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Emily Urquhart

Giving Up the Ghost

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Emily Urquhart | Longreads | August 2018 | 19 minutes (4,759 words)

After he died, I began to see my brother with surprising frequency. These appearances were not ghostlike apparitions, nor were they dreams. Instead, I saw him in the bodies of strangers. He was waiting for the traffic light to turn so he could cross a busy intersection. A man tipped his hat skyward to read a street sign and my brother’s face hovered beneath the brim. He was the token collector at the entrance to the subway, and he was the lone soup-eater in the basement food court of a downtown shopping mall.

I couldn’t anticipate these visitations. They happened at random and unexpectedly. The people I’d imprinted with my brother’s image were only shades of him — dark hair, a downward slope to their shoulders, a bushy mustache, thick-rimmed glasses. This was fitting because, even in life, I didn’t know him well. My brother was 11 years old when I was born, and we had different mothers. As a child he’d visited on weekends with my other brother. We’d overlapped in adulthood only briefly, so my memories of him are from childhood. They are fleeting and jumbled. It was only after my brother died that I discovered his first name had been Joseph. A name chosen by his mother, but secreted away after birth in favor of his middle name. I learned this from my father when I was tasked with writing my brother’s obituary. I remember feeling awed and somewhat ashamed that I could have spent 24 years in my brother’s orbit but not know his given name. This was just one of the ways I didn’t understand who he was. This unknowing compounded the loss, which was tragic and grim, and I think this is why I bumped into him so often after he died. When he was alive, I never ran into my brother in the city where we both lived.

I was young then, my footing in the world unsure and sometimes timid. When my brother died, I was a few weeks into my second year of a graduate program in journalism. I believed I would never return to school and that I would never write again. I felt suspended among wilted funeral flowers and well-intentioned casseroles with a grief that would last indefinitely. But after two weeks I left my parents’ country home and returned to the city, resumed my studies, and re-entered my life. My upstairs neighbor serenaded me when I arrived at my apartment, assuming all the cards and flowers that had collected at my front door were birthday greetings. I thanked him, gathered the well-wishes, and stepped back into my old life, which was physically and structurally the same, but emotionally rearranged.

I don’t remember the first time I saw my brother in a passing stranger, but I do know that it went on for years. I didn’t investigate why these sightings happened, or if they happened to anyone else. It would take another 17 years for me to do this. Approaching middle age and now a mother, I’m a more confident version of my earlier self. I’m a journalist rather than a trainee, and I’m a folklore scholar. I interview people about their supernatural experiences, respecting their beliefs, no matter how far they stray into otherworldly terrain. In this way, I am now uniquely positioned to turn my gaze inward and question myself.
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