The London Metropolitan police rang at 2pm on 6th February 2009.
I had been looking out of my drawing room window across Killala bay and thinking what a beautiful, calm day it was. The sea was a sheet of light grey-pink glass. Bartra, the uninhabited island that separates our small bay from the Atlantic glowed white along its edges, the tall rushes of grass on its dunes like soft, creamy mohair in the distance. I was feeling lucky when I picked up the receiver.
“Your brother Tom is dead.”
Tom was troubled and we had a difficult relationship. There was less than a year between us in age and he was the first person I remember loving. We knew each other side out – we adored each other yet - we were not speaking when he died.
I was devastated by his death; flattened, depressed.
Veteren grievers told me of their two year deadline.
“It was two years before I could pick out a gravestone.”
“ - two years before I could say their name out loud.”
“- two years before I cried a tear.”
“- two years before I could walk into a church .”
“- two years before I was able to laugh again.”
I didn’t believe them and yet - two years after that February morning, the universal truth about death revealed itself to me: life goes on.
It was spring in Killala after the worst winter I could remember. Much of workaday hedging at the side of our house was killed by frost, but the most beautiful flowers and shrubs survived. The frost thinned out the crowded daffodils on my front lawn, and rewarded me with a yellow band of colour and the bluebells had turned the ignored wasteland of trees and scrub at the back of our garden into a magical woodland. The lilac and hawthorn interrupted my daily trips to the composter with a sweetness that made me stop and smell the air. My peony roses were budding by March and the gooseberries seemed almost big enough to harvest – a full month earlier than previous years. The worst winter, in my lifetime at least, cleansed and transformed my garden.
If I think back to the day Tom died and the weeks after his death, I am carried back to the moment and tears begin streaming down my face. I wish he had never died, I wish he would come back – sometimes – in my darkest moments, I still wish I could join him.
Most of the time, however, I am Kate again – writer, mother, wife, and the woman I was before it happened. I am a person who knows what it is to lose a brother but I am no longer solely defined by it. The trauma, the drama, the terrible pain of losing my brother has become absorbed into who I am. I have accommodated it. I have gone from somebody who did not know what it was to lose a loved one, into someone who does. In that sense, his death has added to my live, his loss has given an extra dimension to who I am.
I don’t know what I believe any more in the way of heaven and spirits and God, but I do know that it doesn’t really matter what I believe.
All that matters is the universal truth; alive or dead, people live in our hearts. When they die they are alive only in how much we love them and honour them and remember them.
They can be spirits, floating about waving their invisible hands in front of our faces, sending us messages from beyond the grave but if we don’t look, we won’t see them.
They can be simply gone, flesh and bone under the ground, grey dust - ashes on the wind, but human love is consistent whether we believe in spirits or not.
A photograph, a recollection, a family resemblance in a small child’s face can keep our dead alive through memory and the feeling of loving them.
Time heals and then it asks us to believe that if love is all there is – what does it matter if those we love are actually dead? If the love stays alive, surely that is the most important thing. Because nothing is more tragic than the death of love and one thing I have learned is that death makes good love stronger.