Birthday tragedies

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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

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.

 

Why I like June

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I have always loved the month of June. As a child it was a time of celebrations as both my brothers had June birthdays and even though later my parents dreaded the month, as it marked both the birth and the death of their middle child, for me it has  always held a particular charm. It is the month when the garden really comes to life with flowers blooming everywhere. Even when the garden seems to be taken over by long grass and weeds the whole picture is one of vibrancy, an inexorable display of God’s glorious creation. My Grandmother had a tapestry in her house which included the following extract from a poem by Dorothy Frances Gurney: 

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,

One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on Earth.

This seems to ring so true in June when the garden is alive with colour and activity.

As a child, June meant making ice cream, days on the beach, playing badminton in the garden every evening, cycling with my friends. Later it would be dominated by exams but my best friend and I always made the most of the sunshine. We would plaster ourselves with sun oil and sunbathe in one another’s gardens while testing each other on our exam subjects. After a couple of hours of work, it would be time to reward ourselves with ice lollies or coke floats and then back to our studies. We worked hard but it never felt like it as the longer the studied the more likely it was that we would have noticeable sun tans.

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Traditionally, the date of the June solstice influenced when people planted and harvested crops. Many believe that Stonehenge and similar megalith structures were built to help establish the occurrence of the summer solstice. Since ancient times people have gathered to celebrate the triumph of light over dark. Years ago people used to light bonfires on Midsummer’s Day to encourage the sun to shine. People would gather and roll blazing wheels down hill to imitate the journey of the sun across the sky. It was traditionally a time for love and marriage, a time for magic, a time when fairies would feast and dance from midnight until dawn.

Nowadays the majority of us simply focus on it being the start of Summer and we enjoy a lightening of spirits as a result. It is the time of Wimbledon, strawberries and cream, jugs of Pimms and Sunday barbecues with friends and family. There is the flurry of exam preparation followed by a gentle winding down of school work, rehearsals for end of year performances, sports days, long drawn out cricket matches on village greens. We polish off our bicycles and go off on cycle rides with our children seeking out pretty villages in which to enjoy a welcome drink or ice cream. The strict bedtime routines become relaxed as we take advantage of balmy summer evenings and stay outside for as long as we can, desperately trying to take full advantage of the kinder weather. We pack up picnics and set off on day trips to stately homes, the seaside, country shows and store up happy memories to see us through the darker months. 

Now, as my children have started to study away from home June marks the beginning of the long holidays, the return of the older ones to the fold of their family. It offers completeness, a chance to renew the tight bonds between siblings, to experience again the joy of a large, loving family, an opportunity to fill the house and garden with the sound of joyful laughter, fun and games. 

June

It’s beautiful the Summer month of June
When all of God’s own wildflowers are in bloom
And sun shines brightly most part of the day
And butterflies o’er lush green meadows play.

Light hearted skylark songster of the wing
High o’er the quiet and lonely moorland sing
Above her nest cloaked by the tangled heath
Her charming song so exquisitely sweet.

So mellow the gentle breath of june day breeze
The birds rejoicing on the leafy trees
And dappled trout in pool bed of the stream
Bask in the sun their spotted skins agleam.

God gave us June and all her lovely flowers
Bright sunny days and pleasant evening hours
Shady green glens and serene sunlit dells
And leafy bowers adorned with blue bluebells.

But god June’s maker has the final say
And what he give he also take away
And God’s own larks will trumpet in the sky
To celebrate the birthday of July. 

Francis Duggan

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Why I like May

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Traditionally May has always been an important month with the first day of May being celebrated in many different countries. People come together to celebrate the approach of summer with customs that express their joy at the end of a long winter and their hope for the future. May Day celebrations date back to Roman times and their festival of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers. Traditionally in England people would go a-Maying early on May Day. Houses would be decorated with flowers and greenery in the belief that the vegetation spirits would bring good fortune to the householders and children would make posies of flowers and leave them on the doorsteps of houses to bring good luck. Girls would wash their faces in the early morning dew in the belief that this would make them beautiful for the following year. They would make garlands by covering two hoops, one at right angles inside the other, with foliage and flowers and would sometimes put a doll inside to represent the goddess of Spring. Often a May Queen was selected who would be lifted by the men in a flower bedecked throne and would watch over the village festivities: dancing, archery, sports, Morris dancing, and, of course,Maypole dancing.

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I have always loved the month of May, partly because it is my birthday month and who doesn’t enjoy the month of their birthday even when they’re grown up. But it’s much more than that. To me May is a month full of promise; Winter is finally over and, even though there may still be a few cold snaps, we know that Summer is just around the corner. The garden starts to come to life, we start pulling out summer clothes and shoes, we take a critical look at our bodies and desperately start a strict exercise regime so we will be ready for shorts and floaty summer dresses. The swallows and house martins return and busy themselves readying their old familiar nests for this year’s offspring and we bustle around the garden mowing and weeding and planting, restoring order to the chaos that has ensued over Winter, making things as perfect as we can for our longed for summer days. School playing fields go through a similar transformation and soon it is difficult to remember the rugby and football games played in mud as we see pristine cricket pitches, tennis courts and athletic tracks. It’s that wonderful time of year when children can actually go on the field at break and lunchtimes and run around in the way that children should or simply laze around on the grass making daisy chains. Time slows down, people start to relax, they smile more, they’re kinder to one another. There is an air of anticipation as summer approaches. Will we be lucky, will it be a good one, will it live up to expectations? At this moment, in May, it doesn’t really matter, the joy is in the expectation, the promise of good times ahead, the joy of no school, no routine, family holidays. 

My feelings about May are summed up perfectly in this extract from Robert Browning’s Home Thoughts From Abroad:

And after April, when May follows

And the white-throat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossom’d pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover        

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That ’s the wise thrush: he sings each song twice over

Lest you should think he never could re-capture

The first fine careless rapture!

And, though the fields look rough with hoary dew,        

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower,

Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

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As a child I would fling open my bedroom window and breathe in the scent of the lilac tree in blossom underneath, listen to the song thrushes, watch the birds darting around building their nests and would feel totally content.

The world was a beautiful place and life was good.

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