Looking for My Brother’s Ghost

When my brother died, I assumed he’d find me from the other side. He found my son instead.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Shelley Sinha
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Shelley Sinha
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Shelley Sinha

What our pediatrician called “night terrors,” our 2-year-old son Kian called “the scary lady who I see at night.” He slept just ten feet down the hall in our Brooklyn apartment. The close proximity didn’t keep me from checking the Nest Cam constantly. I would stare at the blurry black-and-white image on the screen, his little belly rising and falling as he slept.

One night, I heard a rustling and grabbed the monitor. Kian was sitting up, staring at the foot of the bed, seemingly in full conversation. His toddler rambling became more and more anxious, and then he lifted his arm — not unlike in a scary movie — pointed with his index finger, and began to scream.

Kian’s father sided with the pediatrician. But I recognized the look on my son’s face. I had seen it before on my little brother Neal.

As kids, even though we were two years apart, Neal and I did everything together. People sometimes thought we were twins. He had a speech impediment until he was around 7 years old, leaving off the beginning of each word. Shoes were “ooes,” socks were “ocks.” I acted as Neal’s translator, communicating his wants and needs. It was like we had a secret language.

We grew up in Howard County, Maryland, and our favorite place to play was alongside the river about a half-mile from our home. We would push through the overgrown brush of the forest, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes, until we finally emerged on the sandy shore. Every day, we discovered something new: an old sunken car on the riverbank, the skull of a fox, a black boot that had washed up onshore. We spent summers in that river, playing a game called “Runaway Kids,” pretending to be living off the land. We played until the sun began to set, at which point Neal would want to go home. We’d walk quietly as day turned to night, Neal gently squeezing my hand until we emerged from the dark of the woods.

In high school, I chased the spotlight, while Neal, the stronger yet quieter one, cheered me on. It was the ’90s; Neal was gay, and I kept his secret close. He called me “his protector.” Neal protected me too, in his own way. When my high-school boyfriend broke up with me, I ran home and cried to my little brother, who patted my back, telling me, “He’s a jerk, Shelley. You can do better.”

My junior year of high school, our mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. My coping mechanism was to escape. On weekends, while I was out with my friends, Neal would sit home with our mother and our little dog, Nikki. I can picture the three of them now, my mother in her red-and-white bandanna, Neal curled up next to her, Nikki in his lap. They would watch America’s Funniest Home Videos and laugh until Neal literally peed his pants.

One morning, Neal walked into the kitchen, rubbing his eyes. “Why were you crying last night?” Neal asked my mother. She looked over at him, confused. “You were crying in the chair next to your bed,” he continued. “You were wearing your white nightgown, and crying …” My mom looked at me with wide eyes. My mother looked exactly like my grandmother — Mi-Mom, as we called her — who had been dead for 14 years. Same face, same voice, same white nightgown.

For months, Neal was spooked by the “woman in white” wandering the halls. He would wake to use the bathroom at night, and there she was, walking down the stairs. Sometimes he’d catch a flash of white behind him in the hallway. Time after time, I awoke to Neal jumping into bed with me. He would shake under the covers as I held him close.

Neal and I were both afraid of losing our mother, who got sicker by the day from chemo. She suffered from fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and hair loss. I told Neal my theory: Mi-Mom returned to protect our mother. And because of that, I knew our mom would be okay.

The question of the afterlife was not up for debate in my family. The day Mi-Mom died, my mother was there in the hospital. She could see the dust particles shimmering in the sunlight coming through the blinds onto the bed where Mi-Mom slept, she’d told us, and the room was buzzing. Something had shifted in the room, and though the windows were closed, the curtain moved slightly as if there were a breeze. Mom knew then that her mother was gone. My mother went down to the parking lot and cried in her car alone before driving home to us. The doctors didn’t proclaim Mi-Mom dead until hours later.

I looked everywhere for Mi-Mom, but I never saw her myself. I was proud of my brother’s sixth sense, but I was envious, too. It wasn’t until years later, in my 20s, while living alone in Los Angeles, that, finally, my ghosts appeared.

The first time one sat on my bed, the mattress shifted slightly, like the sensation you feel when someone you love sits on the edge of the bed to wake you. It was comforting and paralyzing at the same time. The energy in the room suddenly felt full, like someone else was breathing in the air. I felt a touch on my calf, like a human hand, my mother’s maybe, except she was a thousand miles away and I was alone. I kept my eyes squeezed shut, silently begging for it to stop, until finally I kicked my leg. And when I did, the bed shifted and the energy seemed to dissipate. Finally, I opened my eyes, finding myself alone in my bedroom, nothing changed except for me, down to my very core.

Night after night, for a short while after, I’d feel the bed shift and the warmth of that strange but reassuring touch. (I was homesick in Los Angeles, working as a reality TV producer. Across the country from my family, this somehow made me feel less alone.) I probably could have lived with it, had that remained the only visitor to my little beach apartment. But about a month after that first encounter, I woke to an oppressing energy from the side of the bed. I couldn’t breathe at all, and through the slits in my eyes, I saw a dark figure holding what looked like a doctor’s bag on the side of the bed. I was paralyzed. It felt like my mind was awake, but I couldn’t move a bone in my body. If only I could grasp for something on the side of the bed, a phone, a remote control, anything to throw at the wall to wake me. When my eyes would finally fully snap open, the figure dissolved. As the visitations became a nightly occurrence, I spent hours in the office, on my work computer, reading websites about hauntings and sleep paralysis, trying to figure out why these ghosts chose me. My mother told me to move out. My best friend brought me sage and a cross. Neal believed me.

Neal was going through his own rough time back home. He had come out of the closet during his freshman year of college and, though our family was supportive, the world could often be unkind. In the decade or so that followed, Neal was in and out of rehab. I called him often and we would talk about my “visitors” late into the night as I fought off sleep. I never knew what to expect when my brother answered, and more often than not, it sounded like he had been drinking. But mention of my ghosts had a sobering effect on Neal, so I called night after night and we would talk into the morning hours, both of us looking for an escape.

After a few more months in my haunted one-bedroom, I moved out and headed back east to be closer to family. Before I left, I told my landlord, Bill, about my ghosts. He laughed. “I am surprised it took this long.” Bill revealed that our building was previously a brothel, entertaining sailors as they ventured in and out of L.A.’s various ports.

I started a new life in New York City and soon received a call for a gig on a reality show about ghosts and hauntings — I couldn’t turn it down. My job was to “find” the ghost at each site and prove it was real. I would meet with town historians, look at old land plots, and pore over ancient articles in the local library. If a child told their mother that the ghost who visited at night was called “William,” for example, I would look through census reports to show that there was, in fact, a young boy named William who lived on the property in 1880 and died of tuberculosis that very year. The episodes that aired would then walk viewers through the story of the haunting: how the spirit first appeared, how we proved its existence, and how the family or individuals were able to move forward, leaving their ghost behind.

As I searched for other people’s ghosts at work, my ability to see my own seemed to fade. Maybe it was moving. Maybe the long hours at my new gig had broken the spell, turning off any nocturnal visitors from showing up at my bedside. Or maybe it was simply the sort of sense that weakened with age and time. Whatever it was, I never saw a ghost again. I missed them, strangely. There had been a comfort in knowing they were always there.

Years passed. I fell in love and got married. In 2017, Kian was born. Neal, still battling his addiction, was living in Fort Lauderdale. Within days, he flew to New York to meet his nephew. Neal held Kian, who looked just like him, in his arms and began to sob. He swore to me that he would always take care of Kian. Five months later, Neal returned to rehab for what would hopefully be the last time.

In 2022, after my divorce, I moved home to Maryland to once again be closer to family. Neal, still in Florida, was doing well. He was working toward getting a master’s degree in social work and married to a wonderful man. Life was finally looking up for my brother. Then, this last April, we received a phone call from Neal’s husband, Will, telling us that Neal had been in an accident; Neal was on his scooter, heading home from work, when a car hit him. He didn’t survive. My mother, my father, and I clung to each other in the days that followed, hollow from our grief.

I thought of a conversation I had with my brother last Christmas. Neal had seemed down, so I took him to see the Christmas lights on 34th Street in Baltimore, just like we did when we were kids, and then to dinner in Little Italy. As we sat across from one another, I looked at my Neal and asked him if he needed anything from me. “You deserve to be happy,” I told him. “You deserve not to hurt.” Neal looked up at me and softly replied, “This is my happy, Shell. It just doesn’t look like yours.” I tortured myself imagining Neal’s final moments and pleaded to God that he hadn’t suffered.

In the days that followed Neal’s death, I looked for him everywhere. At night, I walked through my parents’ house, like a ghost myself, hoping he would appear in the hallway as I wandered. I went back to the river, where we’d spent all those summers laughing and playing in the woods, squeezed my eyes shut, and willed him to appear on the path in front of me. Nothing. I prayed for his ghost to appear, “just once,” I bargained, so I could say good-bye. It didn’t seem so far off — one morning, my dad told us he had felt a hand holding his own as he slept. What great comfort this brought my father during his grief, to feel as if his son had reached out to him. But Neal had not come to me, or if he did, I couldn’t see him.

So I got angry. Where was he? How dare he leave me without a word? How unfair for him not to appear, or even worse, how unfair that I couldn’t see or feel him in this moment when I needed him the most. “Please come back,” I pleaded out loud. “I’m afraid to be alone.” No response, which only made me angrier, when we both knew I could hear him, if only he tried. I began running, miles at a time, pounding the pavement with my anger and grief. Through my tears, I manifested the sight of Neal. There he was, down the trail. There he was, standing next to that tree. There he was, laughing and crying at the same time, but no, he wasn’t, and it was actually me, running blindly through the woods, sobbing and looking for the ghost of my brother.

One night about a month after Neal died, I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of Kian, now 6, talking to someone in the room. I stood in the hallway, holding my breath and listening. Something felt different in Kian’s room that night — that feeling of someone else’s presence, but instead of sucking up all the air in the room like the dark figure in California, the room felt like it was vibrating. Kian, sitting up in his bed, asked, “It didn’t hurt-ed when you made that turn? Mommy thinks so.” In that moment, I knew. “Neal?” I whispered into the empty room. Though I couldn’t see him, I felt him, finally. Neal had come to me, in the best way he knew how — through my son. He had come to let me know that he had not suffered. I whispered, “I love you,” into the room, thanking Neal for this final gift. Kian began to sob. I sat down on the bed, held my son against my chest, and cried gently while I thought of my brother, the way I would always remember him; Neal running through the woods, looking back at me as he laughed, his hand reaching out for me always.

Looking for My Brother’s Ghost