Saturday, February 19, 2011

Goodbye my brother

Alan, the Sunday cricketer

I grew up, to all intents and purposes, an only child. Both my brothers and my sister were much older than I. My mother confessed to me once, that she had worn black throughout her pregnancy with me because she was ashamed that people would know that she and my father were still having “relations” at the age of 45. When I asked her, on another occasion whether she ever enjoyed having “relations”, she shrugged her shoulder and said “well, your father seemed to enjoy it”.

It was a different time. It was more than half a century ago. My brother Alan and his family would come to visit every Sunday for lunch. He was a sporting type – good at all of them. He would fashion a cricket bat out of a plank of wood, and to my horror, we would all have to stand around playing cricket after lunch.

It was awful. I always managed to get injured in one way or another. Either I would collide with someone in a catch (which I would inevitably miss); or the ball would hit me in the eye; or the wicket would mysteriously jump up and hurt me; or the dog next-door would bite me when I would be sent to fetch the ball. It was always the same.

And Alan would be kind and encouraging. I was after all, a disappointing wimp. He was well aware of the fact that I would have preferred to be playing the piano or reading a book. He simply could not understand it, so there I was, forced to play that dreary bloody game Sunday after Sunday.

He was what was called “a man’s man”. He was big and muscular and from the pictures I have seen of him, very good looking in his youth. A sportsman, who got honours for this and credit for that. He was smart as well. He effortlessly passed school and part time university. He became a chartered accountant, passing his board exam the first time around, with flying colours. He went into business, made a million or two and looked like he was headed for the top.

My mother was never convinced. “Why does he always need to talk in telephone numbers, when it comes to money?” she would ask. She wasn’t impressed with his bragging, or his penchant for the finer things in life. She thought, correctly, that most of it was a sham.

It didn’t stop him living in big houses and driving expensive cars. It didn’t stop him developing a drinking and a gambling habit which nearly sank his family and himself. He was a flawed personality, but he was also extraordinarily affable. And he got by on that affability. People liked him, were drawn to him. He could sell ice to Eskimos. When you listened to him talk, you would believe what he was saying, whatever it might be.

And that was, of course, in many ways his downfall. He got to depend on his mouth and his personality and to get by on reliance on both. I saw him drunk out of his mind and talking nonsense on many an occasion. But I also saw him sober and kind. As a child, he taught me how to make a kite out of dowel sticks, string and tissue paper. He took me on holiday with his family more than once. He was very kind to me.

Then I went to university, and became (I think) too wild for him, because we drifted apart. He came to stay with me once, some years later and ran up a massive telephone bill and then disappeared without settling it. And that, besides his son’s wedding 12 years ago, was the last I saw of him.

We became strangers. We shared the same DNA, but nothing else. Not ideas, nor politics, nor philosophy, nor pain, nor joy. Two weeks ago, when it became clear that he was dying of renal failure, there was an opportunity to go and see him in Port Shepstone with my other siblings. I declined. I declined not because I had any particular problem with him, but because it simply felt completely inauthentic to rush to his bedside when he was dying, but to have had nothing to do with him, for most of his life – as he had nothing to do with mine.

Was I wrong? Should I have gone, just to “do the right thing?” Should I have just pretended and just dealt with my feelings of fraudulence? I am sure that there are some who will argue that I should have. But I say this. He was my blood brother. That was really all he was. He did a couple of kind things to me when I was a child. That was all. We had nothing more in common than the fact that we made our appearance into the world through the same aperture and caused by the same natural process.

But we were no more connected in life than I am with the person sitting opposite me in the train on the way to work. We had a certain, vague familiarity, but no commitment. That was the choice we both made, for whatever reason.

And so, I would now consider my family to be others. Some of them might be blood relatives, but most of them are not. They are the people that I need, and who need me. They are those who have bothered to engage with my life and whose lives intersect with mine. They live in my house and they live in my heart. They are bound to me in ways so complex and layered that I cannot even start to disengage or disentangle. They are my family, and in more instances than not, they have no genetic relationship to me at all.

So, Alan, I thank you for being kind to me when I was a child. I wish we had been more to each other than we were, throughout our lives. But it would be false to pretend otherwise.

May you rest now from your labours, from your trials and struggles and the demons you faced in life and as you approached your death. Goodbye, my eldest brother. Goodbye.

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