This story is by Denise Burrows and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I was more than ready to go. Surgeries, chemo, and radiation had pared my body and spirit down to a twisted, pain-ridden, shell. Life was a series of ever-worsening cancer treatments.
My family — bless them — encouraged me to keep trying, fight the good fight, stay strong. But my few years as a golf pro taught me how to calculate the odds of victory. And if the slow drip of poison into your veins doesn’t wake you up to your mortality, the lit-up scan results will.
That last hospital stay was my launching pad. The long faces on the doctors and nurses told the story, even if my family didn’t get it. As I strained for every breath, I realized I didn’t need to work so hard. Just a few breaths here and there would do. I got lighter and lighter, until the pain and struggle ended. I drifted out of my body to the ceiling.
My wife Cindy gave an anguished moan. A beeping alarm sounded, and a doctor came in. He glanced at the machines hooked to me, checked my neck pulse, and said, “I’m sorry. He’s gone.” Quietly, the doctor disconnected the machines.
Cindy cried in deep, wailing sobs. For a while, I watched sadly. Then I knew in my soul, or whatever was left of me, that she’d be all right. My family would be fine; relief surged through me.
A warm, white light enveloped me, and a tunnel opened — just like people said. You could have knocked me over with a feather, especially since I was pretty much a feather myself. When I moved toward the tunnel, my brother-in-law whispered something to my cousin.
Now, I’ll just pause here to explain that my brother-in-law was a devious weasel, a weak, lazy slob pampered by my dear, sweet mother-in-law. But if I learned anything in my 30 plus years with Cindy, it was that Steve was part of the package and not a topic for rational discussion.
What he whispered to my cousin, though, at the very moment of my death, was: “Joe promised me his golf clubs.”
All the peaceful relief left me, replaced by a yearning that had dogged me for years — the desire to punch Steve in his skinny, unshaven face. I dropped down to his side and let loose with a big smack. But my fist went right through; I couldn’t even dislodge the self-satisfied smirk he wore.
When I looked up, the welcoming light and the tunnel were gone. I yelled, “Hey, I’m still here. Open up!”
Nothing happened. I had missed my chance to enter eternity.
That’s how I joined the ragtag gang of restless ghosts. Because of a procedural glitch in the cosmic machinery. Because of a set of golf clubs, really.
I met Lenny, a fellow ghost, in the park near the hospital. He clued me in to my new world. “Most ghosts are here because of their sudden, traumatic deaths. They dash around madly like sheep in a hailstorm or drift aimlessly in their former homes.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em.”
“But we’re not all lost, Joe. I passed on the portal to take care of unfinished business — my son. He’s a great kid, but you know how it is with teenagers.”
I nodded my now-transparent head.
“My death hit him hard. I want him to get through the next few months. Once he graduates from high school, he’ll be on his way.”
“How do you do that? Keep him going?”
“I haunt his dreams. We can communicate with our people when they’re dreaming.” Lenny paused, then asked, “Do you have unfinished business, Joe?”
I thought about my fine TaylorMade clubs. Putting them in Steve’s paws would be like giving a surgeon’s scalpel to a chimpanzee. I had intended them for Brandon, a caddie at my club who had more talent in his thin, rangy body than lots of pros. Question was — had I told Cindy? For the afterlife of me, I couldn’t remember.
“Maybe,” I said.
Lenny went over the basics of dream haunting, and I was at my old home by nightfall. A little smile flitted across my face when I saw my clubs sitting in the corner of the garage like always. I floated upstairs and found Cindy in a tearful talk on Zoom with a woman I’d never seen before.
“Yeah,” she said, “I’m managing. But one thing nags at me.”
The woman on the screen frowned sadly. “What’s that?”
“Well, Joe, he . . . never . . . he never told me he loved me.” Cindy sniffed and wiped her eyes.
Ah, jeez! I couldn’t believe it. I’d loved her since the eighth grade. My whole life was dedicated to her and the kids. The grief counselor and Cindy chattered on while I felt worse than a guy without a body ever should.
That night was my first try at dream haunting. Once Cindy dropped off, I got right in bed with her, like old times. “Sweetie” I said, “I always loved you. So much! I’m just not great at talking about my feelings. You know that.”
After watching her sleep for a while, I added, “Oh, and don’t let Steve have my clubs. Give ‘em to that caddie, Brandon, ok?”
Cindy rolled over and sighed. I hung around the next morning because seeing her made me so happy. Then, right in the middle of blow drying her hair, she looked up at the ceiling and said, “Oh, Joe. Couldn’t you tell me you loved me just once?”
When I told Lenny about this later, he said, “Keep trying. It’s hard to break into their dreams.”
For the next several weeks, dream haunting occupied my every night. I saw my error, and even gave up talking about the golf clubs. Who cared when Cindy needed those three little words from me?
Meanwhile, spring turned on every flower and bird. Spring, the season for fresh starts. Lenny met me one morning with a big smile. “He did it. My boy. He graduated.”
“Wow, that’s great!” Lenny was free of his unfinished business. I wasn’t sure about mine.
“Look, Joe,” Lenny said, “I’ve got an idea about how to get out of here, move on. The hospital. People die there all the time. Maybe we can sneak through to eternity with someone else. What do you say?”
“Sure. Give me a few more days.” I was getting close with Cindy.
“OK. But hurry up.” Lenny laughed. “I’m so happy, I’m flying. Can’t stay here much longer.”
I stopped by the garage that night on my way to haunt Cindy’s dreams, and the clubs were still there. A fine layer of dust covered them. Seeing them that way brought me down. Somebody should be using them to play what Arnie Palmer called “the greatest game mankind has ever invented.”
Hell, maybe even Steve. Golf might teach him discipline and patience. No fools succeed in golf. But the clubs weren’t my problem anymore. I had more important unfinished business.
Upstairs, I found Cindy talking to her counselor again. More tears, but happy ones.
“I saw him!” she said, “In my dream. Oh, he looked like his old self. Healthy and strong. And he said, ‘Cindy, I love you more than anything. I love you, baby!’”
Finally, I’d broken into her dreams! Joy rushed through my ghostly being. I felt as free and easy as a soaring bird, a summer’s breeze, a baby’s laugh. I gave Cindy a kiss on her cheek, and she smiled.
That night, Lenny and I roamed the hospital corridors. “Let’s head to critical care,” he said. “The wee hours, that’s the best time.”
The first guy we tried to join pushed back. “Find your own portal! This one’s all mine.”
But a sweet old lady smiled when we asked. “Come on, boys,” she said, “Let’s go. Time to break on through.”
So, we did.