The Weight of Ghosts

Image of The Weight of Ghosts
Release Date: 
September 5, 2023
Red Hen Press
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“offers readers a deeply affecting, lyrical and often profound journey into the experience of love and loss.”

Acclaimed novelist and poet Laila Halaby's memoir, The Weight of Ghosts, documents her struggle to bear up after the devastating loss after her first-born son, Raad, 21, was killed on the side of a highway by a truck in the early morning hours one rainy February day. But this memoir grapples with much more than the enormity of her grief as Halaby intertwines other personal narratives: her heritage as a mixed-race person born out of wedlock; her relationship with a partner she refers to as TWMIL (The White Man I Loved); and her second, younger son's struggle with drug addiction.

"I thought I was doing all the right things," she writes. "I cuddled them, read to them, loved and fed them, created safe and happy, created space for joy," but in the end, one son was killed and the other would "dive into a darker world, surface, and swim away with his demons for a time." Her acute sense of loss is offered in a haunting yet mundane synecdoche: "Sadness," she writes, "is two bags of groceries, not five."

The memoir opens with a brief, blunt account of the hours leading up to her son's death. What follows is a collage, or as Halaby says, "an embroidery of memory, emotion, and facts," which might be the only way to tell this devastating story—by circling and iterating and questioning, in fragments, as grief so disrupts the ordinary passage of time.

The narrative is assembled from bits of personal history, journal entries, lists (a list of who she blames for her son's death—"I blame everyone and everything; we are one after all," and later a list of acceptances—"I accept that there is pain in my pinkie finger . . . I accept that the pain makes me feel slow and old"), poems, even a letter to sertraline, the anti-depressant she takes to help her through her grief. In many italicized passages, Halaby speaks directly to her deceased son, Raad. "[Y]ou are the fat hummingbird / who came to my window when I was crying . . . you are the knowing to jump back / when that truck hopped the curb inches away from me."

These sections are communiques between mother and son, between the living and the spirit of the deceased, but they also give the reader glimpses of the young man Raad had been. "I might find myself pouring a bowl of cereal at ten at night and I see the box of Trader Joe's Honey Nut Cheerios that I still buy because you liked them and I sprinkle some on my own late night snack because it makes me feel like we are eating together."

These many narrative threads are often moving and beautiful, though occasionally a fragment can be dislocating, untethered to any particular time frame, place, and sometimes including people by name but without context for readers to understand who they are to Halaby. A paragraph-long section on Halaby's attempt at a free-standing headstand seems disconnected from the narrative, even as it might offer symbolic value. "With my head and forearms holding me up, I could make sense of the world."

Throughout the book, Halaby reads signs as augers or omens, divination as a means to make sense of what is utterly unfathomable—the sudden, violent loss of her son in the prime of his life, and the many unanswerable questions surrounding his death. Why did he pull over to the side of the road after 2:00 a.m. that night? Why did he get out of his car? "I told Sergeant Blue about the signs," Halaby writes, "about the owl that had flown over me a few days Before, about the thought I'd had the day Before of a semi hitting me on the freeway in Phoenix and the awareness that there was no coming back from that."

Birds are often carriers of messages from another realm. "I looked up and there was a tiny bird hopping on the wood trim that olds up my window . . . I could spot this as Raad reminding me again, as he does, that he was there with me and to keep going." Later, she sees a baby dove on her window ledge, the mother bird on the nest, "watching her baby, keeping an eye out for predators." Two vermillion flycatchers colliding was a reminder that her son was with her in spirit. "The weight of ghosts is measurable in memory, visible in birds," she writes.

Toward the end, Halaby writes a brief obituary for her son, which she never did officially for the newspaper; it reads like a grace note toward acceptance of her enormous loss. "There was or there wasn't, a brilliant young man who dreamed of changing the world. He is gone from us too soon . . . but he is always with us."

The Weight of Ghosts is complex, layered, and sometimes messy, as grief is, but this memoir offers readers a deeply affecting, lyrical and often profound journey into the experience of love and loss.