Room for Ghosts

On July 29, 2020, my grandfather lay dying alone on a ventilator in a hospital room. 

On a phone call later, Nana told me that she was most attracted to his hands. “You can tell a lot about a man by his hands,” she said. Nana said that she liked the roughness of my grandfather’s hands, but also the gentleness of them. She liked the duality of a man who cut lumber and worked on motorcycles and also cooked dinner and raised children that were not his own. 

I remembered his hands too. Hands that took me on long bike rides to Caspar Beach and bought me drumstick ice cream cones. His low blonde ponytail in my face and sea breeze in my nostrils. Hands that filled up a mason jar with sand and seashells when I was sad about moving away from the beach, so that I’d always have a piece of the beach with me, wherever I go. Hands that tucked me into bed at night. Hands that gestured in the air as he told me stories that he made up because he was embarrassed at the way he stumbled over words in a book. Hands that took me fishing and understood when I told him I thought fishing was the most boring pass time in the world. Hands that held me in place while I learned how to ride a bike. Patched me up when I crashed and burned. Hands that spent years building a cherry-red motorcycle. Nana sold it to pay for his hospital bills. 

My grandfather was fifty-six years old. He was from Death Valley, but his grandparents were from Fort Bragg. He ran for the mountains to escape his abusive mother as soon as he could. He never graduated middle school. He couldn’t spell simple words or read past an eighth-grade level. He hated the heat and loved the cold. In his twenties, he lived in trailers in the redwoods with outhouses and worked logging jobs and did a lot of meth. He met my grandma, who I call Nana, a few years after she’d divorced my biological grandpa, and they were married in less than a year. In the end, even after a divorce and some time apart, they were together for almost thirty years. His name was Jackson, but we called him Pappy to differentiate from my other biological maternal grandfather.  

I don’t know the name of the disease that he was diagnosed with when I was seventeen. Everyone in my family calls it wet brain. I never knew that he was an alcoholic until he was diagnosed. He’d been off meth for years, and he was proud of being sober. Sure, he drank a few beers every night after work. He got drunk often, but he was funny when he was drunk. Stumbling and laughing and feeling up Nana and giving us all extra twenties from his back pocket. This alcoholism that I never knew about landed him in a nursing home four months before the pandemic hit. 

On July 29, 2020, he was diagnosed with covid. A disease I once made jokes about, laughing with friends at a party in January, when it all still seemed so unlikely. Or maybe too likely, and that was why we had to laugh. Joking anytime someone coughed that they had it. Maybe they did. Maybe we killed someone else’s grandpa. 

On July 29, 2020, my grandfather was dying alone in a hospital bed. No visitors allowed. No phone calls. There was only a ventilator and his gasping mouth and his lungs filling with fluid. How did he feel, the fear and the looming doom, and no one there to hold his hand through it? After a hacking cough that racked his body and left him in even worse condition than usual, he was diagnosed with covid that morning. He was dead that evening. 

I was on the phone with my best friend, distracting myself, when my mom called me sobbing. I didn’t cry. I called my friend back and told her the news. My voice was flat, distant even to my own ears. “Oh my god,” she said. “I’m so sorry.” She paused. “Are you okay?” I told her I was. I guess I kind of was. I was numb. I promised her I’d text again tomorrow, and I hung up. 

I was the one to tell my sister. She sobbed into the phone. “We didn’t get to say goodbye,” she said. Those words finally made it click. He was gone.

I hung up. I couldn’t be there for her anymore, and I couldn’t bring myself to cry in front of her. She thought I was the strong one. I wasn’t. I went and told my other biological grandpa that Pappy had died, and that was when I cried, standing on the front lawn of his house in Live Oak, one of my only permanent childhood homes, while he watered his grass. I stumbled back into the house, and he held me in a tight hug as I cried.  

The next day, I woke up and immediately began sobbing in the kitchen while making toast that I couldn’t eat. “He didn’t deserve to go out like that,” I told my grandpa. He rubbed my back. He called me “hon,” the way he always does when he’s comforting me. He’s never been a nickname guy, never called me “Mieka” like the rest of my family, but that’s the only one he ever allows himself. I thought about how someday he would leave me, too. 

I went to my room and distracted myself with my phone. I got pissed at the anti-maskers on my social media feed. I wanted to burn their houses down. I whispered fuck you to the darkness of my room. I turned off my phone. I tore my room apart and found a photo of Pappy and I— a photo booth picture from my brother’s twelfth birthday. I held it in my hands, stroking the jagged edges. I sobbed and whispered My Pappy over and over again. I’d never felt closer to insanity. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to be awake anymore. I drank a bottle of wine that evening. I kept drinking for a week after that. 

The next day, in the local Mendocino County newspaper, a headline proclaimed two more dead from covid in the nursing home. His name wasn’t listed on the headline. He was just another number. One of thousands. The birds sang in the trees. The waves crashed against the shore. Someone rode a Harley down mountain roads. Someone bought a drumstick at Caspar beach. Four hours away from my grandfather’s hollow body, I was drunk on red wine.

My mom told me that she conceived me near a train track in Fort Bragg. She told me that she and my father had stumbled home from a beach bonfire party that night. She didn’t tell me that I was an accident, but of course, no one has a child at fifteen by choice. When Nana found out that my mother was pregnant and refused to get an abortion or put me up for adoption, she threatened to beat me out of my mom’s stomach with a broomstick. Pappy protected me. He stood between the two of them. “God damn it,” he said. “If she wants to have the baby, let her have the fucking baby.” 

The following year, my mother would go into labor in a trailer park where everyone but her was high on meth. She’d have me in a hospital room in Clear Lake with my father holding her hand. Pappy would stand on the other side, next to my paternal Grandma Kathy, both high. My mom says that he cried when it was his turn to hold me. She says that I was his favorite. His first-born grandchild. His flower. I don’t know where he got the nickname, but he was the only one that called me that. To everyone else in my family, I’m Mieka, but I was always his flower. I like to imagine that it was because I reminded him of the dandelions we both loved—a little fragile, but resilient. Blooming anywhere they’re planted. Or maybe it was because we were always playing out in fields of California poppies in the mountains together. In the summer, we ran around his property, picking dandelions and poppies and making little bouquets out of them. The origin matters less than the name. He called me his flower. I called him Pappy.

My dad was mixed, a rarity when he was coming up, and Grandma Kathy’s tribe specialized in basket weaving. Of course, she was adopted by a white family, so she didn’t learn it growing up, but as she got older, she tried. She wanted to teach me, but then she began doing more meth and drinking more, and her materials sat untouched until she disappeared like all the ghost women that haunt my family. She came and went out of my life for six more years after she began to deteriorate, staying with us off and on long after my mom and dad had divorced. Mom thought it was important we had some influence from our dad’s side. The only other person we had was my great Grandpa Otha and he died when I was just young enough to begin forming memories of him and still thought he might come back. After my dad left when Mom made him choose between meth and his family, Grandma Kathy was all we had left.

 Grandma Kathy had high cheekbones and long brown hair. Her skin was tan and rough, and her teeth were still white in her mouth despite all the meth and cigarettes. Her nose was too big for her face. She had a gravely smoker’s voice and a laugh that could be heard from miles away. Her dark eyes were deep-set and penetrating. They looked at you like they knew everything about you and weren’t impressed by what they saw. She’d watched her adoptive father commit suicide when she was thirteen. Her adoptive mother blamed her for coming home from school later than usual. I guess after something like that nothing really hits you the same way anymore. Maybe that’s why she could handle the meth for so long. 

She told me what she knew about the Pomo tribe. Comforted me when I told her that white people at school called me monkey. There’ll always be someone who’s got some shit to say, she said. Fuck ‘em. You be proud of who you are, girl. And let them little bitches know who you are, too. One time, when she got too high, she chased my mom around our front yard with a knife, telling her to watch how an Indian woman kills a white woman. Mom kicked her out for good after that. A few years later, Grandma Kathy lost her mind in the soft sigh of addiction issues. Until my dad passed away last year, I didn’t know where she lived at all, or if she was alive at all. Her ghost haunted my dreams, along with my father’s. But then after my dad died, she began texting my mom, telling her that my dad’s funeral was happening every weekend until we gave up believing her. The funeral still hasn’t happened. 

Pappy stopped doing meth not long after my Grandma Kathy fell victim to crystals smoked from pipes that leaked daydreams. He said after Kathy disappeared too, he knew he had to be there for my brother and me. We didn’t have many functional parental figures left. My dad was already becoming a ghost, too. 

Although he loved us, Pappy never approved of my mom’s marriage to my dad. He hated my dad because they once got into a tweaker fight over something stupid, and my dad beat him over the head with a frying pan, like a methed-up cartoon character. Tom and Jerry: Tweaker Edition. Pappy never forgave him for that. 

But they had one thing in common; they both loved The Wedding Singer

The Wedding Singer was my parent’s favorite movie. It came out in ‘98, and they saved money and bought their first VHS player so they could watch it over and over. I still know all the words to the song that Adam sings to Drew in that final scene on the plane, which my mom says was her and my dad’s song. I like to imagine that if they’d had the money for a real wedding, or a marriage that lasted, that would have been the song for their first dance.

After my dad left, Pappy watched The Wedding Singer with me, sitting together on a couch in his blue trailer in the middle of the woods. I laid my head on his beer gut and told him it made a good pillow. He laughed and stroked my hair. We sang along to the words to that final song. Maybe he could have bonded with my father over that movie. I’ll never know. Both are gone now. They watch me in pictures that hang over my bed. Sometimes, in the months and years since Pappy and my dad died, I dream of them. Never in the same dream. But sometimes on the same night. 

How do I make room for all these ghosts? There’s not enough space in my bed.

I wasn’t ready to write about Pappy’s death until nine months later, and in some ways, even that felt too soon. And here I am looking at the page now, three years later. That amount of time is hard to believe and yet feels true in some fundamental way. In that time, I’ve faced more losses. My great grandpa in January 2023. My father in November 2023.

With all of these losses, I’ve cycled back and forth through almost all of the stages of grief. My therapist says this is normal. “Grief isn’t linear,” she tells me. I know it’s not. I felt this when my great grandmother died eight years ago. Back then, Pappy told me, “It just takes time. You never get over it. You just learn to live with it.” I didn’t think I’d be applying those words to him so soon. 

For a long time after he died, I didn’t go back to Fort Bragg. I used to love that town despite myself. It holds so many of the best and worst memories of my childhood. For a long time, it didn’t feel right going there. Not if he’s not there. I avoided my second hometown like the plague that had me wearing masks and sanitizing my hands until they bled. I didn’t think it would feel real until I went to his trailer in the woods and saw that it’s just Nana and the dogs. I didn’t want it to feel real.

The truth was that even after visiting the trailer out in the woods of Fort Bragg in both August and December 2021, even after going back to the town at least once a year for the last three years after my family moved back, it still doesn’t feel real sometimes. There is still a space down the notches in my back where I feel an absence so strong that it has its own presence.  

In the initial months after Pappy’s death, I drank too much. Glasses of wine before bed. Champagne that had me buying out my Amazon wishlist. Vodka and orange juice before I wrote an essay. Probably not the reaction I should have to the loss of someone who died at least in part from alcoholism. But it’s okay. I went to school. I went to work. The nightly alcohol dulled the sharp edge of these things, and I liked that. Better than cutting myself open like I did when my grandmother died, right? 

 I took edibles for the first time and smoked joints and did anything that was the opposite of living in my head. I gained fifteen pounds from all the alcohol and fast food, which triggered my eating disorder. I stopped drinking and smoking. I starved myself. I liked the way hunger reminded me that I’m alive. My stomach growled as I sat in class, eating myself from the inside out. Scientists say anorexics read the pain of hunger as euphoria. Crazy, the tricks that our minds play on us. I kept an old pot under my bed in case I needed to throw up from hunger in the middle of the night. I woke up early to wash it out in our shared bathroom before my roommates were awake. I talked to my therapist about it. Now, I’ve worked on it. I’m back up to three meals a day. Most of the time. 

For the first two months after my grandpa’s death, I thought a lot about fucking strangers. Not because I had much of a libido anymore, but because I wanted to feel something other than numb. Even if that something was just regret the next morning. I didn’t fuck strangers because the CDC told me that I couldn’t. The New York City official guidance on sexual habits in the pandemic said glory holes were fine, so I guess that was always still an option if I got desperate enough. 

Finally, in desperation and loneliness, I went on Tinder, and I sexted men I didn’t know. Although I’m bisexual, I always chose men because they were easy to get off. I’m a writer, so I said all the right words. Pretended to be touching myself. Faked an orgasm. They told me that I was the best fake fuck they’ve ever had. I thanked them. I’ve always strived to be the best writer I can be. 

The next morning, I would ghost. Unmatch them. Uninstall the app. The messages were more desperate than sexy in the light of day. I told myself that I needed to be comfortable on my own, and then I inevitably found someone new when the loneliness was too much, a habit that I have unfortunately carried my whole life. I ghosted even faster when they wanted to get to know me. I used to pretend to be a cynic, but I would lay awake at night praying for a love so real that it burned me from the inside out. 

But burning is overrated. I’ve seen the way the flames of my Pappy’s death eviscerated my grandma. I don’t want to be loved anymore. Love breaks. Love fragments. Love makes ghosts out of all of us. We’ve all haunted someone. And if we haven’t yet, we will one day. We’ve all tasted someone’s name on our tongue long after they’ve left. I don’t want to be loved. I want to be used. I hope none of the men I have dated remember my name. 

After Pappy died, during the pandemic, I drove around Northern California roads blasting music. Crying and singing. I listened to music that reminds me of the many versions of myself. I listened to the angsty alt-rock music that I’ve loved since I was fourteen. I listened to the current top forty pop. I listened to R&B from the early 2000’s. I woke up in the middle of the night sweating and crying. My thoughts were a jumble, but one sentence repeated itself: I can’t make sense of this. I had panic attacks that left me breathless. I annoyed myself with my bitching. For the first time in eight years, I contemplated self-harm. I went on long walks and enjoyed the dilation of men’s eyes when they checked out my ass. I swayed my hips-thigh-ass to the beat of whatever music I was listening to, and even though I’d been calling myself a feminist since I was fourteen, I smiled to myself when they looked more intently. I’m a nut case, but at least I still have a nice ass, I told myself. Is this what they mean when they say women are asking for it? 

I went to classes and work and helped run a poetry reading series and wrote essays and stories and applied to graduate programs. I got into a couple of graduate programs for master’s and got rejected for MFAs. I decided against the master’s because I wanted an MFA, and I took a year off to reapply. I was happy for a day or two, but everything was muted in those days. Most of the time I felt like I was a spectator in my own life. Georgia O’Keefe once wrote in a letter to a friend, “I have done nothing all summer but wait for myself to be myself again.” I felt that way most of the time. Maybe we all did. Maybe the pandemic was a perpetual summer of waiting for ourselves to be ourselves again. 

One rainy pandemic day, I found an old book of mine. It was one of the only ones that survived my childhood book collection in the move from New York to California when I was seventeen, when we lost most things to my mother’s carelessness and a storage facility sale in Watertown. Something I forgot I had. Indian Summers by Eric Gansworth. A man I had thought I wanted to teach me a lifetime ago when I was seventeen and dreaming of going to a SUNY. I read the first few pages and felt myself coming back to myself.

 I kept thinking of all of my past selves. Trying to figure out how she became me. Wondering if she’d approve of my choices, and then feeling stupid because why the fuck should I care what she would think of me? I didn’t trust her. Still, I missed her. Like all of the losses in my family that came before her, she haunted my dreams, giving me half-visions of the past. 

How do we make room to carry these past versions of ourselves? There was not enough space in my head for all these ghost girls. 

We’ve invented a word for the permanent lack of a person. Death. We’ve invented a word for the longing for a person that is forever unattainable. Grief. We’ve invented a word for the feeling that the chest may rip in two. Heartbreak. But the words are not enough, and the feeling is too much, and I miss the time before I knew their meanings. I look at everyone I love, and I see ghosts. I know my time with them is finite. Maybe it makes me appreciate them more. Mostly, it just makes me anxious. I’m trying to get better at practicing gratitude. Better at answering calls and texts. Better at feelings. 

I know my shortcomings. I have a hard time crying in front of people, even myself. I overshare. I procrastinate. I’m writing this when I should be working on another piece. I live in an endless cycle of either people pleasing or not giving a shit what anyone thinks of me. I live by extremes. I drink too much or not at all. I either flirt with everyone at the party or avoid eye contact. I either connect with people immediately or I freeze them out. I don’t give people second chances. I have a hard time letting go of the past. Nostalgia is my drug of choice. Pappy used to say it’s because I’m a Pisces. I’m still figuring out whether or not I believe in that. I want to believe that magic exists somewhere. I’ve looked for it at the bottom of bottles and in people’s birdcage hands. I don’t know how to let go. I love too much. I show too little. I know my shortcomings. 

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Like everyone, I have many problems, most of which I’m sure I haven’t discovered yet. But I’m still living, despite my better efforts. Still feeling these ghosts haunting my bones. I keep carrying these ghost girls around with me. I keep being reminded that they’re still alive to someone somewhere. I’m learning to live with them. Making room for them in my body. Maybe that is all I can do. It’s not much, but it’s enough because it has to be.

The day before Pappy died, calling him was on my to-do-list, sandwiched between assignments for my internship at a feminist magazine and practicing my first remote hosting gig for a poetry reading. He left me a message the week before. His voice was shaky, and words were slurring from the permanent effects of too much drunkenness for one body to sustain. I had to listen to the message twice to understand him. He told me he loved me. He was proud of me for being the first in the family to go to college. He hoped he could see me graduate. He never would.

 I hated myself for not calling him back, even though something told me to call. I didn’t listen to my intuition. I was selfish and stupid. I knew it would break my heart hearing him. It did every time I spoke to him, which wasn’t often enough in the last three years of his life. Later, my therapist told me that not calling was in some ways an extension of my love for him. “You didn’t want to see someone you love in pain,” she said. It made me feel better, but it also felt like an excuse. What was my love if it couldn’t be there for him in his last days? Was it really love at all? 

My grief is all encompassing. From my head to my toes. Everything aches. There is not enough room for it to fit in my body. It bleeds out from my hands when I write. It echoes from my mouth when I speak. Every conversation circles back to him even when it doesn’t. It burns my tongue when I try to swallow it. My grief is in my blood. My piss. My guts. It turns my intestines inside out. I would need galaxies to contain it. 

A few months ago, Nana told me his sister finally agreed to keep Pappy’s ashes in Fort Bragg instead of L.A. His sister wanted them for their family, but that’s not what Pappy would’ve ever wanted. He hated the city. He ran away as soon as he could. The mountains were his home. He never wanted to leave them. He never did. I’m glad his cremated bones can finally rest where they’ve always belonged. 

After two unsuccessful years in Sacramento, my mom and siblings moved back to Fort Bragg. I visited them three times, but I didn’t have the stomach to visit Pappy’s grave any of those times. Although the whole town reeks of him, I was able to avoid the achy feeling most of the time. I had fun thrift shopping and playing Cards Against Humanity with my siblings. I avoided the places that reminded me too much of him. Finally, in Fall 2022, over two years after his loss, I felt okay enough to visit Caspar again. I watched the waves hitting the beach, and all I could see were his clear blue eyes. In summer 2023, I visited Fort Bragg for a writing conference. My whole family had moved, so I stayed in a hotel. The town felt barren. My chest hurt watching the waves from cliffs, imaging myself, all of those ghost girls, washing away in those waves. I went to Pappy’s grave on my way out of town. I left flowers the same color as the ones my family had left a week before without planning to, an orange and yellow that he would’ve loved. I traced his name over the cold concrete slab. I talked to him. I told him that I’d see him again, that I’d be back. I listened to the seagull bird song and smelt salt air. It should’ve felt cinematic. It should’ve given me closure. If only it were that easy. 

I used to imagine seeing his grave. In my head, my family would go to his resting place together. Someone would still live in Fort Bragg. They wouldn’t have all left. I would watch my mom and sister cry and my brother awkwardly shift and pace the way he does when he’s anxious. They would hold me while I cried, or more likely, they would watch me when I couldn’t let the tears out. I would whisper goodbye to his name on the plaque. 

In my imagining of this moment, after visiting the grave, I would drive away. Go to Caspar beach and light a joint for him. Smoke it and let him go some more. I’m not much of a smoker these days, but he was one most of his life, and I know he’d want someone to light up in his honor. Later, I would go back to his trailer in the mountains and hug Nana. I would wish that I could pet the dog that he loved—the one that laid on his bed and cried for days after he left for the nursing home. But that dog, Rex, is dead now, too. Nana had to put him down in 2021. In summer 2021, when my sister told me that Rex had died, I was trying Prozac, a drug that would keep me up for the better half of three days before I quit it. I sobbed like I’d rarely cried in front of her before. I cried for the dog, and for Pappy and Nana, and for me. Later, I blamed Prozac. It was easier than saying something real. 

I would pet his other dog on her tiny chihuahua stomach, and she would grumble her old lady groan. I would curl up with my siblings on the couch and watch New Girl, our family comfort show. I would laugh and try not to think of Pappy’s belly under my ear when we used to watch TV. I would let him go again. I would keep letting him go for the rest of my life. It would be painful and awful and beautiful and everything he deserves. It would not be enough. It has to be enough. 

Damieka Thomas

Damieka Thomas is a mixed-race queer writer and poet. She is a second-year MFA student at the University of California, Davis working on a nonfiction and poetry thesis. Her work has been published in Open Ceilings, Glassworks, Third Iris Magazine,,andRejected Lit Magazine. In her spare time, Damieka enjoys reading, writing, hiking, yoga, traveling, and indulging in the frequent Netflix binge with her cat by her side. You can find her @damiekat on all social media platforms.