During the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the hungry ghosts descend upon Taiwan. Howling and lonely, they burst from the underworld to flood the city streets in search of their ancestral offerings. This annual haunting is called the Ghost Month (鬼月). The Ghost Month can be a joyous reunion of lost spirits and their families. For others, it is a time of extreme caution — some not daring to leave their homes at night for fear of the vengeance of forgotten ghosts whose families did not pay tribute.
As a child, I made a semi-yearly pilgrimage to my family’s ancestral grave in Taiwan during the Ghost Month. My siblings and I traversed crowded highways and jungle-lined dirt roads to reach a hill boldly jeweled with gold, red, and green gravestones. Our grandfather’s headstone had gold and red carvings of a soaring phoenix and a dragon with outstretched claws. While waving smoke-trailing wands of incense, we walked around his grave and stopped at its foot to make elaborate offerings of his favorite foods — braised short ribs, sticky rice, pineapple, and mochi. We flung stacks of blessed paper “money” into a red metal fire drum for his spirit to spend in the afterlife. While we waited for the fire to extinguish, my brother and I caught praying mantises in the surrounding jungle brush, careful not to set foot on neighboring graves lest we rouse the anger of those hungry, watchful spirits.
My first ghost was my father’s father. Struck by a premonition that his health would fail him early, my grandfather visited a Chinese fortune teller and asked him to predict the sexes and zodiac signs of each grandchild that was not yet born. The fortune teller accurately predicted the sex and zodiac signs of each of the next six grandchildren. I was the first — a girl in the year of the tiger. This was an ominous omen, as girls born under the tiger sign were known to be aggressive, stubborn, fiercely independent, and wild. Qualities that were not becoming of girls, but were desirable in men, like my grandfather and father who were also tigers. “Our house isn’t big enough for this many tigers!” my mom said. In my opinion, it is impossible to have too many tigers. Nearly every situation becomes more exciting with the addition of one or more tigers.
My grandfather died suddenly when I was several months old. Despite having no memories of him, I participated in a ritual of offering food and burning incense to ancestors in my childhood home. We had a simply decorated table with a photograph of my deceased grandfather and a lacquer bowl filled with ash. To the unknowing eye, this looked like a tall mahogany sideboard with carvings of vines creeping up the table legs. This ancestral shrine was where we offered small meals and prayers to grandfather to ensure that his spirit was not lonely once Ghost Month was over. We bowed while holding burning incense, the smoke carrying our words into the spirit world. As we placed the unlit end of the incense in the bowl of ash, I watched a tear creep down my mother’s stoic face. After the incense burned away, we partook of the meal ourselves.
The most logical conclusion that my kid-brain used to explain this ritual was that our house was haunted. How else would grandpa eat the food or drink the tea that we leave him? Why else would we speak out loud unless he was listening? All of the trailers for ghost movies I saw on American TV made haunted houses look scary — the ghosts were crying and murderous, or someone projectile vomited everywhere, or a priest with a wooden cross scared the ghost away. But our house wasn’t scary, and Grandpa was not an angry ghost, nor was he hungry. He was friendly. We fed him so often that I concluded that Grandpa’s ghost must be pretty happy. I would sneak Twix bars or other candies onto his shrine when my mom wasn’t looking.
One thing was also clear — Grandpa’s ghost was our secret. My parents were baptized into our newfound religion after my grandfather died, as he did not want them to get baptized at all. The culture and customs of Mormonism were still new to us. We never told people at church about our ritual and never explained the shrine when people visited. It’s sad, I thought, their grandparents’ ghosts must be so bored and hungry. I didn’t see any food for them at their houses or the LDS temple. If we talk about a Holy Ghost at Church, what was wrong with having a happy grandpa ghost around? Grandpa was an excellent listener and always shared the candies I brought him. And having his ghost nearby felt warm, like an invisible blanket. I was happy to live in a secret haunted house.
While alive, my grandfather lived happily too. I cried nonstop as a baby, and I’m told Grandpa was the only one who could soothe me. He made me smile and laugh, then rocked me to sleep. Over weekly family dinners, my dad and his brother told stories about Grandpa’s height (almost six feet!), his loud laugh, and kindness. The artifacts my grandfather left behind spoke to a life of love and adventure. Our living room had the armchair that he used to rock me to sleep and a photograph of him in a Lions Club uniform. I played with an abalone shell that he and my dad harvested during one of their fishing expeditions. My favorite artifacts were a half-drunk bottle of sherry I found hidden in a cabinet and an empty box for cigars that I used as a treasure chest.
Our family shrine was central to my interactions with my father’s mother, his widow. She had two shrines in her Taiwan home — one for the Buddha and another for my grandfather. She made nearly daily offerings to both shrines and always insisted that the first thing we did when we visited her house was to “visit” Grandfather. While our shrine prayers were mostly lighthearted, my grandmother’s prayers were filled with sadness. His early death left her haunted, a ghost wailing with grief.
What is it about ghosts that keeps us so enthralled? Is it the mystery of their existence? If they are real, are ghosts made of physical matter? Or spiritual particles? Something in between? Do ghosts exist if no one believes in them? If we didn’t pay tribute to my grandfather, he would cease to exist to us. We might forget him, and the phoenix and dragon on his grave would become overgrown with jungle and his rice bowl remain forever empty. If ghosts need us to give them life, then does our belief shape the ghosts’ influence, form, and nature? And if so, does that mean that we control the ghosts?
What if ghosts are just memories? I think my grandfather’s ghost was a memory wished into a second life. After his abrupt departure, these offerings allowed us to feel “at home” with him. Such ghosts are warm and comforting presences. I believe the worst ghosts are those like my grandmother’s grief — ghosts of the lost or unrealized future. These spectors are the (dis)embodiment of “almost.” The shot not taken, the “I almost had it” future, and the “What if I had done this instead?” that haunts one’s conscience.
I have a new ghost. Like my grandfather, I never met this ghost or learned its name. But it’s because I never had the chance to give it one. After twelve weeks filled with morning sickness and dreaming about a nursery, I too had a premonition that something was very wrong with my second pregnancy. I drove to the nearest emergency room. Alone but with friendly strangers, I was shuttled through a coronavirus triage tent, a reminder of the ongoing war against another invisible ghost. Chatting with an upbeat sonographer, we found my baby on the ultrasound. It lay peacefully curled with a round head and adorable little arms. But it had no heartbeat. Wrapped in a robe that was not mine, I buried myself in a blanket that was also not mine and cried alone in a room that smelled like oranges and disinfectant. While waiting for the final test results, the medical staff spoke kindly, but with words that only masked the horrible truth. Pregnancy loss. Non-viable fetus. Miscarriage. These scientific terms that I love and use in my everyday work as an epidemiologist were merely protections from my bitter reality. My baby was dead. My much-loved future baby had become a ghost.
Over the next few days, I found myself struggling to understand if this ghost was also a secret. If not, whom could I tell about my newest ghost? In the West, death is somewhat taboo to discuss unless you are sitting around a campfire and eating s’mores, whose sweetness only serves to distract from the existential bitterness that often accompanies conversations about death. At church, death is talked about in the context of salvation and joyful reunion in the afterlife, but references to the boiling anger and soul-penetrating sorrow of a too-early death are seldom welcome in proper Sunday sermons. Everything about pregnancy and birth is mystified behind the words “blessed” and “miracle,” flowers that vaguely make reference to your vagina, and pieces of fruit that describe the fetus’s size. We hide the bloody reality of birth from children with stories about storks. All of these bucolic images are stripped away when you are sweating and cursing in the throes of labor. Or in my case, miscarriage.
If my new ghost is not a secret, there aren’t any words in English that can express the depth of the sadness or the awful contradiction of a miscarriage. It’s birth and death in the same event. If we can’t talk about birth without hiding behind storks or death without gorging on fats and sweets, how do I verbalize an event that encompasses both?
In the West, I haven’t found any rituals that I can use to officially help me say goodbye. I can count on receiving potato casseroles or other cheese and carb-laden meals from kind neighbors, but there are no shrines, no stacks of blessed money, no incense to burn. No Ghost Month wherein the child’s spirit would be free and roaming at home. There are shrines covered with infant-sized statues clothed with red caps scattered all over Japan, China, and Taiwan. These statues represent miscarried, aborted, or stillborn babies, known as “water children.” Their grieving families had a way to say goodbye and a shrine as a place to say hello again. As a captive spectator of my own body, I cried salty streams as I watched my almost-child leave me through an ocean of my own blood. Besides the heaviness of my grief, I have nothing tactile to help me say goodbye to my water child. The only physical reminders I had were medical bills, a trash can full of menstrual pads, and scented candles from Target that I guess I could light. I really don’t want pans of potatoes.
It is an odd feeling to be brimming full of not just one, but two lives one day, and then to be alone in your own body the next. If ghosts are memories breathed into life, then I am haunted by the ghost of a life never lived — the steps I will never see, the cries I will never hear, the soft hair I will never smell, and the little cheeks I will never kiss.
I have visited my grandfather’s grave and shrine in Taiwan as an adult. My grandmother has since passed away, and her photograph sits next to his on their shrine. At my parents’ home, my grandfather’s shrine has accumulated dust and clutter as we have adopted the norms of our new Western religion. He was never the hungry ghost anyway. Our offerings fed our ghosts of sadness, whose hunger has faded over time.
When my grandfather discovered my zodiac sign, he gave me a name to soothe my tiger nature. In Chinese culture, names bestow blessings or a fate from the giver to the child that are powerful enough to counteract the zodiac signs. He chose a name that translates to “reflection of elegance” (映秀). I will never know his true intent in choosing that specific name. I like to think that he wanted to refine my nature, not trap me in strict obedience. But I do know that a man I don’t remember loved me. He imprinted his wishes on me, and as a consequence I was reminded of his influence on my life through daily use of my name and photographs of us. I am old enough to let go of childhood ideas about friendly ghosts. Then I think about the baby that I lost, whom I loved but have no memories of, aside from morning sickness and a burning image of a horrible ultrasound. This ghost child has imprinted itself on me. I, a wayfaring woman of grief, don’t know when I will be ready to let go of this haunting.
Are we ever truly alone if we believe in ghosts? I don’t need to believe in friendly ghosts or haunted houses, but I like believing in ties to the dead. I like being anchored by my name to the grandfather I never knew. I need to be fastened by hope to the water child I love but haven’t met yet. I pray I will see this child again. In the meantime, I will write “My lost baby” on the temple prayer roll with certainty that Heavenly Father knows its identity and Heavenly Mother shares my pain. I will partake of sacramental offerings of bread and water every week. I will hug my sweet husband and hold close the temple promises that bind us to our children and the vision of a bright future. I will dream that my grandfather’s ghost is rocking my lost baby to sleep. If I am lucky, God will be kind and I will again have two lives housed inside my one body. If the timing is right, the next baby will be a tiger. And every situation becomes more exciting with the addition of one or more tigers. ⋑
Judy Ou is an epidemiologist living in Salt Lake City, UT with her husband, toddler, dog, and three fish.