Breaking Tradition

Regina McBride


A friend lent me two hundred dollars to see a psychic named Linda Bell, a heavy-set woman wearing a turquoise kaftan, hair blown into a high bouffant. With a dramatic flourish of her arm, she gestured me, a shy seventeen-year-old girl, into her house.

“Welcome, welcome,” she uttered, her voice, pitched to a low, breathy seriousness.

I explained, breaking periodically into tears, why I’d come, and for a few moments she seemed not to breathe, then asked quietly if, instead of a formal session, we could just chat.

“But I need your help,” I said, taken aback.

We went into her small consultation room filled with spider plants and ferns, and sat in two facing chairs. I’d asked her not to close the curtains, and in the bright afternoon light, a series of hanging crystals threw prisms on the floor and walls.

“I’m going to call your father into the room,” she said.

“You don’t have to, he’s here,” I replied as my body began quaking, not from fear exactly but from the overwhelming sense of his presence.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I see him.” She was looking at the wrong part of the room, and I waved my left arm, though I wouldn’t turn to look.

“He’s here,” I said, gesturing behind me.

She told me that suicides sometimes did not realize that they were dead and this was probably why he had been haunting me. “Speak to him. Explain this to him,” she urged.

But I couldn’t. I shook as if my bones would break, bending forward, gasping for breath. When I did speak, I yelled “Daddy!” in staccato bursts.

“I’ve called someone else into the room,” she said, “a dead man, a man your father met in his lifetime.” She said this man, who my father recognized, was going to show him where to go, a place where he would be able to rest and where people would help him. A gentle authority had come into her voice, and aching to believe in her, I felt myself begin to calm.

She told me that my father and the man were leaving together, and still sitting forward, my face streaming with tears and snot, I repeated, “I love you, Daddy,” again and again.

When I sensed him gone, I sat up straight and the trembling grew less intense. Linda Bell looked thoughtful, her eyes wide. “He’s all right now,” she said. I nodded and smiled, telling myself that even if she hadn’t seen him at the beginning, she eventually had, and that my father was now better off.

As I was about to leave, I reached into my bag for the money my friend had loaned me.

“Oh,” Linda Bell said, “You don’t have to pay me.”

Relieved that I’d be able to give it back to my friend, I expressed my gratitude. For some reason, though, I showed her the wad of fives and tens, maybe just to prove that I had intended to pay. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on it, and just as I was about to put it away, she reached out her hand. I gave it to her and it disappeared into a hidden pocket in her kaftan. She colored, and for a split second, neither of us moved, until she raised a heavy arm, bracelets jingling, and in a guiding gesture, led me to the door. “You and I knew each other in several past lives,” she whispered.

I looked at her expectantly, even as a tightness came into my chest.

“You were my mother and I was your daughter in ancient Galilee. We used to walk through the dust to hear the prophet, Jesus.”

At my mother’s insistence my father’s face had been reconstructed so that the wake could be open casket in the Irish Catholic tradition. The face in the casket had only been partially his. Instead of his rounded Irish nose, a pointed one. And the chin was too short, the jaw shaped wrong. My father had shot himself after closing the bar where he worked a second job.

I’d grown up intensely Catholic. Suicide was the one unforgivable sin, worse than mass murder or torture. Horrific acts inflicted on others could be forgiven, but not the act of despair. My father’s funeral Mass had been sanitized of any mention of it, too shameful, too unspeakable for the priest or any of the mourners to acknowledge.

Linda Bell may have been a charlatan, but that day in her consulting room, something important had happened. I imagined for the first time, a different, gentler kind of afterlife, where maybe my father would not have to suffer harsh judgment and eternal torment, but be met with compassion.

And I daydreamed about what she’d said about our past life together as mother and daughter. What had felt false and jarring when she’d said it, became a source of comfort. While my own mother was growing more and more remote in the wake of my father’s death, only months away from her own suicide, I’d sit with her in silence in the living room and imagine this other mother and daughter joined in a quest for spiritual sustenance.

Hours after seeing Linda Bell, my father had come back. But he did begin to come less often, and when he was there, it wasn’t his terror I sensed so much as his sadness.

Forty-two years later, on the edge of sleep, my guard sometimes falls away. A door inside me blows softly open and I feel my father’s presence. I squeeze my eyes shut and wait for him to go. Sometimes, if I’m more awake than asleep, I whisper to him, “You’re exhausted, Dad. It’s time for you to get some rest.”

Regina McBride is the author of four novels including The Nature of Water and Air and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City.


Banner art from Claire Winter Photography.