On grief

My younger brother, Wayne, died unexpectedly on 26 March. He had experienced difficulties with his general health for several decades, and yet, we did not expect him to die so suddenly. He lived on a public-housing estate near my mother’s house, and for more than twenty years he had eaten dinner at her table each night, arriving at the same time and leaving a half-hour later, having cleared his plate. On the night before he died, Wayne ate little of his dinner, explaining that he was not hungry, and left my mother’s house for the final time.

On the morning of my brother’s death, I walked into the front room of his flat and was greeted by two police officers, a man and a woman, both of them half my age. The female officer quietly explained that my brother was dead. I collapsed on the couch and cried. Eventually, one of them – I cannot remember who it was – asked if I could confirm for them that it was my brother’s body lying on the floor in the next room. As I stood up, the female officer took me by the hand. Wayne was on the floor in his bedroom and appeared to be sleeping. A copy of one of his favourite novels, Oliver Twist, lay open on his bed. For a moment, I convinced myself that he was simply resting between chapters.

Following the formal identification of my brother, I left him and walked the short distance to my mother’s house, dreading the thought of walking into her lounge room, overcome with the fear of not being able to cope with her grief. I’m sure I would now feel a sense of shame for my hesitancy had it not been for the fact that my two sisters and remaining two brothers quickly gathered at the house, where we shared the load of our collective grief and supported one another, as well as our mother, who has survived a life of tragedy that I cannot imagine coping with.

None of us can rehearse grief. It is an intangible force that comes into focus and disables us when we are least prepared to deal with it. In the days after Wayne’s death, I did not see my mother move from her recliner in the lounge room. She had been a regular visitor to my brother’s home, at least several times a week, ensuring he was safe and relatively well. She could not go back to his flat, but asked us to clean it and move his valuables to her house. Wayne had played music for almost fifty years, and kept four guitars in his house. We took them from the flat, along with his wallet and the Charles Dickens novel. Four days after his death, my two sisters and their partners returned to the empty flat with mops, buckets and disinfectants. My younger sister, Tracey, left a telephone message for me later in the day: ‘we’ve cleaned out the flat and it’s spotless’ was all she said. We have always been that way – ‘houseproud’, my mother would say – not out of a desire for a sense of respectability from others, but a stubborn pride we have in ourselves.

I took cuttings from a jade plant in my brother’s front garden. At home, I planted the cuttings in fresh soil. I hope that they live, so that in a year or so I will be able to present my brothers, sisters and mother with the life of a new plant. While putting the cuttings in the soil, I noticed that I was feeling quite warm and that my body was heavy. Both feelings stayed with me for the next week, including the day of Wayne’s funeral, a service that I was asked to coordinate after my mother had stated that nobody was to speak for my brother who had not known him. I did speak, as did several members of the family.

The day after my brother’s funeral, I went to the football and cheered and screamed mild abuse. My football team, Carlton, lost, not unexpectedly. After the game, I got on a crowded tram with the expectation of going home. Within a few minutes, my body felt so heavy that I thought I might fall through the floor of the tram. I also began to sweat. I got off the tram at the next stop and walked. My heart was racing. I concentrated on my breathing, and with each step I gradually calmed myself. I reached the Carlton Gardens and walked by the children’s playground. I stopped and sat down on a bench, finally realising that the past ten days had exhausted me.

During the 1960s, the piece of ground beneath the playground was a wide, shallow concrete bowl. On hot summer mornings during school holidays and weekends, a council worker would turn on several fire hydrants located on the edge of the bowl and fill it with water. In the following days, hundreds of inner-city kids would swim and splash around in the water until it became so murky as to be a health hazard. I played in what we called ‘the pond’ every summer for many years, along with my cousins, sisters and brothers, including Wayne.

My brother was born on 25 July 1961. He died on 26 March 2019. He was fifty-seven years of age. He began playing the guitar when he was ten years old. He loved The Beatles and early Rolling Stones music, and was a prolific reader of fiction and poetry. When Wayne was a young boy, his hair was a mass of honey-coloured curls, he had big, brown eyes and he wore a stunning smile. My brother was a beautiful boy.


Photo by Sweet Ice Cream Photography on Unsplash





Tony Birch

Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing, Father’s Day, Blood, The Promise and Ghost River. He is currently research fellow in the Moondani Balluk Academic Centre at Victoria University.

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