By Frank S. Costanza
It is usually around 3 a.m. when my ghosts arrive.
My pre-dawn visitors, whose visits, coincidentally enough, tend to fall after I’ve eaten some type of fried Southern dish or spicy Mexican food the evening before, have traditionally taken the form of my deceased grandparents, jilted lovers and K.C., the 12-year-old son of a former co-worker who passed away a decade ago after a lifelong battle with lymphoma.
Though I feel bad using the word “ghosts,” especially since part of me looks forward to those one-on-one encounters with loved ones I haven’t seen in the flesh for years, there are no other words, at least to my knowledge, to describe those ghostly visitors who routinely break my sleep and invade my thoughts in the dead of night.
What has changed, at least in the past three years, is the frequency of the visits from one particular “ghost” whose life—and tragic death—will forever be entangled with mine.
John’s most recent visit surprised me, though I should have expected it after a late dinner of country fried chicken enjoyed only hours before at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Albany, which was consumed hours after the 135 Travers Stakes was held at Saratoga Springs.
Without any warning, we were both seventh-graders again in shop class. But instead of learning how to make wooden birdhouses, I am sitting quietly as our teacher belittles John for being late and for lacking “discipline.” The latter proved to be a trait that our shop teacher, who no doubt failed miserably in some creative aspect of his life, saw fit to criticize time and time again after learning that John wanted to be a Marine.
“You lack the discipline to be a Marine,” our shop teacher would proclaim, despite the fact that he was way too soft in the middle to know whether or not his hurtful statement was accurate.
The least I can say is that our teacher was wrong: John had what it took to be a decorated Marine, not to mention a loving husband, father, brother, son.
Other times I am haunted by the last time I spoke with John, in the summer of 2001. Though we hadn’t seen each other in years, John was the first cousin of my best friend. We crossed paths, only for a few minutes, at my friend’s house. John, who was recently divorced, could not stay long because he was meeting his fiancée.
He was in great spirits, and I wish I could remember him just like that. But my thoughts, and the knowledge of other events leading to his death, cannot allow that to happen.
It is at the darker times of the night when my imagination wanders and I’m forced to watch, like Scrooge and the ghosts who visited him, as John calls his loved ones from the 101st floor of the World Trade Center minutes after the terrorist attacks on September 11. I listen helplessly as he tells those on the other end of the line about the unbearable heat and the people jumping from windows to escape the flames.
Other times I’m sitting in a bar again on September 12, 2001, trying to console my best friend about his cousin, who had not been heard from since the collapse of the Twin Towers.
Suddenly, without any warning, I’m sitting in a pew listing to a memorial service for John, though no body or remains had yet to be found to comfort his mourning family.
And then it happened.
One day late last month, there was a knock on the door, and John’s family was informed that a medical examiner had positively identified John—at least part of his remains that survived the attack. My best friend did not care how they did it, he was just pleased that his family would have some aspect of closure regarding John’s death.
While also relieved for John’s family, my thoughts, as they naturally do, cannot help but wonder how a medical examiner managed such an incredible feat.
I cannot believe that someone sifted through preserved human remains, as well as thousands of DNA samples, with the faint hope of trying to ease the pain endured by yet another family.
I also wonder who visits him at three in the morning.
*Originally published in the 9/9/04 edition of The Southampton Press