Tracy Robert


When you lose someone close to you, you may thereafter receive messages. It doesn’t matter that people look askance or nudge each other or regard you with soft pity in their eyes if you report these messages. Perhaps it would behoove you not to report them. But if you allow grief to open you like a haywire ham radio, you will hear from your deceased loved one. And you will know relief and gratitude to a degree that you won’t smart from the derision of others who have not been through what you have.

While I have never had a face-to-face conversation with a dead person, I have most certainly been contacted.

My friend Jen takes a look at me and says, “You need to be on the table. Soon.”  She is a Reiki Master and Energy Medicine practitioner in western New York where I’ve just arrived to teach a writing workshop in her community. My sister is one month dead by suicide. I wear the deep shock of it, a caul over my skin.

I had my first Reiki treatment two years before on a lark, wandering into a salon in a woman’s home for a pedicure, then agreeing to a session of Reiki. At that juncture, I had no idea how to even spell the word Reiki. I simply submitted and was surprised at what it did for me.

It seems germane here to say I am not a highly suggestible person, that I once tried to do a past life regression and failed miserably at transporting myself there.  Hypnosis fails with me. My conscious mind takes its function seriously and has trouble disengaging. I don’t expect to be one of those audience participants in Vegas, bobbing around like a chicken or cantering like a pony on stage.

So, toenails freshly polished, there I was in my first Reiki experience with no clue what to expect. The woman worked with a tuning fork and various crystals, but she was not a hands-on sort of practitioner and I’m not certain what she did with those tools because my eyes were closed. Every now and then I would hear the tuning fork, sometimes closer to an ear than at others. After a while her methods didn’t matter, since I fell into a deep meditative state that was not sleep. I know it wasn’t sleep because I was aware of the room and the woman’s presence and her adolescent daughter bounding in from school and her mother shushing her.  I heard birdsong and traffic outside.

The perception of these real things did not disturb my meditation in the slightest. They seemed more like a low-key soundtrack to the visions screening in my head. Visions, yes, that’s what they were. I never took hallucinogenic drugs like so many of my generation, but I’d wager that the visions I had during my first foray into Reiki were a few steps removed from hallucinations, because my eyes were closed and I did not perceive reality as something it wasn’t.  I saw colors, mainly—swirls of purples and greens and blues similar to the aurora borealis, only more distinct. I was swept away by and into the colors, content to be there, until an image interrupted the color play.

It was a silhouetted shape—black—of a character crossed between Rumplestilskin and Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. This creature was scary and menacing, moved like a jointed puppet and I sensed the need to distance myself from him at once. Years of public school teaching trained me to react swiftly when the situation dictates, and I commanded, in my mind rather than out loud, Stay away. Do not come near. Don’t touch me. Back away right now.

I’m compelled to add that I don’t believe in the devil. I do think there is evil afoot but it’s created within us, not without us, and since Reiki is about balancing our energies, I’m pretty sure I was grappling with a dramatic imbalance inside myself—maybe my tendency to be hyper-vigilant, expecting the half-empty glass to spill. Maybe my occasional crippling self-doubt or envy. Lots of choices for the queen of all evils lurking in me, but throughout the Reiki treatment, I delighted in brilliant colors and rebuked my personal darkness.

When I returned from the session, my then-boyfriend Andy asked if I’d had a facial. I said no, just a pedicure and some Reiki. “Your face is glowing,” he said, and a glance in the mirror proved him right.

Jump two years and a couple more Reiki treatments ahead, and I accept Jen’s offer without hesitation.

The Reiki room is outdoors, a screened hut beside a pond, overlooking a vegetable and herb garden at the edge of the woods.  The hut contains a massage table, a rocking chair, and an end table covered with stones and feathers that must be precious to Jen. There’s not much noise except a light breeze, an intermittent frog croak or the whir of hummingbird wings. Peaceful. An antidote to the grinding gears sound that attends my state of shock.  I need help; I am accepting help from a friend and gifted healer whose hands radiate warmth. I feel it when they are inches away from me.

“Okay, sister woman,” Jen says. I Ujjayi breathe a few times and we begin.

Jen is a hands-on Reiki Master, and during the session she places her hands on various energy centers of my body, starting with my head. But shortly after she commences, I lose awareness of her touch because I am fully involved in the state Reiki produces in me. All other concerns fall away and I am on a quest for my dead sister. That is how grief expresses itself:  a terrible concern for the dead that is plumbed by the living.

Part of grieving over Amy is my concern about where she is. Ridiculous, to be sure, since the answer to any outsider not shaken by her intentional exit is, She’s dead, that’s where she is. She’s ashes. Fair enough, but I don’t care about where her physical body is. I want to know where Amy is, her soul, her essence, that person who sighed heavily and with exclamation points every time George W. Bush opened his mouth. The woman who held forth for several minutes about the vivid punishments she’d confer upon a driver who cut her off on the freeway. The one who invoked a game in which the word nosegay was substituted for a noun in a movie title, as in Splendor in the Nosegay, or Nosegay on a Hot Tin Roof or The Milagro Beanfield Nosegay.  She who deemed it “Monkey Brain” that sent her off on eating binges, and who drew cartoons of the creature in her journal. The sister who called my dog her nephew.  Where is she?

Along with swirling colors in varying pinks and reds, a question wheels through my mindscape: What is it like to be dead, to be where you are? I’m the older sister by eight years. I was supposed to brave that territory before her. My anxiety informs the meditation, even as I chastise myself for not being fully relaxed into a higher state. That’s how I roll.  Energy balance? Let me introduce my friends, anxiety and self-chastisement. I am not proud of these friends, but they do serve a purpose, and right now they lead me where I need to go, into a realm that contains the presence of my sister.

She says, “I’m where it’s all experience and no judgment.”

She hasn’t encountered our mother yet and is continuing to look. Experience, she says, welcomes anything big. I puzzle over what that means, but surmise it’s a self-deprecating reference to Amy’s struggle with weight. Later I will wonder if she means the “big” problem of our departed mother, whom we both by turns loved and cursed. She calls me “sistah” as we have done for years. She asks me to take her ashes to the sea, though does not specify which one.

I’m not sure what any of this means, really, but I’m more than mildly comforted by the contact with my sister, by the calm assurance of her words. When I get off the massage table, I thank Jen profusely and tell her she’s lifted enormous worry from me. I no longer feel I’m going to hyperventilate if I don’t consciously remind myself to breathe. My feet fall surer on the ground. I don’t hear the grinding gears noise in my head anymore.

Jen explains that trauma scrambles our energies and adds to our suffering. She’s glad she could help.

So, I add, am I.

Two days later, my sister’s therapist in Vermont, whom I’ll refer to as Myra, phones me. She’d been perplexed when Amy missed her first June appointment, but because of Myra’s complicated schedule—she works in private practice as well as a pediatric mental health facility—she and her clients often confuse their dates. After Amy missed the second June appointment, of which Myra was certain, she worried. Had our father’s health taken a dramatic turn, and Amy left for California sooner than her planned move at the end of the month? In addition to unanswered emails and phone calls that were rejected by Amy’s full voice mailbox, Myra put a message out to the cosmos at large: Where are you? I don’t know what has happened or what you’ve done, but send me some word.

While in Vermont to retrieve my sister’s ashes, I found Myra’s business card in Amy’s effects, and fingered it for several days upon my return home. Just before I left California again in July to conduct the New York workshop, I sent Myra an email telling her of Amy’s suicide. Myra was not in my sister’s circle of friends or coworkers and I suspected she might not have heard. I was right.

In our phone conversation, Myra seems as blindsided as I am by Amy’s decision to kill herself. She says Amy had been making “fearless progress” in her therapy, facing the victim roles she had placed herself in as daughter, friend, and employee. She realized her responsibilities to herself, and appeared excited at the chance to make a change and move back to California. She knew she was loved. She knew she had family. She was coming home.

But, Myra says, Amy had a rather keen spiritual side. The counselor’s voice halts a little when she says this, as if it pains her. She stops speaking of my sister, and tells me about her own background as clinician, someone who listens to a client and follows a path of diagnosis with prescribed treatments toward desired solutions.

She’s begun to work with children in the other part of her professional life as pediatric counselor: small children, about three to five years old, diagnosed as psychotic because they “see things.” “These children are not psychotic,” she says emphatically. Realizing clinical diagnoses and methods weren’t going to serve these kids, she turned to the balancing work of Reiki.

I am deeply invested in this conversation, and I just sank in deeper.

Amy was able to go into the meditative and healing state of Reiki very quickly, according to Myra. My sister had an impressive amount of control and grace in this realm.  Then Myra admits, apologizing for crossing all kinds of lines of confidentiality, that Amy had a strong spiritual connection to our deceased mother and it seemed to be getting stronger.

Disjunct facts and suppositions fall away or merge like a jigsaw ballet in my head right now.  Until this moment, I did not know my sister had Reiki treatments along with her therapy, and I certainly didn’t know she was gifted in that area. I also wasn’t aware she missed our mother so powerfully. I only assumed, because of the relief I felt at the end of my mother’s physical and mental suffering, that my sister would feel a similar easement. I forgot how Amy and my mother behaved with each other—like an old married couple or a pair of high school girls who spoke a language all their own. When the three of us were together, I was the odd person out, bewildered over their exchange of code words and knowing nods.  If I inquired further, I’d be distanced by shrugs or dismissals along the lines of, “You had to be there.”

To my sister’s cessation of antidepressants—which I strongly suspect because of empty, bent sample packets of Effexor in the bottom of her purse and no other script bottles found in her cottage—add her “spiritual connection” with our dead mother, and there’s a recipe for suicide.

I share the story of my sister’s communication with me during the Reiki session with Jen. I ask Myra about the Effexor. She says, “If Amy stopped her meds, she broke a promise she made to me.” She reminds me again that she is breaching a professional code of ethics by speaking with me, but believes that calling was the right thing for her to do “as a human being.”

And despite my natural skepticism, I believe my sister spoke to me while I was in Jen’s Reiki room.

I am not a New-Agey person. I once house sat for someone whose home was cluttered with framed affirmations and pink crystals, one nearly as big as a fire hydrant, and the place felt heavy with unfulfilled expectation. I don’t poke around seeking magic and miracles. I do, however, believe that if we hunger enough, we receive answers.

Here’s an enduring example: I went through a contentious divorce, but the financial aspect of it wasn’t the worst part for me. I was torn up because in leaving my unrepentant philandering husband, I also left my teenage stepchildren. I’d been in their lives for seven years, and loved them dearly. I agonized about the harm my departure might do to my relationship with them, and continued to agonize even after I’d moved out. On a particularly distressing morning, I asked for a sign that I was doing the right thing by seeking a divorce. Then I set out to do errands.

On my list was picking up discounted patio furniture at Fashion Island, an outdoor mall in Newport Beach. I parked and walked about 30 yards from the lot to the loading dock where I’d been instructed to bring my receipt. In getting there I brushed against automobiles only, no foliage or trees. About halfway to the dock, I felt as if my hair, which was long, were tangling with the strap of my shoulder bag, which felt extra-heavy, and when I reached my right hand back to free the hair, I grabbed a snake. A long, shiny, California king snake. I shuddered, yelped, and flung the creature into a planter of fountain grass. Then I looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed this unlikely herpetological event.

There on the back steps of Tutto Mare, a restaurant worker sat having his cigarette break, eyes propped open with disbelief.

“Did you see that?” I said, gesturing widely toward the planter.

He nodded vigorously. “Si, si, senora,” he said, continuing to nod.

So I wasn’t hallucinating. I asked for it, I got it: a sign. I had to cast my marriage away from me, no matter how troublesome doing so might be.

During Reiki sessions, I wasn’t hallucinating, either. We are made of energy. The first law of thermodynamics tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. Our energy must remain, in some modified form, after our bodies are gone. There’s an inscrutable logic to my energy convening with my dead sister’s energy while my energy is being balanced. I did not dream Amy’s presence. I did not invent it. It happened. Or I suppose I should say, I believe it happened in the same way I believe that California king snake snuggled up to me as a message, the answer to my earnest appeal for a sign.

In her book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach debunks ectoplasm, hauntings, professional psychics and the 21-gram weight of a soul. But at the close of her extensive investigation into after-death phenomena, Roach pulls a wonderful 180 on her readers:

When I say I believe something, I mean I know it. But maybe belief is more subtle. A leaning, not a knowing. Is it possible to believe without knowing? While there are plenty of people who’ll tell you they know God exists, in the same way that they know that the earth is round and the sky is blue, there are also plenty of people, possibly the majority of people who believe in God, who do not make such a claim. They believe without knowing…The debunkers are probably right, but they’re no fun to visit a graveyard with. What the hell. I believe in ghosts.

Like Roach, I say, What the hell. Science proclaims that gravity exists but has no thorough explanation for it. If we can’t explain something we know, how can we explain the unknown? And though I’m not sure I believe in ghosts, I do believe the dead send us messages.

Back from the writing workshop, which I was able to teach by the grace of Jen Mills’ healing talent, I fall into the habit of beach walks and collecting sea glass. When I scan the deposits of rock and shell for a certain shade or telltale glint of glass, all that goes through my head is, “Is that a piece of glass? Is that? Is that?” I suppose it transforms into a mantra after a while, the whole act of searching a meditation. There’s the clink of the shards in my sweatshirt pockets, their heft like coins with no value except that I’ve found them.

By emptying my mind of thought and filling my pockets with broken beauty, I grieve my sister. I keep on our sideboard a phalanx of jars of sea glass, mounting evidence of my grief and my own brand of meditation.

On an autumn beach walk, several months after Amy’s death, I am thus meditating. I’ve added watching for dolphins to the practice: “Is that a dorsal fin? Is that a spout? Is that? Is that?” I alternate between searching the sand for the sheen of glass, and searching the water for the sheen of dolphin skin. With nothing else in my mind but dolphins and glass, a voice bursts into my reverie like a speech bubble suddenly drawing itself into air. “You moron,” it says. “You’re taking my ashes to Hawaii, when you have the ocean right here?”

I glance all around me. This is my sister’s voice, clear as reason, but I feel as if I might be losing my mind. I counsel myself the whole way back to my house, sometimes speaking out loud, looking, I’m sure, like a person in need of someone else’s counsel besides her own. I remind myself that my brother and I made the decision to at some point scatter Amy’s ashes in Hawaii because that’s where we dispersed our mother’s, and because she and my sister were close. To calm myself, I reassert the rightness of this decision.

The next morning, my brother calls me from Boston and the first words out of his mouth are, “I had a dream last night that Amy told me not to take her ashes to Maui.”

We have not talked about our decision since we first came up with it shortly after our sister died, and we’ve certainly not spoken since my experience on the beach the day before. I say, “Well then, we are NOT taking her ashes to Hawaii.”

And once again, my dead sister has delivered a message.

In dreams Amy delivers other messages, some fuzzy, some precise.  There’s a spate of them right after Christmas of the year she died.  In the first dream, I have a blue yoga mat, and several seers dressed like Greek Orthodox priests have told me it possesses energy from the “other side.” I know the energy they refer to indicates word from Amy. The following night I dream I’m sitting at a wooden table on which my cell phone shudders a piano riff. It’s Amy. Her voice is distinct as if she’s alive in the same room, and she greets me in the faux British accent we reserve for each other. She launches into chatter before I can even respond, but don’t try to stop her because her voice rings through me like joy. Finally, I break in with, “Where are you? Why did you do what you did? Why?” She says she can’t tell me where she is, it’s a secret, and that she did what she did because she was afraid of what our father would say about her credit card debt. I tell her she’s being ridiculous, but I’m not annoyed. I’m too filled with the conviction she’s present.

The third of this series of dreams is a nightmare. I’m trapped in horrible, claustrophobic darkness: vines, roots, moss, branches surround and entangle me. There is no color and no way to move or breathe. I wake up and weep for a half hour. Then, just as I am going back to sleep, I dream or half-dream Amy saying, “That is what I felt like.” And I know that if I suffered that kind of darkness on a daily basis, I would consider ending my life. I might even go through with my plan.

In the year after she died, my sister visited me often in dreams and meditations that helped me love her, understand her decision, and heal, despite my anger and guilt, which grew fainter with time.  Years since her death, she comes into my dreams less frequently but replete in her rich voice and personality. The most recent dream I’ve had of her features her taking a shower behind a locked door in our childhood home. Steam escapes from spaces around the door frame, and when I knock she says, “Don’t come in. I don’t want to humiliate myself.” I start to fake cry, as a joke, but the crying soon becomes real, and louder.  “Ah, for the love of Mike,” she says, in an Irish accent. She was always quick with the accents. I wake before she opens the door, but I wake happy.

Some might say I’ve lost my wits, that my brain makes up these messages, but I do not do so consciously, and who among us can list the cinematic staff of our subconscious minds?  I’m laying money that my sister is a member of mine. Even if my conviction about this is misguided, it has saved me from unyielding despair because the essence of my sister visits and abides with me. I prefer to see the phenomenon as an astonishing gift rather than the delusion of a mournful psyche.

But if you’re a person compelled to question such a blessing, remember Pluto was for decades a full-fledged resident of our solar system, according to science, and now it’s an outcast dwarf planet.

What the hell.

Tracy Robert, a native of Southern California, has taught writing for over three decades. She won the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Prize for Fiction (novella), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, notably Forever Sisters (Pocket Books) and When Last on the Mountain (Holy Cow! Press). A co-founder of Around the Block Writers Collaborative, she facilitates writing retreats in Jamaica, Ireland, Italy and Bali. Her book of linked novellas, Flashcards and The Curse of Ambrosia, released in October 2015, is winner of the Many Voices Project Prize at New Rivers Press.