"A note on 'Loss Adjustment', book awards, and ghosts" by Linda Collins
The ghosts are back. It’s the seventh lunar month, that of the Hungry Ghost Festival, that annual Chinese tradition for the spirits of the afterlife. It’s a time to make offerings of food, money and entertainment to the wandering spirits, who may include one’s dead relatives.
On August 13, several days before the festival began, however, it was my late daughter, Victoria McLeod, who instead brought an offering to me here on earth. Our book, Loss Adjustment, was shortlisted for Book of the Year award at the Singapore Book Awards, and in a rare move, received a special mention for ‘bravely breaking the silence on suicide’.
I was grateful to have Loss Adjustment honoured this way, though I think it is Ethos Books who are the brave ones for daring to publish a book on such a taboo subject. They have enabled conversations on the unspeakable. Without them, this would not have been possible.
That evening, at a Child Bereavement Support Group meeting on Zoom, I shared the news of Loss Adjustment’s recognition with other bereaved parents. While for some people, recognition at a book awards ceremony may have been cause for celebration and a nice meal with family or friends, we marked the occasion by crying together. This is not such a sad thing. It is simply the nature of deep grief. Crying together brings comfort and release. We mothers shed tears for our absent children, for each piercing loss, and for the bittersweetness of the occasion: The reality is, my book and its success arose from Victoria’s death.
So, there were we, weeping mothers on Zoom. Rather than the squares of image-checking, anxious faces that the platform tends to display, there were rows of tear-streaked faces. In this collective outpouring, it felt as if the ghosts of our children were there too, offering us their love in the absence of their hands passing Mummy physical tissues and handkerchiefs.
Earlier that same day, a serendipitous book on angels arrived in the post from one of Victoria’s much-loved former teachers. As Larissa MacFarquhar writes of Hilary Mantel, ‘She already understood that the world was denser and more crowded than her senses could perceive: there were ghosts, but even those dead who were not ghosts still existed’. On August 13, on the cusp of one culture’s greeting of the dead, Victoria made her presence felt in her own ethereal form, I felt.
It was surely a magical day, but not in the conventional awards ceremony sense.
And can you see these ghosts, only if you are Chinese? Although I am Caucasian, perhaps ghosts come to me as well, in this strange slippage between the here and now, and that of the beyond-time of other worlds.
Two years ago at this time, and four years after the death of my 17-year-old daughter, Victoria, I went for a walk to nearby parkland on a hill. Scrappy remnants of jungle and plantations create a shady spot away from the incessant bustle of humans. In itself it is other-worldly. You are high above the tiny pedestrians below, their little cars, their little lives. You are half way between them and the gods. This carries meaning for me, as it is opposite the apartment block where Victoria jumped to her death. I walk here most days. It was a Thursday evening and I had just finished work. I sat on a park bench. It looks directly across to the 10th floor corridor from where Victoria decided, ‘Enough’. I glance to the foot of the hill, where concrete pathways lead to covered carparks, an internal road, civilisation. I see a Chinese woman in a billowing white dress. She is aged anything between mid-twenties to mid-forties. She has a face whitened like a mask. Her black hair is swept under an elaborate head-dress from which shiny trinkets dangle, imparting a flirtatious yet imperial aura not unlike that of a lion-dance head. The dress has a drape feature across her body that has a strip in a delicate purple colour. The entire effect is of something from a Channel 8 drama set in China of long ago.
I can’t see any shoes on her, so the effect is of her floating across the ground. She comes up the twisty path toward me, past an old palm tree, mango trees, tembusu. Is this someone in costume, am I hallucinating, or is this a real ghost? I sit still, hoping she will come past me so I can check her out properly and have a laugh at my feverish imagination. For surely this is an ordinary human being. She ascends slowly, with dignity. I wait. She does not seem to look at me at all. About 10 metres away, she slows, seems wary. I still can’t see her feet. She turns back, her heavy headdress sending bejewelled tendrils swinging slowly around, as if I am a ghost that has alarmed her.
Later that evening, the north east monsoon came, a torrent of rain all night and into the morning, but without thunder and lightning, just a steady outpouring as if the clouds were crying.
I’ve written in Loss Adjustment about this hill, the lightning strikes, the recollection of a Japanese man found hanging from one of its trees, the sense of evil I felt there in the months after Victoria’s death, and my strange encounter with a man who asked me to call him John and who gave me a message of hope.
Prose can’t make sense of this, though, can it? I have tried poetry, and that came closer, as I learnt that there was no rationalising this, and that the truth lay in the feeling. I felt insignificant, and this was a good thing. Whether I had been allowed a glimpse of my own grief-stricken potential for psychotic madness, or of other ways of living in the universe, I don’t know. Or perhaps this was simply someone who put on a costume and paraded around, trying to draw out the ghosts. Apparently some people do this. Whatever the case, I think Victoria wanted me to realise this: that for that moment, there was no sense of a person being this or that, or of epic good or evil; just acceptance that it is what it is.
Photograph by Malcolm McLeod
Pathway to darkness, or light? ... the tree-lined steps at the hilltop where Linda Collins lives, just after dusk.
Linda Collins is a copyeditor on the political desk of The Straits Times. She may be familiar to readers, having used to write a monthly contribution to The Expat Files in the Sunday Times from 2009–2012. She has an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) at Victoria University, New Zealand and her non-fiction and poetry have appeared in Turbine, Swamp Living, The Fib Review, The Cordite Poetry Review and The Freerange Journal. She was shortlisted for the Hachette Australia Trans-Tasman mentorship, longlisted for a NZ flash fiction award and received an Honourable Mention in a Glimmer Train contest. Loss Adjustment was written three years after her daughter had died, and is a work of creative non-fiction.