I don’t think of you as often as I should. In fact I’m not even sure when it was you died, and the memories I do have of you are mostly about you dying. I can picture us running on a beach one day, in the false sepia tone of a memory I feel I must have taken from a photograph… but mostly you have gone – an odd, blank void in a memory that I’ve otherwise packed full of colour, and happy days that my memory has probably trickily stitched together from disparate moments of childish bliss.
But I do remember long hot summer afternoons watching motes dance in the sun that came in shafts through the window of the bedroom we shared – you on the bottom bunk, me on the top (I was the eldest, after all). You would have been sleeping on your side, as you often did during what I imagine was your last year, and I would have been sitting with my back to the wardrobe, listless, probably bored. Wishing you would get up and do something with me. I don’t know whether you ever even managed to ride a bike without stabilisers or learn to swim.
And of course, you couldn’t get up. You were always dying – for as long as I knew you. Sometimes weeks would pass when you were away, in hospital somewhere. I’m sure you were sent to London as our parents sought ever more desperately for options to save you. I remember something about your spleen in particular being a big deal for everybody. Perhaps that was a last, desperate roll of the die for you.
I know you were away a lot, because I was often at Flea’s house, under the watch of Flea’s fat, fussy mother and her huge, beaming face. She’s still alive and looks more like Tom Bombadil with every passing day, but Flea’s dad died suddenly a couple of years ago, and he himself has had a minor stroke. As if by some piece of circular logic, his kids now go to school with your nephew and niece.
We stayed up late to watch Live and Let Die in front of their fire during the Spleen Incident and it was a happy time for me, but I’ve seen the photographs of you in hospital beds – smiling even though the beds look uncomfortable with their thin mattresses and tangled sheets and white, tubular frames. I can imagine exactly what it would sound like to rap a coin on those frames – a hollow musical ‘thunk’ – but I can’t imagine at all what it would have been like for you to lie there for days at a time drinking lukewarm orange juice from the plastic jug on the table next to you in those photographs.
Perhaps I don’t want to imagine. I’ve never known whether you were in pain, or whether it was all just a minor inconvenience to you until the end at least – like a broken leg that nagged because you wanted to be up and about and playing football like the rest of us; chasing 99p ‘flyaway’ plastic footballs laughingly down the fields.
I think, though, that you were probably were in pain. How could you not have been? Leukaemia is an ugly word and sometimes I go to read about it on the internet, but it is full of long, equally ugly words about failing organs and bleeding, and a gamut of infections and painful overgrowths. I suspect I actively avoid it.
Today, the survival rates still aren’t particularly great – and I can only think they’d have been worse in the early 1980s. Mum and Dad must have known what was coming, but I imagine they would have kept it from you because they were great at shielding us all from pain. I had a brain tumour almost 6 years ago now. It must have been growing for a decade before that because of its size. It made me behave in odd ways and brought a lot of trouble for me because of my behaviour during that time, but the thing that stands out most from that time is that mum almost collapsed when she heard the diagnosis. She and Dad must really carry that burden deep. As a parent, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like for her
On the night you died, Grandma and Grandad D were babysitting me. I was making them watch Knight Rider. I remember Grandad was smoking a lot, and there had a huge wooden bowl full of nuts in to which he would reach, and pull out one to crack with a great metal nutcracker that otherwise only ever came out at Christmas. I remember in particular because the smoke and the nut dust kept irritating my eyes (remember how bad my nut allergy was back then?) Mum and Dad came in and at first I thought they were laughing. I think even asked what was so funny.
But then one of them – I think Mum – said “Richard’s dead” through her tears. I remember how the words echoed in my head, and being hugged and cuddled, but also watching Knight Rider through my tears over someone’s shoulder (it was a particularly great episode). I guess I was somehow short-circuited. Or maybe just too young to really understand the finality of death.
And then I remember being asked if I wanted to go to your funeral and saying ‘no’. Everyone came to the house, dressed in black coats, with polished shoes, and great hats with black gauze that fell over the ladies’ faces. Mostly aunts and uncles I imagine – but I’ll never know now. I hazily recollect an awful tension before everyone left, and that Gran C stayed behind with me, and she and I watched television together while they were burying you up at the churchyard – in one of the newer plots at the far end, and not amongst the crazily-angled and briar-tangled headstones of Victorian vintage nearer the church.
I guess everyone went back to the church hall afterward and the women would have busied themselves with the buffet while the men stood and smoked in the kitchen, clutching dimpled pint pots full of dark, foamy beer, and eventually the mood would have lifted from sombre reflection to the ritual exchanging of memories – handed from one to another like highly polished artifacts. I imagine that perhaps Uncle Dave or Uncle Ian would have been the first to raise a laugh, and eventually Dad would have joined in.
One of my strongest memories is after you were gone. Christmas Day. Santa Claus bought me a Raleigh Grifter – a huge, bronze bike that seemed to weigh a million tonnes. I knew that it was a hand-me-down from our Andy because we couldn’t afford a new one and the wear and tear was obvious. But I hid all that to make sure that Mum and Dad knew I was delighted with it anyway and that I’d never actually wanted a Mongoose or a PK Ripper. But then, I heard Mum crying in the kitchen and Dad comforting her.
Stupidly, I thought it was because they were ashamed to have only been able to give me a second hand bike, and ran in to reassure them that it was the greatest bike ever. And of course, they smiled and tousled my hair and said they were glad.
And of course, with the hindsight of years, I now know that they were crying because you weren’t there – and that Christmas was, and is, the time they miss you the most. A constant, nagging hole that I can’t even imagine contemplating as a parent.
But time moves ever onward.
You have a nephew and niece now, and I talk to them sometimes about you. I’ve even promised that they can come with the graveyard with me one day to visit you. You have two sisters too – and through one of them you have another couple of nieces. Neither of them has any recollection of you at all. The eldest of yours sister was only a few months old when you died, and the youngest probably 10 years after that.
In fact, the number of people who do remember you is dwindling steadily year by year. Grandad D died almost around the same time as you (poor Mum)… followed by Gran C, Grandad C and, finally, Gran D just the other year.
I look at our parents now and while they are still incredibly active and alive, at some point in the next 15-20 years they will likely be gone – as will our uncles and aunts. Already there are little intimations of frailty – Auntie M’s ceaseless back problems… Uncle D’s legs… the visits lessening in frequency… the years measured in sagging pockets of thinning skin and clouds of greying hair. None of them smoke any more (but Auntie M’s trifle is still made with a good pint or so of sherry).
And so I hope one day to sit down with Mum and Dad and get a more concrete sense of your life before it is too late. They seem to be at peace with your memory these days.
And after that? There may well only be me left with any direct memories of you at all. And those mainly from a handful of photographs and those fragmentary recollections of fleeting moments with you from 35 years ago or more.
Until then, you are still remembered. You come up in conversation every Christmas, and there are three photo albums that get passed around. One of them is stuffed full of clippings from the paper when Mum was still collecting for leukemia charities. Another contains a yellowing note from the school newsletter – they used to give out an award in your name every year to a child who’d shown great bravery (I used to hope I’d get the award one year, but I never did anything particularly brave).
There are pictures of you in an Easter bonnet, with a ridiculous grin spread across your face. The pair of us sat on a concrete wall with Dad that looks a lot like a penguin enclosure at a zoo (zoos have changed a lot since your day). Me as a toddler holding you as a baby on the ludicrously-patterned car rug that apparently accompanied us on every family trip between 1975 and 2002. Even on the one photograph of you in hospital, you are grinning. Whatever the sad, painful moments you endured, the images of you that remain reflect one thing: happiness.
Anyway. I hope this missive finds you well. I just wanted you to know that you are still remembered and still loved.