Planet Soul

How My 5-Year-Old Convinced Me Ghosts Are Real

My son’s reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death changed my perspective

I’I’m lying in bed with my five-year-old in his dark bedroom. It’s a typical night. I’m wedged up against the red plastic side of his race car bed, face down with my face squashed against a fuzzy Black Panther pillow.

My son is resting comfortably in the middle of the bed on his boring, non-fuzzy pillow. His legs splayed out and his arm draped across my back.

These are our traditional bedtime positions. All is going according to custom until he remembers the images of a crashed helicopter he saw on the television a half-hour before.

“You know, it’s okay,” he says into the darkness.

“What’s okay?” I reply.

“That basketball player who died.”

“Oh.”

“He’s a ghost now, but he can still have his basketball and dribble around.”

After five years of fairly death-free existence, death has swooped into my son’s world with an unexpected ferocity in the past couple of months. My father, his grandfather, died in December. The end was sudden and difficult, and more than anything, I dreaded having to tell my kids. Particularly my sons who at age five and eight are old enough to have some idea what death means.

Despite my fears, after a very brief period of mourning — and I do mean very brief, as in hours not days — the kids bounced back. They coped in different ways, but my five-year-old dealt with his first brush with death by taking command of the situation.

He proclaimed right from the start that his grandad was now a ghost. There was to be no further debate on the matter. Others suggested heaven or maybe that Santa would bring Grandad back, but my five-year-old was adamant. He was a ghost. End of story.

About six weeks later, upon learning about the death of Kobe Bryant — a person he did not know or know of in any way — he remained consistent in his view on mortality. A death wasn’t something to be mourned, really, because the dead person simply had taken on another existence. A very pale and ephemeral one, but one where basketballs were apparently readily available.

I believe in ghosts now because my five-year-old said so. I am a very permissive parent, but even I recognize this might be taking things a bit too far.

Kids, man. I’ve been at this parenting thing for over eight years now and they still surprise me. I know they are able to see the good in every situation. To find the silver lining. To make the most of a rainy day by spending hours jumping in puddles and wallowing in the mud. But it still comes as a shock that in these biggest moments—the moments of literal life and death—they can lift themselves up and soldier on.

Heck, they can even lift up the adults around them. Even me! A devoted cynic and obstinate pessimist. I don’t have any beliefs about what happens after we die other than I don’t think anything happens. But listening to my five-year-old, how forcefully he asserts his treatise on ghostliness, I feel like there is little option but to be convinced. It’s like, sure, I’m not a believer in the supernatural or otherworldly, but he seems really certain so maybe he knows something I don’t?

So, here we are. I believe in ghosts now because my five-year-old said so. I am a very permissive parent, but even I recognize this might be taking things a bit too far.

Or maybe my son just finally made me see what was in front of me all along.

Later that night, after my son was soundly asleep and I had retired downstairs to sip on a beer, watch basketball, and scroll through my phone, as is tradition, a memory from five years ago popped up on my Facebook.

It was a picture of my five-year-old. But, of course, he wasn’t the bright, irrepressible, bouncy little boy I know so well. No, he was a pudgy, large-headed baby with very little hair. He was asleep against my chest. I remembered placing the black-and-white filter on the photo before sharing it because it made his already very long, luxurious eyelashes stand out even more.

I don’t remember that baby version of my son. I don’t remember the toddler version either. Not really. Because we see our children almost every day of their lives, it’s almost impossible to remember who they used to be. It’s only the pictures and videos that remind us.

There’s the boy whose legs seem to get a bit longer every day who sneezes his way down the stairs early every morning. The living, breathing, and very opinionated little person I know and love. And then there are all the previous versions of that person who have already been lost to time and the vagaries of my unreliable memory. The ghosts who only live on in my cellphone and in a few stray photographs scattered around on bookshelves and end tables.

We live with ghosts every day of our lives. Oftentimes we don’t know they’re even there, but they never truly leave us.

They are asleep in our arms, reaching up to us from their cribs, running toward us after their first day of school, laughing uncontrollably during a pillow fight. Others are giving us a hug when we move away from home or sitting on their walker watching us play tennis. Perhaps others are dribbling a basketball or hitting a game-winning shot.

Ghosts are everywhere. They are both a part of us and separate from us. They live in our memories, but even more, they can take on lives of their own.

Yes, I’m a believer now. My five-year-old has convinced me. I still don’t subscribe to any religion or worship any deities. I simply believe in ghosts. Or echoes. Or shadows. Or memories that are too powerful and meaningful to be tossed into the junk drawer of our brains alongside the address of our childhood home or the starting lineup of the 1991 Atlanta Braves.

Whatever you want to call them, these “ghosts” are all around us, and I’m glad they are. It’s comforting. Particularly in the most difficult times.

Writer, humorist, dad of three. Writing for Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Parents, Human Parts, and more. P.S. I Love You columnist.

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