A Gift From My Brother

aneurysmToday is November 7, the anniversary of my big brother Stephen’s death.  Oh, don’t feel sad – it happened years ago, when I was seven years old.  But I’ll never forget that first Christmas without Stephen.

My parents put on brave faces for my sister and I; and we in turn played and chattered as only little children can, mostly for their sake.  Somehow, we understood they needed us to distract them.  But it was a strange, special, unspeakably sad and empty Christmas – until we began to open the presents.

We grew up in a very poor section of Glasgow.  There weren’t many Christmas presents – kids today have no idea how much fun you can have with a cardboard box; or how exciting a Christmas stocking is – if there’s nothing else but the woolen underwear your English grandmother always sends you.

One year, Stephen made our main presents – a doll’s pram for me, made with bicycle tires and a body constructed out of plywood; and a train for my sister.  Even when he didn’t have a penny, Stephen always came up with ingenious presents.

This year, we knew for the first time ever, there would be no present from Stephen. That made his death – which we perfectly understood even at age 7 and 6 – even more final.  But there had been none of the usual evidence that Stephen had started work on our presents (in a small tenement flat, there isn’t much privacy!)  My sister and I were prepared.

Only… on Christmas morning, there was a present from Stephen – complete with a tag, written in his beloved, familiar handwriting. When my mother went to Mr. Cochrane’s, the greengrocer’s, the last week before Christmas, he explained that that Stephen had been down-paying part of his sixpenny allowance every week, all year, in order to buy us both a real Christmas present that year.

I got a girl’s “annual” (book) I had been wistfully looking at in the window, many times; and my sister got a little tin windup horse and cowboy she had openly coveted.  (She called it “Rodeo”.)  Those presents survived for many years, until getting lost in the inevitable chaos of adult life.

That was the sort of person my brother was.  Ten years older than us, his life in Glasgow hadn’t been easy – when my parents first arrived in Scotland, Donald Fowler, the boy upstairs in our tenement, threw dog droppings at Stephen, and ridiculed him for his “sissy” English accent.  Gangs used to follow him around the Gorbals, tormenting him.

But my gentle, quiet brother had a mischievous streak that didn’t allow him to play “victim” for long.  By the time he died at age 15, he had a solid following of good friends, several broken-hearted old ladies he used to help, and a reputation as much for his incredibly funny wit as for his genuinely kind heart and quiet, rock-solid strength.

He died on November 7, two days after Guy Fawkes day. He’d taken us to see the Guy Fawkes bonfire on the local bombed-out tenement square; and afterwards he’d lit some of his famous home-made fireworks for us in the back green; but he’d had a bad headache, and wasn’t his normal, sunny self.  On the evening of November 6, he collapsed in the bathroom and was rushed to hospital. He died in the early hours of the morning of a ruptured berry aneurysm.  The sun went out in our lives for many years.

But now that I’m older, every Christmas is even more special.  I have a new generation to pass things like Stephen’s stories (and hopefully his kindness) on to…  I see him in my son, and in my grandson…  I tell my 7-year-old granddaughter wild stories, and her rapt face reminds me of how I felt, listening to Stephen’s magical bedtime tales.  But above all, Stephen left me with the gift of joy; an ability to be happy no matter what dog dirt life throws at me. (And it’s thrown a lot!)

prestwickIn the end, it’s not how someone we love died that is the big, defining, life-changing event; it’s how they lived.  You take a big part of them with you into the rest of your life, for better or worse, and after a while, you realize the veil is not that impenetrable.  All life is illusion.  What you loved – and still love – about them is the reality.

Well, like Stephen, I prefer to be happy, so let me reassure you that’s the last reflective, sad Christmas post you’ll see on this blog.  Sometimes, you need the sadness, however, to validate all that Christmas sweetness – to separate the phony sentiment from the real joy.

And I’m sorry if you’re offended by the painting, which I did, very cathartically, in art college… it upset me too at first.  But suddenly I realized, if you read it backwards – from bottom to top – Stephen comes “alive” again.  And that’s the way I remember him and honor him.  That’s the way I’ve tackled my whole life – refusing to be a victim; finding the way to approach painful situations with genuine joy and empowerment.

But if you’ve lost someone you love – and especially if this is the first Christmas alone you’re facing without them – please know one thing:  I’ll be saying a special prayer just for you on Christmas Eve; and again on Christmas morning.

And that goes double if you’ve never had a Stephen at all, and you are just alone.  May you find joy this season – the sort that’s not dependent on circumstances and events. That’s the gift I wish for you, with all my heart.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • Sphinn
  • del.icio.us
  • Facebook
  • Mixx
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Blogplay
  • Add to favorites
  • FriendFeed
  • Propeller
  • RSS
  • StumbleUpon
  • Technorati
  • Twitter
  • Yahoo! Buzz
Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.