Back home in Maine for the summer after my first year of college, I was pitter-pattering around in the basement one night, and eating a whole bag of Keebler Rainbow cookies, washing them down with sips from lime-less Coronas. I decided to pull out my dad’s old 8mm film projector and watch footage he had captured in his early 20s.
I watched my parent’s honeymoon in the Smoky Mountains; shots of bears approaching their car. After a film ended, the film strip would slap around as the reel still rotated. You had to push the stop button, slide the final frame of the film strip back into the original reel, ensure it was snug in its slot. You had to push in the control dial on the top of the projector until it engaged a gear, then you had to crank it over to the other side until it clicked with a sprocket that would reverse a motor’s direction. Finally, to initiate the rewind, you had to press another button to trigger the take-up spindle and the thwip thwip thwip would punctuate as it spooled. I watched a few films. I repeated these steps a few times.
While I was watching a film of a white water rafting trip he and some buddies had gone on down the Colorado River, I felt a weight on the other side of the couch. The springs below echoed a tinny twang, as if someone was taking a seat next to me. But I was the only one down there. I thought maybe the couch was just shoddy, not handling my own weight very well. The film reached the end, there was a brief rat-tat-tat as the film strip went around and around, then the projector suddenly stopped. Seconds later it started rewinding on its own, before I could reach up and repeat the rigorous process of click, crank, click, click. I got chills. It seemed I maybe I did have a visitor.
In August of the summer prior, my dad died from adenocarcinoma, an aggressive form of cancer that originated in his pleural cavity and quickly spread into his spine. When I found out he had passed, I was at my college orientation. At that point we had learned the prognosis that his treatments weren’t stopping the rapid tumor growth. We thought we had another few weeks with him.
I had arrived in Chicago the evening before orientation, lurked around the dorms, made a few friends and had a good time. I was feeling relaxed and excited for the future. The next morning I awoke feeling sick to my stomach. Breakfast was provided, but I couldn’t eat it. I thought maybe I was just nervous. Then one of the advisors came into the breakfast room and asked if there was a “Jeff Phillips present?” and when I identified myself she requested that I come with her. I followed her into the other room – I was thinking I must have screwed up some paperwork – and she introduced me to a man named Marc, one of my dad’s childhood friends. I had heard stories of him, his nickname was Frog growing up, a nickname he hated, and I didn’t dare resurrect it. I said it was nice to meet him and he said I should call my mother. I asked him what it was about. He said I should hear from my mom. I then knew what it was about.
This was just before I had a cell phone. My mom had tried all morning to reach me but no one was answering the phones at Columbia College-Chicago, probably because every staff member was tied up with orientation. So she reached out to an old friend of my dad’s that lived in the South Loop, just a few blocks away, and asked him to help by delivering news that there was news. I was escorted to a small room with a phone and I tried calling my mom at our home phone, a landline, for almost an hour, but was met with a busy signal. I just wanted to get through to hear possibly that what I thought this was about would actually turn out to be the exact opposite, that he was cured overnight! Finally, I got through and she picked up. And she shared the news: dad died.
My nausea that morning then made sense. My gut knew what had happened before Marc showed up. My brain wanted to delay that crushing revelation.
His departure left a palpable void. My dad was a family man. He was there at all of my and my brother’s baseball games, cross country ski meets, school plays, any activity we picked up for a bit and for however long we stuck with it. A big lover of music, he’d introduce us to a variety of oldies on mix tapes he’d make for us to listen to on car rides, around town or for extended road trips. The Animals. The Turtles. The Doors. The Beatles. And I enjoyed the hell out of those songs. The quality of record scratch etched onto tape was a detail just as elemental to the composition for me and my memories of the music. He’d make time to join us on the couch on Friday nights for popcorn and TV when we were younger. A simple American activity, but a cozy and cherished one. So it was fitting his phantom might return to a spot on the sofa to view some projected images.
As I grew to be a teenager, the family couch nights dwindled in number. My dad and I still got along, but there was some distance. As high school progressed, I became more interested in things like beer, and weed; things he’d rather not see or hear of me doing, despite the stories of his wild man days.
But lurking in the basement, drinking those Coronas, maybe it was time for father and son to share a beer. Maybe I could have set the bottle down on the coffee table in front of the side of the couch indented from an unseen force, and seen the liquid’s level go down. But it’s hard releasing a clutch on glass when your drinking companion is an unexpected manifestation. Passing it down to share a swig is a nice afterthought, but not an easy instinct when only a year later you’re still adjusting to the absence.
Several years after the projector self-rewound, I was home for Christmas break. Three nights in a row I woke up to a Beatles CD playing track 6: Let it Be from the album that shared the same name. For three nights in a row the track clicked on and blared from the stereo in the family room downstairs. I seemed to be the only one that heard it. I stirred from bed, became cognizant of the music, and stumbled downstairs to turn the stereo off. I’d stand there confused and curious for a few moments, then climbed my way back up to bed.
It didn’t fully hit me at the time of these incidents, the projector and the stereo acting of their own accord, that I was being visited. Or maybe it did, but my mind threw itself into a cautious freeze. Or maybe my inner shyness tripped me up, got my tongue, and tugged me to dig my feet hard into reality on this side of the universe.
Years after college, I had a phase where I religiously watched all of those ghost shows. Ghost Hunters. Ghost Lab. Ghost Adventures. Paranormal State. My mom had since moved from that house where I had grown up and my father had died, but I wished I could get my hands on the same equipment these paranormal investigation shows used in their lockdowns, and go visit home to see if I could catch more signs of my dad. Even more than that, I wished I had thought the same way these ghosting guys thought, back when the weight on the other side of the couch had shifted and the projector spun in reverse, back when Let It Be was on the soundtrack to my 3 AM awakenings. I wished I had gone and grabbed a tape recorder, let it run, and engage in the conversations I didn’t get to have with him. I wish I had embraced the moment, even if it was an illusion, and listened to the playback of the tapes, using imagination to stretch any static burst into coherent responses to questions. Because even if it were an illusion, it’s still communication, and filled with far fewer regrets than standing there, remaining silent, and moseying away.
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