I’ve always been curious about the supernatural. When I was a kid, I begged my parents for a subscription to the Time Life “Mysteries Of The Unknown” book series and spent hours paging through the thin, hardbound black books and gawking at blurry photos of Big Foot and fuzzy, unexplained lights hovering in formation over some lonely mesa in New Mexico.
But the volume I found most captivating was about mediums. The idea that a person could function as a mystical transistor radio and pick up messages from the afterworld thrilled and terrified me. I was especially fascinated by a woman who had lived a century earlier and had ceremoniously oozed ectoplasm from her orifices ― sometimes in the shape of a gooey hand or even someone’s face ― whenever she spoke with the dead.
I had so many questions: Could we really come back, even if just for a few seconds, in the form of a mysterious, garbled memo beamed into the head of someone with the ability to pick up these ghostly radio waves, and if so, what would we say? What would it feel like to hear them ― to be reached by someone who had left Earth but hadn’t entirely left their earthly life behind?
Determined to find out, I tried to initiate conversations with spirits in my bedroom before I fell asleep. I’d offer up an open invitation to whoever or whatever might be floating by our house, whispering, “If there’s anyone here who wants to talk to me, I’m listening! Don’t be afraid!”
I was never completely sure if I was trying to convince the ghosts or myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. I didn’t know what I’d do if one actually showed up or, heaven help me, I started dripping ectoplasm from my ears, but it didn’t really matter because I never got a response.
Because I still wanted to be part of this strange, magical world that I hoped but wasn’t entirely persuaded existed, I decided that if I couldn’t be a medium, I would study them, and I wrote to the parapsychology institute at Duke University about my plan. This was the ’80s, years before our culture’s current infatuation with the paranormal, and some sweet research assistant was kind enough to indulge this 10-year-old weirdo by mailing me a few crudely photocopied studies about psychokinesis and remote viewing, none of which I understood.
By the time I got to college, I realized I had no apparent extrasensory abilities and I wasn’t good enough at science or math to earn a spot at a foundation attempting to prove that life exists after death, so I began indulging in my only other option: visiting psychics.
My first experience was at a shop in downtown Minneapolis when I was 18. It had a neon crystal ball glowing in its window and a weathered sandwich board sign offering a $10 reading leaning next to its door. When I finally got the courage to go inside, I found a middle-aged woman chain-smoking at a table crowded with a half-eaten carton of soggy fries, a pack of tarot cards, and a small TV.
She seemed annoyed that I was interrupting the episode of “Oprah” she was watching, but she motioned for me to sit down. After I handed her my money, she asked to see my palm. She looked at it for just a few seconds before warning me that the ghost of an ex-girlfriend was ruining my life. Her voice got lower and quieter as she emphasized how grave my situation was, but she perked up when she told me not to worry — because she could banish the ghost if I gave her another $150. Seeing as I was gay and had never been on date, much less had a girlfriend, I was unimpressed.
Still, I wanted to believe. I wanted there to be something ― someones! ― waiting for us in the great waiting room in the sky. So, I continued to visit psychics throughout my 20s ... and I continued to be disappointed. No matter who I met or where I met them, no one ever gave me a reading that felt remotely genuine or accurate or personal. If the dead could talk, they had nothing to say to any of these so-called psychics ― or me.
Then, when I was 28, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He had never smoked, he walked several miles a day with his beloved Tibetan terrier, Harry, and he always took a handful of vitamins and supplements with breakfast. He loved his life, his family ― especially my mom ― and his job, and he wanted to live as long as he could so he could enjoy all of it for as long as he could.
Cancer didn’t care.
Within five months, he was transformed from the sharpest, smartest, sweetest man I have ever known into a slobbering, writhing, moaning 80-pound zombie. Four weeks after he became the monster in our very own horror movie, he was dead. I was devastated.
My mom, the toughest woman I have ever known (or will ever know), wasn’t just devastated; she was destroyed. My parents had been together for over three decades and they had the kind of love you’d swear was a sham ― that it must have been engineered in some perky, permanently-Christmas-decorated laboratory deep within the offices of the Hallmark Channel ― because there was no way it could be that pure or unwavering. But it was.
With my dad gone, my mom had no idea how she was going to keep living and, honestly, had no real interest in it, but she clung to my brothers and me and somehow strung one day to the next until they piled up and began to almost resemble something like a life again. But none of us were fooled ― least of all her ― and we knew nothing would ever be the same.
Ironically, I didn’t try to reach my dad after he died. Before his death, my obsession with mediums had been merely theoretical ― a quaint hobby, a low-stakes leisure activity, a fun way to spend 50 bucks on a Saturday afternoon. Now, everything was different.
He visited me in my dreams sometimes, and it was good to see him healthy again ― almost glowing ― in his old body, even if he didn’t say much, but even that was almost more than I could take. Part of me was afraid of what would happen if I tried contacting him and he didn’t show up. Would that mean he was truly gone? That there was nothing waiting for us out there? Or, maybe worse, that he didn’t care enough to come back? Part of me was afraid of what would happen if I tried contacting him and he did show up. Would that mean he wasn’t at peace? And what would he say? Would I want to hear it?
Two and a half years after his death, I was working at a magazine and I was given the opportunity to interview a medium. This man had a reputation for knowing things that people just shouldn’t know, and I was curious to find out if he might actually be able to do the things that so many others claimed they could but couldn’t. We met at a restaurant in Manhattan that was supposedly haunted and filmed a fairly fluffy, lighthearted video about his unusual ability.
The interview went well. The medium was kind and humble and seemed more like a middle school principal than someone who spent his days relaying messages from dead relatives. When we finished, we had lunch together at the restaurant, and after some friendly small talk, he asked me if I wanted a reading.
I was caught off guard. Because I was there for business, not pleasure, and because I knew he charged hundreds of dollars and was booked years in advance, I didn’t think he would offer me a reading. I told him that it wasn’t necessary but he said it was no trouble ― this was just what he did ― and that he’d be happy to show me how it worked. So, I agreed. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wondering if my dad might show up, but I also didn’t want to get my hopes up.
Whenever I visit a psychic, I always use the same protocol: I don’t provide more information than I need to, I respond with nothing more than a “yes” or “no,” and I’m always on the lookout for questions like, “do you know someone who passed with a name that begins with J or M?” or “did someone die from some kind of disease in their chest?” that are suspiciously vague and could apply to any number of people. I wanted this man to be different from the other mediums I had seen, but I wasn’t going to make it easy for him.
He began the reading by telling me there was a short, loudmouthed woman with red hair standing behind me and she was pointing to herself and saying “Ethel.”
“Ethel! Ethel! Ethel! She’s practically yelling it. Is this your grandma?” he asked.
My dad’s mom was a short, loudmouthed redhead and she looked exactly like the actress Ethel Merman ― so much so, that we used to call her that. Now, obviously, lots of grandmas are short and have big mouths and some have red hair and some are named Ethel, but the combination of the four together made me wonder if something unusual was unfolding. What’s more, because her name wasn’t actually Ethel ― that was just a nickname my family gave her ― this wasn’t something that this man could have Googled. I told him that I understood what he was saying but didn’t elaborate on exactly what part meant something to me. Still, just 30 seconds in, he officially had my attention.
The next 10 minutes of the reading were a blur of people and events and comments like “there’s someone here who owned a bakery in the ’20s or ’30s and they were known for their little pies.” Since I don’t know much about my extended family or my ancestors, most of it meant nothing to me, but I liked that he was giving me specific details, even if I couldn’t confirm or deny any of them.
Other than the appearance of the woman who might have been my grandma, most of the reading felt like paging through a friend’s photo album or attending a reunion for someone else’s family. A lot of folks I didn’t know were showing up to say hi, none of them had anything they really wanted to tell me, and, most disappointingly, there was no sign of my dad.
Suddenly, the medium straightened up in his chair.
“Oh. There’s a man here with Ethel. I think it’s her son. Does this mean anything to you?” he asked.
“Yes,” I responded, maybe too eagerly.
“Did your dad pass recently, Noah?” he continued.
“I think this is him and he has a message. Do you want to hear it?”
I inhaled sharply and held my breath longer than it wanted to be held.
Could it really be my dad? Could the ghost of the guy who didn’t believe in ghosts or God or heaven or hell or the existence of anything after death except falling into the deepest, darkest, soundest sleep really have whooshed off whatever cloud he’d been sunbathing on and into this little cafe to slip me some secret he hadn’t managed to share while he was still alive? And, if so, what could it be?
“Yes, I want to hear it,” I told him.
“OK. He’s saying this very clearly ― I can hear him very clearly ― ‘Tell Ruth I love her.’”
My entire body went numb. My mom’s middle name was Ruth and even though no one called her that, for as long as my parents had been together, my dad had only ever referred to her as Ruthie. It was stunning, but not at all surprising. If my father were given one more chance to say anything to anyone, this would be it.
“Oh, there’s something else. He wants you to tell Ruth that she can get rid of his ties now. He’s saying it’s time to let them go.”
Again, I was shocked. My dad had been an attorney and he had an incredible collection of neckties. Whenever he’d go on vacation, he’d buy a tie from whatever country he visited and, aside from his watches, which he’d given to my brothers and me just weeks before he died, they were his prize possessions. I also knew that though my dad had died years earlier, my mom still hadn’t been able to get rid of his things.
My brothers and I didn’t push her to, either. We figured there was no harm in our dad’s closet staying full until whenever she was ready ― even if that took another 10 or 20 or 50 years. But here was my dad, my mom’s greatest champion and biggest fan, raising whatever phantom energy he could muster to try to nudge her to something closer to closure. Everything I’d just been told made complete sense ― and it made no sense at all.
The reading ended shortly after that, and I thanked the medium. On my way back to my office, my body thrummed with the energy and peculiarity of what had just happened. I felt like I’d eaten three Thanksgiving dinners and then rode a rollercoaster on repeat for a week. My stomach was flip-flopping, my head was pounding and my heart felt 16 times too big for my chest.
But what, exactly, had just happened? How could this man have known those things? Could he have Googled me and found my dad’s obituary? My mom’s middle name? A photo of my grandma? But what about “Ethel?” And how could he have known about the ties still hanging in my dad’s closet? Did he just guess that, like many lawyers, he had a lot of them and, like many widows, my mom still hadn’t given them away?
I wanted to believe, but I couldn’t shake my skepticism. I’d had too many experiences with too many fakes. Still, I understood why so many people spend so much money on mediums ― often, more money than they should or have to spend. The chance, however slim, to hear from my dad was just too enticing to turn down, and making contact with him, however improbable, had been intoxicating.
I called my mom. I wasn’t sure she would believe what I had to tell her, but I wanted her to hear it.
“Mom, I just finished interviewing that medium and he claims that Dad showed up,” I told her.
“What!” she responded with a mix of incredulity and excitement.
“And he had a message. He said, ‘Tell Ruth I love her.’”
I could hear her begin to cry.
“That’s not all ― I know you haven’t gotten rid of dad’s stuff yet...”
“Well...” she said through her tears.
“What?” I asked.
“I didn’t tell you this, but I finally took it all to Goodwill a few weeks ago,” she said.
“Oh ... that’s so weird. Because ‘Dad’ wanted me to tell you that you can get rid of his ties. He said it’s time to let them go.”
My mom began to sob.
When she could finally catch her breath, she said, “Noah ... the only thing I didn’t get rid of were his ties. They’re still in the closet. I just couldn’t...”
Now we were both crying.
Even if the medium had guessed that my dad had a tie collection and even if he had guessed that my mom had held on to them for two and a half years after his death, there was no way he could have known that those were the only things she had kept. Only my mom had known that. It was just too much.
I’ve seen more mediums since that experience, but my dad has never come through again. If it was really him that day, maybe he said exactly what he needed to say and then thought, I trust you all to take the things I taught you when I was with you and keep going. You’ve got this! I’m going back to sleeping or eating all the angel food cake my ghost belly can take or doing whatever else my ghost heart desires, and I’ll see you soon enough.
Maybe he’s been reincarnated as a rhino or a potato or a brand-new human doing the same old human things somewhere on the other side of the planet. Maybe it wasn’t him and I got tricked. Maybe when he died, he died, and he’s dead and that’s just the way it goes. I don’t know.
But here’s what I do know.
I know my mom believes my dad is out there somewhere looking out for her and rooting her on and waiting for her to join him, and I love that my experience meant something to her and solidified something for her and maybe makes every day without him a little less miserable. I know that even if the message wasn’t real, what that medium said was real, and I will always welcome any reminder of my father’s otherworldly love ― and how it shaped who I am ― whenever and however I can get it. Call me sentimental. Call me stupid. I can take it.
I know that we don’t talk about death enough, and because we don’t, those of us left behind can feel especially lonely and incredibly alone. I know that grief isn’t straightforward or predictable and, while time may help loosen its grip on us, it can linger for years ― forever ― and sneak up on us when we least expect it. I know that the further I get from my dad’s death, the harder it is to keep him here with me, to hear his voice, and the harder I have to ― and want to ― work to tether him to my life.
Because of that, even if I still don’t know if I believe in ghosts (though I really want to!), I know I believe in ghost stories. I know I believe in the power of words — of calling to those who have left this world and finding whatever other parts of them we can find wherever we can find them.
I know I believe in memories and the weight and beauty they carry, and what they are capable of when we silently conjure them before we fall asleep or speak them out loud and share them with each other. I know I believe that remembering is how we pull our pasts into the present, and I believe in the potential remembering has to create and form and transform our futures.
I don’t know if my dad was with me that day, but I know that if my dad were to take the trouble to return here on that day or ever again, he would come back exactly as he supposedly did for nothing less than love, and that each incandescent word he sent to bloom in the mouth of whatever medium is lucky enough to greet his spirit for however long we’re lucky enough to have him here on this plane again would be nothing short of magic, and ― real or imaginary, true or false, ghost or grift ― that’s a gift.
Noah Michelson is the Head of HuffPost Personal and the co-host of HuffPost’s “Am I Doing It Wrong?” podcast. He joined HuffPost in 2011 to launch and oversee the site’s first vertical dedicated to queer issues, Queer Voices, and went on to oversee all of HuffPost’s community sections before pivoting to create and run HuffPost Personal in 2018. He received his MFA in Poetry from New York University and has served as a commentator for the BBC, MSNBC, Entertainment Tonight, Current TV, Fuse, and Sirius XM. You can find more from him on Twitter and Instagram.