“There was a deep sadness found…” Work-in-progress, inside lining for “Melancholy Moonlight,” sculptural garment 12″ x 16″ by Michael Sylvan Robinson (2019)

I heard myself say, “I’m going to follow this thread of sadness in my life down to its root,” and moments later, in the space that opened, I discovered the 2014 obituary for my biological father, a man I’d never met, only a brief series of problematic phone calls and letters shared in the mid-90’s between us. How do I mourn a man whose biggest contribution to my life was his absence, a haunting shadowed presence of his ghost, even as he lived, faced now in the belated news of his death?

“I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view. Haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future. These specters appear when the trouble they represent and symptomize is no longer being contained or repressed or blocked from view. The ghost, as I understand it, is not the invisible or some ineffable excess. The whole essence, if you can use that word, of a ghost is that it has a real presence and demands its due, your attention. Haunting and the appearance of specters or ghosts is one way, I tried to suggest, we are notified that what’s been concealed is very much alive and present, interfering precisely with those always incomplete forms of containment and repression ceaselessly directed toward us. Haunting is a frightening experience. It always registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present…”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

There was a shocking return of anger, which surprised me, perhaps after all the years of reflection and therapy and letting go, accompanied by the rush of emotions rising with an inner slide show of childhood longings and unraveled stories. I recognized the finality previously shielded by a unacknowledged delusion that there could be a kind of reconciliation. Immediately I encountered renewed resentments targeting the living, of course, for the long contributing failures, the truths and mistruths, secrets and silences. Under all of it, a deep old hurt caused by the choices of this man, whose genetic lineage I hold; I’m its only actual descendant despite the missing “survived by” designation on the online memorial page. I wondered at his end of life, any reckoning or instinct for amends, or just the long hidden secrets never voiced to those receiving gestures of condolences for the loss of such a giving man?

“The ghost is not simply a dead or missing person, but a social figure, and investigating it can lead to that dense site where history and subjectivity make social life. The ghost or the apparition is one form by which something lost, or barely visible, or seemingly not there to our supposedly well-trained eye, makes itself known or apparent to us, in its own way, of course. The way of the ghost is haunting, and haunting is a very particular way of knowing what has happened or is happening. Being haunted draws us affectively, sometimes against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition. ”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination

As I reach for some resolution, some greater agency to the narrative of my origin that felt like it was never really mine to share, revealed in stages throughout a childhood infused with the hidden facts: How do I wrestle against this long secret history while doing no further damage to others? What do I need from the living and the dead?

Healing work, not clear in what form beyond the writing of these first words, might be found in this midlife rite of passage unique in its twisted pathways, but also, not uncommon, inclusive in the wide company of those within families for which one is not of the same blood. I remember the writers and witnessed memories of others, and these shared experiences help me start to trace the path forward from this haunting absence ended.

“The willingness to follow ghosts, neither to memorialize nor to slay, but to follow where they lead, in the present, head turned backwards and forwards at the same time. To be haunted in the name of a will to heal is to allow the ghost to help you imagine what was lost that never even existed, really. That is its utopian grace: to encourage a steely sorrow laced with delight for what we lost that we never had; to long for insight of that moment in which we recognize, as in Benjamin’s profane illumination, that it could have been and can be otherwise… If you let it, the ghost can lead you toward what has been missing, which is sometimes everything.”

~ Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination