Friday, 26 June 2015

Beautiful and hideous

A week ago I was surrounded by people trying to laugh through tears. I was at my brother's funeral. Tonight it's my first evening on my own since his death. I've been surrounded by loved ones for the past few weeks but tonight Bean is out with his boys and I finally have a few moments alone to think without fear of upsetting anyone. My thoughts run fast and fearful. How could someone young and healthy die so quickly?

Rich's funeral wasn't meant to happen this way. We were all meant to be old with zimmer frames and urine bags strapped to our legs. Your grandchildren were meant to be singing your favourite rock song, currently in the charts as John Lewis made it into a plinky plinky Christmas ballad for their advert with two pangolins falling in love. (You were meant to go to Download this year and so I'm going with Slipknot as the writers of the song). We were meant to know how you wanted to say goodbye - did you want to be turned into a diamond or exploded as a firework? We were meant to know so much more and now the slow realisation attacks us in waves of grief. We miss you and we can never make you smile again.

On the day of his funeral, I went with Bean and his sister to the funeral directors. Of course I've seen dead bodies before. I've seen that single moment where life becomes death. I've apologised to dead patients whilst I've shone a light in their eyes and listened to their chest to ensure "life was extinct." Yet this was different. It was Richard, the guy who was just meant to be lost in a shopping centre or indulging in off-piste fun in France. He wasn't meant to be lying in a coffin. It's a cliché to say he looked peaceful but he really did. Looking like a British officer in Africa ready to shoot, albeit with film rather than a blunderbuss, and a tiny smile on his face, he looked like Richard. My brain still can't process that it was actually him lying there. I kissed his forehead and left his siblings to say goodbye.

The funeral was to be colourful yet it was with a heavy heart I put on my favourite dress, favourite hat and favourite heels. Usually, I'd been twirling but today I was trying to work out which of my mascaras were waterproof. Somehow we arrived at the crematorium and I watched as his surviving brothers and his best friend readied themselves to carry a coffin. Richard arrived in a hearse covered in flowers and my heart broke as his was carried in and his parents followed.

And then we sat to listen hear about Richard from those who knew him best. Oh my, his friends loved him so, his sister spoke such beautiful words and his mother conjured a world of Richard that made us laugh and cry. I spent most of the service looking out of the window onto the vast expanse of green, half hoping that I would see Richard walking across and tippng his pith helmet to us all.

Alas, he didn't make an appearance and I tried to concentrate on the service but the officiant sent my mind racing, I found it very difficult to listen to someone who didn't know Richard at all to speak about him. I know he was being kind and gentle and caring. He was a lovely man but I found it particularly hard to hear that Richard was now, "immune to hurt, pain and suffering," Yet that is part of life. A life that was too short a life that deserved more. I feel so selfish that my head wants me dead. I feel the pain but I'm told that happiness and joy are also possible. I guess I just wanted Rich to feel both again. 

We slowly said our goodbyes, watched the curtains close and walked away listening to Muse. 

Returning home without Richard but with him everywhere still didn't make things feel real to me. Perhaps in the coming months our grief will move into acceptance, not yet, not yet.

I did what I knew I could do, I made tea and coffee. So many people filled their home, it was truly heart-warming. From his colleagues (and flowers from his clients), to friends from his youth to best friends now, everyone learnt something new about Rich. From krav maga and cave trampolining to his love of cats (somewhat precluded by his allergies) and art deco architecture. 

As the crowd slowly thinned, the sadness washed over again. My heart is so sad. Richard, I'm so sorry if I don't make it. I'm trying but it all seems so wretchedly pointless. I'd would swap you for me, right now. There is such evil in the world right now, too many innocent people dying. We will all miss your light.

There's that pith helmet and cake for he loved the cake.

Yes his funeral was beautiful and hideous but it was only au revoir, he will always be with us.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Learning to speak in the past tense

My big brother Richard died almost two weeks ago. 

I'm not quite ready to talk about him in the past tense. I think I'll be muddling my tenses for a while. The shock is yet to wear off. I'm still expecting him to call and say he was in France skiing the whole time. Sadly, he has been identified, undergone a post mortem, his death certificate has been issued and his funeral is on Friday. Even writing those words seems ridiculous, how can he be dead at 42? 

Yesterday Bean and I travelled to Birmingham to help his parents and another brother (who arrived from the US on Sunday - poor thing is exhausted - I'm so glad he's home for Mummy hugs) start to clear Richard's flat. 

His flat was characteristically Richard - a "little" messy - but full of weird and wonderful things. Wowzer, you had some pretty cool shit. Stuff that will find a new life with family and friends. He had just bought some pretty amazing socks and it's nice that each brother could take a pair. Perhaps they'll wear them at the funeral. 

It's the little things that make up someone's life that perhaps are the hardest to see. The sauerkraut fermenting in the cupboard, the unopened birthday card from April, the unfinished Lego Architecture set, the new lava lamp and the art sitting against the wall waiting to be hung. All these things are so very Richard and every second spent in his flat was a poignant reminder of how much we've lost. The awesome son, brother, friend and uncle who brought such light in a dark world.

As we waded through the hoards of important papers we found a huge cache of ticket stubs. Oh boy, you lived a life. A life that was far too short but over the past few days his family has seen how many people were in Richard's life and want to remember him in death. He was so much more than just a guy who lived and worked in Birmingham. I hope as we continue to turn his home into piles of stuff his family remembers that his life can never be adequately summed up by few (well many!) belongings. We aren't clearing away his life, he will live on.

Since his death, sleep has been hard for me. I write this at 4am. Perhaps it's just a normal symptom, perhaps not. I've been trying (and failing) to be strong for Bean. It does pull into painful focus how it would affect him if I killed myself. Is this your gift to me Richard? To tell me that death is not the answer? That I must not squander my life, even if it feels so hopeless?

Richard's funeral is on Friday. I think this is when the shock will be taken over by overt grief. Perhaps shock is a helpful emotion to enable to making of so many decisions in a very short space of time. And those decisions from music to food to eulogies to what Richard wears in his coffin. It all matters and none of it matters. It's so important but at the same time what would matter to Richard? We all have ideas but I imagine knowing he was surrounded by his loved ones and knowing that those who cannot make the funeral are planning to hold a memorial service for him in Birmingham. Dude, you are so loved. I'm so glad that despite growing up apart (Bean's sister is 10 years older than him) that you came together as adults and were friends.

The loss of a sibling isn't really something you ever think about. Whilst you grow up understanding your parents and grandparents will die, siblings do not enter this equation. They are so very much part of you. They are the same as you save a few genetic differences. How do you even begin to say goodbye to someone who should have lived another 40 years?

Whilst I can try to comprehend Richard's death as his sister-in-law, I can't even begin to understand how hard it must feel to be present at your child's funeral. I hope his parents lean on their children and let them support them.

So to Friday. I hope to bake him a cake. I hope to support my family. I hope to celebrate a life.

Just come back from that skiing trip, Rich, we miss you.

As corny as it sounds, hug your loved ones.

(Oh and write down your passwords and hide them somewhere safe)

Friday, 12 June 2015

National Blood Donation Week


It's very important. Too little and you may find yourself gasping for breath. Too much and you are at risk of a stroke. Yeah, that important.

I'm not sure if my brother received any blood before he died but if he did it's because people are good. I wouldn't be writing this today if people didn't donate, my mother needed a blood when she was born. Yet only 4% of the population who can give blood, do give blood. They need 204,000 new donors to replace those who can no longer donate. People like me although I will hopefully be able to donate again soon.

4% of the population who can donate, do donate.

To me that's a disgrace. And why do people not donate?

Scared? Too busy? Nothing to do with me? Forgetfulness?

What's your excuse?

You know what's scarier and more painful?

Being hit by a bus, receiving treatment for blood cancer, haemorrhaging after giving birth, dying. 

I know the session times can be a little annoying and that you sometimes have to wait a while but why not resolve to take a day off work each year, perhaps go shopping in the morning, treat yourself to a delicious lunch and then go and do something amazing. 

In a former life I learnt about the power of blood. I learnt it's "mystical" properties and I've seen it literally breathe life into the dying and bring people back from the brink. It is truly a very precious gift. I know to call it a gift seems to rather exaggerate the significance but it is so very important.

So donation. I imagine that for many of you this is the major barrier against donation so let me demystify you.

1. You arrive and fill in a health questionnaire to ensure there is no reason you cannot give blood. If you are unsure a nurse or doctor will have a quick chat with you.
2. You have a pin prick test to ensure you have plenty of haemaglobin (the part of blood which carries the oxygen) because if you run a little low normally it's not a good idea to take more! (If you really want to give blood, try eating red things form tomatoes to steaks!
3. You get to lie down on the rather comfy seats (well they are rather comfy at the West End Donation Centre!)
4. A blood pressure cuff is pumped up and yours veins are examined for the best one.
5. When one is found it's go time! The needle, which is only slightly larger than the one used to take blood for a blood test is gently inserted. Trust me when I say it is gentle. These are nice big veins and you hardly feel a thing. 
6. You sit for around 10 minutes, gently opening and closing your fist to keep the blood flowing
7. The needle is removed, a lovely plaster is applied and you lie quietly for a couple of minutes.
8. Time for tea and biscuits. Whoop.
9. Take it easy and feel like a good person

Please know that your blood is treasured. Whether it is given to a patient in dire need or to incredibly clever scientists and doctors. It is just so important. I cannot implore you to give blood any more. Although I have been known to bully people into giving blood so if I see you in the near future....

Perhaps if you are a little nervous pop in with a friend. A little hand holding and cuddles afterwards. It is good for the soul. Or if you fancy donating in a few weeks time I would happily come with you. How about we all go together? We can go for virgin cocktails afterwards. Ooo now that's a plan.

If you’re physically able to give blood do please try to make time, it can literally make you a lifesaver. We would love it if donating blood became a regular habit for you, something that is done on a regular basis without giving it a second thought. If you can’t donate then please continue this campaign by asking all those you know who can to make an appointment – ask them to do it now… today, not when they get round to it. 

If you feel that you are ready to donate blood, please go to the Give Blood website to find your nearest blood donor session. I have an amazing friend Nikki (who creates rather sweet stationery with Tickled Pink) who donates every month. If she can do it once a month, you can do it once a year.

The blood service put it best, 
"You won’t miss it when you give it; but patients could miss it if you don’t. Do something amazing and save or improve up to three lives by giving blood."

Go on do something amazing. Please.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Goodbye Richard

Richard! James! Stuart! Thomas! was always the call from downstairs at my in-laws home. My mother in law definitely wanted to speak to one of her boys but it always took her a few goes before she got to the right one. I guess that's what happens when you have five children. Indeed I often found myself referred to as one of the boys. My sister-in-law usually escapes the boy label. However, it becomes second nature to answer the call after a while. 

Sadly, one of her boys died last week. Most people would write, lost, at this point. For me, I think because I was a doctor, in another life, I find euphemisms for death upsetting. I don't think they lessen the blow, I think they confuse and don't honour the dead. 

Yes, Richard died last week. It still doesn't feel real. I imagine it won't for some time. He died suddenly and without his family. We were arriving en masse to his parents' house to celebrate his brother's 40th birthday. I truly hope there was, a caring nurse or medical student, someone with him holding his hand in his final moments. I'm sure we'll never know but I have to believe people were caring for him when we could not.

I first caught sight of him in my first term at University. He came down to see how his little brother was coping in the big city (it was certainly a big change for Bean!) and they went to the Millennium Dome and the human body exhibition. Whilst Bean and I were an item, I'm sure I was far too much of a scaredy cat to actually meet him. "What happens if he doesn't like me?!?"

It probably wasn't until Christmas of 2001 when I met him properly. I have no recollection of our first meeting (I was mostly drunk because I was so nervous!). I guess he always seemed like he was a bit too mature for my silliness. How wrong was I!

Luckily, for me, over the years I saw him more and more. He truly became the older brother I'd always wanted, he wanted to protect me from my ills but he also made sure I was in my place by teasing me relentlessly. I hope he saw me as the little sister he never had the pleasure of menacing as a child.

Some of my favourite memories of my wedding are with him centre stage. He was a trooper on the day and I really never thanked him enough. I guess you never can. I don’t believe in heaven and I’m not at all spiritual but I hope he is at rest (oh, he could sleep anywhere) or tucked up with his Economist and some ridiculous cat videos. I can hear him chortling away now.

Over the past few months it’s been incredibly hard for Bean and me. All of Bean’s family have been unbelievably amazing but Richard was always the first to send me a message, the most hideous flowers (it was like he was ordering from a blind florist!) and the tackiest trinkets. He knew how to make me smile when no-one else could and whether that were by luck or design I’m so sad I will never be able to return the kindness. Or at least recycle some of his hideous gifts. I have resolved raise a glass to him every year on his birthday in one of the ugliest glasses in world. Thank you Richard, now I can never throw it away, you utter beast!

I last saw him at the start of May for Bean’s birthday. He was full of smiles. He’d just been to the trampolining caves in North Wales. That was Richard, always doing the weirdest and awesomest things. While most people exist, he lived. It’s such a cliche but he did so much, explored the world. His passport must be full. His facebook was a gallery of joy. His life was joyful. He had wonderful friends and a family who loved him so dearly.

I think only family can truly tease each other without malice and how I used to tease him about his crazy choice of a dishwasher over a washing machine. Why, Richard, why?! He loved to tease me about becoming a crazy cat lady. Hardly a stretch of the imagination! He added something special to my life. I’m grateful he introduced me to Punchdrunk, that he tolerated my drunken singing (for a bit) and my clumsy attempts at setting him up with girls and that if a corny pun was needed that he was on hand to serve it.

He was and always will be one of the dweebiest, silliest, clever men I will ever know. He knew and had an opinion about everything. I will never win an argument against him. People think Bean is bright, Richard was in another league. Whilst I giggled at cat pictures, he examined the world. Perhaps that will be a little legacy to me. I will try and look outside my computer once in a while. Breathe in the world he observed so clearly.

Grief is relatively involuntary and methodical although it affects everyone at different speeds. At present I can’t get past the thought that he will never be a father. It breaks my weak heart. His children, oh my, they would have been so loved, so wise and a little bit weird. I guess we are all mourning the loss of a future. A future that was meant to be so bright.

Whilst I'm not sure if Bean and I will ever have children and I'm not sure whether we will name any Richard or Richardetta (he would have loved that!) I am sure they will know their Uncle Rich, he will smile down at them from our walls and our hearts.

He was one of life’s good guys. Oh how we need the good guys. Most of you will never have met him but without him the world is a little bit more dark. However, as Banksy (of all people) says, 
“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
And I know that his name will be called again by his mother, calling all her boys together. I hope she always mistakes them for Richard so he's never far away. It may bring tears but his memory will also always bring a smile. 

I love you. I miss you. I will try and look after your brother for you. I promise.

Sleep well my darling xxx