Spirit mediums, who claim to connect people with the spirits of their dead loved ones, are enjoying a vogue for their services unrivalled since the nineteenth century. Books like "Life on the Other Side" by self-proclaimed psychic and medium Sylvia Browne hit the bestseller list regularly. John Edward, the hunky host of the SciFi Channel's "Crossing Over," has attracted a cult following.

I confess that I've watched a few episodes of "Crossing Over," in which he relays messages and eerily accurate memories from what he says are departed spirits to audience members, and I've thumbed through a few of the books. Despite a moderately skeptical nature, I was intrigued enough to try a session with a medium myself.

Unfortunately, John Edward is no longer scheduling individual readings, and Sylvia Browne is not only also booked solid but charges $750 for a reading. So I asked around for a recommendation, and was told that a woman named Sunni Welles had a good reputation as a "Christian medium" (she says her powers are given to her by "angels of God"). I went to her website

, and though the site was disconcertingly commercial in tone, she is somewhat more affordable than the big names: $150 for a half-hour phone session. Sunni's method involves the spiritualist method called automatic handwriting. She says the spirits take over her hand to write what they want to say to the living. Sunni reads out over the phone what she is scribbling down, and then mails you the paper transcript later. I emailed her to make an appointment.

My first real misgivings came when she emailed me back to request that before our phone date, I send her the full name of the dead person I wanted to talk to and their date of death, plus the name of an alternate dead person, in case my first choice was otherwise engaged and couldn't make it ("Spirits are very busy," her website explains). I was immediately suspicious: If you know a person's full name and exact date of death, you can get an awful lot of information about them online. When I inquired about this possibility in an email, Sunni told me--sounding a bit defensive--that she never seeks out information about the dead person aside from what her clients provide her.

Despite my misgivings, I asked to talk to my father, who passed away when I was 18. I do sort of believe my father's spirit lives on somewhere. I can even believe he watches over me. I'm just not sure that mediums who take credit-card numbers on their websites can really talk to him. My second choice was my stepfather, also deceased. I e-mailed the info to Sunni, and shortly thereafter got a phone appointment.

At the appointed time, I called Sunni in Arizona. "Hi, Honey, I'm here," Sunni-as-my-dad started out. Feeling profoundly foolish, I said "hello" back. The conversation lagged a bit thereafter, as I was more-or-less speechless. My grasp of etiquette and good conversational skills didn't extend to talking to the dead, especially when I was actually speaking to a strange woman in Arizona who claimed to be channeling them.

But I was quickly sucked into the reading. There's probably no one alive who hasn't wanted to talk to a lost loved one just one more time. Could it be? Was I communicating with my father? I was gripped by a queasy, excited, skeptical kind of hope.

Sunni told me she had received the name "Alice," an aunt or a great-grandmother of mine. I don't know any Alices at all. She also wrote down "Charles," supposedly my uncle. I didn't recognize that one either. "Dad" told me it was "beautiful" there, but declined to answer a test question I posed for him (What was the name of the doll he had brought me from Mexico?) because it was "putting him on the spot." I came up with another question: Did he remember my grandmother's dog? Sunni took a crack at that one but got the breed and description of the dog wrong--she said she saw it as a yappy lhasa apso, when the actual dog had been quiet, shorthaired and sleek.

But then, just when I was sure I had been bilked, she said the dog's name had started with a "P." My grandmother's dog's name was, in fact, Penny--not the commonest of dog names. Then Sunni asked me if I'd been thinking of going to Los Angeles. I was, in fact, scheduled to fly to L.A. for a trip three days later, something that I certainly had not told her. She told me, correctly, that I was a writer and that my father had been one also, and that my father and stepfather had been friends before my parents' divorce. And she said there was somebody there with my father named Helen--which was, in fact, the name of my father's mother (also deceased). And my "dad" called me by pet names he had in fact used: "Suzy-Q" (admittedly, this is an almost inevitable nickname for someone named Sue) and "sweet pea."

Just when I was being convinced that she was truly communing with the dead, though, Sunni began sketching a picture of my father's personality, which was, simply, off-target. She said he was apologizing for being "inexpressive," not patient, and angry a lot, when in fact he had been notably loving, gentle, and habitually sad, not angry. (I double-checked this later with other relatives to make sure I wasn't romanticizing him in memory or glossing over ugly traits. They concurred with me.) The whole picture sounded like a generic father figure of that generation, not one I recognized.

After a few assurances of love, "Dad" apparently went back where spirits go, and I said goodbye to Sunni. I hung up feeling bemused, confused, and unsatisfied. She had made just enough factual "hits" to intrigue me, but too few to convince.

Her transcript of the session arrived a few weeks later in a sky-blue envelope printed with fluffy white clouds and bearing a return-address sticker in the shape of an angel. Inside was the promised original of the "automatic writing," in purple marker on lavender paper. The handwriting had a distinct upward slant--a graphologist would probably say either that Sunni was an optimist, or my morose father had turned into one on the Other Side.

Reading this "letter from Dad," which was, of course, in the first person, was creepy anew. Indeed, I found that I couldn't read it all the way through. Hope, doubt, yearning and cynicism warred too keenly within.

It's possible Sunni is somewhat psychic but not a medium--that is, she is able to pull small facts out of the minds of her living client (like the trip to L.A. and the dog's initial) without actually being able to speak to the dead. This may be a bit like believing in angels but not God; but it sticks in my head as an explanation to what's otherwise a puzzle. The mysteries of the afterlife remain mysterious to me.

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