It’s my birthday tomorrow. Yes, thank you. I appreciate it.
To be honest, birthdays don’t tend to put me up or down too much these days. It’s nice to have it remembered and to be greeted. I pretty much have everything I want so I’m never hanging to have some great wish or desire fulfilled. So, yeah, happy birthday to me, for when it comes. Fifty-nine, though. How on earth did that happen?
The purpose of this post is not to mull over birthdays. It’s to try to set down a thought or two about those other kind of anniversaries. The less welcome ones.
On Wednesday, it was a year since my elder brother, Michael, died. In that year I have missed him very much. You possibly know how that goes. There seem to be waves of loss. Sometimes it is a dull thing that drains some colour from the world. Sometimes it is a vibrant thing that colours everything. And sometimes you forget that he has gone and you think to phone him up and see how his solar panels are performing or how the birds in the back garden are. Those last ones are almost the worst.
Then along came the anniversary.
There have been anniversaries before. Mum and Dad, Una and Penelope, my wife’s beloved sisters, and I felt I had some measure of them and how they go. They are sad days, tempered by perhaps meeting other members of the bereaved cohort for a small ceremony and maybe a cup of tea. Days when we remember a little more keenly and hug each other a little tighter, in the memory of the beloved person who has gone before us.
So I had known what to expect from this anniversary. Hugs, tea, memories shared. Or should I say, I thought I knew. None of these things that I thought I knew prepared me for what it actually turned out to be.
I loved Mum, Dad, Penelope, and Una dearly and I miss them always and hold them close in my heart. Their anniversaries are sad, special days. But Michael’s anniversary came in differently for me. How was it, really? It was like a storm, on the horizon. A storm of loss, bewilderment, anger, and sadness. And it loomed in the days before the anniversary and it became a little bit consuming.
Michael was my brother. He was always there, ever since I was a stupid baby, right up to when I was a nearly fifty-eight-year-old husband and father. He was one of the very few solid foundations I felt I had in my life. No argument could shake him. No challenge could make him less steadfast. He was a guide wire and a safety net. If I should ever fall, he would catch me and pull me back up before I hit the ground.
And here’s what I learned. The days around the time he died were somehow strangely anesthetised by shock and horror and the need to make arrangements and do things and say things and turn up at places and talk and sympathise and accept sympathy. A year later, there was none of that. There was only the awful loss, writ large in my mind.
Don’t get me wrong: I didn’t throw myself to the floor or offer any histrionics to the world; I carried on as always. I was just so damned sad and lonely. I hadn’t expected any of that. I hadn’t invited it in. It was just there waiting for me.
The day itself was not so bad. The lovely, tiny ceremony in the summer drizzle at the beautiful place by the lake. The seeing of people who shared the loss. The tea in the back garden. All these little things made the day better and somehow easier to bear. It was those days before, in the lead up to the anniversary of the loss, it was those that hit surprisingly hard.
And, in learning this, I learn a little empathy, or at least I hope I do. When Una and Penelope’s anniversaries come around again, I will know a little more about what it is to mourn a sibling that is departed. I hope I will be a little more aware of just what is going on and a little more supportive as we go through it together.
Fifty-nine tomorrow and every day is still very much a school day.
And not all of the lessons are easily learned.