Talking to the Dead

My mother and I. Lakewood, NJ, 1980

I spent a lot of time trying to talk to my mother the first several years after she died–an activity recommended by self-help books and other peoples’ therapists. I would ask her to watch over me while I weaved in and out of various destructive mental states so I’d make it through the precarious predicaments of my twenties. I searched for signs of her acknowledgement in the seagull wings and wave-crash. Sometimes her respond would be carried by airplane. Other times, she came to me in sharp thunderclaps and purple lightning strikes. She was somewhere, sending me vague messages from a distant world, but her the clarity of her voice remained out of reach for 7 years after the AIDS virus took her body from the earth.

In a sticky pool of blood and dirty water that kept me glued to the tiled floor of a men’s shower room on an eastern Texas beach, my mother’s image appeared at each arc of pain shooting through my naked body. I thought about how she’d been dead for 7 years, how I’d been spiraling ever since. And there I was–beaten by a lover in some nameless city, wondering which of my poor decisions brought me there. When I was sure that I was alone, I called for my mother, I asked her to help me. And she did, that day, finally, after all of those years of trying. I heard her voice and felt her arms around me.

My mother brought me to my feet and helped me gather my things. She helped me walk to safety.


When I was 5, my mother told me that we were Jewish, which made sense because great-grandma was always yelling at in Yiddish. Regardless of not knowing anything about being Jewish, I proudly proclaimed my Judaism every chance I had, especially to my Catholic friends because they always seemed so terrified and guilty. Being Jewish was like this miraculous exemption from guilt, a way for me to show off.

I was so blonde. Weird. 1984.

Nobody in my family was religious, so “Jewish” was simply about gefilte fish on our plates and having to deal with audible gasps from goyim each time we bit into our bacon strips. We also didn’t seem to have the option to talk to God like the Catholics, and once people were dead, we could only light yartzheit candles to honor their death anniversaries. The people who passed were just gone. When my mother passed, however, I was never able to accept that she was gone like everyone else. I knew somehow we’d communicate again, but I didn’t know how.

My mother was cremated at a Jewish funeral home. Jews aren’t usually cremated so it was awkward. My grandmother and I sat on a black leather couch in a tiny room while the Rabbi stumbled through details of the cremation as though he’d never before used those words. Once I realized that my mother was likely in the building with us, I felt immediate relief from the days of grief with which I’d been consumed. I interrupted the Rabbi’s passive-aggressive diatribe to ask, “Where is she?”

The remains are downstairs.”

“The remains?”

I was devastated that my mother had been reduced to a pile of parts. I ran out of the funeral home and dialed her number at a payphone, as though her answering machine was a portal to her spirit. I left a tearful message, apologizing for not defending her when the Rabbi referred to her as something so beneath her. I continued to call her number every day until it was disconnected and re-assigned, launching a pattern of one-way communication with her I never expected would evolve.

After the assault in the men’s locker room, when I realized that my mother could hear me, the quality of my life improved. I escaped my abusive relationship in the middle of the night and found my way back east, the landing place of my ancestors, to heal. I kept my relationship with my mother alive by making near-daily trips to the coastal Atlantic Ocean beach where her ashes were scattered.  It felt like a gateway I had to enter to reach her directly. At that beach, my mother recharged me as we spoke, helping me to find strength I had lost. All I had to do was ask her to come to me and she’d shower me in shimmering rays. This new way of communicating kept our relationship alive, even strengthening it, across worlds.


A few years later I moved west and tried to talk to her at the Pacific Ocean. The waves here are rough, my mother was not. I felt lost when I called for her into driftwood and haystack, like I was shouting into a black hole. For a whole year, our communication was blocked. I fell into the worst depression of my life. My mother had become unreachable, and I had no other family, living or dead, to speak to.

It took me a year to recall the coin-operated candles at the church altars I once visited with a Catholic friend. My friend would stand in the darkened foyer before the altar as the reflection of glowing plastic flames lit her guilty Catholic eyes. She would feed a quarter to a candle for each of her dead loved ones, mumbling God-words quietly as each tiny candle emulated its own perfect flame. She told me each dead relative’s name before she spoke to them, her eyes skyward, hands clasped to her heart.

“Where does the money go?” I interrupted.

“It goes to God,” she told me.

Remembering my childhood friend speaking to her dead grandfather with coin-fed plastic candles inspired me to try new methods to reach my mother. I bought candles, real ones. I created my own altar as a place to communicate with her. I covered my altar with photos of her so I could see her when I spoke, even adding some of her favorite things so she’d show up–a strand of prize tickets from her favorite arcade game, shells from the Atlantic Ocean, money, opium pods, and lots of chocolate gelt. I lit candles, meditated on our connection, and when the moment felt right I’d start talking. And there she was! My altar became a place to socialize with my mother, a place to ask for help and stay close with the most important relationship in my life. I literally talk to the dead, and it keeps me going.

Despite not being raised as a spiritual person, I’ve learned the importance of maintaining connections with those I have lost. When a person’s heart stops beating, it doesn’t mean the relationship must end. It may not be exactly the same, but its significance can be both indescribable and life-saving. After years of trying to communicate with my mother, she finally came to me at the moment of my assault. She hasn’t left me since.

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