On the Ghosts of Grand Rapids Tour, I learn that a tenant who rented an apartment on the fourth floor of the Morton building was discovered sitting in her living room one day, burned to a crisp.
Nothing in her apartment was burned save for her, the recliner she rested in, and the charred puddle on the floor in which the recliner sat.
At the time, morticians wrote “accidental death by smoking cigarettes” on her birth certificate. The lady never smoked a day in her life.
“Today,” the guide said, “we know this as spontaneous combustion.”
I’m suspicious of ghost stories, and yet I suspect the truth: the lady caught fire because life rubbed her too hard, and now, decades later, current residents spot her apparition on the fourth floor, preceded by the reek of burning human flesh.
The tour guide was dressed in a costume of cheap green fabric. “Each tour guide will portray a member of Grand Rapids’ past to heighten your historical experience,” the website read. Of the three tour guides, none told us whom, specifically, they represented. The lone male guide dressed in an authentic Civil War uniform and carried around a canteen full of Propel. As he took a swig, he told us that he used to fill it with alcohol.
The cringe as he swallowed made me wonder whether he was haunted by the memory, or if he just missed the liquor.
“Have you ever been to an alcohol anonymous meeting?” my co-worker asked me one morning. “You should go sometime. Even if you’re not an alcoholic. The first thing they tell you is that you’re always recovering. I went to one once. This guy, Tom, stood up and said: Hi. My name is Tom. I’m an alcoholic. I’ve been sober for eighteen years. But this weekend, I had a drink. And then another. And another. And another. And then the bottle was gone.”
The term remission carries any of the following denotations:
1. The relinquishment of a payment, obligation, etc.
2. Pardon; forgiveness, as of sins or offenses
3. A temporary or permanent decrease or subsidence of manifestations of a disease
The first two definitions imply the ultimate degree of permanence, of grace covering a debt or mistake. The third definition, however, is fickler. It carries the connotation that most of us associate with remission. It means: Healed. Maybe. For now, at least.
There was a time in my life when I was not so depressed that I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, but depressed enough to crawl back into bed as soon as I got the chance.
“Will this ever go away?” I asked a counselor.
He stared at me, then slowly shook his head. “It’ll get easier though.”
Ghost stories always exhibit the same cycle; apparitions appear in the same spaces, doing the same things. As if on replay, the lady will always appear on the fourth floor and, like a trigger, always preceded by the smell of burning flesh.
Sometimes, I remember life the same way.
Hi. My name is Cassie. There’s forever a part of me stuck in the loop of crawling in and out of bed.
It’s astounding, really, the number of conditions from which humans are always recovering: addiction, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, depression. Anything hurtful someone says or does that we can’t seem to erase from our minds. Even physical illnesses carry the scars of memories.
In “Caves,” Andrew McMahon writes of his chemotherapy:
And she sings
my bird dressed in white
and she stings
my arm in the night
The memories of nurses and needles haunt him long after his treatments are over. Physically, he’s recovered. Mentally, he might always fight cancer.
In this way, any pain we experience isn’t so different from spontaneous combustion—life rubs too hard one day, and suddenly, we all have ghosts.
A reporter approached my friend and I after the tour.
“Do you believe in this stuff?” she asked.
I believe in ghosts’ stories more than I believe in their presence. I believe in what our ghosts must promise us: that suffering doesn’t exist simply for the sake of existing, that the end of life is more than a cigarette, that there’s matter to the pain we experience, and that somehow—though I’m not exactly sure how—it all means that there’s hope for a more perfect definition of healing. One in which suffering is not erased, but made whole.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.