The Ghosts I’ve Seen

At four years old, I wanted to be a televangelist. I’d wake to a sleeping household on Sundays and sometimes warm up hotdogs under the faucet—if we had water—while I stood on a chair, and then—if we had electricity—I’d turn on the TV, a dusty console that sat on the floor as if it were a pulpit and the living room, a nave. I sat on my feet before the screen and watched a sweaty fat man pray. He asked me to send money I didn’t have for a blessing he convinced me I needed and told me to touch the screen to receive the healing grace of God. I obeyed.

I believed him, and I thought he was a kind of superhero. If he had the power to save, I reasoned my belief meant I could also talk to God. So, I did. My mother sometimes thought I had an imaginary friend, but because I’d heard the preacher use the phrase “Holy Ghost” and referred to God as a ghost, she more often concluded my new friend was a “haint” (A ghost or evil spirit that comes from the traditions of the Gullah Geechee people) or a “booger” (A Cherokee word that English-speaking tribal members used to refer to evil spirits and white people). I was haunted in a way, but I knew nothing about spirits or the dead then.

With a family of six, no one would expect a four-year-old to feel alone. I did. The chasm between the sleeping and the awake seemed too great to a child afraid of waking his father. God was my babysitter by default and the source of what I thought were superpowers. I often referred to coincidences as miracles. For years, if someone walked into a room when I was thinking of that person, that was a miracle. Déjà vu was divine influence. Nearly falling but catching my balance at the last second was—you guessed it—miraculous.

Most of my experience with the “supernatural” then, through the filter of the present, I categorize under the realm of imagination. Even with a skeptical mind, I’ve found and still find myself trying to explain away the supernatural, and I never reach satisfying conclusions. For instance, my immediate family unanimously agreed that the apartment we lived in during my spiritual revelation was haunted. Things like the lights flashing on and off are explainable, the same for strange noises. Having loud neighbors is hardly the spirit realm enlisting you into service.

However, more mysterious activity pervaded that home: A phone number remained on the kitchen wall. My mother could never scrub it away, and when my father painted over it, the number bled back through. Calling it resulted in a busy signal. I’ve called it almost every year and even now, there’s no answer—though the busy signal has since transformed to beeps and squeals of a fax machine. With no one making a move, the vacuum cleaner would also turn itself on and off regularly. Glasses, plates, books, and toys fell off shelves, and as I grew up, I attributed those bizarre experiences to chemical reactions between ink and paint, electrical problems, and having neighbors who shook the apartment with footsteps that we simply couldn’t perceive, yet one instance stands out in my mind.

One night, while my parents watched television and my younger sisters and I were taking a bath, the bathroom sink’s faucet handles turned on full blast by themselves and scared us all out of the tub, to the point that we ran naked and soapy into the living room for help. My father erupted and spanked us. He said something about water pressure turning on the sink, went to his toolbox for his hammer and screwdriver, and then began tinkering. As the water slowed, we heard him tap the handles secure. By the time he put his tools away and sat down, the water rushed as furiously as before. I never saw him that drained of color again until the day he was sentenced to prison for violating his probation and then at his funeral.

The family discussed the haunting for so long that I can chart my childhood by how I responded to those conversations. In elementary school, I believed that God was showing me the spiritual world existed. This was reinforced by seeing my grandfather’s ghost three days after he died, which was reinforced even further when my father told me that at the age of six he had played with the ghost of his cousin Eddie for three days after the child had died from being hit by a car. Having grown up with Native and Appalachian traditions, the supernatural was as real to me as a forest divided by a highway, a whole only superficially disconnected. By middle school and high school, agnosticism then atheism and anger had me ridicule the thought of ghosts and God, that anything beyond suffering and death was fantasy and that poverty was what really haunted the family. I even mocked my mother as she swung on a porch swing at her mother’s house and asked her to give me a sign from the beyond if she were to die before me.

“Mom, that’s all bullshit. The water turned on. You know water pressure can do a lot, right?”

“Yeah, that’s true, hon, but that apartment didn’t have much water pressure. Don’t you remember everything else?” She scratched at her head, and I knew she was getting frustrated with me.

“How do we know the faucet’s washers or valves weren’t damaged?” I asked.

“That sink and faucet were new.” She straightened her back and laughed, almost looking like a child at a park.

“Well, I’ll ask one thing—”

“What’s that?” She interrupted.

“If you die before I do, turn the water on for me.” I smiled at her as if that were a QED tacked to the end of our conversation. This is an acronym that means “quod erat demonstrandum,” which translates to “which was to be demonstrated.” It’s usually placed at the end of a philosophical argument or mathematical proof.

“Fine. I will.”

My mother died three-and-a-half years ago, a week after her open-heart surgery. My sisters and I scream-cried into that humid April night after Grady Memorial Hospital’s staff resuscitated her three times only to fail the fourth time. Though I’d questioned God’s existence for decades, I prayed as sincerely as I had in that living room more than thirty years before but wasn’t answered. I thought back to my request and how cruel it was to have said that to my mother. My guilt choked me until I sat on the couch with my wife three days after Mom’s death and talked about that night in the tub and then the challenge I issued her so many years later.

“You need to take care of yourself. Not sleeping or eating isn’t what your mom would’ve wanted.” Kimberly rubbed at my head as if she were massaging the truth into me.

“I know, but I can’t stop thinking about every way I hurt her. I’d laugh at her ghost shows, despite everything I ever saw. What’s wrong with me?” My back ached from crying so much, an ache only a whisper of the grief in me.

“Everyone has regrets about their parents, bab—what’s that?” As Kim stood up, the sound that was at first faint static grew to a loud rushing noise.

“Stop.” I bolted from the couch. Like a scene cut from a movie, the water poured as if my mother were rinsing my dirty dishes. “It’s Mom.”

Though I can’t prove that anything I’ve experienced means God must exist or that there is a life after death, I certainly believe both are very real. Maybe I always have, but the grit of life got in my eyes. Maybe we enter a new phase. Like water evaporated from the ground, our fundamental essence possibly takes some other state of being. Maybe not. It could be that we see things as we prefer to perceive them, but however you or I interpret what we see of that other mode of existence, I know that an imperfect world must be met with humility and an open mind. Witness your life. Draw your own conclusions.


Joshua Eric Williams is a disabled veteran from Carrollton, Georgia. Much of his work focuses on poverty and the supernatural. Growing up without water and electricity for extended periods of time left its mark on his ideas about art, society, and God.