Ghosts take a prominent role in Southern culture and folklore. In our stories, ghosts have a tendency to help folks define who they are, who they were, and what’s coming next. Outside of folklore, though, we don’t discuss them much: we can’t have our fellow Americans think we’ve all lost our damn minds.
But there is still empirical evidence that we in the South believe in ghosts and that they can affect our lives in the mortal coil. For example, Southerners actively fear the mysterious “haints”: demons we keep at bay by pale blue hues painted on porch ceilings. And, with perhaps the exceptions of a New Orleans novelty shop or midnight appointment in a certain Savannah cemetery, no self-respecting, God-fearing Southerner would be caught dead themselves near a psychic, tarot card reader, or other person advertising abilities to commune with the dead. Why fear or avoid such things if the supernatural is all hocus pocus?
No, Southerners very much believe in ghosts. Some we even deal with on a daily basis. These are most often the loved ones who’ve left us behind. Coping with a sense of loss of part of who we are. Losses that ding, if not outright damage, our own souls. Such losses consume us at least for a time, but even as we move forward, there is still the lingering presence that we can feel but not quite touch. The voice we can hear but doesn’t seem to come from anywhere around us. The presence gives warmth, but there’s no physical hug or hand on the shoulder to associate it. These are the ghosts in the machine which is our own subconscious. Dealing with these ghosts can be a painful reckoning or joyful remembrance. Most times, it’s a little of both and somewhere in between. But the most shocking is when these ghosts show up in places we least expect and think they have no business being.
Five A.M. comes early, but not nearly as early when you’re about to have a baby. Wait, allow me to back up a moment: I was not having a baby. No human had gestated inside of my body, shoving aside internal organs whilst simultaneously salsa dancing on my stomach muscles. The only thing I had on May 2 in the year of our Lord, 2022, was coffee. My wife, Elizabeth, on other hand was going to “have” a baby, delivering life into the world via cesarian section. First, she would go through the process of being poked and prodded with IVs and vital measuring devices, all while signing her life (or at least the liability for it) away. All this is happening while I look on; both in stunned stupidity at my own uselessness in this part of the process of bringing life into being and in awe at what my wife is willingly putting herself through for this life-in-being that we don’t even know yet.
It wasn’t the second time I felt worthless in such a manner. This morning we were there to welcome our second child in 4 years. The first, a girl, Olivia, was at home asleep, presumably dreaming of ways to be stronger-willed and opinionated than she was the previous day. The newest arrival we didn’t know its name or its sex. We decided that in a world of fewer and fewer surprises, we would wrestle a shock out of life by just refusing to find out. Every day we chose to learn by looking at screens, but in this one case we consciously decided to look away every time the nice Sonagram lady checked the new baby’s “kidneys.”
Soon our patience would be rewarded when we got to see what our baby is, and also decide what its name would be. If it was a girl, God help us; after nine mothers we still had no clue what to name another girl. Olivia got her name in the recovery room. Henry was in honor of my wife’s grandfather, who was a stable and constant presence in her early life, giving her unconditional love and a sense of family home whenever she would visit as a child. Thomas is my middle name, but what matters to me is that it was also my father’s middle name. Since daddy was a junior, he went by “Tom”. Tom is how I heard everyone refer to my daddy. Tom is what fruit growers would call him when I road through Florida groves helping him count trees. Tom is what his family called him. It’s what my mother would holler out when she needed help, or when she had it with me w and needed daddy’s help. In the end, Tom is what we put on the slab in the cemetery where he and my momma are both buried.
My thoughts were split between what it would mean to have a child named (at least in part) after my father who I lost almost nine years before, and being focused on what in world we would name a girl. Before I could get those thoughts organized, it was time for Elizabeth to go into the delivery room for her spinal. So, all I could muster was “I love”, and shuffle off to where I was told to put on my surgical gown, hat, and booties. Thinking the whole time, “of course it’s a girl because we don’t have a name.”
Elizabeth was having her second c-section, which in my opinion should automatically qualify a woman for sainthood; regardless of whether or not she’s Catholic. C-sections qualify as major abdominal surgery, so the “delivery room” was actually an operating room. The OR in this case was no different than any other: stale and sterile, with a cleanliness to the air depriving it of any sense of place. At one end of the table, various techs are laboring with their machines to monitor vital signs and give fluids. Behind the table, nurses are waiting to take a child for weighing and cutting the umbilical cord. On the opposite end, doctors and nurses are behind a blue sheet, shielding the patient from the C-section’s business end.
Even though sterile, the pre-op area and OR today had a certain energy not attributed to the dozens of blinking lights and beeps of numerous machines used for such surgery as this. Everyone was excited because the mother and father didn’t know what they were having. Everyone from the OBGYN to the nurses had a giddiness that I can only describe as kids on Christmas when they know something big is going to be unwrapped, but totally unsure of what lies underneath all that ribbon and thick wrapping paper. The anesthesia nurse was himself so high on the excitement of what the baby would be, that he blurted out “this is the most exciting birth I’ve ever been a part of!”
Once I got my gown and booties on in pre-op, I ridiculously shuffled to the OR door. Just as I was about to go in, the OB came bounding around the corner to scrub up. “So, do you want to announce the sex, or do you want me to”, she said. Such a question took me aback. “Do you mean, I’m supposed to shout, ‘it’s a boy or girl’?”, I responded. Like it’s Little House on the Prairie and Elizabeth is giving birth in a log cabin? No, that didn’t seem right. The OB could do it. I was still too busy trying to narrow down girl name choices. I quickly followed up with an “It’s all you” or something similar to that. This decision was prescient on my part because after the OR doors opened for me, and I took my place beside Elizabeth on the table, I could feel a movement in the air.
Gone was the complete sterility of the room’s air supply that I breathed in as soon as the OR doors opened. It was replaced by something that wasn’t sterile or devoid, but instead specific and purposeful form. The thing overwhelmed my senses, except for my sight. I could feel it some plainly, pressing on me, but I couldn’t see anything. It was unseen, foreign, and very, very real to me. Potential girl names vanished at once from my cerebral cortex, and I was coming to terms with what I think I felt. And I think I felt an unexplained presence in that room. I think I felt a ghost.
Feeling a ghost in a room isn’t something readily explained by the English language. Or maybe by any language. There really isn’t a suitable, concise, elegant term for “what is this heavy thing filling up my senses, that feels like the presence of a person, but that I also can’t see, hear, or touch, and whatishappeningtome?!” When you feel a ghost, the heaviness of the presence is startling. It almost forces you down to your knees because the weight is so viscerally attacking you. After a second or two, I was able to compose myself and remain upright all the while trying to talk myself of whatever crazy-ass thing going through my mind. As this was my first ghost, I wasn’t quite sure what do or say. Hell, before this moment, I wasn’t even sure I believed in ghosts at all. Yet, here I was, feeling as if someone I couldn’t see was in this room, watching what was going on.
Regardless of its intense weightiness, the ghost seemed friendly, almost familiar. That much was made plain, or as plain as it could be to someone who never “saw” a ghost before. There was no invisible aroma of anything that could be characterized as malevolence or of ill will. More than just vaguely familiar, I felt like I knew this ghost somehow. How one “knows” a ghost actually, I had no idea, but, again, being a newbie to the paranormal, I decided to go with it. Without more than just a feeling, though I couldn’t put my finger on who or what this friendly specter might be, not to mention why it was there at all. This bugged the shit out of me and made me question my own sanity: “Really, John, you think you ‘feel’ a ghost – you’ve officially lost your goddamn mind.”
Of course, I didn’t say anything to Elizabeth. Somehow, it didn’t seem timely to explain to my wife, chemically paralyzed from the waist-down, that I was sure supernatural spectators were present to observe our child being born. If she had never considered divorce before, she surely would have at that moment. Or at least have me committed. I didn’t have the excuse of anesthesia; I was just the nutjob “feeling” spooks in the corner. “Besides”, I thought, “surely this is just nervous energy, or maybe just gas?” But that didn’t seem right. I didn’t need to burb or fart, and, sure, I’m nervous, but anxiety and I are old frenemies. I know anxiety, and this wasn’t it. This was neither digestion, nor a made-up or exaggerated mental threat.
Regardless of whatever was in the room, there was other, more pressing business to tend to. So, instead of letting my weirdness be known, I kept my mouth shut and tried to focus on Elizabeth and what the medical professionals are telling us about the baby that was imminent.
The baby did not want to come out. About halfway through the c-section, Megan seemed to be halfway up Elizabeth’s abdomen looking for this child. The baby had been kicking high in the week or so prior, but we had no idea that mean Megan would have to root around, up to her forearms in the embryonic sac. The seconds ticked by at the rate of minutes kept track at the pace of a clock soaked in tar.
Megan finally had a hand on the baby but couldn’t get a firm. Pushing 10 pounds, it wasn’t “light”, and the angle the baby was lodged made extraction even more tricky. The kid had lodged itself sideways, as far up as it could go in the womb. Fluid and blood were coming out of the incision at a seemingly faster and faster rate. That didn’t seem normal, or at least not like with Olivia. My suspicion of this was verified, once a nurse brought in a blood and plasma supply that looked like it was a hanging shoe bag, with the perfect match and amount of blood type ready to go at a moment’s notice. A few years prior, a friend almost lost her life during a C-section when her bleeding became hard to control. Is this what was explaining my paranormal feeling? I thought this ghost was friendly but was it really just observing? Or was it there to retrieve something, to take someone away from this world? From me? I quietly began to fear for the worst.
Then it happened, Megan got her grip, and with a slow, deliberate precision only attributable to an OBGYN who perfected her craft over the course of hundreds of surgeries, the baby was out. Crying, but not screaming with the intensity of its older sister four years prior. The flow of blood and fluid slowed down from the incision; the blood shoe caddy wouldn’t be needed. Megan held up the baby and looked me in the eyes. Expectantly she stared as if to say, “Ok dad, it’s your moment.” Obviously, she forgot the deal I thought we had. I was dumbstruck, paralyzed with my own disbelief. It was a boy.
Not a girl, like I was certain it was, but a healthy boy, whose eyes and manhood were staring me down. Still in shock, I managed to stammer out “It’s uh…a… uh…boy!”. Elizabeth sounded out in an amazed voice “Really?!” “Yeah”, I replied, “It’s a boy. It’s Henry Thomas.” Looking down at my brave wife, who was smiling despite fluid leaking, no feeling below her chest, and arms spread out with IVs and monitors attached. I was overcome with a sense of joy, fear (what am I gonna do with a boy, I’ve only an eighth of the way raised a girl!), and thankfulness. Then I noticed the paranormal presence I felt earlier, was gone. As quickly as the sensation was there, it left. Leaving only the mortals in the room, along with this life’s newest member.
In so many ways, I was wondering what just happened. Then, unexpectedly, and wonderfully, it was all explained. Nurses had taken Henry Thomas, wrapped him up, weighed him, got an oxygen reading, and then handed him to me. As I held him, the face I saw below me was all too familiar, because it was family: it was Tom O’Neal’s. Henry’s face flashed that of my daddy’s right before my eyes. I hadn’t seen my father since June 13, 2013, on his Tampa deathbed. Now the better part of a decade later, I saw him again, in the flesh, in a Georgia operating room. Right there in my arms was the face of the man I loved and missed most. Here to see me again. At that moment, I understood what happened. Who was here, and what his purpose was? Revealing the amazing gift I had just received.
It’s probably because this Sunday is Father’s Day, but I felt like this story has to be told. Prior to reading this, Elizabeth has no idea all this went down. Sorry I held out on you, baby; but I’ve been thinking about how to get this all straight in my head. How to reconcile the excitement, the weirdness, the fear, the relief, and the pure joy. An emotional jury twisting and turning inside of me while wearing a mesh hat and booties. How do you really express that you think you felt a ghost right before your beautiful wife gave you a son. And that through that son, your wife gave, at least part of, your father back to you. How do you adequately put straight all that weirdness and gratitude? I’m still not sure, but I know what I felt was true. I know it was all a gift, and one I can’t take for granted.
I fully accept that not a few people reading this will say I’m a couple French Fries short of a proverbial Happy Meal, but I don’t care. I know with every ounce of my being that Tom O’Neal, long dead, came to that delivery room on May 2, 2022. To watch his grandson be born, and to watch his own son meet that grandchild for the first time. Then witness when I realized that not only did my father visit me in spirit, but that dead father would stare back at me in the flesh for the rest of my days. The ghost in the delivery room was real. As real as you or me. And to prove it, that ghost, Tom, my daddy, didn’t leave me alone again, like 2013; instead, this time he left part himself. A part to stay.