Kool Thing

via Discover Challenge: Song

I’m slow off the mark at times. It must be nearly two weeks ago now that I saw a prompt on the Daily Post,  just one word, song. I was already 3/4 of the way through a different post, however, and I chose to finish that and let the other idea sit in the back of my mind, where I knew there were at least 100 different posts I could write with the word song as a starting point. After I’d published that other post and sat down to write something on song, it seemed the idea that had made its way slowly to the top of the pot was to write about this song, or more specifically, why I can’t listen to it any more.

When I hear Kool Thing, by Sonic Youth, I feel a sort of cold chill run through me. It’s not a chill of excitement. It’s the chill of a complex mixture of negative emotions I can’t quite pin down. Let’s say that in that mix there is embarrassment, mortification, and anger, too, probably.

Those feelings, embarrassment, mortification and anger, are directed at myself. They are directly squarely at an image of myself, five years ago, on the night of Sunday September 11, 2011, standing at the sink, peeling potatoes, and listening to the Sonic Youth album, Goo.

Taking a step back, about 2 hours earlier on that same day, I had learned that my younger brother John had died suddenly, in his sleep, some time that weekend. Conversations had been had, phone calls to other family members had been made, and now I was left, alone. My partner had gone out, to drive across town and pick up my youngest brother; it was he who lived with John, and it was he who had phoned us with the news. My daughter was only 11; instinctively she kept herself busy in her room.

If my daughter had come out of her room she would have seen me in the kitchen, and to her everything would have looked normal – I was moving and functioning – but in fact I was not completely present; there was an invisible bubble around me, keeping me at arms length from reality. I had stopped somewhere, but I had a dim awareness that time was still moving on around me, and this told me that dinner needed to be made, so that we could eat something when the guys got back from across town. In this state of reality/unreality, I put on Goo, to listen to as I cooked.

I chose that album because John had always been a huge Sonic Youth fan, and I thought maybe that was what you do when you’ve just found out that your brother has died.

Or did I? I look back now and wonder what on earth I thought. Did I think that the most appropriate thing to do was to put on music that the deceased person had liked? Did I think that it was no different to fondly thinking about someone who was merely absent? Did I think I lived in a fucking movie?

Because if I had been an actor in a movie, an appropriate soundtrack would have swelled up in that scene of me peeling potatoes at the sink; music representing my brother, music that he had liked, lyrics that encapsulated something about him. And the music would be accompanied by a montage of snapshots, images of him throughout his life, existing in the head of the character I was playing, but visible for all the viewers at home, the way that TV and film can do.

But if I’d been an actor in a movie, it would all have been acting; my “brother” would be played by another actor, neither the actor or my brother would really be dead; there would have been no reason to totally switch off my emotions.

So, mistaking real life for a movie at that moment – maybe because everything suddenly felt so unreal – I put on Goo, as if for all the world I was putting on the album because my brother was on his way over for a meal. I did what it seemed that someone in a movie would do in this situation: put on the album, let it be the soundtrack of that night, let it honor him, while I cooked.

Of course, inevitably, I have never been able to listen to that album again. But it’s not because the tracks off that album evoke such sadness in me. It’s embarrassment, mortification and anger at myself for what seems now like a display of insincerity, that have become attached to the songs from Goo after that night.

I picture that moment at the sink and actually blush, from a deep sense of shame, at what a stupid thing it was to have done. Looking back now it seems disingenuous, as if I was playing out the role of a grieving person, learned from TV soap operas. Here in the present, I’ve felt mortified to be the person that did that. It seems as if I thought some kind of celebratory move was required, when it was way to soon for that. And I’m annoyed that I spoiled that album for myself, because it was an album that John loved.

Of course when I look back now, my action in putting on one of his favourite albums to play while I made soup highlights how the news of his death had only broken through the surface of some very outer barrier of my mind at that stage, it had not yet really penetrated my understanding, and shock was already playing its part in making me feel like a robot going through the motions: make a nourishing meal. Ring your sister.

Rationally, I know that it is not worth feeling humiliated, mortified or embarrassed about. I realise that one doesn’t know what the done thing is, when someone dies suddenly. But these irrational emotions are surprisingly effective at blocking out others. When I’m filled with the heat of embarrassment, I’m not also able to feel sad at the same time. I cry at all sorts of things nowadays, and certainly at plenty of songs, but not at songs by Sonic Youth.

 

 

 

 

*

Note: this prompt encouraged the writer to post links or multimedia; but in keeping with the topic, I don’t want to.

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5 years or no time at all

Writing

On 1st September this year, I happened to be in Byron Bay, a beachside location on Australia’s New South Wales eastern coast. I was sitting outside with a cup of tea, on a mild, sunny afternoon, that was not quite warm but definitely not cold, and therefore a vast improvement on Melbourne’s recent weather. From where I sat, I looked over a view of a permaculture organic garden and, beyond it, a clearing and behind that, the edges of a forest of gum trees that bordered the property I was visiting. Lucky me.

As a soft breeze rustled through the leaves, I pulled out my writing journal to do my easy, never-fail, writing exercise, “Today I Noticed….”

I like this exercise because I don’t have to think about it to get started. There is always something one will have noticed in a day, and often – if you are me, anyway – this small observation acts merely as the opening of a gateway, and usually a flood of abstracted ponderings proceed to pour out, filling up a few pages in a loose, unplanned way until the timer goes off.

Did I mention that for this exercise you are meant to time yourself and only write for 10 minutes? I like that restraint as well. This means that I don’t stop to rewrite sentences to make them sound better, but just keep going to get the ideas down. So, intermittently, I end up with a few pages of blurted-out thoughts, in a non-publishable form. Of course lots of it ends up being pointless but the theory is that I can mine the pages of this journal later on when I need something to write about.

Well, I’ll mine it today, because this is how my entry began on that breezy afternoon on September 1.*

 

Journal

01.09.16

Today I noticed, as I wrote that date at the top of the page, that it’s already the 9th month of this year. That Winter has ended. That it’s Spring. That it’s September. That it’s the month that my birthday falls in. That it’s 10 days until the 5th anniversary of John’s death.

And I notice, as soon as I write that last sentence, how quickly a heaviness can land in the stomach; when it was light only a moment ago. 

Of course, I can’t recognise that it’s September without also being aware of this anniversary. It’s just there; a heavy, sad thing, that adds some weight to the start of Spring, and to September, which was always my favourite month. In fact I wouldn’t even say that I dislike September now. I still have some affection for it, which maybe goes to show just how important our own birth date is to us. Even when my birthday is weighed up against the death date of my little brother, I still can’t hate September. But I wish he had died some other time – in the middle of winter, at the start of July – that would have been more tonally appropriate than at the start of Spring, a time when we are meant to feel hopeful and optimistic because the temperature is losing its chill and the blossoms are out.

*

Anniversary

In September in 2011, the fact that my brother died was terrible and nothing else really mattered – but the terribleness of his death was still new and raw  two weeks later when it was my birthday, so that made my birthday an awful, sad affair that year. But after 2011, the closeness of this anniversary to my birthday matters very little to me.

There is a month long period where I think more frequently about John, and reminisce about the time immediately before and after his death, but that period of grieving, if that’s what it is, starts on August 13 and subsides after the anniversary of his death, which is September 11. It starts on August 13 because on that date in 2011, I was with my daughter in the Emergency ward at the Royal Children’s hospital, and John phoned me to organise to come and visit us that week. In hindsight it always feels as if that day, which, at the time, was quite distressing and exhausting, was just a taster for what was to come. And John’s phone call out of the blue that day led to his visit for dinner that week, and thus to the next significant date, August 16, the last time I ever saw him, hugged him, or, for that matter, spoke to him.

In reality, I guess there is no cosmic alarm that goes off to signal that it’s time to start quietly observing that month-long period of grieving, so in fact, it starts when I remember the significance of the date. This year, I was driving to work on 18 August when the significance of the date struck me. Suddenly, with dismay, and considerable sadness, I realised that the anniversary of the very last time I ever saw my brother had come and gone, two days earlier, without me noting it.

Grief

But you know what? While feeling sad that morning, at some other level, I also felt relieved – to realise that I could still feel that sad about my brother’s death – as strange as that sounds.

Because the worst thing of all when someone you love dies, is to think that at some time in the future you might reach a point where you’d never feel any grief when you thought about their absence.

Intentionally, or unintentionally, that is the concept that is conveyed by well-meaning people who try to comfort you when you’re grieving, by offering phrases such as you’ll feel better with time. In the days and weeks after John’s death, that piece of wisdom achieved nothing more than to make me very angry. Angry at the person who said it, and angry at the very thought of it. I didn’t want to feel better. I didn’t want to contemplate the possibility that I would ever feel better.

Last night, I went to see One More Time With Feeling, the film commissioned by Australian singer/songwriter Nick Cave on the release of his latest album, basically to fill the role of publicity for the album. The artist doesn’t wish to do media rounds and answer questions about the album’s relationship to the tragic death of his 15 year old son just over a year ago. In the film, Cave remarks on the meaningless platitudes offered by others, who say things like he lives on in your heart. No he doesn’t, says Cave to the interviewer, He is in my heart, of course, but he doesn’t live anywhere. 

I am mindful of what I say to someone who is grieving. I refuse to buy sympathy cards that offers these kinds of cliched phrases. Grieving is important. It’s honouring the beloved person who has died. It ties you to the person who has died. Why would you offer comfort to someone recently bereaved by telling them that eventually they will lose that too, the grief that binds them to the person they loved?

Better, surely, to say what a wise friend who had lost both her sisters, said to me at the time: grieve for your brother!

Death

I’ve written a lot about the death of my brother – there are plenty of posts on this blog about John, and my grief when he died. There is one specific post that, due to the specificity of its title, must come up in search results when people search relevant terms, and every now and then on that post, I receive a comment from someone whose brother has recently died; quite often, in a similar way – in his sleep, from no known cause. Every time, it breaks my heart to hear this person struggling with immense sadness, pain and confusion about why this has happened. I received another such comment only a few weeks ago, and it was long, and filled with confusion, pain, and anger. My heart broke all over again. I read this young man’s comment and cried for him, and his younger brother.

And when I read his comment, I was reminded again, that all around the world people are dying. Someone dies every moment of every day. And that each time, other people are left behind, confused, angry, distraught, distressed, and anguished at their loss.

When I was a kid, my religious parents said a prayer (they probably still do) in which the world was referred to as a valley of tears. If I dwell for very long on the idea of death, I can see how someone came up with that poetic description for a place that, I now realise, is full to the brim with sadness. It becomes apparent that at any moment, there are so many people in the world either dying, or deeply affected forever by the death of someone they loved, that those innocent few who do not yet know how it feels to deal with the death someone they loved are in a distinct minority. I was one of those lucky few until September 11, 2011.

 

 

 

 

*Journal entry slightly edited.

One will die before he gets there

Hi, she says, somewhat shyly. It is a strange situation, after all. I don’t feel completely comfortable myself. Then she says, half-jokingly, I hope you’ve got some good news for me.

I take a deep breath, because a lot of what I’ve got to tell her is good. But one small, but significant part of it is very, very bad.

I’m in the lounge room of a house I lived in 10 years ago, having a coffee with 10-years-ago-me, and she wants to know what’s happened since 2004. As you would, if your future self came to visit.

So I start to fill her in. In those 10 years, my daughter has gone from being an innocent little child to a year 9 student at secondary school. That transition from cute little pre-schooler to gangly teenager had its good and bad moments as a parent.

I tell 10-years-ago-me that of course she will miss aspects of having a little child around who asks adorable questions, and thinks her mum is the bees knees. I describe instead, the teenager she will find herself with in 10 years time. This tall, self-absorbed, long-haired creature will be capable of displaying very clearly, with a roll of the eyes, her annoyance when she is bothered with pesky questions about homework and chores while she is busy texting her friends. I tell 10-years-ago-me that she has a few broken bones to look forward to as, in a few years time, her darling child will have fractured an ankle while jumping on a trampoline, fractured a wrist playing volleyball, and sustained a hairline fracture on her C7 vertebrae while…. standing up suddenly underneath a jutting-out ledge. Ouch! On the plus side, I tell her, none of the injuries turned out to be serious, something that may be nice to know a few years from now when you are in that ambulance and she’s laid out on a stretcher, in a neckbrace.  

Not co-incidentally, in the past 10 years, I’ve gone from working 2 days per week while my child was a pre-schooler, to working full time. Back then, 10-years-ago-me felt stuck in an unskilled rut in the workplace, doing part-time frontline customer service jobs that were not terribly interesting or stimulating. I tell her that the job she will take in a few years time will initially be very challenging but will provide valuable experience, a boss prepared to promote people who work hard, and also a few new good friends.

I don’t mention that one of these new friends will have died before the 10 years between us is up.  10-years-ago-me has not even met this woman yet, so that information won’t have any emotional impact and why let that knowledge hang over her when they do meet and become friends?

She asks me about the run-down, falling-down house she is currently living in, and I tell her that she will finally make a decision on it – moving out and selling it, and moving to a house where she is now very happy. She looks like a difficult decision has been made for her. Which it has.

She asks about family and friends. I falter. It’s easier to start with friends.

I name some friends that I hadn’t seen in a while in 2004 who are now completely off the radar altogether – and list others that I was out of contact with in 2004 that are now back in regular contact. I tell her which of her current close friends will still be as close in 10 years time and which ones will just be aquaintances that occasionally email and mention the idea of catching up without ever following up. I assure her that she will continue to make new friends, some through her daughter’s new school friends, and others through those new jobs looming on the horizon.

Then I get to the only topic left – family.

Mum and Dad are still going along fine in their mid 70s, I tell her. And what of her siblings? C. turned that extended holiday in Ireland into a permanent thing – she now has citizenship and a house over there. G. quit another job, or was fired, I can’t recall which. He lives at home with the parents and h’es probably in danger of being long-term unemployed, although, on the up side, he seems much happier than when he was working! I tell her, you’ll be really happy for F., who found the love of his life a few years ago, got married in 2012, and is now expecting his first child. And P has forged out a successful career in training staff, and recently travelled to the Phillipines for work. 

I hesitate – it’s already obvious that something is wrong, because in going through the siblings in order of age, I’ve missed someone, our second-youngest brother, who comes between F and P. 10-years-ago me doesn’t let me get away with that. What about J, she asks.

Suddenly I wish I wasn’t here. The idea of travelling back in time to chat with 10-years-ago-me doesn’t seem so great any more. I look down for a long moment.

Up until now, I had thought it would be good to give her the opportunity to know, ahead of time, so that she could spend more time with our little brother J, hug him harder, and tell him that she loved him. It’s only now that I recall that back in 2004,  J, who was often between jobs around then, has been a regular and frequent visitor to her house, and has spent more time with her daughter than any of her other siblings have, so he is probably the sibling she is closest to at this moment in her life.

Now that there is nothing standing in between me and those awful words, I feel a lot less sure that knowing in advance will be a good thing at all. Surely, in fact, it will be awful! What was I thinking? Why did I think this would be a good thing to do?

But what can I say, now that I’ve skipped over any news of him, now that I’ve hesitated and made it obvious that if there is news, it is bad news? I have to tell her.

J was doing great, I say, hesitantly. He stayed in Melbourne, living with P. (In 2004 he had only recently moved to Melbourne from the country town where we grew up). For a while he worked in a car yard. Then he got the idea that he’d like to work in Aged Care, and it was like he’d found his vocation. He took up cleaning in Aged Care facilities while he studied to be a Personal Care Attendant. He got work as a PCA at a facility in the Northern Suburbs, and loved it, and took great pride in the quality of care he gave to people in the high dependency Dementia ward. It was as if he’d found his calling. After about 2 years there, he applied to study nursing and got in. Around the same time he moved to a better house than that dump he’d been living in for years with P. Things were going well for him.

My rather rushed delivery comes to a sudden halt, and I look  up. She’s waiting. But when I meet her eyes she looks down – now it is she who is unsure if she wants to hear what I have to say. I wait.

I could hold off on delivering this piece of news forever.

Shall I keep going? I ask.

She hesitates. I think we are both wishing that I’d never come.

No………Yes. Tell me.

My voice comes out as a whisper when I say it. He dies…..He died.

She doesn’t want to take this in. She isn’t able to. I remember that response. Whatever she had been anticipating, this news was more extreme. More absolute. But I’ve gone too far to back out now, so I plough on, trying to soften the blow by mentioning things it’s taken me weeks, months, or years, to take any comfort from.

He died in his sleep, at home. He’d just gone on leave from work, he was about to start a new course. If you think about it, it’s a pleasant way to die, and he was at a happy, optimistic point in his life…..

I falter again. It’s not helping, just as nothing anyone said to try and comfort me ever helped me when my little brother first died. She doesn’t respond. She is thinking this through. She is trying to distance herself from it. Her best denial mechanism is that, after all, I can’t really be here, back from 2014, telling her things that will happen to her in the future. For her, it is currently 2004. I don’t blame her for being skeptical. But I also know that her little brother has only 7 years left to live.

 *

 

*The title of this post is a lyric from the song Youth, by a UK band called Daughter.

This post was inspired by the WordPress Daily Prompt, Good Tidings, from 2 days ago. I never seem to get these pingback things right but here goes: Good Tidings

 

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.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live

So it has rolled around to mid-August.

Those who’ve experienced grief will probably know I’m not exaggerating when I say: the last 12 months have gone by in a blur.

Looking back now, I think it’s safe to say that on September 11 last year, the day that I was told my beautiful little brother had died, my every day awareness of life, and sense of current time, shut down for a long period.

Outwardly, I began to function normally again not long after, going to work and seeing friends, but any second when it was not distracted, my mind was focussed inwards, and in the past. It had a lot of mental work to do. It needed to integrate the enormous chasm where my brother’s life had been. The enormous chasm in what? I hear you ask. Well….in the picture of the world, and my life, that I carry around with me in my head.

In order to do this, my mind began to obsess over dates and periods of time for every memory I unearthed, whether specifically of John or not of John – it didn’t matter. How old was he when this song was a hit, how old was he when I was at this college I’m walking past, how old was I, how long ago was this event, and, always the inevitable calculation: how much time had John left to live at that point in our shared history. Did he have 15 years left, 5 years, 1 month, or 1 day?

At first, this constant need to fixate on time in relation to any memory of John seemed a disjointed, jumbled thought process created by grief and not serving any purpose, but now, looking back, I suspect there was a purpose to my fixation on distilling my brother’s life down to numbers and fractions – it gradually enabled me to construct a timeline of his life.

I don’t mean that I’ve created a literal timeline dotted with the events of his life in a chronological order. I mean that all that mental work of thinking over dates, ages, time frames, etc, enabled me to come to a point, months later, where I was able to comprehend that his life was a finite thing, that had a beginning and an end – and – here is the crucial point – to grasp that both were in the past.

From this process, I’ve come to understand that we carry a kind of “story” in our minds, that is intrinsic to our understanding of ourselves and our lives. In a very fundamental way, I mean. I think that what we call “shock” is a huge chasm in our understanding of the world, that results when an element of this basic story is ripped apart through a sudden death.

For example, because I am lucky enough to live in a First World country, I expect that my parents will live to an age ranging somewhere from their seventies to their nineties. As they are in their early seventies, I’m awre that time is drawing closer but still hopeful that it could be a decade or more away. I don’t sit around consciously thinking about when my siblings, friends and family will die, but at an unconscious level I expect that I, and most of my siblings, friends and relatives around my age, will also live – on average – into our eighties or a bit beyond. I expect, and hope, that my child will outlive me.

Therefore, I have an unconscious understanding of my life as a fixed span of time, and of where and how it interconnects with the lives of everyone I know. I assume I’m approximately half way through my life. I’m aware that these expectations are based on averages, and that plenty of people don’t make it to those average ages, but nevertheless, when one of those people turns out to be someone you love, that awareness is no comfort. As much as you know that all around the world every day people die both young and suddenly, you can’t prepare for the sudden shattering of your life as you know it, when someone puts the name of your sibling and the word “died” into the same sentence.

So I realise now that although I probably didn’t spend a lot of time consciously thinking about my brother, his life was an intrinsic part of my own “story”. The story was as simple as this: that I am an older sister to 5 younger siblings. That amongst these siblings was this brother, born 8 years after me. That he would continue to be around, steadily 8 years younger than me, throughout most of my life. That, taking into account life expectancies for males and females, and our age difference, it was possible that he might live on after me. That  we loved each other,  and were bonded through love for the same group of people – the other members of our family. That’s it, at it’s most basic level. I didn’t need to think about those things. Our connected story was incredibly simple, but deeply, intrinsically, a part of my entire understanding of myself, my life and my world.

There were also other layers to the story, layers sculpted out of the details.  For example, details about our current lives, where we lived, things we’d done in the past, together and apart. A trip to Hanging Rock, a holiday at Wilsons Prom, the time we walked around Lake Daylesford at 1am, slightly stoned. These details formed layers over the top of the basic story, so that our interconnected story had depth and complexity, and currency.

I see now that after he died, the process of grieving caused me to continually confront little snippets of these layers, and, bit by bit, try to grasp that, not only was each separate memory – of the trip to Wilson’s Prom for example – in the past, but so was the interconnected storyline they were part of.  I felt compelled to do calculations, and to try and place ages, dates, and times, over and over – all so that I could grasp that the timeline of his life had reached its end, and reassess all my memories with that new perspective.

Without realising it, what I was doing was gradually chipping away at the top layers of our connected stories, the little memories of shared holidays and going to see Sonic Youth together, and working my way down, towards the deeper, basic story of our connected lives, the one that would be harder to shift.

I wonder if this accounts for the “waves” of grief that people talk about. I think perhaps each new wave of grief comes when you start (unconsciously) dismantling another layer of these densely interconnected stories. Or perhaps it comes at the end of having chipped away another layer. In any case, as each layer is chipped away, you come closer to understanding that your brother has died.

This is such a painful process to go through.  At first, and for months, every memory that popped up required analysing, calculating, and recalibrating. Every memory, therefore, was met with a huge sense of shock, swiftly followed by a new wave of grief, distress, and pain.

Whether the memory was about John or about the lino on the floor of a rented house 4 years earlier, it didn’t matter. I had to reassess the memory, and refit it into our previously interconnected story, to reconfigure that story into one where my little brother’s part abruptly comes to an end in September 2011, and mine continues on.

 

John (at top), probably about 15, or, nearly half-way through his life.

*

*Recently I read a post that mentioned a book by Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live. I’d been thinking about this “story of our lives” concept, so I immediately loved that title, and knew it would have to be the title of a post, if and when I wrote about this. Of course, I must also track down the book and read it at some point. Thanks to Goldfish for that piece of information.

Life, in sums

I’m a bit stuck, again. I’m wondering what the hell the point is, in writing anything here. Since my brother died suddenly, it feels as though it is pointless writing anything at all. It doesn’t matter what I write, he will still be dead.

Apparently. He will still be dead.

For a while there, I think I was holding out a secret hope that it wasn’t as final as what you hear.

And what can I say that I haven’t already said? I’ve already written about how I feel: the shock, the grief, the distress, the shock, all over again. The heightened awareness of time passing, the fixation on remembering times and dates of anything and everything that occurred before he died, the need to do endless calculations in my head about how old he was when I was doing this or that throughout my life. It feels like necessary work that my brain must do.

It’s almost as if I mistakenly think that if I work on all these various computations, I am going to come up with some calculation that will prove him to still be alive.

It’s a compulsion, the need to translate his life into dates, times, and segments of time. The other night, after walking past my old college in the city, I had a moment of revelation about just how long ago I was there – nearly 20 years ago! Of course the thought process that immediately followed was to work out how old John was then – about 15. And it struck me that he would have been nearly half way through his life at that point.

Well, of course then I had to work out exactly when the half way point of his life was. That night, I lay in bed and did multiplication and division, and came up with: October 1994. I would have been 25. He would have been 16. I was living in a shared household in Gore Street, Fitzroy. He still lived with my parents, having only left school the year before, and was in his first job. All that time ago, eons ago, it seems, he passed the half way mark of his life.

And, just as when he died, there was no sign, no voice, nothing to tell me, no clues that I should probably spend a little bit more time with my little brother because he was already into the second half of his life. Nothing to indicate that, already, he was heading down the home straight – that he had less time ahead than he had already lived.

But why do these things matter? What use are these meaningless computations? How does it help me now, to know when the halfway point in his life was?

It doesn’t. It’s of no obvious use.

Nevertheless, I sense that it’s a way to tackle that overwhelming sense of randomness I felt after his death. I fool myself that the mental work of turning his life into a neat timeline, upon which I overlay dates, and measurable segments of time, will ultimately reveal that there was a pattern, or will impose some kind of order onto how it all panned out. His life, that is.

In my mind, grasping to make sense of a new – and harsh – reality, perhaps I fool myself that all these statistics will compensate for the lack of any reason, or meaning, or prior warning, that might have assisted me to cope with him being so suddenly….dead.

My sister, who is proving to be full of astute observations, suggested that because words and emotions have proven to be totally inadequate in providing any comfort or reason, we turn to maths.

I think she is right, and in fact, after her observation I can see why obsessing over times and dates feels as if it has some purpose: at least with maths, you always get an answer.

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