Our CPR instructor was about an hour into her four-hour schpiel when she casually mentioned that when folks die on her she can feel their passed souls hovering around her.
She looks at us -- we are a class of three. I'm here because I hang out with my friend Will, who's 14 and has autism. If I get certified, I can get paid by the state to watch him. Besides me, there's a young woman here because she's opening a gym, and a middle-aged woman training to be an aqua aerobics instructor.
The CPR instructor wants to know if we're "with her" on her statement about souls whistling past her ears. I shrug and say, "Paranormal shit happens to me all the time."
"It does?!" she asks. Then she asks my classmates if they mind if I give an example. They don't mind. So I tell them the story of Fred: Last summer, back when I still wrote for the Dallas Morning News, I wrote a short piece about my sister Mare's high school boyfriend, Fred. When they were seniors, I was in seventh grade, but we all went to the same school bussed into a regional junior/senior high school from our tiny towns. Fred was a star football player. He was so tall, blond, sweet. He took an interest in me that left me breathless. I'd race to answer the ringing phone because if it was him calling for Mare, he'd first talk to me as if it were him for me. I loved him so much.
At one pep rally, the team appeared in drag and queens took to the stands to each select one "special fan" for the next game. Against all odds, Fred came up into the band bleachers where scrawny, nervous, sax-playing me sat squirming and, yes, he picked me. Fred died in a car crash a year later. I never forgot him, saw his number 73 everywhere (still do).
Months later, came a note from a woman in Dallas who said she'd read the piece so many times, would I contact Fred's family and send it to them? I was nervous at the prospect but eventually looked up Fred's brother, Neil, who was seven when Fred died. I left him a rambling, nervous message. Two weeks later, he called back, sorry for the delay, out of town, please send the story.
I did. More weeks passed. Then came an email from Brad, a brother I did know, one I'd mentioned in my essay. Brad was younger than Fred but older than me. We never spoke in school, though we shared a mutual best friend. He wrote to tell me the story and that it pained him greatly but thanks for writing it all down. He explained why he'd never talked to me -- despite his desire for someone to share his grief, that couldn't be me because seeing me reminded him of Fred and it was all too much.
We shared several emails, revisiting pain bottled for a quarter of a century. Then Brad disappeared and I can't say I blame him.
Next came the letter from Fred's mom. She too thanked me but pointed out the pain my story reopened for her. She enclosed a picture of Fred, in his football uniform, holding Neil. I keep that picture on the wall to the right of my computer. I look at it all the time. He looks exactly like I remembered with just one difference. In my memory, he was a man. Now I have lived to be twenty years older than he did, and I am mother to a son, and I can see he is a boy and I can see my son. It took some time before I could look at that picture without my stomach turning at the thought of the loss of him.
There's more to the story, I tell my CPR mates. I explain that when all this went down, I felt overwhelming compelled to attend a high school football game. I needed to revisit something. I had a new friend, Jeff, a sports nut and writer, who agreed to accompany. I told him the story of Fred before we left. After the game, I extracted from an envelope Fred's picture -- I'd brought him to the game with us.
It was a long drive that night -- the game was in Seguin and we kept getting lost so we had plenty of time to talk along the winding FM roads. I mentioned that a lot of paranormal stuff happens to me. Jeff, keeping his snort to a minimum, politely dismissed my claims. We talked about other stuff then. I quizzed him on what it's like to write for places like the Atlantic Monthly, in awe of this accomplishment of his.
A couple of days later, I got an email from a guy named Josh. Josh is the cousin of my friend Davy (Davy introduced Jeff and me). Josh lives in D.C. We were emailing because I'd been trying to track down people who lived in Russia I had friends heading that way and fancy myself the Great Connector. Davy told me Josh lived in Moscow for years, to try him for contacts.
For reasons still unclear, within two emails Josh casually mentioned the small town in NJ where he'd grown up. I paused. It was the town Fred grew up in. I emailed back with a copy of my Fred essay. Josh wrote back immediately -- he knew Fred -- he was best friends with Neil.
Though I'm not fond of the phone, and especially not fond of phone calls with strangers, I immediately needed to speak to Josh. I was crying and overwhelmed and he was pretty emotional himself. Over the course of our phone call, Josh pointed out that not only did he attend the same high school as me, eight years later, but he was in my baby sister's homeroom. And he had met me once before even though I'd graduated before he arrived. I'd come to the school in the eighties to be a guest speaker. Josh remembered the question he'd asked me, hoping to impress upon me his intelligence.
"What was your question?" I asked.
"I asked you what you thought of the Atlantic Monthly?"
"You did?" I laughed. "What did I say?"
"You said the Atlantic Monthly is pretentious."
I had to tell Jeff, the great disbeliever, this story immediately, leaving him to puzzle an entire day as he searched for a logical explanation. I told him not to bother.
This story went over well with the CPR gals. The woman next to me went on to tell about her brother who'd been shot, execution style, when he was 18 and she was 17. He's always with her, she said, as Fred has stayed with me. Our third classmate, a fan of sweat lodges and new age devices, tested my own ability to believe when she talked about her visions and the voices in her head and ancient dreams extracted by sitting on Peruvian rocks.
When we finally get down to the task of breathing life into the dummies, this woman stops what she’s doing (thus rendering her Rescue Andy brain-dead I suppose) and excitedly gestures toward the corner. The dead brother was in the room with us! She can feel him! Right over there!
What are the odds on a random
sunny Saturday afternoon in Austin 100% of a CPR class’s participants
would turn out to be firm believers in the supernatural? Don’t ask me—
that sort of shit happens to me all the time. Scoff all you want. But if
you drop dead at my feet, rest assured, even if I don’t manage to bring
you back, we’ll still be able to communicate about stuff once you’re