On the 25th December 1978 just before 4am my brother Michael asked Mum if he could have some more iced water. The men's ward was quiet as everyone was sleeping and so as mum walked back to his bed with his drink, she heard him die. He was 17 years old.
Michael had been born in Kenya on 3rd October 1961. I met him 5 years later when he and my sister were brought to the Belfast Hospital where I was born. Apparently my Mum said ‘There you are Michael you have someone to boss around now.” according to my Mum he said “and someone to kiss”
My brother was tall and blond and tanned whilst my sister and I are medium height, dark and pale. We don’t tan so much as freckle or burn. He exuded physical perfection which was why, when the symptoms of the heart and lung condition which would kill him first surfaced, they were missed.
The first time I noticed anything was wrong was our last holiday before my Dad left. We were walking and my brother kept stopping to rest. Then he gave up altogether. He went back to school and during a run in full CCF kit he’d started coughing up blood. Then he passed out.
The other boys found this “weakness” in such a handsome threat, a rich hunting ground for cruelty. They derived pleasure from letting him know that.
He went to the Dr who detected a heart murmur and referred him for tests.
As Dad left just before Michael was diagnosed, Mike did what he felt he had to do. He hid his symptoms. Fighting his exhaustion and breathlessness, he dug the garden and emptied the bins and cut the grass. He did have to he wanted to do all the things my dad had done.
He endured two cardiac catheterisations and when the Consultant got the results, the diagnosis was primary pulmonary hypertension and the prognosis was 10-15 years of eventual decline, then death.
They were doing some trials for some new drugs and procedures and Mike was included for the trial which was to begin in January 1979.
Had he lived he would have had a heart and lung transplant.
Mum was travelling to her job as a health visitor and Mike by now needed to be off school. He would get up and dressed before she left and then spend the rest of the day in bed. Then just before she was due home he would get up and act as though he had been up all day.
Mum asked for time off after the diagnosis. Her manager refused.
Because I was twelve and because this was the 70’s, nobody told me anything except the bare minimum. I knew he was in bed a lot and I knew he seemed much less patient than normal but aside from that nothing much. Apart from one conversation.
He said “I know you don’t like boys much at the moment but one day you will. Make sure you marry someone who loves you and looks out for you as much as I do”
I thought that was an odd thing to say at the time because he usually found me annoying, plus he always beat me in top trumps and chess and everything really.
Then just before Christmas he got a cold. He’d gone into town to buy Christmas presents. By Mum’s birthday on the 23rd December he couldn’t even sit up in bed to play chess with me anymore. I remember seeing the board with a single spatter of his blood after the ambulance took him to the hospital.
The thing that drove him crazy was not being able to play his guitar. He had taken it up and after 6 months his guitar teacher recommended that he have master-classes with legendary classical guitarist Segovia.
Listening to him play was one of my best and most vivid memories, especially the piece, Asturias which I've linked to.
The rest is a little hazy. Apparently this was shock. I remember them carrying him down the stairs by stretcher. I remember waking up at 4am on Christmas Day because I was sleeping in my mum's bed and the time was on the alarm clock.
I remember my sister waking me up and telling me it was Christmas Day and giving me my presents in Mum's room. I remember walking downstairs and seeing my mum. I remember collapsing when my mum told me she was sorry but that Michael had died. She was still wearing her coat. I remember that he had bought me a paint set, the only present he managed to get because he'd been so exhausted. I didn’t speak for 48 hours and just painted.
What I didn’t remember was seeing him for the last time in hospital. My sister told me last year. I had completely blanked it out. Apparently I’d been crying, so maybe that’s why.
Anyway he’d be fifty today. It would have been fifty years like the 17 he lived. With heart and compassion and integrity and wit and wisdom. There is a tendency to deify those who die young, to imbue the years lived, with unreasonable assertions of goodness.
I'm not doing that.
My brother was one of the best people I ever met. Happy birthday Mike.