My Own Ghost Story
by Kevin Ahern

Everyone has ghost stories. They almost always seem to involve someone who knew someone who was related to someone, etc. How many people have an actual personal ghost story to tell? Well, I’m one of those people.

My ghost story took place over the span of 30 years, so please bear with me. As many of you know, I grew up in rural Illinois. One of the main activities for young boys there was baseball. Little League (under 12 years of age) and Pony League (12-16) were how a good percentage of our summer evenings were occupied. My younger brother and I lived and breathed baseball for the first 16 years of our lives. When the movie called Field of Dreams came out, watching it was like going home. All rural baseball diamonds in Illinois are next to corn fields.

Baseball gave me many friendships, one of which was with a young man named Curt Sellers. Curt was one of the most likable people I ever knew and he was an incredible athlete to boot. He was three years older than me and we played baseball together one summer in Coatsburg, Illinois. My parents, who went to all of the Coatsburg Colts games, LOVED Curt.

When I say I came from rural Illinois, I mean VERY rural. Our town was so tiny that it took 5 similar towns together to have enough kids for a high school, Unity High, which was located in Mendon, Illinois.

When I went to Unity as a freshman, Curt was one of the few upperclassmen who didn’t get his jollies picking on freshmen like me and he was a great friend. Everyone liked Curt, and with good reason. I always remember him asking about my parents. Clearly he liked them as well. Curt was the everything athlete at Unity - baseball, track, and was a star basketball player.

As I noted, freshmen at Unity got a fair amount of abuse from older students for no other reason than they had gotten the same when they were freshmen and it was time to “pay it backward.” As a result, apart from Curt, my friends were mostly freshmen and one of those was a young man named Phil Smith. Like me, Phil was a kind of geeky young man who wore the same kind of awkward, black framed glasses I wore. In looking back, I see myself as being very closed minded, but Phil was the opposite, open to other answers and not being afraid to question. He also knew how to talk to girls, something I was a long ways from mastering at that young age.

Within two years of each other and one year after graduating from high school, while still in their teens, Curt and Phil, each succumbed to cancer. Phil had a bit more warning, with leukemia that he was treated for unsuccessfully for 2-3 years. Curt, on the other hand, had an advanced cancer discovered way too late to do anything about it and he was gone before many even knew he was sick. For the first time in my life, I knew people who weren’t old who had died. It still makes me sick to think about it.

Fast forward from the early 70s to about 2000. By this time, I was a professor and academic advisor at Oregon State University. One of the students I served as advisor to was a young woman named Janine (name changed for privacy). Janine was a bright, talented and poised young woman who loved horses. I was working in my office one afternoon when I got a strange email message written all in lower case and without any punctuation saying something like “this is janine im in the hospital.” Since I knew several Janines in the large class I was teaching at the time, I wasn’t quite sure whom it was from or if it was some kind of a joke. After a couple of weird exchanges, I realized it was my advisee, Janine and she had a serious problem.

Janine, it had turned out, had had an aneurysm in her brain that burst while was riding her horse a few days earlier, giving her a stroke at the age of 19. Fortunately, someone saw her fall from the horse, called an ambulance, and got her to a hospital. The results of the stroke meant that the right side of her body was basically paralyzed and she was having trouble using her computer to communicate with me. I was shocked and, of course, offered to help her in any way I could with academic matters while she recovered. I’ll never forget seeing her when she was released from the hospital. She came to my office sort of stumbling and with one corner of her mouth hanging low due to the paralysis. She could barely walk and struggled to talk.

There was a very happy ending to Janine’s story, though. At the age of 19, one’s brain is flexible enough that it can re-learn much of what it needs to. Over the next few months with a LOT of work, Janine slowly recovered all of her lost functions. If you were to look at her today, you would see no obvious evidence of the trauma she had suffered. I went to her wedding years later and delighted in watching her dance with her husband at the event. Such a happy day that was.

So, you might be wondering, where is the ghost story? That came about a year after Janine’s accident, while she was still at OSU. Janine came to my office one day all worried. Her news was that she was going to transfer to another school to complete her degree, specifically the University of Oregon, OSU’s arch rival, and she wanted me to know and to say goodbye. Students often think I’ll be upset by their changing of schools, so I, of course, reassured her that I was happy for her and I knew she would do great at her new school and while I would certainly miss her, I would always be in her corner.

In saying goodbye to Janine, I told her how inspiring her recovery story was to me and, as I did this, my thoughts turned to Phil and Curt - each Janine’s age when they had died. I told her their tragic stories and how, after 30 years, it still bothered me, but that working with her and watching her regain all of her abilities made me happy. Here in front of me was a wonderful 19 year old who had faced death as Curt and Phil had, but unlike them, she had escaped its horrible embrace.

I remember very emotionally telling Janine that she was going to have the life that neither of them had had the chance to and I wanted her to live it to the fullest. I gave her a hug as she left and I sat back in my chair with tears in my eyes, emotionally exhausted. As I was sitting there reflecting and trying to compose myself, a young man from the class I was teaching knocked on my door and asked if he could pick up his exam. Since it was a large class, I apologized because I didn’t know his name from his face. His name was Phil Smith.


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