Molly was sinking. Floundering like a fish. It’s funny (not funny) how she used to be a chatterbox about this sort of thing. When she found herself mired in a hopeless place, she thrived on the act of sharing her troubles with friends and getting support. She easily blathered about what was weighing her down. Even if things remained bleak, it left her feeling as if she was now walking through her dark tunnel with a Fourth of July sparkler to help light the way.
Now, as the British said with such frivolity, she couldn’t be arsed.
When challenged with a low emotional period, Molly could usually glimpse hope around the corner on some days. Now, not so much. Unbeknownst to even those who believed they knew her best, she remained mired in a hellish vortex of a hopeless future. A precarious financial situation worsened by the mass unemployment brought about by Covid-19 left her mummified in a wrap of bone-paralyzing fear.
Added to that was her poor health, which was not easily addressed when she had access to neither insurance nor the cash to make up for it. There were no easy answers or quick fixes for any of her situations.
And the worst thing? For the most part, Molly didn’t care. She was unfazed by the idea that her time may be short. She accepted it. In fact, exiting Life’s Stage Left sounded like a pretty good deal. Her only real concern was that someone would promise to take care of her cats, and she had managed to square that away.
Molly wasn’t officially planning on checking out. Not by her own hand, in that she would procure a bottle of pills or tie a rope. Yet, day after day, she did nothing to address her poor health. She asked herself if that was not passively checking out, then wrapped herself in the blanket of more slumber when the painful answer filled her head.
The depression and anxiety had encased her like a life vest on a floating Titanic survivor. The strength Molly needed to fight this felt non-existent. Hope, like Elvis, had left the building.
Molly finally reached a breaking point. She knew she needed to reach out, but was overtaken by the cliched fear that she would burden her friends if she told them how bad the traffic in her head had become. It was LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving weekend up in ye olde noggin.
In a moment of desperation, Molly decided to open up a conversation to release the waters that were saturating her mind. For this conversation, she needed no phone. She didn’t have to leave her home. Instead, she begged an invisible entity to appear, discuss her situation and offer both comfort and a solution.
Molly sat in her living room as a haze settled over the early afternoon sky. She invited in the dead, served tea and, metaphorically speaking, stripped naked.
“Mom! Hi. Wow, I can’t believe it’s really you! I’ve missed you so much.”
“No time for sentimental greetings, kiddo. Why did you ask me over?” Molly’s mother, who had died five years prior, sat across from Molly in an arm chair, dressed in a powder blue Coco Chanel suit.
“I’m in trouble, Mom. It’s a long story, but it started when…”
“I know the story. I may be gone, but I still watch you. I’m like Santa Claus if he were deceased. I see you when you’re sleeping, all that jazz. Tell me what you want from me.”
“I want you to help me.”
“Help you how? You’re Dorothy, you know. You’ve got the slippers on, but you always did like to argue that you’re barefoot in Oz.”
Molly fought back tears. “Mom, I need you to tell me it’s all going to be okay.”
“It’s all going to be okay.”
Molly loudly clunked her tea cup on her saucer and pouted. “That didn’t sound sincere.”
“Baby girl, I believe in you. I always have. You have to decide to believe in yourself.”
“Tell me what to do, Mom. Where to start.”
“You already know this.” Molly’s mother pulled her teacup close to her face and peered over the rim at her only daughter. She sighed, took a large sip of English Breakfast, and shifted her approach. “You start small. You wash your face. You eat a piece of fruit with your meals. You open your mail when it arrives, instead of letting it collect dust in a pile on your desk.”
“That’s baby stuff, Mom. I need to take much bigger steps than that. And, for fuck’s sake, I don’t even have the energy to wash my face most days.”
“Language, child. I did not come all this way to be cursed at,” Molly’s mother said.
“Where are you, anyway? I mean, in the afterlife,” Molly asked.
“I’m not sure, but it’s quite nicely decorated.”
“Is it heaven?”
“Well, your Aunt Muriel isn’t there, so it must be.” Molly’s mother moved over to the red velvet sofa and sat next to her daughter.
“Oh, Mom…” Molly began, ready to spew every fear and dark thought she had shouldered for so long.
“Shhhh,” her mother said quietly. “It’s not about confession right now. It’s about beginning a habit of using baby steps so that the burden of those thoughts and feelings you have becomes lighter.”
“Will you help me with the first one? Please.”
Molly’s mother took her daughter’s face in her hands and delivered a soft kiss to her forehead. Molly felt static electricity; the result of a soul no longer encased in flesh touching a soul who was still earthbound.
“Come with me,” her mother said. Molly followed her mother to the master bathroom. Her mom adjusted the tap for warm water, plucked the bottle of face wash from the glass shelf just below the mirror, and rummaged around in the linen closet for a washcloth. “Here, Molly. Wash your face. Do this once a day. It will add up. Just like doing any other tiny step adds up as time passes.”
Molly watched her mother stroke the colorful, striped bath towel hanging just outside the walk-in shower stall. She turned to face her reflection in the mirror and dutifully scrubbed her face clean. The water felt like a baptismal. Inspired by such a simple act, she rubbed astringent into her skin with a cotton ball, wincing a bit from the sting of it. She closed her eyes and applied a generous amount of moisturizer to her tingling face.
Molly turned to show off her work to her mother, but she had disappeared. A cleansing had taken place that went beyond the borders of just her clogged pores. One baby step taken, perhaps while sporting a slipper that at least had a faded red tinge to it.
As the sun rose the next morning, Molly sliced a Granny Smith apple into small chunks. She stood at her kitchen counter, speared each piece with a toothpick, as if she were enjoying hors d’oeuvres, and delivered them to her mouth. She planned to wash her face again today, as well as tackle the pile of bills, donations requests and colorful advertisement circulars that had sat dormant for way too long in her office.
The conversation with her mother had impacted her quite a bit, but Molly wanted more. She craved another ghost at her tea party. She had already brewed her usual half a pot of dark roast, so she changed the menu to coffee klatch. She fastened her robe tightly around her body, set two cups of coffee on her breakfast table and took a seat. She summoned her next guest. Molly did not specify who should arrive. She asked only that it be someone who could build on what her mother had given her the day before.
With no fanfare, the next guest appeared across the table from Molly. A white-haired man in his mid-60’s dressed in a department store label suit pulled a small notebook from his breast pocket and flipped through it.
“Which one are you again? I saw so many clients. I don’t appreciate being summoned like this with no time to prep,” he said.
Molly nearly dropped her coffee mug. “Dr. Munder? You look so much older than when I saw you.”
“You’re seeing me at the age I died. I treated you twenty years earlier. Molly, is it?” Dr. Munder squinted through his glasses at a page in his notebook. “Yes, here you are. Garden variety patient riddled with anxiety. I’m assuming you haven’t conquered that yet, if you have to make another appointment with me two decades later. Is this decaf?”
Molly looked at his coffee mug. “Uh, no. You can’t have caffeine… where you are now?”
Dr. Munder ignored her question. “What do you need from me, Molly?”
“I miss our sessions sometimes, Dr. Munder. I know I didn’t have all my shit together when I stopped seeing you, but our therapy really did help me. I was hoping you could say something to help me. I’m in real trouble.”
“Are you utilizing what you learned in our sessions?” Dr. Munder asked. He looked as if he already knew the answer would disappoint him.
“Yes, as much as I can. It was just so long ago. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and…”
Dr. Munder cut her off. “Ah, yes. I remember more now.” He read aloud from his notes on Molly. “In her head way too much. Her motto should be ‘Hang on a minute while I overthink this.’ I would tell her that but she would spend the next six weeks dissecting what I meant.”
“Maybe I do still overthink things sometimes, but I don’t want to get bogged down in details here, Dr. Munder. I need you to give me one of your patented pieces of advice that used to help move me forward. You could be such an inspiration to me at times.”
“Where are you living these days?” Dr. Munder picked up his coffee, sniffed it and took a small sip. He mimicked pouring milk into his drink. Molly quickly snagged a to-go creamer cup from the condiment packet drawer and a spoon.
“I’m still in the same town,” she replied.”Or did you mean my actual place? It’s a three bedroom house near, um, you remember where the old Saw Mill outlet mall was?”
“Not where do you live physically. I mean emotionally.” Dr. Munder tore a sheet from his notebook and ran his finger under each line on it as he read aloud from it. “Patient lives in the past, constantly shaming herself for past decisions and lost opportunities.”
“I remember that, Dr. Munder, but I worked hard on that. You said I stopped living in the past.”
Dr. Munder flipped the page over and read the notes at a whisper level.
“What?” asked Molly.
Dr. Munder stirred the powdered creamer into his coffee and explained. “Yes, you did leave the past, but apparently you packed up and moved to the future. You became afraid of being a failure. Of being successful. Of making wrong choices that you would later regret. As I recall, it was quite the fight to get you to just live in the here and now.”
“I can tell you exactly why I got that way,” Molly insisted, disappointed in the attitude she felt coming from her latest ghost party guest.
“Of course you can, Molly. As I recall, you could spend weeks going on and on about why something happened. You’re asking me to give you some meaningful advice that will have impact? Stop doing that. Don’t dwell on why you aren’t doing what you need to do. Just focus on doing it.”
“But how can I fix bad habits if I don’t understand why I developed them?” Molly moved quickly to the kitchen counter, retrieved a coffee cake swimming in cream cheese frosting and one fork, and set them on the table. She sat back down and held her hand motionless over the lid of the store-bought confection, like someone threatening to fire a gun if they didn’t get their way.
“You already know why you do what you do. I have upwards of seven thousand dollars in receipts from you that prove we spent a lot of time going over that.” Dr. Munder deftly slid the coffee cake over in front of him and removed the plastic lid. He picked at it with his bare hand, delivering a succession of small bites to his lips.
Molly stared at her former therapist. Had he really helped her at all in the past or was she romanticizing their weekly sessions?
“Alright, you want bumper sticker philosophy, Molly? I can do that. Treat your life like you just inherited it from a previous owner. Think of it like it’s a new company you just purchased. Business is slow, the accounting books don’t add up, the employees are thinking of forming a union, and the warehouse is on fire. You cannot back out of this deal. This is your company now. You can sit around pontificating on how the business got so bad and deciding who you can point your finger at, but the place will burn to the ground by the time you’re done indulging in that luxury. What you need to do is grab a shovel, a fire extinguisher, a bullwhip – whatever it takes. Get busy fixing what’s wrong now.”
“My mom was here yesterday. She told me to take baby steps, not this baptism-by-fire thing you’re talking about,” said Molly.
“She and I are talking about the same principle. One step at a time. It’s your life, Molly. No one else can fix it. Assess immediately and act quickly. Start putting out the fire. Then go through the books that were cooked. Then do this task, then that one. It all adds up, like a paint-by-numbers kit. One splash of color at a time in a tiny shape will eventually deliver you a full painting.”
Molly felt like a pin in a bowling alley being bowled over with great force. She had not misremembered Dr. Munder’s talent for giving her a big idea for a new way to look at her life.
“Thank you, Dr. Munder. I will try to save my company, and I promise not to overthink it first.”
Dr. Munder took a final bite of the coffee cake, jotted something down in his notebook, and promptly disappeared.
Three days later, Molly sat at her laptop updating a spreadsheet she made to mark her progress with her steps. Like a toddler earning gold stars for going potty, she checked off each daily task that helped move her closer to her goals. Whether it was baby steps or Big Foot leaps, she counted them all.
A sound from her back yard startled her. She glanced at her computer clock and saw that it was just past midnight. She gritted her teeth and hoped the sound came from a raccoon family her neighbor had complained about, rather than, for example, a serial killer.
Molly grabbed her bottle of Snapple and went to the back door. She flipped the weak outside light on and saw a person on the patio standing at her whiskey barrel planter full of red and white petunias. Molly could not tell if the shadowy figure was a man or a woman, even after they turned to face her, smiled and beckoned to her with a crooked finger.
Without fear, Molly unlocked the door and walked outside. A cool breeze dusted the night sky. The figure stepped off the patio and sat down on a tree stump Molly had chosen to leave in her yard after the elderly pecan tree had to be chopped down. She dragged a metal chair off the patio and took a seat across from her visitor. She understood this to be the latest guest in her Conversations from the Beyond series, although she did not recognize this person.
Molly took a swig from her Snapple bottle.
“Ooh, gimme,” her guest said. They held their hand out. Molly passed the cold drink over and watched her guest drain the entire bottle, then wipe the fruity sweetness from their lips with the back of their hand.
“Who are you?” she asked.
Molly sat perfectly still, unable to think of a single thing to say. God handed the empty bottle back to her. “Don’t forget to recycle,” God said.
“God? Really?” Molly stammered out her words. “I pictured you more…”
“Old man? ZZ Top beard? Tunic down to my ankles? That’s the white bread image of me. Besides, these are so much more comfortable.” God indicated the hunter green flannel pajamas he sported. Or she. Observing God’s flattering pixie haircut, Molly really couldn’t detect a gender, which made absolute sense. Sort of a Bowie as deity image.
Molly leaned back in her chair. “I confess I did want another conversation like I’ve been having, but I never expected this.”
“I’m just a ghost, like the others. A Holy ghost, if that makes you more comfortable,” said God.
“What steps do you think I should take?” Molly hoped the answer wouldn’t be complicated. She would hate to get advice from such top level management and forget some of the details.
God replied, “It’s not what you should do, it’s what you should have.”
“Have?” Molly asked. “You want me to buy something?”
God snort laughed. “No. I want you to possess something. Something I have, your mother has and your old shrink has.”
“Faith,” Molly repeated.
“Faith. In You. You see, you can invite every spirit you know for tea and scones, but unless you foster faith in yourself, nothing we say or do matters.”
“How do I begin, Father? Or… is it Mother? I’m sorry, I can’t really tell.” Molly momentarily expected a bolt of lightning to split her open for what was surely a blasphemous observation.
“Either is fine, Molly. I’m both and neither.”
“I don’t know how to have faith. I don’t trust myself to fix everything that’s wrong before it’s too late. Maybe it already is too late. Even if I try my hardest, the rug is always pulled out from under me. Faith is a pipe dream, God.”
Molly rose from her seat, desperate for any busy work for her hands so she would not have to see her companion staring at her. They must surely pity her. She filled a plastic pitcher with water from the garden hose and replenished the bird bath. She picked out dead leaves that had fallen from a tree into her hanging basket of thyme. Molly could hear the swishing sound of pajama legs rubbing together as God quietly trailed after her.
“Well, if that’s all you need, I’ll be going,” God said.
Molly turned quickly to face them. “No, wait! It’s not enough. I need more.”
“Faith, my child. Not just in yourself. Have faith that every time you wash your face or sit in the sun instead of a darkened room or take one more brick down from your wall, you are doing something valuable. It all totals up, Molly. Have faith that your mother is right about you having power as yet untapped. Have faith that Dr. Munder taught you lessons that are worth revisiting. Have faith that I am here, walking through your garden with you whenever you tend to it.”
“God, everyone feels so far away.”
“Have faith that you are loved, Molly. Even when you feel an ocean between you and those who love you, have faith that you can teach yourself to swim.”
“I can’t share this darkness with anyone. I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Molly said.
“Tell those who care for you. Tell it in a Molly way and they will hear you.”
“What if it’s too late anyway?”
“What if it’s not, my darling?” God turned and walked off into the starry sky.
Molly stood motionless. A symphony of music cascaded from her ears, filling her yard. Classical music mixed with edgy punk rock. Weeping violins and writhing electric guitars.
The ghost party had concluded. Like most parties, it hadn’t gone exactly as planned, and you could always count on a surprise guest. This party proved to be a housewarming of sorts. Molly had been gifted with tools she needed. It was too early to tell if she would do what she needed to do with them all. It might be too late for the tools to save her. But they were there now, sitting in opened gift boxes around her home.
Molly walked slowly to the side of her house and dropped the Snapple bottle in her recycle can. She went inside, turned off the patio light and locked the door. She took baby steps down the hall, and one big leap into her warm bed.