Today is my brother Christopher’s birthday. It is also the anniversary of our other brother’s death. Adrian, 3 years younger than Christopher, 5 years older than me, died suddenly and completely unexpectedly at the age of 20. It was the day our lives changed forever.
Adrian was always a happy go lucky person. He was tall, strong, sporty, exuded charm and always fell on his feet. What he lacked in academic achievements he more than made up for in personality; he made the world a better place, his smile could (and frequently did) melt the hardest of hearts, he cared about others, was fiercely loyal and determined to live life to the full. He and I often fought like cat and dog but we also adored each other; he was so proud of his little sister and I knew he would always look after me. He was the one I always ran to if someone at school was mean to me, he was the one I’d tell if I’d done something wrong, he was the one I chatted to about life and the future.
We had no warning that there was anything wrong, no warning that our lives would be torn apart. One minute everything was normal, the next things had changed forever. It later transpired that he had a congenital diaphragmatic hernia that had never caused any issues but which could have led to his death at any time. There was no chance to prepare ourselves, no chance to say goodbye, no chance to say a final ‘I love you’. Instead our lives were suddenly and cruelly plunged into darkness. Christopher’s birthday was no longer a family day of celebration but one of heart rending grief and shock.
The next twelve months were horrible. Christopher returned to London and long hours of work and study which gave him no chance to grieve properly, my parents only managed to keep going by taking tranquillisers and sleeping tablets, I barely slept, found it impossible to talk about my brother at all and was totally weighed down by feeling responsible for everyone. The only way my parents could cope was by changing the way we did things: they cancelled our evening paper as Adrian always rushed to read it first, we no longer went on camping holidays because that’s what we’d done for our last few family holidays, we no longer went to our favourite picnic places, we no longer watched Match of the Day, we no longer opened presents on Christmas Day as Adrian had always loved Christmas and he and I would always creep downstairs early to start the unwrapping. I felt like I’d not only lost my beloved brother but also so many of the familiar features of my life.
But of course the biggest change was that we no longer made a big thing about birthdays and in particular we stopped celebrating Christopher’s birthday. I’m not sure that this started out as a deliberate thing but later it definitely became an unwritten rule. My parents would always try to visit Christopher a week or so before his birthday and give him his gift then. They would send a card a couple of days beforehand but that was it, the actual day they always spent focussing on Adrian and taking flowers to the Cemetery. It wasn’t done in a really obvious hurtful way and Christopher and I both understood how much our parents were struggling to keep going and so neither of us challenged the changes that slowly eroded many of our family traditions. It was many years before he and I properly celebrated his birthday with drinks and a meal, all thanks to my ex-husband who suggested it. I will be eternally grateful to him for that as it made me realise just how much Christopher had suffered from not being able to mark his special day. He felt guilty that he was alive and Adrian wasn’t. He felt insignificant. I can understand totally how painful it was for my parents but at the same time I feel they were unfair. There is an entry in my mother’s diary for that year that shows how unhappy she was that we celebrated Christopher’s birthday. I think she felt that we had slighted Adrian’s memory but she was so wrong. We will never forget our brother, we will never stop missing him but we need to carry on living, we need to make the most of every moment and we need to celebrate one another’s birthdays, to give thanks for having a sibling on whom we can rely, to give thanks for having a sibling who can help us keep our memories. I find it so sad that Christopher felt unable to have a major birthday celebration until the year after our parents died and even then he needed so much reassurance that this was ok.
In the words of Christina Rossetti, “Better by far you should forget and smile than that you should remember and be sad”. Of course this doesn’t mean that we forget totally but sometimes we need to put our sadness in a little box and simply focus on the joy of the day.
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Christina Georgina Rossetti
So I wish my brother a Happy Birthday. He is the best brother anyone could hope for, an amazing Uncle and committed Godfather and he deserves to be happy. Today is his day, the special day that marks his entry into the world, the day when all his friends can give thanks for knowing him. It should be all about him and nothing else. We don’t need a specific day to remember those who are no longer with us, they are with us in our hearts every single day, but everyone needs one special day when they are the focus of attention and when we give thanks for life and a chance to participate in this wonderful world.