I was ten weeks pregnant when my brother died suddenly in London. It was a beautiful day in Killala. The tide was in and the sea was as still as glass. The phone call came in at 2pm on 6th February 2009 from the metropolitan police in central London. Tom lived alone, and had been found by a neighbour that morning and taken to the coroner’s office. I threw the phone down and started to howl like a trapped dog. My husband picked up the receiver and hurried out of the room. When he came back he carefully gathered me back into myself and we did what had to be done before making the journey into Ballina to tell my mother that her only boy - her magical, musical son - had died of a haemorrhage.
Over the coming days the family gathered and were swallowed by the vast wave of sympathy and support that happens when you lose somebody in Ireland. People bought us hot dinners, filled our kitchen with cakes and apple tarts. Old school friends of my mother’s distracted us with anecdotes; new friends of mine fed and entertained my son. Our husbands stood sentry over all of us women. The usually noisy, overpowering feminine gaggle of our female-heavy family now muted by grief, they quietly took care of our business and prayed they’d get us back soon and in one piece.
Like many second-generation Irish families, ours is divided. I have always felt more Irish than British, and have worked and lived in Ireland for almost twenty years. My mother moved back to her Mayo birthplace after she retired, and my younger sister and her family followed her while my other sister and one brother stayed in London. Tom never understood the appeal of rural Ireland. He spent every spare moment exploring the galleries and concerts and museums of London. He sucked up the culture of his city and sent us postcards from the Tate Modern telling us about some wonderful exhibition we must see. Up to our elbows in work and nappies, we never took much notice of his pleas to expand our cultural horizons. But when the time came we knew that London was the only place Tom would rest in peace.
My two sisters and I went into overdrive organising the funeral. The English don’t really “do” funerals - and there was two weeks between Tom’s death and his burial. So we used that time to give our only brother the ‘wedding he never had.’ We tracked down school and university friends. We catered and flower-arranged and designed orders of service: we organized and bossed and bickered, three capable control freaks trying to distract and demote our shock and grief to a more manageable size.
My younger sister, who was early for her own wedding, managed to get us to the church almost a full hour before the funeral service began. We sat on the wall outside Our Lady of Dolour’s, Hendon, our childhood church, (where Tom had been an alter boy and tortured us into giggling while taking communion) and marvelled at the mild, sunny day that was in it. We were able to greet everyone as they arrived, and all agred that the early arrival had been a blessing. There was a huge turnout. “More like an Irish funeral than an English one” an author friend of my mine commented. People travelled from Ireland but from all over London too. Our oldest and closest English friends were there for us, and bought back memories and feelings I thought I had left behind. An old friend, (the great love of his life) organised the music, a cellist played his favorite piece, and members of a Westminster choir he sang with came, bursting quite unexpectedly and gloriously, into the Gospel acclamation. Although burials in England are generally private, family only affairs, we invited the entire congregation up to the grave where we made them stand and say a decade of the rosary. I met friends of Toms that I had never met before and was reassured that he was loved and cherished by a wide circle of good people, living the life of a single man in Central London – a world away from his hen-pecking bossy Irish older sister.
All in all it was a wonderful funeral. Full of old and new friends - and every moment drenched in love. In that one-day that we buried him, we also bought him back to life with stories and laughter and music.
Then came the hard bit. Back to normal life – away from the distraction of sandwiches and seeing friends and the suspension of life that death brings – it hit me. He’s gone. Oh My God – my baby brother Tom is dead. I had become temporarily lost in the drama of his death, the constant reassurances from kind religious, the comfort of being with my mum, aunt and sisters every day – but back in my own life I struggled to accommodate my overwhelming grief. Some stupid tune we once danced to at a Catholic youth club disco came on the radio and I slid down my kitchen wall, sobbing.
Nothing anyone said seemed to help. “He’s at peace now.” “I don’t want him to be at peace,” I felt like screaming, “I want him back, my unreasonable, annoying brother so that I can finish the last row we had – and even let him win it!”
“He’s with you all the time, ask him for a sign,” spiritual friends said, but try as I did, I couldn’t feel him. I couldn’t grasp Tom as an ethereal floating ghost. He was a solid, chunky, visceral presence - except when he played music. Then he existed on another plane. And so I set the car radio to Lyric FM and let my brother send me messages though music. But the only message he ever sent me was “I’m dead – and I’m never coming back.” Every five minutes I was looking for a lay-by to pull into and weep.
My husband, my rock who had been so supportive, so strong and silent throughout - began to waiver. I could sense his exhaustion with my unprompted crying jags and relentless sadness. Grief is a frightening thing to live with, especially when your sleepless red-eyed wreck of a wife is carrying your baby.
He was worried by the way his usually sturdy wife was unravelling. I was worried myself. So I did what I generally do when I am really worried about something, which was take a deep breath and get busy. I knew I wasn’t ready to start writing again, so I threw myself into organising a couple of charity events. I put on my lipstick, got myself blow-dried to within an inch of my life and faced out into the world. Let’s reign in the horses and turn this chariot around, I said to myself. I spoke at a book lunch in aid of Ballina Arts centre and everyone marvelled at how great I was doing. In the moment I was being bombarded by admiration and approval, I felt good. But as soon as I was alone, out of sight, the empty grief washed over me again.
Niall announced our pregnancy on Facebook.
“I’m going to be a dad,” he said.
“Does Morag know?” my sister replied from London.
Everyone laughed. Everyone was delighted for us. People made the connection between Tom’s tragic death and this new, growing life. I grabbed onto the idea that my pregnancy might became the antidote to Tom’s death. “My brother died but hey! Guess what? I’m pregnant.” The joy of new life cancelling out the messy awkwardness of unwelcome grief. I had waited for this second pregnancy for seven long years and, in my mid forties, it had been as unexpected as the tragic events that followed it. Although I tried to be cheerful and push myself forward, I was frightened by my lack of control – and not just over the event of my brother’s death. The feeling of helplessness was spilling over into the pregnancy. In its early stages I had been shown how terrible, unexpected things could happen to people we love. Just a year older than Tom, my life, as far back as I can remember, had been defined by my “taking care” of my younger brother. Right or wrong, as the eldest child I had always felt a sense of responsibility towards my younger siblings – especially Tom. He was artistic, vulnerable, the only boy – a special, talented person. I had always believed myself to be his keeper – where in reality I was just a controlling bossy older sister. Now that he was dead I could not help but feel I had failed him. I didn’t want to be in charge of anybody any more and yet here I was taking the ultimate responsibility for another human being. This growing being was inhabiting me, dictating what I could and couldn’t eat, giving me chubby arms and legs and a swollen stomach, taking over my body with the same insistence that Tom’s death had taken over my emotions.
Last week we went for a private scan - one of these state of the art 3D jobs, where the baby actually looks like a real human being instead of a black and white blur. I wanted the three of us to bond with the baby. Mostly though, I wanted to find out the sex so I could feel in control again. Pick a name, decorate the nursery: I wanted to stop pretending to be happy when I was, in fact, just terrified and angry and sad. In a selfish recess at the back of my mind I was hoping for a girl: someone who would grow into a strong woman who would hold me up when bad things happened. A daughter to do what we girls had done for our mother: take me to the hospital when my hips need replacing, break bad news to me. Boys were too painful, I had decided. They abandon you by marrying bad women – or die before their time.
Leo, our seven year old, sat up on my husband’s knee and gazed at the screen as the baby came into focus. I watched it’s limbs and features writhe around slowly as if it was on a TV screen. The radiographer cooed and chatted and eventually said, “It’s a boy.” My husband looked at me nervously as I let out a muted cry. “Have you got a name for him yet?” the lady asked Leo.
“Tom,” he replied without hesitation, “after my uncle who died.”
“I lost my brother recently,” I explained.
“I’m sorry,” she replied – but I could hear the silent append, “Still never mind, you’re having a baby eh?”
And then it happened. I saw the unborn boy push his legs against the walls of its watery sack. As I felt the familiar kick I realised, for the first time, that this small life we had made was as inevitable and uncompromising as my brother’s death had been. This child would be born, in September and I would love him with the same passion that I love our other son. And that love would expose me to the same pain I had felt at losing my beloved brother – but it would also enrich my life in so many ways – even if I was in too much pain to imagine them right now.
With the certainty of our new son’s coming I felt – not the untrammelled joy I’d been hoping for – but a small measure of acceptance and yes, a little hope.
We took Leo to Macdonald’s to celebrate and I rang my mother to tell her the news. She was thrilled.
“You know Tom adored his sisters,” she said, “but he always longed for a brother.”
For a fleeting moment, I felt he was there.