossing his gaze around.
So I look at the various photos of my father and know for certain – he’s still here.
My father at his 60th birthday party in 1993.