Here we are, each one of us an assemblage of tens of trillions of cells. Each one of those cells is living matter, something that is apparently infinitesimally rare in our universe.  We exist in a universe with laws of physics so finely tuned that only such a universe could eventually give rise to beings (yes, that would be us) so intelligent that we can study — and even somewhat understand — the uniqueness and vastness of the universe that gave us birth.

Each one of us, in the most measurable sense of the word I know, is the very definition of the word “miracle.”

With all that in mind, it must also be stated that I don’t believe in ghosts. When you’re dead, you’re dead. You don’t get a special ticket to wander around as a spirit, whatever the heck that is.

Now on with the (possible) ghost story:

It was a briskly cold and clear (and quite windy) Christmas Day’s Eve. The stars shone like candles against the dark canvass of the night time sky.

Christmas Eve and Day, in all their revelry and celebration, had come and gone.

It was nearing midnight. I was in a cemetery, standing over the graves of my dearly beloved parents.

To say I was feeling “down” may be the ultimate understatement. As my friends know, I suffer from intermittent severe depression (which seems to be the shared fate of many of us introspective, creative-artsy-writer types).

No, I wasn’t going to commit suicide. Not really. But I must admit it was on my mind. As I looked up from the graves and toward the stars, I was thinking about how little and insignificant I was compared to the incomprehensible vastness of the universe. Such moments can be somewhat precarious to our further existence, but they are also immensely humbling and eternally enriching, should we survive them.

Out of the silence, above the wind, I suddenly heard the distinctly unmistakable sound of footsteps. The footsteps came closer by the moment.

There, about 20 paces away, I saw Old Joe stumbling by. I hadn’t seen him in maybe 10 years, since I had last taught him at the Bristol Jail. Old Joe was stumbling drunk, as was his natural state when not incarcerated.

“Old Joe!” I called out, and immediately walked swiftly toward him. “Are you OK?”

But as I walked toward him, Old Joe was nowhere to be seen or heard. At all.

Yet I’d have sworn on a truckload of Mountain Dew that I’d both seen and heard him (I would still swear such an honorable oath to this day).

Six months passed. I was visiting with another ex-inmate/student of mine, Jeffrey Vineyard. As we sat side-by-side on a bench downtown, I asked Jeffrey if he knew whatever had happened to Old Joe.  “Mr. T.,” he replied, “Old Joe’s been dead nearly 10 years now.”

I was startled. “But that can’t be true, my man. I saw him in a graveyard late one night, stumbling around drunk. It was just last Christmas.”

Jeffrey didn’t reply. He just stared off into the distance, blankly. An uncomfortable moment passed.

“Jeffrey, how’d Old Joe die?” I asked.

My friend let his head fall toward his lap. He whispered one word, “Suicide.”

Perhaps it was a ghost I saw. Perhaps I saw an angel. Perhaps I saw someone who strongly resembled Old Joe (old drunks do stumble around a lot alike, you know). Perhaps it was just countless intricate layers of shared universal human emotion and empathetic experience, all inter-connecting within my brain (which may be the most “miraculous” explanation of all, as I see it, because it is most likely the truth).

Whatever really happened in the graveyard, I choose to call it a miracle. I may not believe in ghosts, but I do believe in miracles. I feel that I am one. I feel that we all are. We are certainly, at the very least, each the recipients of staggeringly high astronomical odds, just to be here. At all.

Christmas, after all, is much more about miracles than ghosts.

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Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

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