On my computer screen, a grainy black and white photograph stares at me. It’s jarring how young he was.
And how handsome.
And that he was dead at forty-one—an age younger than I am now.
His obituary photo is all that pops up when I Google his name—the single evidence that he was here. There’s a twinkle in his eye and he wears half a smirk. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m done. Take this cancer and shove it.”
Ronald J. Carruthers was my brothers’ soccer coach.
He died midseason on a run to the State quarterfinals. (Read Is Winning Everything? about that fated autumn) He also altered the course of my life by setting me up on a blind date with a young soccer player who would steal my heart.
And he’s the only ghost I’ve ever known.
Coach Carruthers was a salt of the earth, larger-than-life character, loved by some and hated by others. He was equal parts athlete and equals parts Camel-chain-smoking, foul-mouthed Scotsman.
My two brothers, my sister, and I became the children he never had. His wife loved us, too. We took trips together. They gave us gifts and they hung out with my parents. My brothers were his favorite players on the soccer field.
In our small town this made some people uncomfortable.
Right or wrong.
Fair or not.
It was the way it was.
When he died, the world shifted for us. It was our first experience with great loss.
Something big was gone.
But Coach has returned for a few visits.
The first encounter occurred the night Coach passed away. At the time, I was living in NYC, waiting tables at Poppolini’s on 14th St. The restaurant was dimly lit, noisy, and crowded. At one point during the evening I was at the rear of the dining room, scooping the ice. A sudden hollow and all-encompassing chill ran through my body.
I checked my watch. Then I rubbed my forearms, brushing away the goose bumps, and went back to work.
When I opened my apartment door it was dark, but the green light on my answering machine blinked like a beacon. There was no need to listen to the message. I called my mom and she confirmed what I was already sure of—Coach was dead. I knew the time of his death because he’d given me a hug on his way out.
Coach was a matchmaker.
He introduced me to my future husband.
He also broke us up (too long of a story for this space).
Feelings were hurt and lines were drawn. My husband never spoke to Coach again. And Coach died without ever knowing that we married.
Amidst the bad blood, Coach’s widow disapproved when my husband and I reconciled and planned to wed.
One night when she pressed play on her answering machine, she heard a recording of her husband interviewing my fiancé for a soccer magazine article. Their voices were happy and full of goodwill. How the long lost tape had gotten into the answering machine was a mystery.
She called to give her blessing. And Coach’s, too.
Still the most perplexing situation happened many months after Coach’s death.
Years earlier, I’d roomed with Coach’s sister (referred to as Sister C hereafter) in Queens before I’d located an apartment in Manhattan. Sister C kept an immaculate house. The trashcans were emptied everyday. The sink scoured. The bathroom was spotless. She was super sensitive to smell and would Lysol everything. The place was clean, clean, clean.
We’d watch old musicals, she in her Lazy Boy and me on the couch.
“Ron sat right there,” she told me repeatedly, pointing to an overstuffed chair in the corner. “It was nice to have him here, but I hated those Camel cigarettes he smoked.”
I was never privy to the details, but there was some prickliness between Coach’s sister and his wife and they didn’t speak too often.
After Coach died, he was cremated and his sister volunteered to return his ashes to the family burial vault in Scotland.
Life went on.
I moved from NYC to Dallas, TX (read This Is What I Left In New York City), but I would fly back to NYC to work the shoe shoes (modeling for short people with a size six foot) and stay with Sister C in Queens.
On one of my shoe show trips, I was taken aback to discover Sister C had purchased a baby grand piano and had created a shrine to her dead brother. Displayed on the piano were Coach C’s framed photograph, his New York Generals professional soccer uniform, other Coach knick-knacks, and a large vase. It was sort of creepy, but I dismissed the shrine as one of her quirks. Plus a free hotel room in NYC was hard to find.
One evening, I had the apartment to myself. As I relaxed on the couch, watching TV, I smelled smoke.
I inspected the kitchen. Maybe the oven had been left on?
I checked the bedroom, the bathroom, and the closets.The place was in its usual state of hyper-cleanliness and Lysol-masked odorlessness. I couldn’t find the source of the fumes.
It must be my imagination, I reasoned. But I was certain I smelled cigarette smoke. Maybe someone was lighting up in the hallway. The corridor was empty. Not a soul in sight. I even checked the elevator. The indicator showed it resting on the first floor. I was on the 7th. I settled back on the couch—and the odor got stronger.
It seemed to be coming from the direction of the chair—Coach’s favorite lounger.
The scent grew more powerful.
I looked at the piano.
And then at that vase.
It was an urn!
He hadn’t been taken home to Scotland!
Coach was sending a message to me—the one person who knew both his sister in New York and his widow in Pennsylvania. As soon as I made the connection, the smell vanished. I told Coach C’s widow and she did what she needed to do and Coach’s ashes went home.
I’m a skeptic. A debunker. I dismiss tales of the supernatural as the result of someone’s imagination gone askew.
A couple times the barrier between the living and the dead has turned fuzzy.
There haven’t been any other visits—not a peep, a cold touch, or an unexplained sensation for over two decades. I thought Coach might have made an appearance when our children were born—his surrogate grandchildren. But at some point, he vanished into the ether and I never heard from him again.
All that remains of Coach is the photograph on the Internet. I printed it and put it in my scrapbook.
The dead fade until we only remember them through the lazy lens of memory.
And his ghost is too.
* * *
If you knew that your life was merely a phase or a short, short segment of your entire existence, how would you live it? Knowing nothing ‘real’ was at risk, what would you do? You’d live a gigantic, bold, fun, dazzling life. You know you would. That’s what ghosts want us to do—all the exciting things they no longer can.
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I love her Silly Apple Bites.
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Do you believe in ghosts?
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