I’ve been listening to Ella Henderson’s “Ghost” on repeat.

I keep going to the river to pray
‘Cause I need something that can wash all the pain
And at most I’m sleeping all these demons away
But your ghost, the ghost of you
It keeps me awake

Throughout the day for at least two weeks, I find myself singing about going to the river to pray. The line is oddly evocative and nostalgic.  I understand that need for prayer. I get that desire for all the pain to disappear into the current of the river never to trouble you again. (I was almost baptized in a river, but that’s a story for a different day.)

There’s a desperation in the song claws at me, but I feel compelled to listen. And listen and listen. Give up the ghost, she croons, give up the ghost. She pleads, Stop the haunting, baby.  Her words feel too truthful. They resonate too much. She’s haunted, and damn, so are the rest of us. At least, I am.

I’ve thought a lot about haunting. I’ve tackled haunting from a theoretical perspective as a scholar interested in monsters and, tangentially, ghosts, their ephemeral partners. I adore the work of Avery Gordon and return often because of her careful attention to how absences seethe and harm. How the absence of ghosts makes them present. How ghosts become the signifiers of  loss, trauma, and erasure. I read about ghosts with detached observation. Yet, the more I analyzed theories of ghosts and haunting, the more the question became personal and unavoidable. We all live with ghosts. We don’t always confront them. What began as scholarly questions about haunting transformed into an essay about a particular ghost of my younger life. I couldn’t theorize ghosts with confronting one of my own. 

I wrote a note about my uncle Carl’s death and how his absence became a wound for my biological father’s family. In a blog post, I tried to work out how haunting is always personal and particular, and I told a story that still hurts when I’m least expecting it. My teeth ached when I finished reading my own words because my jaw was clenched so tight.

Yet, I couldn’t quite confront the absence, so I wrote revised and revised trying to figure out how my personal ghost connected to other ghost stories. I’m not sure how successful I am, but now I have an essay about being haunted published at The Manifest-Station.

Here’s a glimpse:

I’m haunted by a person I never met.

My paternal grandparents lost their middle son, Carl, in a car accident. He was almost 20. His car collided with a parked semi truck. He died. My other uncle, Stevie, walked away from the accident physically unharmed. I can’t speak to other harms. We never talked about it, and Stevie died seven years ago. I wish I knew what he would say. This tragedy came to define my father’s family. Carl’s death was a gaping wound. Sometimes, woundedness bound them together. Grief tied them together tightly, so that no one had room to breathe.  Yet this loss also distanced them from one another in irreparably intimate ways. Their mutual pain became particular and separate. Carl’s absence made him even more present, unfortunately unavoidable.

His death served as a reminder of the tenuousness of life and the finality of death. They survived and he didn’t. He haunted them, and later, me as well.

Give up the ghost, I sing along, no more haunting, baby. If only ghosts would let us give them up so freely, we could wash that pain away.

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