Short Works

Ghosts of the Past

Written for The Olathe Daily News.

I was told this column generated more reader response than any piece in the newspaper’s history.


Jake Robel was 6 years old when he was dragged to death last Tuesday during a car- jacking. The tragedy is another in a long string of heart-breaking losses which includes, among many others, the deaths of Derrick Thomas and Pamela Butler. Christy Robel, Jake’s mother, frantically tried to disentangle him from the seat- belt by which he was dragged several miles. Just before the driver gunned the engine, she got one last look at her son’s terrified face. “It’ll be in my head until the day I die,” she said.

I hope not.

I was five when my mother told me a good friend of mine had died during the night. He was a neighborhood playmate, a huge kid several years older, and strong enough to carry me over his head with his arms extended so I could “fly.” A fatal heart condition had left him with decreasingly little brain-power, though it never diminished his kindness. He made me fly, and that is how I remember him, arms up, grinning, a simple-minded giant.I took the news stoically. I had just mastered the art of making a yo-yo ascend its string, and so I stood there whisking it down and up. What else was there to do? The universe had just suffered its first loss, and now there was a hole that nothing could fill. The yo-yo, at least, was predictable. It climbed when I told it to and fell when I let it go. Down, up; down, up. Mom stood there for a while. I suppose she thought I would ask her, “Why?” but I didn’t. I already knew why: Neil had a bad heart.

In seventh grade I befriended a red-headed kid whose locker stood next to mine. We were both quiet, but I found I could talk to him. We had something in common, which was that neither of us belonged to any particular group. We weren’t jocks, or brains, or whatever. In PhysEd we both looked silly in oversized white gym shorts. When he missed a few days of school, I thought he must be sick. But he never came back. He never called me, never said goodbye. How could he? His step-brother had taken him out into the woods, forced him to dig his own grave, and then blown a hole in his chest with a shot-gun. Fishermen digging for worms found his body.Afterwards, Chris’s ghost peered out at me from the safety of his locker door. I still remember him that way. It was how I saw him last. He wears this puzzled look on his face, a half-smile, as though he wants to ask a question. I think I know what the question is, though I cannot be sure. And sometimes I think I know the answer. If he ever asks, I will tell him: “Because your step-brother had a bad heart.”

Pamela Butler’s ghost haunted all of us for a while. Now, I guess, she mostly just visits her family and friends. This will be true for the smiling little boy who was killed last Tuesday, for many of the kids at Children’s Mercy Hospital, even for Derrick Thomas.There are too many ghosts, too many questions. The human soul cannot bear up under the strain of all these agonies. Since we cannot fill the holes, we turn away. We look for anesthetics. We drink, we read, we watch television. We let Regis Philbin assure us that a lifeline is always within reach. We find our own private yo-yos and make them dance. What else is there to do?

It is not trite to say that Jake Robel lives now in a better world. But for his mother and father, he will continue to live in this world as long as they do.

I hope that Christy Robel’s last look at her son is not the one that lingers. I hope that his ghost smiles.

© Daniel Schwabauer. All rights reserved.

May not be copied or used in part or in whole without express written permission from the author.