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The Singing Man

by Sarah Bryan

For the last couple years of her life, until she died at the age of ninety-six, my grandmother Lala saw and heard ghosts. (You may have a Nana or a Meemaw; my brother and cousins and I had a Lala.) Many of those who’ve spent time with people nearing death are familiar with this phenomenon. It’s part of what hospice and palliative medicine specialists refer to as “near death awareness”—a change in a patient’s mental state that can signal their transition from declining into actively dying. A common symptom is seeing apparitions: long-dead relatives making bedside visits, people from other eras passing by the doorway, wartime comrades or childhood friends suddenly found to be standing somewhere in the room. It’s just part of being around the dying.

But this isn’t a medical narrative, it’s a ghost story. And in telling a ghost story, one pauses now for the apologia: “I never believed in these things until . . . ”; “I like to think of myself as a rational person, but . . . ” Lala was, in fact, a very practical, unsentimental person. She was Cuban, and Cubans, particularly of her generation, can be realists to a fault, even turning their fatalism into jokes. English was Lala’s main language during her adult life, but she still expressed herself like a Cuban. Talking to me one day about the series of strokes she had had, she predicted off-handedly that as soon as she’d recovered from the most recent, she would have another: “And then, kablooie.” But deadpan cynic though she was, she’d also had more than her share of uncanny experiences, mainly in the form of premonitions that were later borne out. Her form of skepticism extended to questioning conventional notions of reality.

Believing in ghosts, however, was one step too far, so she didn’t. Hence, when the apparitions first started coming around, she didn’t wonder if they were ghosts. Some of the early ones puzzled her. I remember her perplexity about a small ball of light that floated around her screened porch one day while she was sweeping. But by the time the hauntings really cranked up, Lala herself was so thoroughly draped in the veil that what a few months earlier would have shocked and disturbed her now she simply took in stride.

Most of what I know of Lala’s day-to-day experiences in her last couple of years I’ve learned from my mother, who was her full-time caretaker and companion. They lived together at what had been the family’s summers-and-weekends house on the Chesapeake Bay, to which my grandparents had eventually retired. The house was in Calvert County, Maryland, in a bayside community built along cliffs of fragile gray clay. The area is famous for the abundance of Miocene fossils that wash up on the beaches, and it’s a favorite spot for paleontologists. A few years ago, not far from Lala’s house, one local family started to dig a foundation in their backyard for a new sunroom and unearthed a fifteen-million-year-old shark skeleton.

It’s lush and jungly there for much of the year. The woods are predominantly poplar, with some of the trees having survived for centuries. Deep in the ravines, covered in vines, tiny cold-water creeks drain toward the Bay through weird prehistoric-looking plants like horsetail reeds and coltsfoot. In the woods, on the high ground, are old fallen-down tobacco barns and houses, rubble now tenanted by copperheads. Tombstones carved with willow trees sprout from a bed of periwinkle in a small antebellum Quaker family cemetery. Everywhere, the living and the long-gone exist together in a vivid swarm.

In the summer in Calvert County, it’s as humid as the Deep South but with the added weight of the smell of brackish Chesapeake water. Katydids and cicadas sound continuously from the poplars, their song punctuated by an occasional low hum of fishing boats, as crabbers check their traps close to the shore.

By the spring of 2016, Lala was in failing health. She was physically very weak, now using a motorized scooter to get around the house, and often confused, though seemingly serene about it. Sometimes she would ask my mother whose house they were in, or speak to her only in Spanish, something that in the past she’d reserved for situations requiring special privacy or tact. She let my mom know one night—off-handedly, as if she had just thought of something else to add to the grocery list—that she wanted to stop by her aunt’s house in Havana, to go through the drawers and gather some important papers that had been left behind fifty years before.

Lala frequently reported seeing people from her earlier life, or from the more distant past. An unfamiliar little boy in knee breeches sometimes stood in the door of her bedroom, peering in at her. She also began to see her sister Marta. Two years younger, Marta had Down syndrome and, in one way or another, for much of Marta’s life, Lala was her primary caregiver. Marta died in 1982, but in 2016, my grandmother began to talk about seeing her late at night, standing next to the dresser in her bedroom. This was only upsetting to her because she didn’t know why Marta wasn’t speaking to her, just looking at her from several feet away. Nor did it seem to frighten her when, as the weeks went by, Marta came closer and stood next to her bed at night. Eventually, Marta began climbing in bed with her. Lala spoke of it as a cozy nighttime ritual—sleeping cuddled up together as they must have done as little girls. One night, Lala woke my mom up, calling for her to bring a blanket because Marta was cold.

I myself began to feel mildly creeped out when I visited. I would love to have seen Marta or the little boy, both of whom seemed to be totally benign presences. But for the first time in my life I found the house a little sinister. One evening, passing by a downstairs bedroom, I knew that there was a young man in the room, standing nervously pressed up against the wall. Looking into the empty room, I didn’t exactly see him but certainly didn’t not see him. I even asked my mom, “Who’s the guy downstairs?” She hadn’t encountered him, but it was around this time that my grandmother asked her who else lived in the house with them—other than the “tres o cuatro jóvenes” (three or four young men). The downstairs, where the guest bedrooms were, felt actively scary, and—at nearly forty years old—I started to sleep on the living room couch when I’d visit, not wanting to be downstairs in the dark. I wasn’t surprised to notice that the dog agreed with me.

So far as I know, though, Lala’s ghosts were a strictly benevolent crowd.

Found photograph courtesy of Sarah Bryan.

In hot weather, my mother and grandmother, both loving heat and humidity, kept the windows open. If it got really hot during the afternoon, they’d close up and turn on the air conditioner, but at bedtime all the windows were opened again. Summer air saturated the dark house, and the insects in the trees blasted narcotic white noise like a radio tuned between stations.

One night early in the summer of 2016, Lala started to hear the singing man.

A young man’s voice, she said, was drifting through the windows from out in the yard. He was singing scales—“practicing,” she said. She couldn’t believe that my mother didn’t hear him, too.

Night after night that summer, she remarked on the singing coming from the yard, and Mom frequently emailed my brother and me to tell us about what our grandmother was experiencing. After the man had taken the first couple of nights to practice his scales, he began to sing in earnest—recognizably structured tunes, actual songs. Because they both liked to stay up into the small hours, my mother and grandmother were often together when the man was singing, but Lala had to tell Mom when the musical program began, because only she could hear it. Mom is somewhat hard of hearing, and my grandmother assumed that that was why she couldn’t hear the music. It bugged her that Mom hadn’t done something about her hearing, but mostly she wished they could share the experience.

One night, she insisted that Mom go out into the yard so she could stand close enough to hear the singing man. Mom obliged but didn’t hear anything. Exasperated, Lala made her promise to call for an appointment with an audiologist.

As the concert season went on, the music gradually became clearer to Lala. It was “old church music,” she said. One morning, she remarked that she had recognized a tune the night before. It was “that well-known old-fashioned song.” Mom asked, “Like a hymn?” and she said, “Yes, sort of a hymn,” and then hummed the tune.

“‘Amazing Grace’?” Mom asked.

“Yes! That’s it!”

From her descriptions, the music seemed to be mainly southern Protestant hymnody—which was odd. That kind of music really wasn’t Lala’s thing. Her husband, my grandfather, was from rural North Carolina, so she had some vague exposure to southern religious music, but the cultural trappings of his family were emphatically not a topic of interest to her. The fact that she began to hear southern church music outside her window every night struck us as one of the weirder elements of the whole peculiar situation.

But she found the singing man’s music very pleasant. “He must be in a church choir and is practicing,” she suggested.

Gradually, the choir showed up.

First, the singing man was joined by another singing man, and they sang hymns together. One night, the original singer took time off from music to run his vacuum cleaner in the yard, but the next night he and his partner were back at it. Soon, Lala reported, the men were joined by several voices, and they sang Christmas carols.

In the early hours of the morning on the eve of the summer solstice, Mom emailed my brother and me to say that Lala had just woken her up because a huge chorus was singing outside. She said that there were singers in the yard, in the neighbor’s yard, across the street, across the ravines, in the ravines, crowded all the way to the edge of the cliffs. She urged Mom to go outside and thank them. And she wanted Mom to join in.

Like her frustration about Mom’s inability to hear the music, the wish for Mom to sing with the choir became a preoccupation. Lala worried at times that my mother was sacrificing her social life in order to take care of her. A choir meeting every night in their yard seemed way too congenial and convenient a social opportunity to pass up. Mom gently demurred. She did visit an audiologist, though, who, after discussing her mild hearing loss, listened to her description of Lala’s strange auditory experience. Sounded like tinnitus, the doctor said. She explained how the brain tries to interpret the condition’s characteristic humming as more familiar sounds, like music or a man’s voice.

One night at the end of July, Mom helped Lala to bed, and then stayed up until dawn working on a project she was trying to finish. A little after seven in the morning, she sent my brother and me an email titled “I heard Lala’s singer.”

She wrote:

Around 6:30 a.m. I noticed that something had been added to the normal electric hum of the refrigerator and my computer—it’s like it was fragmented microbits of sound that needed about ten minutes to organize. When they did I recognized it as a youngish man’s singing voice. A tenor. He sang two songs: one that I don’t know but am guessing, from its tune and structure, was a ballad, the kind of thing that migrated from Northern Ireland and Scotland to the Appalachians. The other song: “Amazing Grace.” He is singing right now.

We have all the windows shut. I went out to the screened porch and the front yard to hear him better but couldn’t hear him at all. Birds and wind, etc., but absolutely no human voice at all. When I came back in and shut the doors I could hear him again. He’s not outside, clearly—he’s in the house, more specifically in my head.

He’s still hard to hear, his singing is very muted. It doesn’t sound like he’s far away, but instead like he’s singing on the other side of a thick concrete barrier. Or more accurately like I’m in a deserted school building and he’s singing in one of the rooms on the floor below and down the hall.  

Lala was still asleep. When she wakes up, Mom wrote, I will tell her.

Sarah Bryan is a folklorist and writer in North Carolina. She directs the North Carolina Folklife Institute and edits the Old-Time Herald, a magazine about traditional string band music. Her work has appeared in the Oxford AmericanSouthern Review, and other publications, and has received mentions in Best American Essays 2019 and the 2017 Pushcart anthology.

Header image: Pramot Pantadet / Alamy Stock Photo

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