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I was embarrassed to reveal I half-believed in psychics. When Diane, the woman I walked with every morning, asked if I was interested in seeing a couple of them, I just nodded. She had learned of them through a casual friend. They tag-teamed as if a reading of a life demanded too much of one person. They guaranteed at least forty minutes, were usually accurate, weren’t cheap but also not expensive. If you gathered ten people together for readings there was a discount. Diane tacked a notice on the bulletin board downstairs in our apartment building, capping attendance to the first ten who signed up. The list overflowed! Perhaps, like me, in this Brooklyn oasis of the mundane, we all longed for a taste of something extraordinary, a lifted veil, to ripple through the everyday of our lives.
Diane put out coffee, wine, cheese, fruit, hummus and crackers. The rest of us brought cake, cookies, chocolates and wine, her den’s middle-class blandness suddenly festive. We picked numbers to determine the order in which we’d go. I was next to last before Diane, who, as the hostess, got the final space with the option for it to continue longer if needed. Eager anticipation seemed a physical presence, the room flooded with a hopeful jitteriness. Paper plates and cups piled up in the trash can. At first, in the spirit of camaraderie that can pervade groups of women, everyone shared what they wanted to ask.
A vaguely recognisable woman from shared elevator rides asked me, ”Why are you here?”
I just shrugged. “For fun,” I said. Actually I hoped to learn something about my future that would be both enlightening and optimistic.
It slowly grew later and quieter, snacks just about gone, only a half bottle of wine left, women departing the bedroom where the psychics were housed, displaying feelings that ranged from jubilant to tearful. By one-twenty in the morning only Diane and I were left. I was in that state where everything is surreal, hazed over, colours a little blurred and voices distant when I stumbled into the bedroom. The two young psychics were nondescript in jeans and tee-shirts, no hint that these women wandered the past, present and future. They were bleary-eyed, hair limp and messy, but so kinetically wired that their bodies quivered, propelled by a purpose that fuelled them beyond the need to sleep. They swayed from one foot to another as if rocking themselves. I looked at their flushed faces and thought how terrible it must be to access people’s lives, people’s trauma. One motioned me to an easy chair of the ruffled blue satin you’d see on a cradle. I settled into the comfortable cushions. My chest tightened with a wave of anxiety at the unknown about to descend on me, although my normal scepticism tempered it. They studied me briefly, then closed their eyes which moments later opened in surprise. They looked at each other then back at me and erupted frantically in a tidal current of words with such synchronicity I couldn’t tell who was speaking: “You’ll have a second son when your first son is nearly two. He’ll be a reincarnation of your brother, who died in Vietnam.”
Their bodies swayed in unison as one continued, “Your brother died of grievous wounds to his legs.” Her face clouded with the sadness for another’s pain. “Did you know that?”
I shook my head. I’d refused to read my brother’s death certificate. As far as I was concerned, he died of the stupidity of the government officials who blindly sent thousands of Americans and Vietnamese to their death for no real discernible reason.
“I’m sorry.” She reached out and touched my arm gently. “Your son will be born with some of that damage in his legs, we’re not sure how much. But it will be okay,” she assured me. “Just very difficult.”
They were silent for a moment then the other asked, “You understand that it will be OK? I hope we made that clear.”
I understood nothing; their dramatic words spoken against the banal background of Diane’s bedroom left me dizzy with the incongruity.
“It will be OK,” they repeated.
“Then that’s all. That’s all that’s important. Your son will be OK.”
I stood, numb and speechless. They watched me, hugged and assured me yet again that everything would be OK, then opened the door and let me out into the present.
Our apartment was silent when I came in, grateful my husband was asleep. I stripped off my clothes and fell into bed and an immediate sleep. When I woke, morning light had invaded the room, the previous night’s prophecy lingering like a dream I needed to interpret. My husband had already left for work and I knew that I wouldn’t tell him. He never asked. He was an engineer, sceptical of anything that hinted of the supernatural, wrapped up in his world of numbers and blueprints, the weight and flexibility of materials. My people are Russian Jews who believe in the mystical, spitting three times to ward off an evil eye, saying how ugly my son was to prevent any jealousy from a spiteful spirit, covering mirrors for seven days after a death least we see the departing soul. My husband and brother had never gotten along. My brother was as different from him as I was, looser, more gentle and adventurous. I couldn’t imagine my husband as his father.
I put my son in the carriage, left a note for Diane that I couldn’t meet her, then went out, pushing the stroller along the street with an energy so explosive I broke into an intermittent jog, one moment believing, the next not. The day was bright, the air clear with everything suddenly in sharp relief. Each passerby, each house, each shop claimed space in a way they never had. I couldn’t reconcile this three dimensional world with what the psychics told me, but how far was I really from always believing in universal forces I could never understand? I’d often wondered if choice was a myth, if everything was already preordained, a movie reel, spooling out in its own time. And of the alleged son to come, children are supposedly our chance to make things right in the future, but the idea of my son and my brother being one offered, in some convoluted way, to make the past right also. I’d liked to think we’d been close, but maybe we were just entangled through lives that we could only sometimes make sense of: divorced parents, violence on the streets and sometimes in our home, always scrambling to have enough to eat. I wondered if the newly incarnated brother would have memories, unresolved feelings of anger or rivalry about me. I wondered how the newly birthed son would grow to feel about me as a mother. I wondered if or how all those messy feelings would influence each other. The wondering was a kind of insanity that couldn’t be resolved until the future and past joined if that was really going to happen. Reincarnation was even more complicated than I could imagine. My head pounded with the wondering so I stopped. I just put it all wherever I put everything else I didn’t want to think about.
My second son was born almost two years later. A difficult birth that continued for a day and a half. I named him after my brother. He was familiar to me before he was born, an introduction made in-utero. Although he loved him, my husband was often irritable at our second son in a way he wasn’t with our first. It was as though his developing personality grated on his father – I couldn’t explain and with his usual inability to understand his feelings, my husband couldn’t explain it either. At the age of eighteen months my son began to limp and fall, explaining that his leg hurt. He would have traction, two surgeries, a body cast, physical therapy. I sat alone in a slightly shabby waiting room with well-thumbed magazines during the four hours of his surgery trying to remember if I’d noticed anything in my son’s behaviour that was reminiscent of my brother’s, if he suggested memories of a time “before.” He never had. There was something biblical about all of this; a prophecy fulfilled. Our lives now seemed larger than us, expanding out into the unknown; we were the recipients of a prophecy and life had moved beyond understanding. Everything was suddenly infinite. I had no doubt, at least at that moment, that my living son suffered from my dead brother’s injuries.
My husband and I divorced some time after. Once they no longer lived together, he and my second son got along well.
When my second granddaughter was born many years later, everyone remarked on a peacefulness that emanated from her. She observed everything around her with a calm acceptance and when she sat or stood still, her hands seemed to fall naturally into mudras. Once when she was four and we were looking at jizos, statues of a particular kind of Japanese Bodhisattva, I explained that they were supposed to walk at night. She looked at me quietly and said, “Oh Nana, they do, very slowly, but you can’t see them.”
A woman I met at a writer’s conference had come up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Where have we met? You are so familiar.”
I smiled at her, and almost instantly felt exactly the same way. “I don’t know, but I’m sure you’re right,” I answered.
We went for a cup of coffee. Our conversation was so relaxed and comfortable that I felt as though she must be a childhood friend. She agreed, but that was impossible; she was from Colorado and I was from Brooklyn. We sat over coffee for three hours then met later for dinner. We exchanged telephone numbers. Within a remarkably brief period of time it seemed as though we understood each other perfectly, were accepting of each other, and were never surprised by anything the other said.
Months later, during a phone conversation, well after we’d exhausted every possibility of how we could know each other, she laughingly said, “It must be from another life.”
“Must be,” I agreed, laughing also, but when I hung up, I was flooded by a warm feeling of accepting what I didn’t understand.
Years later, a psychic at a party insisted that I needed to see R-, a well-respected psychic from the neighbourhood. On his recommendation I decided that if one psychic was recommending a different one I would go. R- told me a number of things: I would write a book in ten years (I did). I would remarry somebody with a ten year age difference (I did). My sons would be successful in both love and profession (they are). She asked if I I often identified with African-Americans and laughed when, in surprise, I answered yes.
”In a past life you were a kidnapped African who’d drowned during the middle passage. You probably never swim.” I don’t.
She told me about a friend who had died recently. “She’ll be a guru in her next life, preaching peace and brotherhood.” She smiled at me. “You’ll be friends again.”
If mystics are right, how many lives can we have? Can we continue ad infinitum? Are we always surrounded by the same group of people, swimming together like a school of fishes from one life to the next? Where does it begin, the very first life? I do believe that from the moment of birth we all live in that liminal space between life and death, past, present and future melting into each other. Does reality matter as much as what we choose to believe? What do we carry with us from life to life? My son is certainly not a shadowy remnant of a boy who died much too soon for no discernible purpose. My brother certainly was a complete person who was cursed with an incomplete life. I’ve already lived many lives in this one: slum kid, troubled high schooler, unhappy house wife, mother, writer, wife again. In some ways I’m completely different in each one, in other ways I see the thread of who I used to be sewing all these identities together. It’s not such a stretch to believe that there is a continuing thread from one life to another. Or maybe that’s just the human wistfulness that there is something more. Ultimately, like all of us, I have no way of knowing the reality of death until my own. Everything in life is ambiguous; death is no different.