Last week I turned forty-nine. A friend of mine who is nearly a year older, advised me that this year before I reach fifty, will go incredibly quickly. I’m sure she’s right. But to me life seems to have speeded up since I hit the big three zero. One minute I had a little baby boy, then I blinked, and he had turned eighteen. I can’t believe it is nearly twelve years since I gave birth to my daughter but then again, as she likes to remind me, I was very old when I had her.
I can remember my Grandma turning fifty as if it was yesterday and yet to me, a little girl of six, the age seemed ancient. My Grandma was always beautifully turned out but even then, fifty seemed a lifetime away. I certainly don’t feel that old. It’s quite nice to get compliments from people when I tell them I am nearly fifty and they seem surprised. Perhaps they are just pandering to me as they feel sorry for the elderly ?
Although I have lived for almost half a century, I am happy to turn fifty next year and there is a reason why. In 2013 my elder brother died at the age of forty-six from sudden death.
To this day no-one knows why he died. He went into work that day and felt a bit unwell. No one knows why, but he decided to go back to his car and sit there for a while. Half an hour later, someone noticed that he hadn’t moved and went to check on him. The emergency services were called but he’d already been dead for a while with no possibility of resuscitation. If he had remained at work, there was a possibility that he may have lived but that is mere supposition. The Post-mortem could find nothing wrong with him at all. He was tall, slim and healthy. One of my closest friends with a medical background, explained to me that sometimes death occurs when there is no reason. It’s a bit like a factory producing thousands of washing-machines. One day, one will just stop working for no reason whatsoever. Thus, it was with my brother. His heart just stopped and that was it.
When I first heard the news, I broke down immediately. Unless you have lost someone close to you, then you never know how you will react. In that moment I decided that I really wanted to see him. Perhaps it was my subconscious refusing to believe it? The next day we drove with my parents to Coventry Hospital and saw him in the mortuary. It was a huge shock seeing my brother lying motionless there. To me he had always been so full of humour and life and I was almost convinced that he was suddenly going to sit up and shout, ‘Ha ha! It was a trick and you fell for it!’
The nightmare never seemed to end. It wasn’t until two months later that we were finally able to bury him and say goodbye. Later that year I had to undergo a range of different tests at the Heart Hospital in Sheffield to see if he had died because of a hereditary heart condition. These tests were inconclusive. Additionally, there were all the firsts of mourning. Christmas that year was awful. I remember going into a local supermarket and being amazed that people were just getting on with their lives when my brother had died. A sales assistant tried to offer me a spray of perfume and I can remember saying,
‘How can you do this when Sean’s dead?’ It reminded me of that effect in films when someone remains still whilst all around people are moving swiftly getting on with their lives. About six months after his death, I was hit with severe depression and it was only when I started gardening that I managed to recover and heal. I’d be doing well, feeling better, when suddenly a song would come on the radio or I’d think, ’I must give Sean a ring and ask him what he thinks about last night’s Big Brother.’
Christopher Walken eloquently described losing someone close as,
“It’s like badly breaking an ankle that never heals perfectly, and that still hurts when you dance, but you dance anyway with a slight limp, and this limp just adds to the depth of your performance and the authenticity of your character. “
I’m a great believer in that what happens in life, happens for a reason and is part of teaching us important lessons. I see my brother’s death as being monumental in changing my view of life. I stopped doing things that weren’t making me happy. I started to find happiness in more simple pleasures such as my gardening and in being creative. He’d always nagged me to do a PhD. I looked into studying more and started to write. I’ve even written a novel and I’m now writing a sequel. I would never have felt that I had the time to do this before. I raised money for a memorial to my brother. I also helped contribute to a Joe Orton exhibition, as he was one of my brother’s favourite writers.
It was also lovely that people who had known Sean started to get in touch with me to pass on their condolences. Some of these people came back into my life or became my friends. It was only two weeks ago that yet another person who had been my brother’s classmate, got in touch with me. I like to think it is my brother’s way of reminding me that he’s still around somewhere.
When Sean first died, a friend sent me a condolence card and wrote in it the advice she had been given when she had lost someone close. It said quite simply, ‘Life is for the living.’ It took me several months to truly appreciate this sentiment and start putting it into practice. Every day that I have lived since the age of forty-six, I count myself very fortunate in that my brother never lived this long. So you see, that is why I’m glad to be forty-nine, five days and fifty-five minutes old and I’ll be even happier when I reach the big ‘five-O’.
Dr Sean W Straw 1967-2013