Ghosts I've Known

My little sister's depression was realer than mine. It was not self-inflicted, but deep and hard-wired and inescapable. Ultimately we could not save her.
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People used to say that the dorm I lived in my sophomore year of college was haunted, that there was a ghost in Hewitt Hall. The details were unclear, but the general consensus was that sometime, a while back, a student had taken his life there and now that same unfortunate soul haunted the dormitory. People claimed they saw things: the figure of a young man behind you as you brushed your teeth in the mirror, an apparition that always vanished when you turned around to investigate.

Some reported hearing loud crashes at the end of the hall, bottles breaking, garbage cans being hurled about. One student swore that every time she went into the co-ed bathrooms a faucet would inexplicably turn off and on by itself. But I never saw or heard anything. And I haunted that dorm far more than any ghost.

My time in Hewitt coincided with the height of my depression, a period when I couldn’t sleep for days on end. I’d spend grueling hours lying on my extra-long twin mattress, tracing the arc of the moon across the sky, unable to turn my brain off. It wasn’t a specific affliction that tormented me, so much as a general malaise. In retrospect it seems juvenile, but at the time it was all-consuming.

Eventually I’d grow so frustrated trying to sleep that I would get up from my bed, dress and leave my room. I’d walk around the dorm, daring the ghost to show himself, lingering for long spells at his purported haunts, traipsing silently through the hallways. But he never appeared.

Sometimes I’d sit at the top of the central hill on campus and think about being back home, some two-thousand miles away. Sometimes I’d go for long jogs through the wooded areas that surrounded the school. Mostly I’d go to the nearby Indian Hills cemetery and wander among the old mausoleums and crumbling headstones.

I’d often think about killing myself. Never all that seriously, I suppose, but I did ponder it a lot, with my back propped up against a tombstone. I’d think about how I would do it, who would find me, who would show up to my funeral, who would feel bad for how they treated me, who would remember me, who would forget. How my family would respond. It was childish and aimlessly vindictive. There’d be no doubt about who haunted Hewitt then.

When the sun started to rise over the cemetery, I’d rouse myself, go back to my dorm and shower, preparing for another somnambulant day of classes. I’d wonder what about becoming a ghost appealed to me. And I’d think about Old Man Toad.

Every camp has his equivalent: a spirit that both watches over and haunts the campgrounds. At my summer camp in Conifer, Colorado, it was Old Man Toad, a frog-like creature the size of a small human who was purported to live in the area and served as the camp’s mascot of sorts. A large, wooden statue of him greeted you as you pulled through the gates into camp. His face was carved into fence posts and adorned our annual T-shirts. All the kids at the camp were obsessed with him. His occasional appearances sent us into shrieking convulsions.

There you’d be, shooting an arrow into a target draped over a giant hay bale, swimming in the lake, or elbow-deep in pipe cleaners and beads at the arts and craft barn when suddenly someone in the distance would scream, “Old Man Toad!” You would immediately drop whatever you were doing and run toward the yelling. If you were lucky, if you had gotten there in time, you’d catch a glimpse of the old fella: a sheet with holes cut out for eyes darting through camp, hurling candy at the growing cluster of children in his wake. Sometimes he’d rip through camp in a VW van, a trusty accomplice driving while he sat in the back, sliding the van door open, tossing handfuls of his signature candy. We would tear after him as fast as our little elementary-school legs would carry us but we could never catch him.

According to tradition, Old Man Toad lived in an old school bus up near a collection of enormous stones we called the Elephant Rocks, on the far part of the campgrounds. You could hike up there. You weren’t technically supposed to, but the counselors looked the other way. They knew what they were doing, the mythos they were cultivating. We’d sneak off in small groups there and dare each other to touch the school bus door, to jiggle it and try and open it. It was always locked, but the mere act of confirming that it was there would send us sprinting back towards camp, squealing in paroxysms of danger and delight.

“He was in there! I swear to God he was in there!”

“Well go back there tonight! We’ll see him at night!”

But we never did. We were too afraid or too enchanted with the legend. Old Man Toad represented the unknown, the mysterious. Scary, but never dangerous. He was our first window into the abyss.

One afternoon, the whole camp was gathered for some sort of presentation near the main cabin when suddenly Old Man Toad came darting through the crowd, a white blur, close enough to touch. We jumped up and scurried after him as he charged towards the lake and launched himself off the dock. Then, something amazing happened. Within seconds he was on the far side of the enormous lake, clambering through the reeds and sprinting into the forest beyond, up towards the fabled Elephant Rocks.

The older campers always suspected it was the counselors masquerading as Old Man Toad the whole time, a cynical theory that trickled all the way down to the youngest campers. But if that was true, how could they explain what we just saw? The creature that had just been so close to us, so tantalizingly within reach, was now separated by an entire lake, some three hundred yards away, at least. It had been only a few seconds.

No, to swim through a lake that fast you’d have to be part … toad.

Many years later, after a brief stint as a counselor in training, I realized that one counselor, wearing the signature Old Man Toad sheet, must have jumped into the lake and then swam underwater back beneath the dock. Meanwhile another counselor, clad in the same sheet, waited on the far side of the lake, ready to pop up out of the reeds and sprint for the hills. It was high camp theater, executed perfectly to leave a generation of Colorado campers in awe of that bogeyman, Old Man Toad.

But that day, when I looked through the kids down by the dock at my little sister Lydia. Her mouth was actually agape.

I saved Lydia’s life by that same dock that same summer. I was up by the main cabin and I looked down towards the dock to see my sister standing on the far edge with another little girl, a girl who I knew used to bully her. I watched as that girl pushed her off. It was only a few feet of water. Odds are she would have been fine. Somewhere nearby a teenage lifeguard no doubt sat on duty. But Lydia was never a strong swimmer.

I didn’t think. I sprinted down to the water, even faster than I’d sprinted after Old Man Toad. I jumped off the dock, pulled Lydia up into my arms and walked out of the lake with her. She was sputtering but fine. I deposited Lydia safely on the sandy shore. The little bully who pushed her stammered something about it being an accident, but I didn’t even let her get the words out of her mouth before I shoved her backwards off the dock. Then I took Lydia up to the changing cabins to dry off.

When Lydia was a baby, I’d nearly let her drown. I was barely more than a baby myself, seven, eight years old maybe. Lydia was four years younger than me. My older sister, Anna, and I were swimming in a pool. Lydia was nearby in an inner tube, my mom, another sorry swimmer, reading poolside. Lydia was my responsibility. Anna and I were supposed to take turns watching her. It was my turn. I knew it was my turn. But I got distracted. I started playing with Anna, I think, I can’t really remember. When I looked over and the inner tube was empty. No Lydia.

Beneath it was the dark figure of a baby flailing at the bottom of the pool. Before I could even act, my mom was in the water, swimming ability be damned, pulling Lydia up from the bottom and shaking her off. She laid her out on the hot concrete stomach-down, and violently smacked her little back so she’d cough the chlorinated water out. She was fine. Shaken, but alive. But it had been a close call, and I harbored that guilt for years.

Lydia visited me when I lived in Hewitt my sophomore year, at the height of my depression. She was 15 or 16, a curious high schooler. Anna was a senior at the same school, so we took turns with Lydia for a couple of days, the three Cayton-Holland children all together away from our parents. Lydia had dyed a thick, blue streak in her hair at the time. I asked her if she smoked weed and when she told me that she did, I proceeded to take her to a party and get her higher than she’d ever been in her life, an elder sibling’s responsibility. When we left that party she told me that she could see people moving their lips at her but she couldn’t hear a single word anyone was saying.

She told me she was getting sick of her high school newspaper, the newspaper that I had been editor-in-chief of. She said it like a confession, like she didn’t want me to be disappointed in her. Lydia was thinking about starting her own paper, and she asked me if I would contribute a guest column. Of course I would, I told her. And she didn't need to worry about disappointing me. The newspaper had been my thing. It didn't have to be hers. She eventually did start her own paper, The Clocktower, and I kept good on my promise. That column read like a love-letter to my past life.

Lydia got that. She remembered me for who I was. She believed in me. She appreciated what I had to offer. In that dark period of my life, she reminded me that she was my little sister, that as bad as things got, I was still an older brother. I may have felt low or undervalued, I may have been kicking myself too hard while I was down, but Lydia loved me; Lydia looked up to me. She made me feel worthwhile.

The day she left, she had an early morning flight. I’d prepared a little pallet on the floor of my dorm room for her; a nest made of blankets and comforters and pillows. Neither one of us could sleep, so eventually we just gave up. I climbed down into the little floor fort with her and we watched movies all night together until it was time to go. I had an early class, so Anna drove her to the airport. Lydia waved at me as they drove off. I can still see her through the rear windshield.

I had a test that day. After Lydia left I trudged off to that class and realized that I had not studied for it at all. I sat down next to a friend of mine who asked me if I was prepared. When I told her I was not in the least, she told me I could just cheat off of her. She angled her test toward me. I sat there for a moment and then I just gave up. I put my pencil down, slid the exam away from me and left. I might be a nobody at that school; I might be depressed, maybe even suicidal, stalking the campus at night wishing I was a ghost, I might be an angry child howling at the moon, but at the very least I was no fucking cheater. Lydia did that for me. Lydia gave me self-worth at that moment when I so crucially needed it.

Leaving the test that day, in a way, began the long and convoluted road to pulling myself out of my depression. There would be vandalism and alcohol and a near-expulsion, but pushing that test away from me and heading back to my dorm room for a few hours of so desperately needed sleep was the first act of many in making myself better. And Lydia gave me that.

In the end, I wasn’t able to return the favor. I tried. I caught her that first time, a little skeleton in her bed, strung out on way too many pills. I drove her to the hospital and called my family. We checked her into the psych ward and tried so hard to convince her of her self-worth. But Lydia was too busy becoming a ghost. Lydia wanted to take her life and she did, some 12 years after she visited Anna and me at our college. She was 28 and her depression was realer than mine had been, less childish; not self-inflicted, but real and deep and hard-wired and inescapable, and ultimately we were powerless to stop her. We loved her and we tried but we couldn’t help her. She was strong-willed and stubborn and lost, and she’d made up her mind to become the ghost that would haunt the halls of her choosing, the ghost that will haunt me until I join her on the other side.

For a while, after Lydia died, it was like I wasn’t really even able to remember her. I talked to her every single day on the phone up until her final breath. We visited in person on average four to five times a week. She was so much a part of my life, I didn’t even have to think about what she was like; she was just there. But after she was gone that tangible feeling of her vanished too. I couldn’t remember what it was like to be with her, to be around her—to touch her and smell her and experience her. All I could remember of my little sister were these snapshots from the 28 years we had spent together. Literal photos from family albums: Lydia in St. Mark's Square in Venice, a pigeon on her arm; Lydia in the Galapagos Islands with her long hair in a band; Lydia on the beach in Cape Cod; Lydia standing directly on top of second base in City Park. They were like borrowed memories, and they felt cold and distant. Beyond the snapshots there was nothing, no visceral feeling of being with my sister, no physical recollection of what it was like to be in her presence.

I recently underwent some pretty extensive therapy. I had no real goal for putting myself through this treatment; I just knew I wasn’t right. That something had to change. The end result of this, I suppose, is that I’ve started to get little pieces of my sister back. I’ve started to feel her again. Waves of memories and emotions have flooded back to me and I can remember Lydia and feel her richly and deeply again, far beyond the meager two-dimensional snapshots I was allowing myself in my grief. It’s been bittersweet. Because now that I can see and feel her so clearly again, it makes me miss her that much more.

But I’ll take it, one hundred percent. Now I can see Lydia for what she was again, a person, more than those dark final few months. I see her as my little sister, visiting her older siblings on their college campus, learning from them, checking in on them, helping them. I see her there with all the other kids at the camp, chasing Old Man Toad down towards the dock, running away from the bogeyman, running towards him. 

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Adam Cayton-Holland is a writer and comedian based in Denver, Colorado.

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