3 Days (remembering John)

It’s a bummer when you are not sure what date to remember your deceased little brother on.

On reflection, this dilemma is probably not as uncommon as it sounds. A family member is found, passed away, and the question is, did they pass away on the day they were found, or on the day prior, on which they were last seen about 1am? A coroner’s office can provide a letter with a date in it, but when they are unable to provide the cause of death, it’s easy to also assume that their guesswork includes the time of death.

So when this time of year rolls around, I remember him on 3 days in September.

Day 1 is 9th September. In 2011, 9th was a Friday. It was the last day that John would ever get up in the morning and go to work. The last day that he was seen alive, going about his usual business.

On 9 September, he did an early shift, at the residential care facility where he worked as a PSA (Personal Services Attendant). After work he travelled home on public transport. He didn’t earn a huge wage, and couldn’t see the point of paying for the petrol, maintenance, registration and parking permit required to have a car in the inner Melbourne suburb where he lived. He probably arrived home and had a shower, and then relaxed, listening to Sonic Youth, or Depeche Mode, or reading, or watching TV. I can picture hi sitting outside and smoking, tobacco or other substances, as he frequently did.

9th September 2011 was not just any old normal working day for John. He would have been in a pretty good mood. It was his last shift before 2 weeks of annual leave he’d organised in advance. He had been thinking for a while about training to become a Registered Nurse, had recently sat the required tests, and enrolled in the course. As someone who left school at the age of 16, without finishing Year 10, never undertaken any further study, and worked at many different unskilled jobs for the next 16 years, I’m sure there was a great sense of achievement and pride for him in getting into this tertiary course.

So on that Friday night, John was about to have a rare weekend off, and then, on Monday morning, embark on a 2 week intensive course, followed by weekly evening classes, and eventually a career as a Registered Nurse. He had a few drinks, made dinner, for himself and my youngest brother, and after hanging out until late in the night, he went to bed.

That’s as much as is certain. After that point, in playback mode, time slows down.

10th September 2011 came and went without incident, but in my mind now, it is the twilight zone. It’s the hazy, not-quite-real, in-between date. It’s the gap in-between my brother being alive, and being found in his bed, dead. It’s the day that seemed normal at the time, but in hindsight it’s an abomination, because it’s the day where the rest of us went about our Saturday assuming all was still right with our world, totally oblivious to the fact that a terrible chasm had formed, at some point on that day, between our imagined reality and real life.

Played back in slow motion, I see myself that morning doing all manner of frivolous activities. See, there I go: taking my daughter shopping for shoes and to the local op (thrift) shop. There I am again in the afternoon, sitting at home, phoning my sister, who lives overseas. In a strange turn of events, given what was to come, I was phoning my sister to say that a friend of hers, from our hometown, had passed away suddenly from an asthma attack at the age of 39.  After that call, I phoned John with the same news, but he didn’t answer, and he rarely ever responded to messages so I didn’t leave one.

I will never know whether my brother was already dead when I waited for him to pick up the phone.

We don’t know what time on 10th September his sleeping state was disrupted by something – perhaps, (as suggested by the coroner), a seizure – that turned out to be catastrophic. We don’t know when whatever-it-was changed normal sleep to something else, perhaps a coma, or perhaps death in moments. I don’t know if it was in the wee hours of that morning, or at the exact moment that I locked up my car in the cark park at the local shopping centre. Perhaps it was just as his phone was ringing next to his bed.

We will never know, and I don’t spend a lot of time wondering, because no answer to this question is any more satisfactory than any other. The greater mystery, so it seemed to me at the time, was that there was no announcement. No bell tolled, no sense of suffocating dread overcame me. No sound, no thought, no feeling indicated to me that in one particular second on that weekend, something catastrophic had taken place.

I said that the 10th was the twilight zone in the middle, but in fact, we do know that he was alive at the very start of the 10th, because he was seen by our youngest brother, P who lived with him. P was still up past midnight on 9th, watching TV when John got up to get a drink. P decided to go to bed. That was the last time he would ever see his brother alive.

This brings us to 11th September.

It’s a date already overloaded with images of grief and death for those of us living in Western countries, where the date is synonymous with the World Trade Centre attacks of a decade ago in the U.S.

On 11th September 2011, the airwaves and the media were particularly heavy with collective memories because it was the 10th anniversary of the attacks. That Sunday, I was out shopping yet again with my daughter – in the morning at a local shopping mall, and in the afternoon at the supermarket to get groceries. Apparently I shopped for most of that weekend.

There I am on the Sunday, driving and listening to people call up the radio to share memories of 9/11 from 10 years earlier. Their stories make me feel particularly bleak this year, and for the first time, I decide my daughter is old enough to hear an edited version, so, grimly and a bit cruelly, I explain the bare details of what happened on 9/11. She cries.

Later on, there I am again, back at home in the afternoon, sitting at the computer with writer’s block. I’m trying to think of something to write about on this blog, and I don’t hear my mobile phone ring upstairs. I’m still agonising over what to write as the landline rings downstairs and my partner answers it. I take no notice, registering only that he’s talking to someone he knows, and assume it’s someone from his family.

As I sit there at the computer screen, I’m unaware of the significant moment that is drawing close. I see myself, blissfully ignorant that a devastating turning point in my life is now only a few minutes away. I’m concerned with my blog, and not taking much notice of what my partner is saying on the phone. In fact, if I ever tried to recall it afterwards, I thought I had heard him laughing, and assumed he was talking to a family member.

Those last minutes tick by, as that phone call comes to an end.

There goes the last minute of my previous life, slowly disappearing, as I tear myself away from my blog and follow A. up the stairs, because he “needs to tell me something.” When he starts to sob, above me on the stairs, I immediately assume something has happened to one of his elderly parents.

I see myself, rushing to comfort him, in the last second before he tells me why he is crying.

Replaying it in my mind, I hear those final few seconds bang loudly and ominously past me, like a goddam drum section in a symphony orchestra. Like the cracking of thunder before a deluge.

So there I am, as that last second ticks past, standing at the top of the stairs. Mistakenly thinking I’m comforting my partner.

It’s the last second of my previous life, the life where I thought everyone I loved was alive.

That was 11th September.

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8 Comments

  1. The death of any loved one is hard to forget.I hope that your pain will lessen with the passage of time.

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  2. I’m sorry you have to mark the day or days like that. I’m sorry for your loss.This is beautifully written.

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    • Thank you Goldfish. It’s going over old ground but we can do that on our own blogs! I hoped the writing might have benefitted from the distancing effect of time, so thanks for your comment.

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  3. Wow. I am so sorry for your loss, blathering. As goldfish said, this is beautifully written. So much so that I’m at a loss for words.

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    • Thank you Lucky! I think the time that has passed made the writing less emotional than when I’ve previously written about the same topic. Perhaps that has made for better writing.

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  4. The anniversary of the death of a brother is a horrible day. This year for the first time, 6 years after my brother died, in August, I actually didn’t remember it for the first half of the day. I felt guilty for that, but I still don’t know if its a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t want to remember him in death, I want to remember him in life, and celebrate that. Oh how I wish we could bring them back, and see them again, our brothers. I am so sorry about your brother’s death.

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    • Hi Tandi, thanks for your comment. I don’t think you need to feel guilty. You remembered your brother on that day, & there is no rule that you must remember an anniversary as soon as the clock ticks past midnight. The hardest thing about the anniversary is recalling how you felt that day, and, worst of all, the moment you were told, and/or had to tell others. But it’s true, nearly every day some obscure thing brings up a random memory of my brother while he was alive, and those are the memories we will treasure for ever of our brothers! Hugs to you, for your anniversary.

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