I heard a theory recently that offered a new twist on the belief in ghosts. Just as supernatural, the claim was that the creaky floorboards, scuffling soles, and muffled voices that we hear in the darkness of night might actually belong to us--to another life, the life that might've been, an alternate universe no less real than our own. Our ghosts are ourselves haunting us, plaguing us with the sounds of choices not made in this time, this dimension.
I remember as a child being transfixed by the stark black and white of It's A Wonderful Life and the seriousness of George Bailey's plight. This was no light Christmas cartoon or jolly romp with Santa. This haunted like A Christmas Carol. George Bailey becomes a desperate man who feels he has not lead the life he wanted. His family lives in what was once an abandoned, broken down mansion. He works a job he hates, that his father worked before him. He lives in his hometown; his dreams of world travel crushed years before as he made sacrifice after sacrifice for the sake of others.
Finally, through tears, he contemplates his life and decides suicide is his only option. He believes the world would've been better had he not been born. We know how the story progresses. His wish is granted. He sees what would've happened if he had never existed (the biggest flaw in the narrative being that his wife Mary didn't marry Sam Wainwright). The alternate universe is dark, frightening, fraught with tragedy and horror. Much like A Christmas Carol, the movie delves into the psychological terror of our deepest curiosity and fear--the chance to see the world if we had never existed.
Sometimes, I have dreams where my brother is still alive. A mistake happened at the cemetery, and they revived him. Who is "they"? I don't know. How do they revive cremated ashes? This is always something that bothers me whenever I see him. Did they use super glue? Rubber cement? Everyone else is overjoyed, of course, but I am cautious. What effect will this resurrection have on my family, on our lives? He never speaks much in the dreams. A zombied mute without any real defining features, other than his dark hair and rare charisma.
There are times at night when I listen to the sounds of those other voices, other rooms. What would our lives be like had my brother made the choice to live? He was 24 when he opted to die, and it was sad, but his death set into motion so many things in my own life. Had he lived, I may not have gone to college. I might well be a receptionist somewhere or a secretary, still living in my hometown, still dreaming of becoming a writer, casting glances at the Ivory Tower and wondering what happened in its classrooms. I might've moved away, perhaps to New England, to Vermont. That was an ambition once. But, who knows what might've happened in the end? My brother with the large personality and emotional ups and downs would probably still dominate every family gathering, maybe even still work a job at a five and dime--big dreams in a small town.
His death was a wake-up call to me. I felt like I could either roll over and go back to sleep, or I could get out of bed. I chose to get out of bed. Alerted to the preciousness of life, I knew that I had to stop waiting for life to come to me. Perhaps his death simply hurried a process of inevitable events.
Choices, different paths, the "other " lives we might've lived--they vibrate the walls with the moaning and wailing of "what-ifs." Do I hear the laughter of my unborn children blending with the clock chimes? Is that my muffled voice I hear in the hallway speaking to a spouse of fifteen years? Are those my own footsteps behind me in the darkness?
Soon enough, I will wake, switch on the light, and those specters --already tangled with the early morning fog--will dissipate and fade. This is the life I have ultimately chosen for myself, and it is truly wonderful.