Dad took his final breath on a warm night in September in my childhood home near Boston, one week before my wedding. When I went to bed, he lay in a hospital bed downstairs in the dining room, eyes closed and breathing ragged. The following morning, the bed was empty, the funeral home having dispatched his body while I slept. During those final weeks, as Dad’s four-year battle with colon cancer drew to a close, and my wedding plans crystallized, I didn’t hold his hand or sit with him and say things I never had a chance to say. Instead, I kept him at arm’s length as I’d always done. As Dad drifted in and out of consciousness in the dining room, I sat in the living room and assembled wedding favors, tying purple ribbons around candles that smelled of sugar and spice, grateful for the opportunity to busy my hands.
There is no good time for death, but the timing of Dad’s seemed particularly unfortunate. At the wake, three days before the wedding, guests offered my fiancé, Kyle, and me an awkward combination of condolences and congratulations. As I stood in line to receive mourners, I recall thinking that my freshly highlighted hair had never looked better. My aunt, pulling me close and whispering sympathetic words in my ear, added that I should really consider having my nails painted before the big day (“Ask for bubble bath pink,” she urged.) Defeated by death but eager to experience the wedding I had so painstakingly planned, my dual identities as bereaved daughter and bride-to-be collided.
Following a whirlwind sequence of wake, wedding, brief honeymoon, Kyle and I drove back to our apartment in central Pennsylvania, and I returned to the communications office where I worked, a name plate with my newly hyphenated last name waiting on my desk next to sympathy cards from colleagues.
At the end of Dad’s cancer battle would be Nothing, I believed. A life of sixty-four years reduced to memories harbored by loved ones left behind, some fond, many not so. How sweet that Nothing would be after so much pain, anxiety, exhaustion—suffering that enveloped Dad and embraced our entire family as we watched him gradually succumb to illness.
But then Dad died, and the Nothing offered no comfort at all.
As cancer had taken Dad piece by piece, I’d mourned each incremental loss along the way, thinking this might spare me from an onslaught of grief after he died. It didn’t. In lieu of dealing with my unexpected grief, I nursed my hurt and resentment, finding it easier to recall the bad times and tell myself I was better off without Dad than to consider what I had lost.
Dad had been a difficult person to love: controlling, temperamental, uninterested in other people’s preferences or boundaries. I loved him deeply, but the cost of that love was high. My recollection of childhood is punctuated by painful memories. The time I was a little girl and he called me a “little bitch” for some minor infraction. When a urinary tract infection left me running to the toilet all night, and exasperated, he declared the bathroom off-limits and told me to “pee on the goddamn floor.” Accosting a waitress for serving him croutons when he’d requested a gluten-free salad. “Are you trying to kill me?” he asked her, as I imagined myself shrinking to the size of an oyster cracker and diving into my soup.
I witnessed the many ways he stifled Mom, whether demanding a full, multi-course dinner every evening by 6:00 sharp while he rested in his recliner or pointing out the dust she missed while cleaning. Later, in therapy, I’d discovered there was a reason, beyond the lure of academic prestige, I had applied to graduate schools as far away as California and Texas and ultimately accepted a fellowship at Penn State, a full day’s drive from my hometown.
As I did my best to keep Dad at a safe distance, he grasped and clawed for connection with me. As his firstborn, I was the most special thing in his life, he reminded me often. When I periodically made the long drive back to Boston from Pennsylvania, his excitement was unfettered. “Nicky’s home! Nicky’s home!” he would proclaim while rushing to my car to collect my bags. Waiting inside were my favorite refreshments, wine and guacamole (“guacamale,” as Dad called it). When my 1998 Toyota Corolla finally went kaput, he purchased a newer model to ensure I could continue to make visits home, always attentive to my material needs as an impoverished graduate student. He implored me, after I completed graduate school, to live rent-free in our family’s rental condo just a few minutes’ drive from our family home, refusing to accept that I never intended to live near home. Though I did not fully reciprocate his bids for connection, he made me feel special.
After he died, I recalled Dad’s steadfast cheerleading. How, over a period of weeks, him perched in his recliner and reading glasses perched on his nose, he carefully read my ninety-page undergraduate honors thesis on the eugenic sterilization of Black women, the only person in the universe ever to read the thesis who wasn’t paid to do so, keen to discuss the topic at family dinners (never mind that he could “see both sides, which made me furious). When I began my undergraduate career at the University of North Carolina, he plastered his Jeep with Tar Heels decals and filled his closet with Carolina blue, and when I started graduate school at Penn State, he quickly switched allegiances to the Nittany Lions—apparently unconcerned about the politics of sibling equality, my sister’s schools not represented with nearly the same prominence. He boasted about my academic accomplishments to anyone who would listen. Navy and white Penn State gear became his uniform. At his open casket funeral, we dressed him in his favorite Penn State tee shirt.
In graduate school, my belief in a world without God or an afterlife added to my credibility as an intellectual, much like the cigarettes I smoked at parties. That worldview was easy to embrace with Solo cup in hand, harder to stomach when faced with death’s cold reality. With Dad gone, the notion of a world without God or an afterlife felt stark and depressing. It seemed wrong that such a vibrant personality could simply cease to exist. I refused to accept that all that remained of Dad now was the raggedy sweatshirt I’d claimed from his belongings. Hungry for the possibility of a spirit world yet wary of organized religion, I turned to a source of meaning equally ubiquitous in American culture: low-brow television.
As Halloween approached that first fall, I found myself increasingly drawn to tv channels devoted to all things supernatural, devouring shows that blend eye-witness testimony with corny reenactments of hauntings. My favorite was “My Haunted House,” in which unwitting hosts of other-worldly houseguests recount their trials. (“Have you ever noticed the actors are always twenty percent more attractive than their real-life counterparts?” my husband, Kyle, observed, before retreating from what he viewed as superstitious garbage.) There were at least two kinds of ghosts represented in these stories: the kind you must banish or flee from (the former serial killer who remains thirsty for blood in the next life), and the ghosts you can make peace with (the genial Granny who simply refuses to leave her home). Each episode, filled with firsthand accounts of hauntings from people who seemed perfectly reasonable, people who themselves had been skeptics before their own supernatural experiences, added evidence to my emerging thesis that ghost stories were real. Though it may not have stood up to a dissertation committee, this thesis was one I was deeply vested in. If ghost stories were real, this would mean not only that we continue to exist after we die, but also that the spirit world intersects with our own. Both notions made Dad feel closer within reach.
Three years after Dad’s death, my interest in the paranormal graduated beyond an obsession with televised ghost stories. My younger sister, Rachael, decided to honor Dad’s birthday in early June by running a ten-mile oceanfront road race in Newport, Rhode Island, which had been a favorite day-trip destination for Dad, an avid fisherman and lover of the sea. She invited me to join her, and I jumped at the opportunity—a chance to remember Dad, plus spend time with family. The night before the race, Rachael, Mom, Rachael’s three-year-old daughter, Jordyn, and I settled into a retro motel in nearby Narragansett (friendlier on the wallet than Newport), then strolled through the idyllic seaside town in search of carbs, landing on the patio of a charming Italian restaurant.
Our server, a young woman named Savannah who appeared to be in her early twenties, was adorably quirky, with a blonde top knot and animated gestures, her hands dancing through the air as she spoke, otherwise perching on her hip. She referred to all her customers as “love.”
“Chicken parmesan? Of course, love, of course!” she promised, flexing her wrist girlishly.
Midway through our meal, as we slurped spaghetti, Savannah darted to our table to deposit a pile of napkins moments before Jordyn splashed marinara sauce on her tee shirt.
“Wow, just in time!” Mom exclaimed.
“I’m sort of intuitive like that,” Savannah replied off-handedly, before beginning to step away.
“Intuitive?” I asked, stopping her in her tracks. “You mean, like, a spiritual intuitive?”
I had first bought into the idea of spiritual intuitives, more commonly known as mediums or psychics, after seeing a social media clip of Penn State student and national celebrity “Monica the Medium” conduct readings for State College residents, including locals whom I know personally. I’m not sure what inspired me to make the leap from well-timed napkin delivery to supernatural powers, but whatever it was, I was onto something.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t usually talk about it at work, but I can communicate with spirits. See these goosebumps?” she asked, displaying her forearm. “I’m getting chills right now.”
“Wow, that is so cool!” I responded. “Can you, like, perform readings?”
“Here,” she said, scribbling her number on a napkin. “Call me sometime and we’ll talk.”
I had never seriously considered consulting a medium, but the opportunity to deepen my dalliance with the supernatural was sitting right in front of me on a napkin. Savannah was young, cute, someone I could see sharing a bottle of wine with. Whether she could connect me to the hereafter or not, I wanted to get to know this waitress. And if she did offer a window into the spirit world, how cool would that be? As a young, up-and-coming medium, Savannah’s fees were incredibly low compared to celebrities like Monica the Medium. I had nothing to lose.
Back in Pennsylvania weeks later, I fiddled with my computer in preparation for the virtual reading Savannah had agreed to conduct for me and my friend, Amy. Amy had previously hired mediums to channel her father, who died when she was in her early twenties, and I appreciated her support as we settled in at Amy’s dining room table.
“We’ll start with a meditation,” said Savannah, who was seated cross-legged on a pillow and wore flowy, earth-toned clothing, her hair twisted into the same top knot she’d sported at the restaurant. “We need to open our hearts and minds to the spirit realm while protecting ourselves from negative energy. We only want to let in light and love.”
I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and surrendered myself to whatever lay beyond, trusting that Savannah would keep us safe from the kinds of unsavory entities that sent families on “My Haunted House” fleeing. She applauded Amy and me for our openness and told us, enthusiastically, that the spirits were “lining up to connect.” I was excited for whatever lay ahead.
Savannah closed her eyes, tilted her head skyward, took several deep breaths, and began. “I feel a tightness in my chest,” she said. “Did one of you lose a loved one to a heart attack?”
“I did,” replied Amy. “My dad.”
Savannah nodded. “I see he’s lounging in a recliner, and I smell smoke. Did he smoke a pipe?”
“Yeah,” Amy confirmed. “He was your typical professor.”
After a brief pause, Savannah continued. “He wants to say he’s sorry he didn’t take better care of himself. He regrets he didn’t have more time with you.”
Next in line behind Amy’s father was a man who, Savannah gleaned, had died from a problem with his throat. Amy affirmed that her first husband had died from throat cancer.
Two for two! I marveled, leaning forward, mouth agape. Amy was surprisingly blasé, having apparently dialed up her departed loved ones many times before. She later explained that her dad’s spirit once scolded her during a reading for spending so much money on mediums. I couldn’t wait to hear from my own departed loved one.
Waiting not so patiently in line behind Amy’s relatives, explained Savannah, was Dad, whom she said she had chided, “Easy does it! One spirit at a time.” I thought back to how Dad rode the tails of slow drivers and jockeyed for position in line at Dunkin’ Donuts, fitting the stereotype of the aggressive Boston male.
Before the reading, I had told Savannah I was a little nervous about hearing from Dad, not knowing what kind of mood we might find him in. Savannah had assured me that whatever comes through in a reading is for the “highest good.” As she began to connect with Dad, her speech took on the cadences of his thick Boston accent, and her gestures grew larger, more animated, as though she were embodying Dad himself. The conversation began with a flurry of numbers Savannah said were flowing into her consciousness: 64, his age when he died. 6’1,” the height he would have been (he’d always reminded us proudly) had he not suffered from scoliosis as a teenager. Nine, September, the month when he died.
Savannah affirmed that Dad’s body had been riddled with cancer, and he didn’t have the energy to continue fighting.
“That’s right,” I explained. “He chose to stop the chemo that kept him alive but also prolonged his suffering, and a few weeks later he died.”
Savannah nodded sympathetically.
“He tells me he had some sort of psychological disorder…that his mind was as ill as his body,” she continued.
Indeed, Dad suffered from severe depression and anxiety during the last few years of his life, which in many ways were more debilitating than the physical effects of cancer. After a terrifying episode of mania two years into his cancer battle, Dad was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, though our family didn’t take time to collectively process what the diagnosis meant, preferring instead to pretend it wasn’t happening. It meant, though, that Dad had lived his entire life with undiagnosed bipolar disorder (“You don’t just develop bipolar disorder in your sixties,” my doctor explained). This had seemed momentous, as though it confirmed why our family life had always felt so erratic. Dad’s most grating attributes were also the textbook symptoms of bipolar mania: hostility, aggression, irritability, an inflated sense of self-regard. All these qualities had made Dad a difficult person to love and compelled me to maintain emotional distance. If he noticed any symptoms before the diagnosis, Dad seemed to opt for self-medication, treating himself to two or three generous glasses of wine on any given night. After the diagnosis, though he was prescribed a mood stabilizer that kept his mania at bay, the medication left him emotionally flatlined, able to do little more than doze on his recliner. Knowing that Dad’s most trying qualities were the result of mental illness and thus beyond his control made his behavior a little easier to understand, but no easier to bear. All of this I summarized for Savannah, surprised yet grateful to hear spoken aloud a fact which had shaped our family life but was rarely acknowledged.
Seemingly energized by my confirmation, Savannah continued. “He says he’s deeply sorry for what he put you through. He never got help for his behavior because he didn’t believe he needed to change. He had no idea how his actions affected his little Nicky.”
I stared back at Savannah, stunned. I never expected to receive an acknowledgement of Dad’s misdeeds, let alone an apology. The man had never shown a capacity for self-reflection or remorse. In life, he snapped at anyone who attempted to question or challenge his behavior, so Mom, Rachael, and I learned to say nothing, losing hope he would ever change. Receiving this apology now cracked a ball of anger that had been dwelling inside of me, justified by the mental ledger I’d kept of Dad’s transgressions. Since Dad had finally acknowledged his behavior had hurt me, I no longer needed to cling to evidence that my pain was justified. A thousand bricks I didn’t know I was carrying were lifted from my shoulders.
“Do you think you can forgive your dad?” asked Savannah.
I nodded, eager to let go of the hurt I’d been harboring.
“What would you like to say to him?” she asked.
Through tears, I did my best to say what I didn’t have the courage to say during Dad’s final months.
“You hurt me, Dad, and this saddens me because it meant we could never be as close as I wanted, or as you wanted, but I forgive you. I never questioned that you loved me, and you instilled in me so much confidence I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life.”
“He’s crying,” Savannah reported.
After a few moments of silence, Savannah continued. “He wants to encourage you to focus on the good times you had together, like when he would sing…he’s trying to convey a song he used to sing to you…something with ‘banana fanna’? He’s getting frustrated with me because I don’t know the song!”
I was reminded of the tune Dad sang to me when I was little: “Nicky bicky bo bicky / banana fanna fo ficky / fee fie fo ficky / Nicky!” I hadn’t thought of this song in over a decade, the painful memories from my childhood having overshadowed the joyful ones. I thought back to when Dad would take Rachael and me to the gym on weekend mornings. Rachael and I would swim in the indoor pool while Dad played basketball with his buddies. Afterward, we would refuel with pizza from Pacini’s Italian Eatery. We would sing “Nicky bicky” and “Rachie bachie” in the car on the way home.
“Your dad wants you to know he loves you still and is with you always,” she said, adding that Dad’s energy was fading.
The conversation drew to a close.
When I returned home that evening, I sobbed into my pillow for hours, recalling joyful memories that had long been overshadowed by mental illness and cancer. Singing “Nicky bicky bo bicky” and “Rachie bachie bo bachie” after mornings at the pool, Rachael and I smelling of chlorine and pepperoni. Being “Nicky.”
My sense of longing was eased somewhat by my newfound confidence that Dad still was, somewhere. The version of Dad that existed now was still feisty and impatient, still the consummate Bostonian, but softer, gentler than in life. This version, freed from the constraints of mental illness and ego, was able and willing to self-reflect, evolve, atone. I had not had the pleasure of meeting this person in life, but I could embrace this version now, in spirit, without reservation or fear. Dad had become this person after death, and Savannah had given me the gift of introducing me to him.
If I was lucky, I hoped, this Dad might say hello to his daughter sometime, maybe through the mysterious flicker of lights or the tinkle of wind chimes on a still evening.
The kind of ghost I can make peace with.
Nicolette Hylan-King lives in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Kyle, their two-year-old daughter, Charlotte, and their pit bill, Arya. She works as a marketing communications specialist for Penn State University, where she earned a Master of Arts degree in English. Nicolette also holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Women’s Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her poetry has been published by ScreaminMamas and Don’t Die Press. This is her first creative nonfiction publication.