You always take the weather with you

Is there anything better than beautiful weather? I’m sitting at home, on an evening that can only be described as beautiful, feeling as though nothing could be nicer. On a night like this it seems quite feasible that even being somewhere glamorous, involving hot springs, jacuzis and cocktails, would not be any nicer than just sitting here, looking out over rooftops at the pale blue evening sky, listening to birds chirping in the trees, and the intermittent chirrup of a cricket, while I sip on a glass of wine.

Sometimes I think that if it could just be light until 9pm every night, all year round, life would be constantly cheery. Even though I know that’s not true.

The silly thing is that only yesterday I wrote 3/4 of a post about how we were experiencing an early Autumn.

Ha! Welcome to Melbourne, where the temperature ranges from 40 degrees to 12 degrees within the same fortnight, and if you write a post about the weather, you’d better finish in one go or it will become useless! (Or, fiction!)

Anyway. While I’m on the topic (by the way, it’s great that you’re so keen to hear about the weather!) this Summer was predicted to be a scorcher. Last November, or thereabouts, I kept hearing rumours that “they” were saying it was going to be a stinking hot summer.

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After weeks of consultation, a panel of Global Warming experts in Melbourne today announced that if the weather gets any hotter, they will be forced to remove their jackets. (pic: Wikimedia)

Now, I don’t know who “they” are, but as far as I could glean from this third hand information, it sure as hell sounded like “they” knew what “they” were talking about. 

So on the basis of this relayed intelligence, I gritted my teeth, and tried to mentally prepare for an unbearably hot summer where I would feel as though I lived in an oven. I love my little house, and my bedroom with the view of the rooftops and the sky, but my room is upstairs, you see, (thus the rooftops, and sky) and on a 40 degree (Celcius) day it’s about 125 degrees upstairs.* 

But I need not have worried, for we are into our third (and, according to my scientific calculator, final) month of Summer, and so far we’ve only had to endure maybe 2 days that were a sweltering 40 degrees, and possibly another 3 that were around 38 or 39.  Yawn! We’re Australians –  that’s not a HOT summer! A HOT summer is when you cook your barbeque by just letting the cow wander out into the back yard for a while.

Photo: StickerEsq

I object to that part about cows.

I object to that part about cows.

In fact, it’s been a really nice summer – but WAIT!! How much can I say about….weather? At this rate, weather will become most used tag on this blog, possibly outranking even Nigella Lawson’s Ears, and making my blog seem uninteresting to anyone except desperate weather presenters who’ve left it till the last moment to put their report together. (Good luck!)

Well, strangely enough,  I’ve realised as I’ve been writing, that this post probably isn’t really about the weather. It’s about why the weather has been making me feel sad.

That’s because (until today),  it’s been feeling like a premature Autumn for the past week or so. So much for the long hot Summer. In the past week, temperatures at 7am have been as low as 12 degrees. 12 degrees??? Reminder – it’s still summer, and I’m in Melbourne, not in Reykjevik. After 3 ridiculously cold mornings in a row last week, I gave in and flicked the central heating on.

And even doing that made me feel sad, so I suspect that I’ve been affected by the mood that Autumn – especially a premature Autumn, arriving in the middle of bright, warm weather – brings with it: there’s a sudden coolness in the air, a different light, and a sense that things are changing, and dying, and that time is moving on. Turning on the heating reminds me of the first Autumn I spent in this house, and memories of times that are recent, but prior to September 2011, always come with the caveat that my brother was alive then. Not so long ago.

At least, that’s what I’m attributing to the fact that thoughts of my brother have been popping up a lot lately. It may just be that some more of the unconscious work of grieving has been plugging away, deep down underneath my conscious thoughts and has finally reached the surface.

It’s not new that I think about him, but lately, while I’m doing something mundane, like rinsing vegetables at the sink, his presence suddenly crosses my mind for a split second. I see him, exactly as he was the last time he was in my house, or the way he looked at the age of 14, in a photo I was gazing at 2 weeks ago at my parents house, and I can almost hear his voice, and smell his presence. At those moments, some part of me still doesn’t believe this person is dead.

Can I blame the weather for this, or is it yet another “stage of grieving” – 18 months later? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. It doesn’t really matter. I guess I’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether I like it or not.**

In other words, it’s Melbourne, so it will probably be 38 degrees again by Friday.

*

(*No formal method of measurement was used to come up with that statistic. Any resemblance to a real measurement of temperature is purely coincidental and no correspondence will be entered into on this matter)

** This is a misappropriation of a quote attributed to the poet and critic, John Ruskin, on WorldofQuotes.

***Update, written the following day. Yep, folks, I had no idea what the forecast was when I wrote this last night, but it just so happens that today it’s 38 degrees!!! Call it coincidence if you like.  I would.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

What about a teakettle? What if the spout opened and closed when the steam came out, so it would become a mouth, and it could whistle pretty melodies, or do Shakespeare, or just crack up with me?  I could invent a teakettle that reads in Dad’s voice, so I could fall asleep, or maybe a set of kettles that sings the chorus of Yellow Submarine…….

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I was lucky enough to take with me to a holiday at the beach last week, a copy of  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Johathan Safran Foer.

As it happens, my reading lately has included quite a few novels for teens (due to being mother of a teen). I’ve discovered that there are some great novels for teens out there, that make enjoyable and sometimes challenging reading for adults. But having read quite a few lately, I have to admit that, on reading the synopsis on the back of Safran Foer’s novel, I was initially a bit put off reading it when I discovered that the protagonist is a 9 year old boy. I’d been looking forward to a story centred around adults for a change. But the book is written for adult readers, and it’s been on the periphery of my consciousness for a while. It seemed as though the title practically shouted to get my attention, every time I glanced over my bookshelves. I’d been deliberately ignoring it for ages.

But the other thing I realised when I read the synopsis on the back, was that death, and grieving, were central to the story. I make no secret of the fact that since the death of my brother in 2011, I am drawn to reading about other people, real or fictional, coping with death and grief. Suddenly I felt that now was the  time to read this book.

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So I took it with me on holiday at a beach house where I spent a week with no internet. I’m grateful that I did, and that I had the pleasure of knowing 9 year old Oskar Schell for a short time.

The lines quoted above are the opening lines of the novel. After such an opening, who wouldn’t already be intrigued to find out more about the narrator?

Continuing on, and being privy to the whimsical, and relentlessly active, imagination of 9 year old Oskar Schell, the book’s central narrator, was a sheer delight. This 9 year old’s favourite book is “A Brief History of Time,” he shakes a tambourine as he walks around New York, because it helped me remember that even though I was going through different neighborhoods, I was still me, and when he can’t sleep at night he lies in bed “inventing”.

But the delight of knowing Oscar is tinged with poignancy, as this young boy’s imaginings are so often related to death, loss, and the vulnerability of humans, and are a means of trying to cope with the loss of the father he loved so much. Oskar’s father died in the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks, 2 years prior to the main action in the novel.

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In bed that night I invented a special drain that would be underneath every pillow in New York, and would connect to the reservoir. Whenever people cried themselves to sleep, the tears would all go to the same place, and in the morning the weatherman could report if the water level of the Reservoir of Tears had gone up or down, and you would know if New York was in heavy boots. And when something really terrible happened – like a nuclear bomb, or at least a biological weapons attack – an extremely loud siren would go off, telling everyone to get to Central Park to put sandbags around the reservoir.

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Oskar reminisces about the funeral that was held for his father, despite the lack of a body ever being found (as was the case with many victims of the 9/11 World Trade Tower attacks).  He and his grandmother were driven to the funeral in a limousine. During the trip he chats with the Limousine driver, (initially he does so in a computerised voice, mimicking Stephen Hawking, one of his heroes), and relays his usual stream of imaginative ideas.

“Actually, if limousines were extremely long, they wouldn’t need drivers.  You could just get in the back seat, walk through the limousine, and then get out of the front seat, which would be where you wanted to go. So in this situation, the front seat would be at the cemetery.”

Oskar is not the only narrator in the novel. Chapters switch from Oskar, to the voice of his grandfather and alternatively, his grandmother, through letters they have separately written to their child (Oskar’s father, Thomas). Their letters date back to before Oskar was born, and lead chronologically up to the present. All three narrators are living with a deep sadness caused by loss of a loved person, through death or forced separation.

I hesitate to suggest that this book is “about” anything other than Oskar and the people that inhabit his world, because I was content to be immersed in the world of Oskar, and other characters, (particularly his grandmother, and Mr Black from 6A). I’m richer for having encountered them all, so I don’t want to reduce such a vivid, beautiful book down to a few ideas, or make it sound dry and theoretical by saying it’s “about” anything other than 9-year-old Oskar Schell.

But if I was studying this book in a literature class and had to scribble down a few thoughts on what it was “about” I’d suggest:

  • it’s about the emotional devastation that we experience at the loss of a loved one
  • it’s about the fact that humans repeatedly bring this emotional devastation on ourselves, through wars and destruction,
  • it’s about words, and communication, and the limits that words have in being able to communicate what’s really important
  • it wonders whether words have the power to save our relationships, or our lives, or to end them – or no power at all
  • it’s about our (individual and universal) vulnerability

There is so much more that one could say about this book! I haven’t even touched on the mysterious key that drives Oskar to walk all over New York, or the heartbreaking secret he keeps in his own wardrobe – but I’m aware that my word count is rapidly escalating into danger zone. I’ll just have to wind up by saying, I loved this book, and there is a new entry in my list of all time favourite books.

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What about a device that knew everyone you knew? So when an ambulance went down the street, a big sign on the roof could flash

DON’T WORRY! DON’T WORRY!

(…)……..and maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash  

                             GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!

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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.

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*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.

Wuthering Heights

I just finished reading Wuthering Heights, and somehow felt surprised that I had never read it before.

Along with everyone else in the English speaking world, I felt utterly familiar with the names of Heathcliff and Catherine, and hearing those names immediately conjured up images of  star crossed lovers, stormy nights out on desolate English moors 200 years ago, romance, death, tragedy, and ghosts. Basically, I assumed that I knew how the entire story would play out, when actually all I knew about it was, of course, the lyrics to the Kate Bush song of the same name, released in 1978.

University courses can take credit for the scholarly study of Wuthering Heights, and for it’s recognition as a classic of literature, but I think Kate Bush is probably owed a lot of credit for keeping Wuthering Heights in the collective imagination of Generations X and Y. It’s through her song that we all think we know the story (and therefore assume that we don’t need to read it.)

Lyrics to Wuthering Heights

Bush sums up the entire story pretty well, alright, even in those first 3 verses and chorus. Yes, there are fits of temper, and jealousy – in fact the 2 main characters are both nasty, bickering, jealous, selfish, and bad tempered. The worst is the malevolent, tryannical, vengeful Heathcliff. This is the probably the point on which the story was such a surprise  to me, given the historical period in which it was written – and perhaps it’s one of the reasons why it is now considered to have been ahead of its time – the fact that both of the main characters were ultimately unlikeable, and their faults were never redeemed through remorse for their behaviour or through their recognition that they were victims of some circumstance that caused them to behave in a certain way. They are unlikeable, unredeemable anti-heroes.

Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes show us some angst

I suppose I had assumed that Heathcliff would be characterised along the lines of other literary heroes from that time – eg, Mr Rochester, the hero in Charlotte Bronte’s famous story, Jane Eyre, written about the same time as Emily Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights, or Mr Darcy, the hero of Pride and Prejudice, written by Jane Austen and published about 30 years earlier than the Bronte’s novels. These dudes were tough, cold, seemingly dispassionate types who at first come across as unlikeable, but are eventually revealed to be basically decent blokes, with reasons for their seemingly cold behaviour. On Wikipedia this is referred to as a Byronic* hero, meaning, like Lord Byron, who was apparently:

“a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection”.

Well, there is nothing to redeem Heathcliff, who goes out of his way to ruin one person’s life after another, in order to exact revenge for wrongs done to him as a child, or for the loss of his loved one to another man, and then to death. Boy, what a little bit of psychotherapy could have done for him!

Yes, it’s a shame that the science of psychoanalysis had not been developed at the time that Wuthering Heights was written – although, even if it had, no-one would have been able to force Heathcliff into a therapist’s chair.

But we can apply a psychoanalytical analysis in hindsight, and from my layperson’s (ie, I have no training in pyschotherapy ) point of view, I think Heathcliff  was suffering from what people in Victorian times called Melancholia. Melancholia is apparently a psychological condition that occurs when, after the death, or loss in some other manner, of a loved one, someone identifies so strongly with the departed loved one that they are unable to work through the usual process of grieving and accept that the person is gone.

So I don’t feel sorry for Heathcliff – nor would he want me to – but I think that his malevolent personality, and therefore this entire story of jealousy and revenge, is the result of his inability to work through what we’ve now labelled the Stages of grief. These days, a psychoanalyst might say that he is suffering from Complicated Grief.

It seems to me that Wuthering Heights is a tale about a man who could not cope with grief, and the suffering that this indirectly led to for all those around him.

In Kate Bush’s song, Catherine entreats, “Heathcliff, it’s me, your Cathy, I’ve come home….let me into your window…” I assumed that her death occurred close to the end (like Juliet’s) and those lyrics represented how impossible it was for them to be parted.  I didn’t realise that in the novel, as in life, death arrives half way through, and only the living spend all their remaining time after that point, longing for a reunion. There is a suggestion of a ghost in the story – but it could equally be a vision, or a nightmare – after she dies, we never hear from Catherine again.

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*(A Byronic hero should not be confused with a Bionic hero, like Steve Austin. We will cover Bionic heroes some time in a separate post.)

Where’s your head at?

Here’s some news for music lovers. When someone you love dies, you will probably find it hard to listen to music for a little while.

After my brother died, 6 months ago, I couldn’t listen to music  – the act of listening to music required a desire to enjoy something, and I didn’t feel like it was possible to enjoy anything again.

Gradually, of course, I have started listening to music again. Driving a few solo 75 minute trips to see my parents made it necessary.

Here’s a tip to anyone in the same situation – since he died, I find it preferable to put my ipod on “shuffle”. That way I don’t listen to any one particular album. I don’t want any album I like to be tainted with the awful sadness of this period in my life.

So, I’ve taken a few drives by myself with my music set on “shuffle”. This has given me the time and opportunity to really notice the power that music has over my mood. It’s been noticeable because of the random selections that result when the ipod is set to “shuffle”, and because I’m limited to a strange, small, selection of music that I put on my then-newish iphone in a hurry, one day when I was about to take one of those long drives.  (I use the word strange to mean that the music is a random selection of mis-matched genres, not in the sense of being obscure.) I have: Adele (my daughter’s choice of music), Air, Ani di Franco, Basement Jaxx, Beastie Boys and Explosions in the Sky. (I just grabbed a few from the top of the alphabetically ordered menu in my itunes library and added E.I.T.S.). With this odd selection, it’s almost fascinating to notice myself react when I’m driving and the music changes. It’s as though each song takes my head somewhere different, and my emotions, as a result, travel all over the place along with the music.

It goes roughly something like this: say a song by Adele comes on. Adele has a great voice, and I enjoy her songs, but they only make it onto my iphone in the interests of trying to share in my 12 year old’s music taste when I can. There is a slight suspicion in my mind that Adele’s music is designed to manipulate my emotions. But in the state of mind I’m in, I don’t care. I fall for it immediately, so a few lines into a song I am reaching for the tissue box.

After that, it might be Ani de Franco. Her songs are narratives, that blend the personal and political. The narrative is distracting and takes my mind off John – by about half way through a song I might have managed to stop sobbing and start singing along. Next up, a track by Basement Jaxx. Immediately I’m dancing – as much as is possible while still keeping my  feet on the accelerator and clutch, and at least one hand on the steering wheel. (*note to self – an automatic would be a better choice for dancing in.)

If the next track happens to be by Air, suddenly I’m enveloped in their atmospheric music, but, as Sofia Coppola knows, it’s usually an atmosphere of alienation and alone-ness (if not quite loneliness), that dampens my mood again. But I’m saved – The Beastie Boys are up next and it’s like someone slapping me in the face and saying “Get over yourself!”

In case anyone is wondering, I can safely assure you that it is impossible to dwell too deeply on your own feelings when listening to lyrics like “Brass Monkey, that Funky Monkey – Junkie.”

Finally, Explosions in the Sky rolls through the speakers and without the need for any lyrics the music transports me to some other internal world. For some reason their drifting, layered music creates a picture in my mind – I’m taken out of myself and I’m looking down at myself, as though from a airplane. I can see the world, and then I zoom in to the road that I’m driving down, and there is me – a little speck driving along the road – alive,  a figure in a landscape, I’m part of the world, where my brother no longer is.

Why my brother died – we may never know

OK, so, to start with, this topic (what would you like to know more about?) is not very imaginative of Plinky, since this very same prompt came up earlier this year. I know, because I answered it. You can read my answer on Plinky or here.

But I thought I’d respond again, firstly to say that my previous answer, about black holes and other things I don’t know enough about, is one of my favourite posts. For no particular reason – I just really enjoyed writing it.

But secondly, I was prompted to respond in order to contrast the way my life has changed since I wrote that rather light-hearted post. Now what I’d like to learn more about is: why my younger brother died suddenly, 3 and a half months ago.

My brother was 33 and had no known health problems. He died in his sleep on a Friday night in early September.

Now I know that, to you, a stranger, reading this, my brother is just an abstract idea. Even if he was alive, he would just be a faceless person mentioned in someone else’s blog. Dead, he is a faceless person mentioned in someone else’s blog, who died. I can’t, and don’t, expect you to invest emotion in the fact that he is no longer around. But here’s how it is for me.

I can still hear his voice. I can still see his broad, cheeky grin. I can still recall his laid-back, easy-going, good-natured presence, and how I loved his company. Just like the people that you know and love, every day for the last 33 years, I had taken it for granted that he was alive and would be for many more years, but suddenly, with no warning and no apparent reason or explanation, he was not. When I was told that he had died, he literally vanished from my life – I never laid eyes on him again.

It’s impossible to describe the level of shock I experienced at his death. Only those who’ve had a loved one die suddenly could imagine how it felt.

So we’ve been waiting for the report from the autopsy, almost as if it might offer answers to the deep philosophical questions of how could this happen???? why did this happen???? – but it was not until just before Christmas that my parents finally heard from the coroner. They received a death certificate, which listed the cause of death as “inconclusive”. They also received a letter outlining why it was inconclusive, and positing a probable cause of death, based on having excluded other causes. In other words, the forensic team were making an educated guess, by eliminating all the things that would have left definitive signs, such as heart attack or stroke – a process of elimination along the lines of how  Sherlock Holmes solved murder cases.

According to the letter, it is highly probable that the cause of death was a seizure, leading to suffocation. This is suggested because, apparently, a seizure can leave no sign that can be found by forensics, making it, I guess, a default option in such cases. In regards to what caused the seizure, again, I assume, they could only make an educated guess. Since apart from being a heavy smoker and drinker, he was healthy, with no history of any medical condition, and there is no history of seizures in our family, they focused on his lifestyle. They referred in their letter to a link between alcohol consumption and seizure. Confusingly, however, they also sent a fact sheet about a little-known genetic condition that could cause seizures (“Long QT sydrome”), and a letter saying that any siblings and close relatives should be referred for a check up to see if they have this genetic condition, and finally, a letter asking for permission to have a sample of his blood (“no more than a tablespoon”) used in some medical trials in Sydney and Denmark.

These documents were handed to me by my mother on Christmas day. Having read over them, in a noisy house with people talking all around me, I remained as confused about what had caused his death as I had been before. I wasn’t even sure whether the forensic team had reached a conclusion or whether the tests in Sydney and Denmark were a continuation of their investigation.

So it seems that science can’t answer everything either. This, of course, is not breaking news. Scientific method involves hypothesizing the most likely explanation, and continuing to try and prove it untrue.  So we are left with a hypothetical explanation suggesting why, that Friday night back in September, at some unknown moment during the course of the night, my brother stopped breathing, his heart stopped beating, and, a moment later, he quietly passed forever from the state called being alive. With no sign to let any of us know.

In our minds, as time passes, that hypothetical explanation will become the definitive reason, as it is unlikely to ever be proven untrue.

But actually, truth be told, I don’t know that I really care after all.

I began by saying I’d like to know what caused his death, but to be honest, it was just something to focus on, in the hope of getting some kind of answer, when there is so much that can’t be known or understood about someone you love dying suddenly.

To me, the much bigger issue is that my brother has died. Knowing what caused his death is not going to change that.

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PS. If you are reading this post because your brother has died, my heart goes out to you – I’m so very sorry that you are going through this terrible experience too.  In case you might find some very brief comfort in reading about how someone else felt in the same situation, you can find more posts I wrote at the time of my brother’s death by clicking on “Brothers” or “grieving” in the tag cloud or under Categories. 

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Pictures of You

I’ve been looking so long, at these pictures of you

That I almost believe they are real

The Cure, Pictures of You

Since my little brother died suddenly, I’ve been looking through my photos. I pulled a pile of photos of John out of albums, to use at his funeral, and I haven’t got around to putting them back in.

The envelope, filled with photos, is in a pile, with the few other things of his, or related to him, that I took when we cleaned out his personal belongings.  An incident report he wrote at his work a few years ago, that I thought showed what a fair-minded, compassionate person he was. A letter  I wrote to him, on behalf of my daughter, when she was a baby. His last payslip, which was redirected to my address a week or so after he died, causing me a fresh burst of pain when I opened it and, in a moment of bewilderment, registered that there was a shift listed on the day after he died. That was because he was on annual leave, starting on that day. A copy of his annual leave form, signed on 24 August, is also in the pile.

The day he cheerfully signed that form, my friend Dori died. When his leave began, 2 and a half weeks later, he had died.

But I’ve been over this line of thought a million times. Today I’m talking about pictures.

I wish I had more photos of him. How common that wish must be, when someone dies! Nevertheless, I know that he spent lots of time with me, and with my daughter, and I’m so glad…that knowledge is more important than having pictures to prove it or remind me.

In that first week or so after his death I couldn’t look at pictures of him without bursting into tears. Now that the shock is wearing off, and acceptance – which makes me sad in a whole different way – is settling in, I can look, but I just have to avoid looking at them at the wrong time. For example it was silly to look through photos  right before leaving for work one morning, a few weeks ago. Naturally, I cried all the way to work. And it is not always conducive to efficient use of my time, to have saved photos of us together as  the desktop image on my laptop. Some days, depending how low I am already feeling, I open my laptop to do some work, and on seeing the screen saver, I end up being very unproductive for the next little while.

Sometimes it’s almost as if I need to make myself feel totally devastated all over again.

Photos of John are now amongst my dearest possessions. I have lots, but I am choosing to post some bad, blurry photos, because I like to retain my privacy as much as possible. Those who know who I am, and who John is, will recognise enough.

These photos were taken about 2 years ago, at about 1am in the morning, in an inner suburb of Melbourne. Myself and two brothers had been out to see a band. We’d all enjoyed a few drinks and were feeling very merry, and one of my brothers pulled out his trusty camera(!) and blurrily documented our walk home.

Those were the days, my friend.

It’s true – we thought they’d never end.

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