State of Mind

My Mother’s Ghostbuster Boyfriend

Haunted by three suicides and an overdose, my mother found companionship with someone with an unlikely hobby.

A levitating person is seen draped in a blank ghost sheet
Photo illustration by Slate. Image by Paul Campbell/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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When I asked my mom about her new boyfriend, Roderick, she told me he was a college professor who wrote beautiful poetry. When I mentioned Roderick to my nephew, though, he told me that Roderick had a side gig—as a ghostbuster. “Yeah, he apparently communicates with troubled spirits and helps them have a more peaceful afterlife,” he informed me. (Here and elsewhere in this article, I’m paraphrasing, and Roderick isn’t his real name.)

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I broached this with my mother because … how could I not. She didn’t love that. She stressed that the ghost stuff wasn’t his main job. It was merely his calling.

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My mother didn’t believe in anything but atheism, and calling was not her word. I continued to push the ripping envelope that was her patience when I asked if she believed in the supernatural. I knew I was being a pain in the ass, but this was literally haunting me. Her answer was kind of vague—something like “No, I mean, not really, but … no.”

I couldn’t stop myself from countering with, “But you’re dating a ghostbuster.” Between clenched teeth, my mom emphasized that he was mostly a poet. Then she mused about Roderick reading poetry to them.

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“Who’s them?” I asked.

She was so done with this. “The spirits or whatever the hell you call them … ”

I should have let it go at that, but … no. I started to remind her that she didn’t believe in the afterlife. She looked at me with a glare so piercing that I knew the conversation was over.

My mother was a journalist with a built-in bullshit detector. But, having struggled with depression most of her adult life, she had also built up an arsenal of coping mechanisms, starting with denial. She never really talked about her depression, and she tried to avoid the truth about others’ mental health struggles. When she lost her mother (my grandmother) to suicide, I was told it was a heart attack. Years later, when her husband (my father) died by suicide, the heart attack story reemerged. Three months after my dad died, my brother took his own life—and there was no hiding his suicide. My mother had hit the suicide trifecta: mother, husband, and son. And years later, her other daughter (my sister) died of alcohol poisoning. That kind of grief never goes away—it just morphs into something we hopefully find a way to cope with. Making The S Word, a documentary that deals with suicide loss and life after an attempt, was one way to turn my pain into purpose.

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Almost 20 years after the deaths of my father and brother, and about five years after my sister’s, my mother set aside her innate skepticism and listened with interest to Roderick’s ghost stories. I don’t think my mother ever bought into the ghostbusting racket—even though there were plenty of potential ghosts rattling around her house, she never used his services. I wondered: Did Roderick even know about my dad? Or my brother? Or my grandmother? Was my mother using him as well as the other way around? Was this a way to escape the “suicide loss survivor” persona?

The answer to all of these questions remains: I don’t know. And I’ll never know. I have to guess Roderick saw his ghostbusting as a way to ease people’s transitions to the afterlife. But what was his endgame for the survivors?

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Jackie met Roderick in a chat room in 2001. She was still learning how to turn on her computer—who knew her computer would turn her on. And in cyberspace Roderick was quite the catch. His personal profile made no mention of things like three or four failed marriages and a penchant for paranormal psychology. In his photo, which was 20 years out of date, he appeared tall with still-sandy brown hair and a blue blazer that bestowed upon him an admiral’s presence.

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After dating for a couple of months, Roderick packed up his Connecticut house and moved all of his earthly belongings to my mother’s Florida condo, where she lived for half the year. The lifestyle suited him—good food, warm weather, and a lot of wealthy older women to whom he spread his poetic wisdom.

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They soon returned to Detroit. During one of our Sunday calls, my mother seemed really distracted but called both out of habit and to not tell me her breast cancer had returned—after a long remission. She couldn’t get the words out so I pieced the story together after a long and painful game of telephone charades.

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So we packed up our 3-month-old daughter and flew to Detroit. My mom was already in the hospital—with Roderick by her bedside. Following a brief and unremarkable introduction, I stepped out to meet her doctor. After we introduced ourselves, he said something to the effect of “As I told your father, the tumor has metastasized … ”

My father had been dead for 20 years. Was everyone around here a ghostbuster? When I told him my father wasn’t alive, he looked confused and turned to a seemingly clueless Roderick sipping his coffee, then back at me. Beginning to put things together, he hesitantly asked me if Dr. Geist was my stepfather. “No! I just met him five minutes ago,” I told him.

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It turns out Roderick—Dr. Geist—had introduced himself as Jackie’s husband so he could access information about her prognosis. That sent me run-walking into my dying mother’s room to breathlessly ask if she married the guy. She didn’t love the question, but she did remind me that she’s dying and asked what would be the point. The point? For a man with Roderick’s skill set, dying is the honeymoon. I made her promise she wouldn’t have a bedside wedding.

We soon discovered that Dr. Geist, ghost psychologist, actually taught metaphysics at a small community college in Connecticut. My family (with the exception of my mother) was ready to rip out every rickety skeleton from his closet, bone by bone. So we turned to Roderick’s virtual playground, the internet. It was there we discovered his articles in the Cosmic Society of Paranormal Investigation newsletter, including “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ghosts and Are Dying to Ask.”

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Roderick insisted that ghosts are people too. “They are earthbound spirits who are unable to shuffle off to meet their maker. They are here because they say, ‘Hell no, I won’t go,’ ” he told me.

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On another trip to Detroit—I think it was the third—I would break up the endless hours of hospital gray antimatter discourse when I ventured out to nurse my then–5-month-old daughter—attempting to maintain the delicate balance of being both a good mother and a good daughter while feeling inadequate at doing both. The more time I spent with Roderick in that life-sucking catacomb as he obsequiously pandered to his Jackie, the more I began to see the cracks in her fading infatuation. My mother was an avid eye-roller, and although her eyes were not as animated as they once were, she still managed to elevate them enough during Roderick’s extraterrestrial observations. Once, when he was out of the room, she admitted that he was getting on her nerves. But she pretty much resigned herself when she rhetorically inquired, “What am I going to do, break up with him … now?”

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I thought now would be a great time, so I just kind of nodded. She pretended not to notice.

Days would go by in that sterile green room where the wire-laden tree of shamelessly transparent bags of bodily fluids hung. My mother, the producer and imbiber of those fluids, was growing more depressed, yet attempted to feign amusement at her constant stream of visitors. Roderick fluctuated between making small talk and having my mother sign checks—some for bills, others for his living expenses. One afternoon he handed my mother her checkbook and told her that all she had to do was sign, he would handle the rest. When she asked what she was signing, Roderick looked at her and shook his head like a wounded animal. He told her that either she trusted him or she didn’t.

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“Don’t!” I screamed silently. The word never actually made it past my brain. Roderick stuffed her checkbook in his pocket, pecked her on the cheek, and strutted off with his classic exit line: “Ciao.”

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Ciao?! No. The camel’s back had officially been broken. I followed him out of the room and called after him, “I have a question for you.” He turned toward me with a smug grin, checkbook poking out of his pocket like a fiscal Nerf gun, and replied, “Shoot.”

I told him I was just wondering how it feels to live off somebody else—at his age. Roderick said calmly that he and Jackie had an understanding. As he started to walk away I asked, “Which is … ?”

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“ … none of your business,” he replied.

He and his smirk strolled away.

By the time she lay dying in the hospital, Jackie was broken. Her losses had finally caught up with her. She had told me a long time ago, before she got sick, that she never wanted to have to depend on anybody to take care of her. She was all about dignity … and then along came Roderick. Although he never sold his poems, Roderick did sell the poet. He embarked upon an all-expenses-paid journey through the end of my mother’s life. And, after four sudden deaths—three suicides and an overdose—I thought my mother and I would finally get those last critical weeks. The deathbed scene that suicides robbed us of. A sad but meaningful ending. But instead, a virtual stranger tainted it by planting himself in the middle of my mother’s final act.

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While Roderick was supposedly “taking care” of Jackie, he continued to cruise the internet (also funded by my mother) for a new girlfriend. A healthier model. He notified his future prospects that it might be awhile before they could meet because he was taking care of a “male” friend. I just happened to have detected one of his pitching woo emails on my mother’s computer screen. His user name—Ghostbuster something—and password—also phantom-related—were scrawled on a notepad beside the computer.

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My mother refused hospice care. For years she had had her eye on a rambling, country club–like townhouse development—a place she had been dying to get into (her words). It finally had a vacancy and my mother couldn’t pass it up; she would finally get to live in Covington Gardens. The tricky part was signing a one-year lease for a woman who was given months to live. I signed the lease anyway and we moved her in.

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Roderick eagerly volunteered to be Jackie’s caregiver. The man I mistrusted and resented had become our only hope because he was willing to take care of my mother and, more importantly, she wanted him to. My family and I needed to get back to our lives in Los Angeles, I thought.

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We had a hospital bed brought in to make my mother as comfortable as possible. Roderick especially enjoyed the remote up-and-down on the bed and the handicapped tag on her car. Life was good … until it came to an abrupt halt 10 days later. Roderick called us at 5:30 a.m. PT to break the news that my mother had passed away in her sleep. His voice was thin and trembly. He truly sounded sad when he lamented, “Jackie is finally at peace.” And a man of his calling would know, wouldn’t he?

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We flew to Detroit and saw Roderick later that day. There, he pleaded with me not to cut off his internet. He poked around the apartment like a sad puppy who had lost his favorite chew toy, but on the way he managed to scoop up a few mementos. I had never thought of the computer or the blender as particularly sentimental, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt (and the blender). After a long and emotional day, we finally asked Roderick to leave, giving him three days’ notice. He told us he had nowhere to go—and then waited a beat before suggesting that he drive my mother’s car to Florida and stay in her condo until he found a place to live.

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“No, Roderick, it’s time for you to go.” I uttered those words even knowing the grave risk that my ghostbusting wannabe stepfather could seek revenge in the afterlife.

I had just seen my mother three days earlier, right before we flew back to Los Angeles. I had planned to return in a couple of weeks, as death didn’t seem imminent. Maybe I was in denial, too. I had just spoken with my mother on the phone the night before she died. She sounded like what she had been sounding like for weeks—sick, maybe even dying-sick, but not dying-tomorrow-sick. Jackie was not the kind of person to rally everyone around her deathbed to regale us with feverish family lore and exchange tender goodbyes. But I wanted that—I wanted those final words of wisdom, or delirium, even. I didn’t want her closing moments relayed to me by a lugubrious ghost whisperer. I guess I wanted normalcy, not paranormalcy.

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I was angry and sad, and I wanted my mother to rise up and be healthy again. Maybe Roderick was the scapegoat we needed to distract us from the truly painful stuff—the mental illness and suicide that haunted all of us. If I had it to do over again, we would not have returned to L.A. that last time. My mother still would have died, but I would have been there. I should have been there—it should have been me who’d heard her last breath, just as she had heard my first.

​​If you need to talk, or if you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

State of Mind is a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University that offers a practical look at our mental health system—and how to make it better.

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