On the north side of Richmond, California, there is a housing development that teeters on the edge of good and bad. The bad influence is that a lot of houses were bought up about ten years ago for investment and put out to rent; the landlords didn't do a lot of upkeep because they were looking for maximum profitability, and the renters didn't do a lot of upkeep because the rents were so high they didn't have much left over. Lots of renters are great people, but some aren't, and the ones that aren't can make a neighborhood look bad in no time. But the good side that may eventually fully redeem the development is that housing prices have grown so high that the landlords are selling off their properties for three and four times their original purchase price, and the new owners are trying to fix them up. That's the scenario that led our friends Dorothy and Bill Hall to buy a three-bedroom house there, after his job got him transferred from our town to Richmond.
The house was a fantastic bargain, considering the real estate boom, but it turned out there was a reason the former owner couldn't keep the place rented out. The Halls found out -- after they moved in -- that it was haunted by the children of a woman who thought murder-suicide was the only way to solve their problems. She'd loaded the kids into the car in the garage, turned on the engine, and let carbon monoxide do the rest.
Dorrie and Bill didn't see any ghosts; occasionally Dorrie would hear what she thought was the neighbor's cat crying. But there was an icy cold spot in the garage that defied any explanation, and their four-year-old son Bradley announced matter-of-factly that there was a girl, a boy about his age, and a baby out there. Sometimes the boy followed Bradley around the house. Bradley didn't mind. At four years old, all things are possible.
"Is their Mommy out there with them?" Dorrie asked Bradley.
"No," he told her, holding up an index finger to emphasize his point, "they're waiting for the Mommy to come get them."
Time isn't the same for spirits as it is for people. Flesh and blood, protons and electrons, chlorophyll and water all watch the sun rise and set, the stars swirl in the galactic puddles, counting their existence by heartbeats, orbits, chemical changes. But the spirit is different. It IS, and that's about all you can say about it in terms of Time. The children's ghosts had been waiting for the Mommy for almost ten years, without ears to hear that they were dead, without eyes to see the turn of the seasons, without throats to call out for help. Until Bradley let us all know that they were there. Even then, they didn't really say anything, except the baby, who cried, "Ma-maa, Ma-maa!" over and over again.
When Dorrie and I found their obituary online in the Contra Costa Times, we discovered the names of the children: Desiree, the girl, Michael, the boy who followed Bradley, and Justin, who was only two when he died. There was no funeral; apparently they had no church. A lot of people are like that nowadays; churches are all about Death, and people don't want to think about Death or what they might have to do NOW to prepare for Death. Well, the late Mrs. Vance had not prepared her kids for their death, and so they were stuck in a timeless state, waiting and watching and weeping.
Dorrie was really upset by the whole thing. When she understood that the children didn't know they were dead and were just stuck there, she grabbed Bradley by the shoulders and stared at him as though she'd just seen him for the first time. She started to cry, and hugged the little boy as though it was the last time she'd ever get to hold him. Recognition of Mortality can do that to you, make no mistake.
Every morning and every afternoon Dorrie would go out to the garage to read the Bible for a while, and say some prayers. She bought a "Children's Bible" to read to her ghosts, and to Bradley. What she said to me about that was, "If anything, God forbid, should happen to Bradley, he needs to know about God and Heaven." Bradley really enjoyed the garage Bible lessons, maybe because it was a time he got to spend just with his mom, maybe because he was hanging out with his not-so-imaginary friends. He told Dorrie that the little boy,Michael, liked to listen to her read. All through the end of summer and fall, Dorrie told me about reading bible stories to the cold air, hoping the children's little spirits would hear.
At one point, she tried to talk to the father of the children about coming by the house to explain to his children that they were dead. The man called her a freak and a sadist and threatened to call the cops on her if she ever contacted him again. Dorrie was so devastated by his reaction that she fell ill, contracted pneumonia, and was out of action for nearly two weeks. She told me that she dreamed about the kids, that they were sitting on the bed with her. She said she tried to pet Desiree's hair once, she seemed so real; and one night when her fever was bad she tried to pick up little Justin, but when she had reached for the children, there was nothing there.
Bill called my husband, Frank, every couple days. He was worried not only about Dorrie's health, but her sanity. In spite of what he'd seen, he didn't believe in children's ghosts in his garage, and could not understand why Dorrie had fixated on three imaginary children. Bill is a good man. We love him dearly. But when Frank told me that he asked if Dorrie's imaginings meant that he ought to give her another baby, I really wanted to slap Bill silly.
Before Thanksgiving, Dorrie invited the pastor of the church she and Bill were attending to come and pray for the ghost-kids. Although she'd invited him for lunch, after a few minutes of non-committal prayer, Pastor Stephen looked at his watch and declared that he was due to meet with the North Bay Interfaith Committee for World Peace and had to run, sorry, so nice to be here, etcetera. He didn't believe in ghosts either, and it being cold out anyway, he wasn't convinced that there was a supernatural icy cold spot in the garage where the kids' mother had killed them.
I think it was the second week of December that Dorrie told me about Bradley's Sunday School class practicing for a part in the Christmas service. They were learning the Christmas carol "Away in a Manger," which Dorrie told me was traditionally the first Christmas song that kids are supposed to learn. (Our daughter Annie learned "Jingle Bells" first. Frankly I can't remember when she wasn't a sulky teenager, unwilling to learn any song since then.) Anyway, Bradley was driving her nuts with his off-key renditions of the song. "Away in the Main Street, no crib for His pets, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head!" Bradley would bellow. "The cattle are glowing, the poor Baby wakes!"
Bradley was very proud of his part in the Christmas choir and practiced his song while he played with his trucks in the living room, in the kitchen while dinner was cooking, in the morning as soon as he woke up, at bedtime before he fell asleep. Bill banished him from the living room while Monday night football was on, and during Sunday football, of course. Dorrie told Bradley that he should only practice the song in the mornings after breakfast, when his Dad was gone for the day. To her surprise, he emphatically shouted, "No! Michael wants to hear it!"
For Dorrie, that was the trump card. If Michael wanted to hear Christmas carols, then Christmas carols were the order of the day. The afternoon Bible readings were augmented with Christmas songs. Dorrie rediscovered a love of singing that year, and sang boldly in the garage, "Come Thou Long Expected Jesus." She also practiced with Bradley, correcting his misapprehended words of the Christmas Concert song.
Three days before Christmas, they were out in the garage, bundled in coats and mittens, reading the nativity story from the Bible for children. They ended with a practice of Bradley's song.
"Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head."
"Listen," Bradley whispered loudly to Dorrie. "They're singing, too."
Dorrie said she continued to sing the song, though she couldn't hear the children herself, but maybe just a kind of chiming along with her. She got to the third verse,
"Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever and love me I pray.
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care
And take us to heaven to live with Thee there."
Bradley looked around, surprised. Dorrie said, "Let's sing one more -- 'Angels from the Realms of Glory' -- it rocks, Brad!"
"They're gone. They're all gone!" Bradley's face crumpled and he began to wail.
"Honey, it's okay. They had to go sometime," Dorrie told him, but then she began to cry, too.
Bradley hasn't seen the children since that evening. Apparently what Dorrie read to them and sang to them helped them move on their way.
Dorrie was the only parent in the church who wept all through the children's concert at Christmas services that year.