I used to avoid people who could interact with the other side – people who could see something or feel something that I couldn’t.
I was afraid.
It didn’t make sense to me.
And then it happened: I became one of those people.
The first time, it was sitting on my chest – this dark figure, a shadow of some sort. The longer it sat, the less I could breathe. I was drowning in air. I began praying to God to make it go away. And when that didn’t happen, I decided this was it. You can’t fight death.
I didn’t die, of course. The second, third, and how many other times (I’ve lost track now) involves a similar figure – always a tall, dark shadow. Its head almost touches the ceiling, and it stands in the open space staring across the room at the wall.
It comes around the foot of the bed. Pauses.
Then it makes its way to my side.
It stands next to me but stares at the other wall now.
Because, you see, when it’s a story, you get to decide what’s real and what’s not.
Because I can’t scream, I silently recite every prayer I can remember. I ask God to make it go away. I beg and plead, make promises to be a kinder human being, give more to charity, go to church every Sunday, until I conclude that there is nothing I can do. There is nothing God will do.
It begins to bend forward. And now it is looking at me.
When I throw my symptoms in the world of Google, I’m told that it’s a natural occurrence. I’m told that I’m at the age where people might experience this. Maybe it runs in the family. Maybe it comes from stress. Get more sleep, it says. Nobody’s ever died, it reassures. Forget the fact that sleep has become something I am afraid of. Forget the fact that in the 1980s when Hmong refugees started pouring into the states after the war, healthy Hmong men in their 20s and 30s were mysteriously dying in their sleep. Something terrifying was pressing the very life out of them.
The same thing that was coming for me.
One day, I called my mother and asked if I could tell her a story.
“Go ahead,” she said. “Hais koj zaj dab neeg.”
So I confessed to Almighty God and to my mother that I have sinned for I have seen it on one too many occasions, and I didn’t understand. What did I do? How would I stop it?
My mother didn’t say anything right away. I could sense she was overwhelmed. She began to beat around the bush. Maybe you’re too tired. Maybe you didn’t really see it.
When there was nothing left to beat, it was my mother’s turn to tell a story.
Because, you see, when it’s a story, you get to decide what’s real and what’s not. So my mother began, “There was a boy who decided to go fishing by the river. There, he met a girl, and they began talking. The girl liked the boy so she followed him home.”
Except in this story, the girl is not a girl. The meeting is not mutual. These are all just metaphors for something that crawled out of hell and into my bedroom and now spends its nights staring at me.
“What do I do, Mom?” I asked. “What do I do?”
My mother, knowing I still wandered to the pews of our old church, responded with, “You are Catholic. You pray.”
I shook my head. “Prayers do not work because it does not go away. When I look it up, they say there is nothing I can do about this thing that stares at me every night. That it is not serious. It is not dangerous – even though I’m fully convinced I am dying every single time.”
My mother is a healer just like all who came before her. She offers to tie a special thread around my wrist so when it visits, it knows that I am protected. It cannot touch me.
However, my mother also knows that the Doubting Thomas inside me still clings on to part of Catholicism. So how was this mother to help? What was this mother to say?
There was nothing much to say, so I told my mother that there are many others in the world who’ve experienced this, who have reported feeling an undeniably strange or scary presence in the room, too. They’ve felt the pressure sitting on their chest. They’ve been certain that they, too, are dying.
And I am not alone.