Hi everyone. I’m now on the letter B of my A-Z of Mental Health Challenge. This post looks at bereavement.
I’ve chosen to write about bereavement today (10th February), because today is the fifth anniversary of my uncle’s rather sudden and untimely death.
My Uncle Alex
Alex is my Dad’s identical twin brother. When Alex left, he took the other half of my Dad with him. He helped my Dad to bring me up (despite my mother being around, but I’ll get to that in a later post), and my childhood memories are filled with wonderful adventures spent with my Dad, my uncle Alex and my cousin Stuart.
Although my Dad and Alex were two of eight children, they were the closest siblings. They had shared a childhood of horrific abuse, and neglect. More than that, they’d survived it together.
Their horrific start in life, didn’t stop them from loving unconditionally. My Dad and my uncle Alex always vowed that they would never be like their own parents. Their children would be loved and cared for – never beaten or starved as they were. They kept their promises. Where the majority of my other uncles and aunts became carbon copies of my grandparents, my Dad and Alex are the antithesis. They love their children and grandchildren without agenda. They love, for love.
The Division of Strength
My Dad was always the physically stronger of the two. He was the greedy twin, and was born a healthy weight; whereas Alex was born very small. My grandmother told us once that when the midwife asked her what she would name the twins, and she told her that the smaller one would be named Alexander; the midwife said “blimey! His name’s bigger than him!”
I’m not sure how he did it, but my uncle Alex soon caught up with my Dad in terms of physical size; and grew to be just under six feet tall. But throughout their childhood, my uncle Alex was very sickly; and seemed to always suffer common viruses more severely than my Dad.
Where he lacked in physical strength, Alex gained in emotional strength. My Dad has always had a ferocious temper (my opinion is, he has suffered from PTSD for the majority of his life, due to the abuse he suffered in childhood), and he became well known in the area as a force to be reckoned with. And like any true hard man, my Dad has never been a bully, and he has the respect of a lot of people in our town. He reminds me of the type of hard case you see in old movies – his strength could crush a thousand men, yet he can cradle a fragile baby without squeezing too tight.
My uncle Alex, although physically as strong as my Dad, he lacked the temper but made up for it in emotional strength. He was very level headed, and wasn’t a push over. My Dad fell prey to two horrid women, and because he’d been conditioned by my grandmother to believe he deserved to be mistreated; he was destroyed emotionally by his two marriages. Alex had a child with what I can only describe as a cheap slapper, and although it seemed he too had fallen prey to a predatory woman; he walked away from that relationship before she could completely destroy him.
A Father and Uncle in a Million
Alex maintained a strong bond with his son, Stuart. He wasn’t a weekend Dad, who’d look after his son half heartedly; while counting down the hours until he could offload him back on his ex. He put his everything into Stuart. Me, my Dad, Alex and Stuart would go swimming most Saturday mornings, and then we’d spend the rest of the day (and sometimes the night) back at Alex’s lovely home; playing Subbuteo, drinking cold lemonade from fancy glasses and watching films in front of the cosy open fire.
Needless to say, I became a total tomboy as a result of being brought up around strong male influences. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
On Sundays, Alex took Stuart to the dry ski slope. Stuart was a strong skiier and snowboarder from an early age, and went on to ski down Ben Nevis in Scotland, years later with his high school.
Alex was the person I turned to if I needed good, practical advice on anything. When I was being bullied by my first employer as an apprentice, Alex told me to just hang in there and ride it out. When I eventually lost my temper, and told the salon owner to shove my job where the sun doesn’t shine, I thought my uncle would be disappointed in me. But when I told him the full story of what had led me to lose my s**t, he said that in some situations I need to use the temper I inherited from my Dad. My Dad was in full support of what I did, and even rang my employer to give her a piece of his mind.
Dad and Alex were incredibly talented. My Dad is a brilliant painter and photographer (I keep trying to get him to pick up a paintbrush again, but he seems to have lost heart.) Alex was astonishingly good and sculpting things. He once made a snowman as high as his bedroom windows, and sculpted it into a work of art. It had a big smiling face, and one hand was waving at us. It was magnificent. I wish I’d had the foresight to ask my Dad to take some photos of it.
One winter, Alex made a sledge for Stuart from the frame of an old go kart. Instead of wheels, he cut down some old skis, and made sort of runners with them. There were two skis at the front, and they were attached to the steering wheel. I’ve seen sledges like this one in the shops since, but back in the early 90s, this sledge was something else. Alex would pick me up after school while my Dad worked, and he’d take me and Stuart to the local woods. There’s a big stately home in these woods, and at the front of it is a massive hill. We would hurtle down the hill on Stuart’s home made sledge, and all the other kids admired our vehicle.
Halloween was another time of year that Alex’s talents were showcased. Stuart’s costumes were always out of this world. Before you could buy Ghostbusters costumes in the shops, Alex made one for Stuart, using an old boiler suit and parts from an old vacuum cleaner. One year, Stuart came to a Halloween party as a character from Salem’s Lot. He was unrecognisable. Alex had used latex to sculpt a gruesome face (more gruesome than Stuart’s real face haha), and used face paints to complete the look. It was astonishingly realistic. Some where along the way, my Dad and uncle’s talents hadn’t been used to their full potential. I can’t help but wonder whether they would’ve made careers from their talents, had they had supportive parents to put them through college and university.
My Dad and Alex as 50-somethings
As my Dad and Alex reached their 50s, we all thought they’d start to slow the pace down a little. On the contrary, they seemed to up the ante. They took up fell walking, and would spend most of their weekends camping and walking in Derbyshire and Cumbria.
They took on the Old Man of Coniston, and shared a celebratory drink at the summit. They scrambled up the treacherous Helvellyn – a challenge I think they were a little under-prepared for. But nevertheless, they scaled it’s face and then laughed in it as they ambled back down to level ground.
All that walking and fresh air really did them the world of good, and they looked much younger than their years.
Great-Uncle, and Grandad Alex
My children and my Dad have an inseparable bond. And because of this bond, my uncle Alex treated my children like his own grandchildren. The sledge, which had once brought so much joy to my childhood, became a regular winter feature in my childrens’ lives.
Alex has grandchildren of his own, but because Stuart is in the Army, he didn’t get to see them as much as he would’ve liked. But when he did see his grandchildren, he doted on them. So my children were a substitute for him, when he couldn’t see his own grandchildren.
One day in around 2010, Alex came to my house, one tea time. He had an old Manchester United portable TV with him, that a work colleague was going to throw away. Knowing that my eldest son is an avid football and Manchester United fan, Alex immediately took the TV off his colleague’s hands.
He brought it to my house, and set it up in my son’s bedroom. We laughed and joked about how slow it was to tune the channels in, and my son was over the moon with his new present.
After Alex’s death, the TV broke. My eldest son was devastated. It was as if he’d lost another part of his Great-Uncle Alex. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, so I kept it in my spare room until my best friend persuaded me to let it go, some 3 years later.
14th January 2011
I was due to start working at the place I work at now as an agency employee. On Friday, January 14th 2011, I attended a short induction to prepare me for the following Monday’s start. When I got home, my husband was waiting in the front garden for me. My beloved uncle Alex had been diagnosed with cancer.
Anger seared through my windpipe. Why him? Why has this b*****d decided to pick on my uncle? The anger dissipated, and was replaced by hope. He was going to beat this. He’d fitted his own kitchen and survived his childhood. Cancer had well and truly met its match.
Alex had been feeling ill since around November 2010. He was in immense pain, and the pain radiated through his back. He went to his GP, and was prescribed some antibiotics – they’d diagnosed him with a chest infection. The antibiotics didn’t work, so he went to our local walk-in centre. They diagnosed him with pluracy, and prescribed more antibiotics.
Christmas came and went, and Alex was still no better. My Dad’s twin intuition kicked in, and he was agitated all through the Christmas period.
Around January 5th, Alex was taken ill at work. He was in too much pain to carry out his duties, so his employer called an ambulance. He was taken to a local hospital, and told that his chest infection was just taking a little longer to go away. Not satisfied with their diagnosis, Alex returned to work, picked his car up and drove himself to another hospital. Just half a mile away from the hospital, the pain became so unbearable, Alex had to stop his car in the middle of a dual carriageway.
His sudden stop had caused a tail back, and some of the other drivers got out of their vehicles to find out the source of the delay. Alex explained to them that he was too ill to drive, and some of the other drivers pushed his car to the side of the road and called an ambulance.
He arrived at the hospital, and was examined by a doctor in the Accident and Emergency Department. She was rather an obnoxious creature, who insisted that Alex was fit and well, and he was wasting their time. The truth was, Alex had never been a hypochondriac in his life. Instead, he was a no – fuss person, who hated being ill. Alex asked to see a different doctor. This doctor took the pain seriously, and admitted him to the medical investigations ward. They conducted a series of tests on Alex, and found his cancer.
The Enigma of Alex’s Cancer
I’m not sure whether this was Alex’s doing, but we weren’t informed of the severity of Alex’s condition. As far as we were concerned, Alex’s cancer was treatable, and he would be undergoing a cycle of Chemotherapy.
Everything seemed positive, and Alex gave us the impression that he was going to fight it with all his strength. Little did we know.
The Last Hello
I waited until Alex had been home from the hospital for a few days, before going to visit him. Armed with a bag of DVDs and some other bits and bobs, I walked the short distance to Alex’s house. I approached the front door, and glanced through the front window. There, sitting in his armchair was a very frail Alex. He had a friend over, visiting him. I waved to him through the window, and his friend took this as his cure to leave. I wasn’t sure why his friend felt he had to end his visit at the time, but now I know why.
My uncle’s friend, opened the door and let me in. I walked through to the living room, and choked back the tears. My lovely uncle had aged 20 years. His face was gaunt and sallow, and he’d lost a lot of weight. A walking stick was propped up against his armchair. The devastating truth hit me like a ton of bricks. My uncle was dying.
He was not at all impressed to see me. He launched into a rant about how the rest of our extended family hadn’t left him alone since his diagnosis, and he just wanted to sleep; but felt that no one was allowing him to rest. I was angry at my extended family. Their actions weren’t borne out of genuine love or concern, it was another way to compete with each other on who was caring for him the most. The eternal martyrs.
I listened as Alex offloaded his anger and desperation onto me. He was exhausted, and in excruciating pain. Reading between the lines, I think his anger wasn’t really directed at me, it was directed at me having to see him so ill and vulnerable. He was unable to eat, and he said he felt perpetually nauseous. The thing which haunts me to this day, and always will, is how his voice had changed. He didn’t sound like my uncle Alex anymore, and it unnerved me. Cancer was taking every aspect of him away from us.
After he’d finished telling me off for going round to visit him, I got up to leave. Alex rose unsteadily to his feet, and grasped his walking stick. He slowly walked with me to the door, all the while informing me of his busy new cancer schedule. “Tomorrow I have my first chemo treatment, then on Friday I have the McMillan Nurse coming. Then on Monday, I have…….” I cut him dead, mid sentence. I got the message. “I’ve listened to everything you’ve had to say. Don’t worry, I won’t come round and prevent you from resting. I’ll see you soon.” I looked through his tired eyes, and into him as I said those words. I hugged him tightly, and tried not to cry. “I love you.” I whispered in his ear. He gave my shoulders a short, tight squeeze.
This was the last time I ever saw my uncle Alex alive.
A Glimmer Of Hope
Shortly after my visit, Alex took to his bed and slept. And slept. And slept. He was prescribed Morphine for the pain, and had been advised that he wasn’t strong enough to begin his Chemotherapy.
He moved into Stuart’s old bedroom, so he could be closer to the bathroom. He started to feel stronger. He spent his days watching DVDs in bed, and planning his future. He felt he was winning the battle, and planned to take early retirement; once he’d had the all clear. He told my Dad in one of their daily telephone conversations that he couldn’t wait to resume their camping and walking weekends, and he felt he’d been given a second chance at life. “I’ve got away with it.” He practically sang down the phone. My Dad was ecstatic. He wasn’t going to lose his brother, after all.
The Cruelest Twist of Fate
On Wednesday, 9th February, my uncle Alex was rushed into hospital. He’d developed septicemia, and was burning up and hallucinating. The family gathered around his bed. His condition deteriorated rapidly. He began to fight his impending death, and what my Dad witnessed that night will haunt him forever.
In the early hours of Thursday, 10th February 2011, my uncle lost his fight. He was 56 years old. I awoke from a fitful night’s sleep to the news. I was numb. But my first priority was my Dad. I had to get him through this. I got my children dressed, fed and into school. I then ran home and tried to call a taxi to take me to my Dad’s house.
Back then I had a Pay As You Go mobile phone, and it had run out of credit. I ran to the top of my road, and into the payphone cubicle. As I was calling my taxi, I could hear a voice coming from the mobile phone in my pocket. Now what I’m about to tell you is the honest truth. I reached inside my pocket and retrieved the mobile phone. It was a flip-front handset, and you couldn’t make a call when the front was down, as the screen covered the keyboard. To unlock it, you had to flip the screen up. When I looked at the phone, the screen was covering the keyboard, but it was still trying to dial out. The contact it was trying to reach was my Dad. My spine tingled. I took it as a sign from my uncle Alex. And this was the first of many signs I’d receive from him over the next 5 years.
The Truth about Alex’s Cancer
There was a post-mortem conducted on my uncle. The coroner, for some reason wasn’t satisfied with my uncle’s medical records.
We’d previously thought that Alex’s cancer was treatable, but the post – mortem results said otherwise. The cancer was particularly aggressive, and had was located in his lungs, liver, breast and bone. It was so advanced that it wasn’t possible to pin point the primary location of the cancer. This went some way to explain my uncle’s rapid decline.
My uncle’s funeral came and went in a hazy, numb blur. But I remember the music. Going into the service, Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street was played, and the soundtrack to his final journey in the crematorium was Simon and Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes. You’ll probably remember this song from that god awful film, Watership Down. I’ve always hated that film – even before Alex’s death. But he loved the film and the song.
Bright Eyes was Alex’s song to Stuart. Unwittingly, he’d dedicated a song to his son which would foresee his own demise. I plan to have he following lyrics tattooed into my forearm, as a tribute to my uncle Alex:
“How can the light that burned so brightly, suddenly burn so pale? Bright eyes.” This one line sums up my anger and disbelief that my vibrant, alive uncle could suddenly be reduced to a shell by that awful illness.
Life Without Alex
I think it goes without saying, that my Dad has never been, nor ever will be the same again.
I spoke to him earlier on the phone, and his voice was strained and husky, like he’d spent an eternity in the most unbearable pain. I so wish I could bring my uncle back, even just for one day. I wish I could bring him to my Dad’s house, and leave them both to spend one last day together. But I know that’s not possible. And it tears me apart every single day.
Today, as I do every year, I’ll light a candle for him and say a prayer. I’m not a religious person, but there’s a part of me that believes that there is an afterlife. I have to believe it, otherwise what’s the point? I have to believe that there was a deeper meaning behind my uncle being ripped away from us. I have to believe. I have to hope. I can’t let him go. Not yet.
Thank you for reading this. I apologise for the lengthy post, but I just couldn’t turn off the tap once I’d opened it.
And if you’re reading this uncle Alex, which I hope you are; we miss you, we love you and we’ll never ever forget you. Have a drink for us, where ever you are.
In the words of my beloved uncle: I’m doing a runner now.
See you soon.
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