My Big Brother
By Derek Thompson
It is still hard to take in that my brother, David, has died. Not just in the hospital again, or having switched the phone off for two days because he doesn’t feel like talking, but irrevocably gone. I am the last of the line and all the family memories come crashing to a halt with me.
Sibling rivalry seems such a gentle term for the battles we fought and re-fought in an effort to establish separate identities.
David and I were born only 20 months apart, and up until I was four years old, we were always close. At that age we were like a binary star spinning happily around one another, simply known as “the boys”. Family lore had it that it was David who first taught me to read, and I can still remember him sharing Bible stories and Aesop’s Fables on a Sunday morning. I used to wait with anticipation for him to get back from school. I felt protected by my big brother; I have hazy memories of falling asleep on the back seat of the car with my head on David’s lap.
But with school came independence and our orbits gradually changed. Within a few years, we were strangers who happened to share the same parents. David was always the content one, thriving in the bosom of the family, while I felt stifled and disenfranchised.
As I deal with the painful loss of my beloved brother, I contemplate the details of our shared history, trying to fit the pieces together like a puzzle, in order to finally understand our complex journey.
Our parents were married for eight years before any kids came long. Their first child was a daughter and she died at eight weeks old – a cot death. David was next and they were naturally very protective of him. My sense now is that by the time I’d come along – less than two years after him – the dynamic had changed with having two sons. I believe there was no longer the terror of losing another infant, and as David and I were so close in age, we became “the boys” almost as a unit.
I remember being told that when I was born , and my brother saw me crying, he said ‘me no like’ and that attitude had largely stuck. It could be an apocryphal tale though. David was christened as a child – totally understandable after our sister died and the popular belief that children had to be christened in order to get through the pearly gates. Interestingly, I wasn’t christened. I’m told that Adler had a theory about two sons being The Heir and The Spare. I think that’s a little harsh on mum and dad, but he gelled with them in a way that I didn’t. He liked the same and I liked different.
When I told him that I had decided to try my luck in America, he was characteristically dismissive, but that only sealed my fate; there was no way I would have backed down in front of him. So off I went to try to build a new life in New York. As children we were often split into separate rooms to stop us fighting. As adults we had managed to go one better, and chose separate countries.
Yet apart, we became closer than we had been in years. David was the one to send me homemade cassette tapes, even if most of the song titles did have a sarcastic ring to them. (Tracks such as “I Love You When You Sleep” and “Take Your Time Young Man” – I still have the tapes. One day I will be ready to play them again.) Then, six months later, heartened by our improved relations, I returned for a short visit. It was as bad as ever; it was as though our rapprochement had never happened. I stayed only as long as I needed to.
Two months after that, while recovering from a minor car accident, I received word to call him urgently and a garbled message about a death in the family.
So it was David I spoke to, long-distance, to find out that our father had died suddenly from a heart attack. David told me there was nothing I could do and that it would be better for everyone if I didn’t come back. I can’t blame him; he had been there to call the emergency services, to try to resuscitate, and finally to watch as they took away the body of the father he idolised. Then he had to shoulder our mother’s grief alongside his own. Small wonder he resented me for escaping all that.
Nevertheless, I came back for the funeral – I knew I would live to regret it if I didn’t. I stayed for two weeks, but David and I had long since run out of things to say to one another. Perhaps we’d already said too much. Whenever I think of us, sitting silently in front of the television with Mum, my memory always paints the room in shadow.
We kept a fragile ceasefire for her sake, but the time soon came when the lure of Staten Island was stronger than the call of family, even though my life out there was crumbling.
Five years later, when I was back living in the UK, our mother died, following complications after a fall. David dealt with it stoically, closing himself off and keeping his distance.
I felt, even then, that it was a release for her after those long years of mourning for our father, but I knew it was an especially devastating blow for David. The world he had cherished was finally over.
Suddenly, it was just the two of us. Finally, with nothing left to fight over, we made peace. It was more of a truce than a friendship, but the bond of brothers is deeper even than love. And besides, we were all we had now. We shared the family house for a time – now his house – but we led separate lives, meeting in the no man’s land of television and the snooker hall.
Eventually, we both moved on; he to leafy Essex and me to the wilds of Cornwall. The distance once again brought us closer, my monthly stopovers and regular phone calls about nothing in particular bringing a healing of old wounds. We learned to reappraise one another as adults. He got me into The Simpsons and I got him into the Internet. Now we had the opportunity to make up for all the time we’d wasted, a chance for a new beginning. Then he became ill.
It started with a cough and a skin irritation that went on for months. Then a blood test revealed cancer – non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He was immediately placed on a drug trial and treated at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, East London. When I offered to move back to London temporarily, he was adamant that he could cope on his own. His close friends Maureen and Bob became a family to him in a way that I had never been. I think that was easier for him, clinging to outsiders as his world tilted to revolve around chemotherapy and blood transfusions, endless hospital appointments and treatment regimes.
Now we spoke every day by phone, sometimes several times. He even visited Cornwall a couple of times when he was well and I continued to stay with him or visit in hospital at least once a month. We learned a new vocabulary: methotrexate, prednisone and stem cells. But it was David who really had to live with it; I was a bystander swept up in the wake of his terrible illness. He made it easy for me, with a sense of humour as dark as the circles under his eyes. Every time someone famous died, he’d ring me up excitedly (it became a running competition to get the first call in) to tell me: “I’ve outlived another one!”
The doctors were amazed at his resilience and he became well known at the three treatment hospitals where he told me he was “the number one lab rat”. Maureen and Bob became the lifeline for David and me, caring for his needs and acting as a bridge between us when we were either too scared or angry to deal with one another fairly. But we knew, and he knew, that the disease was gradually taking its toll. Each Christmas, each birthday was treasured like a fragile flower and carefully pressed to memory, ready for the time when memories would be all that remained.
The last time I spoke to David I was going on holiday and my flight was delayed. His health had been on an even keel for a while, otherwise I wouldn’t have contemplated it. I called him from the airport and he was his usual self; he mocked my misfortune, made me laugh about it then turned up the television. When I flew back to Gatwick a few days later, there were frantic messages waiting for me. Barely a day after I had left, David’s condition had deteriorated rapidly. He voluntarily checked himself into hospital, something he had never done before; he signed a Do Not Resuscitate order and never got in touch to say goodbye.
I rushed from the airport at midnight in a blur of tears; to find that the brother I knew had disappeared. He was comatose in a private room, wired up to monitors and drip-fed with morphine, shielded from the world. I spoke aloud in a forced, casual way, choking back the tears as I told him how much I loved him and what a crap flight I’d had. Once, just once, a tear rolled down his face and I thought my heart would burst.
I wanted to pick him up and cradle him, just like he’d cradled me when we were so very young. The next day he died. Typically, it happened while I wasn’t there.
There was no goodbye note at the flat, just a terrible emptiness. Those few days sorting through the remnants of David’s life and organising the funeral were the longest of my life. Maureen and Bob filled in the blanks for me, about the other side of my brother; about his enduring, crushing grief for our parents, and his pride in me. He’d kept boxes in his bedroom, of untouched family photographs, dusty keepsakes and the jar of sixpences that I had forgotten existed.
At David’s funeral, the officiate, whether through nerves or a slip of the tongue, turned to the coffin and called him Derek. David would have absolutely loved that – I laughed and almost turned to the back of the chapel, expecting to see my brother laughing with me and at me.
At first, David’s death was a bright light that had swallowed me whole, blinding me to everything but the enormity of my loss. Now, as time puts some distance between that terrible time and now, I can see that the light isn’t quite so bright, but the beam has widened and touches more aspects of my life. Every day is a constant reminder of what I no longer have. I don’t bother checking the caller display unit now; it doesn’t matter who has rung, it won’t be David. And though I’m blessed with a good relationship and two wonderful stepchildren, they will only know about my childhood second-hand. My brother alone had that shared heritage and only he could remind me of all the things I had forgotten, or things I was too young to recall clearly.
I think back to everything David went through – and protected me from – and I’m in awe of him. I’d tell him now that I’ve had time to reflect. I understand now, with more compassion than I knew how to show when we were growing up, that our parents carried such a heavy burden. When our sister died at eight weeks, before either of us was born, it changed the family forever. In that light, it’s inevitable that they would be so protective of him and still in grief for Janet. Their gift to me was independence, just as his, perhaps, was security.
We may not choose our circumstances, but we alone choose how we respond to them and what learning we take from them. And so, whatever else passed between us, David’s lasting legacy for me is one of inspiration and love. In facing his illness and his death he became again the big brother I looked up to when I was little. I’m so proud of David and would love to pick up the phone and tell him.
Derek Thompson Bio:
Derek Thompson is a freelance writer, living in the UK. His blog can be found at www.alongthewritelines.blogspot.com
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