Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day, 2009 (Telephone Telepathy)

Telephone Telepathy
(Mama continues to reach out and touch me)


See the video of me singing this song at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4W0nN960R90

Thought About You

I thought about you once or twice today.
About how good it’d be to talk
And things I’d like to say
I would have tried to call you on the phone
But that line’s been disconnected
And there’s no one left at home, anyway
Still I thought of you today
And I guess it’s good to talk to you that way

And I still love you, the way I loved you as a child
And I still see you, like a picture when you smiled
And I still hear you, when you say I make you proud
And I’m glad to have the chance
To say, “I love you” right out loud.

I’m not quite sure exactly where you’ve gone
I just know sometimes I still feel you near
Sometimes I feel alone
But I’m glad to know we’ve had so much to share
And as the world around me changes
I’ll find another way to care, anyway
And I thought of you today
And I know it’s good to talk to you that way.

And I still love you, the way I loved you as a child
And I still see you, like a picture when you smiled
And I still hear you, when you say I make you proud
And I’m glad to have the chance
To say, “I love you” right out loud.
Yes I’m glad we’ve had the chance
To say, “I love you” right out loud.
Harry C.S. Wingfield, 1984

Since the time when I left home to go to college, my mother and I had developed what I call “telephone telepathy.” I would find myself heading for the phone before it rang. Sometimes I would even pick up the phone to call her, only to find she was already on the line, and I had picked up the receiver before the phone could ring. On the times when I did get through to call her, she would tell me that she was just sitting down to call me, or that she had meant to call me but had gotten distracted. Of course, many of these occasions could be explained away by the fact that we were both creatures of habit, and tended to make phone calls on a regular schedule. When I moved to the west coast in the late 1970s, before the days of cable TV and the internet, my phone calls to and from Mama in Georgia were my only ways of finding out the score in the University of Georgia football game. I knew she would either be watching the game on local TV, if it was televised, or listening to it on the radio, if it wasn’t televised. I would reach for the phone before it rang, and Mama would be on the line, yelling “Georgia 17, Clemson 14 at the half” before I could even say “Hello.” We had long since quit saying “Oh, I was about to call you.” At this point in our telephone telepathy, that was a given.

By the early 1980s, I was in Austin, TX, working on a masters degree in costume design at the University of Texas. During my first year back in school, Mama was diagnosed with cancer and died a few months later. In the weeks after Mama died, I would often find myself heading for the telephone, to answer Mama’s call, sometimes even picking up the receiver and dialing the first part of her number before I would remember that she wasn’t going to answer, or call me on the phone any more. These moments didn’t make me sad, though, as much as they made me curious as to why the “telephone telepathy” still seemed to be in place even though her phone had been disconnected weeks ago. I started to wonder if I was going crazy.

Meanwhile, life went on. I continued my studies in costume design, and continued going to AA meetings every evening, working the twelve steps of the program to the best of my abilities. One of the steps reads “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him.” At some of my more politically correct meetings, the reader would change that to “God as we understood God” to make allowances for those who might choose to believe in a female deity. I knew I had to come up with some means of improving my conscious contact with God, and was glad the step’s language left the definition of God to be kind of loose. A lot of what I had learned about God as I was growing up seemed to be a bit narrow to explain the beliefs and experiences that were becoming a part of my life. I wanted to understand God better, and to figure out how that God could fit in with “telephone telepathy” and my feelings that my mother was still around. I wanted a definition of God that would not dismiss as merely coincidence the fact that three friends from long distances had all called me during a period of great changes in my life, saying that they were thinking about me. I needed to know that the times when I had experienced premonitions of the future, or read people’s thoughts, were not evil. Mama always said, “God is bigger than that.” I needed to find that bigger definition of God, to reconcile the differences between the traditional Christianity I was raised in, and the real events that were happening in my life.

I suppose I could have made a more concentrated effort to research religious writings and institutions, but after a full day of graduate school and a full evening of homework and AA meetings, I found myself looking for escape if I had any free time, and not more serious reading or lectures. I had a habit of buying books that looked like they would be fun to read, and keeping them in a stack by my bed, to read if I ever had any free time. Shirley Maclain’s book “Out on a Limb” had been on the top of that stack for several months. I have always been a big fan of hers. “The Turning Point” is one of my all-time favorite movies. The year my mother was sick with cancer was also the year “Terms of Endearment” was released. The tears I cried in that movie had been very cathartic, helping me release a lot of strong emotions that I had been piling up inside over my mother’s illness.

When the summer semester ended, and I finally had some free time to read, I decided to start with “Out on a Limb.” I assumed it would be light escapism, and I could get some good Hollywood gossip about some of her affairs and friendships. I was pleasantly surprised to discover the book was about her spiritual journey. Maybe I would get some insights into understanding God in spite of my efforts to escape inside a Hollywood tell-all. When she starting talking about her connection to the actor Peter Sellers, even after he had died, I wanted to jump and shout for joy. If a famous actress would risk her reputation in Hollywood, leaving herself open to ridicule, to share an experience of communicating with a loved one who had died, then maybe my experiences with feeling that my mother was still around weren’t crazy after all.

Then my brother Trip called from Atlanta. He asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing fine. Then he asked again, “No, really, how are you doing?” I told him I was OK, that I was grieving some, but was getting by pretty well. He asked, “Are you sure there isn’t anything you want to talk to me about?” I asked him what he was fishing for. He took a deep breath, and said, “OK, sometimes I feel like Mama is still around. I even pick up the phone and start dialing her number, like I think she wants me to call her or something.” It took a moment or two for me to respond. Talking about supernatural experiences was just as taboo in my family as talking about who we were having sex with. I told him about my recent experiences with feeling like Mama was trying to talk to me, and we ended up assuring each other that we weren’t going nuts, that maybe there was some kind of afterlife beyond what we had learned in Sunday school.

Later on, I talked with my older sister Bitsy about what I had been experiencing. Bitsy then told me about an even more remarkable experience her younger daughter, Bradley, had been through. Bitsy had gone into Bradley’s room to tell her good night, a few weeks after Mama’s funeral. Bradley was crying. After some effort, Bitsy was able to get her daughter to tell her why she was crying. “I saw Mama Betty in the room, standing right over there.” Bitsy, who was Episcopalian at the time, called her priest the next day to ask his advice. He told her to ask Bradley to describe what “Mama Betty” had looked like when she appeared in the room, especially what she was wearing. He said that if Bradley described clothing similar to what Mama had been dressed in for the viewing before the burial, then my niece might be suffering from trauma from the funeral, and could benefit from some counseling. He then said that if Bradley described something Mama would have worn in an every day situation, something Mama would feel comfortable in, the sighting could have been a manifestation of my mother. He said the Episcopal Church calls this the “Communion of Saints.”

That evening, when Bitsy went to Bradley’s room to wish her good night, she brought up the subject of what Bradley had seen the night before. She told Bradley she didn’t have to talk about it if it made her too uncomfortable. Bradley seemed OK, so Bitsy asked her to tell her what Mama Betty looked like, what she was wearing, and what she was doing. Bradley told her that she had seen her grandmother standing in the corner of the bedroom, with her hair in a hair net, wearing an old baby blue quilted bathrobe, holding her toothbrush in her hand and shaking it at her.

When Bitsy described this to me, I went numb all over. Bradley had described a scene that Bitsy and I had witnessed many times while Mama was alive, but Bradley probably would not have. Mama had been dealing with a deterioration of her gums for several years before she died. She had to brush her teeth and massage her gums with her toothbrush for about forty-five minutes every night before she went to bed each night. If she had more than one houseguest, she would go into her bathroom and close the door while she did her nightly gum routine. But if she only had one visitor, she would leave the door open, and attempt to carry on a conversation with her company while she worked with her toothbrush. Since Mama liked to talk with her hands, the resulting image often looked like she was shaking her toothbrush at us. Bradley had never visited her grandmother by herself, so while she may have seen the blue bathrobe Mama loved to wear each night, she probably would never have seen the “shaking-her-toothbrush-at-me” action. Bitsy and I both had seen Mama just as Bradley described, though. There is no doubt in my mind that my mother had actually been there in Bradley’s room. That she appeared to Bradley in an image that she normally kept private, except for select visits from Bitsy or from me, confirms that belief for me.

Over time, the moments where I would reach for the telephone to talk to Mama became fewer and fewer, and after a year or so they stopped. Since then, though, my brother Trip and I have started having “telephone telepathy,” when one will call just as the other is heading for the telephone. Trip calls it “ESP-N” since the urge to call usually is related to something happening in the world of college football, just like some of the early calls to and from my mother were.

Mama continues to “appear” to me in other ways. Once, during an Easter Sunday service, I felt her hand in mine and heard her voice. It was almost two years after Mama died. I had started attending Unity Church in Austin, TX, and also sang in the informal choir. The pastor had a rule that even though the church had two services each Sunday, one at nine in the morning and the other at eleven, both services had to be exactly the same. He didn’t want attendees at either service to feel short-changed in any way. So if you sang in the choir, you were obligated to sing at both services. I didn’t mind, though, since I usually picked up some new insight from the sermon the second time I heard it. I also enjoyed seeing friends at both services. That Easter Sunday, we also had a sunrise service. I had written a song the summer before called “Phoenix,” about rising up from the ashes of pain. I wrote it as I was driving through the city of Phoenix, at daybreak, watching the sunrise ahead of me. I was heading back to Austin after a summer job on the California coast that had been quite stressful. As I started writing the song in my mind, I also realized it would be perfect to sing at the Easter sunrise service at Unity Church. The choir director agreed. On Easter morning, just as the sun was peeking over the horizon, I was singing the lyrics:

“And I will rise, purified, from the ashes of my pain,
And I will fly like a bird, through the sunshine and the rain
I will let go the things I lose
I will accept the things I gain
Keeping my mind’s eye centered on a higher plane.”

The nine o’clock and eleven o’clock services on that Easter Sunday were quite long, with lots of choral pieces. And I had been at the church since before five o’clock that morning, to sing at the sunrise service. By the time the congregation held hands to start singing the Lord’s Prayer in the eleven o’clock service, I was quite weary, to the point of almost falling asleep. Usually I keep my eyes open when I pray the Lord’s Prayer, but this time I closed them. As I started singing, I realized that the hand I was holding felt just like my mother’s hand, and the voice singing next to me was exactly the same as her singing voice. I had not paid much attention to who was sitting to my right side, as I was tired, and had been focusing my attention on the close friend seated on my left. With my eyes closed, I assumed that the person on my right was an older woman with a voice that sounded like Mama’s. When the prayer ended, everyone in the church turned to greet and hug the people who were nearby. I turned to greet the person to my right, to tell her how much she sounded like my mother, and was startled to see that the person next to me was a large, burly man. His hands and voice were nothing like my mother’s. In those few minutes as we were praying, I had somehow felt and heard a presence that was not there, at least not in the concrete sense of reality. Somehow my mother had been able to break through concrete reality. Maybe my state of being almost asleep made me more able to open up and experience her closeness.

Mama has also shown up in my dreams quite a bit. For many years when she appeared in a dream, she would be there to warn me about something, or to prod me to take an action that I need to take. Dreams like this started just before I got tested for HIV, in early 1990. I had been suffering from a sore throat for weeks. My doctors prescribed antibiotic after antibiotic, but nothing seemed to help. In fact, the sore throat just kept getting worse. My mother started appearing in my dreams every night. She seemed concerned about me, and seemed to be urging me to do something. What I needed to do was not clear from the dream, though. So I started thinking about what actions there might be for me to take that I had been avoiding taking. Getting tested for HIV was at the top of the list. I had known for years that I had probably been exposed to HIV, but I had not gotten tested. During the 1980s, there were not any really good treatments for HIV. A positive test would not help me get needed treatment. It would only put a great big pre-existing condition on my permanent medical record, and make it harder to get health and disability coverage later on. While I was in graduate school, and then afterwards in entry-level jobs without good medical benefits, having a positive HIV test could only hurt me. In 1990, though, when the sore throat started, I had a tenure-track faculty position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I planned to stay in that job for the rest of my career, if I could. If I never changed jobs again, I wouldn’t have to worry about having a pre-existing condition.

After six weeks, three courses of antibiotics, and at least ten dreams where my mother seemed to be warning me about something, I finally asked my doctor if she would be treating the sore throat differently if I was HIV-positive. She told me that if she knew I had HIV, she would be looking for a lot of different causes for my sore throat other than what she had been checking for up to that point. I told her to order an HIV test, so we could be sure of my health status. That night, and in the nights that followed, my dreams were completely free of any sign of Mama. When my mother stopped showing up in my dreams after that doctor visit, I knew that the HIV test was what she was trying to warn me about. Mama was right. I tested positive for HIV. The doctor then cultured my throat for fungal infections, and put me on medication for candidiasis. The sore throat cleared up immediately. Within weeks, I was on AZT, the only drug available at the time, and was put on a regular schedule of clinic visits to monitor me for the opportunistic infections that could kill me.

The next time Mama showed up in a dream, without saying anything to me she made it clear I needed to see my doctor right away. I really didn’t feel bad, just a little short of breath with a low-grade fever, but I called my doctor and made an appointment anyway. After the doctor listened to my breathing, she ordered a chest x-ray. Within an hour I was on my way to the hospital, to be treated for PCP, an AIDS-related pneumonia that could be fatal. Over the next two years Mama would show up in my dreams three separate times, to warn me in advance of the onset of PCP, before I felt any symptoms or had any inkling that I was sick. Very few patients survive PCP more than twice. Because of my early warnings, I’ve survived it four times.

I’ve been on combination therapy for HIV since the mid 1990s. My immune system is much stronger now than it was those years when I had recurring bouts of PCP. I still dream about Mama from time to time, but these dreams don’t seem to be warning me about anything. Maybe her spirit is still speaking to me in the dreams, to let me know she is still watching me, just in case. Or maybe now the dreams are just memories of a loving relationship that did not end when Mama’s life on earth ended.

All of these experiences have helped to color my perception of religion and spirituality. The narrow view of Christianity in which I was raised does not even attempt to explain “telephone telepathy” or “ESP-N,” and considers communicating with the dead to be not of God, maybe even evil or satanic. But I believe that this kind of energy, these kinds of connections, have to be a part of what the whole of God is. My choice is to allow myself to believe in my own experiences, and to be unafraid to talk about it. The more I talk about what I have felt and heard and seen, and the more open I am to listening to others, the more I find out that I am not alone. Many of us have felt these connections. Knowing this helps me to rise from the ashes of my pain and grief, like the Phoenix in my Easter song.

Note: My partner Vern helped me post this to YouTube. Thanks, Vern!

5 comments:

  1. I read this out loud to Mom and Paul and we all enjoyed hearing your story. It was perfect for Mother's Day and I think Mom enjoyed hearing what you had to say.

    I look forward to reading more posts.

    Love, Anna

    ReplyDelete
  2. Harry, this is absolutely wonderful. You're such a talented writer — and now you get to share this with the world... not to mention share family history with me that I hadn't known before. To second Anna's comment... I'm looking forward to move posts.

    Love, Katy

    ReplyDelete
  3. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
    Lucy
    http://dataentryjob-s.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. Harry, I'm an old friend of Brant's... came across his pics of the '93 March on Washington, and then discovered your blog. I was very moved by your story that you shared from your heart about your mother, and your song posted on YouTube. I was very close to my mom also, and had some similar 'phone experiences' with my mother while she was alive that you described having with yours. I lost my mom to Lung Cancer in Oct. of 1989, and my sister and I have missed her greatly ever since. Your story and experiences touched my heart, and I just wanted you to know how much it meant to me. Thank you for sharing your experiences and feelings with all of us. :-)

    ReplyDelete